Energy Politics in the Horn of Africa-A Path Forward for American Foreign Policy


Oliver McPherson-Smith
For thousands of years, the Nile River has been a focal point of economic and military con-
tention. Today, its waters are the subject of dispute between the two largest economies and
militaries of the northeastern quadrant of the African continent, Egypt and Ethiopia. While
the Nile is perhaps most readily recognized as the economic lifeblood of Sudan and Egypt—
leading a verdant trail through the desert that is visible from space—its waters also play
an increasingly crucial role in the generation of hydroelectricity in otherwise energy-poor
Ethiopia, as they have long done in Egypt.
The inability to forge a regional consensus on regulating the use of the Nile, from its head-
waters in Ethiopia through Sudan and down to Egypt, has provoked tit-for-tat threats of military escalation. Furthermore, due to the centrality of the Nile to the Egyptian economy, and to Ethiopia’s ambitions for economic development, this dispute has permeated the broader geopolitics of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is the world’s most populous landlocked country, and 95 percent of its imports and exports fow through the port of neighboring Djibouti, including most of its hydrocarbon imports. As Ethiopia seeks greater direct access to the coast through an agreement with the self-declared but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland, Egypt has rallied to the support of Somalia and its claims of sovereignty over Somaliland.

Beyond these protagonists, Djibouti, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates all have deeply vested economic interests that in varying degrees stand to sufer or beneft if Ethiopia develops greater coastal access through Somaliland. The United States, with its largest base on the African continent in Djibouti, adjacent to the Bab al-Mandeb and the crucial maritime trade route of the Red Sea, is not unafected by these tense regional dynamics. Moreover, less than seven miles away from the five thousand American service members stationed at Camp Lemonnier sits China’s first foreign military base, on the other side of Djibouti’s capital city.

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