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Africa in the Indian Ocean region: Explained

  Anu Maria Joseph

Africa in the Indian Ocean region: Explained
Many traditional players—Australia, France, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States—continue expanding their presence in the Western Indian Ocean. Geopolitical significance has led to the emergence of new players—China, the UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Türkiye. All of these players are investing in Indian Ocean countries economically, politically, and militarily, which will impact the region’s security environment on both traditional and non-traditional lines.

Anu Maria Joseph

The Eastern and Southern coast of Africa is one of the sub-regions of the Western Indian Ocean region. African countries from Egypt, Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Tanzania and Mozambique in the east to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia in the South lie along the Western Indian Ocean region. Islands of Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius and Comoros are additionally part of the region. Rich in bio reserves and minerals and proximity to several trade routes make the region crucial. The maritime route connects the Middle East and Africa to Southeast Asia, East Asia, Europe and the Americas. 

Geopolitical importance
First, the region is rich in bio and mineral reserves. The Western Indian Ocean region is rich in mineral reserves- Egypt (oil and gas), Sudan (gold and oil), Ethiopia (gold and platinum), Somalia (Uranium), Kenya (gold), Tanzania (gold and diamond), Mozambique (coal and gold), South Africa (gold, platinum, diamond and Uranium). Additionally, the region is characterised by vast biodiversity in terms of species and ecosystems. More than 2,200 fish species, 300 hard coral species, ten mangrove species, 12 seagrass species, 1,000 seaweed species and hundreds of sponges, molluscs, and crabs can be found in the coastal and marine environments of the region.

Second, proximity to strategic trade routes. Djibouti and Eritrea are positioned directly at the Bab al-Mandab Strait near the Suez Canal which flows along the Horn of Africa and connects Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula to the Red Sea. The region also hosts the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and Mozambique which is a key trading route for goods transiting the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East and Asia. 

Third, naval bases. The US has its key military base in Diego Garcia which is used as a launchpad for Air Force missions in the Middle East. Nearly 5,000 US personnel are based on the island. China has built a 300-metre-long base in Djibouti which could accommodate large vessels including aircraft carriers and submarines which it presents as a “logistic facility.” France has a naval presence in Djibouti and the Island of La Reunion with a bid to defend its “overseas territories in the Indian Ocean region.” Besides, India, Japan and the UN have been carrying out missions combating piracy off the coast of Somalia. Surveillance and reconnaissance missions and a strong security profile around the Western Indian Ocean region are essential for external actors.

Fourth, proximity to Africa’s leading economies. The region has a proximity to Africa’s relatively stable and leading economies of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Egypt has a GDP of USD 477 billion; the highest in Africa along with Nigeria. Its economic sectors range from tourism to agriculture to textiles and petroleum. Tanzania's GDP is USD 75.71 billion, driven by tourism, agriculture, and mining industries. Kenya's IT, innovation sector and business-friendly approach contribute to the country's economic prosperity, with a GDP of USD 113 billion. Ethiopia's GDP of USD 127 billion is driven by a thriving agriculture and manufacturing sector. South Africa's GDP is USD 406 billion, making it a financial and industrial powerhouse. Investors prefer the East African region over its favourable economic development, political stability and large market of approximately 120 million people. French, Indian and English diaspora in African countries including Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya always attracted foreign investment and paved the way for pragmatic diplomatic engagements.

Major issues
1. Territorial Disputes
Territorial disputes in the Indian Ocean extend from Maritime boundary disputes to control of Islands. A dispute between Mauritius and the British government over the Chagos Archipelago after the decolonization of Mauritius has been ongoing since 1975. Another maritime boundary dispute over 160,000 square kilometres of waters between the two East African countries- Somalia and Kenya has been continuing since 2014.

France has territorial disputes with Comoros and Madagascar. It has expressed interest in co-managing disputed islands and their surrounding waters with Madagascar, while its dispute with Comoros remains a challenge in the bilateral relationship. 

The disputes are unlikely to escalate, leading to significant diplomatic and military tensions.

2. Climate change issues
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Coral Reefs in island countries in the Western Indian Ocean are under high threat. According to the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems criteria, four of the sub-regions-East and South Madagascar and the Comoros, reefs were assessed as “critically endangered.” Increasing seawater temperatures due to climate change is a threat to coral reefs in the region. On the East African coast from South Africa to Kenya, reefs were classified as “vulnerable” to collapse. Overfishing, altering the ecology of reefs and promoting algal takeover pose the greatest threat.

East African countries near the Indian Ocean region including Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia have been experiencing extreme weather conditions including severe drought and severe flooding for the past four years. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), nearly 7.1 million people in Somalia face acute food insecurity and three million are internally displaced due to climate change-induced crisis. 

3. Piracy
The International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center (PRC) reported that there weren't any piracy attacks in the Horn of Africa in 2022. However, the IMB PRC warned that Somali pirates continued to possess the potential to carry out attacks in the Somali basin and wider Indian Ocean region. The naval units from China, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and the US operate in the region against piracy.

4. Terrorism, drug and weapon smuggling
In the western Indian Ocean, the eastern coast of Africa has emerged as a transhipment hub for drugs and small arms. The movement of drugs and terrorism are connected. Since 2016, regional maritime security forces have intercepted Iranian weapons for al-Shabab and the Islamic State in Somalia.

Al Shabaab insurgents in Somalia do not directly threaten security at sea. However, the conflict undermines the government’s capacity to protect Somalia’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Moreover, Al Shabaab has been involved in maritime smuggling operations to fund its operations and to supply its forces with arms and ammunition. 

5. The proliferation of external naval deployments undermining regional stability
In recent years, the Western Indian Ocean has witnessed growing militarization with the presence of external players including the US, China, France and India owing to the region’s geopolitical importance. For Africa, infrastructure demands and capacity deficiencies in ensuring the safety of their maritime domain is the reason behind external assistance. So far, the presence of China, India, the US and France has not been a source of concern for African countries in the region, although there remain potential geopolitical rivalries. If the presence of external actors in the region were to be reduced, it would weaken efforts to secure shipping lanes and patrol Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). On the other hand, if there is an increase in external military operations, it may undermine regional stability leading to increased tensions.

(The commentary is the first draft of an essay aimed to be published shortly.)

About the author
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

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