Horn of Africa: Outsiders and Proxies

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

The Horn of Africa has been the epicentre of wars of secession with several consequences. While Ethiopia has attracted direct foreign investment, overall, the region is unable to guarantee rule of law, security, and basic social services across their territory.

Across the region, the nation-state has often given way to the power of transnational terrorist networks, such as Al-Shabab, that control swathes of territory, imposing their understanding of justice and using illegal means to fund their claims to power. State failure has thus been accompanied by the rise of Jihadist discourse, not as a challenge to the state but as an alternative to the state.

The emergence of another kind of power goes hand-in-hand with the recruitment of child soldiers, piracy, and systematic pillaging of border regions. Farmers and local businesses are forced to pay their dues to compete for networks and, according to a US Department of State report, international human trafficking networks thrive in the region.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have made some steps forward in terms of re-animating their economic ties while Somalia’s war-ravaged society fuels regional internal strife and piracy. The recent Tigray crisis suggests that even when a country takes a step forward, security cannot be taken for granted. Progress is not linear.   

For quite some time, the crisis “exit strategy” pursued both by the European Union and the African Union has been empowering states in the region to respond to the challenge at hand. But not all minds are focused on the same objective.

The region is a key connectivity hub and has attracted the interest of the EU, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, and the United States. To different extents, all of these powers are present in the region not only as investors but also as aspirant security providers, directly or by proxy.

In January 2020 the Heads of State of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia met in Asmara to discuss a crisis management roadmap, showing common resolve in the fight against extremism and organized crime but also poverty.

However, the clientelistic structure of politics across the region is preventing substantial progress, and the “resources” offered by third parties – who do not share the same objectives – provide negotiators with options other than reconciliation. In this scheme, Uganda and Kenya do not always welcome a framework of cooperation that would undermine their political dominance in the wider region.

To understand the underlying political dynamics we seat down with Ms. Rahel Kessete Afewerky, a security analyst with a background in human rights advocacy. 

Tactics: Overall, are outside stakeholders contributing to regional stability?

RKA: The Horn of Africa hosts a myriad of political and security crises that continue to pose a major threat to peace and sustainable development. The revived advent of great powers to the Horn exacerbates the already volatile power balance region and spurs rising tension among countries.

One underlying cause of these atrocious conflicts is the region’s colonial legacy. The Horn of Africa has suffered from the delineation of artificial borders drawn by former imperial and colonial rulers. The regions’ unstable borders are but one of the many colonial “divide and conquer” legacies, including Britain.  A policy of Imperial Britain in the region, but practised by almost all power brokers throughout history, ancient and modern.

Tactics: Who are the foreign stakeholders today?

RKA: Today there is a new Scramble for Africa, as great powers are flocking to the region with the ambition to project power and control. The US and China have long vied for control while the Gulf countries and Turkey have joined the race and Russia is trying to revive its Soviet day influence. In pursuit of a stronghold, these powers extend aid and soft loans, presenting the vision of a “quick fix” to an imminent economic crisis. Despite their geostrategic significance, the countries of the Horn are engrossed in a vicious circle of conflict that limits their negotiating power. Therefore, the region is exposed to the volatility of ever-shifting alliances that pitty them against each other. The countries of the Horn have become a locus of great power confrontation by proxy.


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