Over the past several decades, the Horn of Africa (HOA), which comprises Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and at times parts of Sudan and South Sudan, has long been the epicentre of various conflicts. In the past thirty years, it has experienced significant geopolitical changes, including the emergence of three new political entities: Eritrea, South Sudan, and the self-declared but internationally unrecognized state of Somaliland. Both persistent civil unrest in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland and the active pursuit by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister of access to the Red Sea could lead to further significant geopolitical shifts and carry the potential for further state dismemberments and formations in the region.
The Ethiopian State: Cracks in the Foundation
The founding of modern Ethiopia can be traced back to the 19th century when King Menelik II established an empire by gradually outmanoeuvring local rivals and bringing various eastern and southern peoples under his control. This included the incorporation of the independent Afar Sultanates (whose vital coastline extended from the port of Massawa to Djibouti) and the Oromos to the south. Today, Ethiopia, with its 116 million people, stands as Africa’s second-most populous nation, encompassing over 80 ethnic groups.
Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign was characterized by Amhara dominance over politics and the marginalization of other communities. As a result, the 1970s saw the rise of several nationalist movements, including the Tigrayan, Oromo, Somali and Sidama, advocating for self-determination and leading to civil unrest. Preceding these was the Eritrean armed liberation movement starting in 1961, which eventually resulted in Eritrea’s independence in 1991. When the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies seized power, they introduced an ethnic-based federal governance system, aiming to address the country’s diversity and avert further implosion of the Ethiopian state into smaller entities. But this merely offered the country a respite, not a permanent antidote to centripetal forces that the state has long contended with.
Despite offering autonomy to various ethnic groups, the TPLF retained strong control over the federal government and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Abiy Ahmed’s ascension to power in 2018 marked a shift. He gradually dismantled the TPLF’s influence and transformed the EPRDF, a coalition of parties, into the singular ‘Prosperity Party’. This move created tensions with the TPLF, leading to the war in Tigray and renewed agitations for self-determination in that region.
Since 2018, an Oromo insurgency in the Oromia region has been underway with limited international focus. More recently in April (2023), a military conflict erupted in the Amhara region. Here, some sections of the Amhara community, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group after the Oromo, oppose the disarmament of Amhara militias, a key part of the Pretoria peace agreement signed between Ethiopia’s federal government and TPLF leaders. The federal government has responded by deploying substantial forces to assert control over the region. Suffice it to say that these various conflicts have weakened the federal government’s control over regional states and could lead to the implosion of modern Ethiopia as we know it.
Somalia’s Failed Attempts at Nation Building
Upon gaining independence in July 1960, British and Italian Somaliland merged to form the unified nation of Somalia. Throughout Siad Barre’s regime, until its collapse in 1991, Somalia harboured ambitions of uniting all Somali-inhabited regions, including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, under one Somali nation. Ironically, this aspiration contributed to the downfall of the Somali state. A notable instance of this expansionist policy was the 1977-1978 Somali invasion of Ethiopia, targeting the Ogaden region, predominantly inhabited by Somalis. However, Somalia’s efforts were thwarted, thanks in part to the significant support Ethiopia received from the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Present day Somalia has been mired in ongoing turmoil since 1991. It is currently a loose federation of states, with some threatening to break away if their demands are not met. Interestingly, the region of former British Somaliland has carved out its status as a de facto independent state, distinct from the rest of Somalia. Further, there are attempts by two regions, in British Somaliland, Lassanod and Awdal, to form separate states or be part of the loose federation of states in Somalia. In brief, like in Ethiopia, internal tensions do not bode well for the future of Somalia as a unified nation under a federal system.
The Sudan Crisis
The outbreak of violence since mid-April 2023, between the official Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary group, the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) symbolizes the culmination of long-standing political tensions and socio-economic discontent against the state. While some of Sudan’s ailments are due to colonial legacy, the elites’ failure to manage the country’s ethnic diversity (more than 500 groups) has led to the collapse of the state. Indeed, regardless of the character of the state (military or civilian leadership), its control has consistently been in the hands of the Northern and Central Sudanese elites, and real or perceived discriminations have ultimately led to civil wars. These have ravaged the southern, western, and eastern regions, where marginalized communities have fought for equitable distribution of wealth and power, leading to millions of casualties and displacements and the emergence of South Sudan. If the current fighting in Sudan is prolonged, the country may split into two or more states, with the RSF controlling Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofan and Sudan’s army controlling Eastern and Northern Sudan.
The Dangers of Abiy’s quest for Direct Access to the Red Sea
One of Abiy Ahmed’s arguments for seeking access to the Red Sea is to unite the Afar in both Eritrea and Ethiopia (no mention is made of Afar in Djibouti). A similar argument was raised during the independence process of former French Somaliland, renamed the French Territory of the Afar and the Issas in 1967 (current Djibouti) as the population is composed of Somalis and Afar. Somalia demanded the French colony to be part of Somalia due to Somalis living there and Ethiopia demanded that it becomes part of it because of its Afar population. But both the Afar and Somalis in Today’s Djibouti, agreed to be an independent state, in 1977. Raising a similar argument will open a Pandora’s box in the region as the Afar live in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Moreover, Abiy Ahmed’s quest threatens Eritrea’s hard-gained independence after 30 years of liberation struggle. This means that Eritrea and Ethiopia may be on the path to war. Any attempt by Ethiopia to gain access to the Red Sea through military means will inevitably prompt Eritrea to support Ethiopian local insurgencies such as the one in the Amhara region. In other words, Abiy Ahmed’s advocacy that relies on ethnic calculus may result in the demise of his regime and the collapse of Ethiopia as a federal entity in the same way it happened in Somalia under the Siad Barre regime.
Further, the HOA’s location at the junction of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean has made it a strategic point for trade and military presence. There are five foreign military bases in Djibouti, including those of the USA and China. The new emerging regional powers such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as Egypt, compete for resources and influence. Eritrea has shifted its alliance from Qatar to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but now it is more aligned to the latter. In the current conflict in Sudan, the UAE supports the RSF while Egypt supports SAF. The UAE has also good relations with Ethiopia and seeks to control the ports of the region. It was supporting the Ethiopian government in its war in Tigray and now supports the government in its war against the Amhara. All those regional powers are competing for influence in Somalia.
This means that any conflict revolving around access to and control over the Red Sea will involve in one way or another these foreign powers as well. It would be a recipe for a humanitarian disaster and further state dismemberments and formations in the region.
The Horn of Africa is at a critical juncture where the last thing it needs is another war.