The Horn of Africa: a geo-strategic priority for the EU
HR/VP Blog – At last Monday’s Foreign Affairs Council, we discussed the situation in the Horn of Africa. This region, which is crucial to EU’s interests, is characterized by a huge untapped potential, but it has been affected during the last decade by many crises that threaten its stability and development.
At our Council of EU Foreign Ministers, we discussed again extensively Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. However, this war is unfortunately not the only conflict that threatens to destabilise the rules-based world order. And even if the war against our neighbour Ukraine is naturally very important to us, we need to keep a close eye on the problems in the rest of the world, better understand them and continue to engage globally in helping resolve other crises.
The stability of the Horn of Africa is crucial
This is particularly true for the Horn of Africa, which has been rocked by major crises over the recent years. The stability of this region in the East of the African continent is of course crucial for the 300 million of people living there, but it is also central for EU’s interests, in particular because more than 20% of EU exports and imports pass off its coast. As geopolitical competition intensifies, other players, like the Gulf countries, China or Russia, focus increasingly on the region. A strong and structured European engagement with the countries of the Horn of Africa is imperative to preserve our interests.
23 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are highly food insecure and face severe hunger and water shortages. UNHCR
Some pressing challenges warrant our urgent attention: this region concentrates a substantial proportion of the world’s most vulnerable populations with nearly five million refugees and 13 million internally displaced persons, according to the UNHCR. And as the UN agency summarises it: “The hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa is reaching unimaginable proportions as 23 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are highly food insecure and face severe hunger and water shortages”. On 24 May, the UN Secretary-General, has convened a High-level Pledging Event to Support the Humanitarian Response in the Horn of Africa. Commissioner Lenarcic participated in this event and we fully support this initiative: nothing can be achieved to help strengthen the stability of the region if we are not able to first help improve rapidly the humanitarian situation on the ground.
The critical situation in Sudan
Regarding crises in the Horn of Africa, the focus is mainly on Sudan currently. In 2019, we saw the pictures of these courageous young people overthrowing one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Back in February 2020, I remember very well my discussions with the students of the University of Khartoum when I visited Sudan during my first mission to Africa as HRVP. Since then, however, none of their aspirations has been fulfilled, to the contrary. After the 2021 military coup, the country was moving again slowly towards transition to civil power. However, on 15 April, two rival generals threw their soldiers into a pitched battle, putting Sudanese and foreign citizens in the middle of the crossfire. From the onset of the conflict, we rapidly mobilised our entire diplomatic apparatus and evacuated most EU citizens (over 1,700 EU nationals) in more than 30 flights in a joint multinational military evacuation.
However, the situation on the ground for the Sudanese population remain desperate. There seems to be no political will to seek a non-military solution, and some external players fuel an already explosive situation. Our short-term objective is to contribute to a sustainable ceasefire to enable civilians to find safety and allow humanitarian actors to deliver much needed assistance.
Beyond this humanitarian ceasefire, establishing a comprehensive peace framework is crucial and the African Union seems best placed to organise it. We are in close contact with African Union Chairperson Faki to support its mediation efforts and help bridge the gap between the different stakeholders.
South Sudan is severely affected
South Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is heavily affected by the infighting in its neighbouring country. Combined with the lack of political leadership and the slow and incomplete implementation of the South Sudanese peace agreement, it could derail the country’s first national elections ever planned in December 2024 and the peaceful transition in February 2025.
In the neighbouring Ethiopia, last November’s signature of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) has opened a new chapter after two years of a devastating conflict in Tigray. For now, the conflicting parties have demonstrated their commitment with important progress in terms of disarmament, restoration of basic services and interim administration in Tigray and the opening of humanitarian access. However, the situation remains fragile, notably with escalating tensions in the Oromia and Amhara regions.
After a horrible war with hundreds of thousands of victims, we accompany the peace efforts in Ethiopia and intend to gradually normalise our relations.
After a horrible war with hundreds of thousands of victims, we accompany the peace efforts and intend to gradually normalise our relations. For a full normalisation, concrete action on accountability for human rights violations committed during the conflict will be paramount.
Eritrea has started to withdraw its troops from Ethiopia. However, it remains to be seen whether this country, which has just reintegrated the regional organisation IGAD, is really willing to play a more positive role in the region.
A positive momentum in Somalia
In Somalia, which I visited last September, we observe a positive momentum under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Three CSDP missions are a clear testament of the EU’s commitment to help stabilize the country: since 2008, Operation EU NAVFOR Atalanta deters piracy, combats trafficking and contributes to the arms embargo on Somalia. EUTM (since 2010) and EUCAP Somalia (since 2013) aim at building the capacity of the Somali armed forces.
The Somali Government is determined to deliver Somali led security and is currently engaged in a number of operations against Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab. Somalia’s positive voting record in the UN on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine demonstrates its commitment to the principles of the international rules-based order. These developments have resulted in a deepening of our partnership with a Joint Operational Roadmap launched a few weeks ago by EU Special Representative Weber to facilitate further progress in state building and security.
Kenya, a pillar of stability
Kenya continues to be a solid ally and an important pillar of stability in the Horn of Africa. During my visit to Kenya last year, I launched a strategic partnership with this country, which we intend to strengthen even further in the coming months. Peaceful elections in August 2022, observed by an EU observation mission, set a new democratic benchmark for the region and beyond. Nairobi is also a key EU ally in the fight against climate change, where the country has high ambitions. Like-minded in multilateral fora, it voted with EU in the five UNGA resolutions on Ukraine. Kenya is also a key player on the regional scene, building on its engagement in the African Union Transition Mission In Somalia. Its peace efforts in Ethiopia and in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are very much appreciated and will be supported by the EU.
Djibouti, one of the other few anchors of stability in the region, played a very positive role in the recent evacuation of EU citizens from Sudan. It is a hub for EU Mission Atalanta, for European member states such as France, Spain and Italy, but also for US, China, and Japan. However, Djibouti’s stability cannot be taken for granted and we shouldn’t underestimate the various challenges this country is confronted with.
Despite the many challenges, a region of opportunity
Despite these major challenges, the Horn of Africa is also a region of many opportunities. We need to intensify our support to regional economic integration as a means to enhance regional cooperation and prevent violent conflict. We cooperate regularly with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, which brings together the countries of the region, on peace security and development actions. The Horn of Africa Initiative, launched in 2019 by the Finance Ministers of seven countries of the region, is also a promising vehicle for the EU. It should be further leveraged around resilience, connectivity and infrastructure in the framework of the Global Gateway initiative.
Beyond the Horn region
At a time when the continent is celebrating 60 years of the African Union, we are well aware that, beyond the Horn region, our relations with Africa as a whole are a crucial issue for the future of the EU, as the last year EU-AU Summit highlighted. One of the decisions taken last Monday was to equip the European External Action Service with a special Task Force to more effectively fight disinformation and better coordinate our