Strongmen, coups, corruption drive Horn of Africa to the brink
The world is watching while the three largest countries of the Horn of Africa — Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan — teeter on the brink of a new round of violence, deeper and even more destructive than the last few years.
For many diplomats assigned to Addis Ababa, Mogadishu and Khartoum, and the Africa departments of foreign ministries, crisis has become so normalized that it can be hard to distinguish between the standard week-to-week turbulence of a political system in which alliances are bargained in an ever-volatile bazaar, and more profound changes in the structure of political economies.
Two of the region’s powerbrokers have made high-profile visits to Moscow in the last two months. An Eritrean delegation arrived there last week and vocally explained their goals of dismantling western hegemony. Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled the country of 3.5 million people as a personal fiefdom for over 30 years, didn’t travel, reportedly for health reasons. General Mohamed ‘Hemedti’ Dagolo, number two in Sudan’s ruling junta, visited Moscow in the week that Russia invaded Ukraine. His entry point was the Wagner Group, which sees Hemedti’s paramilitary Rapid Support Force as a natural partner for its ambitions to expand in Africa.
Neither Afewerki nor Hemedti are tools or proxies for Russia, but their goals and methods converge. And Afewerki is the only one with a coherent regional strategy, albeit one that depends upon others’ lack of strategy — indeed it amplifies their focus on day-to-day crisis management.
Six months after the coup in which Sudan’s junta, General Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy-cum-rival, Gen. Hemedti, reversed the country’s transition to democracy, it is clear that the military has no political plan other than survival. The generals have not been able to form a government, only to bring around a handful of old-school party leaders willing to cut back-room deals.
The ranks of senior officialdom are increasingly filled by people from the deposed Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir. Street protests continue and will surely escalate after the Eid. An effort by Volker Perthes, head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), to start talks between the soldiers and the civilians is stuttering, not least because it is partnered with the African Union, whose envoy, Mohamed Hassan Lebatt, has the unusual distinction of being distrusted by all sides — and especially reviled by the democrats, on account of his statements appreciating the generals as a force for stability.
Inter-communal violence in West Darfur State at the end of April left more than 200 villagers dead. It was a flare-up of precisely the same kind of violence, between well-armed militiamen from Sudanese and Chadian-origin nomadic Arabic-speaking tribes, and the local majority Masalit farming communities, that has been occurring sporadically for 35 years. Sudan’s generals cited the civilian government’s inability to solve this problem as one reason for their takeover.
It’s clear that the junta has no solutions either. Worse, each of the three power blocs within the ruling group is at odds with the others. The violence was instigated in large part by militiamen who serve in Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces—whether or not they were acting on his orders is immaterial. The Darfurian armed groups that joined the military regime — the Sudan Liberation Army of Minni Minawi and the Justice and Equality Movement of Jibreel Ibrahim—have sympathies on the other side. The Sudan Armed Forces align with neither, and their units in the area exchanged fire with the militia.
Shortly after the coup, Minister of Finance Jibreel Ibrahim dismissed worries over the suspension of international assistance, predicting that things would quickly return to normal. He was correct insofar as “normal” has come to mean a continuing economic meltdown accompanied by a nationwide food crisis. The generals simply have no plan for this, well aware that any meaningful economic reform requires the dismantling of the military-owned corporations and their kleptocratic stranglehold over the economy.
Al-Burhan at least appreciates that the only path out of economic collapse is repairing relations with western financial institutions. Hemedti appears to see the future of Sudan as a transnational enterprise in illicit commerce, including exporter of mercenaries, the welfare of its 40 million citizens be damned. Foreign envoys are becoming sucked into their week-to-week improvisations, apparently powerless to do anything about the country’s slow-motion collapse other than file reports.
The sight of a diplomatic community mesmerized by superficial politicking while a country implodes is even more striking in Ethiopia.
Diplomats, including U.S. Special Envoy David Satterfield, made a bet that the incumbent prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was the route to stability. That isn’t paying off. In recent weeks, he has expanded the war against the Oromo Liberation Army and made an inflammatory speech to the Agaw minority in Sekota, in Amhara region close to the rebellious region of Tigray, appearing to assert Agaw historic claims against both groups. He is also politicizing religion, contravening a generations-long consensus. In the last days of Ramadan, violent conflict between Muslims and Christians erupted in the city of Gondar, threatening to also inflame that fault-line in Ethiopian society.
Ethiopia’s biggest challenge remains the unresolved war in Tigray and the starvation siege which has cost an estimated 256,000-456,000 deaths from hunger and disease. The siege strategy is imposed jointly by Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose forces are still deployed south of the border on terms that have never been made public. Since the Tigray Defense Forces withdrew to defensive lines around their own region in December, ending their threat to capture Addis Ababa, less than six percent of what the UN assess as needed to feed the six million people in urgent need of food has been allowed through, while banking and other basic services remain cut off.
Whether by design or because of the way that the Ethiopian state now functions, each aid convoy requires negotiation through byzantine bureaucracy and local powerbrokers, each of which sets a new precondition. Satterfield has consumed much of his time and energy doing the kind of negotiation minutiae familiar to a field delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In doing so, he is losing sight of the non-negotiable deadline imposed by the limits of the human body deprived of essential food. The Tigrayans are still well-armed and well-organized and cannot be expected to surrender meekly to this process of incremental belt-tightening, notch by notch. They are warning that Eritrean forces are coordinating another, implicitly final, military offensive.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s economy—for decades the fastest-growing in Africa — is narrowly avoiding meltdown, but faces an imminent food crisis made much worse by the war between Russia and Ukraine, both important grain exporters to the region. The World Bank and western donors are desperately trying to bail it out, but, without a strategy for peace and security, the prospects for economic stabilization are remote.
Somalia has one crucial difference from its collapsing neighbors: its political elites have lived without a functioning state for thirty years and are skilled at handling political life on the edge of the abyss. They may still go over that precipice, however, if the Eritrean leader gets his way. The country is facing a perfect storm of food insecurity: an exceptionally severe drought, an international food price spike along with overstretch by aid donors, and the threat of a new civil war.
Long-delayed presidential elections are finally proceeding in Somalia — with a serious threat of violence. They aren’t one-person, one-vote but rather a complex electoral college of community elders, mostly representing clans, who cast the ballots. The incumbent, Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo,” has extended his term and is using cash and coercion to try to fix the election in his favor. He has been backed by Qatar while the United Arab Emirates has tilted towards his rivals, but the Gulf states have come to realize that funding Somali political budgets doesn’t buy them the kind of loyalties they expect, because local political calculations always intrude.
Middle Eastern states are less actively engaged in Somalia than during recent years, however, seeing the country as both less of an asset and less of a threat.
The antagonism of Somalia’s elites towards Farmaajo for his abuse of power, and especially the abuses of his intelligence chief, Fahad Yasin, mean that the election is wide open. In an encouraging sign of judicial independence, Yasin has been denied the chance to contest a parliamentary seat. One of Farmaajo’s political opponents, Sheikh Aden ‘Madobe’, has been selected as speaker of parliament, which positions him to control important aspects of the electoral process.
What Somalis fear most is that Farmaajo’s Eritrean-trained and -armed special forces will intervene to stage a coup. In 2009, the UN Security Council placed sanctions on Eritrea for its destabilization of Somalia by providing training to armed groups, including the militant al-Shabaab. Those sanctions were lifted after the 2018 peace agreement between Isaias and Abiy, whereupon Eritrea promptly resumed its clandestine security pacts and military training.
Somalis fear Isaias’s emergent regional axis of autocracy, a worry apparently not shared by the head of the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), Francisco Madeira, who was expelled last month by Prime Minister Mohamed Roble in defiance of Farmaajo’s wishes.
The small Red Sea state of Eritrea is involved in each of its neighbors and aligned with the forces of destabilization in each. Afewerki is the only leader this country has known since the military victory by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front prised it from Ethiopia’s grip in 1991. He treats that victory, and his entire country of 3.5 million people, as his personal property, ruling without constitution, parliament, rule of law or any political freedoms whatsoever. Isaias retains the ruthless mindset of his years commanding an outnumbered and outgunned guerrilla army, riven by spies and surrounded by enemies, for whom survival against the odds is sufficient triumph.
Eritrea is not the singular cause of the crises across the Horn, but its well-honed skill of fomenting discord and profiting from it makes it an obstacle to any resolution. Isaias has not seen a multilateral institution that he does not seek to undermine or an international principle he would not want to see discarded.
At the right moment — which will have to be very soon — the Horn of Africa demands a new strategic initiative, with its own leaders and international policymakers breaking free of the myopic frameworks that have so limited their response up to now. Step one towards that necessary goal is putting the systemic spoilers back in their boxes.