A member of the Afar Special Forces stands in front of the debris of a house in the outskirts of the village of Bisober, Tigray Region, Ethiopia

Photo Credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images


Winter is coming to the Horn of Africa. The conflict in Northern Ethiopia is having ripple effects throughout the region. The map of the Horn may be changed irrevocably. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Here is a quick way to understand the politics.

The region watches the events in Northern Ethiopia and holds its breath.

This corner of the continent is not an easy place, hardly ever peaceful, and with grievances older than the nation states themselves. Governments, military generals, insurgencies, liberation fronts – they come and go by force or by revolution. The region's conflicts are internal, external, cross-border, and everyone intervenes in their neighbors' conflicts, directly or indirectly, in an endless stream of shifting alliances.

Ethiopia has been an anchor state in the region, and an adept player in the Horn's chessboard of political intrigue. Ethiopia's neighbors include Somalia and South Sudan, the problem children of the region, characterized by state collapse brought about by civil wars. Their fragility stands in contrast to the steadiness of Kenya and Djibouti, the neoliberal teachers' favorites. Kenya is the oasis of Western capital in the region, and Djibouti the home of their military bases. Sudan in the north is a giant coming out of a decades long slumber under military rule, awoken by a people's revolution and currently negotiating a new political reality in an uneasy coalition between the military and civilian factions. Eritrea is the sixth neighbor and perhaps where we should BEGIN.


We start here because unlike the other neighbors, who watch and hope this Ethiopian conflict does not set fire to their houses, Eritrea kicked the door down and walked in to play a major role in the 'internal law enforcement operation' alongside Abiy's forces. Eritrea is where we start because Abiy's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for his stunning 2018 outreach to Eritrea, ending an almost two-decade deadlock between the two countries, and ending the global isolation in which Eritrea had been languishing. There was a bright moment of hope for Eritreans as they glimpsed a potential crack in the oppressive rule of Isayas Afewerki, a potential opening up in the decades of repression. But then Isayas jumped into the Ethiopian fray.

Whether he did it to repay a debt of gratitude to Abiy, or to settle even older scores with Tigrayans – there is no clear exit plan for Eritrea at this moment. As the conflict in Tigray region becomes more protracted, and Eritrean forces become more embroiled, the likelihood of Eritrea being returned to the global naughty corner grows by the day, and worse for Isayas, the potential for blowback into his own house grows with the discontent of the Eritrean people. Do not trust a man who leaves his own house on fire to put out his neighbor's, the saying goes.


But here's a question – why should the grand majestic Ethiopian military need help from little Eritrea? Somalia is the neighbor that has had multiple run-ins with the Ethiopian military. In 1977, peak Cold War, Somalia invaded west Ethiopia to reclaim the Ogaden region and though they lost roundly, they like to claim they would have won if Russia and Cuba had not stepped in to save Ethiopia. In 2005-6, Ethiopia (with the support and blessing of the USA) swept into Somalia to unseat the nascent Islamic Courts Union – a move that many Somalis bitterly point to as the genesis of the rise of the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab. Since 2006, Ethiopia has kept a military presence in Somalia, both in support of the African Union mission as well as present in their own capacity, with a strong focus on keeping Al-Shabaab away from Ethiopian borders.

The reputation of the fearsome Ethiopian military in the region has suffered a major blow since the start of the Tigray conflict. Haphazard and unplanned withdrawals of Ethiopian contingents from Somali border regions (for redeployment in Tigray) have raised doubts about Ethiopia's strategic resolve – Al-Shabaab is regaining control of the abandoned areas. More worryingly, firefights have broken out between Amhara and Tigrayan units within the AU mission ranks and the internal discord within the Ethiopian army is now visible to the entire region. The ENDF's ability to function cohesively and reliably to provide peacekeeping is in question. (Sudan's recent request to have the Ethiopian contingent removed from the international forces in Abyei is another illustration of this loss of military face.) Somalia might exhale as Ethiopia's strong military grip loosens a little, but will this bring more or less stability to Somalia?

The Ethiopian military has also been used politically in the see-saw of Somali power struggles between Mogadishu and the federal member states, helping current Somali President Farmajo impose his political will on the states and in one case, intervening decisively in determining the outcome of a state presidential election. As Somali parliamentary and presidential elections approach, the support that President Farmajo came to rely on from Ethiopia might not be as available, and he might have to win or lose this race all on his own.


The people of South Sudan fought for over 30 years against northern Sudan for their independence; they gained it in 2011, and then descended again into an internal civil war in 2013. The fighting is endless, and the suffering great. For Ethiopia, South Sudan rebels fighting for their independence from Islamist Khartoum were once a proxy ally for Mengistu's Marxist-Leninist Addis, just as the TPLF were being supported in their fight by Islamist Khartoum. However, since South Sudan's independence, Ethiopia has tried to mediate between the different fighting factions, to bring peace to its western neighbor.

Such a peace would be in Ethiopia's interest. A fragile conflict-ridden country with minimal control of its peripheries, South Sudanese territory is open to use by any enterprising rebel force (with or without South Sudan's knowledge and support) as a place to train, organize and arm. Porous borders, ungoverned spaces and a proliferation of arms make such a prospect a concern for Ethiopia. Ethiopia and South Sudan after all share a 500-mile border, and as in so many other parts of the Horn, the communities living on the border in Ethiopia's Gambella region share greater affinities and loyalties with their South Sudanese cousins rather than a distant Addis-based government that hasn't always been kind to them.

Proxy wars are the name of the game in the Horn of Africa – supporting breakaway regions or rebel movements in your neighbor to weaken the center is a favored move. Ethiopia was and is a master of this game. That South Sudan might find cause to support, or turn a blind eye towards another country supporting, Ethiopian rebels in South Sudanese territory is conceivable. If communities from Gambella and other borderlands near South Sudan get pulled into the current Ethiopian conflict, this would almost be assured.


Sudan is the large northern neighbor of Ethiopia, and despite a long history of intervening in each other's conflicts, the two countries have been allies for recent decades. Early on in his term, PM Abiy visited Sudan and helped broker the deal that saw Hamdok become PM of Sudan's 3-year transition from military to civilian rule. In fact, in 2019, with Abiy soon to win the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the border conflict with Eritrea, the two leaders represented a new era of change and hope. Two short years later, Sudan's transition is inching along, hoping not to be destabilized by the massive Ethiopian-Tigray conflict on its border, by another border issue with Ethiopia related to farmland in Al-Fashaga region, nor to be caught out in the difficult negotiations among Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Sudan has tried to maintain neutrality in its dealings with Ethiopia, resisting international pressure to open a humanitarian supply corridor from Sudan directly into Tigray region, and thereby cut the Ethiopian government out of the delivery of aid to Tigray region; but also allowing Tigrayan refugees (60,000 so far) to cross into its territory and seek life-saving aid. However, in the struggle for power between the civilian and military factions of the transition, civilian PM Hamdok cannot be neutral about incursions into Sudanese territory, so the military has been deployed in the Al-Fashaga region to protect it from belligerent Ethiopian forces. Similarly, he cannot afford to be neutral in issues related to the GERD – Ethiopia has been dismissive of Sudan's concerns about the potential impact of the GERD on Sudan's dams and water levels, and he cannot afford to appear weak on this negotiation – not to his military counterparts nor to their benefactor and Sudan's northern neighbor, Egypt. More pressure on Sudan might force Hamdok to ditch his neutrality and use the supply corridor as leverage.


Egypt is not an immediate neighbor of Ethiopia but its presence looms over the region. Egypt's engagement in the Horn of Africa has long been about Egypt's interest in the Red Sea and about protecting its access and usage of the Nile. We'll come back to the Nile.

Egypt used to be the only real Arab player in the region, but that's all changed as Gulf politics have started to spill over into the Horn. Egypt is firmly Team Saudi Arabia-UAE, not just because Egypt enjoys high levels of financial investment from them, but because all three oppose Muslim Brotherhood presence in the Horn. They fight for dominance in the region against Qatar and Turkey. This contest is sometimes positive for the Horn, resulting in a string of Gulf-funded ports and bases along the Horn's coastline plus other forms of development projects; at other times, the contest has a dark side with heavy-handed political meddling.

The Nile defines the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia. Tensions have risen over the sharing of the Nile waters among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan since Ethiopia started constructing the $4.5 billion hydroelectric Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa's largest dam in 2011 (at the height of Egypt's Arab Spring revolution). Approximately 90% of Egypt's freshwater supply comes from the Nile, and Egypt is worried that the GERD may affect the livelihoods of millions of Egyptian farmers and ultimately pose a national security threat; Ethiopia argues that this dam is crucial to its national development.

The dam has been completed, but negotiations on how water levels will be managed are not going well, and this issue could easily kick off a military or proxy conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt (with Sudan caught in the middle). In a sign of how seriously Egypt takes this issue, Egypt has recently signed military deals with countries in the region and further upstream, including Djibouti, Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda. Meanwhile, Ethiopian distraction with a domestic conflict offers a reprieve to Egypt – a reprieve and a wicked opportunity to meddle.


Djibouti is a tiny tiny country – 9,000 sq miles and about 1 million people (to Ethiopia's 115 million). Djibouti's economy is wholly dependent on trade with Ethiopia and the Djibouti megaport is wholly reliant on Ethiopian trade with the rest of the world. Djibouti was thus the net beneficiary when Ethiopia found itself landlocked and port-less after Eritrea's 1993 independence and the Ethiopian-Eritrean 1998 war. Djibouti has managed to parlay its strategic location on the Bab El-Mandab Strait into a great deal of influence and income through military bases and navies engaged in anti-piracy operations, however, any significant reduction in Ethiopian trade will be an existential issue, leaving Djibouti essentially a Consigliere without a Don. The Ethiopian economy has been hammered by the recent civil war, as well as the global pandemic, so Djibouti is likely already feeling the pinch.


If the conflict in Ethiopia continues to expand, companies and businesses may decide to relocate to Nairobi. Kenya is eager to fill Ethiopia's big shoes and move into a leadership position in the region. However, the road ahead is not all opportunity. Kenya is also likely to be one of the prime destinations for a major influx of refugees from Ethiopia (the current one is Sudan as people flee northwards). There is currently a trickle of people flowing southwards – agencies estimate about half a million people have entered Kenya from Ethiopia in three months. They expect this to turn into a full flood by early 2022 if the conflict continues to extend southward and other Ethiopian regions, such as Oromia, get involved. Kenya is well aware that the Usual Donors are struggling with their own pandemic challenges and might not step in to support Kenya with the refugee influx, as they have done in the past. Also, Kenya's constant threats to close existing refugee camps, Dadaab and more recently Kakuma, make for an uncertain landscape into which these new refugees will be landing.

Old Lion: Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo will travel to the region as the African Union's High Representative for the Horn of Africa to negotiate for peace. Photo Credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past half century, the Horn of Africa has experienced a series of devastating famines. Each one was related to conflict – Ethiopia in the 1980s, Somalia in the 1990s, Darfur in the mid-2000s, Somalia again in 2011. All indications point to another tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia in the near future. Sadly, at this time, there does not seem to be a way to stop this from happening.

Regional political mediation has been muted – President Salva Kiir from South Sudan offered himself up as a mediator under the auspices of IGAD, though his own country is mired in conflict. PM Hamdok of Sudan has also tried. After a few failed attempts, the African Union has recently appointed Former President Olusegun Obasanjo from Nigeria as a special envoy to the Horn of Africa to try to mediate this conflict.

He will arrive in a troubled and fearful region. The future is unclear.

All that remains solid at this time is the land – the rift valley, the drylands, the dramatic highlands, the salt plains. Nation states and borders and the cruel games men play, these come and go. It is no accident that the two newest nation states in Africa – Eritrea and South Sudan – are both in the Horn, with Somaliland on their heels striving to be the third to carve itself free. Civil wars in this neighborhood can birth new countries, blurring the line between internal and international. Civil wars can also overflow their borders. Where will the conflict in Ethiopia end? What will be Tigray's status? And will anyone in the region still be standing?

This article appears as a part of OkayAfrica's Crossroads, a special series examining Global Africa at critical moments. For our first package, we will dedicate 4 weeks of coverage to examining the lands of Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture. Keep up with the campaign here.