The Horn of Africa has long been synonymous with instability and insecurity, and for good reason. The region has endured numerous conflicts, including the Somali Civil War, the Eritrean War of Independence, the South Sudan War of Independence, intermittent disputes between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and ongoing internal unrest within Sudan and Ethiopia. Eritrea remains the only country in the region that has yet to experience an internal civil war, thanks to the iron grip of its dictator, President Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled for over three decades. However, his reign cannot last forever, and in this region, a succession crisis boiling into a civil war is the norm rather than an exception.
The Horn of Africa has emerged as a magnet for insecurity, with Sudan and Ethiopia currently grappling with significant civil unrest. Somalia, too, faces non-state actors and a lack of centralized authority, while South Sudan is held together by a fragile peace agreement. Surprisingly, the most stable country in the region is Eritrea, a rigid Marxist dictatorship nicknamed the “North Korea of Africa.” The Horn of Africa stands at a crossroads, and the prospect of prolonged internal ethnic, political, and military conflicts in Ethiopia, with a population of 123 million, and Sudan, with a population of 46 million, threatens to engulf the region in perpetual instability. The Horn of Africa can ill afford another failed state like Somalia, and the notion of Sudan or Ethiopia joining the ranks of failed states in East Africa could plunge the region into a lasting quagmire of political, economic, social, and military unrest.
Sudan’s Two Lions
The likelihood of a negotiated cease-fire settlement and a pathway to peace negotiations in Sudan appears slim. The conflict between two key actors, General Abdel Fattah Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, informally known as “Hemedti,” has become a zero-sum game. In the quest for peace, stability, and security, one dominant Nubian lion must rule over Khartoum with an iron fist, relegating idealistic political agendas to the background. If the conflict persists, Sudan’s trajectory could mirror that of Libya, leading it to join the ranks of Africa’s “Mad Max” states, such as Somalia, Libya, Chad, and the Congo.
Military coups in Sudan are as customary as democratic elections in the West, with the country experiencing a staggering thirty-five military coups since gaining independence in 1956. The most successful Sudanese dictator, Omar Al-Bashir, maintained his grip on power for nearly three decades, from 1989 to 2019, by excelling in the art of authoritarian leadership. Al-Bashir manipulated the political landscape through the co-optation of the security apparatus, brutal repression, and the strategic utilization of two opposing organizations: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF, a paramilitary force, was created by the Sudanese intelligence sector in 2013, evolving from the Janjaweed militias with the primary aim of brutalizing and subduing the inhabitants of the Darfur region. Consequently, despite lacking formal military training, Hemedti emerged as the de facto commander of Sudan’s most formidable paramilitary force.
Astute dictators like Al-Bashir do not maintain power for nearly three decades without political and military acumen. He intentionally designed the RSF as a bulwark against potential threats from the SAF. Yet, Al-Bashir made a critical mistake in the coup-proofing structure of his regime. He assumed that an individual like Hemedti, a power-hungry, morally bankrupt paramilitary leader and a product of the intelligence services, would not survive without the invisible hand of Al-Bashir’s regime, and the web of orchestrated state corruption that sustained both Al-Bashir, the RSF, and the SAF.
Contrary to popular belief, the RSF and SAF collaborated and orchestrated a coup in 2019, not to topple Al-Bashir’s regime or stabilize Sudan’s precarious political, social, and economic landscape but to squelch the nascent democratic movement and eradicate the non-violent political activism that had been gaining momentum since 2013. Dictators and the state apparatus organizations that enable and prolong their rule tend to be paranoid about grassroots democratic movements, especially when compounded by state oppression and economic crises, which can lead to a state’s terminal illness. Consequently, the RSF and SAR preemptively aligned with the populace as part of a power-sharing deal, not to address legitimate grievances but to co-opt, destabilize, and ultimately normalize institutionalized subversion.
The civil war in Sudan diverges significantly from other African civil conflicts due to the size of the SAF, boasting 200,000 military personnel. They are pitted against the RSF, numbering between 70,000 and 150,000. Both factions vie for control of the state, with the vast natural resources of Sudan serving as a critical battleground. The RSF is not only a paramilitary organization; it is a highly profitable illicit business, with its economic reach extending into sectors such as banking, mercenary services, mining (particularly gold smuggling), media, and illegal cross-border trade, enriching Hemedti and his cohorts. Meanwhile, more than a formal military organization, the SAF manages over 200 commercial enterprises, including farming, gold mining, rubber production, and livestock processing. Thus, both belligerent actors are engaged in a resource competition stemming from institutionalized corruption. The multifaceted civil war has seen the breakdown of sixteen attempted cease-fires, resulting in the displacement of 3.7 million people, with more than 15 million individuals facing acute hunger.
As the crisis in Sudan continues to smolder, the likely outcome is a protracted conflict between the two factions. The absence of a dominant actor in both the political and military structure, as well as the lack of a monopoly on violence, creates a window of opportunity for external and non-state actors to exert their power, pushing Sudan in the direction of Somalia and Libya.
Ethnic Regional Militias and the Uncertain Future of Ethiopia
The ongoing ethnic and regional conflict in Ethiopia, involving Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s regime, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups seemingly found resolution on paper with the signing of the highly fragile Nairobi Agreement on November 12, 2022. However, the resolution failed to bring about much-needed stability,. The enduring ethnic and regional strife among the Amharas, Oromos, and Tigrayans, combined with the resurgent Islamist militant group al-Shabaab and the uncertain actions of Egypt regarding the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, portend increasing political, economic, and social instability in Ethiopia.
Since coming to power in 2018 following the resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, Abiy Ahmed has consolidated his authority. While he has managed to forestall the balkanization of Ethiopia through the cessation of hostilities with the TPLF, ethnic hatreds continue to simmer. Failed peace negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLA) exacerbate this threat, particularly given the Oromo population’s substantial size, comprising 36 percent of Ethiopia’s populace. Meanwhile, Abiy Ahmed’s administration grapples with the Amhara militia, Fano, The Amharas constitute the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, comprising 24.1 percent of the population.
Somalia has languished without a central government for three decades, with al-Shabaab staging a worrisome insurgency. This poses a significant concern for both Somalia and Ethiopia, as they share a 1,024-mile border. The African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATIMS) will withdraw from the country by December 31, 2024, with 2,000 forces already pulled out in June and an additional 3,000 scheduled to withdraw by September 30. Ethiopia’s precarious situation is further compounded by its proximity to three countries in varying states of instability: Sudan, Somalia, and South Sudan. Ethiopia shares borders with all three of these nations, and should they devolve into failed states, the region’s stability will be at grave risk. Adding to these challenges is the potential for Egyptian military actions if Ethiopia’s stability deteriorates further. Egypt may exploit such an opportunity, especially after Ethiopia announced its filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir.
Ethiopia has long projected an image of unity characterized by a single flag, language, and people. However, beneath this veneer lies a nation historically marred by divisions along ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines. If left unaddressed, these lingering rifts hold the potential to fracture the country from within. To forge a more harmonious future, both the Ethiopian state and its people must confront the difficult history of the Abyssinian Empire and its communist successor state. The path forward demands a transformative approach that prioritizes inclusivity for all Ethiopians while dismantling the remnants of historical ethnic hegemony. Only through such endeavors can Ethiopia hope to cultivate a more unified and equitable society.
The Horn of Africa: Perilous Pathways to Stability
The Horn of Africa teeters on the precipice of prolonged instability. Should Sudan and Ethiopia succumb to this fate, the region faces the grim prospect of decades-long instability. The potential collapse of these two nations, collectively housing a population of over 170 million, carries profound implications for the international economic corridor along the Red Sea, impacting the Middle East and Europe and intensifying migration crises in East and North Africa. Within the Horn of Africa, the situation is markedly fragile. Among the eight countries—Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda—that comprise East Africa, only Kenya stands as a relatively democratic and stable entity. Dictators lead Uganda, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, while Eritrea operates under a unique Marxist regime, and South Sudan navigates a perilous path characterized by extreme instability.