The Horn of Africa (HoA) is one of the most politically dynamic regions in the world. It is one of those regions in the world where geopolitical forces and regional ambitions combine to produce unexpected results. This volatility is not likely to change in the coming years of greater multi-polarity in the international arena. The region is located in a geostrategic position where it faces the Red Sea and is in close proximity with the Middle East, which creates a mix of local and global political, and security interests.
The region is also the continent’s gateway to Asia with deep historical ties to India and China. Due to its strategic location, the region was a proxy battlefield for the superpowers. Such interests by the superpowers also drew the interests of researchers to understand the political and security intricacies of the region and the rationale behind the race by the superpowers to position themselves across the board.
Yet again, this wider region continues to attract the attention of many strategic thinkers, commentators, leaders, scholars, policy makers and citizens of the countries in the region and of course superpowers and Gulf States. While some note that it has remained one of Africa’s most conflict ridden and unstable regions, others draw attention to the emergence of some unique experiments in managing diversity, state formation and governance.
The Horn of Africa appears to be gearing towards a new order set off by a global competition of strategic interest by great powers in Africa. In addition to internal political upheavals, the competition is advanced by a struggle for influence in the region by many external actors including the US, Russia, Gulf States, Turkey and China. There is also a realignment taking place by European and Middle Eastern powers that have strategic economic, political and military interests in the region.
Despite the fact that many countries are eyeing the region, the recent political developments in some countries of the region are equally important in efforts to understand and project the security, socio-political and economic prospects of the region.
Currently, at least three countries of the region, namely: Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia are experiencing a new internal political dynamism after the end of the cold war which in turn affects the relation between and among countries of the region.
However, it is important to take into consideration that all of the countries in the region have a poor track record of good governance, democratic accountability has been largely absent, with a history of regime change through violent rather than peaceful means and a culture of militarism. This takes different forms according to local conditions and traditions, but armed rebellion of one sort or another is always high among the options for dealing with political grievances. This has led to consistently high levels of violent conflict throughout the region.
Despite these negative identifying characters, the recent unprecedented wind of change blowing in the region has created both hopes and expectations, but also anxieties. Developments have included the changes in Ethiopia and the ensuing rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the changes in the Sudan following the ousting of President al-Bashir from power, a new integration framework in the Horn between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
On January 27, 2020 the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), President Isaias Afwerki, and President Mohamed Abdullahi a.k.a. Farmajo, held their trilateral meeting. Subsequently, the there leaders proposed to form a new regional bloc, which has been referred to as the “Horn of Africa Cooperation”.
This new bloc would be an addition to their memberships in the Africana Union (AU), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Eastern Africa Standby Force and of course the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
From the outset, commentators over various issues pertinent to the region warned that this new bloc bears the risk of alienating the other countries of the region, which in turn might affect the efforts to bring lasting peace and stability in the region.
Furthermore, experts also warned that it might also undermine the security efforts of other regional organizations. These include: IGAD, AU and the Eastern Africa Standby Force. Thus, experts argued, the promises and pitfalls of this new bloc could shape the regional architecture and cause new political challenges in the region.
Following the developments in early 2020 and in light of the complex political context in the region, it is worthwhile to reflect on why the three states engaged to pursue the path of regional cooperation and what this means for the people in the region. Two interrelated aspects deserve special attention in this regard. On the one hand, why do the three states of the HoA consider establishing yet another African regional organization in the first place? On the other hand, what are the potential consequences of establishing another regional organization and which challenges need to be addressed first in this respect?
Though the internal political dynamism of the countries located in the region is passing through its own new trends, the interests of the superpowers and the Gulf States is also increasing like never before. Therefore, it is imperative to ask the following critical questions so as to ensure peace and stability in the wider region. What is driving the renewed interest in the region from external forces, and what is the impact of this attention on domestic and regional stability? What are the costs and gains to the Horn and, more broadly, to Africa? With debatable and transitory interests of the external players, where do recent developments leave the region?
Literature regarding the matter stated that since national governments are not the only players that determine peace and stability developments in the region, external forces should also take into consideration that their temporal involvement for different reasons might exacerbate the existing intricacies and hamper their future interests in the region.
Among the external forces that positioned themselves in the region are the Gulf States. By using their wealth to promote their interests, they are playing an increasing role. Apart from this, the United States and China are also among the many states with military bases in the Horn. While the involvement of external forces is increasing, the states in the Horn are also trying to leverage changing dynamics to promote their own interests. However, in a region with multiple fault lines and security challenges, the insertion of new alliance dynamics, military bases and power play creates the risk for conflict than promoting and ensuring the desired peace and stability.
The historical proximity between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa has in recent years been a relationship of growing insecurity. Gulf States have rapidly expanded their economic and political roles on the other side of the Red Sea and have established military bases. This interventionist thrust is historically rooted. The politics of state survival that dominate both the Gulf and the Horn are leading aspiring regional hegemons with a self proclaimed responsibility to provide order to securities in their near abroad.
The Horn of Africa and the Gulf States are bound together; they are yet far from being aligned. As long as financial, political, and military imbalances set the scene, short-term gains will define the development of the security complex over the Red Sea. For the Gulf, the Horn represents a cluster of allies that can be bound bilaterally or through nurtured networks to solidify influence on both sides of the sea.
For the Horn, the Gulf represents a deep pocket best utilized in the form of direct deals maximizing short-term gains. To simplify a complex network of allies and adversaries, one can conclude that some in the Horn are eyeing the Gulf’s wealth, and have used existing rivalries within and between Gulf countries to gain access to resources for their individual survival.
In this regard, an article entitled “The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea” by Abdeta Dribssa Beyene (PhD) published on the African report, argued that “The current state of affairs will keep the Horn weak with arms stretched towards Gulf patrons. Particularly the war that has erupted in Ethiopia will have significant impact on the future of the Horn.” Furthermore, the article argues that despite the injections of support and security, the Gulf’s approach remains unsustainable. As effective as it is now, without a norms based approach the Horn will not solve its sorrows. In essence, a collaborative stance towards the Red Sea and the Gulf is something the Horn countries cannot afford to miss. Earnest engagement is the only way to change this course, the author warned.
By the same token, an article entitled“An Emboldened Horn of Africa Axis and an Unfolding Humanitarian Crisis Await the Biden Administration” published by Middle East Institute (MEI) argued that due to the nature of the regimes in the region, which is characterized by lack of democratic culture, transparency and rampant corruption, coupled with the recurrence of conflict and drought, the leaders of the countries in the region are highly likely to tilt towards Russia than Western countries including the U.S.
“In terms of foreign involvement in the region, the Horn of Africa could become a theater for the escalating Cold War like dynamic between the U.S and Russia. With its increasing power and influence, Russia could repeat strategies from Syria in the Horn of Africa and help prop up leaders of the Horn of Africa Axis who are desperate to stay in power, regardless of the results of democratic elections. Because the incoming Biden Administration will advance human rights and democratic elections, Horn of Africa leaders may turn to Russia for protection instead.” The article alerted.
The region has long been subject to influence from external forces; this might look like a two way diplomatic process which is normal in the arena of international relations with external actors seeking strategic alliances and the regional players attracting the attention of the key global players. Given the complexities unique to the region, however, the interest of the superpowers and the demands of the states in the region should transcend short term interests to be oriented based on addressing the root cause of the complexities in the region, commentators advise.