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Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti: The constant instability in the Horn of Africa

M. Mohamed Abshir
By M. Mohamed Abshir

A researcher focusing on the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa. Main focus on the intersection of the political economy and history of the region.

Posted on Tuesday, 20 April 2021 14:10

Ethiopian refugees gather in Qadarif region, easter Sudan, Saturday 21 Nov. 2020. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

Over the past three decades, the Horn of Africa has acquired a bad reputation as a notoriously unstable subregion with a highly volatile socio-political framework.

No other part of the world has seen more peacekeepers than the Horn, and no other part of the world has produced more refugees than this region.

Owing to its strategic positioning right at the Red Sea, foreign powers in the West, the Middle East and the Far East consistently meddle in the region’s affairs to prop up their geopolitical influence and leverage some form of control there.

Most recently, the Chinese built one of their largest military bases abroad in Djibouti, which also hosts Camp Lemonnier – the US’s largest permanent military base in Africa.

The effect of colonialism

No one can argue that the Horn of Africa was united before the Europeans arrived. However, it is important to note that the existing pre-colonial divisions were shallow and could have been easily outgrown were it not for colonialism.

After the scramble for and consequent partition of Africa, the Horn was split between the British, French and Italians. However, when it came to drawing their colonial boundaries, the region was divided based on imperial interests rather than those of the indigenous kingdoms and nations present in the region; as a result, groups that were previously united found themselves belonging to different countries or being bundled with rival tribes, kingdom and clans under one country.

This led to a situation where many tribes and clans felt out of place, and this can be directly linked to the separatist movements we saw in the region after the colonial period.

Furthermore, European powers introduced wildly distinct systems of governance, education and language in their respective territories. This effectively rendered the formerly united people of this region somewhat incompatible.

Post-colonialism: The Cold War

A period of relative calm came after the colonial period, but it did not take very long before the region was struck by yet another storm – the Cold War.

There was an unregulated influx of guns and arms from either side of the Cold War as they sought to support their proxies in the region, which included both rebel movements and governments. There was also a rise of dictators supported by either side of the Cold War, such as Ethiopia’s Mengistu and Somalia’s Siad Barre.

This cocktail of events opened room for further instability as more rebel groups with easy access to arms sought to remove these dictators. Eventually, when the Cold War ended, there was a readjustment of power, as many dictators, lacking support from their allies, were eventually toppled. However, the toppling of dictators in some instances led to power vacuums and further escalated civil wars in countries such as Somalia.

Competing powers

The region is carved by two competing groups:

  • On one side is the Saudi-Emirati axis vying for influence and control for the Red Sea and port regions, this influence is mostly concentrated in Eretria, Djibouti, and to some extent Somalia.
  • On the other is Qatar, mainly stationed in Somalia, who, through alleged back dealings, is trying to control the most fractured country in the region.

From the early 2000s, these two groups sought to extend their influence in the region in a bid to secure their short and long term interests.

However, the competition has since escalated in the wake of the 2017 Gulf Crisis among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and quickly morphed into some kind of Cold War in the Gulf. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi want to maintain the status quo in the region, whereas Doha is employing the opposite strategy and agenda of the Saudi-Emirati coalition.

Following the fallout of the Gulf Crisis, Somalia’s claims to be neutral was challenged by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In response, the Saudis and Emirates stepped up efforts to increase their influence in Somalia, thereby weakening and uprooting their competitor Qatar. All in retaliation to Somalia’s proclaimed neutrality. This dangerous game of pitting one against the other and using instability as a currency for influence may be the beginning of another wave of instability in the region.

Inter-regional issues

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) project is proving to be a catch-22 situation, where involved parties (Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan) are stuck in roundabout talks and disagreements, renewing and worsening tensions between these countries.

In neighbouring Ethiopia and Djibouti, the Chinese are taking centre stage. China increased its targeted investment in infrastructure projects such as roads and railways and recently opened one of its largest overseas military bases in Djibouti. Its mere presence attracts suspicion especially from the west and hence could be an impending cause of instability in the region.

But the biggest cause of instability in this region comes from within.

In the past half-century, the people of Ethiopia have suffered, first, from a personal autocracy, and, subsequently, from the ill-considered and poorly founded rule of two self-proclaimed revolutionary regimes.

North of the border, the people of Eritrea endured 30 years of warfare only to end up with a dictatorial leadership that has betrayed the democratic promise of the struggle, and the Somali people have been afflicted by misrule and anarchy dominated by the brutal self – interest of warlords and corrupt leaders.

The failure of the political elites at leadership may be one of the most notable commonalities across the Horn of Africa region and can be directly traced to the instability associated with this region. The rise of ‘kingmakers’ such as Afweki of Eritrea may even further threaten any progress that has been made so far.

Bottom line

This region can only be described as one at war with itself, owing to a number of issues from tribal and clan dynamics to historical injustices. Therefore, the solution for instability should be sourced from within – as only the insiders can truly understand and contextualise the full extent of their problems.

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