Op-Ed: The uncertainty politics in the Horn of Africa

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By Anwar Abdifatah Bashir

The political dynamics in the Horn of Africa have always been tense and volatile. Being a geographically strategic region, it has historically attracted competition among the big powers, with the region’s diversity in terms of population, norms, politics, and history rendering it susceptible to proxy politics, emanating mainly from Western countries.

The Horn of Africa region has been vulnerable to multipolar politics ever since at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 13 European countries laid claim to Africa’s territories: Britain signed the Rodd Treaty with Menelik II of Ethiopia in 1897 that dominated the country’s administration, Djibouti came under French control while Italy took Somalia, Italian Somaliland, and Eritrea. By 1914, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all other African countries were under colonial rule.

Russia joined the race during the Cold War and supported the regimes in Somalia and Ethiopia, with President Siad Barre of Somalia and Prime Minister Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia becoming close allies of Russia. But despite their allegiance to the former Soviet Union, the two countries fought a vicious war from 1977 to 1978.

 The countries of the Horn of Africa are Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, and by extension, Kenya, and Uganda. In this article, we focus on Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. More specifically, we shall examine how the incumbent leaders in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea have created a coalition to extend their terms of office under the pretence of “Horn of Africa Integration”. After Abiy, the prime minister of Ethiopia was appointed in 2018, Afwerki, the president of Eritrea, and the immediate president of Somalia, Farmajo visited Addis-Ababa, while Abiy, reciprocally did the same. Apart from the briefings, there are no clear agreements signed by these leaders; this has created rumours and speculations.

 Somalia

From 1960 to 1969, Somalia had a fledgling democracy led by civilian governments established through a peaceful transfer power. In 1969, the military seized power led by Siad Barre who ruled with an iron fist rule until he was ousted in 1991, leaving in his wake a civil war that killed thousands of Somalis, and pushed thousands of others into exile. In 2000, Djibouti called a reconciliation conference that brought together civil society groups, and culminated in the formation of the first government since the beginning of the civilian war. The new government was short-lived, however, as the warlords who controlled most of the south-central regions resisted and revolted. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia was created in Nairobi under the leadership of the late President Abdullahi Yusuf.

A military confrontation between troops of the Islamic Courts Union who had dominated most of the South-Central regions, and the Transitional Federal Government backed by Ethiopian forces and, following a bitter fight and great loss of life, the TFG entered Mogadishu. Following a political fallout between the president and his prime minister, President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned, and the leader of the ICU, Sheekh Sharif succeed.

The first election since the outbreak of the civil war was held under President Sheekh Sharif, and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a civilian and veteran academic, was elected as president. Somalia became a federal state with five federal member states under the incumbent President Hassan Sheekh first term who oversaw the implementation of the provisional constitution which had been adopted in August 2012.

Although there were allegations of corruption, President Hassan’s government was relatively stable. One person one vote elections were scheduled to take place in 2016, but they were postponed for various reasons, including the insecurity caused by the Al-Shabaab and disagreement between the federal government and the leaders of the federal member states and others. Despite the challenges, however, President Hassan Sheikh’s administration pioneered indirect parliamentary elections where 51 delegates from each clan would elect the members of parliament. Although the process was not considered a fair fight, the transition was smooth. In February 2017, Hassan Sheikh lost his re-election bid, and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, the former prime minister of Somalia, became his successor. President Farmajo received a warm welcome from the public and many accolades from the international community and the neighbouring countries. Indeed, many Somalis believed that he would be better than his predecessors and would deliver the One Person, One Vote in 2021.

The situation turned when the government extradited Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) commander Abdikarim Qalbi Dhagah to Ethiopia, leading to a public backlash, protests, and fierce criticism of the government. It was the first time that a Somali person had been extradited to Ethiopia, a country that many Somalis consider to be the arch-enemy. Since then, public support for the government has plummeted. Intimidation, attacks, smear campaigns, extrajudicial actions, and incarceration have become the modus operandi of Farmajo’s government, and the Somali people’s hope in Farmajo’s government has declined dramatically.

Meanwhile, Farmajo’s government declared the UN Ambassador to Somalia persona non-grata and expelled, leading to international condemnation of his government. The government of Somalia also cut ties with Kenya, a country which has hosted the largest number of Somali refugees since 1991.

The mandate of the former president ended on 8 February 2021 without elections being held for a successor government. In March 2021, the Somali parliament, especially House of the People unilaterally extended the term of the president for another two years, which resulted in a confrontation and a split within the National army. After two weeks of chaos, the parliament reversed its decision.

The long-awaited One Person One Vote elections became a pipedream and indirect parliamentary elections were maintained albeit with an increase in the number of the delegates from 51 to 101. The latest parliamentary elections have been mired in fraud, favouritism, rigging, and massive irregularities and the country has been plunged into uncertainty. On 15 May, 2022, the presidential election was held, and elected Hassan Sheekh, the former president as his second time.

Ethiopia

Historically, Ethiopia has never held free and fair elections. On the contrary, the country has lived under a political dynasty and patrimonial leadership interspersed with coups. There has always been a power struggle between Ethiopia’s diverse communities. The Amhara, who collaborated of the colonial powers, enjoyed the support of the British Administration under the Rodd Treaty of 1897 agreement, and dominated the country’s politics. Both Menelik II and Haile Selassie marginalized other communities, especially the Oromo, the Somali, and Tigrayans. In 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Haile Selassie in a coup d’état and moved the country’s allegiance away from the West to the Soviet Union, leading to a proxy war in Ethiopia between the US and Russia. Mengistu was ruthless to his critics, especially the Oromo, Tigray, and Somali; he was known as the “Butcher of Addis Ababa” and the “Red Terror.”

Led by Meles Zenawi, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ousted Mengistu’s regime in 1991 and Ethiopia adopted federalism under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition party made up of the TPLF, Amhara, Oromo, and the Southern Nations and Nationalities. The first mistake committed by the Zenawi regime was to disregard other communities, particularly the Somalis, who are the third largest community in terms of population. The second mistake was to nullify the results of the elections in the Somali region where the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) had won by a landslide, resulting in a confrontation between the Zenawi regime and the ONLF. After three years of demonstrations emanating from the Oromo region and spreading to the Amhara region, Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn resigned in 2018. It was the first time in Ethiopia that a public office holder resigned due to pressure from the citizens. Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister in April 2018.

Eritrea

Eritrea was an Italian colony before World War II, but after Italy was defeated in the war in 1952, the United Nations tried to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia to compromise Ethiopia’s claim of sovereignty and Eritrea’s desire for independence. Unfortunately, after nine years, Haile Silassie retracted the agreement and annexed Eritrea.

As a result, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which was created in 1961, revolted against Haile Silassie. When Haile Selassie was dethroned by the Derg regime, former prime minister Prime Minister Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had led the revolution, tried to reach a settlement with the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) without success and insurgencies against his rule increased. In 1991, when Mengistu was ousted by the rebel movements led by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Prime Minister Meles Zenawi tried to keep Eritrea as part of Ethiopia, leading to renewed conflict with the rebel groups. After two years of fierce fighting Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 but the country has never held an election since; Isaias Afwerki, Tte first president, is still at the helm. After five years of a territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the BADME war erupted in 1998, lasting until 2000 and claiming more than 100,000 lives.

Several peace agreements were brokered, including by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), the Algiers Comprehensive Peace Accord (ACPA), the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), all culminating in deadlock, and Addis-Ababa and Asmara remaining at loggerheads. Horn of Africa Integration Project

With the exception of April 2018, when the former minister Haile Mariam Desalegn resigned following three years of demonstrations against EPRDF rule, Ethiopia had never experienced a peaceful transition of power. Abiy Ahmed, who was part of the EPRDF rule, succeeded Desalegn. In the beginning, under Prime Minister Abiy, Ethiopia enjoyed relative press freedom, there was greater inclusion of women in politics, and the 20 years of animosity between Ethiopia and Eritrea came to an end, paving the way for Abiy to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Abiy Ahmed visited Mogadishu in June 2018, where he met his counterpart President Farmajo. In a joint statement, the two leaders talked about strengthening diplomatic and trade relations between their two countries, with Ethiopia pledging to invest in Somalia’s port facilities. But apart from that brief statement, nobody knows precisely what the agenda of Abiy’s meeting with Farmajo was. President Farmajo has also visited Addis Ababa several times, but has not informed Somalia’s parliament what has been agreed between the two leaders. In December 2018, Eritrean president Afwerki visited Mogadishu and had talks with president Farmajo; the agenda of the meeting between the two leaders remains unknown. Somalia’s president also paid a visit to Asmara in July 2018.

Eritrea used to supply weapons and ammunition to the ICU during its conflict with the Somali government of the late president Abdullahi Yusuf, leading the Somali government to accuse Eritrea of supporting the extremist Al-Shabaab rebel group and as a result, the United Nations imposed an embargo on Eritrea in 2009. The UN lifted sanctions on Eritrea in November 2018 after the country reconciled with Ethiopia and Somalia. The leaders of the three countries, Abiy, Farmajo, and Afwerki, agreed on a little-known “Tripartite Agreement”. In hindsight, Abiy’s reconciliation with Afwerki was to enable Ethiopia to ostracize Ethiopia’s Tigrayan community and launch an attack on the Tigray region. Abiy’s secret agenda came out into the open on 4 November 2020 when he attacked the Tigray region backed by Eritrean troops. The coalition forces have committed gross human rights violations in the Tigray region, which has led to international condemnation against the brutality of the coalition troops and calls for Eritrean forces to withdraw from the Tigray region.

Meanwhile, although there is no smoking gun, there is a strong possibility that the Somali troops being trained in Eritrea are involved in the Tigray war. The Somali government had denied that Somali soldiers were sent to Eritrea for training but later confirmed this. In the meantime, Somalia is currently witnessing the most prolonged election process amid massive irregularities. The sitting government is doing whatever it can to remain at the helm and consolidate power by manipulating, manoeuvring, and gerrymandering, leaving the country facing considerable uncertainty.

Despite the ongoing civil war and the political discontent in Ethiopia resulting from the delayed polls that were supposed to take place in September 2020, Abiy has decided to remain at the helm by hook or by crook.

The regimes in Addis Ababa, Mogadishu, and Asmara that I have called the axis-of-evil coalition have led the region astray through lack of an adequate response to the protracted drought, the unbridled corruption, the instability, and the internecine communal conflicts. The reasons behind the “Tripartite Agreement” between the three leaders were not and never have been to serve their respective people, enhance the trade relations, or improve security, but to keep a hold on power through their “Trojan horse” deal. This may lead to a revolt by the oppositions in the three countries that could finally destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.

Farmajo had lost already his re-election bid, and was defeated by Hassan Sheikh on 15 May presidential election. The opposition against Farmajo was peddling that, the former president has committed indelible and inexpiable crime against the state by handing over a Somali citizen to Ethiopia; sent secretly Somali troops to Eritrea for training; power abuse against his critics, and other crimes. During the handing over ceremony in the State House, Farmajo has declared that, his government sent 5,000 Somali troops to Eritrea, and will return to Somalia sooner.

Many of the talking heads expressed, the former president wanted to rig the election by these troops, but he couldn’t as the opposition resisted pre-emptively.

Abiy has delayed several times the national election that was supposed to take place in September 2020; and this has resulted conflicts and confrontations among the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), and the regional administrations, especially Tigray and Oromia.

As the civil war, the conflicts in Ethiopia, and the pressure from the International Community increase, it seems that, Abiy, will not survive anymore, and regime change is inevitable.

Afwerki, the president of Eritrea who several interviews expressed that, he doesn’t believe an election, especially his notorious mantra of “What election?” during Aljazeera interview had him, seems the only one who can survive for some time; but sooner or later, Afwerki will encounter spontaneous resistance from his people.

About the Author

  Anwar Abdifatah Bashir: Senior Lecturer at Somali National University and Horn of Africa Affairs Analyst. His articles are widely published by Aljazeera Centre for Studies, Daily Nation, Addis Standard, and others.

Tweets @Anwaryare1000

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Horndiplomat editorial policy.

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