Understanding East Africa's Power Politics, One Core at a Time

7 MINS READMay 16, 2018 | 09:30 GMT
A photograph shows a village below a prominent hill in the Semien Mountains near Gondar, Ethiopia.

A village near Gondar, Ethiopia, sits below a prominent hill in the Semien Mountains on Jan. 20, 2017. Publisher Lonely Planet recently ranked Ethiopia among the top 10 world tourist destinations for 2017.

(CARL COURT/Getty Images)
  • East Africa's power cores play a pivotal role in determining the projection of power throughout the region.
  • Each of these power cores is beset by its own internal challenges, which sometimes restrict each region's ability to act as a cohesive unit or exert influence further afield.
  • The spaces in between the power cores, particularly Greater Somalia, provide a battleground for influence.

Like any geographic space, sub-Saharan Africa is governed by underlying factors that guide its direction and account for its actions, both at home and abroad. Political maps — those that demarcate state borders — rarely tell the full story, because they frequently fail to reflect the true power relationships beneath the surface. So how can one make sense of what's happening in a place when the often artificial lines on the map fail to explain what's going on? One way to assess the underlying power structures on the continent is to examine the region's power cores — population areas that form entities much larger than a city and don't conform to state boundaries. Sometimes they are smaller than national frontiers; sometimes they are much larger. It is these power cores that can give these political borders meaning, by demonstrating either the extent of power projection or the geographic limits of a particular core.

The Big Picture

Middle Eastern powers such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey are opening their checkbooks in a bid to muscle in and expand their influence in East Africa. The area, however, is hardly a blank canvas on which outside powers can play out their rivalries, because ultimately local realities will dictate what happens in the region. In this piece, Stratfor examines East Africa's power cores and their complicated web of alliances, friends and foes.

Power cores reveal important clues about why various states, empires and other political constructs have acted in certain ways over time. They also reveal the basic interests and objectives of larger power entities, which are an essential foundation for analysis and forecasting. Thus, before jumping into a discussion on how the rivalries of the Middle East play into and impact the rivalries of East Africa, it is paramount to understand the deeper power dynamics in East Africa. Only by doing so is it possible to understand this area — as well as the Middle Eastern power competition that is now occurring there.

The Core Beneath the Surface

East Africa is home to three power cores: the Ethiopian highlands, the Nile River Basin and the Kenyan highlands. Each of these spaces exhibit its own idiosyncrasies, which affect the projection of power outside its home region.

A map shows the three power cores of East Africa: the Nile River Basin, the Kenyan highlands and the Ethiopian highlands

In the north, the Nile River Basin, a region of arable lands created by the great river's overflow, represents East Africa's northernmost core (while also forming an integral part of the Mediterranean and Arab worlds). Divided as it was in antiquity, so it is today. The basin was split between the ancient Egyptians and Nubians — the distant predecessors of modern-day Egypt and Sudan. Today, their geographic locations largely influence their priorities. The government in Cairo seeks to be a dominating force in the Middle East and North Africa, while Sudan aims to be a player in East Africa and also to benefit from its proximity and cultural ties to the Arab lands to the north and east.

Southeast of the Nile River Basin, the Ethiopian highlands represent a somewhat unusual case because they form a power core within a single country: Ethiopia. The highlands have provided the peoples of this core with protection in the form of mountains, sheltering the fertile lowlands from invaders from elsewhere. Even in the more exposed northeast, a harsh desert helps to shield the inhabitants of the Ethiopian core. Protection from invaders is not the only benefit that geography has bestowed upon residents; rich soil has also made agriculture viable, while relative elevation has prevented the spread of diseases, such as malaria, that would have killed many and hurt economic activity.

Together, these geographic features delineate a relatively compact core and have helped make Ethiopia an African power since ancient times in spite of shifting political systems. In fact, Addis Ababa has succeeded in consistently exerting its power beyond its borders, thereby attracting the interest of great powers over the centuries. Nevertheless, the benefits of the highlands have not always granted the Ethiopian state the ability to impose its will on nearby territories. After years of insurgency, militants in the coastal province of Eritrea won independence from the government in Addis Ababa in 1991, depriving the highlands of easy access to ports and markets beyond. In addition, Ethiopia suffers from cycles of deep internal dysfunction due to ethnic cleavages, as well as drought.

Further south of the Ethiopian core is the Kenyan core centered on Lake Victoria. In addition to the eponymous Kenya, the core consists of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. Lake Victoria, the continent's largest lake, has functioned as a transport artery for well over a thousand years, helping to forge a relatively homogenous sociocultural and linguistic identity. Accordingly, the division of the Kenyan core among several countries has not sown hostility among the area's states. Instead, these countries have sometimes banded together with varying degrees of success through the East African Community and other intraregional endeavors. Even so, the relative homogeneity has not always yielded clear results or prevented rivalries within the core.

The region's geography has shaped relative divisions, as mountain ranges and numerous valleys have separated groups. Rwanda and Uganda have treated each other as both friend and foe due to their occasionally overlapping and occasionally irreconcilable goals in the broader Great Lakes region — especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The weak central government there has rarely wielded power over its mineral-rich eastern areas that abut Rwanda and Uganda. Kenya and Tanzania have also competed for regional transport hub status in recent years, although the latter's more coastal orientation (most of its population lives along the Swahili coast) has facilitated its participation in southern African initiatives when convenient.

The Lands in Between

Cores that are coherent enough to exert power beyond their commonly accepted boundaries often compete for influence in various ways. First, they battle for the spaces that fall between them. Second, they may take the competition out of the immediate region and into an area further afield. To complicate matters, the countries that represent these cores may engage in long-term or temporary alliances to effectively gang up on another to enhance their power.

In the broader East African context, this power core competition plays out in several zones: Greater Somalia, southern Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is in these spaces that local power is most feeble and that outside competition for influence is most pronounced. Unsurprisingly, natural resources or other profitable enterprises can also attract the attention of foreigners.

In the broader East African context, power core competition plays out in several zones, including Greater Somalia. It is in these spaces that local power is most feeble and that outside competition for influence is most pronounced.

Within East Africa, Greater Somalia provides a classic case study of regional core competition. The area encompasses the ethnic Somali peoples in Somalia, in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia and in northeastern Kenya. On a continent in which few regions feature any sort of homogeneity, Greater Somalia is remarkable for its lack of other ethnic groups. The space, however, is riven by clan-based divisions, while its lack of natural barriers (its mostly level coastline provides easy access to outsiders) and location adjacent to the Ethiopian and Kenyan cores have made it a battleground for influence among outsiders. Ultimately, Somalia's artificial borders — which left many ethnic Somalis outside the country's frontiers — and deep internal divisions, as well as the poor decisions made by its leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, helped throw the country into chaos. In a deeper sense, however, Greater Somalia's lack of geographical boundaries also played a crucial role in facilitating a battle for influence between the powers of the Ethiopian and Kenyan cores. It is therefore no coincidence that Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and other members of their respective cores have been the key actors in the African Union Mission in Somalia, the international effort to stabilize the country.

Capitals from Cairo to Dodoma are intimately involved in shaping East Africa. But what makes the region tick isn't necessarily the individual countries but the power cores — whether along the Nile, in the highlands of Ethiopia or around Lake Victoria — that underlie the geographic space. And outside powers, especially those from the Middle East, are increasingly trying to tap into this region, which is marked by interaction and competition among these cores.

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