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Horn of Africa’s new security landscape: Geopolitical consequences of the conflict-cooperation dynamics

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA – JANUARY 11: Hundreds protest against Ethiopia signing a memorandum of understanding for maritime access with Somaliland, which declared its unilateral independence from the country, in Mogadishu, Somalia on January 11, 2023. Abuukar Mohamed Muhidin / Anadolu (Photo by Abuukar Mohamed Muhidin / ANADOLU / Anadolu via AFP)

By Dr. Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, EPC

Key Takeaways

– The Horn of Africa region has recently experienced a critical juncture that threatens its stability, with regional – and perhaps international – repercussions.

– The expanding conflict might put Sudan into a gloomier juncture, considering the dramatic shift in the influence and power balance map, the relative change in local alliances, and the continued political stalemate.

– Ethiopia’s efforts to access a seaport caused tension with its neighboring countries and undermined Djibouti’s efforts to resume talks between Somalia and Somaliland.

– The Gulf countries and partners of international powers have a definite interest in restoring the Horn of Africa’s stability by increasing investment in mechanisms and platforms of collective action concerned with containing regional crises.

– To spare the region adverse aftershocks of potential polarization, foreign powers active in the Horn of Africa must get involved to resolve crises instead of focusing on utilizing them to enhance their interests.

Addis Abeba – The Horn of Africa region is at the core of regional and international contentions. It enjoys a unique location on Bab El-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, diverse natural resources and fertile soil, a history and the present replete with conflicts and wars within and among regional countries. The region has many overlapping and competing ethnicities and several demographic and political factors. These complexities lead to a constant shift in the dynamics of conflict and cooperation, making the region stuck in a network of regional security issues.

The Horn of Africa region has recently been going through a critical juncture that puts its stability at stake, with regional – and perhaps international – repercussions. The conflict in Sudan between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has expanded. There is political and security uncertainty in Somalia due to political divisions, the threat of terror from Al-Shabab Movement, and turmoil in the southeast of Somaliland. Moreover, Ethiopia’s efforts to access a seaport have caused tension with neighboring countries on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In January 2024, a crisis erupted with Somalia after Ethiopia signed an MoU with Somaliland, giving Addis Ababa access to the Berbera Port on the Red Sea. Mogadishu viewed it as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The crisis undermined Djibouti’s efforts to resume talks between Somalia and Somaliland. This coincided with foreign powers becoming active to benefit from regional shifts, boost their influence, and gain more competitive advantages.

An Expansion of the Sudanese Conflict

The cycle of polarization and tension due to the conflict in Sudan between the army and RSF – which is expanding and attracting regional and international actors – might bring the civil war in this country to a new and gloomier juncture. This is possible due to the dramatic shift in the map of influence and power balance on the ground, the relative change in local alliances, and the continued political stalemate. The following are the most significant developments in Sudan over the last few months.

  • Expansion of battles toward the middle and east of the country. In December 2023, RSF took control of the strategic al-Jazirah state and its capital, Wad Madani – the south gate of Khartoum near the Kassala and al-Qadarif states on the Eritrean and Ethiopian borders. The Sudanese army mobilized its allies of armed movements and tribes to regain control of al-Jazirah. The escalation of fighting toward the east is considered a turning point, the impact of which goes beyond local conflict dynamics to its regional dimensions, perspectives, and alliances.
  • Armed movements have relinquished their neutrality due to several factors. These factors include the expansion of battlefields and indications of a prolonged war, the tribal factor and deeply-rooted historical animosities, the pragmatic calculations of domestic actors and temptations by both sides to entice them, and the external factor. Regional actors have incentivized these movements and tribes to align with one side or the other.
Armed movements have relinquished their neutrality due to several factors. (Shutterstock)

Some armed movements in Darfur, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Jibril Ibrahim – the incumbent finance minister and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) (Minni Arcua Minnawi wing-Darfur governor) – saw RSF’s expansion as a threat to their field gains and economic activities, which they multiplied recently by exploiting the vacuum left by the Sudanese army.

Therefore, JEM and SLA preferred an interim rapprochement with the Sudanese army and announced that they would join forces in mid-November. Most of these two movements’ troops are located in northern and western Darfur. In addition, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), led by Mustafa Tambour, has supported the Sudanese army since late July 2023.

However, the alliance between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu – which controls a large swath of territory in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states – and the Sudanese army attracted attention recently. This alliance aims to prevent RSF and their allies from entering Dalang, the second-largest city in South Kordofan state. In January, a senior SPLM-N commander denied any alliance with the Sudanese army, reiterating a contrast in his movement’s goals and military doctrine with those of the Sudanese army. He pointed out that SPLM-N’s firm and declared position is to “dismantle military institutions and restructure them on new bases.”

  • There is a growing risk of internationalizing the Sudanese conflict. This was evident, for instance, in Khartoum’s suspension of its membership in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s boycott of IGAD’s summit in Uganda on January 20. After almost seven years of rupture, Sudan also resumed its ties with Iran. This enabled the Sudanese army to acquire Iranian drones, although such development might turn Sudan into a theater of regional and international competition. Khartoum also seems helpless toward Eritrea’s growing engagement and influence in Sudan. There are reports about Asmara’s involvement in the militarization of tribes by establishing six training camps for five armed groups from eastern Sudan and a sixth from Darfur. The step reflects Asmara’s security concerns and ambitions to regain its historical regional influence and gain the advantage of bargaining at the regional and international levels. This development raised fears about renewed tribal conflicts in the region and the likelihood that civil war might spread to eastern Sudan.
  • The decline of settlement chances in light of both parties’ stubbornness to the conflict, their increasing stakes in their maneuverability, and their making decisive shifts in the field impact domestic dynamics and international positions in their favor. Moreover, the multiple forums and initiatives for solutions and lack of internal and external consensus on them – among other complications – undermine diplomatic efforts to establish a suitable environment for political settlement in Sudan and push toward an escalation of war that reached disturbing levels. The Transitional Sovereignty Council also rejected the Security Council resolution issued on March 8, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Sudan during Ramadan. It urged all warring parties to seek a sustainable resolution through dialogue and removing any obstruction to the humanitarian aid delivery.

No objective indications yet call for optimism over the two sides’ convictions regarding the feasibility of peaceful options to end the conflict. Efforts led by the Sudanese Coordination of Civil Democratic Forces (Taqaddum) led by former prime minister Abdullah Hamdok have gained increasing momentum to build a national consensus to impact political interactions in the country, press to end the war, and put the democratic path back on track in parallel with the return of international and regional attention on the Sudanese issue. This issue has retreated due to preoccupation with the Gaza War and the geopolitical and security tension in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.

In January 2024, a crisis erupted with Somalia after Ethiopia signed an MoU with Somaliland, giving Addis Ababa access to the Berbera Port on the Red Sea. (Source: X)

The Crisis of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Maritime Agreement

The most significant development expressing Ethiopia’s strategic project for expansion to the Red Sea was the Addis Ababa-Somaliland MoU on January 1. This MoU gives the Ethiopian Navy access to the Berbera Port for commercial purposes and a potential military base on the shores of the Gulf of Aden. In exchange, Addis Ababa promised to recognize Somaliland as a sovereign country and gain some stakes in Ethiopian Airlines. 

The Somali federal government – which summoned its ambassador in Addis Ababa as an expression of its outright rejection of the agreement, viewing it as a “violation” of its sovereignty and a threat to its territorial integrity and vital security – continues to obstruct efforts to mediate between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. Somalia demands “Ethiopia’s withdrawal from the illegal MoU and Addis Ababa’s reiterating Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Despite efforts by Abiy Ahmed’s government to engage its Somali counterpart to de-escalate tension and ensure a political solution, Ethiopia’s discourse has failed to calm Mogadishu’s fears regarding Ethiopia’s potential military presence on the shores of Somaliland and recognize the latter as a sovereign country because this will motivate the separatist inclinations of other Somali states.

The diplomatic controversy between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu increased after Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud accused Ethiopia of attempting to prevent him from entering the African Union headquarters to participate in the African Summit held in Addis Ababa from February 17-18. It has also deepened Somalis’ fears that Addis Ababa seeks to impose its perceptions by force, exploiting their country’s fragile situation.

While efforts to defuse the Ethiopian-Somali crisis have been discussed, notably by Kenyan President William Ruto, who has attempted to engage in back-channel diplomacy to facilitate negotiations, a direct meeting between their leaders, Sheikh Mohamud and Abiy Ahmed, remains elusive. Despite these attempts, there are no indications that the escalating tensions between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa, exacerbated by ongoing negotiations between the latter and Hargeisa, can be effectively contained. The crisis is anticipated to strain bilateral relations and significantly alter the geopolitical dynamics and calculations across the wider region. 

These tensions threaten regional cooperation and integration, particularly in regional security and counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. They may also catalyze external involvement in the region and exacerbate water disputes in the Nile Basin, particularly given the impasse in discussions concerning the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Addis Ababa’s potential plans to develop similar projects on other rivers. This could disrupt freshwater flows to neighboring countries like the Woya Shabelle and Dawa rivers.

Even if both parties are willing to mitigate their differences, explore potential avenues for resolving the crisis, and address their concerns through amicable and cooperative means, achieving such a scenario appears optimistic. It will undoubtedly be challenging and will necessitate significant political will, genuine concessions, and the presence of objective conditions and geopolitical circumstances, which could involve addressing the issue of “Somaliland.”

Heightened Somalia-Somaliland Tensions

The recent deal struck by President Muse Bihi Abdi’s government with the Ethiopian state has undermined Djibouti’s efforts, which were made just days earlier, to resume talks between Mogadishu and Hargeisa. It has also reset relations between the two entities, sparking a fresh cycle of tensions and mutual accusations. These tensions include disputes over airspace management, marking a departure from previous agreements focused on security, depoliticization of international aid, and airspace management.

On January 17 and 18, the Somali Civil Aviation Authority blocked two cargo planes destined for Hargeisa: One Ethiopian plane, purportedly carrying a high-level Ethiopian delegation to finalize a maritime agreement with Somaliland, and the other Thai plane, allegedly transporting an arms shipment to the secessionist region. This air conflict represents the first of its kind since the Federal Government of Somalia assumed control of its airspace at the end of 2017. The conflict has raised concerns about its impact on air traffic. It poses a new challenge for regional and international stakeholders concerned with maintaining regional security and international aviation safety.

The charged atmosphere highlights the depth of the crisis and the entrenched tensions in the north and south of Somalia. It underscores the intricate interplay of local dynamics, regional factors, and international alliances in the Horn of Africa. While Somalia endeavors to bolster its strategic standing by forging defense and economic partnerships with Türkiye and Egypt, it seeks to solidify its stance on the Somaliland issue, framing it as an “internal affair” to tighten external isolation and constraints on Hargeisa. Conversely, Somaliland endeavors to assert its independence from Mogadishu’s influence, asserting that the latter lacks the requisite power to impose sovereignty.

Thus, it consistently downplays the Sheikh Mohamud government’s efficacy. It cautions external powers against siding with Somalia against the “will of the people of Somaliland.” Hargeisa reaffirms its commitment to disengage from the Somali state, proceed with the maritime agreement, and bolster defense and security cooperation with Addis Ababa. It increasingly relies on its significant neighbor, Ethiopia, viewing its path to independence and international recognition as largely dependent on Addis Ababa’s support, particularly amid escalating threats to stability in Somaliland.

Somalis celebrate the victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he won the presidential run-off election during the celebration organised by the government in Mogadishu, on May 29, 2023. (Photo by Hassan Ali Elmi / AFP)

New Turkish Engagement

Amid ongoing geopolitical tensions in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea and against the escalating crisis between Somalia and Ethiopia, Türkiye, and Somalia, they reached a significant milestone on February 8. They finalized the Defense and Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which was swiftly ratified by the Somali Parliament two weeks later. Under this agreement, Türkiye commits to safeguarding Somalia’s coasts and waters for 10 years, shielding them from “foreign invasion and external interference” and illicit activities such as piracy, overfishing, drug smuggling, and terrorism.

Additionally, Türkiye will assist Somalia in bolstering its naval forces, enhancing maritime security capabilities, and advancing maritime resource development and blue economy initiatives. Somali officials hailed these aspects, among others covered in the agreement, as “historic.” However, the agreement faced rejection from the Somaliland government and the extremist al-Shabab al-Mujahideen movement.

Based on available information, the comprehensive agreement, which will follow detailed sub-protocols, entails significant security and economic benefits for Türkiye. This agreement will bolster Türkiye’s presence in Somalia and its territorial waters, granting Türkiye access to Somali airspace and security zones. Furthermore, Türkiye will receive 30 percent of the revenues from Somalia’s exclusive economic zone.

Turkish involvement in Somalia’s hydrocarbon reserves, estimated to be tens of billions of barrels (approximately 30 billion barrels, according to US estimates), has already commenced. On March 7, the Turkish Energy Minister and his Somali counterpart for petroleum and mineral resources signed an agreement to explore oil and gas within Somalia’s economic zone.

This development coincided with Ankara dispatching a high-level military delegation to Mogadishu. It occurred shortly after Sheikh Mohamud’s visit to Türkiye to participate in the Antalya Diplomatic Forum, during which he received assurances from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regarding Ankara’s commitment to supporting Somalia in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. These actions underscore the mutual determination of both parties to promptly translate their directives into tangible steps to reinforce their partnership.

While the Somali president has reiterated that the defense cooperation agreement signed with Türkiye is not directed against any third party, implicitly referring to Ethiopia, it is framed within the context of advancing Somalia’s interests and safeguarding its territorial waters from external ambitions. However, some observers argue that Türkiye’s presence could potentially contribute to establishing a form of balance, limiting Ethiopia’s maneuvering space and slowing down its efforts to proceed with its maritime agreement with Somaliland. Moreover, it may enhance Ankara’s leverage and increase the likelihood of actively mediating and mitigating the crisis.

However, the Turkish initiative underscores a broader strategic vision to extend its military presence beyond borders to enhance influence and safeguard interests in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. Through defense agreements with Ethiopia, Kenya, and most recently, Djibouti, where it signed three cooperation agreements on February 19, Ankara is positioning itself to emerge as a significant player in regional security affairs and address various regional and African challenges. This approach aligns with Türkiye’s expanding network of economic relations and its evolving geopolitical aspirations.

The Turkish-Somali agreement carries more profound implications and potentially wider repercussions than the Ethiopian-Somaliland MoU. This is particularly evident in reshaping relationships, forging alliances, and altering the Horn of Africa’s balance and dynamics. The region is experiencing heightened international and regional competition, given its increasing geopolitical and economic significance in the strategic considerations of competing powers. This trend is underscored by major global transformations, including indications of a new multipolar world order and evolving dynamics in critical minerals markets, driven by the global shift towards new and sustainable energy sources.

A general view of the logo of the African Union at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on February 15, 2024. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

How Can We Contribute to Containing Crises?

Gulf states and international partners, particularly Western nations, are keenly interested in restoring the Horn of Africa’s stability. This includes increasing investment in collective action mechanisms and platforms to contain crises and reduce hotspots of tension in the region. These efforts also aim to reformulate relations and interactions between local actors, governments, and states while mitigating the risks of proxy conflicts and internationalizing issues in the Horn of Africa. These initiatives enhance regional peace and security and foster win-win partnerships by fostering climates that rationalize competition and cooperation.

Considering the entrenched positions, current tensions, and mistrust among local and regional actors, it is crucial to discuss guarantees, incentives, and joint pressures necessary to steer them toward peaceful resolutions of existing crises. In this context, the following guidelines should be considered:

  • Enhance joint diplomatic engagement to address conflicts in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. It has become evident that the adherence to the mantra African Solutions to African Problems (ASAP) has sometimes complicated and prolonged regional conflicts. This is due to the lack of proactive strategies by the African Union and regional organizations to prevent conflicts and establish mechanisms for finding final and sustainable solutions, ensuring that parties involved are committed to their implementation.
  • Preventing and de-escalating tensions between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa and between Mogadishu and Somaliland should be a priority. Drawing lessons from similar international cases and conflicts could offer insights into reconciling Ethiopia’s maritime ambitions with Mogadishu’s sovereignty and territorial integrity concerns.
  • Increase focus on the situation in Somaliland and address its long-standing issues. It is imperative to inform the parties involved in the Somali crisis about the potential consequences of escalating internal hostilities and pursuing “zero-sum” policies. Emphasize the importance of restoring cooperation, particularly in security and airspace management, and addressing common threats such as terrorism and drought. There is also a need to push for the resumption of negotiations between Mogadishu and Hargeisa and develop a roadmap for a settlement between them.
  • Intensify efforts pressure conflicting factions in Sudan to de-escalate tensions and pursue peace. Develop a clear roadmap to resolve the crisis and address its underlying causes. This should include practical plans to expedite and resume negotiations, focusing on achieving an interim cessation of hostilities that can be extended and used as a foundation to build confidence and initiate a comprehensive political process in the country.
  • There is a critical need for powerful external actors to engage sincerely in efforts to resolve crises in the Horn of Africa rather than exploiting them for their interests. It is essential to foster healthy and positive competition to prevent the region from suffering the adverse consequences of external polarization and competition. This can be achieved by increasing coordination among external actors, states, and regional actors to align objectives and minimize conflicts of interest. It is imperative to agree on reliable and diversified paths for long-term cooperation and to explore new opportunities and prospects for expanding partnerships to enhance mutual benefits.

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was first published by the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), an independent think tank based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It is republished on Addis Standard website under the auspices of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed been JAKENN Publishing PLC, the Publisher of Addis Standard tri-lingual publications, and EPC providing shared principles for content sharing.

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