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Berbera ports: The africa most valuable real estate

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Berbera and Zeila, two of the Horn of Africa’s ancient trading cities, have long attracted the interest of global powers because of their strategic location near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This location makes Somaliland’s coastal ports among the region’s most valuable real estate and an alternative to Djibouti as a key player in terms of trade, development, energy, and water security for the Red Sea and Horn of Africa.

Richard Burton, the British explorer, recognized the importance of Berbera port back in 1896, writing:
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In the first place, Berbera is the true key of the Red Sea, the centre of East African traffic, and the only safe place for shipping upon the western Eritrean shore, from Suez to Guardafui. Backed by lands capable of cultivation, and by hills covered with pine and other valuable trees, enjoying a comparatively temperate climate, with a regular although thin monsoon, this harbour has been coveted by many a foreign conqueror. Circumstances have thrown it as it were into our arms, and, if we refuse the chance, another and a rival nation will not be so blind.

A new geopolitical rivalry in the Red Sea

Somaliland’s ports still remain the object of international interest and rivalry today, although the foreign powers involved have changed. On July 1, according to an official statement, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan had agreed to establish ties with Somaliland based on “friendship and a shared commitment to common values of freedom, democracy, justice, and the rule of law.”

Less than a week later, however, Somalia’s federal government, led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, aligned itself with China to prevent a Taiwanese-Somaliland nexus that would have clear geopolitical ramifications for the Horn of Africa.

While China and Somalia rebuffed and condemned the new strategic bilateral ties between Somaliland and Taiwan, the U.S. National Security Council has blessed Taiwan’s venture into East Africa, sending a clear message to China that the U.S. stands with Taiwan. This is a significant blow to the Chinese government, which has used its international influence and “development-trap diplomacy” in recent decades to rally support among African and Middle Eastern states for its efforts to suppress Taiwan’s presence in the international sphere.

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somaliland

On July 12, a high-level delegation from Egypt traveled to Somaliland. Although an Egyptian delegation had visited in 2019, angering Somalia, this year’s trip comes at a critical time as Ethiopia and Egypt have locked horns in their dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The Egyptian delegation’s visit prompted protests from the Ethiopian government, and Egypt’s growing bilateral ties and cooperation with Somaliland are giving Ethiopia GERD problems of its own — as in gastroesophageal reflux disease.

It is important to note that Ethiopia has a 19 percent stake in the port of Berbera, which is managed by the UAE’s DP World with a 51 percent stake, while Somaliland holds 30 percent. In May 2019, Ethiopia signed its first military cooperation agreement with France, which covers joint air cooperation and includes assistance for Ethiopia’s efforts to build up its naval forces — although where the landlocked country plans to dock these naval forces remains unclear. Joking aside, Ethiopia’s naval endeavors are driven by two main factors: first, concerns over the future of Djibouti’s port, which the IMF categorizes as at a “high risk of debt distress,” comparable to the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which was built with Chinese financing and which Beijing took control of after Colombo failed to meet its debt obligations; and second, to protect 11 state-owned commercial vessels managed by the Ethiopian Shipping & Logistics Services Enterprise (ESLSE).

Scramble for fragile Somaliland

Although Somaliland is relatively peaceful compared to Somalia, its lack of international recognition makes it fragile and susceptible to being drawn into regional disputes as it seeks allies, bilateral ties, and eventual recognition. This has been the case with the Gulf states, where it has sided with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In part as a result of this fragility and desire to secure more allies and improve bilateral ties, Somaliland now finds itself in the middle of multiple disputes among other states, including Ethiopia and Egypt and China and Taiwan.

Taken together, the current domestic instability in Ethiopia and its tensions with Egypt over the GERD, combined with the global superpower competition in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea, are a recipe for conflict that could trigger the largest refugee influx in African history. This could destabilize Somaliland and with it key international maritime trade routes, making it vulnerable to insecurity and terrorism that directly affects both Ethiopia and Djibouti, with which it shares its western border.

To reduce future geopolitical uncertainty and security risk in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, it’s in the best interest of the international community to take the following steps:

Consider recognizing Somaliland;

Praise Taiwan-Somaliland relations instead of giving in to Chinese pressure and potentially keeping at bay Russia, which also has a keen interest in establishing a military base at Berbera port; and

Include Somaliland in the Red Sea Council and help it develop its own navy.

Shakir Essa report

A new film set in Djibouti City presents a searing class critique of Somali girlhood.

In the popular imagination, Somali women are viewed as passive, oppressed subjects, the hapless victims of their patriarchal culture and religion. Where they are visible, it is often through the iconography of the veil and female circumcision. Lula Ali Ismaïl’s Dhalinyaro (Youth)—the first full-length feature film by a Djiboutian woman—is a radical departure from this corpus in depicting Somali girlhood in its full depth and complexity. Most importantly, it does this through depicting the mundane events of everyday life in Djibouti City. There are no wars here, or pirates, or terrorists, no young women escaping fathers, husbands, or the blade of a female elder, no white saviors ready for the rescue. What we see in Dhalinyaro is a coming of age story that shows Somali girls as they are.

The film’s storyline revolves around the final qualification examination for Djiboutian secondary students to enter university, the baccalaureate. The three main characters, Deka, Hibo, and Asma, are classmates at the Lycée de Djibouti but hail from markedly different class backgrounds. The Lycée space becomes one where the different segments of Djibouti’s population interact and form friendships, bonding over the shared ritual of studying for the baccalaureate. Yet, it is the question of higher education that renders class divides most explicit. For wealthy Hibo, who arrives at the Lycée each day in a chauffeured private car, there is no question that she will continue her education in Paris. Deka, who is securely middle class, is less certain, but with the funds saved up by her mother over a number of years, the idea of going to France for university is within the realm of the possible. Asma has no such choices available to her; poverty dictates that she must stay in Djibouti, unless she is among the few top students to receive a scholarship to study abroad.

The palpable burden of class difference saturates the film. One shot silently juxtaposes a well-dressed man at a cafe with a young boy on the street as he hands his shoes to the child to polish while drinking coffee. In another shot, women in wide-brimmed sun hats sweep the city streets at dusk to the sounds of ciyaar Soomaali, a traditional Somali folk dance. It is palpable in Asma’s hesitation to attend Hibo’s birthday party at the luxury Djibouti Palace Kempinski, and in the fuul bean stew her family eats at mealtimes, like the poor neighborhood children that come to Deka’s home for bread. When Hibo gets into an altercation with a group of schoolgirls outside of the Lycée, she disparages them as the “stupid Balabois”—residents of the impoverished Balbala suburb. An angered Asma, who tells her that she is “one of them,” accuses Hibo of believing that her wealth gives her more rights. Over the course of the film, Hibo’s character arc moves from a sheltered and careless rich girl to a more understanding and self-sufficient individual, a transformation made possible by honest friendships across difference.

The stunning cinematography with long shots of the sea and glimpses of the Port of Djibouti subtly signals the confluence and contradictions of global wealth and local poverty. This infrastructure of state capitalism—and, at the end of the film, the national radio broadcasting examination results—are the only glimpses of the state or politics in Dhalinyaro. Djibouti is among the most enduring dictatorships in Africa, ruled by an extended family since its independence from France in 1977. Its ruler, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, is famously a patron of the arts and culture, and Lula Ali Ismaïl has described the support she received for the film from both the private sector and a government eager to develop the country’s nascent film industry. While one can wonder about the possible implications of this government hand for artistic freedom, Ismaïl’s decision not to engage formal politics explicitly is another subversive act of representation, given that the region is mired in images of political dysfunction. Ismaïl’s political critique is muted and indirect, but no less searing. It takes the form of a city-wide power outage that forces the “haves” to turn on their private generators and the “have-nots” to light lanterns; it is in the figure of the elderly veteran telling Deka the forgotten stories of Djiboutian soldiers who fought for France during the Second World War; it is, at the metalevel, what the film itself embodies in its very existence, in its very refusal to conform.

What Dhalinyaro foregrounds is female sociality and intimacy as it unravels the complex layers of contemporary Djiboutian life. The film has a decidedly female gaze, decentering maleness to the extent that most of the male characters in the film remain marginal and unnamed. Instead, it is the inner worlds of Somali women that are fleshed out in full, and with the immense care and tenderness of a Somali woman behind the camera. When Hibo has a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at school, it is the conservatively-dressed Asma who immediately removes her abaya to cover her friend’s blood-stained clothing, stating that “girls look out for each other.” They openly discuss sexuality and their relationships, the lively female banter reminiscent of the Somali riwaayad (play) and theater tradition that has pushed the envelope on notions of female morality and modesty in Somali society since the 1960s. Markers of Somali womanhood are interspersed throughout the film: the breezy dirac shiid worn as loungewear at home, the fragrant uunsi smoke used to perfume one’s household, clothing and hair, the huruud face masks made of turmeric to keep one’s skin soft.

At the heart of Dhalinyaro is the tension between visibility and invisibility in the desire for a particular kind of freedom. In an early scene, Deka, Hibo, and Asma quietly talk at their desks as their teacher—played by Lula Ali Ismaïl herself—explains the upcoming deadlines for students seeking to go abroad for university. “Think of the freedom!” Deka whispers to her friends, “no one holding you to account, no one looking at you and saying ‘you’re the daughter of so and so.’” These moments of recognition occur most often in their encounters with men. As the girls sit by the waterfront and jokingly evaluate the appearances of young men passing by, a man pauses and greets Hibo, telling her to say hello to her father for him. “There’s no getting away!” an exasperated Hibo tells her friends. In another scene, the searching glance of a male waiter at a restaurant where Deka is having an intimate dinner with the older married man she is seeing is enough to unsettle her and abruptly end the date. Yet, it is the same surveilling gaze—this time by women—that precipitates the end to the predatory relationship, after Deka’s mother hears about it. The communal nature of the Somali social world, while frustrating any notion of individual anonymity, fosters a sense of interdependence and female solidarity that uplifts the girls in times of need, as their friendship illustrates. Ultimately, Deka chooses this world by staying in Djibouti for university.

Ethnicity is conspicuously absent from the film. Djibouti, while dominated politically, culturally and demographically by Somalis, is a multi-ethnic country comprised of the Somali and Afar, as well as smaller communities of Arabs, Ethiopians and Europeans. That diversity is represented in the casting, with the three lead actresses themselves belonging to Djibouti’s different ethnic groups: one is Afar, one is Somali, and one is Arab Somali. Yet each plays a Somali character, in a Djibouti where only Somali people and culture appear to exist. However, there is some ambiguity to Hibo’s background that is not discernible to the non-Somali speaker and flattened by the limited subtitles. In the scene where Hibo is confronted on the schoolyard, a voice in the background, which does not make it into the subtitles, can be heard saying “the little Arab girl is being attacked!” in Somali. Her father, in other scenes, speaks one or two words of Arabic, albeit words that have entered the Somali lexicon. Asma and Deka’s households are completely immersed in their Somaliness, with illustrative scenes including Asma’s sisters playing jag on the veranda as their mother gives them advice using Somali proverbs, and Deka’s single mother listening to gabay poetry composed by a heartbroken Cilmi Boodhari. Hibo’s family, on the other hand, only speaks Somali at home when talking to their maid; they converse in French exclusively between themselves, listen to European classical music during formal dinners, and go to France for education. There is an unexamined politics of language and ethnicity yearning to be explored.

Dhalinyaro is a remarkable feat, particularly for a first full-length film by a self-taught filmmaker hailing from a country with a film industry still in its infancy. Though initially released in 2018, it has recently seen a surge in popularity when it was made available for free streaming as part of this year’s Cinewax Online African Film Festival, breaking OAFF streaming records. It is a beautiful film—a love letter to Somali girls—that deserves to be seen widely.

Author: Shakir Essa