The Horn of Africa: A Key Geopolitical Battleground on a Knife’s Edge

Acting as the bridge between Africa and Asia, the Horn of Africa represents a key geopolitical battleground on the world stage. With a history of bloody conflicts stretching back centuries, tensions are once again rising in the region. Although policymakers and reporters are transfixed on the events unfolding across the Red Sea, the former would be remiss to ignore these developments.

Border Disputes

Border disputes have played a central role in many of the past conflicts that have afflicted this part of the world. Should another significant war break out, there is a high probability that territory will be a major factor again.

On Jan. 1, 2024, the announcement of a memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland (a largely independent breakaway state from Somalia) sent shockwaves across East Africa. The deal involved Somaliland’s leasing of the Port of Berbera to Ethiopia for naval and economic purposes in exchange for their recognition of Somaliland’s independence.

Ethiopia has been landlocked since Eritrea gained independence in 1993 following a brutal 30-year war. With the matter representing a foreign policy woe ever since, commentators fear that Addis Ababa may resort to violence to regain access. Reports from Eritrean military sources as recently as November 2023 suggested the country was bracing for war following the amassing of Ethiopian troops near the border in Zalembessa and Assab. Although the deal with Somaliland has thus far avoided bloodshed, the matter sparked widespread international condemnation because of its destabilizing effect. 

Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opposition came from Somalia, which denounced it as a “blatant transgression” and an attack on its “sovereignty and territorial independence”. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, whose country is embroiled in a bitter dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was similarly critical. Cairo “fears competition in the Red Sea” should Ethiopia regain maritime access.

Illustrating a shared understanding of the risks involved, the Arab League, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, United States and European Union have also denounced the agreement. Concerns surrounding the deal include its potential to jeopardize counterterrorism efforts. For instance, Al-Shabaab, a Sunni Islamic terrorist group based in Somalia, could gain leverage by “position(ing) itself as a champion of Somalia’s territorial integrity”. This could undermine the already fragile authority of the Transitional Federal Government.

Escalating rhetoric has provided further cause for concern. Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called on Somalis to “prepare for the defense of our homeland”; while Ethiopian Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre said that Ethiopia will “withdraw carrying their dead” if Somalia intervenes. Conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia could also lead to the withdrawal of thousands of Ethiopian troops currently fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia as part of the African Union Transition Mission.

Deterring Factors

The possibility of a serious war breaking out in the Horn of Africa must be taken seriously. Nevertheless, several restraining factors make it an unattractive prospect for those potentially involved.

A military confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains unlikely considering the substantial costs of war and the fact that “neither party can afford it”. Ethiopia’s economy is grappling with high inflation and growing debt repayments. Attacking Eritrea would compromise the support packages that Ethiopia currently receives from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This could explain why Addis Ababa sought an alternative resolution to its port predicament. On the other hand, Eritrea, sometimes referred to as “Africa’s North Korea”, is an impoverished and militarized one-party state whose ability to draw upon troops has been hindered by the mass exodus of its people. In 2021, a staggering 580,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers were abroad. Although there are a host of valid reasons to flee Eritrea, the country’s indefinite and compulsory national service is the greatest push factor.

Despite escalating rhetoric from Somalia aimed at Ethiopia, the country is in no position to take military action. With Somaliland having established its own “constitution, government, security forces and currency”, it is clear that Somalia is unable to exert meaningful influence. As an already war-ravaged state, fighting a regional power in Ethiopia would be extremely ill-advised.

Although you can never guarantee that logic will prevail in international relations, these realities have helped to keep a lid on the situation thus far. Whether that will be enough moving forward remains to be seen.

Great Power Competition

With risk comes opportunity, and the same is true in the Horn of Africa. China’s longstanding cooperative relationship with Eritrea can be explained by the strategic significance of exerting influence in the Red Sea. The importance of these waters derives from the abundance of trade that, until recently, was flowing between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia via the Red Sea. China is currently Eritrea’s largest investor and trade partner. Beijing also incorporated the nation into its Belt and Road Initiative in 2021. Notable projects have included upgrading the port of Massawa and constructing a road that links it with Assab. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have remained close, with Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki visiting China on several occasions.

In 2021, China established a permanent military base in Djibouti. Should an agreement be reached for a second base in Eritrea, the security dynamics around the strategically significant Bab al-Mandeb Strait would become even less favorable for the United States and its allies. The potential for Chinese naval dominance of the narrow waterway in the event of a wider conflict represents a noteworthy foreign policy challenge for Western policymakers.

Albeit to a lesser extent than China, Russia also maintains an interest in Africa and has often opportunistically capitalized by “tapping into anti-Western sentiment” wherever it arises. In addition to counterbalancing the influence of the United States, Russia also seeks to secure African natural resources including gold, diamonds, uranium, and oil. Russia has been waging disinformation campaigns across much of the African continent through proliferating anti-colonial rhetoric. Private military companies such as the Wagner Group have also been mobilized to provide security assistance to local governments.

Russia has a collaborative relationship with Eritrea. Common ground was not hard to find between the two repressive authoritarian regimes. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov has stated his desire to cooperate with Eritrea on military technology. Moscow has avoided taking sides in the major conflicts that have occurred in the Horn of Africa, instead preferring to maintain strong relations with all parties and cement itself as “the region’s leading arms vendor”.

With China and Russia making headway in the Horn of Africa, there is a need for a remarkable turnaround from Washington, considering the “low priority” historically assigned to their African policy across administrations. Africa’s growth potential means that its importance as a focal point for great power competition will only increase throughout the twenty-first century. However, with conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, Washington has “far less diplomatic and political bandwidth” than it would otherwise. Under these circumstances and with an election approaching, it remains uncertain whether the Biden administration can quickly develop the necessary “clear and coherent policy” for the Horn of Africa.

[Image by L’AméricainCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article.

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