Will the return of foreign avarice and ambition undermine the hard-fought sovereignty and emergent unity and stability that has slowly spread across the Horn of Africa in the past fifteen years? Or could the region stand to benefit from the rush of new interest and attention that a ‘new scramble’ might offer?

By Stephen Paduano

The Horn of Africa is no stranger to scrambles. When Europe’s armies crisscrossed the continent in the 19th century during the first scramble for Africa, it was in South Sudan that British and French forces faced off. This incident became known as the Fashoda Crisis of 1899, a major flashpoint in the history of colonization and imperial relations. In the second scramble for Africa, it was in Ethiopia that the Soviets and Americans made the Cold War hot with the Ogaden War of 1977, a decisive turning point in the history of the 20th century.


The Horn of Africa endured scrambles before and between the two most commonly known. In the 1420s, the region experienced a proto-scramble with the arrival of the Chinese admiral, Zheng He, in Mogadishu, the oft-cited inspiration for Beijing’s triumphant return in recent years.

In the 1940s the Horn played a central part in the overlooked scramble during the Second World War when US President Franklin Roosevelt extended his lend-lease program to Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia to stave off the Nazis’ rapidly advancing Africa corps. Later, in the 1990s, the Horn became the site of two new scrambles, which continue to this day. From the East,

China staged its return to the continent as then-president Jiang Zemin launched his ‘Go Out’ policy in Sudan. From the West, the US-drafted its new world order of liberal interventionism and anti-terrorism as it sent black hawks into Mogadishu and cruise missiles into Sudan.


A new scramble is now underway, and the seven nations of the Horn—Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, and Djibouti—are its focus. The current situation is not like the first scramble when war was over and conquest was the objective. Nor is it like the second, when the world became bipolar and the region was caught in the middle.

This new scramble for Africa, its actors, its motives, and the international system in which it operates are hard to define. Will the return of foreign avarice and ambition undermine the hard-fought sovereignty and emergent unity and stability that has slowly spread across the Horn in the past fifteen years? Or could the region stand to benefit from the rush of new interest and attention that a ‘new scramble’ might offer?

To answer these questions, most look to Djibouti, a small coastal nation of 950,000 that has always grappled with scrambles. Endowed with a strategic location on the Red Sea, Djibouti’s port receives and refuels ships that pass between Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. When nations look to trade with lamented Beijing’s economic engagement model, saying it undermined democracy and mired African countries in debt. When he landed in Ethiopia, the Horn’s largest economy, 95 percent of goods must pass through Djibouti. Djibouti also receives and refuels the sailors and soldiers whose missions lie in the nation’s periphery—from the Sahel to Somalia to the Middle East. When the US initiated its Global War on Terror and added Africa as a theatre, it was Djibouti that became its central hub.


The Horn of Africa’s latest scramble has involved new actors, and chief among the new arrivals to Djibouti is China. In 2016, the Chinese Communist Party broke a fifty-year-old policy when it announced the construction of its first and only overseas military base in the country. The move was met with fear and anxiety in Washington. The US’ own base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, is a Launchpad for US ambitions in the Gulf, the Horn, and indeed the whole of Africa. It lay just 12 kilometers up the road from the proposed Chinese site.

As relations between the US and China have deteriorated in recent years, the ‘microcosm’ of Djibouti has received increased attention. In the Trump administration’s only high-level address on Africa, which occurred in 2018, John Bolton singled out China’s military and commercial interests in Djibouti as he warned of a return to ‘great power competition.’ In particular, China was accused of engaging in ‘debt-trap diplomacy,‘ a contested idea that gained currency in India in 2017 when China made a debt-for-equity swap in the debt-burdened Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, which it had helped finance.

The charge lodged against China is that the rising power deploys its largesse in order to saddle poorer states with debt that they cannot pay back, thereby forcing them to kowtow to Beijing or agree to an unfavorable debt restructuring. Consequences include handing over an equity stake in a precious asset such as a port (as in the Hambantota episode) or forking over the loan’s precious collateral. As Mr. Bolton put it in his fiery 2018 address, ‘China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.’

This theory has long had its naysayers, and indeed there had previously been no identifiable case of debt-trap diplomacy occurring in Africa, one of the most substantial sites of Chinese lending. However, a shockwave rippled through Washington in February 2019 as the Djiboutian government, which owes approximately 70 percent of its external debt to Beijing, announced that it would hand over control of the Port of Doraleh to China Merchants Port, a Chinese state-owned enterprise. The outrage and intrigue in Washington where heightened by the sense that Djibouti was acting against its own interests and intentions—in 2018, Djibouti had pledged not to put the port under Chinese management.

In due time, the Trump administration’s plans to initiate a military withdrawal from the African continent were scuttled as the commander of the US Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, and a bipartisan chorus of American senators inveighed against China’s rising threat. Even Senator Lindsey Graham, typically one of President Trump’s staunchest backers, broke with the administration to demand the continued deployment of US military assets in Africa. ‘I can make your life hell,’ Senator Graham reportedly warned President Trump’s Secretary of Defense for proposing the withdrawal.

In Washington, rightly or wrongly (though likely quite wrongly), recent developments in Djibouti have proven to be among the most formative for lawmakers’ approach to US-Africa policy. Considering all that the American military and successive administrations have willfully ignored in sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades, it is nothing short of remarkable that China’s moves on Doraleh—a seemingly insignificant event by most standards—both caught Washington’s attention and helped to fuel a new policy direction.

It bears repeating, however, that not everything is about the United States, China, or their burgeoning Cold War. Although lawmakers in Washington, and perhaps also in Beijing, see Djibouti as a strategic location in their geopolitical and geo-economic contest, the flare-up over the Port of Doraleh handover had little to do with US-China relations. Yet it did have much to do with the new scramble in Africa—a multipolar contest involving not just the US and China, but also Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and African states such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland.

It is only in these fraught circumstances, with the power and pride of so many nations on the line, that a seemingly small equity dispute in a Djiboutian port can become an international crisis that perversely encourages the US to rethink and reinvigorate the projection of its military might throughout Africa.


The story of this latest flash in the scramble for the Horn begins not in Washington or Beijing, but in Doha and Abu Dhabi. In the last two years, decades-long tensions between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been brought to a disconcerting boil. The wealthy Gulf kingdoms have been engaged in a covert contest for market share, political partnerships, and opportunities to extend their military reach across much of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

In this last theatre, their confrontations have been concentrated in Somalia, where they compete specifically for access to the nation’s extensive coastline as well as the favor of the government in Mogadishu.

Much as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was not particularly cold—at least not in sub-Saharan Africa—so, too, has the competition between Qatar and the UAE become quite hot. Violence has been particularly evident in Somalia, with a notable episode in the port city of Bosaso in May 2019. The significance of this incident was not due to its magnitude. Ten people were injured by the small car bomb in Bosaso, in contrast to the 82 people who were killed and 150 injured in a similar attack in Mogadishu several months later.

But two months after the Bosaso bombing, its grave geopolitical significance emerged. While it had been claimed that a local ISIS affiliate was behind the attack, audio proof uncovered by The New York Times revealed that the bombing had in fact been orchestrated by the Qatari government. In the leaked phone recording, an associate of the Emir of Qatar called Qatar’s ambassador to Somalia to inform him of the kingdom’s links to the bombing and the reason behind it: ‘to make Dubai people run away from there…’

There was a more specific goal for Qatar’s campaign against the UAE in Somalia, which reportedly involved not only proxy bombings and shootings but also bribery and painstaking political courtship. Qatar allegedly intended to win over Mogadishu and snatch away apparently valuable port operation contracts held by the UAE in Bosaso, among other places. The Emir’s associate told the ambassador of his hopes for Mogadishu’s next move: ‘Let them kick out the Emiratis, so they don’t renew the contracts with them and I will bring the contract here to Doha.’

In addition to demonstrating the intensity of the Qatari-Emirati scramble in the Horn, the Bosaso attack reflected the degree to which Qatar appears to have won the first phase of this scramble in Somalia. Only an emboldened Doha, certain of its support in Mogadishu, would dare to pull off such a brazen attack and to boast about it, too.

In a few short years, Qatar succeeded in disrupting the Emirati-Somali relationship, which until recently was substantially more prominent than the Qatari-Somali one. By the time of this thinly disguised ‘terrorist‘attack, the UAE and Somalia had already seen a significant, region-altering rupture. Qatar’s success was unequivocal, and its consequences have been innumerable.

After Qatar successfully began to undermine the UAE’s standing in Somalia, the UAE was forced to look elsewhere to find an edge over its competitor and re-secure its status in the Horn. As much of the contest between the Gulf States had been waged through port access, the UAE made its next move by way of DP World, its state-backed port logistics firm.

In late 2018, DP World decided to move up the coast of Somalia to Somaliland, the stable and independent nation before voluntarily entering into a failed union with Somalia on July 1, 1960. However, following violations and massacres it had endured by the collapsed military regime in the same year in Somalia, it withdrew from the union and reclaimed its independence on 18 May 1991. Somaliland gained its independence from Britain on June 26, 1960

There was historic poetry in the pivot. The Berbera port to which the UAE’s DP World had moved played a similar role in the power reversals of the Cold War scramble. When Moscow ditched its Somali partner for Ethiopia during the Ogaden War, it pushed Washington into Somalia’s hands and allowed US forces to claim the Soviet naval base in Berbera.

This time around, the development in Berbera would have similarly profound implications due to the Horn’s complex interconnections. The UAE’s expansion of both commercial and military operations (via the construction of a new naval base) into Somaliland gave it an edge over Qatar. It also upset the fragile balance of power between the self-declared government in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, and the federal government in Somalia’s Mogadishu.

As a result of the UAE’s move, Mogadishu retaliated in a number of incidents intended to embarrass the Gulf state, including raiding an Emirati government plane and seizing US$9.6 million in cash. Somalia also executed more important and damaging decisions, including banning DP World from the country altogether. With the battle lines drawn, the UAE dug in, plugging US$442 million into the Berbera project.


The significant interconnectedness of the Horn region meant that the consequences of the Gulf Cold War were not isolated to renewed friction between Somalia and Somaliland. When the UAE and DP World moved their focus to Somaliland, they also set their sights on Ethiopia, the largest economy in the Horn. By most measures, this bet was a good one.

In recent years, Ethiopia has enjoyed an average economic growth rate which pushes nine percent, and the 2018 election of President Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Prize-winning reformer, proved attractive to new investors. As the market-share battle with Qatar raged in war-torn Somalia, there was a clear benefit to decamping to the more stable Somaliland and tapping into the more promising Ethiopian growth.

However, there was also a not-so-clear cost to the move—such as the interconnection of the region. To endeavor to become a maritime conduit for Ethiopia’s economy required competing with Ethiopia’s primary maritime provider, Djibouti, a nation which would not take these developments lightly.

In recent decades, Djibouti has benefited immensely from the fact that Ethiopia is landlocked. The small and stable autocracy has also reaped the rewards of having no viable competitors to carry Ethiopia’s trade. Given Eritrea’s long and troubled history of civil war, outright war, and border conflicts, it is unlikely that it will hold the crucial role of providing Ethiopia with port access anytime soon.

In fact, from 1998 until President Abiy moved to renormalize ties with Eritrea in 2018, commerce between the two countries had been nil. Nor has Somalia, with its enduring civil war and intractable security challenges, proven itself to be a promising partner. And despite Somaliland’s relative stability and good governance, the fact that it remains unrecognized by the international community after nearly three decades of autonomous rule means it has not attracted much foreign investment either. Djibouti therefore stands—and expects to stand—above and apart from its neighbors, lucratively carrying 95 percent of Ethiopia’s trade.

This is the context in which the UAE and DP World’s relocation to Somaliland proved destabilizing. The UAE would have understood why. Through DP World, the UAE also served as the port operator at Doraleh, Djibouti’s central maritime terminal. While establishing a new commercial presence in Somaliland would provide, among other benefits, the diversification of the UAE’s regional assets, the siphoning-off of the Djiboutian-Ethiopian trade would also irretrievably rupture the UAE’s partnership with Djibouti—and again upset the Horn’s balance of power.

Seeing the need to protect its near-monopoly on Ethiopia’s port access, and feeling the urgency to spoil the UAE’s ambitious expansion, Djibouti proceeded with a remarkable strong-arming of the Gulf state. In February 2018, it canceled DP World’s contract to operate Doraleh. After a London court overturned the ruling, in September 2018 Djibouti nationalized DP World’s stake.

For the past two years, the case has played out in courts in both London and Hong Kong. It is unclear if or how it may be resolved. However, disruptive developments have continued unabated.

One month after Djibouti’s nationalization, DP World announced a new expansion into Eritrea with the same intention of tapping into Ethiopia’s growing trade volumes. Needless to say, the rupture between Djibouti and the UAE has continued to widen. Last year, as Djibouti looked for a new operator and an additional counterweight to the Emiratis, China re-entered the scene with new reports that China Merchants Port, a Beijing-backed enterprise, had consolidated control over the Doraleh terminal formerly run by DP World.

From all this—a regional spat in the Gulf, a port war in Somalia, a relocation to Somaliland, a nationalization in Djibouti, and a market-share contest for Ethiopia—there emerged the reductionist alarms of the US and China’s new Cold War.


The story of the new scramble in the Horn of Africa is a complex one which needs to be told in all its complexities. It is not, as US officials assert, a simple matter of Washington and Beijing’s ‘new Cold War.’ Neither is it just a contest between the Gulf monarchies, as Emirati and Qatari officials seem to believe. Nor is it the simple consequence of African nations’ rivalries, no matter how frequently they are cited.

The new scramble in the Horn of Africa is the dangerous product of inter-linked, under-discussed, and indeed unintended geopolitical maneuvering. In these circumstances, the regional and global powers’ contests and confrontations are not confined to their immediate intentions and objectives. Their second and third-order effects are bound to collide and compound.

What can be said of this new scramble must come from what has been observed. And what has been observed is that a small crisis emerged from a Qatari-Emirati spat, which raged through the Horn of Africa’s nations and became a matter of US-China military stability. It is too early to say whether this new scramble will polarize the region and further disrupt its balance of power. There is also little basis to assert that it may diversify trade and develop the Horn’s economies.

With the world sure to face turbulent times ahead, averting the conflicts of a scramble and securing its gains will be a decision for the nations of the Horn to make. There is little doubt that these countries will endure immense diplomatic difficulties as they endeavor to resolve the regional disputes that arise and as they strive to neutralize the foreign tensions that advance. But let us hope, nonetheless, that they do

STEPHEN PADUANO is the executive director of the LSE Economic Diplomacy Commission and a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics.

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