What is going on in the Horn of Africa?

Monday, 16 July 2018
Nicholas Westcott

On 16-17 July, the EU is hosting in Brussels a Partnership Forum for Somalia. This comes at a crucial time. Things in the Horn are in a state of flux such as we have not seen for years. There is a chance that one of the most volatile and fragile regions of the continent could begin to stabilise. But only if local actors are willing, and the international community is united and supportive. Neither can be taken for granted.

African Arguments has just started publishing a series of articles on the situation in the Horn, the Red Sea and the growing - but contentious - links with the Gulf Arab countries. You can find the first one by Alex de Waal here. In practice there are several distinct, but linked dynamics that are beginning to change relationships within the region.

Firstly, Somalia. The long, slow process of putting the country back together after its 20-year crisis is at risk of stalling. With the help of the AU’s force AMISOM (funded primarily by the EU), the EU itself, and the UN assistance mission UNSOM, sufficient military stability was brought to Somalia to allow a political process to begin which resulted in the agreement on a new federal structure in 2012. Al Shabab has been kept at bay, and new state governments set up. True, the federal structures remain weak, no effective central security force yet exists and what we call corruption is an embedded part of the political process. But political arguments have taken place in Parliament rather than with guns in the street, and the economy has begun to revive. Nevertheless, both security and the political process remains very fragile, and can easily be disrupted unless the international community is consistent, supportive and united.

This is where there is a risk of Gulf actors destabilising Somalia. The UAE in particular is actively applying in the Horn its overall foreign policy - to contain Iran, fight political Islam (and therefore the influence of Turkey and Qatar), and establish trade dominance in the region. It has therefore fostered links with Puntland, Somaliland and Eritrea to secure ports in the region (Bosaso, Berbera and Assab respectively), which, by accident or design, feeds separatist tendencies in Puntland and risks unbalancing the Somali political settlement. They may be influenced in this by reported Qatari and Turkish support for the federal government. With political allegiance revolving around the distribution of resources, many Somali political leaders seek whatever external support they can get, and it complicates the domestic political process if this becomes entangled with external actors’ ideological agendas.

Nor can what happens in Somalia and the Horn be separated from the war in Yemen, only a few miles away across the Bab al Mandab strait. For Saudi Arabia, it is critical that they can retain access to the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea. With Iran on the other side of the Straits of Hormuz, they are reluctant to see a Yemen in league with Iran controlling the straits on the other side of the peninsula. The campaign against the Houthis looks set to continue, but not with any greater prospect of success. But it means the Saudis should be interested not simply in having friends in the Horn, but having stability there.

A dynamic and positive new element is the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The appointment of Abiy Ahmed Ali as Prime Minister of Ethiopia is potentially transformational for both Ethiopia and the region. Not only the first Oromo to be leader, but also the first to have a Muslim as well as Christian background (and to have written a PhD on resolving inter-religious conflict), Abiy has swiftly and decisively demonstrated a willingness to address both the domestic and regional sources of instability for Ethiopia. 

One of the first things he has done is take steps to resolve the festering conflict with Eritrea which had become an entrenched part of both nations’ narrative. Whether under pressure from the Gulf or of his own volition, Abiy’s visit to Asmara and Isaias’ visit to Addis Ababa appear to have broken the logjam. Peace is not yet assured, but this step would greatly increase the chances of IGAD reaching a consensus on regional conflicts and acting with greater effectiveness to resolve them.

The other persistent source of instability in the region is South Sudan. Though far from the Red Sea coast, and of more interest to China than the Gulf, the pernicious and brutal conflict, the increasing fragmentation of the country and the complete failure of the state cause great human suffering and divert both political attention and financial/aid resources from development and peace-building elsewhere. Sudan, now undergoing international rehabilitation, is joining the regional effort. But to date nothing has managed to persuade the warring factions to genuinely reconcile or find a modus vivendi. Without a more forceful and united regional approach, this conflict will persist, to everyone’s detriment.

Both Britain and the EU, together and separately, have played a constructive role in the Horn since the London conference on Somalia in 2011. Working with the AU and UN, for a while there was an international consensus on stabilising Somalia. The EU Operation Atalanta has played a critical role in ending the crisis of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and the financial support for AMISOM has been irreplaceable. 

It is now essential that the UK and EU continue to operate in the closest cooperation, and that the new Gulf actors are brought into this international consensus. For this, a common understanding and active diplomacy are both needed. And that is part of the purpose of the assessments now being published by African Arguments, as well as the meeting in Brussels. This region is too important to neglect.

Nicholas Westcott is the Director of RAS.