PoliticsThe Risk Radar

September 2019: The Horn in turmoil

By September 30, 2019 No Comments

The Horn of Africa is in turmoil. The region stretches from the north of Sudan to Somalia, including Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, and onwards to the Somalian and Kenyan coast. Multiple developments are causing increased tensions in the region.

First, although the region has long been an arena of great power competition, today it sees a new rivalry playing out on its shores. Over the last years, the Red Sea area, which encompasses the Horn of Africa on the one hand, and the Gulf States on the other, has regained international attention. The Arab Uprisings resulted in a leadership vacuum in Middle Eastern states such as Syria, Egypt and Iraq in 2011 and 2012, causing the leaders of the Gulf States to show more assertive leadership. As they began to look for new spaces onto which to project power, many Gulf States turned to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa because of these areas’ enormous economic potential. All the Gulf States attempt to legitimize their presence by saying they’re pursuing stability in the region. However, many new Gulf-Horn relationships are highly asymmetrical and could further destabilize fragile local politics. Meanwhile, African leaders as well as Gulf and Western allies have only begun to discuss how to prevent the increased competition in the region from resulting in conflict.

Second, Sudan is in the midst of a revolution. Sudan’s military junta and opposition have agreed to form a civilian-led administration to steer a transition toward free and fair elections. But the generals are inexperienced and the transition is a complex one. And with repeated mass strikes (million-man march in June) Sudan’s citizens have shown that they will not accept superficial change, nor a return to the old ways. And six weeks after the transitional power-sharing deal, the Sudanese don’t see any changes.

Third, Al-Shabaab’s actions are destabilizing Somalia, a country with an already weak government. The al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group forms a potent threat to Somalia’s internationally recognized central government, frequently carrying out bomb and gun attacks against Somali military and other targets. The Global Terrorism Index lists al-Shabaab among the deadliest terror groups globally. It demands a strict form of Islamic government or caliphate to replace existing state authorities they perceive as secular, thus destabilizing local politics. Furthermore, last month, Al-Shabaab attacked a U.S. military base near Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and detonated a car bomb targeting a European Union military convoy.

Fourth, Ethiopia is undergoing a difficult political transformation. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came into office in 2018, has pushed to liberalize his country’s economy as well as its political landscape. But this summer, rights groups voiced concern when several activists, journalists and politicians were arrested, as anti-terror laws following the killings of government officials were still being used. Ehtiopia’s process of democratization remains a precarious one and has been neither linear nor peaceful. But the success of the process is of paramount importance to the region, since the country serves as a powerhouse and an isle of hope for the rest of the region.


  • Instability increases the region’s vulnerability in the current scramble for Africa. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have expanded their presence in the Horn. Either trying to reduce their dependence on oil by investing in African markets, investing in infrastructure on the continent to increase trade or increasing investments in agriculture in order to secure their own food security. Another reason is the Gulf States’ aim to improve their relationships to China through economic cooperation in the Horn. Therewith, the U.S.’ position as dominant power player (and mainly as peacekeeper) in the Horn is challenged. The Horn thus falls prey to the competition of external powers.
  • If instability increases and results in conflict, this might spark mass migration away from a region with a large and fast-growing population.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 2: Scramble for Africa, large-scale migration

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