Intra-state conflicts in the Horn of Africa have always had a devastating domino effect, making the region one of Africa's most highly unpredictable and conflictive zones. Most of the violent conflicts experienced in the Greater Horn of Africa states of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan – whether intra- or inter-state – have stemmed from the complex process of state formation, colonial and Cold War legacies, national/elite interests, competition for natural resources, territorial disputes, contested identities, ethnicity, political domination, religious ideologies, geostrategic and security-related interests of external actors. Nonetheless, these cited causes do not provide a full picture of the regional dimensions of violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa but rather a glimpse of why insecurity and instability persist in this region.
The recently contained fighting in Ethiopia's northern Tigray state between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), may not only have drastic implications for the future of the country but could also seriously affect its neighbours. Therefore, the stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region. However, what is more preoccupying is the potential impact of the warfare in Tigray on Somalia's stability. If the recent political tensions in Ethiopia persist, it will evidently have an effect on the internal security of Somalia, on the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s mission, and might lead to some federal member states’ dis-integration and the loss of a credible regional peacemaker able to mediate its conflict with Somaliland and Kenya.
The domino effect of the Tigray war on internal security and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)
Ethiopia, Somalia's neighbour to the west, is vital for its internal and regional security because of its complex history of conflict and strategic intervention in the war-torn nation. The Ethiopian forces installed the Somali Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu in December 2006 after defeating the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Since then, Ethiopia's main goal has been to assist the Somali government forces to contain and disband the Al-Shabaab, the Somali federal government's key opponent and the region's most notorious violent extremist group. Ethiopia is also one of the key players in and contributor of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
In 2014, the Ethiopian forces officially joined the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), upon approval of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2124 which authorised additional force to the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Subsequently, the Ethiopian AMISOM troops have effectively assisted the Somali government forces in capturing key cities and villages from al-Shabaab. However, there is a danger that the Ethiopian federal government's focus on Tigray could weaken its involvement in backing the Somali government against al-Shabaab militants. Ethiopia has already withdrawn about 600 soldiers from Somalia's western border, though they were not tied to the African Union's Mission in Somalia, which Ethiopia supports. Meanwhile, if the situation deteriorates further and Abiy is forced to pull out of AMISOM, that will create an opportunity for al-Shabaab to regrow and regroup again. Indeed, Ethiopia’s decision to withdraw troops from AMISOM will impact the capacity and effectiveness of the mission as a stabilising force since it is one of the most experienced, best-trained and best-equipped contingents. Therefore, its withdrawal will severely undermine the AMISOM mission and internal and regional security in Somalia while al-Shabaab might gain advantage.
Dis-integration of some federal members states from the federal government of Somalia
Currently, Somalia has its own concerns which are likely to keep it inwardly focused. Like in Ethiopia, center-periphery tensions over economic resources, political power and clannism have been at the core of Somalia's instability since the collapse of Siad Barre’s authoritarian regime in 1991. This has been demonstrated by the recent bumpy experience of devolving power from the capital Mogadishu – a centre with limited power – to the newly formed states of South West, Puntland and Jubaland as the power-contesting periphery in an attempt to transform a previously centralised Somalia into a federation. The power struggle between the center (federal government) and the periphery (federal member states) has recently engulfed Somalia following the accusation of some federal member state leaders that the current President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (alias Farmajo), is interfering with their domestic affairs and trying to extend his term by postponing the presidential and parliamentary elections slated for February and May 2021, respectively. This reflects what happened with the postponement of 2020 elections in Ethiopia, where the TPLF declared it no longer recognised the federal government after its mandate ended.
Ethiopia has provided crucial support to the federal government of Somalia in its rivalry with Somalia's federal members states of South West and Jubaland. This support was witnessed, in 2018, when Ethiopian forces assisted President Farmajo by arresting Mukhtar Robow and repressing his supporters in the contested regional presidential elections in South West State. Likewise, in 2019 Ethiopia sided with President Mohamed Farmajo in his dispute with the Kenya-backed president of Jubaland, Ahmed Madobe. Hence, if Ethiopia withdraws its troops from Somalia, Farmajo´s grip will be weakened. Somali leaders are keeping a watchful eye on the conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) as one that seems to mirror Somalia’s centre-periphery tug-of-war.
Losing a credible regional mediator
Ethiopia´s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, also plays a role as peace mediator for Somalia. He is recognised for transforming the loud silence between Somaliland and Somalia into potentially history-making meetings. He has also been mediating in the maritime border dispute between Somalia and Kenya. To the extent that Ethiopia will be consumed by its growing domestic problems, this will leave Somalia without a credible regional mediator.