The Horn Of Africa States: The Century And A Half Of Wars In The Region – OpEd


The Horn of Africa States region is a region with its own cultural and historical identity. In the past it lived by its own rules and the social interactions among its mainly Cushitic-speaking and Semitic speaking peoples and its influences stretched beyond the region into West and South Asia, northeast Africa and Europe, through either trade or wars. It remained a master of its own destiny until late in the nineteenth century, when the Suez Canal was opened and the region became a strategic focus for the powers that were in those days, mostly European. Ever since then, the region suffers from wars and more wars to the present, mainly because of, therefore, its geostrategic location.

We list hereunder some of those wars just for refreshment:

  1. The Italian-Abyssinian War of 1887 to 1889, which eventually gave to Italy a foothold in the region, and which led to the creation of the State of Eritrea.
  2. The Italo-Abyssinian War of 1894 to 1896, which led to the defeat of the Italians and hence kept Abyssinia, the precursor of Ethiopia as an independent state.
  3. The Dervish State Wars of Sayed Mohamed Abdullah Hassan from 1889 to 1921, which involved wars of resistance of Somalis against the invading forces into Somalia’s territories. The wars were against the Abyssinians, the Italians, and mostly against the British. The Dervish State was finally defeated by Britain in 1921.
  4. The Italian conquest of Abyssinia renamed then Ethiopia, in 1935 forcing the Government of Emperor Haile Selassie into exile in the United Kingdom.
  5. The World War II campaigns in the Horn of Africa States region (1940 to 1943), which started with Italy joining the Axis powers of Germany and Japan and invading British Somaliland then. Both British Somaliland and Ethiopia, were liberated in 1941, but the war continued in Eritrea and Italian Somalia then. The War ended in 1943, when Italy left the Axis Powers and Joined the Allied Powers of the Second World War.
  6. The Eritrean War of Independence (1961 to 1991) when Eritreans fought for their independence from Ethiopia. The war ended with the creation of the present-day state of Eritrea.
  7. The Somali-Ethiopia wars of 1964 to 1967, which were mainly border skirmishes from one side to the other but was mainly driven by Somalia’s then declared policy of reuniting the Somali territories and people under one country and one flag.
  8. The Oromo Wars of Ethiopia which started in 1973 and continue to the present day. The conflicts still rage, and no solution has been found for it yet, though, at present talks are underway between the Present Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).
  9. The Somalia-Ethiopia War of 1977 to 1978 often duped the Ogaden War. This was part of the continuing aspiration of Somalia to reunite Somali people and territories in one state. The war resulted in the expulsion of Somalia out of Ethiopia by the combined forces of the Ex-Soviet Union and its satellite countries, mainly Cuban . This was a part of the cold war, as Somalia then switched to the West camp.
  10. The Somali Civil war which started in 1987 and which still continues under different shades – religious, terrorism, clans and ethnic-based competition for power. 
  11. The Eritrean Yemeni Clashes of 1996, which, in the main, involved sovereignty over some of the islands in the south of the Red Sea (The Hanish Islands). This was settled through the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which after two years of proceedings issued rulings on the matter, which both Eritrea and Yemen accepted.   
  12. The Ethio-Eritrean War of 1998 to 2000, which was, in the main, a border dispute between the two states. The borders remain unchanged, and a peace treaty was signed between the two states in 2018, which earned Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize.
  13. Ethiopia’s Unwarranted Invasion of Somalia in 2006, which ended in the defeat and retreat of the Ethiopian invading army by a general Somali uprising in 2007. This eventually led to the creation of Somalia’s Transitional Government in 2008, which eventually brought to power the present Federal Government of Somalia in 2012.
  14. The Tigray War (2020 to 2022) which devastated not only the Tigray sub-state but also Ethiopia and ended in the defeat of the Tigray Liberation Front and the signing of a peace treaty in 2022.
  15. The Amhara War (2022 to Present) which is another scourging war in Ethiopia pitting the Federal Government of Ethiopia against its Amhara sub-state. Apparently, Eritrea which sided with the Federal Government of Ethiopia in the war against Tigray, now supports the Amhara state against the Federal Government of Ethiopia.

There are also political misunderstandings between Sudan and Eritrea and border disputes between Djibouti and Eritrea, which still remain unsettled. The region thus remains unsettled and in a state of flux for over a hundred years. The reason why it is so conflicted has two dimensions. On the one hand there is the indigenous complexities of the region involving not only religious but also ethnic-based disputes and hence competition for power, the source of wealth, in the main, and on the other, there is the external dimension which emanates from its strategic location where many external actors and parties vie for influence. The present article deals, in the main, with this second dimension of external influences in the conflicts of the region.

As evidenced from the long list given hereabove, most of the conflicts of the region had external influences whether they were instigated by them or influenced by them, all interdependent and related to the geostrategic location of the region. These involve one of the busiest sea lanes of the world, which not only involves the Bab El Mandab choke point, but also the eastern coast of Africa and the western coast of West Asia, a passage way for about 11% of oil and gas destined for the world. Militarily, it is one of the most important waterways for navigation and a theatre where competition for presence not only for protection of security interests but also for protection of commercial and trade vessels that ply the region on the way to and from the Suez Canal and those that fish illegally in the maritime spaces of the region.

The Horn of Africa States region is a major sub-region of the Indian Ocean where some three billion people live. Note three of the countries of the Horn of Africa States region border the seas related to the Indian ocean from the Red Sea southwards. It enjoys a coastal belt of some 4,700 km, although only Somalia belongs to the Indian Ocean Rim Association. The Indian Ocean Rim Association is an intergovernmental organization representing 21 Indian Ocean states around the Ocean. 

It is also to be noted that all four countries of the Horn of Africa States region form part of the intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is a recognized sub-region of the African Union. Two of the countries of the region, Somalia and Djibouti also belong to the Arab League (AL) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Somalia has just recently also joined the vast East Africa Community (EAC, which now comprises eight nations including Somalia, and which is destined to become the East Africa Federation (EAF) and the largest country in Africa with an area of some 5.8 million sq. km and a population of over 330 million people stretching from the Atlantic ocean to the Indian Ocean. This underscores even more the significance of the region.

The involvement of many actors in the region, therefore, is mainly based on economic and security interests of both regional and global dimensions. No wonder we note the presence of countries like the United States, China, India, the Arab Gulf countries, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and of course, many European nations. The United States remains the most active with respect to military and security issues in its continuing and seemingly endless war on terrorism, while the Chinese are in the main the most active in the economic sphere.

We cannot underestimate the role of the Arabian Peninsula in the Horn of Africa States. The two regions have traditionally enjoyed cultural, social and economic relations throughout history. But the recent economic growth of the Arab Gulf region and its need for both delivery of goods and their security, influences its activities in the Horn of Africa States region and they have been active on all fronts, militarily, politically and economically, especially the states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The rising Indian naval, military and economic might has also risen to the growing presence of their traditional Asian rival, China in the Indian Ocean region from Sri Lanka to the Horn of Africa States.  India is, therefore, raising its profile on both security and economic fronts in the region. The Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative has irked the Indians, which have recently come up, along with the United States and Europe, the new India Middle East European Corridor (“IMEC”), which was launched on September 9th, 2023. The ongoing war between the Israelis and Palestinians may have hammered the last nail on the coffin of the IMEC.

In addition to all these global and regional interests, there remain serious transnational threats which have marked the region for a number of years now, and mostly driven by outside actors. These include among others the issues of piracy, which although, having died for some years now, is raising its head again in the region’s maritime spaces. There is also terrorism, driven from beyond the region, illegal trafficking of both human migrants and drugs.

The Horn of Africa States is economically a poor region, although it is reported to have a substantial untapped wealth in terms of oil and gas and other minerals such as gold, Cobalt and Lithium. It has also animals, agriculture, and indeed, a youthful and growing human population. At present, however, this poverty has let in many unwanted actors and unwarranted interventions into the region. This presents multiple challenges for the leadership of the region, which most often, are cornered and never given breathing space to figure out what to do with their nation states and/or region.

It is where the necessity for the region’s leaders to sit down together and consult each other on similar matters that they all suffer from becomes important. A regional approach instead of national approaches to matters of common roots and causes would certainly have been more helpful for each of the leaders of the region. The competition of so many actors in the region only adds and increases tensions in the region and does not help the leadership of the region manage it the way it should be. One should probably note that cooperation and collaboration would improve the life of the peoples of the region, address the cross-border challenges and would improve not only peace but normal transfer of powers within each state without this endemic ethnic-based competition for power which creates the gateway for foreign actors to play havoc on the region. The ancient history of the region points to the fact that no foreign force that came to the region have ever overstayed. The leadership of the region in the past were proud of their region and defended it against all transgressors. The European colonialism which showed up in the region in the second half of the 19th century did, indeed, impact the region, but their influences and impact were softened, and its effects moderated, as opposed to other parts of Africa, by the social and political infrastructures that were in place in the region at the time. How the foreigner is just accepted today to mess it up remains mind-boggling and disastrously dangerous for the region.

 Despite being divided into highland (Amhara and Tigrayan) and lowland peoples (generally Somali and Afar) with intermediate peoples (generally the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the region along with other minority Nilotic groups), the region remained connected, traded with each other, intermarried with each other and culturally vibrant. It had its own idiosyncrasies like any other region in the world and internal strives, but never at the level in these present times, which seems as if there is no end to the miseries of the populations of the region. Certainly, they are due to local and Indigenous issues, but this is most certainly complicated by foreign hands and external forces.

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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