British Presence in the Horn of Africa: Interests, Policies and Prospects

Ahmed Askar | 07 Mar 2021

The tour of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in January 2021 that included Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia reflects the nature of Britain’s new policies, London’s expanding efforts to maximize its influence in the region and establish a foothold there as part of the UK’s post-Brexit global vision. In its attempt to improve its ties with countries in the Horn of Africa, Britain depends on a number of pillars and approaches that enhance its strategic interests there. At the same time, London faces some challenges that curb Britain’s moves in the region such as the growing influence of the competing powers and the increasing security and terrorist threats.

This paper highlights the nature of Britain’s interests and motivations in the Horn of Africa, characteristics and foundations of this interest, and the potential future scenarios for the British regional presence.

Britain’s Interests in the Horn of Africa

1. Political interests: Britain seeks to enhance its political and diplomatic influence in the region and establish a new sphere of influence to compensate for its withdrawal from the European Union (EU). Brexit does not mean a withdrawal from the world as much as it represents openness towards new regions, especially in Africa. In addition, London seeks to ensure votes to defend its causes in international forums instead of the EU. This in turn would bolster Britain’s international status. Recent tours and movements by British officials in some regional countries such Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia reflect a noticeable interest to expand Britain’s regional political and diplomatic presence in light of the international and regional competition in this region.

2. Economic interests:  Britain seeks to preserve its power on global economy’s map by forging a network of economic alliances, building strong trade partnerships with African countries in various fields such as infrastructure, renewable energy and technology, opening new markets in the Horn of Africa’s countries as substitutes for EU’s markets, benefiting from the population density and natural resources enjoyed by these countries, exploring economic opportunities, boosting trade volumes and expanding investments in the Horn of Africa’s countries, ensuring bilateral and collective trade agreements with these countries, and highlighting Britain’s status as a new partner for African states. All of this is boosted by London’s efforts to occupy a better rank as a foreign investor in Africa among G7 countries in the next few years.

3. Security interests: Britain seeks to protect its strategic interests in the Horn of Africa by preserving the military presence advantage in several regional countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti and looking for new military bases there. Furthermore, London is trying to establish legitimacy and influence for itself in regional countries by trying to prevent and solve conflicts, end disputes, preserve regional security, play a key role in the war against terrorism and terrorist organizations, and present itself as an important international partner in this field in light of the relative decline of the American military presence in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from Somalia in January 2021. London will try to do this by providing military training and financial and logistical assistance to some regional armies. This would also ensure opening new markets for British military industries.

4. Strategic interests: Britain’s desire to enhance its presence in Africa seems to be motivated by geostrategic objectives including extending London’s influence to Africa in the wake of Brexit, an endeavor to balance Western influence in the region in the context of an intense international competition among great powers such as the US, China, Russia, France, India and Turkey. London is also trying to confront the threat of the rising Chinese influence in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean, in light of Britain’s concern that Beijing might take control of its military base in Chagos, Mauritius in the wake of the International Court of Justice rule in 2019 that the United Kingdom is under an obligation to end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago. i This threatens Britain and NATO’s interests by loosing a key foothold in the Indian Ocean.

The British strategic interests also include ensuring the security of Bab El-Mandab Straits and the Red Sea, have a military presence there and proximity from the theater of events in a number of zones of conflict and competition such as the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. This might drive London to find a foothold by trying to establish new military bases in the Horn of Africa to ensure deploying the British navy there, thwart illegal immigration to Europe that starts from some regional countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as, London’s interest in climate change as a vital issue for security and sustainable development in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, the UK seeks to ensure oil supplies; almost 90% of its oil imports are from the Middle East and Africa. New oil exploration in the Horn of Africa urges British oil firms to head for the region to gain exploration concessions.

Approaches and pillars of Britain’s interest

The following are the most prominent approaches of Britain’s interest and pillars of its movement in the Horn of Africa:

1. Political and diplomatic approach: Britain is keen to open communication channels with countries in the Horn of Africa to build strong relations with these countries as a prelude for a strong British influence in the region. This was evident in the tour of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in January 2021 that included Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. In October 2020, the British parliament stressed the need to develop ties with regional countries, especially Sudan. Through its engagement in the region, London is trying to settle some regional crises and prevent their escalation, and enhance its influence, on the one hand, and avoid threats from potential war such as the issue of the Renaissance dam among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, on the other. This was evident in London’s call to take positive steps to end the stalemate and polarization in the Somali political landscape, reach a deal on the nature of the electoral model, keenness to reach a peaceful settlement for the border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia, urge the Ethiopian federal government to end the ongoing fighting in the Tigray region and allow humanitarian aid and protect civilians, as well as neutrality in the maritime border dispute between Somalia and Kenya.ii

2. Economic approach: London is trying to build up trading links with new partners to make up for the slump in imports and exports due to Brexit and COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has underscored the importance of international cooperation at a time when London is reshaping its trade and investment ties with African nations. This idea is enhanced by the fact that 10 African countries are among the fastest growing economies such as Ethiopia and Rwanda. By 2022, Britain wants to be the main investor in Africa among G7 countries.iii The UK is Africa’s fifth source of foreign direct investments (FDI) after China, France, the US and the United Arab Emirates. Currently, these investments are heavily focused on extractives industries and natural resources. iv The UK-Africa trade relationship was valued at £35 billion in 2019, with around £54 billion of direct investment in the same year. v In 2019, Kenya’s exports and imports from the UK hit $742 million, compared with $91 million for Uganda and Tanzania’s $231 million.vi

The UK-Africa Investment Summit in 2020 and 2021 marked a new beginning for an economic partnership between the UK and countries in the Horn of Africa. This summit was boosted by the African Continental Free Trade Area coming into effect. London provided a number of grants and economic assistance to some countries in the Horn of Africa such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia. In July 2020, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom signed two grant agreements amounting to £105 million aimed at providing support development programs in four regions of Ethiopia in the regions of Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, and Southern Nations.vii Ethiopia has embarked on a joint venture with the UK and Germany, which could provide thousands of jobs in the country’s textile and garments industry.viii

In December 2020, the UK signed a trade agreement with Kenya valued at $1.9 billion as a first step towards a comprehensive regional deal with a group of countries in East Africa with the potential to expand trade ties between the two sides in the future. This agreement aims to boost job opportunities and economic development in Kenya and avoid any potential disruption in trade with London. The UK is a key economic partner for Kenya, which is one of the best 10 favorite export destinations for the UK besides Rwanda. The UK is the largest cumulative investor in the East African nation, with bilateral trade totaling over £1.4 billion in 2019.x After the second Economic Development Forum, the UK has announced the release of $131 million of British funding to Kenya meant to increase trade and investment opportunities between the two countries.xi

Britain promised to provide a £330 million bridge loan to help Sudan clear its debt. xii British CDC Group is planning about $1 billion in Africa investments this year in sectors including infrastructure and finance in a number of African nations including Ethiopia and Kenya, and has entered into a partnership with Vodafone Group Plc and Sumitomo Group to bid for a mobile-phone license in Ethiopia. xiii

3. Security and military approach: In this field, the UK focuses on two key themes: the war on terrorism and provision of financial, military and logistical support to regional militaries. Countries like Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti are considered important strategic locations to enhance Britain’s presence and influence in the Horn of Africa and provide a gateway to other regions in the continent. The UK has a military and security presence in a number of regional countries. The UK provides 300 soldiers as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The British army retains a base at Nyati Camp in Nanyuki, known as Batuk where about 230 troops are stationed. More than 50 British soldiers are deployed at Mogadishu international airport, with another team at the Baidoa Security Training Center. A smaller British military presence can be found at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. xiv

Britain’s Secretary of State for Defense, Ben Wallace, visited both Kenya and Somalia last January to enhance security cooperation against Somalia’ militant group, al Shabab. He signed a security cooperation agreement with Kenya on January 28, 2021, to improve joint cooperation and coordination in fields of security threats, cybercrime and human trafficking. Wallace also visited the British Army Training Unit in Kenya which has already conducted 10 training exercises with the Kenyan army over the past two years with the participation of 1,500 Kenyan soldiers and 10.000 British soldiers.xv

James Doddridge, the Minister for Africa at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) reiterated during a visit to Mogadishu in December 2021 his government’s commitment to support Somalia’s long-term security and stability. He announced a sum worth $ 2.15 million in financial support for Somalia’s security forces to face security threats in the country. He said that the UK would contribute a further $4.5 million for the Somali Security Forces engaged in joint operations with the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).xvi

The British forces have been providing training for about 500 Somali soldiers since 2019 with the aim of improving the combat capacities of the Somali army individuals in their battle against al Shabab. London also provided the Somali army with military vehicles and barracks in Baidoa city to accommodate 450 soldiers. The equipment included 27 military vehicles and a fully-equipped mechanical unit to improve the logistical capabilities of the Somali army.xvii

4. Development approach: development assistance provided by Britain to the region plays an important role in enhancing London’s status and influence in the Horn of Africa, and supporting the economies of regional countries that have faced spiraling crises in recent years that have negatively affected economic growth. Some of these countries came among the top ten nations that have most received the UK bilateral development aid for the year 2020/2021 with Ethiopia receiving £196,037,503, Somalia £175,495,631, Tanzania £164,040,684, and South Sudan £157,951,124. xviii

Moreover, the U.K government helps in the infrastructure rehabilitation process in the region; London pledged to help in building new roads in some cities in Somalia like Baidoa and Mogadishu. xix In July 2020, London signed four agreements with the government of Somaliland in cooperation with Denmark and the Netherlands to improve the infrastructure and support economic growth xx. In the same context, the U.K government provided more than £100 million in financial support to Ethiopia with the purpose of improving the quality of education and supporting the education of girls xxi and pledged £53 million in financial support for Kenya to provide 100,000 accommodations for citizens at reasonable prices.xxii

5. Humanitarian approach: This is one of the significant approaches that Britain draws on to conquer the minds and hearts of the peoples in the region taking advantage of the deteriorating humanitarian situation that some of the regional countries are currently witnessing owing to natural crises such as drought and floods as well as aggravating civil and ethnic wars that increased the numbers of refugees in neighboring countries. Britain has provided £5 million in financial assistance to help Ethiopian refugees affected by the conflict in the country as well as £11.4 million to improve medical care and access to clean water. xxiii It also allocated about £8 million to reduce the impact of famine in South Sudan, and help the victims of floods there considering that there are 7.5 million people who need humanitarian assistance in the country, according to a U.N reports.xxiv Furthermore, Britain has provided £40 million in financial assistance to support the family program in Sudan. As for Somalia, it has received a British financial assistance worth $4.9 million to reduce the impact of drought and floods and another $17 million in support of food assistance and health care in the country.xxv

6. Cross-border issues: Britain helps in addressing a number of issues that have international dimensions and affect the continent of Africa as a whole such as climate change, Covid-19 pandemic, illicit immigration, and swarms of desert locust. This comes, of course, as part of its endeavor to play an international role that can enhance its global status. British efforts are in concert with those of some regional countries such as Kenya to conduct tests of Covid-19 vaccines as well as Malaria and Ebola vaccines. Britain has provided £49 million in financial aid to support Ethiopia’s response to risks associated with Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and swarms of desert locust xxvi plus £49 million to help Kenya address the problems associated with climate change. It also provided a package of financial aid worth £18 million to help the Horn of Africa nations, Yemen, and West Asia countries to control the swarms of desert locust that have attacked the region since 2020. London also granted a funding of £8 million for FAO to support countries like Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Tanzania in their efforts against the swarms of desert locust. xxvii Moreover, there are increasing British efforts against the waves of illicit immigration originating from the Horn of Africa towards Europe across the Mediterranean.

Potential scenarios for the future of the British presence in the Horn of Africa

There are three potential scenarios for the future of the British presence in the region as follows:

First scenario: The expansion of Britain’s role and influence in the Horn of Africa

This is considered to be the most probable scenario given London’s keenness to gain more influence and compete with other global actors in the region driven by the desire to overcome the stage of Brexit and further enhance its global position. Moreover, Britain wishes to expand the horizons of economic cooperation and its investments in the region, particularly after the success of the investment summits between Britain and Africa in 2020 and 2012. Additionally, London is exerting more efforts to protect the safety of maritime navigation, and establish a permanent foothold in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa region.

What supports the prospects of realizing this scenario is the need of the Horn of Africa nations for the expertise, and development and humanitarian aid provided by London, and the latter’s ability to develop efficient tools and mechanisms to achieve a real penetration in the region. We have to bear in mind as well the continued British support for the war on terrorism as global actors welcome a constructive role played by London in the region in the coming stage.

However, there are some factors and challenges that can hinder the realization of this scenario including the rising influence of some competing global actors such as China and increased risks associated with terrorism in the Horn of Africa in a manner that can threaten British interests and push investors and businessmen to stop their investments in the region. What may make this scenario hard to take place as well is the continued spread of Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on Britain’s ability to live up to its commitments to the African countries. 

Second scenario: Britain adopts a slow approach towards the region

This remains a possible scenario in light of increasing global and regional competition in the Horn of Africa not to mention the increasing impact of Covid-19 on Britain’s economy and London’s small trade volume and investments in the region as a whole compared to those of other global powers such as China. Moreover, this scenario is believed to be relatively achievable in case there is a rise of terrorist threats that face the region particularly by al Shabab movement. Moreover, Britain’s approach towards the region can be affected by Washington’s review of its military presence in the Horn of Africa.

The chances of this scenario to happen increase if the British government disengages from the region in its bid to overcome the effects of Covid-19 on its economy. This likelihood is even enhanced should the British companies become hesitant to open new markets in the regional countries because of economic crises, conflict proliferation in some Horn of Africa countries, and rise of terrorist activities by some terrorist groups such as al Shabab which is active in Somalia and some other regional neighbors. The realization of this scenario can be enhanced if there is a general desire by the Europeans to reduce the role of Britain in the region after it withdrew from the European Union.

Third scenario: Britain’s declining presence in the region

This is considered to be the least likely scenario since the British government surely does not want to lose the outcomes of all the positive moves it has undertaken in the region in recent years. London seems to be even more eager to expand its moves forward to strategic regions like the Horn of Africa to maximize its global influence and restore its role on the international arena after Brexit. By doing so, London seeks to advance its various interests as it has already taken some positive steps to increase economic opportunities and promote investments in regional countries.

This scenario can be achieved should regional countries oppose Britain’s growing presence and role in the region at the instigation of other global powers worried about London’s moves in the Horn of Africa. The likelihood that this scenario will occur will increase as well in case there is a rise in terrorist attacks against British interests in the region, or with the possible deployment of more U.S troops in Somalia and Kenya. The economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic can also hinder British economic trends in the region.

Conclusions

  • The three-day tour by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, in the Horn of Africa in January 2021 that included Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia came to reflect the nature of London’s new trends and ongoing endeavors to maximize its influence in the region and establish an important foothold there as part of its post- Brexit new global vision.
  • Britain is apparently cautious to open contact channels at various levels with all Horn of Africa countries to strengthen relations with these nations and establish a strong British influence in the region. To this end, London has recently signed a number of cooperation agreements with regional countries and provided economic assistance to some countries there like Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Somalia.
  • Britain places special focus on two security issues in the Horn of Africa: the war on terror and provision of material, military, and logistical support to the national armies of these countries. Moreover, Britain maintains a direct military and security presence in a number of regional countries including South Sudan (U.N Mission in South Sudan), Kenya, and Somalia not to mention its military forces stationed in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
  • It is likely that Britain will go ahead with its plans for expanding its role and influence in the Horn of Africa as part of its endeavor to gain more global influence and overcome the stage of Brexit. What helps Britain in this task is the need of the Horn of Africa nations for the expertise, development and humanitarian aid provided by London, and the latter’s ability to develop effective tools and mechanisms to achieve a real penetration in the region.

Endnotes

i UK Fears Losing Their Indian Ocean Military Base In Mauritius To China?, Eurasian Times, 21/6/2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3b3xnN3

ii UK 'very concerned' by reports of fighting in Ethiopia's Mekelle, attacks on Eritrea, Reuters, 28/11/2020, available at: https://reut.rs/3d75WVd

iii Dominic Budley, The UK sounds a lot less bullish for Africa investment after Brexit and a pandemic, Quartz Africa, 22/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3aU09zm

iv Kate Hairsine, UK-Africa trade: What will Brexit change?, DW, 18/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/2N6sSJr

v Benjamin Fox, African trade pact offers chance to kickstart UK trade ties, Euractiv, 22/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3pbkPrS

vi James Anyanzwa, East African partners throw Kenya under the bus in Brexit talks, The East African, 23/9/2020, available at: https://bit.ly/376pKnR

vii Ethiopia, UK Ink Two Agreements Worth £105 Mn, 2Merkato, 27/7/2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2ZbV543

viii Ethiopia partners with UK & Germany to help save jobs in country’s textile industry, CNBC Africa, 5/11/2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3d9NCdR

ix Includes Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan.

x UK Defence Secretary visits Kenya and Somalia to discuss al Shabab, Defence Web, 21/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3b2JPww

xi Tracy Mutinda, New UK funding to boost investment in Kenya, The Star, 13/11/2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Z9NXoZ

xii Kamal Abdel Rahman, “Britain is using its weight to defuse the Sudanese-Ethiopian crisis”, Sky News Arabia, 22/1/2021, available at:  https://bit.ly/3jMz9G5

xiii British CDC Group is planning about $1 billion investments in African countries including Egypt, Al-Arabiya net, 21/1/2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3qkkPY1

xiv Phil Miller, REVEALED: The UK military’s overseas base network involves 145 sites in 42 countries, Daily Maverick, available at: https://bit.ly/3d8ugG1

xv UK Defence Secretary visits Kenya and Somalia to discuss al Shabab, Ibid.

xvi UK minister reiterates commitment to Somalia's long-term security and stability, Mena Fn, 10/10/2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Z800TL

xvii Oscar Nkala, UK donates dozens of military vehicles to Somalia, Defence Web, 17/9/2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3tRYnHI

xviii The UK’s economic relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa, The Parliament- United Kingdom. Available at: https://bit.ly/3rPXc9W

xix UK Offers to Help Build Link Road Between Baidoa And Mogadishu, Radio Daslan, Somalia, 10/11/2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3rF3EAG

xx UK, Denmark and Netherlands approve agreements with Somaliland Government on critical infrastructure to improve people’s lives, UK Gov., 5/7/2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3pfcuDA

xxi President Holds Talks with UK First Secretary of State, ENA, 23/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3pkHPVg

xxii UK pledges Sh8 billion for Kenya affordable housing scheme, Business Daily, 21/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3peCQ8M

xxiii Kamal Abdel Rahman, op. cit.

xxiv Minister for Africa commits £8 million to mitigate famine in South Sudan, UK Gov., 23/10/2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3amZho9

xxv UK minister reiterates commitment to Somalia's long-term security and stability, Ibid.

xxvi Foreign Secretary sets out UK's unique offer to East African nations on visit to region, UK Gov., 23/1/2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3rOsi1U

xxvii Somalia and Somaliland to benefit from new UK support to tackle locusts, UK Gov., 23/7/2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3jNe12

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