The 2022 Conflict Flashpoints to Watch in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa has demonstrated significant dynamism across the spectrum of conflict, politics and geopolitics, at least since 2018. Fundamentally, the region possibly faces a contagion of instability. The year 2021 witnessed heightened tensions and military clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan over a territorial dispute, and diplomatic rows between Kenya and Somalia over a disputed maritime territory in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Ethiopia descended into civil war with rebels allied to Tigray region’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) inching close to a violent take-over of government. Somalia’s electoral and political crises deepened leading to a brief violent confrontation between pro-government and pro-opposition forces in the country’s capital, Mogadishu. The triangular conflict between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) further raised the prospect of region-wide instability. In Sudan, the transition to civilian and democratic rule experienced significant strain in the wake of dysfunction and military overreach. Eritrea joined the conflict theatre in Ethiopia where outrageous violations of human rights and possible war crimes were reported, leading to the re-imposition of international sanctions on Asmara.

Geopolitically, the region experienced significant destabilizing competition and rivalry from Middle Eastern powers especially Turkey and Qatar on the one side, and UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (and to an extent Israel) variably on the other side. The global major power rivalry pitting Russia and China on one side, and Western powers led by the USA on the other also established chock-holds in regional crises. In such environment, geopolitical rivals escalated stakes in by attempting to gain leverage over local actors and shaping local crises in favor of their geopolitical calculations. In 2022, the international community should thus closely monitor the following risks and adequately prepare to mitigate potential fall-outs to prevent widespread instability and insecurity in the Horn of Africa.

The Troubled Transition in Sudan

Since the fall of Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019, the transition to civilian and democratic rule has increasingly become delicate – having been ‘captured’ by the military which occupy de facto presidency. The military has been systematically freezing critical reforms, escalating dysfunction in the civilian-led cabinet of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, and undermining the Prime Minister’s legitimacy. As a result, major transition milestones have not yet been achieved including the formation of the transitional legislature, constitutional review, security sector reforms, and necessary economic reforms. The final milestone, which is democratic elections, is also being derailed by the unravelling transition.

The military’s overreach was epitomized by the October 2021 military coup against the Prime Minister, Abdallah Hamdok. While the coup lasted only a month, it created two major challenges. First, the Prime Minister resigned shortly after reinstatement following rejection of the civilian-military deal to end the coup, by the protesters. His resignation leaves a civilian vacuum in Sudan’s transitional government, a disorganized protesters movement, a lack of clarity on the process and timelines for the selection of the next Prime Minister, and the military bent on tightening its grip on power. Second, the coup interfered with transition schedules leading to the revision of the transition agreement and postponement of democratic elections which increase the prospect of sustained public protests, civil disobedience and civil strife, should the military exploit the interregnum to consolidate power. The international community should intensify efforts to safeguard the transition and support full implementation of the revised transition agreement to avert a major political crisis in Sudan.

Electoral and Political Crises in Somalia

Somalia was to hold its first direct elections in 2020 but failed due to internal politics, lack of capacity and security challenges. The country reverted to its indirect clan-based ‘electoral college’ system by dint of the September 17, 2020 agreement between the Federal Government of Somalia and Federal Member States. However, three election deadlines have since passed without Somalia having completed parliamentary and presidential elections. As a consequence, the initial terms of both President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and parliament expired in February 2021, creating a political crisis with the opposition and Federal Member States of Puntland and Jubaland non-recognizing the president’s legitimacy. The attempt to extend both terms provoked armed confrontations which threatened to fragment the country’s security sector and plunge the country back into instability.

While term extensions were rescinded, Somalia remains within a maximum risk of political violence and instability due to the following factors: the fall-out between the President and the Prime Minister over elections, functions and powers, has deepened dysfunction in government and actively undermines national security and election schedules. On the other hand, the political opposition is increasingly aggressive to election delays and claims of electoral interference by the president. Lastly, the dangerous rift between federal member states of Jubaland and Puntland and the Federal Government of Somalia continues to stretch out the electoral crisis to the extent of risking national security. In the face of the February 2022 elections deadline, any further mis-steps will threaten the country’s security and stability as well as the legitimacy of the incumbent government.

 The Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

The armed conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government troops and rebels from Tigray region’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which started in November 2020 appears to be de-escalating. The Ethiopian parliament passed a budget for reconstruction and approved formation of the Commission for National Dialogue in December 2021. While credible steps are underway to end the conflict peacefully, the focus should be on addressing the larger questions of ethnic violence and persecution, mass displacement of population, territorial claims between Amhara and Tigray regions and constitutional overlaps to prevent relapse into violence. The international community should hence not only focus on ending the violence, but also helping Ethiopia to resolve the conflict, build stable peace and inclusive government. A relapse of armed conflict not only threatens the stability of the government, but also the country’s territorial integrity and humanitarian condition, and regional stability in the Horn of Africa.

 General Elections in Kenya

Kenya remains the most stable country in the Horn of Africa, and the anchor of the region’s stability. Nairobi has been increasingly playing peace and security roles in the region and serves on the United Nations Security Council. Kenya’s influence and role has been important in mitigating political and security risks in the region as neighboring countries descended further into crises and conflicts. However, Kenya will be holding general elections in August 2022 and there are fears around the potential risks for political and electoral violence. The country has a long history of election-related violence which essentially affects the entire region. Should the credibility, integrity and legitimacy of the 2022 general elections fall into fundamental question, it bears significant threat not just to Kenya’s national security and stability, but also the entire region’s security and stability. The international community should thus focus on supporting credible elections and peaceful democratic transition in Kenya by actively observing election patterns and behaviors, and providing necessary technical support.


The Horn of Africa showed indicators of peace consolidation and a potential peace dividend following the diplomatic realignments in 2018. However, as the region becomes increasingly engulfed in conflicts and political crises, which threaten both regional anchors of stability and fragile states, the prospect of greater instability remains close and imaginable. The efforts for reconstruction and stabilization in Somalia, democratic transitions in Ethiopia and Sudan, and perhaps hopes for democratic peace in the regional context are at stake. While regional efforts to restore stability appear loose, the international community has proven to bear solid leverage over local actors enough to steer de-escalations and peace processes. The international community should thus intensify efforts and work in partnership with regional efforts, to constructively address the current conflict flashpoints. This would help to pre-empt further escalation and arrest the intractability of crises, to avert greater regional instability. In so doing, special focus should be placed on managing the destabilizing influence of the middle powers from the Middle East in the region.

Edmond J. Pamba is a Researcher at the HORN Institute

Photo: Sudanese protesters demonstrating against the detention of government officials by the army in Khartoum in October 2021 (Photo Credit: AFP/ICG)

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