Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s visit to Cairo last week was a sign of how the crises in the Middle East and the conflict over Nile waters shape alliances in the Horn of Africa.
In the Middle East, Qatar and Turkey are clearly aligned on one side and Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are aligned on the other. Other countries have diverse and varying relations with the members of both camps.
Syria and Iraq are close to Egypt which supports their efforts in the war against terrorism, while Saudi Arabia has softened its rhetoric against the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Damascus and the ruling Shia forces in Baghdad in an effort to lure them away from their powerful Iranian ally. The Yemeni position remains uncertain, mired as that country is in a military and political standstill while deteriorating humanitarian conditions have brought it to the brink of famine.
In the Nile Valley Basin, tensions are rising between Egypt and Ethiopia over technical issues related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Negotiations have stalled and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri’s recent visit to Addis Ababa failed to break the deadlock.
Ethiopia, the largest country in the Horn of Africa, is worried by a number of issues. Prime among them is the success of Eritrea, Addis’s sworn enemy, at breaking through the isolation that it had suffered since its independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Asmara had taken advantage of the war in Yemen, turning away from its former allies, the Houthis, and granting Arab coalition forces access to its military base at Assab, which it has leased to the UAE. Asmara has also relinquished its support for the terrorist Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen movement in Somalia in exchange for joining the bloc of countries that have declared an embargo against Qatar. This has opened the doors to Egyptian and Gulf arms, according to the Europe Centre for Foreign Policy Advice.
To the east and south, Addis is worried, on the one hand, by the fact that Al-Shabaab in Somalia remains undefeated and, on the other hand, by Mogadishu’s inclination towards both the Eritrean enemy and Egyptian rival.
Developments in Somaliland also make Ethiopia uneasy. Somaliland, which seceded from Mogadishu in 1991 but remains unrecognised by the rest of the African and international communities, now leans towards the UAE which has poured in investment, in order to develop the strategic Berbera port for the purposes of the war in Yemen.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are the key partners in the Arab coalition which has been fighting in Yemen since 2015 against the Ansar Allah “Houthi” movement, which Abu Dhabi and Riyadh claim is backed by Iran.
The $442 million Berbera port development project is being carried out by the Dubai-based development firm DP World. The revamped port is expected to generate some $1 billion in investment for the development and modernisation of Somaliland’s infrastructure, according to the International Crisis Group which noted the trip made by Somaliland President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo to the UAE in order to strengthen relations between the two countries. However, Somalia still claims sovereignty over Somaliland which may cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the agreement over the port.
Ethiopia is also concerned by the increasing Arab presence in the Horn of Africa. The International Crisis Group observed that Somaliland and DP World offered Addis a 19 per cent commercial stake in the Berbera port but this did not assuage Ethiopia’s fears.
With regard to Mogadishu, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are keen to lure Somalia in view of its strategic importance and so as to be better poised to take measures to avert the spread of terrorism to other countries. Although Mogadishu has declared itself neutral in the conflict involving the embargo against Qatar, it agreed to the construction of a Turkish military base. The $500 million base will accommodate 200 Turkish soldiers and train 10,000 Somali soldiers.
This has rekindled Ethiopian fears that the Somalis might stage a repeat of former Somali president Siad Barre’s bid to seize control of the Ogaden region in Ethiopia. As Martin Plaut, head of the Horn of Africa Department at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, suggested, such an attempt would bring a particularly lethal brew of conventional warfare and terrorism.
With regard to Sudan, Ethiopia has nothing to fear, according to the Europe Centre for Foreign Policy Advice. Sudan is too preoccupied by its own concerns. Khartoum lost two-thirds of its hard currency income due to the independence of the oil rich South Sudan. As a consequence, it lifted fuel, food and medicine subsidies triggering demonstrations to which Khartoum responded by extending the state of emergency in (central west) Kordofan and (eastern) Kassala.
It then deployed armed forces supported by militias in Kassala at the border with Eritrea on the grounds that it had intelligence of a possible Egyptian-Eritrean attack. Khartoum subsequently retracted this claim.
On the day of Afwerki’s visit to Cairo, Sudanese Army Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Emadeddin Adawi arrived in Addis Ababa to meet with Ethiopian Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn. There were signs, here, of an alliance in the making.
While a number of Sudanese opposition members believe that the government in Khartoum could embark on a war against its Eritrean neighbour, it would be the first time since President Omar Al-Bashir came to power, in 1989, that Sudan fought a war outside its boundaries.
Haidar Ibrahim, a professor of political science, observed that the regime in Khartoum is fascist and, accordingly, likes to project a militaristic spirit. However, if it suffered any defeat abroad, it could find itself unseated by popular uprisings or armed insurrection.
As for Eritrea, it is one of the most insular countries in the continent, to the extent that it has been called the “African North Korea”. But its regime has been struggling to emerge from isolation and, as mentioned above, its use of the Arab coalition’s war in Yemen has worked to open doors and attract some investments into ports, mining and livestock exports.
The Gulf-Egyptian alliance has also helped strengthen the Eritrean position vis-à-vis Ethiopia and Djibouti, especially with the withdrawal of Qatari peacekeeping forces from the border islands that are under dispute between Asmara and Djibouti.
Nevertheless, any war between neighbours could destroy the fragile economy and send the country back to square one. For this reason, Eritrea needs perpetuation of the status quo more than its neighbours. This said, it appears that all three countries — Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea — are very nervous about the rising tensions for fear of the spectre of a war that would decimate their economies and wreak untold human and material losses.
*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.