4 October 2023

The security situation in the Horn of Africa requires a regional perspective

The countries in the Horn of Africa have long been plagued by protracted conflicts, wars and terrorism. To better understand the instability, a regional and cross-border perspective is needed, according to a memo by two FOI researchers.

A lot of people in a dusty camp.

A refugee camp in Chad with Sudanese refugees Photo: Henry Wilkins/VOA/Wikipedia Commons.

The Horn of Africa is one of the world’s most conflict prone areas. Sudan has been experiencing unrest for decades. 2018 saw the start of a popular uprising, raising hopes for democratic development. But last spring, millions of people were forced to flee when fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and paramilitary forces.

Ethiopia also has a history of internal strife. Civil war broke out between the federal government and the Tigray region in 2020. 2022 ended with the signing of a ceasefire agreement, but the situation is fragile and, meanwhile, a conflict has flared up between the government and rebels in the Amhara region.

Somalia has not had a fully functioning government since 1991, when the downfall of President Mohammed Siad Barre sparked a decades-long civil war, and the government still lacks control over large parts of the country. At the same time, a war is going on between the central government and the al-Shabaab terrorist group.

“The Horn of Africa is a region with huge security challenges. However, the security situation could become far worse than it is already, and that would have repercussions far beyond the Horn of Africa, maybe all the way to Europe,” says Erika Holmquist, senior researcher with FOI’s Defence Analysis Division who, together with research colleague Anna Ida Rock, has co-authored the FOI memo, Regional Security Dynamics in the Horn of Africa.

Mistrust and rivalry betwgeen countries

Internal conflict within countries in the Horn of Africa can quickly take on regional dimensions, according to Erika Holmquist.

“Relations between the countries are strongly characterised by mistrust and rivalry. Both historically and at present, people interfere in each other’s affairs. This is partly due to the fact that many of the countries have major and quite similar challenges to deal with, for example the dissatisfaction of young and often multi-ethnic populations with the economic and political conditions,” says Erika Holmquist.

The countries’ political systems are often undemocratic, with politics often becoming a zero-sum game.

“So if one group wins, another loses, which leads to tensions and sometimes major conflicts, like the one in Ethiopia,” says Erika Holmquist.

Another important factor that often causes conflict to spread across national borders is that many of the states lack a monopoly on violence. There are large numbers of armed actors in the Horn of Africa. This provides scope for states to support armed groups in other countries against the central powers there.

“In some places, land borders have been drawn right through ethnic communities. There are cultural and familial ties between the countries and unresolved territorial disputes,” says Erika Holmquist.

Person-based power structures

Another significant issue in the Horn of Africa is the prevalence of centralised, heavily person-based power structures at the state level. The personal contacts of those in power influence the countries’ foreign policy and mutual relations.

“This results in a lack of transparency and sometimes in erratic policies. One example which illustrates this is when Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea formed a joint alliance in 2020: it was a decision that the presidents made because they got along well personally. Then, when one of them was replaced, the alliance fell apart,” says Erika Holmquist.

“Because there are so many stakeholders involved in every conflict, all the above mentioned factors exacerbate the already existing instability and stand in the way of conflict resolution,” says Erika Holmquist.

According to the authors of the article, this is precisely why there needs to be a broad, regional perspective when foreign actors formulate policy towards the countries in the Horn of Africa.
The difficulties in the Horn of Africa are great. But the researchers see strengthened regional cooperation as an important way forward.

“If there is regional cooperation, the countries will likely engage less in destructive behaviour against each other. This would also strengthen their ability to respond to transnational threats, such as al-Shabaab. Also, it is vital to strengthen state institutions in these countries. Since young people have made it clear that they want to see a different form of governance, there is pressure from below.