Africa: The Future of IGAD Amidst Turmoil in the Horn

Africa: The Future of IGAD Amidst Turmoil in the Horn

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Roiling war in Sudan, looming famine in northern Ethiopia, protracted insurgencies in Amhara and Oromia, and a badly stalled offensive against Al-Shabaab in Somalia paint a bleak picture for the Horn of Africa in 2024. The scale of these crises can appear intractable, as the region is facing its worst moment since the early 1990s. The engagement needed to respond to these crises, particularly from multilateral institutions, seems paralysed. The African Union (AU) is seen to have largely abandoned its founding principles, which established the ‘primacy of politics’ and once powerfully promoted peace, democracy, and respect for human rights. Meanwhile, the Horn’s pre-eminent regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is also facing a confluence of pressures that have left it weakened. The collapse of the political order in the Horn has many roots, but the lack of regional answers to regional problems may largely be attributed to the asymmetric rising influence of Gulf powers in the Horn, and the current absence of a single strong ‘anchor state.’

Norm-based order in the Horn has been badly corroded by a rise in transactional politics partially inspired by the ad hoc way in which Gulf powers have increasingly interacted with African countries. More concerned with bargaining over influence, natural resources and military support, Gulf politics in much of the Horn are now about seizing and retaining levers of power. Multilateral bodies are playing second fiddle to the offer of arms and funding to governments and other national elites – arguably seen in the Ethiopian government’s refusal of IGAD’s peace track during the Tigray War and eager acceptance of Turkish and Emirati drones. Regimes and politicians often prefer the patronage of Gulf states to uncertain support from the AU or IGAD – particularly with looming debts to be paid, wars to be fought, borders to be secured, and political opponents to be dealt with.

Interactions that could be transparently handled through regional bodies are being replaced with back-room deals, with Gulf powers preferring to carry out business behind closed doors. Clear and transparent agreements negotiated through multilateral institutions are being superseded by pacts such as the opaque Turkey-Somalia defence maritime agreement in early 2024, which many suspect Qatar had a hand in developing.

IGAD’s inability to compel either Ethiopia or Sudan to come to the table for the Extraordinary Heads of State Summit held in Entebbe, Uganda, in January 2024 and the ease with which these two governments disregarded the summit reflects a significant shift in its influence on Member States. In the case of Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has pumped billions of dollars into the country’s economy through investment and foreign exchange. Most recently, on 5 February 2024, UAE Special Envoy and Plenipotentiary Ambassador Omar Hussain announced a further USD 2.4 billion in investments in Ethiopia. With vast funds flowing into Ethiopia’s central bank from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as happened following the fall of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, administrations are able to ‘go it alone,’ disregarding multilateral institutions and norms intended to guide their political and economic trajectories. IGAD’s influence has clearly diminished as the influence of powerful Gulf states has grown, though it also has suffered from internal tussles during the same period.

Ethiopia’s withdrawal from the IGAD summit in mid-January 2024 reflects internal divisions in the regional body that threaten its relevance. Rather than facilitating genuine dialogue between Addis and Mogadishu over the Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU, IGAD simply summoned Ethiopian officials to the summit, which Addis perceived as just another venue in which Mogadishu could restate its position on ‘territorial integrity.’ Prior to the new year, Djibouti, as IGAD chair, hosted a meeting between Mogadishu and Hargeysa, one in which Somaliland President Muse Bihi was reportedly strong-armed to accept what he no doubt considered unacceptable terms. If this continues, IGAD risks becoming just another political venue for ‘forum shopping’, which governments use to selectively promote their agendas when convenient but eschew when they see greater value in unilateral or bilateral engagement.

The future of the AU, as well as IGAD, has become murky. However, there is a clear and pressing need to revitalise IGAD, as was done in the mid-1990s. A neutral regional dispute platform, seen in the role IGAD played in 2005 with Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, would help address some of the worst diplomatic excesses of its Member States. Returning wayward national leaders to the table would open space for cooler heads to prevail, disallowing hyperbole and back-room deals to steer regional politics. Regional diplomacy must come from within the region; re-establishing IGAD as the body through which effective vertical and horizontal talks can take place would be the best way to go about achieving that. The alternative is yet more division and tumultuous politics in an ever-warming world.

The short-lived initiative by some IGAD leaders to invite Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki to re-join IGAD in mid-2023 would have threatened to entirely torpedo the institution from within. Thankfully, that plan appears to have been abandoned. There are several countries in the Horn that could play a role in facilitating the revitalisation of IGAD – Eritrea, which has repeatedly sought to destabilise its neighbours and undercut multilateral institutions, is not one of them. Isaias has little regard for IGAD, previously asserting that the AU, IGAD and other bodies were ‘stillborn’ on a visit to Riyadh in November 2023 while exulting the possible Saudi-African partnership. His rant was perhaps one of the clearest examples of an African leader openly rejecting the tenets of multilateralism in favour of the Gulf. Inviting Isaias into IGAD would surely only undermine the institution- not mitigate his worst excesses.

There are several ways IGAD could potentially be reinvigorated, including establishing an AU-style troika of past and present IGAD chairs. Political paralysis could be ameliorated by allowing different troika members to bring conflicts from neighbouring states to IGAD’s attention – rather than relying on those states’ leaders to bring conflicts to the fore. Bolstering the Executive Secretary’s mandate might also help navigate the complex dynamics in the Horn, authorising the Secretariat to raise pressing peace and security questions with the Chair or the Assembly. More broadly, IGAD could yet re-frame itself in counterbalance with the rise of the Gulf powers, seeking collaboration, not competition.

Matthew Chandler de Waal is the Editor at Sahan Research, a think-tank based in Nairobi, Kenya, that focuses on security and governance in the Horn of Africa.

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