The US envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, announced his resignation, while Washington confirmed the appointment of its ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, to replace Feltman.
This step opened the door wide to several questions about Washington’s strategy, which is witnessing radical changes and transformations – as seen by observers – in the Middle East, especially Africa, in light of the expansion of Russian influence and before that of China.
The Horn of Africa is a strategic region that includes 4 countries, namely Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and its concept was established from historical considerations, which were manifested in long-running historical, ethnic, national and cultural conflicts.
Its area is estimated at about three-quarters of a million square miles, and it is a vital area for international trade across the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and the most contested area for influence between the major and regional powers concerned.
The decline of the American presence
This region acquires its strategic and military importance as it is adjacent to the Indian Ocean, and is a point of contact with the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, in addition to the presence of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, an important passageway for oil and gas tankers, goods and weapons, which made it a strategic station for international powers.
According to estimates of military reports, Washington owns the largest military base in the Horn of Africa, specifically in Djibouti, with more than 4,000 personnel, and secret military bases in the Horn of Africa, where there are two naval bases in Kenya, and an air base in Ethiopia.
It also has the US military command AFRICOM, where the number of its soldiers increased to 4,000 in 2017, stationed in Djibouti.
Here, the coordinator of Africa research at the Institute of Future Studies in Beirut, Mohamed Abdel Karim Ahmed, says that it is difficult to expect a tangible American decline in the Horn of Africa in general, and the Ethiopian issue in particular.
In his statements to “Sky News Arabia”, Abdul Karim demonstrates this by saying: “This decline did not happen if we take into account Washington’s intensification of its military presence in the region in Djibouti and in cooperation with regional parties, which was represented in the recent military maneuvers in the south of the Red Sea.”
He considered that, “The decision to resign from the US envoy, Gillithman Feltman, can be seen as a re-arrangement of trust between the United States and Ethiopia, due to the personal reservations of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed, towards Feltman.”
He asserts that the resignation of the US envoy “can be described as a fulfillment of an Ethiopian demand or a satisfaction of Abi Ahmed, who refused to meet with Feltman more than once, after Washington implemented the decision to deprive Addis Ababa of the privileges of the African Opportunities and Growth Act.”
As for the Sudanese researcher, Mona Abdel-Fattah, who specializes in Afro-Asian and Chinese studies, she says that US President Joe Biden “is forced to pay attention to the Horn of Africa, but with reservations, due to the Chinese and Russian expansion that the region is witnessing.”
And she added in her statements to “Sky News Arabia”, “It may seem that the American interest is a little distracted, after the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and its imminent focus on East Asia, and its open theaters on the South China Sea, and others.”
She stressed that “Biden intends to hold a US-African summit, which indicates that US interest in the region will increase and not subside, especially the anxiety created by the situation in the Tigray region and the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia and the instability in Sudan, according to the Sudanese researcher’s assessment.”
The United States is colliding with the Chinese expansion in that region. In conjunction with the resignation of the American envoy, China announced, last Thursday, the appointment of a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently on a tour of the region, including Eritrea, Kenya, Comoros, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Here, researcher Mohamed Abdel Karim Ahmed believes that the new Chinese envoy will have his first mission to coordinate mediation with Kenya in the Ethiopian crisis, a mediation that also enjoys great US support.
As he put it, “The most correct scenario is the concerted international efforts, including the US and China, to solve the Ethiopian crisis due to the danger of its chaos and its very dangerous repercussions that transcend the region to Europe in the event of illegal immigration crises.”
As for researcher Mona Abdel-Fattah, she emphasized that “China is thirsty for the natural resources in the countries of the Horn of Africa, but in general the expansion of the Chinese and Russian powers will be at the expense of the American presence, which has become limited, after Washington’s departure during the Trump era from Africa.”
And she added, “America will not be far away from today, and its competition with China will be precisely to block its expansion in the region and Africa.”
China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and the value of direct trade between the two sides in 2019 amounted to more than $200 billion, according to official Chinese figures.
Since 2015, Russia has increased its orientation towards Africa. In addition to the economic and military agreements that reached about 21 military agreements with a number of countries on the African continent, Russia intends to establish military bases in six African countries, including Sudan, Eritrea, Mozambique, Madagascar and Central Africa.
According to observers, one of Moscow’s goals in Africa is what Russian President Vladimir Putin announced about achieving a “transformation” strategy towards Asia and Africa following the imposition of Western sanctions on his country after its annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
Moscow also found a favorable opportunity to compete with the American role in Africa, which was limited to the military field, which prompted Russia to sign 21 military agreements.
And in view of Washington’s gradual withdrawal from the countries of the continent and the transformation of Chinese-African cooperation from development projects to strategic sites that guarantee the establishment of the Chinese “Silk Road and Belt” project, Russia may have found the stage suitable for its orientation, especially with the partial withdrawal of international powers, according to Sudanese researcher Mona Abdel Fattah.
In this regard, Abdel-Fattah asserts that for Russia, its move will be within the framework of its interests on the one hand, and within the framework of supporting China’s presence against the American presence on the other.
She added, “Russia and China will support the governments of some countries against US decisions and sanctions, and may use the Security Council’s veto right against US decisions towards African countries, and will strengthen their presence by signing economic and military agreements and full cooperation.”
According to the Sudanese researcher, the Horn of Africa region will be the scene of the old renewed competition between international powers, stressing that “there will be no military confrontation over influence, and there will be no winner or loser between them, and it may be more like a cold war, and its duration will extend.”
Russia has been active in trade cooperation with African countries, the value of which exceeded $20 billion in 2018.
In recent years, China has invested huge sums in the African continent, especially in infrastructure and in raw materials, especially gold and wood.