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Libyan Policy in the Horn of Africa

Center for Naval Analyses Workshop

Arlington, Virginia
25 October 2010

Remarks by David H. Shinn

Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

My remarks focus on Libyan policy towards Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and

Somalia/Somaliland; Sudan has already been discussed. In most respects, Libyan policy
towards the Horn is similar to its policy in the rest of Africa. Libya maintains an
embassy in all four countries and is very active politically, at least on a sporadic basis.
Libya tries to mediate conflicts, especially interstate conflict, throughout Africa; the Horn
has been no exception to this long-standing Libyan policy. It seems to be part of
President Qaddafi’s DNA to inject Libya into African disputes.
Qaddafi created the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) in 1998
with the stated goal of strengthening peace, security and stability and to achieve global
economic and social development in the region. There are currently 29 African members
of CEN-SAD. Eritrea joined CEN-SAD in 1999 and Djibouti in 2000. Somalia also
became an early member. So far, Ethiopia has not joined.
Qaddafi’s vision for Africa has an important impact on Libya’s individual
bilateral relationships in both positive and negative ways. He craves to be seen as an
important African leader, preferably Africa’s most important leader. More than ten years
ago he proposed the creation of a United States of Africa. CEN-SAD forms the basis of
this concept. Qaddafi sees himself as the head of the United States of Africa with a
headquarters in Libya. The concept has not been well received in much of Africa.
During his recent one year presidency of the African Union, he demanded almost $8
trillion in reparations from the former colonizers of Africa. Over the years he has taken
equally controversial and even bizarre positions on African regional and bilateral issues.
For a country with so much oil and its relative geographic nearness to the
countries of the Horn, its economic ties with them have been surprisingly limited.
Libya’s $5 billion Libya Africa Investment Portfolio has a few modest projects in
Ethiopia and Eritrea, but little or nothing in Djibouti and Somalia. Of the four Horn
countries, the Libyan Arab African Investment Company only has small investments in
Ethiopia. Except for Egypt and the countries of the Maghreb, Libya has very little trade
with the rest of Africa. Its total trade does not even register in the case of Eritrea,
Djibouti and Somalia while Libyan exports to Ethiopia did reach a modest $19 million in
2008 after years of virtually no trade.
Let me turn to each of the four countries in the Horn.


Following the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974 and the arrival of the left-wing
Mengistu Haile Mariam government, Qaddafi started pouring money into Ethiopia. By
mid-1977, he had reportedly committed $100 million in military aid. Libya signed a
Tripartite Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 1981 with South Yemen and Ethiopia,
largely as a response to “American imperialism.” Both Libya and Ethiopia supported the
Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the 1980s to the consternation of the
government in Khartoum. However, Qaddafi’s decision in 1984 to unite his country with
conservative Morocco and drop support for the Polisario’s efforts to obtain control of the
Western Sahara embarrassed Mengistu, at the time head of the Organization of African
Unity (OAU) and a strong supporter of the Polisario. Libya was unable to use its
friendship with Ethiopia during the Mengistu period to extend its influence in the Horn of
Africa. As a result, an anticipated $200 million Libyan investment in an Ethiopian sugar
refinery collapsed. Mengistu’s Marxism-Leninism contrasted sharply with Qaddafi’s
anti-Marxist views. This was not a relationship with a sound foundation.
In 1991, Meles Zenawi removed Mengistu from power. Ethiopia has pursued a
correct but careful relationship with Libya ever since. There was nothing especially
notable about Ethiopia’s ties with Libya until the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict broke
out in May 1998. Qaddafi made numerous, unsuccessful efforts to mediate the conflict.
Meles visited Libya twice in 1999 in this connection but made it clear that any mediation
of the conflict should be within the context of the OAU framework agreement. Ethiopia
welcomed Libya’s efforts to support that process but showed no interest in a separate
Libyan mediation.
Libya and Ethiopia signed in 1999 an umbrella agreement on economic,
scientific, cultural and technical cooperation in Sirte, Libya. In March 2000, the Libyan
foreign minister, during a visit to Addis Ababa, denied that Libya was supporting the
Eritrean government in its border dispute with Ethiopia. He described Libya’s relations
with Ethiopia as “special and close.” A common tactic by Libya over the years has been
the donation of small amounts of assistance in times of need. Libya did this in 2001
when it donated grain valued at $1.2 million to help meet food shortages in Ethiopia.
Qaddafi visited Ethiopia in 2003 in connection with the African Union (AU) summit.
The first Ethiopia-Libya Joint Ministerial Commission met in Addis Ababa in 2004. The
two sides signed agreements on the establishment of the Ethiopia-Libya Joint
Commission, investment, trade, youth, sports and culture.
Meles visited Libya in 2006 when the focus was on Libyan investment in Ethiopia
and the peace process in Somalia. Ethiopia’s foreign minister visited Libya in 2007 when
he explained Ethiopia’s intervention into Somalia. A senior Ethiopian official made clear
in 2007 that Ethiopia does not consider Qaddafi’s concept of a United States of Africa a
priority issue. There are also concerns in Ethiopia that Qaddafi is using the United States
of Africa proposal as a way to move the headquarters of the AU, which is now in Addis
Ababa, to Libya. In addition, Libya competed with Ethiopia for the headquarters of the
new AU parliament, which is also being established in Addis Ababa.
Libyan investment finally became meaningful in 2008 when the Libya Oil
Holding Ltd. bought 100 percent of Shell Ethiopia’s 201 retail outlets across the country.
Libya has smaller investments in a mineral water factory and the drilling of water wells.

It is not surprising that the relationship between Qaddafi and Meles has evolved
carefully. The two leaders are very different. Qaddafi is mercurial, unpredictable and
frequently impractical. Meles is predictable, strategic and usually practical.


Libya was a strong supporter of Eritrean nationalism, including Isaias Afewerki’s

Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, from 1969 through 1975. Following the 1974 coup in
Ethiopia and takeover of the government by Mengistu, Qaddafi ended his support for
Eritrean liberation groups and switched his support to Ethiopia in 1976 or 1977.
Following Eritrean independence in 1993, Libyan-Eritrean relations began slowly
to improve. In 1995, Qaddafi tried without success to mediate a dispute between Sudan
and Eritrea, which centered on support for opposition groups in each other’s country.
Early in 1998, Isaias visited Tripoli and established formal diplomatic relations. In June
1998, Qaddafi began efforts to mediate the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict that broke out
a month earlier. He proposed a ceasefire, a Sahelian-Saharan peacekeeping force and
border arbitration. When Eritrea accepted the proposal and Ethiopia did not, Qaddafi
helped finance Eritrea’s military campaign against Ethiopia. Isaias began a major
campaign to cultivate the Libyan leader and in just the second half of 1998 made five
visits to Libya. Isaias and Qaddafi have been good personal friends ever since.
In 2000, Libya successfully helped to end a dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti.
Isaias visited Tripoli in 2002 for discussions on trade agreements. A hiccup in the
relationship came to light as Eritrean refugees and illegal immigrants, especially those
trying to escape military service, made their way to Libya en route to Europe. This
became an embarrassment for Eritrea and a problem for Libya. They faced harsh
conditions in Libyan detention centers. In 2004, Libya placed 75 Eritreans on a Libyan
air force plane. When told they were being returned to Eritrea, four of the Eritreans
hijacked the plane and forced it to land in Sudan. Libya continued to return some of the
refugees/illegal immigrants to Eritrea as recently as this year.
In 2006, Eritrea announced the translation of Qaddafi’s Green Book into Tigrinya
under the auspices of the Libyan International Study and Research Centre. Isaias
returned to Libya in November 2006 to participate in a heads of state meeting chaired by
Qaddafi to find a solution for the conflict in Darfur. A Libyan delegation visited Asmara
a few days later and signed a memorandum of understanding on investment cooperation.
In 2007, a senior Eritrean delegation attended a meeting of representatives of national
assemblies in Tripoli. This was curious as Eritrea does not have a national assembly.
Isaias and senior military leaders then joined counterparts in Tripoli from Chad, Sudan
and Libya to discuss problems between Chad and Sudan. The same countries sent
delegations to Asmara at the end of the year to continue their deliberations.
In 2008, Eritrea initiated a border conflict with Djibouti; Isaias appealed to
Qaddafi to resolve the dispute. He was not successful. In 2009, Qaddafi visited Eritrea
and described relations as strong and continuing to gain momentum. In March 2010,
Isaias visited Tripoli where he held discussions with Qaddafi and the chairman of CEN-
SAD. Libyan investment in Eritrea was high on the agenda. Tamoil Africa, which is
owned by Libya, now has service stations in Eritrea.

Libya agreed this year to release 250 Eritrean refugees/illegal immigrants from
detention in exchange for the right of residency and ability to work in Libya. In October
2010, Isaias returned to Libya to attend the African-Arab Summit at Sirte and held
bilateral meetings with Gaddafi. Since the 1998 border conflict with Ethiopia, there has
been a steady improvement in Eritrea’s relations with Libya. Much of this is due to
Isaias’ desire to use his relationship with Qaddafi as leverage for countering Ethiopia.


Libya’s relations with Djibouti have been limited in nature, although Djibouti’s
president in 1997 was the first Arab League leader to land in Tripoli in defiance of UN
Security Council sanctions against Libya. Libya played a helpful role in 2000 in ending
the break in diplomatic relations between Djibouti and Eritrea because Eritrea believed
Djibouti was supporting Ethiopia in the aftermath of the 1998 Eritrea-Ethiopia border
conflict. In the same year, the presidents of Libya and Djibouti met with Egyptian
President Mubarak in Cairo to discuss the Djiboutian president’s peace proposal for
In 2002, the Libyan coordinator of the CEN-SAD peacekeeping forces visited
Djibouti to discuss bilateral relations between Libya and Djibouti. Later in the year,
Libya donated $825,000 worth of rice to Djibouti. In 2003, Qaddafi visited Djibouti
where they signed several agreements and emphasized the need for regional cooperation
to fight terrorism in the region. The Djiboutian president returned the visit the same year
to attend the 34th commemoration of the Libyan revolution. Bilateral talks focused on
Libyan investment in Djibouti, the fight against terrorism and efforts to create a
government in Somalia. The Libyan foreign minister then came to Djibouti a week later
when he visited a maternity hospital built with Libyan assistance. In 2007, Libya sent 20
tons of medicine and blankets to Djibouti for Somali refugees living there.
Eritrea’s incursion along the Djiboutian border in 2008 presented a dilemma for
Libyan policy as it tried to have good relations with both Eritrea and Djibouti. The
situation came to a head early in 2010 when Libya was the only Arab country represented
on the UN Security Council (UNSC). Djibouti and 13 of the 15 members of the UNSC
strongly supported sanctions against Eritrea for its support of extremist groups in Somalia
and its aggressive actions along Djibouti’s border. China abstained while Libya was the
only UNSC member to vote against the resolution, infuriating Djibouti. The Djiboutian
foreign minister declared that his country was freezing membership in CEN-SAD and
would not attend the March 2010 Arab summit in Tripoli. He said that Djibouti had
lodged a formal protest with Libya, adding that the vote was “blatant proof of its backing
for Eritrea’s aggression against Djibouti.” The Libyan foreign minister arrived in
Djibouti two weeks later in an effort to undo the damage to the relationship. Although it
is not clear what Libya promised Djibouti, the Djiboutian foreign minister subsequently
reversed course, announced that Djibouti would attend the Arab summit in Tripoli in
March and that Djibouti has “no problem with Libya’s relations with Eritrea.”
In July 2010, a senior Libyan official visited Djibouti and invited the government
to take part in three upcoming summits in Sirte: the Arab League summit, the Arab
League-Africa summit and the Africa-Europe summit. They also discussed the upcoming

summit of CEN-SAD in Kampala. The Djiboutian president subsequently participated in

the two summits that took place in Sirte in October 2010.


Ethiopia and Somalia are historical enemies. When Qaddafi developed an

alliance with Ethiopia’s Mengistu in the mid-1970s, this angered Somalia’s President
Siad Barre. Somalia broke relations with Libya in 1981 and did not restore them until
Libya has maintained an official diplomatic presence in Mogadishu since the fall
of Siad Barre in 1991 and collapse of Somalia, one of only two countries, the other being
Sudan, to keep diplomatic staff without interruption in such a dangerous environment.
During the mid-1990s, Somali faction leaders collected thousands of frequent flyer miles
as they visited Tripoli in an effort to convince Gaddafi to support them. Mohammed
Farah Aideed reportedly negotiated with Libya for military aid. In 1998, the Libyan
charge d’affaires in Mogadishu announced an $800,000 grant to the local administration
in the greater Mogadishu area and another $250,000 for the political reconciliation
conference in Baidoa.
In 2001, Libya trained a contingent of Somalis to protect senior Transitional
National Government (TNG) officials. A Libyan team also visited Mogadishu to assess
the setting up of a radio and television station for the TNG. The following year, TNG
President Abdiqasim Salad Hasan met with Qaddafi in Tripoli. The two leaders signed a
cooperation agreement. Libya agreed to send a team of experts to work on Mogadishu’s
electricity supply and to buy more livestock from Somalia. Libya said it would take part
in Somalia’s reconciliation process and reportedly began supplying arms to the TNG
together with Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea.
In 2006, when the new Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by
Abdullahi Yusuf tried to reconcile with the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), Sudan agreed
to host in Khartoum the Arab League countries to advance the Somali peace process.
The only countries to send their foreign ministers were Sudan, Djibouti and Libya. Due
to lack of interest, the Arab League meeting in Khartoum achieved nothing. UIC leader
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed considered Libya an important player; he visited Libya the same
year. The UN Monitoring Group reported that Libya provided aid to the UIC. At the
same time, Abdullahi Yusuf continued his communication with Qaddafi and visited
Tripoli in 2007.
In 2007, Somali gunmen briefly captured and then released the acting Libyan
ambassador and his chief of staff as they were visiting Mogadishu’s main market. The
fact they were released so quickly attests to the strong contacts Libya had developed in
Mogadishu or the payment of a quick ransom.
In 2008, CEN-SAD announced that it would provide funds to build roads and
bridges in Somalia, although there is no indication that construction has begun. Illegal
immigrants from Somalia have encountered the same problem in Libya as their Eritrean
counterparts. Libya jailed some 280 Somali immigrants, but agreed to release 65 of them
in 2008 after their relatives paid a hefty fine. Most of them were trying to make their
way to Italy. Somalis continue to flee to Libya in hopes of reaching Europe. In 2009,

Libya sent invitations to the leaders of insurgent groups in Somalia to come to Tripoli
where Libya agreed to try to mediate their differences. This initiative did not succeed.
Qaddafi has an interesting approach to Somali piracy. He stated in May 2009 that
the activities of pirates along the Somali coast are legal and are meant to defend
Somalia’s natural resources. He added that Somali pirates cannot be referred to as pirates
as they have a responsibility to defend the marine resources of African countries. Somali
pirates expressed their appreciation in February 2010 by capturing in the Gulf of Aden
the MV Rim, a Libyan-owned cargo ship with 17 Romanian and Libyan crew who were
taken hostage. The vessel was flying the North Korean flag; perhaps the pirates can be
excused for their lack of gratitude.
Former Somaliland President Mohammed Ibrahim Egal made a major effort to
cultivate Libya in the hopes of attracting diplomatic recognition for his unrecognized
country. Egal visited Libya in 1998; later that year the Libyan charge d’affaires in
Mogadishu announced that Libya sees Egal as a “factional leader” and underscored the
importance of the unity of Somalia. In 1999, Egal announced that Libya had agreed to
rehabilitate a former cement factory in Berbera, initiate a large maize farming project and
build a spaghetti factory. It is not clear what happened to these projects. Egal returned to
Libya in 2000 when Qaddafi also invited faction leaders from Somalia, including the then
leader of Puntland, Abdullahi Yusuf. The meeting failed to resolve differences between
Somaliland and Puntland.
By 2007, Gaddafi had apparently tired of trying to reconcile the Somali factions
and the leaders of Somaliland and Puntland. He declared that “people want us to wait
until Somalia unites and ends its problems. Somalia has split into three or four countries.
Uniting Somalia is a challenge and it might not unite.” The answer, he said, is to create
his United States of Africa, which will circumvent all of these lesser issues.


Libyan interaction with the Horn on the economic level is increasing, but remains
surprisingly modest. Most of its economic activity is in Ethiopia with its 81 million
people. The 5 million people in Eritrea and less than one million in Djibouti do not offer
very attractive economic opportunities. The security situation in Somalia is not
conducive to economic engagement by any country.
Libya is heavily involved in political affairs in the Horn and tries to maintain
strong ties with all countries. However, Libya can not avoid becoming entangled in the
interstate and even internal conflicts that constantly impact the region. Libya at one time
supported the SPLM against Khartoum and Ethiopia against Somalia, angering Sudan
and Somalia in the process. Ethiopia charged more recently that Libya sided with Eritrea
following the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war. Djibouti became upset with Libya when it
supported Eritrea following the 2008 Eritrea-Djibouti dispute. Although Libya now
supports the TFG in Somalia, it is believed to have supported Somali dissident groups in
the 1990s. Eritrea is the only country that Libya has not irritated since Eritrea became

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