Great Power Rivalry Hinders Horn of Africa Democratization

Facebook Twitter Email

Africa is facing major demographic changes and will double its population by 2050 to around 2.5 billion, half of whom will be under 24 years of age. Despite consistent if modest economic growth, poverty and high youth unemployment remain major challenges. Meeting these challenges requires inclusive development and political stability, which are more likely in high quality democracies. But this is unlikely in the Horn of Africa, where Gulf meddling, Chinese interference, and resilient dictatorship exasperate developments and undermine the quest for democracy.

The new scramble for Africa

The military presence of members of the UN Security Council and Gulf countries in the Red Sea region is a testament to the magnitude of strategic importance they place on the Horn. The Africa policy of the United States has shifted from a focus on counterterrorism to a greater recognition of the need to stem the influence of other powers with a focus on trade, investment, and security, which has at times compromised its commitment to democracy. Russia presents itself as non-colonial power with minimal ideological interest. By cooperating with rogue regimes, it aims to reestablish its lost geopolitical influence and access to sources. For its part, China’s logistic base in Djibouti allows it to protect its investment in Africa, advance political and military objectives, and deter India and Japan in the Indian Ocean.

While global powers counter each other’s influence, advance maritime security along the Red Sea shipping lanes, and contain immigration, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates compete to stymie the spread of Qatari, Turkish, and Iranian influence. The need of countries in the Horn for short-term economic relief facilitates the Gulf’s transactional engagement. In response, local leaders in the Horn pursue asymmetrical interests to take advantage of Gulf’s financial support to strength their repressive regimes at the expense of human rights.

None of these developments does anything to advance democracy.

Gulf’s impediment to democratization

Gulf countries are absolutist monarchies that do not seek to promote human rights and instead offer transactional opportunities for aspiring local actors to become strongmen. Since Yemen became the centre of conflict in the region, the Gulf has affectively brought its conflict to Africa in search of client states, vying for ports, military bases, and defense partnership along the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates oppose democratization and instead strengthen Eritrean and Djiboutian autocratic regimes, in power since 1991 and 1999, respectively. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Qatar allegedly promote their own brand of strict Wahhabism, and so exacerbate instability in largely Sunni Muslim communities. Moreover, the disrespect of Gulf states for human rights, environmental concerns, and the plights of indigenous people during land grab in Ethiopia and Sudan contributed to political instability in those countries.

The role of China

China portrays itself as an alternative development model to the West and guides authoritarian regimes with its one-party dominant model. China’s advice to African governments focuses on the notion that western multiparty systems will lead to “fractured societies, inefficient government and endless power transitions and social chaos.” At the same time, economic constraints make Chinese investment attractive for the survival of autocratic regimes. However, while Chinese infrastructure has had a positive impact on economic growth in some countries, this has yet to lead to sustainable prosperity. Most notably, growth has not brought many jobs for African unemployed youth.

Since the emergence of the COVID19 pandemic, relations between China and Africa have become significantly more complicated. Many African governments and the African Union had condemned discrimination against Africans in China during the fight against coronavirus. In more democratic states, growing popular frustration may lead to a renegotiation of China-Africa ties, but this is unlikely in the repressive states of the Horn, where the opinion of citizens often counts for little.

The Horn’s quest for democratization

Many studies of democracy in Africa focus on the challenges generated by domestic factors – ethnic diversity, weak states, neo-patrimonialism and so on. These issues are significant but it is also important to recognise the damaging role that is often played by external actors who engage in the continent for their own reasons.

Russia’s desire to contest American influence, Chinese vanguard party ideology, and the Gulf’s absolutist monarchies are anti-democratic and the cumulative impact of their interventions is to undermine the process of democratization.

There is a significant risk that as a result of the role played by foreign stats, authoritarian regimes will be better placed to resist growing popular demand for democratization. While Ethiopia and Sudan have already seen major political transitions, Eritrea and Djibouti feature simmering social turmoil. Increasing urbanization, advances in communication, and the growing penetration of social media outlets suggest a positive outlook. Increasingly, concerned citizens and civil societies are seeking to hold governments responsible and insist that leaders should serve only limited terms. But these developments will come to nothing if African leaders are helped to develop stronger coercive states and censorship machines by authoritarian partners such as China.

It is therefore imperative that Africa’s partners should engage in a multilateral approach and reconcile their competing economic and security interests. Democratic partners must also step up their engagement to check the growing influence of undemocratic governments in the region. And researchers and activists must do more to recognise and shine a light on the problematic role played by external actors. Unless this is done, domestic struggles to promote democracy will be thwarted, to the detriment of the hopes and dreams of the citizens of the Horn of Africa.


Metta-Alem Sinishaw lived in the East and West Africa regions, worked for the US Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, and served in UNDP and USAID on short-term contracts. He has appeared on several media and writes on governance and democratization in the Horn of Africa. He earned his graduate degree from the Johns Hopkins University and was a Boren Scholar at Georgetown University.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading