Target Somalia: The new scramble for Africa?

By Mary Harper
Africa editor, BBC World Service News

Image source, Mary harper

I know some rather annoying crows in the Somali port town of Berbera. Every morning, as I eat my breakfast by the beach, they swoop down and steal my bread, my jam, even my butter.

Then they fly back up to their perches on a tall metal fence. They look like sentries, their black feathers gleaming, beaks curved and sharp.

"The Russians brought those birds," an elderly Somali tells me. He shows me the giant site of the old Soviet military base, the still-functioning runway they built during the Cold War to counter US influence in the Horn of Africa.

At more than 4km (2.5 miles) in length, it's one of the longest on the continent.

Fast-forward nearly half a century and, once again, Berbera, now part of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, is full of chatter about military bases.

That is because a deal has just been struck for the United Arab Emirates to build a facility there. There is talk of MPs being bribed handsomely to accept it.

Some Somalis feel this is part of yet another effort to colonise their country. They have even started a social media campaign - #UAEHandsOffSomalia.

The Emirates already have a base in Eritrea, just up the coast, which is used to conduct war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, a short way across the sea.

Image source, Mary harper
Image caption,
Turkish workers are a familiar sight in Somalia

Travel in the other direction and you hit a huge Turkish base stretching along the beach south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Engineers working on its final touches tell me it's going to be Turkey's largest overseas military training camp.

The base is just a small part of Turkey's massive involvement in the country, which started in 2011 during the first famine of the 21st Century. Somalia is an eccentric choice for a gateway into Africa but, like other foreign powers, Turkey wants influence, prestige and economic gain.

It sometimes feels like Mogadishu is a Turkish colony. As soon as you land at the airport, red and white Turkish flags seem to outnumber the sky blue Somali ones.

Many of the staff at the glistening new Turkish-built terminal come from Turkey. They tell me they do not like living in Somalia - it is too hot and there are too many explosions.

Talk to the United Nations and to what, in development jargon, are called Somalia's "traditional donors" - in other words, the US and Europe - and they say, fairly diplomatically, that although they appreciate the efforts of the "newcomers", there is a lack of co-ordination.

Too many countries are training too many different sections of the Somali security forces, which are already fractured and have a tendency to fight each other almost as much as they fight the local partners of al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State.

I also get the sense that they are a tiny bit envious of all the kudos countries such as Turkey, Qatar and the UAE get for rebuilding Mogadishu and flying in supplies for people affected by the current drought.

Federal Republic of Somalia

Capital: Mogadishu

  • Population 15 million (UN, 2015)

  • Area 637,657sq km (246,201 sq miles)

  • Major languages Somali, Arabic, Italian, English

  • Major religion Islam

  • Life expectancy 55 years (men), 58 years (women)

  • Currency Somali shilling


"They are small fry doing highly visible projects," one Western diplomat tells me in his base inside the heavily protected international airport. "We do far more but we prefer not to shout about it."

America in particular has good reason not to show off about its activities in Somalia, which include drone attacks and vast amounts of financial assistance.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The 1993 helicopter downings in Mogadishu shocked and angered the US

It cannot forget Black Hawk Down, when its troops withdrew in humiliation after a Somali militia shot down two of its helicopters in Mogadishu in 1993, dragging naked bodies of US servicemen through jeering crowds.

At times, Somalia seems like a vast international marketplace with foreign diplomats, private security companies and a few bold businessmen coming to ply their wares.

There is vast profit to be made in securing and rebuilding a broken country that has come top of the "failed states" list for several years in a row. Plus there's oil, minerals, fish, livestock and a fabulously strategic location.

The regional powerhouse, Ethiopia, is not at all happy about Somalia's new friends, especially those from the Gulf. It sees Egypt behind all of this, plotting reprisals for the giant dams Ethiopia is building, which Egypt fears may starve it of waters from the Nile.

Image source, Mary harper
Image caption,
Somalia is situated by globally important sea lanes

Pessimists see real danger in this geopolitical realignment. They fear a war, with Somalia and Eritrea, emboldened by their new Gulf allies, taking on Ethiopia. More conflict in an already volatile region would threaten the global economy. Most of Europe and Asia's maritime trade, worth about $700bn (£550bn) a year, goes through the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb strait between Eritrea and Yemen.

The optimists see opportunity, with a thriving Red Sea zone opening up new economic partnerships and giving landlocked Ethiopia increased access to desperately needed ports.

Somalis are worried about unintended consequences. Just like the US, which in 1993 saw a well-meaning humanitarian effort turn into a humiliating nightmare, they say all this friendship from the Gulf is going to end in trouble.

"Look at the Taliban of tomorrow," says a Somali friend, pointing towards neatly dressed children in the playground of a Saudi-funded school. "A new Cold War is being fought on our land, and one side, the West, doesn't even know it."

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