The Horn of Africa is increasingly turning into a space of rivalry and competition between rival external powers. There are perspectives that postulate this as auguring a new cold war involving military, economic and diplomatic preeminence with the key distinctions being that the current stand-off is more complex than the bipolar international system during the Cold War and the perceived absence of an ideological component .[i] The situation in the Horn of Africa can be taken as a manifestation of the emergence of a multi-polar world order in which multiple powers compete to assert their interests and influence.[ii]
The imperatives and interests driving the engagement of external powers in the Horn of Africa are either explicitly stated or can be inferred from their actions and statements. Despite the recent political shifts in United States (US) politics exemplified by the Trump presidency and the much anticipated contraction in US international engagement, the reality is that US foreign policy engagement is still very much defined by its self-proclaimed role as the global guardian of the liberal world order, the ‘war on terror’ and increasingly a push-back against the perceived expansionism of powers such as China and Russia.
Although defined from civil war point of view, David E. Cunningham (2013) describes veto players as having the capability to unilaterally block settlement. He argues that the presence of many veto players prolongs conflicts as witnessed recently in the war in Syria. He also defines veto players as possessors of various kinds of resources such as better trained and equipped troops, technology, and more importantly funding sources.[iii] In the contemporary Horn veto players can be interpreted as the foreign actors who have the wherewithal to influence the Horn either positively or negatively.
Synergies between the Peoples’ Republic of China & the Horn region
China’s engagement in the Horn is driven by its desire to see the fruition of its global project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and moreover sees the Horn as a strategic gateway into Africa.[iv] Recent Russian engagement in the Horn can be interpreted as being animated by discomfort with the presence of the US and China in the region and an attempt to regain its influence that it lost three decades ago.[v] The Gulf Arab monarchies, as emerging powers, are funneling resources to states of the Horn thereby ensuring their military, investment and preeminence interests.[vi] It seems that the Horn is emerging as an interesting test case of the implications of the emerging multi-polar world order.
Among these foreign powers, China takes the lion’s share of investment and developmental activities in the Horn. It is closely working with pivotal countries such as Ethiopia. China has transformed its relationship with Ethiopia into a strategic level taking into account the fact that Ethiopia is a critical entry point into Africa. Ethiopia has enjoyed a preeminent position in the Horn for decades due to its pivotal role in the foundation of Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) in 1986 and its successor the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in 1996.[vii] Ethiopia’s history as a founder of the African Union (AU) and its international peacekeeping role have attracted many international allies and the strategic association of China and other power centers to the country is not a surprise.
Having a population of more than 100,000,000 people, vast arable land, immense opportunities in the service and construction sectors and the prospects that may emerge with the liberalization of the financial sector, coupled with the fact that Addis Ababa is the political capital and diplomatic hub of Africa, Ethiopia has managed to attract international partnerships including the Chinese. Other countries in the Horn have also their own political, economic and cultural imperatives in attracting and attaching themselves with the powers.
China’s first overseas military base is situated in geo-strategically important Djibouti which hosts several foreign military bases and coincidentally is also the BRI entry point into Africa. China’s presence in the region and Djibouti in particular, has roused US suspicions.[viii] For America and some powers, the Horn of Africa is a strategic staging point for anti-piracy, anti-terror and anti-Iran operations. Poor economic performance, internal governance and identity related conflicts of the Horn countries and conflicts among the Horn countries provide entry points for foreign powers to project their influence across the region. But China is now surpassing all other countries through facilitating a very large free trade area in Djibouti[ix].
China’s economic and military influences pose major challenges to the US and partly explain recent shifts in US foreign policy priorities where “countering China’s influence” has assumed greater importance.[x] In articulating US’s Africa strategy, in November 2018, President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, declared that the strategy will be implemented through advancing trade, anti-terror campaigns, and provision of efficient and effective aid.[xi] Bolton in his statement implied that China (and Russia) are gaining competitive advantages through encouragement of corrupt practices and violations of human rights. He also criticized China’s global multi-billion infrastructure-led investment and development as an instrument that makes countries submissive to China.[xii] Fighting against corruption is a pillar for US’s foreign policy but China grants it much less significance and has been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption to court the support of certain governments.
China’s BRI that embraces the Horn countries and beyond may be perceived as a threat for the superpowers as it’s gradually accompanied by military influences. China is more suitable to Africa as the latter has not established a market economy that is led by the private sector. Anthony Rowley, a veteran journalist specializing in Asian economic and financial affairs, explaining the almost unanimous African support for the BRI states that in a world suffering from a range of economic ills – from Brexit to the US-China trade war – the BRI may be the closest thing to a stimulus package that can kick some vigor back into the global economy.[xiii]
The convergence of interests between Africa and China also partly explains China’s growing role in the continent. For decades the goal of economic integration has been a pressing regional and continental agenda, and Chinese investment in infrastructure and other sectors is helping in this regard. IGAD, one of the building blocks of Africa’s economic integration, has commended the International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) in Djibouti built with support from China. In an official statement, IGAD stated that this contribution of China aligns with its regional economic integration plan.[xiv] Djibouti’s president, Ismael Omar Guelleh, expressed his appreciation for the Chinese supported project by stating that the project was, “place of hope for thousands of young job seekers”.[xv] Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) of Ethiopia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia, Omar Al Bashir, Ex-President of Sudan, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat have all commended China’s investment and developmental support on different occasions.[xvi]
Africans defend China’s intervention in the continent as exemplified by President Ramaphosa’s remarks at the latest summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), where he underlined China’s importance to multilateral global trade.[xvii] For the US, China’s involvement in Africa may be perceived as a new form of colonialism but Ramaphosa decisively rejected this view and instead postulated that China was integral to to Africa’s future.[xviii]
As Alex De Wall put it in his book “The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money War and the Business of Power”, politics is business and business is politics.[xix] When external powers offer resources, they expect something in return. As Alex reiterates the political marketplace of the Horn of Africa is governed by the politics of give and take, which offers opportunities for veto players.[xx] Pressed by domestic political and economic discontent, states in the Horn may become amenable to the pressures emanating from external powers. The fluctuations and shifts in the relations between states in the Horn and external powers must be analyzed in terms of their effects on governance, economic conditions and security of the region and states.
The pattern of opportunistic and transactional engagement with external actors is exemplified by the involvement of several Horn states in the war in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has used Eritrea’s land, air and naval bases in its war with the Ansar-Allah movement (more commonly known as the Houthi). Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia too are also engaged in the Yemen war. The financial resources of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are exerting a marked impact on the political market place in the Horn. The war in Yemen is a proxy war against Iran and therefore has attracted the direct support of the US. The GCC countries are also key sources of financial remittances for these countries. This transactional behavior of the Horn countries is a determinant factor that governs the relationship with the powers including China and the US. Trade imbalances are observed between these powers and the Horn countries which provides additional leverage to the external powers. The war in Yemen is just the starkest manifestation of the transactional mode in regional politics.
From the point of view of the Horn region and its peoples, there should be greater sensitivity to the resources being provided by external powers. The loans and grants may align with current immediate economic needs or more long-term developmental strategies but also impose a burden on future generations. There must be a concerted effort in dealing with any kind of development provision including an effort to get debt amnesty from the powers. The Horn countries score the lowest in global indexes on peace[xxi], democracy[xxii], human development[xxiii], doing business[xxiv], etc. They are fragile and precautions must be taken to prevent Africa from being entangled in quagmires generated by external rivalries.
The Horn of Africa regional security complex has become more fraught with tensions as numerous geopolitical interests are being promoted by international and regional veto players with diverse positions and impact. The strategic significance of the region and the reactive nature of the Horn countries foreign policy engagements has exacerbated these dynamics. China, the United States of America (USA), Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey are among the main veto players on the Horn’s security pattern. These players provide overlapping, incompatible and varied alliances and this in turn allowed the region to evolve into a complex and potentially conflict-prone security configuration.
The interaction of the incompatible interests of the veto players will cost the Horn of African countries dear in terms of pursuing national development agendas. Through hosting the irreconcilable interests of the veto players, the countries of the Horn will provide entry points for external powers to exploit their many unresolved domestic problems. The countries, through their regional bloc, IGAD, should seek to develop a common and optimal strategy for engagement with external powers with a view to achieving their development goals and advancing regional economic integration. Synchronization of strategies at regional level is very important. The governments in the Horn have to act like a security complex that has pragmatically included countries on the right shore of the Red Sea. The countries of the Horn must be able to develop a capacity in striking a balance between their development agendas and the costs imposed by external powers. There must be a balance between the veto players’ discretionary power and the development of the region as a regional security complex.
Leulseged Girma Haile is a researcher and heads the Program and Planning at the Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute (EFFRSI). His research interests include geopolitics, development, foreign policy and regional integration. He can be reached at, firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Kaplan, Robert D. , “A New Cold War Has Begun,” Foreign Policy, January 7, 2019, : https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/07/a-new-cold-war-has-begun/.
iii Cunningham, David E. “Who Should Be at the Table?: Veto Players and Peace Processes in Civil War,” University of Maryland & Centre for the Study of Civil War at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs 38 (2013)..
v Ashenafi, Neamin, ”Superpowers in the Horn.”, March 102018, https://www.thereporterethiopia.com/article/superpowers-horn
vi Wilcox, Michael. ”The Saudi-Qatar Conflict Comes to Africa.” http://www.dehai.org/dehai/basic/267734 ( 2018) .
viii Gulf Business. “UK high court rules that Djibouti cannot terminate JV with Dubai’s DP World.” September5, 2018. https://gulfbusiness.com/uk-high-court-rules-djiboutis-port-company-cannot-terminate-jv-dubais-dp-world/
ix Crabtree, Justina .”While China slaps tariffs on the US, it’s also championing free trade in Africa”, July 6, 2018. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/06/china-and-djibouti-open-free-trade-zone-in-africa.html
x Holland, Steve and Wroughton, Lesley.“U.S. to counter China, Russia influence in Africa –Bolton”, Reuters, December 13, 2018. https://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFKBN1OC1Y3-OZATP
xi White House. Remarks by National Security Advisor Ambassador John R. Bolton on the The Trump Administration’s New Africa Strategy’, December 13, 2018. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-national-security-advisor-ambassador-john-r-bolton-trump-administrations-new-africa-strategy/.
xiii Anthony, Rowley. “Cause for jubilation is very much exaggerated as global markets are sleepwalking in unison toward a cliff’s edge. Here’s why.’’ South China Morning Post, April 14, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/author/anthony-rowley
xiv Xinhua, ”East African bloc lauds China-built free trade zone in Djibouti,”, July 10, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-07/10/c_137314786.htm
xvii Xinhua. “Quotes from South African president’s speech at FOCAC summit,” , September 3, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-09/04/c_137442038.htm
xix De Waal, Alex De Waal.The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016
xxi Institute for Economics & Peace. Global Peace Index 2018: Measuring Peace in a Complex World
Sydney. Global Peace Index 2018. June 2018. Available from: http://visionofhumanity.org/reports https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Global-Peace-Index-2018-2.pdf
xxiv World Bank. Doing Business 2018: Reforming to Create Jobs. http://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/media/Annual-Reports/English/DB2018-Full-Report.pdf.