Saturday, April 20, 2024
CommentaryPolitical transitions in the Horn: Opportunities and implications

Political transitions in the Horn: Opportunities and implications

Political developments in the Horn of Africa have taken a negative turn recently. In Sudan, the unclear entanglement of the military wing and Sovereign Council, which was expected to transition into a an independent civilian administration, was put to question following a course of events in which the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) clashed in an armed struggle that has raged since April 2023.

In Ethiopia, in November 2022, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government signed permanent cessation of hostilities agreement after two years of war. The Somali government is yet to navigate the delicate balance posed by al-Shabaab and respond to anti-al-Shabaab clan uprisings. The new president is yet to resolve such tensions to put the country on stable ground.

Kenya held elections in August 2022 which saw a former Deputy-President, Willian Ruto, acceding to the presidency in spite of a petition filed by Odinga before the Kenyan supreme court with claims that the digital voting system had problems. However, the court upheld the results in September. As many of these events in the sub-region lacked a smooth and proper conclusion, the prospects of an effective political transition in the immediate future have come into question.

Furthermore, the MoU signed between Somaliland-Ethiopia on January 1, 2024, that would allow Ethiopia to gain sea access in exchange for recognition of Somaliland’s statehood, has created further tensions. There is speculation on the specifics of the agreement, however, no concrete evidence has been shared from the Ethiopian side.

Moving forward, the development of national, regional, and global policies can address these problems quite effectively. Sub-regional and regional organizations like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU), along with global partners, must carefully assess where their efforts have helped in addressing persistent issues. Such an assessment can help these organizations to better develop better policies that can resolve the persisting challenges.

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Troubled political transitions in the Horn of Africa are a serious concern that need to be looked into deeply. This is especially the case in the sub-region’s largest countries, such as Ethiopia and Sudan. Even though some positive developments have most recently been witnessed in Ethiopia after the Pretoria Peace Agreement was signed between the federal government and TPLF, the same cannot be said about other countries in the sub-region like Somalia, whose fight with al-Shabaab continues without an end in sight.

In November, 2023, the main protagonists in Ethiopia were able to sign a peace deal that halted the fighting and enabled the passage of relief. In the meantime, Somalia navigated a delicate transition and was able to form a new administration with plans to smoothen relations between the central government and sub-national federal states, including its neighbors, whereas Kenya’s high-stake 2022 election was concluded smoothly.

The second round of peace talks between the Federal government and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) taking place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania ended without an agreement on November 21, 2023.

Federal government officials stated that the reasons behind this have to do with “obstructive approach and unrealistic demands.” However, in consideration of equipping a positive political trajectory in the country, this effort needs to be continued in the future.

The concerns about the future security of Somalia have arisen against the background of the planned withdrawal of the peacekeeping mission African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

The United Nations Security Council (UN SC Security) approved the replacement of AMISOM by Atmis (African Transitional Mission in Somalia) in April 2023 with a reinforced mandate to combat the Al-Shabaab Islamists until the end of December 2024, keeping peacekeeping efforts going.

Nonetheless, the resolution adopted assessed Somalia’s “progress” against the Al-Shabaab while expressing “great concern” at the “grave threat to peace” that the group, affiliated to al-Qaeda, continues to pose.

With conflict on the rise across the continent, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance Report focusing on safety and security reflects a drastic prediction that 70 percent of Africa’s population lives in a country where the security and rule of law environment has worsened in the decade since 2012.

Although the figure in general is reflective of a decline in accountability and transparency, the biggest drop in the past ten years was witnessed in the Index’s Security and Safety sub-category.

In the past decades, African policymakers in tandem with their partners have favored a military-centric approach to resolving deadly conflict in place of the positive role good governance and strong institutions play in securing a stable peace. This leaves the Horn of Africa to remain a region marked by persistent conflicts and the constant risk of instability. The unprecedented realities in the recent conflicts in Sudan and Ethiopia indicate how the region is highly susceptible.

That said, the global environment also added a fair share of the challenges. Quite specifically, the Russia and Ukraine altercation in February 2022 happened at a moment when African countries were charting a path toward recovery following the economic slowdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The invasion – as well as the sanctions and other counter-measures imposed by Western countries on Russia – resulted in soaring commodity prices, notably those of food, fuel, and farm inputs. Because such an economic slowdown left many to struggle to cope, it has heightened possibilities of unrest. On top of that, climatic shocks are now one of the leading causes of displacement and economic dislocation on the continent and may create new conflict possibilities.

Aside from this, socio-economic factors and historical ties have specifically affected the rise of conflict within the region. No doubt, this encourages the development of national, regional, and global based policies that can aid in its resolution. In this regard, issues that tend to garner the most attention include democratic governance, border disputes, and the usage of Nile Waters. This calls for a more efficient and timely regional response to conflicts to prevent immense human suffering and destruction.

Thus, the past and current experiences in the area provide organizations like IGAD, the AU, and global partners the opportunity to carefully look into how far their efforts have helped to address underlying issues. This is likely to capacitate the organizations to design better approaches to preventing or responding to conflicts.’

The role of IGAD is of paramount importance in this regard; a sub-regional organization focused on promoting regional cooperation and integration between its eight member states. It is expected to release a regional response to conflicts in the sub-region.

IGAD played an instrumental role in peace negotiation processes in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Its Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) helped to reduce conflicts in border areas of some member states. IGAD has also been working to prevent and counter violent extremism.’

Nonetheless, in spite of its efforts for regional peace and security, member states’ concerns for sovereignty and its weak institutional capacity have so far hindered the regional bloc from preventing and responding to conflicts effectively.

Currently, an issue of serious concern is how the IGAD can deal with competing interests of external actors who contribute to creating a challenge for a regional response to conflicts.

Despite the promising developments, the recent political transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia require sensible, pragmatic, and coordinated support from outside actors along with adequate financial frameworks for peace. Additionally, new actors and changing conflict constellations have emerged in several of the countries of the wider Horn of Africa. Such dynamics potentially change the way peace and collective security can and will be organized in the future.

The Horn of Africa is undergoing far-reaching changes in its external security environment. A wide variety of international security actors—from Europe, the United States, the Gulf, and Asia—are currently operating in the sub-region. Consequently, the sub-region has experienced a proliferation of foreign military bases and a build-up of naval forces. Foreign military presence increasingly operates as part of much wider military networks across the Middle East and the Gulf, and the Indian and Pacific oceans.

This is encouraging a shift in regional security. In particular, the increased importance of maritime security issues has blurred the conventional division between the Horn, the Middle East, the Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. Predictions are, in the next decade, the sub-region’s international security linkages are expected to strengthen further. The emergence of crowded international security politics, according to analysts, is bound to raise the prospect of proxy struggles, growing geopolitical tensions, and a further extension of externally driven security agendas in the region.

Although the Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa are distinct, but interdependent Regional Security Complexes (RSCs), the security interaction and beyond has increased over the last two decades. Their wide-ranging involvement has been cause for concerns about the Horn of Africa’s peace and security.

In the last three years, the Gulf states have been considered by many observers as “rising” powers in the Horn of Africa. This has been especially pronounced with respect to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The formation of new military alliances and the strengthening of economic ties have been offered as “proof” of their expanding influence forcing analysts to question and rethink regional power dynamics.

If one is to look into the very motivation behind the vested interest in the sub-region after 2011, concerns over the possible spillover effects of the uprisings that swept the Middle East were the reason behind them. At that period, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began to gradually exhibit a newfound assertiveness in international affairs, adopting a more active stance in their foreign involvements, and even becoming more willing to use their militaries in support of their national interests. Both countries, for example, have sent their armies to Bahrain and Libya and later to Iraq and Syria to fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This showed that in place of their prior “quiet diplomacy,” they began to exhibit an increasing show of assertiveness and muscle flexing in response to security concerns.

In view of this, a careful assessment of the drivers of the vested interest in the sub-region is of paramount importance in order to carefully examine geo-political motivations behind this surge. Given the Horn of Africa is bound to enjoy some benefits out of the increased interest, matters of security interest should at most be reserved to the countries at stake, it has to be carefully looked into moving forward.

A regional complex theory (Copenhagen theory) posits that the actions of actors and motivations in international security concerns are mainly generated in their immediate neighborhood, meaning the security of each actor in a region has interactions with that of the other actors. It refers to a group of states whose concerns are tied together.

Irrespective of their differences in global influence as well as wealth, both sub-regions are bound together in the shared similarities they possess, especially in the security sphere. Firstly, both can be defined by the politics of state and regime survival. In both security complexes, the redrawing of borders is a reality as can be exemplified by Eritrea and Somalia, as well as South Sudan.

The current proliferation of military bases in the sub-region may bring opportunities for the host states that can help them fulfill their national interests but also be a source of concern for the countries involved.

The countries that have leased military bases, as well as harbors and airfields, are situated between these opposing poles. There are also the prospects of booming consumer markets, natural resources, and its strategic location along one of the world’s busiest maritime routes.

Countries like Djibouti (which leases military bases to six countries) have been able to collect close to 300 million USD annually. To varying degrees, the same trajectory may be extended to Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland.

Because the countries that possess military bases in the sub-region (like UAE, Turkey, China and Japan), are involved in port development in the host state, the spillover benefits of this led to affordable, modern, and accessible port services to the states in the horn. This has led to an increment in the volume of trade. An additional benefit drawn has been these services extended possibilities for Gulf states to lend, donate, and reserve large amounts of foreign currency (checkbook diplomacy), aiding the countries in the sub-region facing foreign currency shortages.

This is notwithstanding the support rendered in military technology, and infrastructure training. Foreign military bases also protect coastlines from piracy, terrorist attacks, and any attempts that aim to block access to the Red Sea.

This has provoked the need for the countries in the Horn to develop their navies better. Given this, a recent meeting was held between the Ethiopian Prime Minister and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia during the Saudi-African Summit, which deliberated on productive partnerships.

Participating countries included Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Tanzania, signifying the importance of the shared interests. Likewise, Sudanese army chief, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, traveled to Ethiopia to discuss issues of concern such as the ongoing crisis in Sudan.

Proxy wars between rival regional powers, worsened relations between domestic political forces, and the creation of a patron-client relationship with the host country are among the consequences to consider in regard to foreign military bases.

The foreign powers may override the domestic political priorities of host states to their end, because these countries do not want to risk losing their benefits and are willing to reverse their policy priorities. Even more so, the shifting manner in which alliances (local, regional, and global) are made exposes the host states to weakened peace and security structure.

An example can be Eritrea, which shifted alliances between Iran and Saudi, and Sudan, between Egypt and Ethiopia. The latter occurred given the impasse over the construction of the GERD, which is putting Gulf states in a difficult position as they try to balance their relations with the three parties involved (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan). Somalia and its relationship with UAE and Turkey is also an example.

These changing alliances breed instability in the region. As the establishment of military bases intrudes on the territorial sovereignty of the host countries, it risks aiding instability in those countries that do not abide. Additionally, there are possibilities of increments in the role of the military and related institutions in different areas (economic, political and social spheres).

Even though the Horn of Africa is passing through a tough period of political transitions that have led to instability, a proper way of looking in depth into the foundational causes of the problems is the only avenue to coming out of it. After this, instilling a tailored and effective way of governance in which identified problems are to be addressed is of paramount importance. The sub-region must be encouraged to develop the ability to actually engage in matters of national concern but shouldn’t be a receiver of standards set by outside entities.

(Eden Tafesework holds a PhD in International Law and is a senior researcher analyzing areas of concern in the Horn of Africa and the wider East Africa region.)

Contributed by Eden Tafesework (PhD)

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