The Horn of Africa’s crucial geostrategic position has historically attracted many foreign players, which have deeply influenced the local political landscape. Local political actors, however, have not been passive spectators to this game. As European policymakers seek to understand the growing influence of foreign players in the Horn, it is crucial for them to understand the role played by these local actors in leveraging foreign involvement to further their own domestic interests.
Since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the region’s waters provide a swift naval connection between the Euro-Mediterranean region, the Middle East, eastern Africa, and the Indian Ocean. The Horn of Africa is generally said to comprise the states of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. However, South Sudan and Sudan are also directly affected by the Horn’s politico-economic factors. The security situation in this sub-region is highly complex due to several socio-economic, political, and geopolitical factors which range from extreme poverty to maritime insecurity.
In total 282 million people live in the Horn of Africa: Therefore, the population of the Horn of Africa accounts for approximately a third of the entire African population. Currently, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of global trade – including over 6 million barrels of oil per day – reportedly transits along the Horn’s shores. This makes the region a key geostrategic hub for countries all across the world. Owing to this position, as well to a mix of economic, political, and security considerations, a large number of external players are currently active in the Horn of Africa. These include countries with a longstanding historical presence in the region, such as Arab Gulf countries (e.g. UAE, Turkey, and Iran) and former European colonial powers (e.g. United Kingdom, France, Italy), as well as relative newcomers, North America (e.g. the US) and Asia (e.g. Japan, China).
As mentioned before, the Horn of Africa is currently one of the competition areas in which many global powers compete to exploit resources, maintain their influence, and guarantee trade routes, particularly because it is next to one of the most important shipping corridors in the world (the Bab al Mandab Strait) and to the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula and South Sudan. For external players getting involved in the Horn of Africa, the region is often an arena where they advance their own interests. This can entail cultivating alliances with local political actors, and potentially using them as proxies in broader international rivalries
In this context, much attention is often dedicated to the influence that these foreign players have on local political dynamics in the Horn. Yet, what is often overlooked is how local political actors are in turn able to leverage (and at times even shape) the involvement of these external players to further their own domestic interests.
For external players getting involved in the Horn of Africa, the region is often an arena where they advance their own interests
This two-way connection between geopolitics and local politics is particularly evident in the experiences of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. On the one hand, the geostrategic position of these countries on the Horn’s shores has historically attracted many foreign players, which have deeply influenced local political landscapes. On the other hand, by seeking to leverage foreign backing to their own advantage, local political actors have brought their struggles to a regional and global level.
These actions can have major repercussions for local political dynamics in the Horn. Alliances with foreign powers can significantly change the local balance of power, both between and within Horn countries. Moreover, through these alliances, international disputes can quickly spill over into domestic politics, potentially magnifying existing local tensions if each party perceives that it can rely on strong foreign backing.
Djibouti: a country shaped by foreign influence
While the influence of foreign players in Somalia has historically been significant, nowhere else than in Djibouti has such influence been so visible. In its mere 23,000 km2 of territory, the country hosts five different military bases – from France, the United States, Italy, Japan, and China. The engagement of these foreign actors has arguably been at the basis of the existence of the Djiboutian state. A longstanding defense treaty with France, for example, has granted protection to the small Horn nation vis-à-vis its larger and more powerful neighbors Ethiopia and Somalia, ensuring the country’s independence.
Moreover, the rents coming from the lease of foreign military bases and the fees of Djibouti’s busy ports have been instrumental in shaping Djibouti’s political landscape. In particular, control over these rents has typically strengthened the hand of the incumbents, allowing them to exert tight political control over the country. At the same time, the extensive presence of external players means that international tensions coming from outside the region can rapidly spill over into Djibouti. For instance, when Russia approached the Djiboutian government to build a military base in the country, such a request was reportedly rejected not due to domestic reasons, but rather due to pressure from the US, which feared the expansion of Russia’s presence in the region.
The country has turned into an arena for Sino-US competition
Similarly, with the opening of a Chinese military facility in Djibouti, the country has turned into an arena for Sino-US competition. US policymakers had staunchly opposed (although without success) the construction of such facility, and since its opening, they have repeatedly voiced concerns about tense interactions between Chinese and US military personnel.
Over the past twenty years, Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh and his associates have managed to attract significant economic resources from abroad, mostly in the form of port fees from Ethiopia and land leases for foreign military bases. These resources have then been used by the ruling elites to pay off key domestic political actors, hence consolidating political control. Moreover, President Guelleh has been able to exploit the growing foreign interest in Djibouti to gradually increase his demands vis-à-vis his foreign partners. When the US opened its base in 2002, for instance, the French bill reportedly increased by 70 percent. Similarly, Djibouti’s refusal to open the Russian base was reportedly rewarded with a 110 percent increase in annual payments from the US, who had forcefully opposed a Russian presence in Djibouti.
It is interesting to note that, by playing multiple foreign partners against each other, Djibouti’s ruling elites managed not only to further consolidate their domestic power but also to influence the regional approach of much more powerful global players. For example, when Russia saw its request for a military base denied, it was forced to look for alternatives elsewhere in the region, eventually turning to Sudan. Djibouti’s strategy also seriously threatened to affect the regional presence of the US, as the prospects of a Chinese military facility in Djibouti reportedly pushed US policymakers to consider the relocation of the US base away from Djibouti, although this option did not eventually materialize.
Somalia: foreign support, domestic agendas
While being a longstanding feature of Somali politics, the ability of local political actors to exploit foreign involvement forcefully came to the fore after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. As the international community got involved in the country through a mix of humanitarian, diplomatic, and military initiatives, Somali politicians and warlords leveraged virtually each of these initiatives to their own advantage.
Through the early 1990s, for instance, Ali Mahdi Muhammad exploited his participation in international peace conferences on Somalia to gain the recognition of the international community. Through this recognition, he got access to vast economic and military resources (including aid and the deployment of international troops) and leveraged them to fight Mohammed Farah Aideed, his domestic political rival within the United Somali Congress. Since then, this strategy has been widely replicated by successive Somali presidents – and it continues nowadays, as the weak but internationally recognized FGS remains heavily reliant on the international community’s economic and security support for its survival.
At times, local political actors have also exploited security deals to their own advantage
In a similar fashion, as Middle Eastern countries have expanded their influence in Somalia over the past decade, Somali political actors have sought to manipulate these new sources of external support to their own advantage. Ahead of the 2017 elections, for example, a group of Somali politicians managed to secure electoral funding from the UAE. These funds were then only reportedly used for personal advantages – much to the chagrin of Emirati policymakers, who failed to secure the election of their preferred candidates.
At times, local political actors have also exploited security deals to their own advantage. For instance, current FGS President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed has reportedly used the Haramcad, a special police corps trained by Turkey, as his private militia. Efforts to manipulate foreign support have also been a prominent feature in Somaliland. There, the administration has leveraged the UAE’s (and Ethiopia’s) involvement in the development of Berbera port to increase its legitimacy and press its claims to independence from the internationally recognized FGS.
Ethiopia: A war Torn Country
Over the last half-century, Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populated country, has experienced military rule, civil conflict, and terrible famine. It has risen as a key force in the Horn of Africa in recent years, enjoying rapid economic expansion and rising strategic significance in the area. Tigray militants, which have been wreaking havoc in Ethiopia for decades now, wanted to throw out Abiy Ahmed, from power.
The war that started in November 2020 as a conflict between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray Regional Government has turned the country into an arena where many regional and international powers are active. Like Pandora’s box suddenly opened, the conflict has borne many geopolitical surprises, but one of its most important ironies is the reported use of drones and weapons supplied by competing powers in the Middle East, who seem to have agreed on their support for Ethiopia’s government.
UAE, the first player
The United Arab Emirates played a pivotal role in the recent conflict in Ethiopia. The UAE stood at loggerheads with the United States, which wanted to let the African nation burn. But Abu Dhabi insisted that the conflict be fought decisively and that the TPLF be defeated. To that end, it provided Ethiopia with armed drones, which went on to become one of the most important reason for Tigrayan forces to retreat with their tails between their legs. Satellite images identified Emirati drones at Harar Meda Airport in Ethiopia and at a military base in Deirdawa in the east of the country.
“The war has turned the country into an arena where many regional and international powers are active”
The UAE’s intervention was an extension of its strategy to build an allied political and security system across the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, most notably following Houthi gains around Bab al-Mandab at the beginning of Yemen’s conflict. Abiy Ahmed’s election as Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018 further accelerated an alliance between Addis Ababa and Abu Dhabi.
That same year, the UAE-sponsored Eritrean-Ethiopia peace agreement pledged to support the Ethiopian treasury with three billion dollars and made huge investments in various sectors. From this perspective, the possibility of the Tigrayans seizing power in Addis Ababa was a threat to these political arrangements, and Emirati investments, especially since the TPLF view Abu Dhabi with hostility after its role in their first defeat in November 2020.
Turkish drones in the Habesha sky
The visit of the Ethiopian prime minister to Ankara in August 2021 represented a turning point in the relationship between the two countries, which had become estranged in parallel with the development of Ethiopian ties with the UAE-Saudi axis. During the visit, a package of agreements was signed that included “military cooperation”. Indeed, according to the Turkish Defence Industries Corporation, the value of Turkish military exports to Ethiopia increased from just $234,000 in 2020 to nearly $95 million in 2021.
Although in July 2021 the Turkish embassy in Addis Ababa denied that it had supplied drones to Addis Ababa, reports alleged the participation of Bayraktar TB2 drones in military operations in Ethiopia’s conflict after Ahmed’s visit to Ankara, which were not denied by either side this time. This development is an extension of the Turkish approach in the region described by Jason Moseley, a Research Associate at the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. “Turkey has adopted an interventionist attitude in the regional crisis, with the consequent rebalancing between soft and hard power in favor of the latter,” he wrote last year.
In fact, Turkey saw drone support for the Ethiopian government as a strategic gain, bolstering its reputation in the African military and security market after it had proven its success in an African war arena, with growing demand for this type of weapon. Ankara’s participation also indicates that Turkish construction companies could make a significant contribution to the reconstruction of infrastructure in the areas destroyed by the war
Preventing Ethiopia from sliding into a civil war protects Ankara’s large investments inside the country and ensures that the ensuing chaos does not spread into neighboring Somalia, the most important center of Turkish influence in the African continent. Additionally, Turkish support for the Ethiopian government appears to be a strategic necessity due to Ankara’s fears of the Tigrayans, who Ethiopia has accused of being supported by Egypt. In this sense, Ankara’s ties with Ethiopia are related to the exchange of support between the two countries, which is taking place in the context of their conflict with Egypt.
Iran seeks an opportunity
In a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, on 7 December 2021, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael accused Iran, along with the UAE and Turkey, of providing the Ethiopian army with weapons, including drones. Prior to that, the US government had accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) of providing drones to Ethiopia, and on 29 October 2021, sanctions were issued by the US Treasury Department.
According to investigative websites, Iranian drones have been seen in Ethiopia and 15 flights from two airlines linked to the IRGC have been monitored from Iran to the Harar Meda military base in Ethiopia. Both the Iranian and Ethiopian governments have not yet commented on these reports. The sharp dispute between Ethiopia and the United States over the war in Tigray, and Washington’s continuous pressure on Ahmed’s government, who has framed the conflict as a colonial attack on Ethiopia’s unity, has apparently brought Tehran and Addis Ababa closer. Iran sees the Ethiopian PM’s need for military equipment as an opportunity to expand its strategic presence in a country that is historically an ally of the United States and Israel.
This level of Iranian engagement demonstrates the importance of the Ethiopian arena for Tehran, and indicates Iran’s desire to enter the burgeoning military and security market in Africa. However, the most important prize for Tehran is a return to Ethiopia, which is situated close to Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa, after losing its influence in recent years with allies Eritrea and Sudan following Emirati-Saudi pressure, and the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum after popular protests.
The weight and extent of their involvement are best indicated, perhaps, by consultations the US envoy to the Horn of Africa, which has historical influence in Ethiopia, has been having with Middle Eastern capitals to try to find a solution to the Ethiopian crisis.
Eritrea: To understand the Ethiopian war, one must understand Eritrea
The thing about big wars is that every actor thinks that it is right, and every actor has his own story to tell. Both the Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have their own story to tell. The UAE and Russia are actively supporting the Ethiopian government, whereas US President Joe Biden supports the TPLF because destabilizing Ethiopia and installing a puppet regime in the East African nation would help the US to shore up its influence in the Horn of Africa. However, there is a third actor also – Eritrea, which has its own story to tell.
Eritrea is a relatively newer nation, having got separated from Ethiopia in the 1990s. The country had to fight a 30-year long independence war before it succeeded under the leadership of its incumbent President Isaias Afwerki. During the independence struggle, Isaias’ Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, (EPLF) shared a sense of camaraderie with Meles Zenawi’s fighters from the northern Tigray region, which is presently at war with the Ethiopian government and borders Eritrea.
The fallout between Eritrea and TPLF
On his part, Isaias found it necessary to cooperate with Zenawi, because he thought that the TPLF leader had a role to play in his country’s liberation. However, the camaraderie between TPLF and Eritrea soon evaporated with Eritrea challenging the Ethiopian position of hegemony in the Horn of Africa. In 1998, Eritrea and TPLF-led Ethiopia went to war, in which Eritrea got defeated.
Ultimately, the Isaias government signed a peace agreement and subjected its border dispute with Ethiopia to international arbitration by an independent commission. However, TPLF simply refused to abide by the commission’s first award in 2002 and it soon became clear that Eritrea and TPLF will not be able to make peace despite Zenawi’s death in the year 2012.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed, a man of mixed Oromo-Amharic parentage came to power in Ethiopia in 2018 and changed everything. He replaced the TPLF and also got the Eritrean-Ethiopia peace deal concluded, for which Ahmed was given the Nobel Peace Prize. He even promised to accept the 2002 boundary commission which means that Ethiopia and Eritrea have become friends again.
Therefore, when TPLF went to war with Ethiopia, Eritrea decided to back Ethiopia and sent in its troops. This was also a result of Eritrea’s history of betrayal with the TPLF and a desire to consolidate its position in the region. The TPLF, on the other hand, is not backing off because of its ultra-nationalist ideology. For years, TPLF has evoked sentiment of ultranationalism and ethnic pride combined with a false notion of victimhood amongst the Tigray people. TPLF thus effectively gets reduced into a militant group perpetually in war to ‘protect’ its people.
Why is the US getting involved:
The US is getting very actively involved in the region. The Biden administration supports the TPLF, even though Ethiopia is decimating it. The Biden administration is hounding Ethiopia with sanctions and looking to embolden the TPLF. The US has its reasons to do what it is doing. The US has a very limited presence in the Horn of Africa, a strategically crucial region that offers access to Yemen, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea, apart from serving as the source of the River Nile.
Russia has become a major arms supplier to the region, while China has become a leading investor. Saudi Arabia and the UAE too are enjoying close ties with the Horn of Africa nations. Also, Eritrea seems to be firmly in control of its leader Isaias, who is a long-time dictator. Similarly, Ethiopians back their leader Abiy Ahmed who saved the country from civil war and is introducing staggering reforms to tackle ethnic conflict and the Christian-Muslim divide in Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, regional conflicts are also dying down with Eritrea’s leader Isaias normalizing ties with Somalia and Ethiopia. In fact, Isaias is also looking to mediate the Nile dam dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Eritrea’s efforts thus threaten to totally side-line the US. As the Horn of Africa embraces an era of peace and prosperity, and Ethiopia and Eritrea marginalize the TPLF, the US is getting nervous, and Biden is increasingly trying to drum up support for the TPLF. For Eritrea, however, defeating the TPLF is both a matter of prestige and its realization of how the militant group can harm the entire region.
China supports infrastructural development and is an important debt holder in Africa, owning a total of 60 billion USD in debt. Djibouti has a decisive role due to its geographic location. The importance of this country is elevated on account of its vicinity to the main marine route which passes from the Gulf of Aden through Bab el Mandab to Europe. Djibouti is the first foreign country where China has set up a military base. The purpose of China’s military presence in Africa is to protect economic interests, since its trade amounts to 1 billion USD a day, a large proportion of which passes through the Aden-Suez canal route. The rich natural resources such as oil reserves in South Sudan and Sudan have become attractive to countries such as China to maintain their growing economies. The US, on the other hand, with its allies, tries to limit China’s influence. Partnerships between US and African companies have been created with an allocation of 60 billion USD to support the private sector.
The increasingly dominant presence of China in Djibouti has been interpreted by Africa as having forced the US and others to explore alternatives. On the other hand, European countries favor investments in the Horn of Africa in order to limit the migration flow to Europe. In this realm, specifically, EU countries believe better governance and sustainable development are important for resolving the causes of conflicts, thereby causing a likely reduction in migration from Africa to Europe, particularly because the containment of immigrants has become a major concern since 2021. The relevance of Russia today cannot be compared with the Soviet Union’s influence in the region in previous decades. Nonetheless, Russian projects involve infrastructures, such as ports in Eritrea and railroad development in Ethiopia. Furthermore, most countries in the Horn of Africa particularly Ethiopia rely on Russian arms systems.
The geographical location of the Horn of Africa makes it a competitive hotspot for various global powers. Many regional powers are involved, either in collaboration with global powers or separately, to maintain their influence. Being a major trade route towards western countries, collaboration with the states of the Horn of Africa is vital. Also, as the Horn of Africa is a network hub for religion-inspired violent extremist groups from the Middle East and Africa, it is of primary security interest for all international actors, including the US, China, the Middle East, and NATO, to closely monitor the global trade routes and regional security.
The cases of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti illustrate how today as much as in the past geopolitical dynamics and local politics in the Horn create a complex tangle characterized by a bi-directional channel of mutual influence. On the one hand, geopolitical tensions at the international level spill over into Horn countries, affecting local political settlements. On the other hand, local political actors have the power to leverage (and at times even influence) the involvement of foreign players according to their own interests.
While the influence of foreign players on Horn politics often gets a large degree of attention, the agency of local political actors is often underestimated at best, overlooked at worst. At a time when European and Dutch, the US, China, the Middle Eastern policymakers seek to assess the growing influence of foreign players in the Horn and respond to it, it is crucial for them to have a clear understanding of how geopolitics and local politics mutually influence each other in the region. Assessments that overlook the agency of local political actors are unlikely to lead to sound policies.