Geographically, East Africa is a wide region and occupies three million km2. East Africa has a population of approximately three hundred million people, constituting more than a quarter of Africa’s total population.
Five states: Kenya, Somalia, Eretria, Djibouti, and Tanzania lies on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean shores with 5000-kilometer coastline, while the land-locked countries like Ethiopia and Uganda rely on the other coastal states.
These countries are strategically located on the eastern shores of the Bab-el-Mandab strait. Nearly 30% of the world’s marine traffic passes through this strait, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea via the Suez Canal.
The Nile River and the African Great Lakes originate in this region. While the White Nile flows from Uganda, the Blue Nile starts in Ethiopia. Together, both rivers constitute the River Nile, the longest river on earth.
Historically, a large part of the region comprising Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti was known as Abyssinia, which was ruled by the highland emperors in the northern parts of modern-day Ethiopia. This era was characterized by recurrent conflict between the highland rulers on one side and the lowland and coastal communities alongside the Sultanates and communities of the Arabian Peninsula on the other side.
Islam has had a significant role in this region since the times of Prophet Mohammed and the migration of his companions from Mecca to Abyssinia, all of whom received an honourable reception from Negus, the then Abyssinian king. This migration enabled greater interaction in trade and culture between Muslims across the region, particularly during the Abbasid Caliphate era. In addition, the Ottoman Caliphate established a foothold in the region, leaving a distinct mark throughout the comprising countries.
The region does not differ from other African countries. European dominance continued in East Africa for nearly a century, causing tremendous cultural transformations. The influence of Western colonization is visible in the lifestyle of East Africans today.
A great degree of integration exists between the East African nations due to centuries’ long geographical, tribal, kinship, economic and trans-regional languages, such as Swahili, Somali, and Afari, which are shared across borders. This sharing was possible because of the lack of geographical barriers, making it easy to establish strong social and cultural relationships and interrelated communal interests.
The integration of East African countries is necessitated by the fact that each individual state has distinct resources, which, if combined, could mark an important milestone. For example, five of the countries rich in livestock and agriculture are located on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, with three of them located alongside the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. The upstream Nile River flows through two East African countries. Kenya and Tanzania have the largest wildlife reservations in Africa, whereby Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya have acquired substantial oil and gas reserves.
East Africa is part of the heated competition between the global powers that targeted Africa. The Western influence in East Africa is not new, but rather, an extension of colonisation and its complicated and entrenched relations. This continuation is embodied by certain cultural, social, economic and security aspects. The United States wields the greatest influence, followed by Great Britain and France, China and other Western powers. Israel is also a key player in the region diplomatically and militarily and maintains close relations with most countries except Somalia and Djibouti. These countries typically dominate the banking and financial sectors and the heavy industries, mining and petroleum. Moreover, the western countries are the major beneficiaries of the region’s agricultural products, such as coffee and tea.
China has a strong presence in Africa, where it focuses on infrastructure projects, such as road and railway construction and real estate projects. In addition, China tries to flood the African markets with cheap and low-quality products. China’s involvement in Africa is not new and helps support some African countries. China’s rapid economic growth and the opportunity to expand different projects has led the trade between China and Africa to reach its climax. In 2017, the trade volume between Africa and China reached 170 billion dollars, while Chinese exports to Africa reached 90 billion dollars.
In an unexpected and spectacular development, Turkey has emerged as a strong economic and cultural player in Africa. This emergence happened after a sudden change in the Turkish economic vision, following drastic changes to the country’s foreign policy.
Since 2004, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made numerous visits to Africa, approximately 50, becoming the head of state with the greatest number of visits to the continent. This approach aimed to build an economic and a political partnership and secure the shared interests of Turkey and Africa.
Turkish Airlines has assumed a vital role in enhancing African-Turkish relations by increasing and maintaining its flights, which include nearly 50 African destinations. The airline has become foremost in connecting the continent to the rest of the world.
The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has grown from 12 in 2003 to 41 in 2017. Turkey has also built the largest embassy in the world in Somalia, an East African country, signalling Turkey’s interest in the region and its readiness to strengthen ties with African countries.
Turkey’s policy of ‘Opening to Africa’ constitutes part of a broader strategy adopted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) whereby the government has boosted African-Turkish trade relations in a brief period. This result became clear when the African Union declared Turkey a strategic partner in 2008 and at the Turkey-African cooperation summit held in the same year in Istanbul, which paved the way for Turkey to become an essential player in the African partnership policy in 2013.
Although the trade between Africa and Turkey totalled only 5.6 billion dollars in 2004, it has increased several times due to that policy. Turkey has signed trade and investment treaties with over 45 African countries, including 26 investment agreements.
The development grants and aid that Turkey has delivered to African countries totals more than 3 billion dollars. Turkey is the third largest donor in the humanitarian sector after the United States and United Kingdom.
Another important aspect of the Turkish-African relationship is the substantial number of Turkish scholarships awarded to African students. As Turkey’s Minister of Education said in the Turkish-African Ministers of Education Conference held in Istanbul in 2017, “The Turkish government has given more than ten thousand scholarships to African students in various Turkish universities within a decade. This policy will create an atmosphere of harmony because culture and education are crucial factors in establishing and strengthening future political ties and economic partnerships.”
East Africa is a strategic entry point into the African continent, and as with similar regions, economic powers are competing to establish relations with East Africa by creating security, economic and cultural partnerships. East African countries are also keen to develop strong relations with such economic powers to achieve growth.