On 14th June Qatari troops withdrew from Dumeira mountain and island claimed by both Eritrea and Djibouti. Two days later, tensions grew when the Djibouti government accused Eritrea of sending its troops to the disputed territory.
The conflict between the two small Horn of Africa nations begun as soon as Eritrea became an independent country in 1993. Both countries claim that Dumeira mountain and island belongs to them. The island plays a significant strategic economic role as it is near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a vital shipping lane for global commerce at the southern end of the Red Sea. Approximately 4 million barrels of oil are shipped daily through the Strait to Europe, the United States, and Asia.
Qatar’s involvement came after the last major clash between these two nations on June 10th, 2008. In this incident, the Djibouti government accused the Eritrean troops of entering the buffer zone causing the Djiboutian troops to retaliate against perceived aggression. As a result of the three-day confrontation, dozen Djibouti and Eritrean troops were killed and others wounded. Moreover, both nations captured and imprisoned each other’s soldiers. After a year and a half of negotiations, courtesy of the UN, 450 Qatari troops were deployed and stationed in the disputed areas in 2010. The Qatari troops mediated a ceasefire between the two nations which ensured stability for the past seven years. The Qatari government even managed to get Eritrea to release four Djibouti troops captured during the 2008 clashes.
This escalation of tension has caused the African Union, with the support of the United Nations, to send a fact-finding mission with the aim of creating a long-term solution to the decades-long border dispute. Specifically, the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki, emphasised that the AU is “ready to assist Djibouti and Eritrea to normalise their relations and promote good neighbourliness within the framework of relevant AU instruments,”
The mission seems appropriate at this time when the Djibouti Foreign Minister warns that the military is “on high alert” and the Eritrean government is unwilling to discuss the issue directly. The Eritrean government claims that they are still obtaining information, stating that it had “not to date obtained any information on the withdrawal” from Qatar.
Essentially, the trigger for the conflict, although not explicitly announced by the major governments involved, is the recent Saudi-Qatar division. In the last couple of weeks, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have accused Qatar of supporting terrorist organisations and networks such as Muslim Brotherhood. In the African context, many countries, especially North and Horn of Africa countries, must decide where their loyalty lies. Both Djibouti and Eritrea have chosen to side with Saudi Arabia, therefore, causing Qatar to withdraw from the conflict.
The primary objective of any negotiations between Djibouti and Eritrea must be to avoid another military clash, like in 2008. An escalation of the conflict will add another complex dimension to the conflict. France, as the colonial power, will come to the aid of Djibouti, as they did 2008. The US and China will carefully observe the situation as they will protect their military bases in Djibouti at all costs. The Ethiopia’s prominence, who’s a bitter rival of Eritrea, can easily influence African Union’s decision regarding the issue at hand.
As it is too soon to determine how the crisis will play out, it is vital that the solution incorporates an agreement in which both parties have equal access to the economically strategic disputed Dumeira island and does not resort to a military confrontation.