The Horn and the End of Independent Foreign Policy

New developments are changing the dynamics of external intervention in the Horn of Africa. The first is leadership crisis and the decline of nationalist and ideologically oriented governments. The second is the entry of China in to the military race of the sub-region. At the end of the Cold War ideologically agile and independent movements simultaneously took power in Khartoum, Asmara and Addis. They were united in their unpleasant view to a US dominated world. Well, no ideological position is immune to events and the march of time, but theirs is self-inflicted. A decade later all of them were badly damaged by internal squabbles weakening their self-determining posture. This refers to President Bashir’s acrimony with Turabi, President Isayas’s mass arrest of his colleagues, the G15 and Meles’s dismissal of party ideologues.

Slowly but surely the internal measures contributed to political decline and the progressive erosion of internal legitimacy. The first to make a u-turn were Khartoum leaders. All along the Eritrean regime remained rejectionist. Similarly the EPRDF-led government pursued tactical cooperation while maintaining strong political resistance. However, this seems to be changing with Sudan eager to see the end of fatal economic sanctions, Eritrea wanting to come out of isolation and the ruling party in Ethiopia beset by ideological uncertainties. Above all, they are bracing for a policy of unprincipled engagement with the US — what few years back would have been described as a policy of weakness and compliance. This has given the US a great deal of leverage and lee way to further its intervention and promote its policies.

With the respective ruling parties in tatters US diplomats see an opportunity to meddle in the internal affairs of each country and heat up the pressure for reform. The recent scaled-up interference of US diplomats in the internal affairs of Ethiopia is a case in point. US diplomatic overtures on Eritrea are another. This is on the top of the reported warnings of some US representatives against al-Bashir of Sudan not to attempt to run for office in the coming elections. The most notable is however the way IGAD leaders succumbed to US pressure not to host Riak Machar of South Sudan even at the risk of violating their own peace agreement. The scornful resistance to US meddling is dissolving by the day and the recent change of leadership in Ethiopia seems to have given Washington a sense of relief that the strongest ideological stumbling block in the region is being neutralized.

Minimal treatment and analysis of this topic has left the African Union and regional governments, and much of Africa, unaware of the ramifications. Former certainties, including the independent and nationalist policy principles and alliances against external political and military interference by the likes of Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, have almost disappeared. One result is that there is a new flexibility, even pragmatism, at large in the region; a number of shadow alliances have been created, even if it is not yet clear how permanent these may be. And now, all seem set on achieving a new détente with the US at all costs. If the current trend continue unabated it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the US and other powers will get a lot and the region very little.

The second major development propelling Western, particularly US intervention in the sub-region is the militarization of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. However, US military activity in most of the countries where it is known to occur was neglected, and few critical or investigative responses have appeared. The first and most obvious change has been the collapse of the political and diplomatic relationship between IGAD member countries, following the massive intrusion of Gulf countries in Somalia and the Red Sea littoral. Current indications are that the number of US diplomats who want Eritrea to be out of the cold is increasing; and yet Eritrea has not yet clamped down on armed opposition movements targeting its neighbors to any real extent. Similarly, the Sudan government has done little to downscale its relationship with Islamist groups, apart from declaring its alliances in the destruction of Yemen. Over the last year, Eritrea and Sudan have used the good offices of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to mend fences with the West. The US is on the verge of restoring full diplomatic relations. It is, however, still unclear how far any improvement in relations will go.

Equally critical is however the deepening military presence of China. The more the Chinese come closer to US military facilities the more the US wanting to retreat to other neighboring countries. The level of apprehension on the part of US intelligence community is such that its diplomats are contemplating to retreat towards Eritrea, partly in a bid to create a buffer zone to protect their communication facilities. Hence, the urgency to reconcile with Eritrea. This is a factor that will certainly continue to affect possible alliances throughout the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. At one level this is obviously a function of the Ethiopia-Eritrean conflict (though events in Somalia and the war in Yemen have certainly contributed). The war on terror is universal, but that only broadens the divide and permanent enemies were already made.

The significance of the Red Sea has declined since the end of the cold war, but it is gaining resurgence in recent years as the most highly strategic, as the US interest in resolving the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict and continued militarization has underlined, if only because of the sheer quantity of oil which passes through it. It is still a main artery of international petro-commerce, and will remain critically important for the new large container ships. The planned trip of principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Ambassador Donald Yamamuto to Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia is a perfect rejoinder of the new push as well as the looming influence of the US in the sub-region.

The countries of the sub-region and security organizations like IGAD and the AU have to urgently go back to the drawing board and act out a sensible strategy. The coming of the Chinese was meant to be a balancing act if there was a regional strategic response in place. But, unlike during the Cold War, the present day equilibrium might require the bringing of new states, and new forces, into the regional system — even if the security complex has to change somewhat to accommodate them. The problem is that new actors bring into the system instruments of contestation deepening the already existing strategic vulnerabilities. The future regional security environment, and its foreign policies, might depend less on the new attractions of the US, and more on finding ways forward in processes and organizations that will become much proactive than before. This is deeply political and there may have to be greater marriage between foreign and domestic policies. There should be an end to unilateral competition for favors and largess from new and old powers and, hopefully, a (painfully slow) ending to simplicities and reductionisms.

Over the months, security experts and policy makers have rarely comprehensively assessed the new trend, mostly echoing a story told to them by official media outlets. Are policy makers still naive about the dangers unregulated intervention poses to their national security? Or are they exhausted and too eager for mere survival? Are some of them facing an organizational identity crisis? The bottom line is that the region finds itself edging toward an unwanted but almost inevitable crisis. We are witnessing new forms of imperialism in the Horn of Africa — including vast military presence. Several months, if not a couple of years, in the making, regional governments are still trying to sort out the impressions of a menacing development whose identity is not difficult to capture or express. Given the need for accountability and consideration of the impacts of foreign militaries we are left with a one-shot strategy: scrutiny and vigilance. Sooner than later one would hopefully expect this to grow into dissent and resistance.