Why war in the Horn of Africa is likely

2023-10-23 18:36:04 Written by  Martin Plaut Published in English Articles Read 862 times


Mon 10/23/2023 12:29 PM

Martin Plaut

Oct 23

War is likely in the Horn. It is just a matter of who, when and over what

By Makeda Saba

I observe the following issues in the Horn of Africa.

The relationship between President Isaias and PM Abiy

Tigray – TPLF unfinished business

 Isaias is unhappy about the Pretoria Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and has made it known that he disapproves.

Isaias is unhappy that twice PM Abiy pulled the ENDF out of Tigray—the first time soon after claiming victory and the second time just before the Pretoria Agreement.


Fano militia – Eritrea backing, arming training. We have seen the videos.

Afar militia in Ethiopia – Eritrea backing, arming, training. They even returned to Eritrea, Eritrean Afar Soldiers fleeing the regime.

Oromo – History of Eritrea support – officially suspended in 2018, but....?  There is no information on any Eritrea Oromo reconnection, but anything is possible in the game of politics of convenience and power. 

Border issues


Bademe may be under Eritrean control, but it is a Kunama area. In recent history (2002), they asked for the protection of the Ethiopian Government. 

The Irob border, a part of the territory, should be handed over to Eritrea as per the Eritrea-Ethiopian Boundary Commission. However, the Irob people in the area want to remain part of Ethiopia; they do not want to be separated. 

Eritrea has closed all the central and Eastern borders
Ethiopia has closed the OmHajer/Humera border to cut off the Fano militia

The border dispute still needs to be resolved, and the Eritrea Djibouti Agreement sponsored by Qatar is not fully implemented.  Critically, to date, Eritrea has not fully accounted for all of the Djibouti POWs.


The hottest border contestation within Ethiopia has to be Welkait – Western Tigray, claimed by the Amhara and the people of Tigray.  Per the Pretoria Agreement, the Amhara Fano militia had to withdraw from Welkait and hand over to the ENDF. This is an outcome the Fano are not happy with, especially since the mechanism for resolving the dispute is stillborn.

Eritrea is keen for the Amhara to hold on to Welkait because it:

Denies Tigray access to Sudan in general and specifically Port Sudan
Provides Eritrea with an even longer border with Sudan
In Ethiopia, there are other internal land and border contestations, such as:

Benishangul – the issue is land taken for the GERD, land assigned to Amhara and other highlanders, without consultation in the 1980s 
External border between Afar and Somali Region
Internal border between Oromia and Somali Region and so on.
 In each case, there is no credible, trusted and independent institutional process to mediate, arbitrate, or adjudicate the disputes.

Ethiopia Sudan – Al Fashiga

The dispute over this border, specifically over the access to very fertile land in the area, is a source of continuous tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. Within Ethiopia, access to the land in question is primarily of interest to the Amhara. Therefore, the possible annexation by force of arms of Welkait set a precedent for the region that any Sudanese factions could not ignore. 

Water issues 

GERD – Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Nile Basin

Before 2018, Eritrea supported Egypt’s position on the dam. President Isaias even gave an interview from Cairo to the effect that the dam was a big white elephant. After 2018, they flipped in support of PM Abiy, who, before becoming PM, was not supportive of the dam. However, after 2018, the dam became a rallying point for all Ethiopians; hence, PM Abiy flipped.  The dam is still a rallying point for all Ethiopians. Within this story is the mysterious death of the dam engineer – deemed a suicide, but there are sufficient anomalies to cast doubt as to whether it genuinely was suicide. I digress...

 President Isaias seems to have flipped back to Egypt – hence his recent visit to Cairo and flip on the Sudan Coup Generals. He, officially at least, flipped from supporting Hemeti and the Janjaweed to supporting Burhan, whom Egypt supports. Therefore, Eritrea remains a crucial player in the Sudan crisis/ /resolution, but Ethiopia is nowhere to be seen.  

Isaias’s flip to Egypt can be seen as shoring up support in the event of any attempt by Abiy to annex Assab. 

Isaias also seems to have repaired his relationship with Somalia by allowing the repatriation of the Somali soldiers trained in Eritrea. I am sure A three-year training programme included political formation, hence the mastery of how to manipulate and control people; therefore, we should be very cautious about a three-year training programme. 

Omo River – Somalia, Kenya

The water dispute that does not make the news is the one that concerns the Omo River in the South of Ethiopia. In this area, there are dams and water irrigation projects that take minimal to no account of the water needs of the neighbours.

Red Sea – Assab 

There is a deliberate clouding of the issues

Access – is definitively possible. It is an arrangement that Ethiopia already has with Djibouti, Mombasa,  etc...But the devil is in the details because access to Assab will require extensive upgrades ( to international shipping standards) of the port and possibly the area around it. This raised the question of who pays for it. Eritrea will want Ethiopia to spend and expect to profit from the deal from the get-go. It is the arrangement they have with the mining companies. The inability to agree on terms and conditions for access was the source of tension before the 1998-2000 border war started. The same failure to reach an agreement was also the reason the Oil refinery in Assab was closed by Isaias in 1997. 

Possession – This would require that the Eritrean government to hand over Assab to Ethiopia.

The conventional thinking and the thinking of every Eritrean anywhere is that this is not possible because Assab was the first point of the Italian colonisation of Eritrea, and we all want to keep the State of Eritrea as established by the Italian/ Ethiopian Colonial treaties and as it was before the annexation of Eritrea by Emperor Haile Selassie.  

However, we are dealing with people who apply such thinking only if it is convenient to them and their hold of power. Isaias and Abiy have transported us back to the 18th and 19th centuries when taking territory by force of arms was not only legitimate, it was the mark of a leader. In addition, since 2018, we have not learned what PM Abiy and President Isaias have agreed to do because of the total lack of transparency. Hence, it is possible that a secret deal over Assab was reached and is not going as planned because of personal differences between the two leaders.

No War, No Peace 

Based on my outline above, we are returning to No War No Peace.  This suits Isaias as he gets to maintain his iron grip over Eritrea and can fall back on the narrative of “You cannot trust Ethiopians”, switching back from “Tigray” and “Woyane”.  We are already starting to see the Tesfanews, etc, making this switch, calling Abiy on the issue of the Red Sea, and circulating previous videos where Abiy thanked the EDF for their sacrifice and support in Tigray.

We already know President Isaias is comfortable with the No War, No Peace scenario.  The issue will be whether he will allow TPLF and PM Abiy to reconcile. I do not think he will. Hence, he is not pulling out of Tigray (i.e. Ethiopian territory) and will continue to arm and support militias in Ethiopia. 

Abiy staked his reputation on the normalisation of the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the opening of the border and gaining access to the Red Sea via Eritrea. Therefore, he will not be comfortable with a No War, No-peace scenario and Eritrean troops in Ethiopian territory. 


Another round of war in the Horn is much more likely than we think. Because both leaders:

do not think of power and politics in modern terms. They think of it as did their ancestors during the era of the Princess. Therefore, war is not the failure of politics- it is politics;
have learnt that they can do anything, any horror, and all will be forgiven because their territories have International geo-political and strategic importance.  Post-Tigray war, the US, EU, etc, could not wait to normalise relationships with Ethiopia and the UAE; the Saudis do not care.
President Isaias is actively pushing for a multipolar world and consequently has aligned Eritrea behind Putin over Ukraine. The Russians are looking for a naval base on the Red Sea, and Eritrea will likely allow it. Dahlak Islands were the site of the USSR naval base; though it is in ruins, the site is still there.  

The recent US naval presence in the Red Sea in response to the Palestine conflict is likely to expedite the establishment of a Russian naval base in Eritrean territorial waters. 

The Israeli-Palestine conflict and the failure of the international community to see that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is wrong and is fast heading to disaster provides the cover of a perfect storm for Abiy and Isaias to create another Horn of Africa war. After all, the US presidential elections and COVID-19 provided cover for the Tigray war.  

As a final point, we should pay attention to who provides which drones to whom.

Last modified on Monday, 23 October 2023 20:38