The Horn of Africa, comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland, has now become the focus of what is being termed a 'Middle East Cold War'. The old bastions of power in the region, the US, UK and France, are being increasingly displaced by a new generation of Middle Eastern powers, with everyone racing to gain a foothold in what is becoming one of the world's most militarised regions. The leaders in The Horn are playing a deadly game of chess against the new forces shaping the region. Analysis by James Jeffrey.
A new scramble is underway in the Horn of Africa. Once written off as one of Africa's most volatile and treacherous regions for foreign involvement, a host of countries are now vying to gain a foothold. The Horn is becoming one of the world's most militarised regions, beside one of the world's most vital shipping lanes.
As usual, US policy is playing a role, especially when it comes to its long-term ally Ethiopia. As the Horn's most powerful and influential country, what happens to Ethiopia is likely to influence the rest of the region.
Since the 1991 revolution that brought Ethiopia's present ruling party to power, the US and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) have forged a strong bilateral relationship, based primarily on Ethiopia's role in the Global War on Terror, with its large, professional and effective army and its formidable state security apparatus.
But now the US is shifting its focus away from terrorism toward political and economic threats, just as numerous squabbling Middle Eastern potentates jockeying for power in the region--Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) versus their bitter adversaries, Qatar and Turkey--are looking at forging closer connections with the region's countries to help them achieve their goals.
"In the last few years, the Horn of Africa has become a battleground on which Middle Eastern rivalries are played out," says Awol Alio, a UK-based law professor and frequent commentator on Ethiopia and the Horn region.
"Different groupings have engaged with the region in pursuit of their own interests. Some have been more successful than others, but the question for many is whether African countries are able to make these relationships work for them."
The latest incarnation of powerplay in the Horn is motivated by the same forces that once had the old imperial powers of Britain, France and Italy tussling over the region: plain old-fashioned rivalry and a desire to control the approaches to the vital shipping avenue of the Suez Canal.
But whereas before, Horn countries tended to show a healthy disregard for outsiders, now they are welcoming them with enthusiasm. It's not hard to see why, given how the financial benefits involved could bolster if not transform the region's benighted economies.
Added to which, it can't be denied how the emerging realpolitik has achieved some notable gains in terms of peace and stability, primarily the opening of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border after 20 years of animosity and conflict.
On the other hand, the geopolitical sparring and spider's web of alliances ana rivalries also has the potential to unleash dangerous forces in a long-volatile region.
"The peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea will have a significant dividend for the Horn of Africa," says Hallelujah Lulie at Amani Africa, an Africa-based policy research, advisory and consulting think-tank.
"But at the same time, US policy is shifting; new powers are emerging; there are rivalries over the Red Sea and Yemen; economic influence is being used as a proxy; and in the background you have Iran, which is an enemy of Saudi, who are an ally of the US: it's a complex battleground."
Ethiopia has been dealing with meddling foreigners for the past two centuries and has proven adept at playing them against each other and switching allegiances to suit itself.
During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia forged strong ties with the US. But after a military coup overthrew the emperor in 1974, Ethiopia pivoted to Russia.
After the next revolution in 1991, it was back with the US. Since 2001, and as the Global War on Terror proceeded, that relationship continued to strengthen as Ethiopia and its ability to effectively wield hard and soft power regionally turned it into a vital US ally.
In recent years, however, the US has gradually come to perceive the rise of China and Russia, and not terrorism, as the biggest threat it is facing in Africa and elsewhere.
"Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security," US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, said in a January speech outlining the 2018 National Defence Strategy. "We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other."
But while US policy was shifting, the Ethiopian government, belayed since 2015 by ongoing protests in the country and internal party squabbles, took its eye off the bigger picture outside Ethiopia.
"The EPRDF leadership failed to read the signal of the imminent US policy shifts," says Mehari Taddele Maru, a Horn specialist. As a result, Mehari says, the EPRDF failed to prepare itself for the consequences.
"For one thing, Ethiopia continued to accept enormous Chinese investments in infrastructure and to forge economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries--and hence became the unintended target of [the] US policy shift from war on terror to economic confrontation with China."
While the US knows it cannot match the scale of Chinese investment in Africa, it is still looking to curb Chinese economic influence in the region, Mehari says.
Fearing reproach from Washington, some East African countries may scale down their ties with China and revise their public procurement procedures. Aware of this, China has already announced its decision to cut down investment in Ethiopia until its current debt payment--which is colossal--is restructured.
For example, the loan for a railway that stretches from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, just one of myriad Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, is $4bn.
Amid such shifting sands, and with the US not offering as steadfast diplomatic support as before including it not being as willing to look the other way over controversial practices by the Ethiopian government--the EPRDF became increasingly susceptible to its inner frictions and thereby less stable and sure of itself.
By the beginning of this year, the EPRDF's position had become so precarious that former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn became the first Ethiopian leader to voluntarily cede power in an effort to placate the criticism of his...