Qatar Crisis: Djibouti’s nearsightedness bites them at Ras Doumeira

Saturday June 24th 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

After Saudi Arabia’s landmark declaration of diplomatic war against Qatar last week, it was clear to most that Africa, specifically the conflict plagued Horn of Africa region, would be feeling the blowback effect in the not too distant future. After all, the horn is a highly contested region of strategically astronomical importance. This is why barely a week after cutting off land air and sea access to Qatar, the Saudi government immediately started sending memos to governments in East Africa. They’ve requested leaders to sever all ties with Doha in an effort to boot Qatar from the region, going as far as threatening some leaders and offering bribes to others.

Most East African nations have offered measured responses to the on-going Qatar crisis, refraining from taking sides and instead encouraging the efforts of third party countries offering to mediate and bring both sides to mutual understanding. However, the tiny (area wise) Red Sea state of Djibouti were quickest to comply with Saudi Arabia’s demands. Forty eight hours after Saudi Arabia’s abrupt actions changed the geopolitical situation of the Middle East, Djibouti announced that it would downgrade its diplomatic representation in Qatar. It would act in solidarity with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.

On Monday, Qatari peacekeepers, the only force preventing an outbreak of hostilities between the armies of Eritrea and Djibouti, withdrew from a contested border region that the two had fought over back in 2008. After the 2008 conflict, a United Nations mediating team convinced both sides to withdraw their troops from the contested areas, before a contingent of Qatari peacekeepers were deployed to enforce a buffer presence in 2010. For seven years, no major defiling of the joint agreement keeping both warring parties at bay was reported.

Djibouti’s Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf told Reuters that Eritrean soldiers immediately occupied contested areas, including the Ras Doumeira mountain upon the departure of the Qataris. “Qatari peacekeepers withdrew on June 12 and 13. On the same day, there were Eritrean military movements on the mountain,” he said.

Doha announced that it would be abandoning its role as an impartial mediator and pulling out of the region in a statement, but didn’t go into detail over exactly why they would be doing so. Although it is clear that the governments of both Eritrea and Djibouti declaring that they backed the Saudis in their standoff with Qatar clearly played a role in their decision.

How will this recent development come to affect the parties involved? Who stands to lose and is there anyone who may actually emerge as a winner? It’s too early to tell, but if anything, Djibouti appears to have been stung the deepest so far, and a deeper look at the conflict and Qatar’s role in it suggest that Djibouti have nobody but themselves to blame for the conundrum they now find themselves in.

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Map showing Ras Doumeira split

           Conflict Background

It would be best to commence with a greater understanding of the root causes of what got the Qataris involved in the first place. East Africa has become synonymous with border wars, and yet another porous, poorly demarcated border drawn and redrawn over a century ago by entities ranging from various Ethiopian empires, to colonial settler France and Italy, have two impoverished African states at each other’s necks. Much like the situation of the Badme border dispute that was at the heart of the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war that left a hundred thousand killed on both sides, the warring sides are fighting over barren and even uninhabited land with no evident strategic importance and little to gain but bragging rights. Fortunately, the fighting only lasted a few days, and didn’t cause the devastation of towns and villages as was the case during the Ethiopian and Eritrean war which saw civilians caught in the crossfire.

Djibouti’s claim to the land stems from a treaty signed between Britain, France and Ethiopia back in 1897. The treaty loosely defines the contested area as belonging to France (French Somaliland) which is the precursor for the modern day Djiboutian state. Signed in the aftermath of Emperor Menelik’s Adwa war victory over Italy, it was seen as further recognition of Menelik’s status as a diplomat and leader of a sovereign independent nation and not just another savage in need of “civilizing,” as most African leaders had been portrayed. Little did they know it would one day be the backbone of Djibouti’s justification for a 72 hour war fought over a century later. Eritrea meanwhile, bases their argument on a 1935 treaty signed by Italy’s Benito Mussolini and France’s Pierre Laval. But the United Nations has admitted that despite these treaties, demarcation on the ground had never taken place, or has never been recognized, leaving control of the area up for grabs legally.

                         War breaks out

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Djiboutian troops entrenched at border with Eritrea (Image: Al Jazeera)

The ambiguity surrounding control of the Ras Doumeira area nearly resulted in armed clashes between the two several times in the nineties. But on June 10th 2008, after both sides claim the other fired first, the Eritrean and Djiboutian armies deployed battalions and heavy weapons to the area and dug trenches. For the next three or four days, the two armies hit each other hard and both sides suffered heavy casualties, with the Djiboutian government saying it suffered thirty dead and up to fifty wounded. Eritrea hasn’t released its own casualty figures, but unconfirmed Djiboutian reports stated that around a hundred Eritrean soldiers lost their lives in the short stint of fighting.

 

                        Qatar intervenes

The African Union and the UN called on both sides to cease hostilities and agree to sort out their differences with international mediation. Months later, the UN passed Security Resolution 1862 which would demand that both sides keep their forces out of the contested region and negotiations continue. Qatar offered to mediate and former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was able to bring both sides to agree to allow Qatari mediation. A treaty signed nearly two years later, on June 6th 2010 opened the door for Qatar to send a peacekeeping force to the region that would ensure both sides don’t reignite the fighting or encroach on the other’s sovereignty.

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Qatari peacekeepers stationed at Ras Doumeira are visited by their country’s Minister of Defense Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah

Eritrea would be forced to abandon a number of its positions in the aftermath of Qatari mediation. Until Qatar’s involvement, the government of Eritrea had denied that a conflict had even taken place. Before the fighting erupted, when asked about tensions between the two countries, Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki dismissed the topic as a “wild invention.” But Doha’s intervention forced Eritrea to abandon its hardened stance and make a number of concessions. The main concession that Djibouti was pressing hard for, was information on nineteen Djiboutian soldiers captured during the three day fighting and detained in Eritrea as prisoners of war.

As Eritrea had previously refused to even accept that a conflict had even taken place, the country’s leaders strongly denied Eritrea had Djiboutian POWs in detention. Djibouti made numerous requests to get information on its military personnel in Eritrean custody, but were rebuffed on the basis that they didn’t exist. Asmara continued to refuse to accept that it had taken Djiboutian soldiers alive, and repeatedly denied that it had any Djiboutian military personnel in detention. Djibouti, refusing to let the issue die, wouldn’t return to the negotiating table without the release of its imprisoned soldiers. For its part, the Djiboutian government stated it was willing to release 286 Eritrean soldiers it had in custody pending the Eritrean government’s willingness to cooperate on the issue. The majority of these soldiers weren’t captured during the brief war, but had defected to Djibouti just prior to the outbreak of fighting. They had remained detained as the Djiboutian government thought they might still pose a threat to the country somehow. “Resolution of the dispute between Eritrea and my country will depend on the release of Djiboutian soldiers,” Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh later stated.

After a peace deal was agreed to and the Qatari peacekeeping force was deployed to the region, the Eritrea-Djibouti conflict was no longer a concern for the international community. This despite the dispute not being resolved and a considerable number of POWs from both armies remaining in detention. Qatar would remain the only channel for negotiations. Eritrea’s finally toned down on its refusal to acknowledge it had Djiboutians in its custody following the September 2011 escapes of two of them, Privates First Class Ahmed Eeleeye Yaabe 40, and Khadir Sumbul Ali, 36. The two made their way on foot to the Sudanese border and presented themselves to Sudanese border patrols. The two had spent over three years at detention facilities including one in the port city of Assab. They told reporters that they knew of five other Djiboutian soldiers imprisoned in Eritrea who were still alive at the time of their escapes. They also spoke of one of their comrades, Djama Ahmed Abrar, 36, who was detained with them. They said he was suffering from a bullet wound and was in danger of losing his arm. They added that he was taken away to be hospitalized and that they hadn’t heard from him since. The testimonies were presented to Qatari mediators as proof Djiboutian soldiers were languishing in Eritrea despite Asmara’s denials.

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HEAD TO HEAD: The Presidents of Djibouti and Eritrea were locked in bitter post war negotiations

It would be important to note that Eritrea made no requests for the return of its prisoners of war and seem to consider their return a non issue, while in Djibouti the return of the detained nineteen Djiboutian army personnel was seen as a matter of national priority. In his 2013 New Year’s address to the Djiboutian people, President Ismail Omar Guelleh reiterated his desire to leave no stone unturned in his effort to repatriate his missing servicemen. “We pray that they will be returned to us in 2013,” he said in a press release. “We will spare no effort to see this come true, and that we will be able to reach a speedy and favorable end to the conflict over Ras Doumeira.” Above all, Djibouti certainly showed more eagerness to remain at the negotiating table and it’s clear that the Djiboutian government’s desire to liberate captured servicemen was the main motive for this.

2013 passed without any developments regarding the captured soldiers. But negotiations continued behind the scenes, with Qatar doing what it could to bring the two to agreement.

In April of 2014, Djibouti decided a humanitarian gesture might make their efforts bear fruition quicker. The Djiboutian military handed 267 Eritrean POWs over to the UNHCR, ending a six year period of imprisonment for them at the Nagad detention center in Djibouti. This, despite there still being no word at the time on the fates of the remaining seventeen Djiboutian captives in Eritrea, besides what they were told by the two escapees who made their way on foot from Djibouti to Sudan.

“We have made them (the released prisoners) talk to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to facilitate their return to their country,” Djiboutian Presidential adviser Najib Ali Tahir told reporters at the time. “We’re doing this despite the fact that we never heard of Djibouti’s POWs.”

The Djiboutian government still had nineteen Eritreans detained and attempted to use them as bargaining chips to gain access to its remaining captives.

         Qatari mediation leads to release of four POWs

Finally, a breakthrough. In February and March 2016, both President Isaias Afewerki and President Ismail Omar Guelleh made separate trips to Doha and met with the Emir as well as with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Mohammed Jassim Al Thani. On March 18th, the last day of the Eritrean President’s three day trip to Qatar, the government of Eritrea flew four Djiboutian POWs to Qatar and released them to awaiting Djiboutian diplomats. It was seen as a great coup in Djibouti. The four men would return to Djibouti as national heroes. Osman Mohammed Ahmed, 52, Cheiko Borito Ali, 52, Mohammed Hildid Sogey, 45 and Ali Abdallah Lubak , 48, were flown back home accompanied by the Qatari Foreign Minister after eight years in Eritrean prisons.

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The four Djiboutian army former POWs after their releases. They would be flown to Djibouti from Qatar (Image: Qatar Foreign Ministry)

Apparently the quartet of Djiboutians weren’t told of their impending release until the moment they boarded a plane. “I didn’t realize what was going on on until I heard that Qatar was involved. I thank them for such a noble stance and their initiative that led to our release from captivity and our return to our country and families.”

“All appreciation and love to our brothers in Qatar,” former prisoner Ali Abdullah Lubak told Qatari state media. “We wouldn’t have been able to embrace freedom again if it wasn’t for their efforts. We will always remember Qatar’s standing by our side and its work to end our captivity.

The France Foreign Ministry, released a statement in which it praised Qatar for the role it played in securing the releases of the four men and called on Eritrea to comply with demands to release the remaining Djiboutian military personnel it had in its custody. France, which has a military base in the country, is believed to have aided Djiboutian war efforts back in 2008, by providing the Djiboutian army with logistical and intelligence data.

The four ex prisoners walked off the plane and kissed the soil of their country. They were welcomed on the tarmac by dignitaries of both Djibouti and Qatar. The Djiboutian army band played nationalist songs before playing the country’s national anthem. Later, they were taken to the Djiboutian national palace and met with President Ismail Omar Guelleh. Guelleh was seen standing with Qatari FM Sheikh Mohammed Jassim Al Thani and presumably thanking him for his country’s efforts in making the day’s events possible.

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HOME AT LAST: The liberated prisoners, emotional and overjoyed, kissed the soil of the airport tarmac the moment they set foot in Djibouti. They had been imprisoned for eight years (Image: Radiodiffusion Télévision de Djibouti)
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Djiboutian President Ismail Guelleh greets one of his freed servicemen with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani at his side (Image: Radio diffusion Télévision de Djibouti)

Indeed a press release from the Djiboutian presidential palace put this sentiment into words. “The Republic of Djibouti would like to warmly thank his highness Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani for his crucial role in the liberation of our four prisoners of war.”

Djiboutians were ecstatic and rightfully so. The total of released/escaped former Djiboutian POWs now reached six. After years without an inch of progress, it was a step in the right direction and a feel good moment for the Djiboutian people.

Through continued negotiations, Eritrea admitted that one of the captured Djiboutian servicemen, Djama Ahmed Abrar, who was said to be in danger of losing his arm, had died in Eritrean detention. They gave no indication as to how or when he had died. Djibouti now had the cases of the remaining twelve captured soldiers that they continued to lobby for. Eritrea has denied it has any remaining Djiboutian military personnel in its detention facilities. Negotiations since the releases have centered on the remaining twelve prisoners and a long term solution that would involve an eventual departure of Qatari peacekeepers. A UN Security Monitoring Group report from 2016 states that Djiboutian security personnel believe that there is a high likelihood that the remaining twelve missing soldiers are no longer alive.

Nevertheless, Qatar continued to convene delegations from both countries to discuss a long term solution for the broader Ras Doumeira dispute. As for the twelve prisoners, if they are indeed dead Eritrea is obligated to provide Djibouti with information on the fallen soldiers’ cause of death and place of burial as per Article 16 of the First Geneva Convention of which Eritrea is a party to.

In a letter to the UN Security Monitoring Group, Eritrea reiterated that the issue surrounding the prisoners of war was over.

There are no more Djiboutian prisoners of war in Eritrean custody. There were only seven Djiboutian POWs in Eritrean custody out of which two escaped, one has died and the remaining four have been released on 18 March 2016 through the mediation of the Government of Qatar.”

The Djiboutian government isn’t convinced. After all, before the 2011 escaped of two Djiboutian soldiers from Eritrean detention, Asmara had refused to acknowledge it had taken any soldiers as prisoner from the three day war with Djibouti.

Whatever the case, the only viable path to obtaining information on the fates of twelve missing soldiers as well as to regaining control of land they believed to be a part of Djibouti was through continued Qatari mediation. Qatar was among a small and shrinking circle of nations with any serious influence in the region that is still on speaking terms with Asmara. The likes of France, the former colonial power and operator of a major military installation in the country, had no leverage with which it could force Eritrea to divulge information on Djiboutian soldiers. It would be in the country’s best interests to pursue the Qatar initiative. There is literally nobody else to turn to.

                    Djibouti turns on Qatar

Despite all that had transpired between Qatar, Eritrea and Djibouti over the course of much of the past decade, on Wednesday June 7th 2017, the Djiboutian Foreign Ministry released the following communiqué via its website:

Urgent Press release: The Government of the Republic of Djibouti announces officially that it has decided to reduce the level of diplomatic representation it has in Qatar. The decision of the Djiboutian Government was taken in the spirit of solidarity with the international coalition of countries dedicated to combatting terrorism and extremist violence as well as in solidarity with Gulf states and Arab countries.

 

        It’s quite clear that the decision made by Djiboutian authorities, wasn’t based on Qatar’s alleged frolicking with “terrorism” or a moral repulsion for anything else the Qatari government is accused of having a hand in. Djibouti has most likely given in to pressure from the Saudis, who have gone as far as offering 80 million $US to Somalia’s President Mohammed Farmaajo to do the same and lock Qatar out of Somalia. President Farmaajo is reported to have rejected the offer. According to the Middle East Monitor, Saudi Arabia has also threatened to withdraw all aid to Somalia if that country doesn’t sever all ties with Qatar. Mogadishu as of yet, hasn’t budged from its neutral stance.

Djibouti became the first state in East Africa to openly side with the Saudi Arabia led diplomatic coalition against Qatar. Five days later, the Eritrean Foreign Ministry also issued a statement in which it supported the efforts to show Qatar the cold shoulder. But as of writing, they are yet to take action against Doha the way Djibouti has.

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Somalia’s President Mohammed Farmaajo meeting with Qatari FM Mohammed Al Thani in May of 2017. Saudi Arabia reportedly offered President Farmaajo 80 million US$ for Somalia’s severing of ties with Qatar. Farmaajo refused (Image: Qatar Tribune)

    Qatar troop exit good for Eritrea; bad for Djibouti

Eritrea turning against Qatar may be surprising but it could be understandable strategically. With Qatar out of the way, it would no longer be bound by an obligation to continue showing up at the mediation table. In fact until another suitable third party state can be found, which won’t be any time soon, there won’t be any mediation between the two countries. By voiding the Qatari treaty, Asmara is no longer under any serious diplomatic pressure to convey information on Djibouti’s twelve missing soldiers to anyone. Qatar’s peacekeepers would be obligated to vacate the region, opening the doors for military action without the risk of attacking a UN sanctioned peacekeeping force. If President Isaias were to order the military takeover of the contested Ras Doumeira region, he wouldn’t have to explain himself to anyone.

And that is exactly what happened. A day before Qatar pulled its troops from the disputed region, Eritrea issued a statement supporting action against Qatar. The next day, hours after the Ras Doumeira pullout, the Eritrean military took over Ras Doumeira.

Djibouti, are back to where they were in 2008. With a number of its soldiers still unaccounted for, the Ras Doumeira region under Eritrean control and a tense military standoff with a real risk of war. What makes 2017 different from 2008 is that this time, there are no states seriously interested in taking up a neutral role to negotiate an agreement with Eritrea. The Djiboutian decision to shove Qatar out of the region was strategically a poor one. The way things are lining up, Djibouti’s only options for regaining control of territory it considers its own may be armed conflict, with the likelihood of Djiboutian casualties and even more prisoners of war being taken by Eritrea quite high if the option is pursued.

The Djiboutian government has since called on the UN to take action following Eritrea’s military retaking of the contested region. On Monday, a UN Security Council meeting ended with member states calling on both sides to refrain from taking unnecessary steps that would further complicate matters and/or lead to war. The African Union and IGAD bodies also issued similar statements. These statements are hardly the robust strong stand against Eritrea’s violation of the 2010 treaty that Djibouti thought it would be able to count on.

The only support Djibouti has allegedly been offered is on behalf of Egypt, which offered to replace the Qatari troop deployment with its own troops. But Egypt are seen to be in cahoots with Eritrea and such a move would likely strengthen Eritrea, and most likely ruin relations with Ethiopia, a long standing ally of Djibouti’s. President Ismail Omar Guelleh will be forced to suffer the consequences of his government’s extremely callous decision making.

A seasoned politician like President Guelleh, ruler of the country for eighteen years now and a man whose diplomatic prowess has secured friendships with the likes of France and the USA (both nations currently operate military bases in Djibouti) would be expected to see things through and not commit a blunder on such a scale. Turning on Qatar was unwise. Strategically, it has resulted in the tables being turned against his country. Morally, it is a literally backstabbing the country that facilitated the return of four Djiboutian prisoners of war to their homeland and secured peace in the region for seven years.

For the likes of Ethiopia and Egypt, the situation in Djibouti is being viewed as a potentially opportunity to weaken a foe. Ethiopia sees Eritrean military maneuvering in the region as a threat to its interests. Landlocked Ethiopia currently invests a billion $US a year securing the country’s imports via Djibouti’s port. Egypt meanwhile, would seek to solidify ties with Eritrea and strategically isolate Ethiopia who has designs on Nile River water.

Either way, Djibouti’s nearsightedness has now created a situation in which the country is being leered at by vultures seeking to devour different prey. Djibouti risks becoming caught in bigger battles. Of course, truth be told the risk of these countries taking a hands on approach and escalating the conflict is very low. Still, with no buffer presence between them and Eritrea, Djibouti will now be forced to mass troops on its border with Eritrea ready to act at a moment’s notice. Before Qatar’s peacekeeper deployment, keeping the army on high alert at the border reportedly costed the Djiboutian government around five million US dollars per month. Quite a costly endeavour. Such is the reality of countries paralyzed by no peace no war standoffs on their border.

Qatari has been shown the door by Djibouti and Eritrea. Doha has promptly recalled its contingent of peacekeepers from their common border. Exactly why Djibouti was quick to act and hasten their departure is unclear. Could it be that Saudi Arabia has tabled a package offer that will serve to tip the scales in favour of Djibouti? We shall see. For now, with their soldiers staring down the barrels of Eritrean guns aimed at them from the peak of Ras Doumeira, Djiboutian rulers may be kicking themselves.

 

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

 

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4 thoughts on “Qatar Crisis: Djibouti’s nearsightedness bites them at Ras Doumeira

  1. 100 Eritreans died in the border skrimish with Djibouti? Where did you get that estimate from? Sounds made up on the spot. Video evdience of the fight shows Eritrea made quick work of Djiboutian soldiers, capturing all contested areas and pushing them far back. They were in full retreat. That’s why they still think Eritrea has a dozen or so of their soldiers still in prison when in reality, they probably died in the battlefield as they were fleeing in disarray.

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    1. There is a broader issue here and you are busy keeping score as if this was a football match. This was a war. No credible media outlet in the world has validated your claims that one beat the other or made “quick work” of anyone. The “video evidence” you speak of is non existential. I think you belong in one of those Youtube forums where western based children who havie never been to Africa brag when they hear of poor east Africans killing each other it as if it were a token of honour and a badge of pride.

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    1. You’re welcome sir Hafiz. The worst case scenario is war breaking out again. This is bad for all involved. But with regards to Ethiopia, it all depends on the likelihood of them being able to pin all the blame on Eritrea. If they are able to convince the world that Eritrea is the bad guy, then maybe the world can extend economic sanctions including the 2% diaspora tax, which the government collects from around the world. It would weaken the Asmara gov but also devastate the poor people of Eritrea. But thanks to recent partnerships with the likes of Egypt and UAE, it won’t be easy to turn the whole UN against Eritrea like it was in 2009.

      Ethiopia’s government has promised to act if their interests (like the port) are directly affected. I don’t think Eritrea plans on harming Ethiopian interests. It wouldn’t be in their interests to instigate conflict with additional powers in the region, even if they had the backing of Egypt and others.

      So all in all, I don’t believe Ethiopia will be greatly affected whatever happens…but it’s a very volatile and unpredictable region so I could be totally wrong.

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