Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Annual Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming year.
The Horn of Africa has entered a period of profound change. Renewed ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea in late 2018 have led to a rapprochement between Eritrea and Somalia. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Eritrea will also renew its relations with Sudan and Djibouti in the months ahead. And in an effort to take advantage of the region's high profile and emerging stability, Ethiopia's ambitious leader has even floated the idea of reviving the landlocked country's navy. With so many elements in flux, Somalia's leaders and neighbors alike are asking how the country will navigate this new normal as it continues to struggle with complex internal problems.
Ethiopia has been pursuing reconciliation both internally and externally since the African giant's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, arrived on the scene in April 2018. While the premier's push has had mixed results domestically, rapidly improving ties between various East African countries have helped stabilize the region. Even Eritrea, previously one of the region's main troublemakers, buried the hatchet with Somalia in July. This was no small feat considering accusations that Eritrea covertly supported Islamic militants in Somalia resulted in U.N. sanctions against Asmara in 2009. And thanks to improving ties among Asmara, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu, Somalia joined other members of the international community in lifting sanctions against Eritrea in a vote at the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 14.
Somalia has made notable progress toward stability in recent years with the help of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a roughly 21,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force. As AMISOM's desired drawdown date in the early 2020s approaches, questions persist about Mogadishu's ability to manage its own security. Still, foreign interest in the country continues to rise amid shifts in the broader Horn of Africa region that have serious implications for Somalia.
Ethiopia's prime minister has been the catalyst for much of this reconciliation, compelled as he is by the country's landlocked geography and the need for sea access. To achieve this, Abiy has acquired stakes in various ports — including Port Sudan, the Port of Djibouti and Berbera in the breakaway republic of Somaliland — and has promised to boost transport links with Somalia through joint investment in roads and ports under Mogadishu's control (the precise ports remain unclear, however). If the deal materializes, Somalia could improve its trade options through supply routes to and from Ethiopia's growing market of 100 million people. Until recently, Djibouti has had a near monopoly on goods coming in and out of Ethiopia, but cultivating alternatives in Somalia will likely not become a priority for Addis Ababa due to Somalia's instability and corruption, Somaliland's desperation to ingratiate itself with Ethiopia and the landlocked giant's greater access to other ports. Still, a more stable Somalia could gain greater connections to supply chains through Ethiopia and wealthy partners (such as China or the United Arab Emirates) willing to invest in infrastructure deals.
Ethiopia could create opportunities for Somalia, but there are plenty of hurdles to overcome before relations between Mogadishu and Addis Ababa acquire more normalcy. At the most basic geopolitical level, Ethiopia has long meddled in Somalia to assert its dominance. While modern Somalia has been collapsing or near collapse since the early 1990s, Mogadishu once posed a major threat to Addis Ababa. Because of this, it remains an open question as to how far Abiy's push for reform and reconciliation can extend to Somalia. After a long history of rivalry, Ethiopia will struggle to secure its interests and promote security in Somalia without restoring Mogadishu's previous position as Addis Ababa's rival. To make matters more complicated, other regional players such as Kenya will insert themselves into the relationship to further their own interests.
Abiy has clearly considered the problem of competition, going so far as to float the idea of politically integrating his country with Eritrea and Somalia. His counterparts have so far been willing to at least pay lip service to this cause by issuing a joint communique in November on their shared desire to work toward peace and integration. But while the proposition is seemingly farfetched, a possible Ethiopian umbrella is not impossible in the years ahead, particularly if significant progress is made against Somalia's militants. If the Horn of Africa's countries can work together (or at least stop supporting militants in one another's backyards), they can benefit from Ethiopia's growing market and the region's coastal access to drive international investment in key sectors. In fact, interested parties have already recognized the region's rising economic potential. Middle Eastern powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have increased their financial stakes across the region in recent years, as have China, Russia and others. With Chinese infrastructure projects such as the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway and new port deals well underway, the Horn of Africa has become a new playground for states to project power and pursue economic diversification.
Despite ongoing shifts in the Horn of Africa, Somalia's internal struggles remain the elephant in the room. Progress against al Shabaab militants largely stems from the African Union Mission in Somalia's (AMISOM) efforts, as Somalia's military remains a mostly ragtag force suffering from corruption, low morale and other issues (excluding some elite units trained by outside powers). To make matters worse, Somalia's regional states have been in a spat with the federal government since mid-September over disagreements on how to structure the country and handle security.
Somalia's states and its federal government have had trouble cooperating for years, but the suspended ties nonetheless provide another headache for Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, often known by the nickname, Farmajo. The president promised to work closely with the states in centralizing control of the military, but deeply embedded clan divisions and rising state resistance have complicated his plans. Indeed, in October, the various states even threatened to form their own separate army and intelligence network to compete with Mogadishu's. If the states make good on their promise, the new initiative will — at a minimum — complicate the country's already fraught security situation as various sides vie for dominance.
The Horn of Africa is set to stabilize and engender more investor and security interest in the years ahead, but not all countries are set to see the same results.
The federal government's continued clashes with Somalia's various states will make it harder for AMISOM to withdraw, but the purported drawdown was always going to be difficult to achieve. AMISOM has been the bedrock of Somali stability for over a decade, playing a crucial role in fighting militants, providing executive protection and training local forces. The Somali National Army, on the other hand, has not proven itself up to the task of defending, let alone capturing, territory from al Shabaab, which remains resilient. Consequently, AMISOM will remain crucial to maintaining stability as long as international powers such as the United States stand to gain, although the mission could evolve and other states could emerge to make a contribution in time.
The Horn of Africa is set to stabilize and engender more investor and security interest in the years ahead, but not all countries are set to see the same results. Somalia may gain somewhat from the rising tide, but the country's internal issues will keep international security forces in place while international investors remain on the sidelines.
Editor's Note: This assessment has been amended to delete a reference to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as a Chinese infrastructure project.