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Structural Diplomatic Failure in the Horn

The United States, in its diplomatic regime in the Horn of Africa, has failed to align its interests with its actions. Although the Horn of Africa is filled with many diverse cultures and societies, a variety of different state-constructions, in the end, every state hopes to improve the lives of its people.

If we ignore the root motivation for this desire by States and officials of those States (as this is not the focus of State-to-State relations), we are left with a foundation for analyzing the relations between them in an objective fashion. To this end we are disregarding the formulation of government, and instead dealing with their actions exclusively; in other words, we are taking a black box approach, a descriptive analysis versus a predictive analysis.


To ensure a common set of facts I will give a brief background of all the states herein discussed.

Djibouti is the tiniest of states, with a population estimated at little more than 1 million, concentrated in its single city, Djibouti City. The port sits strategically at the confluence of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and is the exclusive port of Ethiopia. Djibouti also boasts military bases for the United States and France. Eritrea comparatively a giant land, although still just the size of England, with a population estimated at 5 million. It is the most recently independent State in Africa, and the only one to become independent of an African colonial power. It has struggled to demarcate its borders with its neighbors, however, it is often cited as the safest on the continent. Ethiopia is far and away the most populous on the continent with an estimated population of 80 million while being 10% of the size of the United States. It has the largest military in the region, and is the only one with troops in another country. Kenya is considered the most stable country in the region, however, recently suffered ethnic riots. Its population is 40 million and is but half the size of Ethiopia. Somalia is estimated to have a population of roughly 10 million, however, it has fractured into three regions, and for nearly two decades has not had a functioning government. Sudan is the largest country in Africa however, has suffered from a decades long war between the Muslim north and Christian/animist south. Its population is 40 million.

As a reminder, we are only dealing with State-to-State actions in this brief analysis not issue internal to the State’s.

Enter the United States

The United States has historically been quite involved in the region, and not as is commonly thought in its humanitarian missions. One of the United States largest bases was in Asmara, Eritrea (under the colonial rule of Ethiopia) during the Cold War. Since the end of the Second World War Ethiopia has received the lion’s share of military and technical assistance to the region from the United States. Since 1993 the United States has sanctioned Sudan as a State sponsor of terror.

As regards Somalia, everyone recalls the Hollywood blockbuster, Black Hawk Down. Similarly the media broadly reported the consequential withdrawal of US forces, however, what was not reported was that the US actually began to fund the very warlords it had been fighting. This was to counter the rise of what was to become the Islamic Courts Union.

The largest State-to-State issue in the region however, was the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It involved over half a million soldiers and continued for 3 years. Of course, at the time the US had good relations with both parties and equitably issued sanctions during the conflict on both parties. Regarding the conflict, this was the last logical action of US foreign policy.

After the conflict the sanctions were relaxed as border issue was debated in an arbitrative court at the Hague. Once it was concluded and clarified, Eritrea moved with the UN Cartographic Section to conclude the border demarcation. Ethiopia refused to permit it. Eritrea then recommended at the regional level, (IGAD, Inter-Governmental Authority on Development), continental (OAU, Organization of African Unity) and, international (UNSC, United Nations Security Council) levels, for sanctions until Ethiopia complied. Eritrea’s pleas were rejected at all levels, and continues today.

At the same time the United States continues to fund Ethiopia’s government (aid makes up roughly 97% of Ethiopia’s budget), especially its military. Many analysts believe that Eritrea’s political support for various Somali groups is a consequence of Ethiopia’s continued intransigence. If this were the case, how could the US encourage Eritrea to cease its political support for the Somalis?

This is a difficult question because Eritrea’s domestic policies make traditional “rewards” difficult. This is because Eritrea wishes to promote a self-sufficient and sustainable development path which makes aid programs difficult as they require use of originator resources. What Eritrea would prefer of course is that its border with Ethiopia be demarcated. The United States holds unique leverage in this regard as it is responsible for so much of Ethiopian government capacity.

If the United States were to do this would Eritrea respond? It is indeed possible, however, there is the historical question. During Eritrea’s self-funded war for independence from Ethiopia, Somalia afforded it refuge for treating its wounded and provided its leaders with passports. Therefore, it is unlikely that political support for all Somalis would be in the cards, however, it may be possible to convince Eritrea to help bring all Somalis back to the negotiating table, which should be the ultimate goal of the US policy.

Hopefully, the US administration will take these lessons to heart as it charts out its diplomatic policies towards the Horn.

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