The Horn Of Africa States: 2023 The Annus Horribilis – OpEd


This was a tough year for the region and one can only describe it as the annus horribilis or the terrible year. It was a year when a series of horrible events with their consequent attendants of disarray, internal and external strives, and indeed, painful experiences took place roughing up the region in many ways.

Prof. Macharia Munene was right when he wrote that “In the Horn of Africa region, 2023 is likely to be a miserable year”, in an article entitled “The Horn of Africa in 2023: A Geopolitical Analysis” and dated January 13th, 2023, in the Horn Institute of International Studies magazine. The good professor cited three reasons for the misery of the region, and they included rivalry among the member states of the region, extra-regional forces that bedevil the region including terrorism and foreign interferences and dependency on extra-continental powers for sustenance and support. All three issues marred the region during the year, indeed!

The Horn of Africa States region as a potential candidate for a new integrated economic block suffered a number of setbacks during the year 2023. The first perhaps was the instability of Ethiopia which went from mild to worse. The Government was not able settle the conflicts with some of its internal protagonists, which at the turn of the year looked brighter as it settled the conflict with its Tigray province late in the previous year 2022. A new and more dangerous war with its Amhara state soon went out of control and the conflict with its Oromo Liberation Army, another issue that the government was grappling with, continued despite attempts to settle it. Other ethnic groups in the country also continued keeping the government busy and away from its duties of governance and development. It concentrated in keeping the country together and its security, where rage at one time during the year forced it to pronounce undiplomatically its need to have access to a sea outlet either through negotiations or by force. This was probably one of the worst moments of the Horn of Africa States as a possible alternative to IGAD and the encroaching EAC.

In this respect, one must mention the EAC’s action to entice and swallow Somalia into its fold, a country which is as unqualified to be a member of that organization as it can be. Somalia remained grappling with its internal woes and external interferences, where mere ambassadorial diplomats call by the finger the head of state and the prime minister and ministers of the government to its Halane enclave in Mogadishu protected by ATMIS and other unaccounted-for or unnamed foreign forces – an undiplomatic approach when one is, indeed, a guest in another’s house. Somalia was admitted into the EAC in Arusha during the year, which takes it away from the Horn of Africa region, which it belongs to naturally, but which did not get of the ground yet. This was a monumental disaster for the Horn of Africa states, which has to doubly work harder to recover the country from the jaws of the EAC. 

While many see this as a way for improving Somalia’s acceptance of improving its image under the eyes of the international community, it was, in fact, another step in nailing the country’s coffin. One must note that the EAC is a Swahili speaking world where Somalia is a Cushitic country. But even worse, the EAC is a trojan mule for foreign interference in that region. The Federal Government of Somalia is barely in control of its country and its institutions are still non-functioning and/or dysfunctional, including its security services, which seem to being dismantled and unable to secure the country as they should.

The country does not have a tax collection mechanism throughout its territory and, indeed, does not control its total territory, some regions of which claim to be independent where even the international community deals with them separately and away from the Federal Government of Somalia. The country’s constitution remains incomplete, and it does not have a constitutional court either. The country remains under chapter 7 of the UN Charter, and it is not free to deal where and how and with whom it wants on its own. And letting it into the EAC fold is still unexplained and unexplainable!

During the year 2023, another major event that took place was again related to Somalia, which received from the UN Security Council an easing of the arms embargo imposed on the country in 1992. But it has still to report to the UN Security Council on all the arms it imports and what it does with them or how and where they are stored, an event which was hailed by many, but which remains far short of a deal for an independent sovereign country.

Perhaps another milestone which was achieved in the region in 2023 was again related to Somalia, which received a debt relief under the HIPC process of some US$ 4.5 billion from the IMF and the World Bank. But the country still remains hooked to a portion of the debt of some US$ 600 million, which it has to service and pay back, although its revenue generation capacity remains probably at 1, if not less, in a scale of 10. The country will have to borrow more to be able to achieve some of the milestones the IMF and the World Bank have laid for it, and this would only raise the debt of the country again, with potentially no tangible economic growth. It was, indeed, a blessing and the result of hard work by Somalia to have achieved the harsh conditions of the IMF and the World Bank. But the country remains economically in a dire situation taking into consideration the corruption and anarchy therein.

The region saw in the year escalation of the conflicts of the region with both Ethiopia and Somalia suffering from their internal divisions and Eritrea and Djibouti also continuing their disputes on small border areas. However, the region was shaken by the pronouncement of Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia in front of his parliament that Ethiopia must have a sea outlet either through negotiation or by force, which jolted the region. 

The peace treaty that was signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea (the Jeddah Agreement of September 16th, 2018) was further shattered by Ethiopia deporting many Eritreans who sought refuge in Ethiopia, whereas the UN urged Ethiopia to stop that process. Article 3 of the Jeddah Agreement envisages that “the two countries will develop Joint Investment Projects including the establishment of Joint Special Economic Zones.”  Ethiopia was, in this respect, looking into developing a new port, which is called Tio on the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea and not the ports of Assab and Massawa as many have reported. Ethiopia was looking at this port if an agreement on a long-term lease (probably 99 years) be agreed between the two countries along with a land corridor of roads and railways connecting Ethiopia to the Red Sea. Ethiopia was stipulating it would administer and manage the port at its will and to its full. The negotiations broke down, perhaps and the outrage of the Ethiopian Prime Minister was evident from his speech to his parliament.

Another milestone of the year included the re-entry of Eritrea into the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) during the year, after 16 years of absence. But this was soon marred by the furious spark in in its relationship with Djibouti on the issue of the border dispute which still remains outstanding without any tangible progress on the matter.

The three issues raised by Professor Macharia Munene were all proven right with rivalries between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Djibouti and perhaps, between Somalia and Ethiopia, as the two countries no longer see eye to eye on matters of the region continued to bedevil the region. Perhaps the only two countries which did not show any bilateral disputes were Somalia and Djibouti.

The foreign interferences and the terror groups continued to play havoc on the region and the dependency of the region on external powers for their sustenance was obvious. None of the countries of the region seems to be able to exist from the actions of their leaderships should they try to act independently or free themselves from outsider influences. The strategic location of the region has been one of its main pains throughout the past hundred and fifty years, when European colonizers divided it among themselves for spheres of influence in the 1884-5 Berlin Conference. The region overlooks one of the most important waterways of the world both for commerce and military – the Suez canal to the Indian Ocean shipping route, which includes the Bab El Mandeb chokepoint, a body of water barely 28 km wide between Djibouti and Yemen. The region currently hosts military bases for France, the United States, China, Japan, Turkey, the UAE, Spain, the United Kingdom, Qatar, and others. Most of them are in Djibouti, but there are also bases in located in Somalia and Eritrea.

The Bab El Mandeb chokepoint borders not only Djibouti and Yemen but also Somalia and Eritrea. They say that about 60% of the world’s oil vessels sail through this Bab El Mandeb Strait which connects the Red Sea and further north the Suez canal to the Gulf of Aden and further east to the Indian Ocean. Seaborne trade of a significant portion of world’s trade (about 10% to 11%) also passes through this chokepoint. Any disruption of this route would force shipping to change course and sail to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, increasing the cost of transportation and hence cost of products. The region is thus important for a smooth and peaceful usage of this waterway and hence its importance for the world’s trading nations and military powers. The current wars (the ongoing Palestinian – Israeli war in Gaza mostly) and subsequent disruption of the waterway by the Houthis of Yemen, demonstrates the importance of the waterway. Naval forces of many nations are currently gathering in the region in the form of what is now referred to as “Operation Prosperity Guardian”, although some countries seem to have withdrawn from it already including France, Spain, Australia, and Italy according to reports. But the storm that is brewing would be enormous and disastrous.

The region also suffered from climatic changes and droughts and floods during the year. There were delays in the onset of rains and there was erratic distribution of rainfall across the region, which did not support food production, including crops and livestock sustenance. There were also floods in parts of the region and especially Somalia which was mostly at the receiving end of floods pouring from the highlands of Ethiopia. And as usual the WFP and other NGOs were calling for humanitarian funds to fatten their administrations with little passing onto the actual victims as is often reported by many.

The other external influences on the region continued throughout the year. These included terrorism, illegal migration and illegal trafficking, piracy and mercenaries. The region thus kept slipping into the fold of external forces, who compete for influence in the region including superpower and regional rivalries, each of which are seeking to safeguard their interests in the region. However, none of those regional superpowers have yet achieved total acceptance in the region which remains as fluid as it can be, probably leading to its inability to choose sides in the deadly struggle among those extra-regional powers. This only contributed to the region’s miseries during the year. It was, indeed, an annus horribilis for the Horn of Africa States region – this about to close 2023 year! 

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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