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The Horn of Africa States: A Geopolitical Case (Part II)

By Dr. Suleiman Walhad
June 18th, 2023


In an article dated February 4th, 2022, I penned that the Horn of Africa States needs an outreach to international organizations and countries in a collective forum, which presents the region as a peaceful developing area not harmful to any other country or region except, perhaps, itself. In the article I noted that the flow of the Nile waters nor the flow of commercial shipping in its waters would not be interrupted and concluded that the enormous resources, both above and sub-soil of the region, can be exploited in for the good of those who invest in the region, both local and foreign.

In the article we presented the location of the region and its strategic significance and its involvement in the cold war between the protagonists of those times, the Ex-Soviet Union leading the Warsaw Pact and NATO still led by the United States. Most of the problems of the region, indeed, have their roots in that long ago divide when those parties competed to have influence in the region and others, while hampering the efforts of their rivals. They propped up governments that supported them and/or destabilized those that did not align with them.

The Horn of Africa States region, in addition to those issues of alignments and the consequent effects on whoever they aligned themselves with, also had and still has a geographical paradox. It is close to one of the main sources of energy in the world – oil and gas and to some extent has some religious affinity with the GCC countries. These have been and still are some of the main causes of the miseries of the region, in addition to the region’s tribal/ethnic foundation.

The collapse of the communism and the Soviet Union and the emergence of a unipolar world led by the United States, over the past nearly three decades did not help stability or security of the region and, indeed, its peaceful existence. Being part of the resource-rich African continent, it continued to attract the unscrupulous. These forces continued to exploit weaknesses in the internal infrastructures of the societies and communities of the region to topple the leaders of the countries of the region and hence disrupt and destroy normal governance in the two largest countries of the region. Ethiopia broke down into two countries – Ethiopia and Eritrea and Somalia splintered into a multitude of clan fiefdoms, still unable to reach a modicum of common convergence despite owning a homogenous population (the Somali) and the only one in the African continent.

Since there remained no threat to the geostrategic significance of the region nor its assets, no one paid attention to the plight of the region, but some, indeed, helped those internal leaders of chaos who took over power in the region. They created infrastructures that further alienated tribes/clans from one another and, indeed, destroyed what was left of traditional nationalism in the region, at least, in the two main countries of the region – Ethiopia and Somalia where an ethnic based federalism was constituted without checks and balances and without proper sharing of powers, burdens, and resources between the main federal states and the constituent sub-states (Read my many writings on the subject published in and/or Eurasia or our website

The main hegemon of the world, the United States of America, got ensnared in the early nineties of the last century and gave up on the region, at least, Somalia and avoided the region, leaving it to the wiles of the new leaders of chaos in the region. Religious terrorism was also introduced and continues to play havoc in the region. Some of the new regional powers that have come to the scene of the political/economic world, the GCC countries, started to practice their new found wealth and powers in the region, as well, further adding pressures to the already tangled political situation of the region.

The Geographic Position

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea and hence Europe and Asia, makes the Horn of Africa States region important, not only for the flow of trade and commerce but also for security. It was important for the colonist Europe and later on the superpowers, after the Second World War, namely the United States and the Ex-Soviet Union. Its importance as the source of the Blue Nile, which provides water to Egypt and Sudan also remains strong. At least some 15 to 20 percent of world’s trade and commerce, including a large volume of oil and gas transit through the southern Red Sea, the Bab El Mandab, the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Sea on a daily basis.

The Presence of Foreign Parties

Countries that have longstanding presence in the region include among others some of the GCC countries (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar), Egypt, Turkey, the United States, the Peoples’ Republic of China and, of course, the old colonial powers of Europe, namely the United Kingdom, France and Italy. They are now joined by countries such as South Korea, India, Spain, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, and of course, the United States of America. The Russians have also been trying to come back to the region after abandoning it in the past on the collapse of the Communism and the Warsaw Pact Alliance.

Competition of these foreign parties thus aggravates and exasperates the already continuing civil wars and local troubles of the region. The major countries that have naval and military presence in the region include among others the United States, France and China. Their presence is perhaps assisted by the absence of a proper regional organization, that collectively presents a united front with which to deal with the foreign parties that are pursuing their own interests in the region, and which seem to be harmful to the region.

 Local Issues

The region’s local populations are organized in terms of tribes and clans. A governing infrastructure based on these tribes and clans has been instituted by those leaders of chaos who took power in the region after the collapse of the previous military governments in the region, mainly in Ethiopia and Somalia. These federal governance infrastructures have assisted in harming the rule of law and harmony in the region. Indeed, it created an infrastructure where there seems to be first-class and second-class citizens in each of the countries of the region, a main stumbling block for a smooth law-abiding citizen in the region.

Religious Terrorism

After the fall of the old military regimes, the region has become exposed into the tribal/clan warfare, which eventually saw religious and spiritual application to lower the temperatures to create harmony in the population of the region. However, abuse of religion and violence followed the process and gained a foothold in the region, with the aim of fighting off the foreign parties and their local helpers in the region – the politicians.  Religious violence often based on grievances and adopting victimhood contributed to the social chaos in the region and still continues.  The Federal Government of Somalia thus spends a lot of energy and effort on fighting off religious terror, which in the recent past also spilled over to Ethiopia.

The Divide Between the Region and Egypt

Egypt and the Horn of Africa States have a long history together, which dates back to the pharaonic times. Indeed, the Ancient Egyptians claim that their forefathers came from the Horn of Africa States or the land of Punt. They often called it the land of the Gods. The relationship remained stable and cooperative and the Blue Nile which descends from the Ethiopian highlands was not an issue until recently when Ethiopia started to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the GERD, which made Egypt quite worried. Egypt considers the River Nile as a gift of God only to Egypt. A fear that the Horn of Africa States region and the GERD would deprive Egypt of water has been played upon by the Egyptian leadership and has caused tensions between Egypt and the region.

The GERD is to generate some 6,500 megawatts of electricity and hence is expected to be a source of renewable energy for the region. The Egyptian approach which was based solely on its own interests would need to come to terms with the realities and work on a negotiated settlement with Ethiopia and the region. Signing military contracts with countries surrounding Ethiopia, including Kenya, South Sudan and others would not change facts and would only create chaos and more troubles not only for Egypt but also for the Horn of Africa States region and others.

The GCC countries

The Arabian Peninsula did have a long relationship with the Horn of Africa States region. In the past, the region was the main benefactor in terms of food and sustenance for the Arabian Peninsula. But since the advent of oil wealth in the early seventies, the situation has been reversed. The GCC countries have acquired enormous wealth, which they have come to exploit to project power not only in the region but also further in north Africa, West Asia and other countries and regions.

The three most influential countries that are involved in the region include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The other three countries of Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman play a low-key approach. Yemen, one of the largest countries in the Arabian Peninsula and the poorest of those countries remains disturbed much like the Horn of Africa and suffers from civil strives based on tribal/religious divides. Their Arab brothers in the GCC countries play negative roles in the country.

Maritime issues and increased security needs have brought in a wide array of naval/military presence from differing parts of the world including the old French colonial naval/military force in Djibouti, the United States, and now even the Chinese. The fact that both the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa States region overlook one of the most important seaways of the world on opposite sides has also brought a shift in the divide between the GCC countries and the Horn of Africa States region, and more particularly, the GCC countries would appear to be siding with Egypt as both of Egypt’s main economic agents, the Nile and the Suez Canal both depend on what happens in the Horn of Africa States region today and in the future.

The GCC countries now project power and wealth in the region and keep the the region agitated. The current conflict of Sudan, in addition to other actors, is largely blamed on the UAE and the political problems of Somalia, Eritrea and even Djibouti all suffer from maneuvers of the UAE and Qatar and to some extent Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, the better way would have been a collective approach of the Horn of Africa States region, to manage its relations with these GCC countries, which seem to be competing on which would have more influence in the region.

Challenges of the Geo-political Dynamics

The region is currently exposed to several competing non-regional projects namely, the United States continuing war on terrorism, which seems to be winding down, the Chinese One Road One Belt Project, the awakening of Russia and the current Ukraine War in Europe. The region’s geostrategic location, its abundant natural resources including lithium, gold, potassium, cobalt and, of course, oil and gas both onshore and offshore which are currently exploited by Chinese parties, who in turn help build roads and other infrastructures at least in Ethiopia and Djibouti, add to the competition among the main contenders, the United States of America and China.  The region also owns large reserves of uranium and rare earths, which are important not only for weapons production but also for generation of energy and power.  This is further helped by the presence of the regional powers such as those of the GCC countries, Turkey and Egypt. The region enjoys a large and growing young population of some 157 million people which represents not only a large market but also a productive youth and especially in era of digitalization.

The region remains evermore relevant for world powers despite its violence and fragilities. It is, indeed, a center or rivalries among the major and regional powers, which add to the continuing civil strives in the region. It is where it is necessary for the four SEED countries to join hands and work together to face off against non-friendly parties of the region. Working together would not only help institute a better relationship, but also economic development in the traditional highland/lowland cooperation, which has sustained the region throughout its history.



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