30.11.2023 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

Sources of conflictogenicity: Is a new inter-State armed conflict possible in the Horn of Africa?

For several decades, the number of interstate conflicts in the world has been declining: most armed confrontations have been asymmetrical, usually characterised by the struggle between states and non-state actors. At the same time, in recent years, against the backdrop of the gradual breakdown of the unipolar world order that has existed since the early 1990s, long-standing contradictions between states have increasingly reasserted themselves, and new stumbling blocks in the relations of various countries continue to emerge amid the numerous transformations experienced by the system of international relations in the “transitional” stage of the world order.

Today, the Horn of Africa is undoubtedly one of the regions where direct confrontations between States are considered most likely. This is due to both historical experience, the current configuration of forces and the general state of regional security.

Looking at the historical background, since decolonisation processes began in the 1960s, the Horn of Africa, which includes the territories of only four countries – Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia – has experienced at least two major wars: the Ethiopian-Somali war (1977-1978) and the Ethiopian-Eritrean war (1998-2000). In fact, in more than half a century, no sustainable regional security system has been established. The long-running armed struggle for Eritrean independence, the civil war in Ethiopia in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the ongoing all-versus-all conflict in Somalia, the border clashes between Eritrea and Djibouti, the ongoing fight against insurgency in various regions of Ethiopia, and finally the fighting in Tigray (2020-2022) – all these armed conflicts have prevented the emergence of any stable and predictable system of inter-state relations. And if we take into account that such a picture was observed even in periods of relatively stable world order, the ongoing changes on the global “chessboard” temporarily move the security problems in the Horn of Africa to the periphery of the attention of the great powers. Will the US, Russia, China and the EU actively intervene in possible wars between regional players during the struggle for a “place under the sun” in a newly ordered world? – The question is rather rhetorical.

Perhaps a significant share of the conflict potential in the relations between the countries of the Horn of Africa can be successfully explained on the basis of the principle of geographical determinism. For example, Ethiopia, a kind of hegemon within the borders of the region in question, outnumbers its neighbours in terms of territory, population and economic power. However, small Eritrea and Djibouti, as well as strife-torn Somalia, have economically and politically valuable access to the sea, while Ethiopia has remained cut off from the world’s oceans since Eritrea’s independence in 1993. The problem of borders is no less acute on a different, ethnic level: historical development and colonial partitioning of the region have resulted in the dispersal of a number of ethnic groups across demarcation lines, including Tigrayans, Afar and Somalis. This situation not only leads to the development of cross-border crime and the emergence of separatist groups, but also creates relatively legitimate grounds for mutual territorial claims, which have repeatedly become the source of armed conflicts in the Horn of Africa.

Speaking about the prospects for new inter-State wars in the eastern tip of the African continent, it is important to realise that not each of the four countries can afford “such a luxury”. First of all, we are talking about Somalia, whose government has lost direct control over a large part of its territory and is bogged down in a long-standing struggle with various, including terrorist, groups. In addition, the socio-economic devastation and the specificity of relations between various clans and sub-ethnoses of Somalia make the territory of this state extremely unattractive for potential adversaries: having established control over one or another region of Somalia, any army will be doomed to a long and costly struggle with local forces. Given that Somalia’s only potential adversary to date is Ethiopia, which in recent months has been increasingly active in proclaiming its claim to direct access to the sea, this conflict is unlikely: historically, the Ethiopian government has had to fight separatist sentiments in the Ogaden state, and an attempt to take control of new Somali-populated territories seems utopian.

For its part, Djibouti, the smallest State in the region and strategically located across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, remains perhaps the most secure of the countries in the Horn of Africa. Thus, despite the absence of significant armed forces and, indeed, the presence of Afar-Issa inter-ethnic tensions, the government of the permanent Ismail Omar Guelleh can count on the support of a range of external actors in the event of hostile action by a third party. The fact is that Djibouti hosts military bases of several powers, including the United States, China, Italy, France and Japan: of course, in addition to rent, such deals bring Djibouti a security guarantee. There is one potential objection here, however. In 2008, there were clashes on the border between Djibouti and Eritrea, initiated by the latter. Although the parties suffered only minor casualties and the Eritrean army limited itself to controlling only a small part of the disputed territories, this precedent indicates that there were some threats to Djibouti’s sovereignty. At the same time, even with a fickle neighbour like Eritrea, a full-fledged conflict is unlikely: neither Ethiopia nor bordering Somaliland is interested in strengthening Eritrea’s position by intervening in Djibouti, while powers with military assets in the latter’s territory will be willing to intervene to preserve their strategic position.

Finally, it is necessary to turn to an analysis of the interaction between the two States, whose historical proximity has paradoxically created several deep rifts, and whose bridges remain a highly unreliable basis for future qualitative changes in bilateral relations. Without dwelling on the shared history of Ethiopia and Eritrea, it is important to note that the twentieth century witnessed at least three conflict narratives between the two neighbours, the appeal of which is still relevant to varying degrees today. These are: 1) the struggle for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia since the 1960s; 2) the ideological confrontation between the Ethiopian model of federalism and the Eritrean unitary state (diversity vs unity); 3) the bloody war of 1998-2000 and Addis Ababa’s de facto refusal to implement the Algiers Accords.

While it may seem at first glance that the signing of the Asmara peace agreement in 2018 and the dramatic rapprochement between the national leaders – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki – will bring the two countries into a qualitatively different phase, such a conclusion would be, at the very least, hasty. The military alliance that bound Asmara and Addis Ababa during the Tigray conflict was more ad hoc, based on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” than on a commonality of long-term interests. Victory over the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) allowed Abiy Ahmed to undermine one of the most powerful elites in the country, thus ensuring the sustainability of his position in the federal centre. In turn, Isaias Afewerki got even with his long-time adversary by taking control of the disputed border area and formally demonstrating to the population the relevance of the mobilisation model of social organisation. However, already during the preparation of the Tigray negotiation process, differences in the positions of the two countries emerged, which were only exacerbated by further developments.

To date, the elements that constitute the axis of contention between Asmara and Addis Ababa and have the potential to trigger armed clashes in the border areas include: 1) Eritrea’s de facto non-involvement in the Pretoria negotiation process and non-participation of its representatives in the signing of the peace treaty: 2) Eritrea’s indirect support for Amhara nationalists who have been fighting Ethiopian government forces in Amhara State since September 2023; 3) Asmara’s categorical rejection of Abiy Ahmed’s claims of Ethiopia’s legitimate right of access to the sea coast and the consequent likely militarisation of the relevant parts of the border.


Ivan KOPYTSEV – political scientist, research intern at the Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Institute for International Studies, MGIMO, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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