This briefing was written by Micheal Woldemariam and Peter Chonka, the Co-Directors of Studies for the Rift Valley Institute’s Horn of Africa Field Course, which will be taking place in Kenya from 27 June to 01 July 2022. Michael and Peter will be joined by a team of leading specialists to explore the contemporary complexities of the region as well as the gamut of social, economic, political and security trends, drawing on deep history and local knowledge to inform debate and discussion. The course is designed for policy-makers, diplomats, investors, development workers, researchers, activists and journalists—for new arrivals to the region and those already working there who wish to deepen their understanding.
This year’s Horn course takes place at a critical moment for the region. Volatility has been a feature of the Horn of Africa’s political landscape for decades, but developments over the last year have been particularly fraught. A metastasizing civil war in Ethiopia and protracted electoral disputes in Somalia have been key vectors of instability and have contributed to corresponding humanitarian crises that are among the most acute in the world. Meanwhile, global forces – pandemics, climate change, and ‘middle’ and ‘great’ power politics – have provided additional layers of disruption that have accelerated regional turmoil.
At the same time, recent trends do suggest that an escape from this period of regional disorder is possible. There are two major reasons for hope. In Ethiopia, large scale hostilities in the north have largely concluded, a development made possible by the retreat of Tigrayan forces into their region in December 2021 and the announcement of a humanitarian truce by Federal authorities in March 2022. Backchannel negotiations between the parties are ongoing. In Somalia, acute uncertainty around the next political transition was finally eased by the election (by Parliament) of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president in May 2022, who returns to the post five years after losing his last re-election bid. Despite fears of a broken, and potentially violent post-election scenario, the outcome was accepted by incumbent President Farmaajo and the transfer of authority to his successor has been relatively smooth.
However, stabilizing the region’s two primary axes of conflict and insecurity will be a long road strewn with obstacles. Persistent identity-based enmities, deepening state fragility, and worsening global turmoil suggest that recent progress in Ethiopia, Somalia, and the broader region may be transient. The Horn sits at an inflection point, and understanding the full complexity of the current moment will be essential to plotting a forward course for the region and its partners.
Ethiopian conflict takes another turn
Ethiopia’s civil war has taken several turns over the last year. At the end of June 2021, just days after the country’s national elections, a successful Tigray Defense Force (TDF) counter-offensive triggered the withdrawal of ENDF and allied troops from much of Tigray. The revival of Tigrayan regional forces, after serious setbacks in the opening phase of the war in November-December 2020, marked a dramatic shift in the course of the conflict that few anticipated. Later that summer, the TDF launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, penetrating these two territories and occupying key towns and cities. At this point the war in the north began to take on a fully national character. By August 2021, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) had expanded its operations and struck a formal alliance with the TDF, launching joint operations in the Amhara region. With the security situation deteriorating, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government turned to national mobilization to combat its surging opponents, including through the rapid and loosely coordinated expansion of ethnic and regional militia.
This mobilization effort ultimately worked in the Federal authority’s favour. The TDF was able to reach the vicinity of Debrebirhan, just over 100 miles from the capital, but was compelled to withdraw most of its forces back into Tigray in the face of significant resistance. Foreign intervention also appears to have played a significant role in this phase of the war, as drone support from Turkey, the UAE, and Iran allowed the ENDF and its allies to target the TDF’s extended supply lines. While drone operations would continue for a period of time, Federal authorities signalled that they would not attempt another large-scale ground offensive into Tigray –seemingly recognition of the futility of earlier operations in the territory and the reality that TDF forces remained intact.
This effective military stalemate has ultimately created a narrow path to stabilizing the Ethiopian crisis. Hostilities between the ENDF and TPLF aligned forces have largely ended. In January of this year the Federal government appeared to extend an olive branch to its opponents by releasing a number of imprisoned Tigrayan and Oromo politicians. In March, Federal authorities announced a ‘humanitarian truce’ in Tigray, which has facilitated increased, although still insufficient, humanitarian aid to the region. Backchannel negotiations between Abiy’s government and the TPLF are underway through the good offices of the African Union, the government of Kenya and Western partners. And public rhetoric between the parties, still testy at times, has notably cooled.
Yet the challenges to consolidating these limited gains are considerable and a return to large scale fighting cannot be ruled out. First, a failure to address the humanitarian plight of the Tigray region could erode the TPLF’s commitment to the truce. While humanitarian assistance to Tigray has expanded in recent months, the increases have been slow and halting, owing to constraints imposed by local and Federal authorities who fear that this aid may be put to military use or hope to leverage it for political concessions. Dire humanitarian conditions are further exacerbated by the Federal government’s continuing blockage of core public services—electricity, banking, telecoms, etc. With over 2 million Tigrayans suffering from an extreme lack of food, these barriers to humanitarian access could incentivize a military effort by Tigrayan forces to break what they view as a siege.
A second challenge is the issue of Western Tigray or Wolkait, the site of a fierce territorial dispute between Tigray and Amhara. Amhara elites argue that the region was forcibly annexed by Tigray in the early 1990s and its Amhara residents displaced, and have used the recent war as an opportunity to assert control of the territory. Having successfully occupied the disputed region in November-December 2020, Amhara militia disbanded local Tigrayan administrations and forcibly expelled most of the Tigrayan population in an apparent effort to create ‘facts on the ground’. But Tigrayan leaders vow that they will not accept Western Tigray’s annexation and insist on a return to the territorial status quo ante. Amid this volatile territorial contestation, the Federal government, which turned a blind-eye to the de-facto redrawing of regional boundaries during the war, appears to lack a clear plan for navigating tensions.
Boundary issues in the north point to a third obstacle to consolidating peace. Prime Minister Abiy mobilized considerable Amhara and Eritrean support in prosecuting the Tigray war, and it is clear that both have reservations about efforts to reconcile with the TPLF. Growing acrimony between Addis Ababa and several Amhara political networks, reports of a widening rift between Addis Ababa and Asmara, and the rumours of direct collaboration between Amhara militia and the Eritrean security apparatus, underscore the perils the Ethiopian Prime Minister faces on this front. In May 2022, Federal and Regional authorities moved against these emergent threats, arresting a number of prominent Amhara personalities and journalists, and cracking down on the FANO militia. Reports suggest that over 4,000 people were detained in this most recent wave of arrests. On the other side of the ledger is the tricky question of the OLA, which had formally aligned itself with the TPLF but will find it very difficult to strike a live-and-let-live bargain with the Prosperity Party in Oromia. The evolving position of mainline Oromo opposition forces, without whom a national political settlement will be impossible to reach, is yet another complicating factor.
A final challenge is the difficult issue of accountability. The war involved atrocities and looting on a mass scale, and all parties to the conflict stand accused of serious crimes. The international community has insisted on accountability measures, but existing efforts have raised more questions than answers. A joint report issued by the EHRC and OHCHR in November 2021 was rejected by Tigrayan authorities on the grounds that the EHRC was biased. In December 2021, the UNHRC voted to establish an international commission to conduct a ‘thorough and impartial’ investigation into alleged abuses, but the Ethiopian government has made clear it does not intend to engage with the body. Moral considerations aside, a proper accounting for wartime atrocities remains a core demand of a number of the parties to the conflict, and a path to peace that does not seriously grapple with this issue will be difficult.
Eritrea evolving regional circumstances
Eritrea has been a central participant in the Ethiopian civil war from the outset and its involvement has defined the country’s affairs since that time. Although the closed nature of the Eritrean state makes full analysis of its intentions and strategy necessarily difficult, it’s clear that President Issayas was displeased by the collapse of ENDF military efforts in Tigray in the summer of 2021, and that he has largely opposed a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Despite its withdrawal from much of Tigray following the ENDF retreat, Asmara has retained a military presence in Western Tigray in active coordination with Amhara militia, as well as the border regions of northwestern, central, and eastern Tigray. Periodic clashes between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces have continued over the last year.
Recent developments in Ethiopia raise urgent questions for the Eritrean leadership. The recovery of Tigrayan forces in June-July 2021 has posed a significant security challenge for President Issayas, as the TPLF has occasionally telegraphed its intention to take the fight to the Eritrean president. At the same time, the emerging modus vivendi between Addis Ababa and Mekele limits Issayas’ ability to leverage the Federal government against the TPLF. The Eritrean government’s relationship with the West, uncomfortable in the best of times, has also hit rock bottom, and the prevailing narrative in Washington and European capitals is that Asmara remains a central spoiler in Ethiopia. Accordingly, the Biden administration levied sanctions against core elements of Eritrea’s ruling party and the country’s security establishment in November 2021. Such setbacks, in conjunction with President Farmaajo’s recent electoral defeat in Somalia, appear to have blunted the Eritrean President’s broader regional ambitions. Meanwhile, the internal outlook offers little cause for optimism, as economic and human rights conditions remain poor and may very well deteriorate further amid myriad external pressures.
In power for over three decades, President Issayas has proven to be the Horn’s most resilient leader. His government is responding to evolving circumstances in a number of ways. It continues to keep Eritrean society on a costly wartime footing, publicly invoking the spectre of TPLF attacks to rationalize the persistence of its hyper-securitized model of governance. It is also looking to for new international alliances, particularly vis-à-vis Moscow, and has been perhaps been the most strident African supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Whether and how this diplomatic gambit will pay off for Asmara remains to be seen.
Somalia’s prolonged political transition reaching a conclusion?
Politics in Somalia over the last year has continued to be dominated by the long delayed and protracted process for the election of both houses of Parliament and the Presidency. A September 2020 agreement among political stakeholders confirmed that the envisaged transition from indirect elections to a one-person-one-vote system was not going to be feasible for the process scheduled to start that year. Instead, a model similar to that used in 2016 was agreed upon, again using the ‘4.5’ clan representation quota, and electoral colleges of elders and civil society representatives casting votes for each Lower House seat. The number of people involved in the process has increased this time around, as well as the number of locations for the selections of MPs (two for each Federal Member State).
Nonetheless, the entire process was affected by a lack of elite political consensus, and acute tensions between (certain) Federal Member States and the office of the incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo. Compared to past contests since 2012 (and the establishment of the Somali Federal Government), this election process came closest to the full-scale destabilization of the current political settlement. At points, this involved elite actors mobilising different units of the security apparatus against each other, notably in the capital in March and April 2021. Major conflict escalation was avoided with an agreement brokered by the Somali Prime Minister in May 2021. (S)elections of Upper and then Lower House MPs took place in piecemeal fashion throughout the rest of that year and into 2022. These contests have been marred by the interference of various political actors and alleged widespread corruption. The final Lower House seats were elected (in different competing processes) for Gedo, a region that has become a major bone of contention between the Jubbaland Federal Member State (of which it is officially a part), and President Farmaajo’s Federal Government, which exerted significant influence there.
On 15 May 2022, MPs gathered in Mogadishu to elect a President. Farmaajo made it to the final round of voting but was there resoundingly beaten by Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud. ‘HSM’ is the first person to be elected twice into the Somali presidency, having served a previous term between 2012 and 2017, when he was beaten by Farmaajo. In this final round of the protracted election a peaceful transition of power has again taken place, despite fears that the incumbent would continue to use the powers of his office to further manipulate the process. ‘HSM’ – a former civil society activist and educationalist – is a known quantity in Somali politics and has the potential to move forward swiftly with a policy making agenda. Despite all the challenges he faces, the possibility to finalise the IMF debt relief process provides some grounds for optimism (a deadline for which may have influenced politicians to accelerate the delayed final stage of the elections and keep this on track).
Al Shabaab and the AMISOM/ATMIS transition
Since the last Horn of Africa course in 2019, there have been no significant changes in the presence and influence of Al Shabaab in Somalia. The Somali National Army (backed by African Union Mission In Somalia forces) have not undertaken any major offensives that have had a sustained impact on the map of political/security control in south-central Somalia. Al Shabaab continues to control towns and territory within its Middle Jubba stronghold and in other southern regions. Serious clashes in late 2021 between Somali National Army units (aligned with forces from Galmudug Federal Member State) against a resurgent Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) have also provided further room for manoeuvre for Al Shabaab in this central region. Al Shabaab has continued to carry out large scale attacks on state, military and civilian targets across Somalia. Notable in 2021/22 have been attacks in Puntland on Bosaso’s Central Prison (March 2021); numerous suicide bombings on tea shops and convoys in Mogadishu, and a complex attack on the capital’s airport/Halane zone in March 2022.
The latter attack coincided with a suicide bombing in Beledweyne that killed opposition MP Amina Mohamed Abdi, who was contesting for her seat in the town. This assassination reignited controversy and speculation over the 2021 disappearance of National Intelligence and Security Agency officer, Ikran Tahlil – a much discussed political scandal in 2021, and an issue that the late Amina Mohamed Abdi had been outspoken on. Tahlil disappeared after allegedly obtaining access to documents showing that missing trainee Somali soldiers in Eritrea had been deployed to the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in Tigray. Speculation grew that Tahlil had been eliminated by actors within her own institution (NISA). Al Shabaab took the unusual step of distancing itself from the disappearance of the operative, while acknowledging that it regularly targets other members of the Somali intelligence agency. Neither the assassination of the MP in Beledweyne, the disappearance of the NISA officer in Mogadishu, nor the whereabouts of trainee Somali soldiers in Eritrea/Ethiopia have been fully investigated or resolved, and remained live political issues in the context of the ongoing elections. During the handover of the presidency to his successor, Farmaajo for the first time acknowledged that Somali recruits had been sent to Eritrea for training, and HSM has committed to bringing them back to Somalia.
In April 2022, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) took over from AMISOM, in line with the decision of the UN Peace and Security Council (PSC) the previous month. ATMIS is mandated to support the Federal Government of Somalia in the implementation of the Somali Transition Plan and transfer security responsibilities to Somali security forces and institutions by the end of 2024. ATMIS mirrors AMISOM in terms of its troop size and most aspects of its mandate. Arguably set up to be more mobile, agile and offensive against Al Shabaab, time will tell if the twoyear window for ‘transition’ will again be too ambitious for a full handover of security to the Somali National Army. Much will depend on the final resolution of Somalia’s still ongoing political transition and the ability of the new government to reconcile centre-periphery tensions with Federal Member States and accelerate force integration across these regions.
Recurrent and worsening drought-displacement cycles
At the end of 2020, UNHCR estimated that there were around three million internally displaced people in Somalia (approximately 17 per cent of the population). Displacement has been ongoing for decades, contributed to by recurrent periods of conflict and ecological shocks such as drought. Somalia has experienced three major drought crises in the last decade: 2011/12; 2016/2017, and currently in 2021/22. More recently, Somalia, along with neighbouring regions in Ethiopia and Kenya, has faced three consecutive failed rainy seasons and the fourth, which is supposed to start in April and continue through June, is projected to be below average. The death of livestock and the failure of crops has initiated another major phase of internal displacement, with people flocking to existing and newly established camps in cities across south-central Somalia. The prospect of famine remains, and a significant funding gap for international humanitarian agencies compounds this risk. Research suggests that the increasing frequency of drought is directly linked to climate change and the Horn of Africa will continue to face some of the most immediate and acute impacts of this global phenomenon.
Somaliland’s democracy and diplomacy; successes and challenges
Albeit delayed since 2019 – but once again in contrast to Somalia – the de facto independent Republic of Somaliland successfully held one-person-one-vote Parliamentary elections in May 2021, alongside local district elections. No party received an outright majority, and the opposition Waddani and UCID subsequently announced a political alliance against the ruling Kulmiye party. In a notable result for social representation and inclusion, a popular opposition candidate became the first ‘minority’ clan individual (from the marginalised Gaboye group) to be elected to a seat in Somaliland’s Parliament. Less promising in this regard was the fact that of 13 female candidates, none were elected to a parliamentary seat.
Somaliland’s next Presidential election was scheduled for November 2022, but this timeline was thrown into question in late 2021 by the Government’s declaration that the process may be opened up to more political parties (competition in previous elections has been strictly limited to three). President Muse Bihi has hinted at the necessity of a term extension, which opposition parties accuse him of attempting to engineer. The opposition are currently negotiating on these points and – at the time of writing – are calling for public demonstrations (which, so far, have not been sanctioned by the Government).
Despite political uncertainty at home, Somaliland has continued to pursue its quest for international diplomatic recognition. Of note over the last two years has been the development of its relationship with Taiwan – risking the wrath of China, but representing a strategic overture towards Western powers. President Muse Bihi’s high profile visit to Washington DC in March 2022 secured bipartisan pledges of increased US support for Somaliland, even if formal recognition remains off the table, at least for the time being.
At the beginning of Ramadan in April 2022, a huge fire destroyed the Waaheen market area of downtown Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. The blaze caused millions of dollars of economic damage and ruined the livelihoods of thousands, including many small traders. International crowd-funding efforts have underscored the continued importance of diaspora support networks and their economic importance to Somaliland and the wider region.
As of mid 2022, most of the construction has been completed on the cross-boundary road project linking Somaliland’s port city of Berbera with the Ethiopian border town of Tog Wajaale. Part of the Berbera Corridor initiative, the road will further attract Ethiopian trade through Somaliland’s main port, which has already been expanded and modernised through investment by Dubai-based DP World.
Djibouti – the status quo endures?
Though facing increased port competition from Somaliland’s aforementioned infrastructure developments, Djibouti retains its geo-strategic importance to various international commercial and military actors engaged in the region. Hosting military bases for the US, China, Saudi Arabia (among others) the Djiboutian state remains reliant on international patronage, as well as continued close relations with neighbouring Ethiopia. Djibouti’s political status quo appears further entrenched by the April 2021 re-election of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh to his fifth term in office. Most of the opposition boycotted the election, accusing the president and his family of dominating the process to engineer his 97 per cent margin of victory. In recent years, the country has witnessed a further erosion of press freedom and more frequent crackdowns on dissent.
Tensions in neighbouring Ethiopia – particularly clashes between ethnic Somalis and Afars over scarce resources in the eastern borderlands – have spilled over into Djibouti itself, where an Afar minority has long seen itself as being politically marginalised. In August 2021, a rare bout of urban inter-communal fighting erupted in Djibouti City between Afars and Issa-Somalis. Around a dozen people were killed, with others injured, and houses were set on fire. The Djiboutian Human Rights League (LDDH) accused security forces of intervening and attacking Afar civilians. This violence reflects ethnic tensions simmering in eastern Ethiopia (themselves heightened by the spread of the Tigray conflict into the Afar region) as well as internal economic and political grievances against President Guelleh’s enduring political dominance.