In a world beset by COVID-19 (C19), the scope to miss other important signs of change or tension is great.  In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia features in quite a number situation, some of which are coming to a head quietly and in the background.  It is as though a game of regional hide and seek is playing out in the Horn of Africa.  A few apparently unrelated issues which might be sneaking up on the world whilst its attention is elsewhere:

  • Border tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. For as long as anyone can remember, informal labour migration has been a feature along the Ethiopia/Sudan border.  Although the border has not been clearly defined, the area between Ethiopia’s Amhara state and Sudan’s Gedarif state generally muddles along to the convenience of everyone.  Indeed, it almost never becomes an issue other than at times of tension over other issues.  But recently the 6,000 square kilometre area has returned to the spotlight, raising the question of what else is happening.  Superficially, Sudan has moved on Ethiopian military forces at large in the disputed area, leading to de facto military build-up of forces on both sides of the border.  That Ethiopia had been providing essential services to Sudanese people in the region might have been an early sign of a “hearts and minds” strategy as the precursor to something else will not have been lost on the Sudanese.  But for now, there is a military standoff in the area.
  • Filling the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The “something else” might have been that Sudan has rejected – twice – an Ethiopian proposal for how it might start filling the GERD.  At one level, Sudan has little to lose if Ethiopia can start filling in the dame; and indeed, it has much to gain.  But the real mover in the background here is Egypt, which is firmly opposed to Ethiopia’s blocking of the Nile; and is putting a great deal of both political and military pressure on Sudan to remember which side of its bread the butter goes.  Ethiopia and Egypt have never seen eye to eye over the use of Nile waters, with Egypt both willing and capable of employing military action in support of its political goals.
  • Kenyan withdrawal from AMISOM. The situation in Somalia is a bone of domestic political and security contention in Kenya.  With AMISOM reliant to a large degree in Kenya, and with the looming prospect of the withdrawal of Kenyan forces from the AU-led mission, there is much uncertainty.  But is not slinking back to base with its tail between its legs.  It judges that if they depart, Ethiopia will want to backfill any space they cede within the mission and in Somalia.  Kenya knows that the price of visibility and capability in Somalia is high; and it assumes that Ethiopia will be distracted for years to come as it first embeds itself in Somalia and then gets bogged down there.  Kenya will no doubt reinforce its border with Somalia and be pleased to watch Ethiopia – not significantly engaged in Somalia since its period of support for the Islamic Courts – bears the brunt and take the heat.
  • Eritrean stability. After a period of North Korea like speculation, the Eritrean president has been discovered not to be dead or ill, but on a round of regional diplomacy, calling at Addis Ababa to talk about regional security and COVID-19.  There is no doubt an Eritrean constituency, vocal in the diaspora but present yet circumspect at home, which is disappointed at this news.  But the fact that the Eritrean leader is going to Ethiopia for talks suggests that the economy and the virus are taking their toll on the Asmara regime’s grip.  Although Ethiopia would happily see regime change in Asmara, there is no sign of a coherent, Ethiopian friendly alternative on the horizon.  So, Addis Ababa is keeping its friends close and its enemies even closer for now.

Border tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, filling the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Kenyan withdrawal from AMISOM, Eritrean stability.  A game of hide and seek is afoot.