The governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia have signed an agreement with the partially Chinese state owned company the POLY-GCL Petroleum Group Limited to start construction of liquid natural gas (LNG) refinery complex to be built in Djibouti’s Dameerjoog district. The signature ceremony was attended by high ranking officials including the president of Djibouti, Ismail Omer Guelleh.
Even though this news at first glance seems to be a positive news for Africa, the devil is in the details.
The gas in discussion is the Ogaden gas, first discovered by Western Oil companies in 1974, and later the Ethiopian government granted development and extraction rights to multitude of oil heavyweight companies including the Swedish Lundin, Malaysia’s Petronas and China’s PetroTrans, all of which were not successful in exporting the gas.
The main obstacle facing the gas is apparently also the biggest question in Ogaden: who owns the rights of the gas? to which the answer would be simple if the status of Ogaden as a legitimate part of Ethiopia was not contested. This in turn dates back to the Scrumble for Africa and subsequent British Imperialism whose effects haunts the region, and particularly the Somali people of Ogaden to this day. Long story short: The British ceded control of Ogaden to Ethiopias Hailesellasie as a reward to his loyalty. The betrayed Somali people have been struggling to have a fair say in their basic freedoms since that day.
This struggle has had many faces, and the current torch-bearer of this struggle is the group called the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) whose main goal is to have a referendum and let the people choose whether they want to be part of Ethiopia or not.
ONLF have in many occasions warned multinational as well as the international community not to be part of what they see illegitimate attempts by Ethiopian regimes to exploit Ogaden resources by force.
Many western countries facing real risks and ethical dilemmas have backed down their initial involvements. However, China who seem to be determined to take part of the cake in every opportunity in Africa did not see any seriousness in ONLF’s admonitions. The Chinese had to learn to listen to such words the hard way. In April 24, 2007, a contingent of ONLF members attacked an exploration camp operated by the Chinese company Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB) which was at the time guarded by heavily armed Ethiopian troops whose official numbers were more than 100. Both ONLF, Bereket Samon (spokesperson for the Ethiopian government) and the Chinese embassy acknowledged the battle and following casualties which included one Chinese Engineer and many Ethiopian army members. ONLF successfully took control of the camp and took 7 Chinese staff from ZPEB alive.
In an statement, ONLF later said to have handed the captured Chinese staff members peacefully to their embassy. this was shortly confirmed by China Daily: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-04/30/content_863863.htm
However, China came back to Ogaden in November, 2013 but this time with another company co-owned by the Chinese Army and known to be a major arms dealer in Africa.
According to agreements with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Minerals, POLY-GCL acquired rights to two development blocks in the Ogaden Basin, an area of 1,226 square kilometers believed to be abundant in natural gas and oil, as well as eight exploration blocks covering an area of some 116,000 square kilometers..
Another terms of the agreement stipulates the construction of 8,000 km pipeline stretching from Ogaden to Djibouti whose port Ethiopia which is a landlocked country depends heavily on. And when the gas arrives (if it arrives safely!) in Djibouti, it has to be processed into liquefied natural gas and sold on the international market or in China.
ONLF has, like it did repeatedly in the past, warned China once again to refrain in being part to what it considers Ethiopia’s aggression and illegitimate exploitation of Ogaden resources, including the Natural Gas in Ogaden Basin.
China on its part seems to have, at least to some extent, aligned its military might with its ambitions in Africa, especially to satisfy its energy needs. Its decision to build a military camp in Djibouti should not be seen as a coincidence, but as deliberate strategic alignment of its objectives.