Regional Instability in the Horn of Africa: The Effects of U.S. Regional Policy

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
02 August 2012
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The Horn of Africa remains a hotbed of unrest, ravaged by wars that have left the unstable region incapable of resolving stagnant issues that continue to plague the region. Fueling the instability, U.S. foreign policy in the Horn has driven the region into more confusion. With the Horn’s proximity within an evolving Middle East, a redesigned and (wholly drastic) approach to executing U.S. policy matters is needed to avoid turning the region into a cluster of vulnerable ‘failed states’ that could undermine counter-terrorism efforts.

Africa’s Colonial Roots

The root of insecurity in the Horn (1) could arguably be traced back as far as colonial times throughout Africa. The Scramble for Africa (1885-1910) ensured that most able European powers were able to profit from Africa’s natural and human resources. While Ethiopia managed to fend off colonizers (aside from a five year occupation by Italy), the Horn has seen a combination of British, French, and Italian colonization. Arbitrary border designations made possible through the 1884 Berlin Conference (the ‘green light’ for the Scramble of Africa), which often split ethnic tribes on two or even three sides of a border, took a toll that can still be seen in today’s conflicts. Territories were battled (or handed) over from one colonial administration to the next, fundamentally altering operational systems within the country, aside from changes that could be seen on the social levels. The types of colonial administration, whether it was direct or indirect rule, had an impact on local legal systems and economies of African territories. Aside from historical Christian kingdoms like Ethiopia, a surge in Christian missionary work coincided with the era of colonization, as new territories and favorable European administrations paved the way for such work. While re-drawing Africa’s boundaries today would likely cause more instability, the colonial legacy is still evident. The United States did not participate in the ‘Scramble’ for general logistics reasoning, it still holds close relations with modern day Liberia, which remained independent throughout the colonial era as a result of the U.S. attempting to “re-settle” various freed black American slaves in Africa. But U.S. involvement in Africa generally grew after the European colonies throughout the continent received their nationhood independence post World War II, generally starting the decolonization process in the 1950s and accelerating in the 1960s.

Colonization out…Communism in?

African countries generally became independent fresh after the McCarthyism era in the United States, in which a ‘Red Scare’ of being labeled as a communist became synonymous with treason-like behavior. Soon, young African countries suddenly became ripe for a turf war of influence between the West and the Soviet Union in terms of communism. As a result, militaristic (and dictator-led) Marxist governments in both Ethiopia (Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime in 1974) and Somalia (Siad Barre in 1969-70, only nine years after British/Italian territories created the territory of present-day Somalia). Using Soviet weapons, Barre tried to reclaim the ethnic Somali-dominated southern Ogaden region of Ethiopia, but Soviet-backed Ethiopia stopped the rebellion. Soviet and (interestingly) U.S. backed Ethiopian troops also attempted to quell a (secessionist) independence rebellion in Eritrea, a breakaway northern province, but ultimately failed after a 30 year long war (1961-1991) with Eritrean guerilla fighters. Eritrea also started their country on a Marxist tradition, with free healthcare and education, centralized government control, and service by its citizens. Communism in Africa, on an ideological level, offered similarities to the concept of ‘African socialism,’ as debated by former leaders in the continent like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. African socialism, loosely linked to communism by many African leaders at the time, discussed a concept in which community based African tribes had generations of experiences in economic and social ‘sharing’ concepts.

Djibouti: The U.S. Hub in the Horn

Djibouti, Africa’s smallest country, plays host to both French and U.S. military bases. The country’s economy is buoyed by trade from Ethiopia, which has been effectively landlocked by its political rival Eritrea. Its deep sea ports and location at the opening of the Red Sea (Bab el-Mandeb) have bolstered the country’s economy, in addition to the Addis Abeba-Djibouti railway. Almost 60% of commercial ships in the Red Sea use the Port of Djibouti, and the country has become a regional banking hub and has nearly an unrestricted commerce sector, both of which have drawn international interest. Although Djibouti has a regional reputation as being the ‘Las Vegas’ of the Horn (due to the high levels of gambling, prostitution, and khat(2)-dominated drug trade all bolstered by the presence of foreign troops), Djibouti remains a conservatively Muslim country dominated by ethnic Somalis. Djibouti is also a member of the Arab League, and despite its small Arab population, it enjoys funding and support from the League. However, the country suffers from food insecurity, due to the frequent droughts and the fact that most of its food is imported. Unemployment remains high, and the country’s GDP is a mere $1.14 billion, including all of its economic ventures in the region.

Djibouti’s government, a semi-presidential republic, has also suffered its challenges along the way. The country’s first president after independence was Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who held office from 1977 until 1999 through a series of elections. An Afar (3) rebellion spread in the early 1990s, finally leading to a peace accord in 1994. Ismail Omar Guellah, Aptidon’s nephew and former presidential advisor, then took the top role in 1999. Guellah ran unopposed in 2005, and won with 80% of the votes in the April 2011 election in which the opposition boycotted the election. Interestingly enough, Guellah amended the constitution in 2010 in order to allow him to run for a third term, despite saying that he’d step down after his second term in office. A few months after the constitutional changes, which also reduced the presidential term to five years instead of six, Eritrea and Djibouti resolved their border flareup, which resulted in the deaths of a few dozen soldiers (but not without Eritrea receiving sanctions related to the conflict in 2009 by the U.N. Security Council). Protests leading up to the 2011 elections led to at least two deaths by government forces, which also banned various opposition groups from assembling. IGAD (4), which is heavily supported by Djibouti’s government, labeled the elections “peaceful” in addition to being “free and democratic.” However, an independent election observer, U.S. - based ‘Democracy International,’ was told to exit the country a month prior to the elections due to its “illegal” presence in the country, following critiques about the voter registration and voter awareness/education strategy prior to elections.

With election results being hardly surprising, and while the overall ineffectiveness and general weakness of Djibouti’s opposition (in relation to the ruling party) is well documented, the U.S. continues to laud Djibouti’s efforts in democracy. Djibouti’s strategic location in the Horn has allowed U.S. troops and the CIA simultaneously monitor two fronts of terrorism: Al Qaida-rooted activity in Yemen, and insurgency efforts of (two competing rebel groups) Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in Somalia. The Assistant Secretary for African Affairs during the Bush administration was Jendayi E. Frazer, a controversial figure in the Horn who often described Djibouti as a ‘democratic’ country with “peaceful” elections (5), despite democratic shortcomings in the country.

Ethiopia: The U.S. Arm in the Horn of Africa

Ethiopia, given its size and federal democratic framework in place, remains the U.S.’s main strategic ally in the Horn of Africa. It remains Africa’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, receiving nearly $933 million in assistance in 2010, with more than half of the aid being food aid. While Ethiopia received over $282 million in military aid until 1978, the Ethiopian administration has received up to $20 million yearly since 2007. Ethiopia is now the second largest Horn of Africa recipient of U.S. military aid after Djibouti, where the U.S. hosts its (only) military base on the continent.

However, especially after the turmoil following 2005 general elections in the capital Addis Abeba, Ethiopia’s ruling regime has lost an even greater amount of democratic credibility. More 200 protesters were reported dead and many of the opposition leaders found themselves jailed following the elections, in addition to numerous other electoral irregularities preceding the elections. Local elections in 2008 managed to help current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s EPRDF (6) regain control of the parliament, winning 99% of the local seats. By 2009, previously pardoned opposition leaders (for their ‘roles’ in the 2005 elections) were re-arrested, and the parliament voted in the “Charities and Societies Proclamation” law that restricts foreign bodies working on human rights issues from operating in the country. Similarly, the May 2010 parliamentary elections, while not as violent as 2005, yielded an incredible 99.6 win by the ruling power. However, the political crackdowns by the Ethiopian government have not deterred general U.S. support from the country regarding regional security. US-backed Ethiopian troops were encouraged to invade Somalia in 2006 to support the Transitional Government Forces (TFG) against the then ruling Islamic Courts which were also supposedly being supported by arch-rival Eritrea (hence the proxy war accusations). Although Ethiopian troops occupied various border areas of Somalia until 2009 claiming security threats to their borders, the pullout actually increased the influence of the Al Shabaab, reclaiming and expanding their influence territory. The contested Somalian city of Baidoa, once home to TFG forces, was re-taken by Al Shabaab once Ethiopian troops withdrew.

Ethiopia’s ethnic federalist structure is fraying, due to minority-led (Tigray ethnic group, or roughly 4% of the population) government and the unequal distribution of aid and resources throughout provinces, frequently fingered as one of the causes for famine and frustration in its southern regions. The reoccurring Ogaden conflict, with the newest flare-up being in 2007-2008, in the country’s heavily ethnic Somali southeastern region is also a direct result of such government mismanagement. Despite Ethiopia concurrently fighting a two-front war domestically (the Ogaden conflict) and abroad (the occupation of Somalia) between 2006 and 2009, U.S. support for Ethiopia as a ‘stabilizing’ force in the region has hardly faltered. Two other ethnic rebel groups have also vented their frustrations with the current regime: the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF). While the OLF appears to have dropped its secessionist bid in lieu of greater democratic freedom in Ethiopia, the ARDUF, which fights for greater autonomy from the government, has recently blamed the Ethiopian government for the deaths of five European tourists as a result of battles in the region. Despite Ethiopia’s accusation of Eritrea’s supporting role to the ARDUF for the tourist deaths, the ARDUF has denied Eritrean support, and labeling Ethiopia’s claim as ‘baseless and unfounded.’(7)

Somalia: 21 Years of Interference and Neglect

Somalia has been without a central authority since the start of the Somali Civil War in 1991. The only saving grace is autonomous northeastern province of Somaliland. The Somaliland breakaway region has distanced itself politically from the tumultuous southern region, where the bulk of the current conflict has taken place. With its functional local government and state institutions, and police force, Somaliland and other northern provinces are currently the only regions that harbor consistent stable peace in the country.

Mogadishu, the country’s battered capital, finds itself torn as a result of a struggle between two remaining entities: the (international recognized) Transitional Federal Government and rebel group Al Shabaab. The now-dormant Islamic Courts Union, despite serving justice to warlords and a sense of stability after driving out the city’s warlords, collapsed after a strong military push from the internationally-backed TFG and Ethiopian troops. Despite their popularity, the Islamic Courts also crumbled due to internal disagreements over the group’s ideological views. The TFG is still regarded with suspicion by many in the country, as the new government enjoys the support of foreign powers like Ethiopia and the United States.(8) The vacuum of leadership has made the country an ideological haven for radical groups, including a battlefield with several hundred foreign fighters from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Hizbul Islam, a rival rebel group that battled with Al Shabaab over territory and influence between 2009 and 2010, lost numerous battles and eventually (generally) merged with Al Shabaab by late 2010. Al Shabaab continues to have internal struggles and defections which have sometimes resulted in splinter groups, but the group’s successful hit-and-run tactics on pro-government (TFG) forces continue to wield influence over various cities that the group occupies.

Since 2007, the TFG forces have been supported by the multi-nation effort of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which has yielded significant success with its own troops that have taken control over key Al Shabaab strongholds. The United Nations recently even reopened an office in Mogadishu after a 17 year absence in the country.(9) Kenyan forces also operate in parts in southern Somalia, as Al Shabaab has made lethal excursions into Kenyan territory. Al Shabaab has and continues to make threats to other regional neighbors including Ethiopia and Eritrea. The U.S. has limited its ground operations to select Navy Seal missions, careful to avoid scenarios like 1993’s Battle of Mogadishu, in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. However, the U.S. continues to provide air support from its military base in Djibouti through the use of drones, which have hit key Al Shabaab leaders and additionally divided Al Shabaab. But guerrilla tactics, suicide bombings, and powerful influence over certain local populations still leave Mogadishu unstable. U.S. assistance to Somalia reached $403.8 million but has substantially decreased, with the Obama administration requesting a mere $82.4 million for the 2012 fiscal year.

The internal instability has also distracted the country from protecting its maritime borders, as the country’s vast fishing reserves in the Indian Ocean are being consistently plundered by international fishing boats crossing through the territory through the Red Sea. Metric tons of hazardous toxic and radioactive waste have also been dumped in Somali waters by numerous European and Asian firms, debunking rampant media myths that label Somali fishermen as ‘pirates’ gone rogue. While opportunistic rebels have risen to find profit in hostage-taking of those ships passing through to the Red Sea, especially given the country’s devastated economy, others are (subsistence and for-profit) fishermen who’ve had their once-profitable vast fishing reserves partially depleted, and even destroyed as a result of illegal fishing and toxic dumping. Many residents have been forced to take matters into their own hands, as the central government’s focus remains on the struggle for control of the capital.

Over a million refugees and asylum seekers have either been internally displaced or have fled the country to either Yemen (161,000+ in 2010), Ethiopia (59,000+ in 2010) or refugee camps in nearby Kenya (310,000+ in 2010). Nearly all Somalis seeking asylum and refugee status worldwide have their applications granted as a result, creating large diaspora communities throughout Europe (such as Sweden with almost 32,000 Somali expats, and the more than 10,000 in the United Kingdom) and the United States. Remittances from Somali diasporas heavily factor into nearly 40% of the country’s GDP, buoying residents through drought and war-induced famine amidst the backdrop of the civil war.

Eritrea: Isolation on the West, Open Arms in the East

Eritrea’s government has become increasingly more socially and financially isolated partially due to the constant sanctions due to conflicts in the region, including a border war with Ethiopia in 1998 that resulted in devastating the economy while increasing Asmara’s further mistrust of the international community. An internationally recognized border commission ruling awarded Eritrea with contested land (primarily including the village of Badme) (10) and effectively demarcating the border, but the Addis administration has questioned the legitimacy of the ruling and refuses to remove its troops from the areas in question. This in turn has elongated the routine 1.5 years of national military service in Eritrea, with most Eritrean troops now stationed at the border, causing many of the youth serving to flee the country as a result. Most have fled to nearby Sudan or Ethiopia, some to Libya and the greater Middle East, while others have found asylum in various European countries, Israel, and the United States.

Despite the Asmara administration’s adamant denial regarding the supply of weapons to Baidoa (a Somali city dominated by Al Shabaab), Eritrea was, as a result, still hit with sanctions related to destabilizing the region. Eritrea’s foreign ministry department labeled the accusations as “baseless,” “fabrications,” and “outright lies.” In January 2012, regional (Kenya-led) and international (primarily U.S.) allegations that surfaced in November 2011 over arms supply to Somalia were deemed “incorrect” and “probably did not take place,” according to a U.N.’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, which oversees an arms embargo between the two countries. Al Shabaab spokesperson Suldan Mohammed Aala Mohammed has even stated that Eritrea is on its list of enemies.(11)

A once-free media industry was essentially shut down in 2001, currently limited to government-led television and newspaper outlets. The country has not held presidential elections since its independence in 1991, with current President Isaias Afeworki stressing to his critics that the need for internal development and regional security outweighs presidential elections. While Eritrean and Ethiopian administrations routinely trade accusations regarding regional developments in the area, Eritrea has bore the brunt of punishment in the region from neighboring countries and abroad, particularly with its firm stance against foreign development aid and loans, in addition to its firm relations in the neighboring Arab world, including close relationships with controversial figures such as (the now deceased) Col. Khadaffi of Libya and President Omar al Bashir of Sudan. Eritrea’s relationship with Israel and Qatar are also questioned by its regional neighbors, in addition to its growing economic partnership with China. The country’s new mining industry has also yielded profits in the billions, coming at a critical time to an economy hit by heavy political and economic sanctions.

“Blowback” in the Horn: Smarter Engagements in Tougher Times

Despite a continued American presence in the Horn, the region has suffered as a result of the attention of U.S. policy and personnel being diverted to other problematic regions in Western Africa and the immediate Middle East. While no African nation aside from U.S.-ally Liberia has offered territory as a base for the future AFRICOM (12) headquarters (which currently operates in Germany), the presence of an AFRICOM-like institution isn’t immediately needed given the numerous multi-national organizations that currently operate in the region. Financial and training support of both the overextended African Union and malfunctioning IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) are needed, especially in complicated conflicts like Somalia. A critical understanding of Somali society, such as the importance of clan allegiance, is evidently lacking in the U.S.’ foreign policy approach to the Horn given the minimal success the country has seen since 1991. On the local level, careful attention needs to be paid to public perception in the region, especially given the generally unwavering U.S support of Ethiopia, the sole (majority) Christian nation in the Horn. Covert U.S. actions in Somalia have also driven mistrust into local populations. Documentation of American CIA agents paying Somali warlords cash for assistance in rooting out Al Qaeda-linked terror suspects.(13) While the then-existing Islamic Courts nearly drove out most of the warlords in efforts for better security, many returned after the courts fell out of power. Somalia is overrun by international actors on the national and local level, giving a way for a much needed coordinated trust-building international effort in collaborative including the existing multi-national organizations, the Somali Transitional Federal Government, and clan leaders.

Given other American-supported efforts worldwide, the Ethiopian government has been used as a proxy for executing U.S. foreign policy in the region. However, the increasingly deteriorating governance and human rights situation in Ethiopia demands a re-evaluation of U.S. bilateral relations with Ethiopia. While Ethiopia has made strides in improving healthcare and food-related issues in the country with the help of foreign aid, mismanaged unconditional aid has contributed to internal turmoil in Ethiopia and regional fragmentation. Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the boundary decision of the EEBC (Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission) has legitimized an increasingly withdrawn Eritrea, who’s Asmara administration has not only indicated its suspicion of failed foreign intervention efforts in the region but continuously advocates for internal solutions for the Horn’s problems. Pushing for Ethiopia’s implementation recognition of the demarcated border would be a key policy win in improving soured U.S.-Eritrean relations. Resolving the border stalemate could in turn encourage Eritrea pave the way for the reinstitution the now-withdrawn UNMEE (United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea). Tense peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea has not, however, deterred a steady flow of refugees from the two countries, while troubles in Somalia has forced internally displaced Somalis to spill into neighboring countries such as Kenya and Sudan.

The Need for “Smart Sanctions”

The teetering stability as a result of numerous tensions in the region have caused a halt in development implementation due to fractured state institutions and lack of investors, increased brain drain of regional talent, and a general dependence on unregulated and misdirected foreign aid.

Conditional aid dependent on solving regional conflicts, such as the border demarcation issue between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and increasingly democratic measures both internally in Ethiopia and Somalia, should be awarded in lieu of regional sanctions preventing the region from politically and economically moving forward. U.S. foreign policy has increasingly depended on the use of economic sanctions has a means of punishment through (non-military) engagement, as seen in the case with its relations with Iran. The aim of economic sanctions often seek to change the behavior of a regime in question; however, determining whether actual political events are a result of linked sanctions can be circumstantial at best, thereby making it difficult to determine the effectiveness of sanctions. The region is marred by U.S. and U.N.-linked sanctions, but wearing out regimes like that of long-time Sudanese leader Omar Al-Bashir have proved ineffective, given his continuance as the president of the country and the strength of the Sudanese economy (14), for example. While the cost of conducting Western-rooted business in sanctioned countries becomes higher, regimes often redirect financial trade with ‘friendly’ countries that don’t recognize the sanctions, or simply attract new investors to fill the gap created by Western-imposed sanctions. If traditional diplomacy fails, multi-lateral economic sanctions with allies of target countries would more likely to succeed in folding increasingly non-democratic regimes in the Horn. Image is also important in terms of U.S. sanctions on the region: for example, the lifting of sanctions on oil-rich South Sudan (thus allowing American and European companies to operate in the new country) increasingly cloud the intention of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Sanctions can often have adverse damaging effects on regime behavior, sometimes manifesting in the increased harassment of foreign officials still operating in the country, as marked in Sudan. Sanctions on Eritrea in regards to supporting terrorism in Somalia were recently proven to be unlikely, but the U.S. pursuance of sanctions later produced defensive statements from Eritrea’s foreign ministry, further damaging U.S.-Eritrean bilateral relations. Sanctions on Somalia have recently hit its diaspora communities hard on a local level, due to the U.S.’s April 2010 sanctions through Executive Order 13536 (15), making it increasingly difficult for remittances (nearly $7 million a month (16) from the U.S. alone) to be sent for fear of supporting terrorism. However, in an unstable, fragmented, and famine-prone Somalia struggling with staggering unemployment, preventing remittances from being received could inadvertently push citizens to drastic measures. Instead of sanctions regarding the limited transparency of funds sent to Somalia, further U.S. support of the UNDP’s Somali Remittance Program, in addition to oversight of this regional office, is critical to stop funding to terrorist groups while still allowing legitimate remittances to make their way to Somali citizens in need.

Given the various political stalemates across the Horn, a new U.S.-led multi-prong strategy is needed in a region filled with various smaller political actors. If long term (and well-designed) rewards and punishments are designed and laid out multi-laterally across the region, with the necessary dialogue regarding good governance and democracy, effective progress towards solving regional conflicts in the Horn could be seen in the near future.



(1) For the purposes of brevity, the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea will be the focus of this analysis.
(2) Khat is a commonly used drug in the Horn of Africa, including Sudan and even Yemen. A profitable trade, khat is stimulant that’s chewed for hours, giving users a high similar to speed, followed by a mellow drawdown.
(3) The Afar is an ethnic group whose population is split between southeastern Eritrea, western Djibouti, and northeastern Ethiopia. The Afar have sought more political equality from each of their respective governments, however, many within the Afar have also considered political autonomy and/or independence.
(4) Intergovernmental Authority on Development is a regional organization based in eastern Africa, composed of eight member nations: Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia. Its headquarters are based in Djibouti’s capital, Djibouti. Although Eritrea suspended its membership in 2007, after IGAD’s support of sanctions on the country, but it formally rejoined the bloc in July 2011.
(5) Frazer, Jendayi E. “Evaluating U.S. Policy Objectives and Options on the Horn of Africa.” Excerpts from Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa. Washington D.C. March 11, 2008.
(6) Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
(7) Tekle, Tesfa-Alem. “Ethiopian Rebels Admit Attack, Deny Killing Western Tourists.” Sudan Tribune. January 24, 2012.
(8) Barnes, Cedric and Harun Hassan. “The Rise and Fall of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts.” Journal of East African Studies, 1:2, 151-160. July 2007.
(9) “Return of UN Political Presence to Mogadishu ‘Historic’ Step, says envoy.” UN News Centre. January 26, 2012. <>.
(10) Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission. Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague. <>.
(11) African Confidential. November 29th 2009.
(12) The United States African Command, as a part of the U.S. Department of Defense.
(13) Scahill, Jeremy. “Jeremy Scahill Reveals CIA Facility, Prison in Somalia as U.S. Expands Covert Ops in Stricken Nation.” Democracy Now. July 13, 2011.
(14) Report to Congress, 2009. “Effectiveness of U.S. Economic Sanctions with Respect to Sudan.” Office of Foreign Assets Control. U.S. Department of the Treasury.
(15) Federal Register. Vol. 75, No. 72. Thursday, April 15, 2010. Presidential Documents. U.S. Department of the Treasury.
(16) Omer, Abdusalam. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Somalia. “A Report on Supporting Systems and Procedures for the Effective Regulation and Monitoring of Somali Remittance Companies (Hawala). Figure quoted from the year 2000.


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