Taking stock of the Horn of Africa: dynamics and strategic stakes

Abdimalik Abdullahi
By Abdimalik Abdullahi

Researcher and analyst of Somali and Horn of Africa affairs. You can follow his tweets at @Abdimaleik

Posted on Tuesday, 22 February 2022 16:20

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki receives a key from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki receives a key from Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The Horn of Africa region is a puzzling region which, despite its enormous economic potential and diversity, is under the mercy of chaotic political developments that threatens the stability of the region thereby exposing the shaky underbelly of the region.

The region was poised to benefit from gains following socioeconomic initiatives that were either brought on by the region’s leaders or introduced by certain superpowers and international organisations, World Bank, AfDB, EU, particularly along the Red Sea corridor.

READ MORE Red Sea Dynamics

These initiatives were under the auspices of a regional economic integration dubbed Horn of Africa Integration initiative that brought together Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, and Somalia.

But the region finds itself once again at a crossroads. Fast-changing dynamics and shifting geopolitical alignments with the Gulf countries are dictating much of what is happening within these nations as well as the cross-border geopolitics that is on the rise.

Covert Eritrea

Eritrea is somewhat stable thanks to the power concentrated at the centre and the autocratic regime at the helm for almost three decades. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki is undisputedly the region’s strongman and is often said to be the chief architect of the Horn’s political and military upheavals.

Despite facing international isolation and a couple of sanctions, Asmara has seen frequent visits by Ethiopia’s Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed, Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, and leaders of Sudan’s Sovereign Council. These leaders, however fascinating it may sound, seek Afwerki’s advice on their domestic affairs.

Djibouti: an island of stability in a troubled region

Djibouti has positioned itself as a regional hub by accommodating military bases of the superpowers, counter-piracy operations off the coast, and the service industry – a role it assumed almost 20 years ago. The country’s major strength and greatest potential lie in its geostrategic location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea – a bridge between Africa and the Middle East.

Despite unsubstantiated reports of attempted coups and economic challenges, including rising external debts, Djibouti appears to be an island of stability within a troubled region.

Tigray conflict in Ethiopia

Since November 2020, Ethiopia has been involved in a brutal conflict that pits the Tigray government against the central one in Addis Ababa resulting in a deeply ethnocentric enmity that went far beyond military confrontation and triggered a grassroots mobilisation of civilians who joined the war.

It has inflicted the loss of human lives and a humanitarian blockade on Tigray where hundreds of thousands of people are in dire need of food and other social amenities.

Electoral crisis in Somalia

General elections were again rescheduled and voting for the Lower House of Parliament are set to be held by 25 Februry. This deadline will most likely not be met, as prospects for more tension among the Prime Minister, the President, and the Federal Member States is very high.

This sets the foundation for excessive political instability in Somalia, providing a greater opportunity for al-Shabaab to take advantage of the situation. It might also provide an easy entry point for several of the regional actors to interfere in Somali electoral politics.

The ongoing process is both time-consuming and highly manipulative. All the outcomes of the elective seats are known ahead of time. The federal Member States are selecting candidates based on loyalty, money, and kinship while blocking potential candidates and denying them the right to contest.

Complicated transition in Sudan

Sudan has experienced a tough transition since the removal of Omar Al Bashir and continues to be in a tumultuous political and security situation which has seen differences between Sudan’s military and civilian protesters increase. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok survived a military coup staged by the generals who would later put him under house arrest in October 2021. The situation remains very grave and unpredictable following the resignation of Hamdok in January 2022. The chances of ending the conflict appear slim at the moment.

Protesters have been on the streets for months since the military junta led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan staged a coup in October last year and ended the tenure of the civilian-military government that was tasked with holding democratic elections.

The military has stepped up a crackdown on civilian protestors, dismissing Western sanction threats and terming them as “blatant interferences.”

Key actors in the region

The Horn of Africa has been termed by many analysts and historians as a geopolitical football pitch where global powers from the West, the Gulf, as well as China and Russia, project their financial and diplomatic influence. There is much truth in this assertion.

Somalia, perhaps the most troubled country in the region, bears a large burden of the influence of actors in the region. Qatar and the UAE have been the primary actors involved in enabling and bankrolling political brokers and politicians. Turkey is another key actor known mostly for humanitarian aid, running ports/airports, and development projects. The West invests much in governance, economic development, elections, and security.

The influence of the international actors in Ethiopia came to the fore when the war in Tigray erupted. Countries like the UAE, Turkey, and China support the Ethiopian central government with financial help and drones in its offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The West is seemingly aligned with the TPLF and not happy with Abiy’s close cooperation with Afwerki. The US has sent a special envoy for the Horn of Africa in a bid to broker peace in the region and convince the parties to halt the military confrontation and start negotiating. Kenya was the only country neighbouring Ethiopia that stayed neutral and took part in the mediation efforts. Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti supported the military offensive led by PM Abiy Ahmed.

In Sudan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt support the military generals and provide both material and diplomatic support. Saudi Arabia is returning favours since the Sudanese military provided mercenaries who aided the country in the Yemen war. The West has put its weight behind protestors and the civilian-led government. Another unique actor in Sudan is Israel.

Sudan signed the “Abraham Accords” normalising relations with Israel in October 2020. Israel and Sudan reportedly exchanged visits in recent weeks with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan terming the meetings as security cooperation but not politics.

Some foreseeable dynamics

Pessimistic as it may sound, I believe that some of the immediate and medium-term dynamics in the region include:

  • Elections will be concluded in Somalia with a short delay. The next government will have to deal with a deeply divided country. There will be mounting security threats from al-Shabab and it will fall on the new government to deal with this.
  • The tripartite alliance will not survive if Farmaajo is not reelected.
  • Ethiopia will witness little or no change as warring camps seem to be fixated on their positions and effective and real-time international pressure is lacking. The siege on the Tigray region will continue, further worsening humanitarian conditions.
  • In Sudan, the military will stay put and become more brutal despite sanctions from the West. Civilian protestors led by professionals will stay firm and well organised. A stalemate will ensue and Sudan might finally roll back into the full dictatorship it once had.
  • The Nile water and GERD will continue making headlines if Ethiopia decides to restart filling the reservoir. Military confrontation is not an imminent threat but a war of words and global attention will carry the day. A win-win settlement between the three nations is plausible if the US brokers.

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