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An unraveling in the Horn of Africa?

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Events in the Horn of Africa are beginning to spiral downward in a period of policy interregnum in Washington. If attention is not given quickly by the U.S., along with regional and international actors, to help de-escalate the mounting tensions, 2020 will go out with a bang that the incoming Biden administration will be responding to through 2021 and beyond. 

At the center of the region’s tumult is Ethiopia and its erstwhile reform-minded prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who last month chose to respond to an attack on a government military base with such overwhelming military force of his own that more than 50,000 of his countrymen have fled to neighboring Sudan. Thousands more are presumed dead in targeted ethnic assaults, and more than 1 million likely have been internally displaced. Exact numbers remain intentionally hard to come by because the promised access for United Nations and humanitarian workers has been largely denied.   

As the conflict has morphed from a conventional military battle to one many in the West believe will approximate a guerilla insurgency, the U.S. State Department has waffled. Initially echoing the Abiy talking point that political dialogue and mediation were “not the goal,” as wholesale targeting of the country’s formerly-ruling Tigrayan minorities increased, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the National Security Council have since called for “a start to dialogue” and “mediation in Ethiopia.” It’s a welcome correction, but such inconsistencies create the daylight “that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” according to a statement by the UN’s adviser for genocide prevention. 

In response, seemingly universal calls for mediation are falling on deaf ears in Addis Ababa. A high-level African Union delegation was sent packing in an hour after Abiy explained to them how his country’s inherently political problem would be solved militarily. And Sudan’s prime minister last week ended up reducing a two-day trip to Addis Ababa to two hours, so quick was Abiy’s refusal to brook negotiation. An assault by Ethiopian forces against a Sudanese patrol last week has further heightened tensions of a regional conflagration; Sudan is militarizing its border and its prime minister is affirming his “confidence in the ability of our armed forces to protect the country’s borders and repel any aggression.”

But as regional leaders maintain their stance of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, they at least should examine the chaos that has been unleashed regionally by the conflict in Tigray. As Ethiopia pulled around 700 of its peacekeepers from neighboring Somalia to assist the war effort back home, leaders in Mogadishu uncorked their own diplomatic row, long in the brewing, with neighboring Kenya. So far, diplomatic relations are severed and Somali authorities have signaled that they will demand the removal of Kenyan forces from the AMISOM peacekeeping operation there — a self-defeating move that could help revitalize al Qaeda’s East African franchise.  

Coupled with the hasty Trump administration decision to erase its military footprint from Somalia before the end of President Trump’s term, Somalia now is positioned on the brink of a downward slide that could undo more than a decade of stabilization efforts.

Rounding out the region’s explosive mix is Eritrea, whose malign leader, Isaias Afwerki, is feeling resurgent at the prospect of seeing his longtime enemy in Tigray, against whom he fought a bloody border war, ethnically cleansed politically defeated in the ever-dangerous border region. Once Abiy’s partner in peace, Isaias has re-emerged as a partner in war, reportedly assisting in the aerial bombardment of the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle and now the clean-up operations in search of Tigray’s wanted political and military leaders. Never one to miss an opportunity to persecute his own citizens, as Eritrea’s well-deserved moniker as the “North Korea of Africa” aptly suggests, U.S., UN, and European Union (EU) sources last week alleged that Eritrean troops are using their presence on Ethiopian soil to forcibly repatriate Eritrean political refugees back to Asmara. The prospect of a closer political-military alliance emerging to create a more militarized regional hegemony between Ethiopia and Eritrea is likely to send the region running for cover. 

In the face of all this score-settling across the region, the UN Security Council has remained largely mute. A Security Council briefing late last month on Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict resulted in no formal statement calling for de-escalation, no dispatch of the secretary-general’s envoy for the Horn of Africa, and no signal to others in the region of the potential consequences of further misdeeds. 

Similarly, the African Union (AU), which is headquartered in the Ethiopian capital, has been breathtakingly quiet as the shockwaves of Ethiopia’s civil conflict reverberate around the region. Their most recent statement praised Ethiopia’s “bold steps to preserve the unity, stability” and suggests Addis’s heavy-handed response was “legitimate for all states.” From afar, this complicity illustrates the extent to which Ethiopia, a country of more than 110 million and the largest supplier of peacekeeping forces on the continent, has a stranglehold on the actions of the AU. Smaller and weaker members have seen their AU membership suspended and sanctions imposed for lesser offenses. So far, only the EU has responded with anything approximating a stick by announcing the suspension of 90 million euros’ worth of development assistance to Ethiopia.

The gravity of the situation in the Horn presents the Biden team with huge challenges, but hopefully some opportunities. Driving a Security Council agenda that deploys UN mediation, monitoring and documentation resources to respond to the crisis in Ethiopia and prevent further conflagrations across the region would be a first step. Similar encouragement to the AU, that its values and charter apply to all member states equally — no matter their size and power — also should be prioritized. 

The appointment of a U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, mirroring roles that exist among international partners, along with the creation of a Horn of Africa office within the State Department, would address a bureaucratic fault line and demonstrate renewed importance to a region, which for too long has not been seen through its regional lens. Lastly, Biden’s team should undertake a strategic review of the entire region to capture the new social, political, economic and security realities that have transformed it in the past decade, along with the significantly expanded involvement of foreign competitors in the region.

We have been lucky so far that the region has held together as it has, but if left unchecked much longer, a strategic region could devolve into war — with itself and others — imperiling U.S. interests from the Red Sea to Europe.  

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. He previously was chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and director for African affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.

Tags Abiy Ahmed Donald Trump Eritrea Ethiopia Horn of Africa Mike Pompeo Somalia Tigray Region

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