The Horn of Africa States Is its Strategic Importance Waning?

By Dr. Suleiman Walhad
June 14th, 2022

The age of discovery also generally known as the age of exploration was a European affair. Prior to 1500 A.D., the world did not know each other. The East remained the East and the West remained generally unknown. There was, however, old Europe, which was waking up and learning from the Islamic world that was at its doors and in the middle of its enlightenment period. While Europe remained backward, savage and at the bottom of nations of the time, politically, socially and culturally, the Muslim world which extended from the doors of the European world to the gates of the East civilizations and kingdoms-cum-empires, was learning from both the ancient world and the works of the East and adding on to it, their own new found methods of research and discoveries in all fields – medicines, engineering, astronomy, metallurgies, mining, sciences (studies of chemicals, elements, mathematics, and so on), opening new pages in the worlds of knowledge.

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When old Europe was waking up, they found themselves way behind their Muslim neighbors, from whom they learned of even more fabulous nations of the east, that were also full of knowledge, civilizations, and sciences they never dreamed of, but they could not access those far off lands, for they have to cross the vast Muslim lands in between. Their main problem was that they had already antagonized the Muslims, some centuries earlier when they invaded Muslim lands and territories through what is  now generally known as the crusades. The fires of those wars were not yet put out and there was no love between the two regions, The Europeans, were thus forced to find other ways to reach the East. They were obliged to embark on sea voyages to find the east and establish trading with them, in order to acquire wealth and knowledge from those mysterious but rich nations beyond the Muslim world of the time.

Those oceans voyages had tremendous impact on the world and were the harbingers of the world as we know it today, in terms of knowledge, science, geography, nations, creation of wealth, transportation, culture and you name it, every conceivable way, one can think of. The European explorers brought knowledge and sciences to Europe more than they could ever have imagined and the resultant efforts led to massive wealth through trade and manufacture. New foods, plants, spices and metals were discovered and enriched Europe. New lands such as the Americas were discovered and populated by Europeans after wiping off the native peoples or reducing them to negligible numbers. Those poor souls died of diseases brought by Europeans or through wars against them or simply through hunger as their means of survival were also wiped out such as the buffalo, which provided meat and hides and skins which the hunter gatherers of the Americas survived on for thousands of years before.

Many nations were enslaved to provide labor to the big farms and plantations created in the Americas and these enslaved people were moved from African and Asian continents to the Americas. These enslaved Africans and Asians in fact built the total infrastructure of the Americas such as buildings, railroads, cars and even airplanes. They contributed to the medical world such as the invention of the modern vaccination process that were brought by slaves from West Africa. Marvels such as traffic signals were created by slave engineers and even today the Silicon Valley of the United States is manned by labor from Asia mostly.

The most important impact of the age of exploration was the industrial revolution which created more wealth, where raw materials were taken from the colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia and brought to Europe where they were transformed into finished goods and resold to those lands of the south from which the raw materials were brought. A huge trade volume was thus created, and we grew up with what used to be called the North South Dialogue on trade. We do not hear of such a dialogue any more for the world works in cycles and most often one comes back to where one started. Look at the human being or any other being, plant or animal. They all start from a position of weakness when they are born, where they need support to grow in strength and become strong in their own ways and all then weaken in old age and die weak as they were weak when they were born.

Prior to 1800, China was always the largest economy in the world except for the year 1700 when India beat China to the title and was always followed closely by India. The United States became the largest economy by 1890 according to article by Wendell Cox 09/21/2015 in “newgeography”. The article further notes: “GDP projections produced for 2050, by PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers) indicate that even more significant changes could be ahead. PWC expects China to have GDP of $61 trillion (US$2014). India is projected to be restored to its previous second place, at $42 trillion, just ahead of the United States ($41 trillion). BRIICs members Indonesia and Brazil would be 4th and 5th, while BRIICs Russia would be 8th. Mexico and Japan would follow Brazil, with Nigeria and Germany rounding out the top ten”. It would appear the cycle started when the fabulous east was the manufacturing base of the old and then old Europe and its offspring North America, and in the main the United States, became the home base of manufacture. The cycle has shifted again, and the east is once again home to manufacturing with Europe and the north Americans have become consumer nations like many in the South Americas and Africa and in fact also Asia. China leads the way and is followed by India as usual as in the old days. A philosophical Arab proverb says, “Everything goes back to its origin” and world trade is no different.

The opening of the Suez Canal to shorten the voyage to the East was an important milestone in the significance of the region towards world trade, although historically it was always part of the Indian Ocean world regional economy. Trade among the nations surrounding the Indian Ocean which dates back to millennia played important roles in the spread of plants, animals, and religious and other cultural beliefs and practices across the region. Africa was always a source continent for minerals, plants, and animals and it was always the receiving end of cultural imports from Asia, though many arts and other cultural activities were also exported from it, such as the Chess game, historically a traditional pass time activity of the people of the Horn of Africa.

The opening of the Suez Canal and the new world trade structure made the Horn of Africa States an important link in the trade flows of the world, where ships carrying manufacturing goods and travelling from Asia to Europe and North America pass through the seas and oceans of the region before they go through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and beyond or vice versa. The African continent continues to be a source continent of a large array of raw materials needed for the world of today, including minerals, food or water.

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The Horn of Africa States enjoys a great strategic significance simply because it overlooks this important sea-lane of the world, both regionally and internationally for it owns a large part of the African coast on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and the Northern Indian Ocean (the Somali Sea), but also, most importantly, the Bab El Mandeb or the “Gate of Tears”, a choke point in this trade route. It overlooks the Arabian Peninsula and the Arabian-cum-Persian Gulf region. The region is an entry point of goods and trade with Africa. It shares political, cultural, economic  and security issues with the West Asian nations on the other side of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Sea (the Northern Indian Ocean).

The Bal El Mandeb was always an important gateway for trade and humanity. It was the first place where humans migrated out of Africa. It is the shortest trade route between the Mediterranean region, the Indian Ocean, and the rest of East Asia and annually billions of dollars of maritime trade passes through it. It explains why many nations have set up naval bases in the Horn of Africa State of Djibouti, which now hosts the United States, the French, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Japanese, the South Koreans navies, and now the Chinese, the first-ever naval outpost of China’s Red Army. There were also reports of discussions in the region with the Russians before the Ukraine conflict. How far the discussions have progressed is not known.

And here comes the new world developments instigated by the Ukraine conflict where the world’s nations seem to be splitting into camps, and most importantly the West camp led by the United States and including Europe, the yet undetermined Sino-Russian-Indian camp (main rump of BRICS – an acronym for major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping), which was created in 2009 by the first four countries and joined by South Africa in 2010) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation  which brings together Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India. The new world is generally marked by “sanctions” and “first me” attitude of nations and/or blocks where the globalization process worked out over the past seventy odd years seems to be reversing and is being reinforced by the attitude towards the conflict of Ukraine where many nations seem to be under threat of sanctions while trade is being restricted to “favored” parties. There lies a major concern. Would the world become blocks that would only trade among themselves?

This brings us to the question of the title of this article. Is the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa States waning? The question is asked because if Europe curtails its trade with the East as current events seem to be indicating, the trade flows through the Suez Canal and hence through the Red Sea-Bab El Mandeb-Gulf of Aden and the Somali Sea (Northern Indian Ocean), would be drastically reduced. This would certainly weaken and reduce the importance of the region.

However, as a resource rich region, and as a gateway for the resources of deeper Africa, the Horn of Africa States would remain ever more important, for it is the source of the Nile waters that feeds Egypt and the Sudan and a gateway of the continent to the rest of the world. It also enjoys substantial and potentially exploitable oil and gas both onshore and offshore and other sub-soil minerals. The region owns vast farmlands which if fully cultivated would not only feed its large and growing population but also neighboring water-short regions such as West Asia and even Egypt. There may be less sea trade between distant regions passing through its shores, but certainly the region’s resources and those of the rest of Africa, would continue to be attractive to any of the camps and, therefore, the region would need to continue its peaceful integration and development, without being harmful to any of the camps and/or blocks shaping up in the world.

It would appear that currently the hydropower and hydrocarbons of the region are ever more pushing the region to the forefront and remain the main reason other nations are fighting their proxy wars there, thus resulting in the continuance of the suffering of the region’s populations. This is the main cause of the hunger, famines, mass migration, and crisis that mark the region despite its ownership of plenty of resources. It waters both fresh and salty should be able to feed its growing population. It is on the onus of the leadership (both ruling and opposition parties) to realize it and work out how best to exploit the situation and save the people from the vagaries of conflict-caused problems, which are really not theirs but those of others, who come to fight it off in the region.

“Around a flowering tree there are many insects!”

(An African Proverb)

*DrWalhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected]


1 Comment

  1. The article by the dear author asks the question ‘Is its Strategic Importance Waning?’. I hope it is. If that is the case it will mean that the region is getting the much needed respite from destructive meddling by evil minded forces. It could mean that unwanted distraction has given way to a quiet neighborhood where it can focus on internal ills that have bedeviled its citizens for so long. The people of that region have demonstrated their dexterity and will in how to solve their internal issues for centuries when they are left alone in peace. What did they use to do once they were settled with those next to them? Not wage war but intermingle and intermarry with them. You wanna me to give you examples? Scratch that your Amhara, Oromo or Tigray name back to 5th, 6th, 7th or greater generation you will be pleasantly surprised to discover one or more names that has nothing related to your current one. Those of you bigots who claim to be pure this or pure that just zip it, please!!! Just shut up and let people think you are a mute jack ass! Shut up and scratch the surface instead.

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