1 Geographically, the Horn of Africa is normally understood to comprise Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. As foreign military forces operate in ways that link deployments on land, in the air and at sea, for the purposes of this paper the Horn of Africa region is defined as a security space comprised of the fore core countries plus Kenya, the Seychelles, South Sudan and Sudan, as well as key adjacent maritime areas—the southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

2 This report complements two further SIPRI studies and a policy brief published in 2019 which analysed the evolving foreign military presence in the Horn of Africa and the related external security politics affecting the region. See Melvin. N., ‘The foreign military presence in the Horn of Africa region’, SIPRI Background Paper, Apr. 2019; Melvin, N., ‘Managing the new security politics of the Horn of Africa region’, SIPRI Policy Brief, Apr. 2019; and Melvin, N., ‘The new external security politics of the Horn of Africa region’, SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security, Apr. 2019. SIPRI acknowledges the support of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the research underpinning all three studies. Views remain those of the author.


3 The report is based on the author’s experience in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa since the late 1990s, building on research and discussions in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya since 2016 focused on relations between the Arab states of the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. Additional desk research and interviews were carried out in Addis Ababa and Mogadishu during November 2019. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, interviewees have been anonymized.

4 The Republic of Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from the Somali Republic in May 1991, following the collapse of the government in Mogadishu, within the territory of the former British Somaliland Protectorate. Somaliland adopted its own constitution in a 2001 referendum. However, its sovereignty is not recognized by any other country. Its contested status became more acute with the international recognition of the FGS in Mogadishu as the sovereign government of the Somali Republic in 2012. The Somaliland Government has maintained a fairly close working relationship with Ethiopia.

5 International Crisis Group, ‘Keeping Ethiopia’s transition on the rails’, Africa Report no. 283 (16 Dec. 2019), pp. 10–12.

6 Under the 1995 constitution, Ethiopia became a federation divided into 11 administrative units: 9 autonomous and ethnically regional states (Afar; Amhara; Benishangul–Gumaz; Gambella; Harari; Oromia; Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, known as the SNNPR; Somali and Tigray) and 2 cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). This paper uses ‘Somali Regional state’ to differentiate the Ethiopian region state from Somalia. A November 2019 referendum on creating a 12th region, Sidama (currently a zone in SNNPR), was supported with 98.5%.

7 Escalating tensions with newly independent Eritrea, leading to a major war between 1998–2000 and the loss of access to Ethiopia’s primary port in Assab, also undermined the EPRDF’s ability to focus on its domestic economic agenda.

8 Markakis, J., Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers (James Currey Eastern African Studies: London, 2011), in particular chapter 11, pp. 255–78.

9 Mosley, J., ‘Ethiopian politics beyond the vanguard?’, Expert Comment, Chatham House, 18 Oct. 2016.

10 Human Rights Watch, ‘“Fuel on the fire”: Security force response to the 2016 Irreecha Cultural Festival, Sep. 2017.

11 ‘Unravelling the tapestry: Ethiopia’s Sidama people vote for autonomy’, The Economist, 23 Nov. 2019.

12 International Crisis Group (note 5), p. 12.

13 Interview with academic, Addis Ababa, Nov. 2019.

14 Interview with security analyst, Addis Ababa, Sep. 2019.

15 Interview with private media editor, Addis Ababa, Nov. 2019; Abera, E., ‘OFC, OLF and ONP agree to form “Coalition for Democratic Federalism”’, Addis Standard, 4 Jan. 2020.

16 International Crisis Group, ‘Intra-Gulf competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the impact’, Middle East and North Africa Report no. 206 (19 Sep. 2019); Ermias Tasfaye, ‘Amid blackout, western Oromia plunges deeper into chaos and confusion’, Ethiopia Insight, 14 Feb. 2020.

17 International Crisis Group (note 16), p. 1.

16 International Crisis Group, ‘Intra-Gulf competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the impact’, Middle East and North Africa Report no. 206 (19 Sep. 2019); Ermias Tasfaye, ‘Amid blackout, western Oromia plunges deeper into chaos and confusion’, Ethiopia Insight, 14 Feb. 2020.

17 International Crisis Group (note 16), p. 1.

18 International Monetary Fund, ‘Six things to know about Ethiopia’s new program’, IMF Country Focus, 23 Dec. 2019.

19 Dercon, S., Hill, R. and Zeitin, A., ‘In search of a strategy: Rethinking agriculture-led growth in Ethiopia’, Synthesis paper, UK Department for International Development (DFID), 2009, pp. 7–8.

20 Mosley, J. and Watson, E., ‘Frontier transformations: Development visions, spaces and processes in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, vol. 10, no. 3 (2016), pp. 458–59.

21 Readily convertible currencies typically used in international trade, such as the US dollar, the euro, UK sterling or Japanese yen.

22 Taye, D., ‘NBE lifts bill purchase directive’, The Reporter, 23 Nov. 2019.

23 Unacknowledged but also important has been the state’s fairly developed cybersecurity and espionage capacity. Social media has been an important element in every successful protest movement in Ethiopia under the EPRDF, and a key element of its capacity to maintain order has been the ability to block certain websites or restrict access to the internet and SMS service on mobile phones entirely. Abiy served briefly in the information and communication technology ministry before becoming an MP, and may have intentions to retain such repressive capacity.

24 Tadesse, F., ‘A $10 billion economic reform package’, Addis Fortune, 14 Sep. 2019.

25 The former CEO of METEC, General Kinfe Dagnew, was arrested in November 2018 and charged with corruption along with other former METEC officials.

26 Maasho, A., ‘UAE to give Ethiopia $3 billion in aid and investments’, Reuters, 16 Jun. 2018.

27 Gardner, T., ‘“This is Dubai now”: Nobel-winning PM’s plan to transform Addis Ababa’, The Guardian, 16 Oct. 2019.

28 Meester, J., van den Berg, W. and Verhoeven, H., ‘Riyal politik: The political economy of Gulf investments in the Horn of Africa’, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, Research Report, 28 Apr. 2018, pp. 52–53.

29 This should be considered to avoid significantly overstating Saudi Arabia’s role in the Ethiopian economy, as may have happened in the account of Meester, van den Berg and Verhoeven (note 28).

30 ‘Saudi billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi released from detention’, Al Jazeera, 27 Jan. 2019.

31 Gardner (note 27).

32 Vaughan, S. and Gebremichael, M., ‘Rethinking business and politics in Ethiopia: The role of EFFORT, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray.’ Africa Power and Politics Research Report no. 2, United Kingdom Department for International Development, Aug. 2011, pp. 59–61.

33 Verhoeven, H., ‘The Gulf and the Horn: Changing geographies of security interdependence and competing visions of regional order’, Civil Wars, vol. 20, no. 3 (2018), pp. 349–50; Intergovernmental Authority on Development, ‘IGAD member states scrutinise regional infrastructure master plan’, 21 Oct. 2019.

34 Healy, S., ‘Hostage to conflict: Prospects for building regional economic cooperation in the Horn of Africa’, Chatham House Report, 1 Nov. 2011.

35 Styan, D., ‘The politics of ports in the Horn: War, peace and Red Sea rivalries’, African Arguments, 18 Jul. 2018.

36 Mosley and Watson (note 20), pp. 457–58.

37 Mergu, Y., ‘Kenya–Ethiopia electricity interconnection reaches testing stage’, Addis Fortune, 28 Sep. 2019.

38 Girma, M., ‘The promises and challenges of “መደመር” (Medemer)’, Gobena Street, 30 Jun. 2018.

39 Discussion with academics and policy analysts in Addis Ababa, Nov. 2019.

40 Interviews with foreign policy analysts, academics and diplomats in Addis Ababa, Sep. and Nov. 2019.

41 Mosley, J., ‘Eritrea–Ethiopia rapprochement and wider dynamics of regional trade, politics and security’, Horn of Africa Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 3 (July–Aug. 2018), pp. 8–9.

42 Verhoeven, H. and Woertz, E., ‘Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa’, ed. N. Patrick, Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (I. B. Tauris: London, 2018); and de Regt, M. and Tafesse, M., ‘Deported before experiencing the good side of migration: Ethiopians returning from Saudi Arabia’, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, vol. 9, no. 2 (2015), p. 228.

43 Branch, D. and Mosley, J., ‘Why East Africa’s borders are blowing up’, Foreign Policy, 6 Aug. 2014.

44 Mosley (note 41).

45 These trends fit into a broader pattern of competition among the Saudis, Emiratis, Iranians and Turks for influence and leadership amid the shifting security landscape in Iraq and Syria.

46 Verhoeven and Woertz (note 42).

47 Vertin, Z., ‘Red Sea rivalries: The Gulf states are playing a dangerous game in the Horn of Africa’, Foreign Affairs, 15 Jan. 2019; Vertin, Z., ‘Red Sea geopolitics: Six plotlines to watch’, Lawfare, 15 Dec. 2019.

48 Interview with foreign ministry advisor, Addis Ababa, Nov. 2019.

49 Mutambo, A., ‘Sudan’s PM Hamdok picked to chair IGAD’, The East African, 29 Nov. 2019.

50 Interview with Eritrean diplomat, Addis Ababa, Nov. 2019. An agreement may be near. See, ‘New Ethio-Eritrea trade deal awaiting final decision’, Ethiopian Press Agency, 4 Feb. 2020.

51 Mosley, J., ‘Eritrea and Ethiopia: Beyond the impasse’, Briefing, Chatham House, 1 Apr. 2014, pp. 6–9.

52 International Crisis Group (note 16), pp. 6–19; Author impression based on discussions with various Eritrean, European and UN officials in Addis Ababa, Asmara, Brussels, London and Nairobi since 2016.

53 Phone interview with Somali government advisor, Oct. 2019.

54 The FMS being the five regional administrations (Galmudug, Hirshabelle, Jubaland, Puntland and South West State of Somalia) established mainly since the provisional adoption of a new constitution in 2012.

55 International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia and the Gulf crisis’, Africa Report no. 260 (1 June 2018), pp. 4–7; International Crisis Group ‘The United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa’, Middle East and North Africa Briefing no. 65 (6 Nov. 2018), pp. 5–7.

56 ‘Ethiopia acquires 19% stake in DP World Berbera Port’, Gulf News, 1 Mar. 2018.

57 Styan (note 35).

58 Verhoeven (note 33), p. 351; International Crisis Group, ‘United Arab Emirates’ (note 55), p. 5; and Melvin, ‘Foreign military’ (note 2), pp. 17–18.

59 International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia and the Gulf’ (note 55), pp. 8–9.

60 International Crisis Group, ‘Somalia and the Gulf’ (note 55), pp. 1–2.

61 Sheikh, A. ‘Somalia, Ethiopia to jointly invest in four seaports on the Red Sea’, Reuters, 16 Jun. 2018.

62 ‘Somalia orders UN envoy to leave country’, Al Jazeera, 2 Jan. 2019.

63 Shahow, A., ‘Kenya and Somalia’s maritime dispute: One winner, two losers?’ African Arguments, 30 Oct. 2019.

64 Mosley, J., ‘Somalia’s federal future: Layered agendas, risks and opportunities’, Research Paper, Chatham House, Sep. 2015, pp. 9–12.

65 ‘LAPSSET’ comes from Lamu Port–South Sudan–Ethiopia Transport. Anderson, D. and McKnight, J., ‘Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in eastern Africa’, African Affairs, vol. 114 (Jan. 2015), p. 7; and Mosley and Watson (note 20), p. 462.

66 Yihun, B. B., ‘Ethiopian foreign policy and the Ogaden War: The shift from “containment” to “destabilization,” 1977–1991’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, vol. 8, no. 4 (2014), pp. 683–86.

67 Hagmann, T., Talking Peace in the Ogaden: The Search for an End to Conflict in the Somali Regional State in Ethiopia (Rift Valley Institute: London, 2014), pp. 29–30.

68 Interview with foreign ministry advisor (note 48); interview with UN advisor, Addis Ababa, Nov. 2019; interview with former Jubaland official, Mogadishu, Nov. 2019.

69 Ngugi, B., ‘Why Ethiopia beat Kenya to foreign investment inflows crown, again’, Business Daily, 30 Dec. 2019.

70 Interview with UN advisor (note 68). See also, ‘Brookside Dairy seeks to expand into Oromia’, Indian Ocean Newsletter, Apr. 19 2019.

71 Interview with UN advisor (note 68).

72 Whittington, D., ‘Why technical discussions are needed for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’, The Conversation, 8 June 2016.

73 10 states are NBI members: Burundi, DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, The Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda; Eritrea participates as an observer.

74 ‘Egypt, Ethiopia agree to settle differences over Nile mega-dam’, Reuters, 10 June 2018.

75 Maasho, A., ‘Ethiopian Nile dam manager found shot dead, crowds call for justice’, Reuters, 26 July 2018.

76 ‘Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed issues warning over Renaissance Dam, Al Jazeera, 22 Oct. 2019.

77 Interview with advisor to foreign ministry (note 48).

78 IMF (note 18).

79 Magome, M., ‘Ethiopia PM asks South Africa leader to help in dam dispute’, Associated Press, 12 Jan. 2020.

80 Elias Meseret, ‘Ethiopia skips latest US talks with Egypt over dam dispute’, Associated Press, 26 Feb. 2020.

81 United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), ‘UNISFA Fact Sheet’, [n.d.].

82 de Waal, A., ‘Sudan’s revolutionaries pin hopes on PM Abdalla Hamdok’, BBC News, 28 Aug. 2019.

83 Human Rights Watch, ‘Sudan: Justice needed for protestor killings’, 17 Nov. 2019.

84 International Crisis Group, Report no. 206 (note 16) pp. 6–19; ‘How Ethiopia PM “stole the show” at Sudan transition event’, AfricaNews, 19 Aug. 2019.

85 Interview with security analyst, Addis Ababa, Sep. 2019; ‘Sudan political crisis: IGAD calls for unified African mediation’, Dabanga, 21 June 2019.

86 Interview with security analyst, Addis Ababa, Sep. 2019.

87 International Crisis Group, Report no. 206 (note 16), pp. 31–32.

88 Mosley (note 41), pp. 9–10; and Verhoeven (note 33), p. 348.

89 International Crisis Group, Report no. 206 (note 16), pp. 40–41; ‘Red Sea and Gulf of Aden border countries form council’, The National, 6 Jan. 2020.

90 UAE Foreign Ministry, ‘UAE welcomes establishment of Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden’, 6 Jan. 2020.

91 Interviews with UN advisor (note 68) and Eritrean diplomat (note 39). See also Eritrean statement at 6 Jan. charter signing for a Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, Meskel, Y. G., Twitter, 6 Jan. 2020.

92 Interviews with FGS officials, Mogadishu, Nov. 2019.


 SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security No. 2020/5 March 2020


SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public.


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