INTERNATIONAL POLICY DIGEST
4 June 2019
by YACQUB ISMAIL
Erik Cardenas/U.S. Air Force
As the strategic significance of East Africa is once again growing with new players in the region due to its significant location at the entrance of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, France is also back.
On March 12, President Emmanuel Macron paid his first visit to the region, by visiting Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya in an effort to catch up on the new developments in the region by nurturing new partnerships across the region and to break from its colonial past. In Djibouti, France’s former colony in the Horn of Africa and a country in which Thomas A. Marks has described as “France’s strategic toehold in Africa,” Macron’s visit was seen as an effort to “reassert French influence in the former colony, where China has a military base and has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure,” as Reuters reported. Djibouti, which hosted a French military base since 1932 and signed a mutual defense treaty with France in 1977, has become a military hub for other foreign powers – including the U.S., China and Japan due to its strategic location as the southern entrance of the Red Sea – a significant waterway for global commerce and for naval powers to project influence across the Indian Ocean, as well as the Near East.
Countering China’s growing influence across the Horn of Africa was one of the most important objectives of Macron’s visit, as Beijing’s influence is growing in the Horn of Africa through massive investments in infrastructure projects including ports, railways, and roads across the continent. In Djibouti, Macron warned countries of the risk of their sovereignty being entrapped by ‘Chinese debts’ as the country is top on the list of eight countries that a study by the Center for Global Development concluded are at risk of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s ‘debt distress’ if they fail to meet their debt payments.
“I would not want a new generation of international investments to encroach our historical partners’ sovereignty or weaken their economies,” Macron argued in front of Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. But, Macron was hosted in Djibouti’s Chinese-built presidential palace as a “reminder of China’s growing presence” in Djibouti. Beijing has also updated the 1917 French-built railway that connects Djibouti to Ethiopia, a railway that is significant for Ethiopia’s trade with the outside world. Paris’ new strategy in the region could be interpreted as an effort to connect its strategy towards the Indo-Pacific region, by increasing its presence in the Oceans, improve bilateral ties with the U.S. and counter China’s power projection in Asia and Africa.
Relations between Djibouti and France are seen as ‘drifting apart’ from their historical precedence as critics argue that France’s presence, in not only Djibouti but across the continent, is seen more through the security-lens, rather than as development or economic relations. As this argument goes, countries in the region are looking for infrastructure development and China is rising to become their ‘partner of choice,’ investing in mega-projects with fewer strings attached. Recently, an official from the government of Djibouti argued that while China is willing to invest billions, “the French are late and have no money” to compete with Chinese state-owned firms as Djibouti presents itself as a future global trading hub.
In Kenya, climate change and deepening trade relations with France was the driving force of Macron’s visit. By visiting Nairobi, Macron was the first French head of state to visit the country since its independence in 1963 and his main agenda was to attend the One Planet Summit, hosted by Kenya. As the U.S. decided to leave the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, France under Macron, is leading a global effort to achieve the accord’s goals by launching new initiatives including the One Planet Summit. In his speech to the delegates of the summit, Macron called for global cooperation to address the challenges posed by the changing climate. However, signing new lucrative deals on infrastructure investments and renewable energy also took place as Nairobi is seeking to boost its trading partnership with France in an attempt to diversify its foreign investments. Kenya is also another country heavily indebted to China’s infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative and traditionally France has had little influence in the country.
But in Ethiopia, the news was different, and here is where a new and significant strategic partnership is developing between the Horn of Africa’s most-populated country and France. Under the new leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is seen as open for business and is asserting itself as a ‘regional hegemon.’ As a new round of privatization seems inevitable under Ahmed’s government, Ethiopia’s key sectors like telecommunication, shipping, and energy industries are looking for new investments, and French companies including Orange SA and Total SA are eyeing new opportunities in the privatization of Ethiopia’s energy and telecommunication sectors. Aside from the economic discussions, new agreements were signed by the two countries to develop Ethiopia’s cultural heritage, including preserving churches and opening an archaeological dig at a 12th-century village, as Reuters reported.
In the military domain, Ethiopia and France reached a major breakthrough by signing a new military cooperation agreement that includes France’s assistance on the landlocked country’s aspiration to build up a new naval force, which could deepen the relations between the two countries to a new level. Ethiopia disbanded its navy in 1991 as it lost its only coastline to the Red Sea to Eritrea’s secession. However, Addis Ababa seems determined to reconstitute its navy as the security and strategic environment of the region is evolving. Ethiopia, which is currently landlocked is seeking to “unite the Horn of Africa economically” by creating an economic bloc as a former Ethiopian diplomat, Birhanemeskel Abebe, told the BBC last June. So a new navy could play a central role in this economic integration. But as Addis Ababa expressed its willingness, it would take a long time for Ethiopia to have a fully integrated and well-equipped naval force, although it is not yet clear to the extent to which Ethiopia is prepared to become a naval power. French help on this front would be helpful. Even though the details have not been disclosed, this new agreement cover areas including training and assistance, capacity building, air cooperation, joint operations, new opportunities for defense purchases and strategic level exchanges.
France is the only European power that is currently in the game, and willing to play an active role in the security, economic, geostrategic realms in the Horn of Africa, but this could be played both as an opportunity, as well as a laggard. If the strategic goal of France is to counter China’s muscular posture in the region, then a broad coalition of European countries would be needed – not just France alone. Nevertheless, as U.S. policy towards the region seems unclear, aside from the counter-terrorism missions in Somalia, there is a lack of a common European strategy toward the region and France will be the only country that is ready to play its cards in the region, although it will struggle to compete with China’s economic influence.