In the Horn of Africa, the EU has its work cut out

In its Council Conclusions from 10th May, the EU reaffirmed the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa to its own interests, with priorities ranging from security, human rights and climate action. These conclusions form part of a new EU regional strategy currently under development in which the bloc aims to increase its regional influence and presence, positioning itself as a “key development partner” for the countries of the Horn through collective action.

While the EU’s strategy and policy papers are usually filled with grand ambitions and grandstanding phrases, Brussels no doubt has its work cut out for itself. Given the geostrategic significance yet extreme volatility of the region, the EU must navigate a space where several great powers are converging in mutual competition, while regional conflict and corruption remain a test for EU policy and its standing.

The bloc’s approach to the region has thus far been marked by inconsistency based on political expediency, which on the one hand makes the EU look heavy-handed and self-assured, but in the final analysis only serves to expose the EU’s own vulnerabilities.

The end of “dual-track” diplomacy.

A case in point is Eritrea and its involvement in the conflict currently ongoing in the Tigray region of this neighbour Ethiopia. Although the war started as an internal Ethiopia conflict, Eritrea invaded the region on Ethiopia’s side and has been blamed for some of the most egregious abuses. Both the EU and US began calling on Eritrean troops to withdraw following reports of a litany of human rights abuses, including looting, sexual violence and assaults in refugee camps – yet Asmara’s ignoring Brussels has made it evident to EU policymakers that Eritrea is unwilling to engage with Brussels, which in 2020 was still sending €80 million in development aid to the country.

Josep Borrell Fontelles

In what can rightfully as a decisive and consequential move following the snub, the European Commission not only began drawing up plans to impose targeted sanctions on several individuals in Eritrea for their alleged role in the atrocities, but also announced to de-commit more than €100 million away from Eritrea amid the country’s evident lack of interest to engage with EU help.

“I don’t think we can always be playing the Good Samaritan and handing out donations but not getting into the political evolution of a country,” stated Josep Borrell (pictured left), the EU’s foreign affairs chief, last year. A year on, and it’s clear that Brussels’ “dual-track” attempt to combine development assistance with political dialogue in the country has reached the end of its rope.

Letting Djibouti get away with it?

While the EU did well to accept the fact that Eritrea is a lost cause for the foreseeable future in the face of human rights abuses and war crimes and took steps to punish the country accordingly, Brussels has been rather quiet about events and disturbing news out of Djibouti, where strongman Ismael Guelleh rules in his fifth term as president. According to an investigation by business risk intelligence firm EXX Africa, senior government officials have been implicated in fuelling regional conflicts, with the country’s Doraleh port terminal – previously managed by DP World but seized in 2018 and under government control since – serving as a major trans-shipment hub for weapons to across the Horn region.

The report claims that Aboubaker Omar Hadi, Chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zone Authority (DPFZA), helped set up various banks to launder the proceeds from arms trade undertaken by straw firms owned by Guelleh himself, and a network of businessmen, including Eritrean financier Isaias Dahlak who is believed to be financing Eritrean forces in the Tigray conflict, and Bensen Safa, a Northern-Cyprus banker. The weapons reach Djibouti from Houthi-controlled regions in Yemen, “shipped in the direction of Djiboutian ports from where they are passed to armed groups in northern Somalia supported by the government in Djibouti,” and eventually reach groups in South Sudan and Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

These allegations have been around since 2018, and although the silence on the part of the EU is deafening, it’s easily determined why: a geostrategic hotspot for several navies, the EU is cautious not to upset Djibouti’s president given that he is hosting EU naval forces engaged in Operation Atalanta, the EU’s anti-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean. France and Italy maintain their own naval bases at the port of Djibouti and they are, too, cognisant of staying out of trouble with Ismail Guelleh.

Human rights outcry.

Because the illegal arms trade in Djibouti is “a political mess that most Western nations do not want to wade into”, Brussels may well recognise that its hands a tied in Djibouti or – worse – that it doesn’t have a lot of leverage against Guelleh if push came to shove. It remains to be seen how the EU will address this vulnerability, of which Guelleh is no doubt aware, in the new strategy. But what is already clear is that Brussels is not doing itself any favours by staying quiet on the issue – even more so that its silence on Djibouti becomes more obvious when its very public actions on Ethiopia are for everyone in the region to see.

European officials were quick to condemn the deteriorating press rights in the country after an Ethiopian journalist reporting on Tigray was killed and a Western journalist expelled. Borrell’s envoy, Finland’s Pekka Haavisto, was bold enough to claim the government’s handling of the Tigray situation was “out of control,” and concerns have now turned to the country’s June elections. Expressing “disappointment” in the Ethiopian government, the EU last month announced it had cancelled its upcoming election observation mission to the country.

Brussels’ blind eye with Djibouti, but moral high grounding with her neighbours, just goes to show that political expediency still trumps human rights and corruption concerns in the region. If the EU wants to be a power to be reckoned with in the Horn, then it needs to be more consistent in responding to conflict and human rights violations in the region based on realistic assessments of the situation on the ground – only then can its planned strategy be effective.

Main image: By NASA -, Public Domain,

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor and Brussels correspondent of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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