Three years ago, a wave of political change crossed the Horn of Africa. In Sudan and Ethiopia, popular protests led to a change of leadership and what many assumed were democratic transitions. Ethiopia and Eritrea ended their two-decade rivalry, for which Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize. The peoples of the Horn of Africa were euphoric about what many thought would be a new chapter in the history of the region.
Today, contrary to expectations, mass atrocities, wars between states and autocratic strengthening have become the defining features of the region. Over the past six months, several international conflicts have (re) emerged, most notably between Ethiopia and Sudan, Eritrea and the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and Somalia and Kenya.
Egypt and Sudan are also threatening Ethiopia with the latter’s plans to proceed with a second filling of Ethiopia’s controversial Great Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River. In Ethiopia alone, two significant insurgencies have been launched in this period, while mass-motivated atrocities of ethnic motivation continue to take place regularly. The Horn of Africa is caught in a spiral of violence where domestic and regional conflicts overlap and feed off each other.
Conflicts and rights violations in recent months are not isolated incidents, but part of a broader pattern of regional disorder, in which non-compliance with fundamental international legal norms is a central feature.
Four destabilizing trends
The first indicator of creeping anarchy in the current Horn of Africa is the recent proliferation of territorial disputes and the general oversight of state borders. Eritrea, for example, has begun occupying parts of Tigray in northern Ethiopia and is issuing Eritrean identity cards to residents. Ethiopia makes territorial claims over the Sudanese region of Fashaga and, in response, Sudanese officials raise claims over parts of Benishangul Gumuz in Ethiopia.
Within Ethiopia, Abiy has supported the annexation of the Amhara regional state by parts of the Tigray regional state. Feeling Ethiopia’s weakness, Djibouti recently announced its intention to exploit the Awash River in Ethiopia. At the same time, Ethiopian politicians are publicly making irredentist claims about Eritrean territory. Finally, Somalia and Kenya have exchanged threats for the disputed maritime space.
While there is nothing wrong with territorial claims made by legal means, what we see is a recent trend of states trying to seize territory by force to create a consummated fact. This has led to a contagion effect in which a breach of the territorial integrity rule by one actor encourages other actors to do the same.
The second trend is the increasing prominence of foreign troops and mercenaries in national and regional conflicts. Abiy Ahmed subcontracted counterinsurgency to Eritrean soldiers in his war against Tigray and hired them in the border conflict with Sudan. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi has also used Ethiopian troops against local opponents in Somalia. At the same time, allegedly, Somali soldiers have fought in Ethiopia.
The main problems of these forces are their legal ambiguity, their tendency to commit extreme human rights abuses, and their unique ability to fuel inter-community tensions. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is the central driver of this trend. He has built an entire economy focused on seeking economic income from mercenaries and military bases.
The third problem is the growing disregard for international humanitarian law. In the last six months alone, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been involved in ethnic cleansing, rape, starvation and systemic massacres on an unprecedented scale. Eritrean troops have also destroyed refugee camps in Ethiopia that house Eritrean refugees and forcibly returned thousands of them to Eritrea. So far, this has not had any serious repercussions for the culprits and, in the face of criticism, Abiy and Afwerki have been despised.
Finally, today the Horn of Africa is also characterized by a sharp decline in multilateral diplomacy. The regional body Intergovernmental Agency for Development has been excluded from most conflicts and peace processes; he has been remarkably absent in the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace process and in the Tigray war. Instead, leaders have chosen to structure their cooperation and manage conflicts outside institutional frameworks and in a personal way, which is a major obstacle to preventive diplomacy.
Domestic politics fuels regional instability
The destabilization of the Horn of Africa is primarily a function of the domestic politics of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Abiy, Afwerki and Abdullahi forged the tripartite alliance in 2018 with the aim of shaping the regional order according to their national political ideals. All three leaders oppose federalism, accommodating ethnonational diversity, and institutionalized governance. Instead, they prefer a centralized state under the command of a strong man who rules by fiat.
Afwerki, the godfather of the alliance, has ruled Eritrea without a constitution or a single election for nearly 30 years. The source of their autocratic longevity is a universal and indefinite military recruitment policy that has included most young people in military barracks and forced hundreds of thousands to migrate. These conditions have made popular rebellion virtually impossible.
In Ethiopia, Abiy was selected by his political party to make the country’s transition to democracy in 2018. However, with COVID-19 as a pretext in June 2020, he postponed the elections and imprisoned his opponents. Their attempt to concentrate power and suppress Ethiopia’s various ethnonational groups has provoked civil war and the approaching famine.
Abdullahi had to prepare Somalia for its first direct elections in several decades. Instead, he has been trying to centralize power in the federal government, which has led to conflicts with several regional governments, most notably Jubbaland. His term expired in February and, following the example of his regional allies, he extended for another two years. This has sparked a constitutional crisis and an armed conflict, which has eventually forced Somali lawmakers to cancel their term extension. He is the first president since the construction process of the Somali state began in 2004 to try to stay in office after his term expired.
The regional trends that are destabilizing the Horn of Africa today emanate from these domestic conditions. Efforts to break federalist forces in Somalia and Ethiopia have led to a spill of conflict across state borders and fueled regional rivalries. Members of the tripartite alliance also manage relations between states in the same way they govern their domestic politics: they conduct diplomacy through personal channels and resolve disputes by military means.
The behavior of the alliance is particularly destructive because of its long-term consequences. For example, territorial conflicts, ethnic cleansing, and rape as a weapon of war sow the seeds for intergenerational grievances. In Ethiopia, Abyy’s policies have already revived secessionist sentiments in Tigray and Oromia. And now one can question the extent to which Ethiopia will continue to exist as a nation after the war. In the last six months alone, these conflicts have displaced more than two million people in Tigray, and the European Union envoy to Ethiopia says it may be “the beginning of a potentially largest refugee crisis in the world.” .
What is unfolding in the Horn of Africa is a major threat to international security. Interrupting the continued decline in anarchy requires, in the first place, concerted efforts to compel leaders to abide by their constitutions.
In both Ethiopia and Somalia, Abiy and Abdullahi must be pressured to enter into a political dialogue with their candidates to re-establish their democratic reform processes. Second, the use of foreign mercenaries in national conflicts must be deterred. In particular, verification mechanisms need to be established to ensure the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from conflicts in the region. And finally, perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law must take responsibility for paving the way for a process of reconciliation but also for deterring others from participating in such acts.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.