Geopolitics and the Horn of Africa


On the basis of one recent but short trip to South Sudan and a lengthy, but distant, stay in southern Ethiopia I concluded recently that one of the more interesting consequences of the Libyan war has been a remarkable change of fortunes in what was a small Cold War in the Horn of Africa.
The Bad Guys were a coalition of curious nations: Eritrea, Sudan and Libya. Eritrea, sometimes called the North Korea of Africa, has nearly 300,000 men under arms despite a population of less than six million. It is a tightly run dictatorship and has maintained a state of border edginess with its much larger neighbour Ethiopia. Sudan was a more formidable player, one of Africa’s largest countries and with a regular cash flow from oil and gas. But its Achilles heel was a civil war in the South and international opprobrium over its treatment of Darfur. And, behind all this, were the moneybags of Libya.
Arranged against this alliance were the Good Guys, or at least Not So Bad Guys, of Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and, at a distance, the United States.
This balance of power was, well, evenly balanced until this year. Two big shifts have broken the back of the Bad Guy alliance. The first was the breakoff of South Sudan. This has deprived Khartoum of its primary oil and gas resources and a third of its territory. And South Sudan is quite clear, it sees itself as part of East Africa, and has applied to join the East Africa Community. Guess what alliance they see themselves as part of?
Then, of course, there’s the collapse of the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Unsurprisingly Eritrea has seen the writing on the wall, pushed a little bit more by a United Nation report that accuses its government of trying to bomb an African Union summit. It has applied for entry into the East African Community and may even be trying to seek some sort of arrangement with its most hated enemy, Ethiopia.
Egypt, the other peripheral player, has indicated who it sees as the winner by offering aid to South Sudan. It tacitly supported the Bad Guys because they were seen as status quo supporters of the division of the waters of the Nile River – its most important strategic concern. Now its seen them as a lost cause and is wooing the other side. They, however, are likely to push for a change in the water-sharing treaty. But that’s another story.
Does this matter for India? New Delhi has better relations with the Good Guy alliance, especially the East African countries and Ethiopia. But its companies do good business in Sudan as well. However, its real security concern are the pirates and militant groups in Somalia and there it is Ethiopia that is taking the lead. If the distraction of Eritrea is gone, it is possible Addis Ababa may take a more active role in Somalia. India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has publicly spoken of the possibility of India providing naval support for an African Union military force, largely Ethiopian right now, cleaning up Somalia.
The next game in the Horn will, India hopes, be Somalia.