The Horn of Africa has never historically defined itself as a region. It is diverse in physical and human geography, with extraordinary lin-guistic diversity, and with equal numbers of Christians and Muslims. Its peoples are linked to Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean—and more recently to Europe and America. But they rarely convene as the people of the Horn. Rather, the Horn of Africa has been defined by outsiders, particularly the world’s great powers, as a region that spells trouble. Today’s peril for the Horn of Africa is that it may once again be reduced to the status of a client and supplicant in international power struggles that are not its own.
The Horn’s liability is its location. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the Red Sea became one of the world’s main arteries for com-merce. The world powers were concerned with the security of the shipping lanes, not with the governance of the interior. Whenever there is renewed geo-strategic interest in the region, the same pattern recurs. This was the case in the 1950s, with the Suez Crisis and the beginnings of the Cold War, and again in the 1970s, W h e r e Wa h h a b i s m penetrates, militancy follows.when the Arab-Israeli conflict reached its peak, alongside intense super-power rival-ries in the Horn and Yemen.
What followed was an unusual historic lull in international concern: for a quarter century, the countries of the region could set their own agenda. International interest never disappeared, but strategic con-cerns were reduced, and human security issues - such as ending fam-ine and mass atrocity - rose up the agenda. That is now changing again. The Gulf of Aden was briefly threatened a decade ago by pira-cy off the Somali coast.
Today there’s a much more serious peril: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula controls a stretch of Yemeni coastline. We have yet to see what maritime terrorism will do for insurance rates for shipping. Meanwhile the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of countries intervening in the Yemeni civil war are rushing to secure their military and political flank in Africa. In doing so they are shaking the already-fragile security order in the Horn of Africa—notably by pouring money into Somali factions and bringing Eritrea out of isolation by equipping military bases there.
There are real risks of renewed war. Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea remain tense and militarized. The dangers posed by the combination of a newly confident Eritrea, militarily active in the Red Sea, and a nervous Ethiopia, should not be underestimated. Three issues are thrusting the Horn back onto the global political agenda.
One is maritime security. Almost all of the seaborne trade between Europe and Asia passes through the Red Sea. That is about $700 billion worth of commerce every year. At it’s narrowest, the Bab al Mandab is barely 30 km across: it is not difficult to choke this major artery of global trade. Every coastal state in the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden has suddenly increased its strategic value.
A second issue is violent extremism: the Somali militant group Al- Shabaab is not only a threat to the people of the region, but far beyond. In response, the African Union has deployed a counterinsurgency operation dressed as a peacekeeping force. The African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is the single biggest European security expenditure on the continent. And while they fight terrorists, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also fund the spread of their intolerant, extremist version of Islam, Wahhabism. Traditional, tolerant Sufi forms of Islam are on the retreat in Somalia and Ethiopia. Where Wahhabism penetrates, militancy follows.
The final key issue is migration. Behind Syrians and Afghans, Eritreans fleeing their despotic government are the third largest group of refugees arriving in Europe today. Out of desperation, the European Union has started to overcome its scruples and provide development aid to Eritrea—though it’s clear that spending aid money on that country’s electricity infrastructure isn’t going to change the circuits of political power, and so is most unlikely to stop the exodus. It’s a typical ‘do something!’ reflex rather than a considered policy. And Europe needs to be aware that the Horn hosts many, many more refugees and migrants than ever make their way to the shores of the Mediterranean.The African Union must step into this strategic vacuum: Ethiopia alone has more than 700,000 refugees, and it provides free secondary education to them. Europe’s panic over distress migration needs to be tempered by the knowledge that African countries are doing far more—and also know far more about what works in dealing with this problem.
The Horn is on the cusp of becoming a strategic hard security issue for Europe and Asia. China is building its first overseas military base in Djibouti, within sight of the procession of container ships that carry the greater part of Chinese exports to Europe. Saudi Arabia is constructing a Red Sea fleet. Iran and Russia are both interested.
The countries of the region need to think and act strategically if they are to be able to shape the agenda and lead the action. Or they will be reduced to the status of minor players, buffeted by others.
One of the most striking things about the Horn and the Red Sea is that there is no regional organization that can grapple with its security challenges. The African Union does not cross the Red Sea. The Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) includes the countries of the Horn, but not Egypt—an historic powerbroker, with strategic interests in the Nile and the Red Sea—and also is confined to the African shore. The Arab League is not effective, which is one reason why the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has taken the lead in the Yemeni intervention—and is using financial muscle to win African countries to support its operations, rather than multilateral diplomacy. Ethiopia, the pivotal state of the Horn, is landlocked and keenly fears being surrounded by hostile states backed by historic rivals such as Egypt.
The African Union must step into this strategic vacuum: it should establish partnerships with the GCC, Arab League and European Union. At the minimum, the wider Red Sea region—a shared space between Africa and the Middle East—demands its own forum.