The current Russia-Ukraine crisis has overshadowed another troubled region of the world, namely the Horn of Africa, which encompasses Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia but also abuts Yemen across the waters. Most of these states have been plagued by internal conflicts as well as well as significant economic problems that have been exacerbated by a severe drought affecting millions of lives. Despite these calamities, foreign powers have been busy establishing bases in and signing economic contracts with some of these states for what can only be described as a new imperial contest for influence. However, what these states need instead, besides humanitarian aid, is not new military bases or military aid but good governance to deal with their mounting economic problems and genuine efforts to combat corruption.
Most of these countries are experiencing some form of internal strife, with Yemen having the most severe case as a consequence of the war that has ravaged the country for at least seven years. The conflict has exacerbated the plight of Yemeni civilians who are caught between the Houthi (Ansar Allah) rebels who control much of the northern part of the country and the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Yemeni government, now led by a Presidential Leadership Council. The United Nations Development Program estimates that more than 370,000 Yemenis have died since 2015—tens of thousands of whom in the fighting itself but most from disease and the lack of medicine, food, and water.
The only positive news coming out of Yemen is that a two-month truce is now in effect until the end of May which, despite some violations, seems to be holding, and that some humanitarian supplies are arriving through the Houthi-controlled Sanaa airport which had been closed off by the coalition. However, it is far from clear whether the current ceasefire will lead to a prolonged one and a peace deal between the warring factions. Although at this point the Saudis seem more eager for a peace deal than the Houthis, the latter’s drone and rocket attacks on Saudi territory have soured the prospects for a genuine peace deal.
The only positive news coming out of Yemen is that a two-month truce is now in effect until the end of May which, despite some violations, seems to be holding.
Across the narrow Bab al-Mandab strait lie Eritrea and Djibouti. Although the latter seems stable, the former is ruled by an oppressive authoritarian government. Human Rights Watch has described the Eritrean government as “one of the world’s most repressive [regimes], subjecting its population to widespread forced labor and conscription, imposing restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion, and faith…” In addition, the dictatorship of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has “no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary.” Hundreds of Eritrean citizens continue to languish in prison for merely speaking out against the regime. Eritrea, along with Ethiopia, has also been accused by human rights organizations and the international community of committing war crimes in the Tigray region which is in northern Ethiopia and straddles southern Eritrea.
Sudan is another country that is under the tight grip of authoritarian rule. The hope for a democratic Sudan that came with the popular uprising against longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 has been dashed by the Sudanese military, which reneged on its deal to jointly rule the country with civilians for an interim period. Having taken power in a coup in October 2021, the military has suppressed civilian authorities and has cracked down on protesters who wish to bring Sudan back on a democratic path. Despite the suspension of foreign economic assistance that came in response to the coup, the Sudanese generals seem to have made the calculation that they can weather this storm, possibly believing that their support for the so-called Abraham Accords in which Sudan and some other Arab states established diplomatic relations with Israel will eventually temper the punitive positions of the United States and other foreign donors.
However, it is unlikely that protests against military rule will end. Many members of Sudan’s educated middle class, who are represented by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FCC), are not giving up. Earlier this month, protests erupted again against military rule in several cities, resulting in the death of one protester and bringing the civilian death toll since the October 2021 coup to 94. An FFC spokesman stated: “we have tried a partnership with the military, and it failed, ending in this coup, and we shouldn’t do this again.” The civilian protesters are also upset by the fact that the military is rehabilitating leading members of Bashir’s discredited and corrupt National Congress Party, releasing them from prison and putting them back in governmental positions. Such a move could also put in jeopardy the peace agreements of October 2020 that the now deposed civilian authorities had negotiated with groups like the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.
It is unlikely that protests against military rule in Sudan will end. Many members of the educated middle class, who are represented by the Forces of Freedom and Change, are not giving up.
Somalia to the south and southeast has had an ongoing struggle against the Al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab group for two decades. Somalia itself is a divided country, with a self-declared Somaliland Republic in the northwest, and the rest of Somalia which has been in a state of chaos for years. Its current president, Mohamed Abdullahi, known as Farmajo, was supposed to leave office in February 2021 when his term expired but he declared that he would remain in power for another two years, putting him at odds with the current prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble. Abdullahi has accused Roble of corruption, while Roble has charged that Abdullahi wants to stay on as president indefinitely. In 2021, after Abdullahi tried to extend his presidential term, he was met with demonstrations and violent opposition.
Elections in Somalia for a new parliament (the lower House) were finally held from November 2021 to February 2022 with the majority of representatives sworn in earlier this month. Deputies from two states, Hirshabelle and Jubaland, are still to be elected. Although these electoral contests were not by universal ballot (instead, representatives were chosen by tribal clans and state legislatures) they were seen by Somalis as a positive step in an otherwise bleak political scene. Nonetheless, many things could derail the process going forward, as parliament is supposed to elect the president, and Abdullahi might not step down.
Meanwhile, al-Shabaab, which is opposed to any form of representative government, has tried to disrupt the process by attacking the parliament building on April 14 with motor shells. The group a week later also struck a seaside restaurant in Mogadishu that is frequented by government officials, causing at least six deaths.
Economic Misery, Drought, and Climate Change
Contributing to these conflicts is the bleak economic situation in the Horn of Africa. Even Djibouti, which has a stable government and relatively high economic growth due to its international port activities, suffers from a high 79 percent poverty level, with 42 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. The European Union has provided the country with 24 million euros (about $26 million) a year for such things as improved access to safe drinking water, food security, and support to vulnerable groups.
The situation is worse in Somalia where the country is suffering from its worst drought in forty years. According to the United Nations, about 7.7 million Somalis were in need of humanitarian aid this year even before the drought. The UN also estimates that 4.5 million Somalis are now directly affected by the drought, with 1.4 million Somali children under 5 years of age facing severe malnutrition.
The UN estimates that 4.5 million Somalis are now directly affected by the drought, with 1.4 million Somali children under 5 years of age facing severe malnutrition.
Although this region has experienced droughts in the past, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently noted that droughts in some parts of the world and extreme rainfall in other parts would become more frequent in the coming years as world temperatures rise in response to carbon emissions.
Sudan and Eritrea also face poor economic conditions, along with rising food prices as a result of supply chain problems. Subsidized bread in Sudan is becoming increasingly scarce and the purchasing power of the average citizen has eroded because wages have not kept pace with inflation. In addition, the suspension of US and World Bank financial assistance and debt relief as a result of the military coup of October 2021 has added to the government’s fiscal deficits. In Eritrea, the country was hit hard by a locust invasion as well as the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
Among all these countries, Yemen is suffering the most. According to the UN World Food Program, despite ongoing humanitarian aid, about 17.4 million Yemenis (out of a total population of 31 million) are considered food insecure, and this figure is expected to rise to 19 million by the end of 2022. In addition, malnutrition rates among women and children are among the highest in the world.
Involvement of Outside Powers: For What Purpose?
The Horn of Africa is adjacent to one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, that connects the Arabian and Red Seas, through which most maritime trade from Europe to Asia flows. According to the US Energy Information Administration, about 6.2 million barrels a day of crude oil and refined petroleum products passed through the strait in 2018. At its narrowest point, the strait is only 18 miles wide, making it vulnerable to disruptions, like the fallout from the ongoing war in Yemen. In mid-April, the US Navy announced that it would establish a new multinational task force to patrol the waters around Yemen. The commander of the US 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, said the ships would be an additional guarantor of security “in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Gulf of Aden.” Aiming to assure the Saudis that the US still has their back, Cooper was keen to mention the impact on the Houthis’ ability to acquire weapons. Another US official told the press that the waters from Somalia to Yemen are known to have been used to smuggle arms to the Houthis.
The Horn of Africa has emerged as a new “Great Game” among various powers seeking influence in the region.
However, international attention in the Horn is not just to stem such contraband. The area has emerged as a new “Great Game” among various powers seeking influence in the region. There has been a scramble over the past decade to establish military bases in the region by China, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. For example, Russia in December 2020 signed a preliminary agreement with Sudan for a 25-year lease for a naval base on its Red Sea coast. In December 2018, Russia also expressed interest in a logistical naval base in Eritrea. Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of Sudan’s top military leaders, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, who is head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, traveled to Moscow, and later said that he found no problem with Russia wishing to establish a naval base in Sudan. In addition, the notorious Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries reportedly close to the Kremlin, has been operating in Sudan for several years at the behest of the Sudanese military. Eritrea, meanwhile, has also cozied up to Russia and was one of few countries to vote against a UN General Assembly resolution criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Authoritarians seem to like each other’s company.
Meanwhile, Turkey has not only established a military base in Somalia where it trains Somali military personnel but has also been active in building schools and infrastructure projects in the country. In Somaliland, the UAE has established bases as part of its desire to control the sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti seems to be the most interesting country of all in relation to foreign powers, playing various sides. It hosts a Chinese military base located relatively close to a US one called Camp Lemonnier of the US Africa Command. In addition, France, Italy, and Japan also have military bases in Djibouti.
Part of the interest by these countries in the Horn of Africa is to reap some economic rewards, either through arms sales, infrastructure projects such as China’s building of railroads, through its Belt Road Initiative, and mining for minerals. China has even created a new diplomatic position, a special envoy to the Horn of Africa. However, given the poverty in the region, it is likely that many of these outside powers are actually paying more for their involvement than they are taking in. For those familiar with the history of imperialism, this is not unusual, as the interest of one country in a region often prompted others to follow suit in the belief that they should not fall behind the competition even if the policy did not make sense economically.
Needing a Shift in International Focus
Given the myriad problems facing the countries in the Horn of Africa, what this region needs are not more military bases and arms but a sustained plan to stabilize these countries and help them toward a democratic path and accountable government. Droughts are not man-made (though exacerbated by human activity), but poor governance is. Most of these countries in the Horn are either ruled by authoritarian leaders bent on aggrandizing power and lining their pockets or are plagued by civil strife. Either way, the poor and vulnerable suffer the most. Although it is important to keep the vital sea lanes open to prevent world-wide supply disruptions, the scramble for bases in the region by outside powers is counterproductive to bringing about peace and stability. A good part of the resources devoted to military activities should be shifted to help the United Nations deal with mounting food insecurity and disease in the region. Bringing about good governance will not be easy, especially since some of these countries’ patrons are authoritarian regimes themselves, but to neglect this aspect of the problem is to keep the people of this region in perpetual strife and misery. They deserve better.
Photo credit: Flickr/United Nations