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In recent years there have been significant changes in the political and security make-up of the Horn of Africa. New leaders have prompted a redrawing of political allegiances across the region. Localised conflicts have resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and the displacement of thousands more. Millions of people face acute food insecurity across the region. The Yemeni-based Houthi attacks on shipping transiting the Bab al-Mandab Strait has also focused attention on the Red Sea as a geostrategic space.

This briefing surveys recent political developments in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. For the purposes of this paper the term Horn of Africa is used to collectively refer to just these countries, unless otherwise stated. Some of the challenges facing these countries, either collectively or individually, are identified, as are potential flashpoints. The role of the Arab Gulf States and China are also explored.

Significant changes in recent years

Since 2018 there have been significant changes in the political and security make-up of the Horn of Africa.


Current Red Sea tensions caused by the Houthis in Yemen have drawn attention to Djibouti’s hosting of multiple foreign militaries. The US, China and France all have naval bases in the small country, with other militaries also having a presence. The UK opened an embassy in 2021.


President Isaias Afwerki has been in charge of the one-party state since 1993. Unexpected rapprochement with Ethiopia in 2018 saw Eritrea contribute troops to Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy’s subsequent conflict with Tigrayan forces in Ethiopia’s northern region that borders Eritrea.


Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in power since 2018, has overseen the restoration of relations with neighbouring Eritrea, initiated and ended a two-year conflict in the northern region of Tigray, and led his new political party to a landslide election victory in 2021. However, lower-level violence continues in parts of the Amhara and Oromia regions. Prime Minister Abiy’s agreement with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, whose independence is not recognised by Somalia or any other country, for Ethiopian access to the coast has led to a deterioration of the relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia.


Somalia’s President Hassam Sheikh Mohamud, elected in 2022, has set a deadline of the end of 2024 to expel the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. The group, linked to Al-Qaeda, has been in conflict with the Somali government since 2006. The African Union peacekeeping force, ATMIS, is gradually withdrawing all of its troops in 2024.


The removal of President Omar al-Bashir, one of Africa’s longest-serving authoritarian leaders, after months of popular protest in 2019 ushered in the hope of a transition to democracy and a civilian-led government. However, since April 2023 the country has been in the grip of a conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces. The US Secretary of State says both sides have committed war crimes. A UK-drafted UN Security Council resolution is calling on for unhindered humanitarian access and to end the fighting.

Involvement of the Gulf States

The involvement of the Arab Gulf States in the Horn of Africa, in particular Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has noticeably grown in recent years. Their interest has been prompted in part by investment opportunities (in agriculture, natural resources and consumer markets) and the growing importance of the Red Sea as a geostrategic space. Regional experts suggest tensions between the Gulf States is starting to play out in the Horn.

China increases diplomatic engagement

The creation of a special envoy for the Horn of Africa in February 2022 reflects China’s growing interest and involvement in the Horn of Africa. China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and has invested heavily in infrastructure projects both there and in Ethiopia. A senior Chinese official has described the Horn of Africa as having “geographically strategic importance, abundant resources and enormous potential.” China hosted a peace conference in Addis Ababa in 2022, and the special envoy signalled China’s desire to “play a role in area of security.”

IGAD activity

IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is a regional grouping of eight East African states: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. At recent summits it has expressed concern about recent tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, and called for an unconditional ceasefire in Sudan.

Potential flashpoints

Relations between Ethiopia and Somalia are in flux following the agreement between Ethiopia and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland allowing Ethiopia access to its coast.

The ongoing civil war in Sudan may continue to destabilise the region, with thousands displaced internally and across its borders. External support for some armed actors raises fears of proxy wars. Alex De Waal, the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, says “Sudan has become a cockpit in which the rising powers of the Middle East seek to project their power and gain an advantage over their rivals.”

Disruption to trade, increases in food and fuel prices and possible oil spills are some of the potential impact the situation in the Red Sea may have for the countries bordering the sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Many people face hunger

In parts of the Horn, many people face acute food insecurity, a situation exacerbated by short-term violence and insecurity, and the longer-term effects of climate change. Over 50 million people in the wider region are food insecure, experiencing crisis levels of acute food insecurity, according to the World Health Organisation. Senior UN officials are warning “famine is now a real and dangerous possibility” in Sudan.

Refugees and internally displaced persons

Conflict and environmental shocks in parts of the region has caused the displacement of millions of people in and around the Horn in recent years. This has also been linked to incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, with cases reported during recent fighting in Ethiopia and Sudan.

The International Organisation for Migration says the current conflict in Sudan has made it the “largest internal displacement crisis in the world.” More than 8 million people, or about 15% of the population, have fled their homes in the country.

UK Government approach

The UK Government is calling for an “immediate and sustainable ceasefire and a return to a civilian-led democratic transition” in Sudan, and for civilians in Amhara and Oromia regions in Ethiopia to be protected. Following a visit to Ethiopia in early February 2024, the Minister for Development and Africa, Andrew Mitchell, said the UK is setting up a pledging conference and a contact group on Ethiopia.

Relevant Commons Library briefings

A 2008 paper Interlocking crises in the Horn of Africa provides detailed profiles of Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea before looking at some of the root causes of tensions, including clan, ethnicity and environmental insecurity. In 2011 the Library briefly reviewed events in the Horn. More recent Library briefings are highlighted at relevant points.

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