As Arab Gulf states and Turkey ramp up their competition for influence in the Horn of Africa, USIP’s Payton Knopf says the increased attention “has tended to exacerbate some of the internal tensions and political insecurities” in Ethiopia and Sudan—two states undergoing democratic transitions vital for regional stability.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Kent Klein: The Horn of Africa is a region of the world that may not receive the kind of attention it should, but there is a great deal going on there. Several things happening that bear watching. To discuss that, we're joined by Payton Knopf, advisor with the Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace. Thanks for joining us.

Payton Knopf: Thank you, Kent.

Kent Klein: Let's start with the elections coming up in Ethiopia in August. Why is that important to us, and why should the U.S. care?

Payton Knopf: These are the first elections, Kent, to be had in Ethiopia where the prospect of a change in party, a change in government, is real, for the last 15 years. This comes about in the context of the most important political transition in the country since the end of the Cold War. The stakes are tremendous. This is a country of 110 million people, very ethnically diverse, and were this to solidify the democratic transition, it could really alter the trajectory of this region that sits at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, for the better.

Payton Knopf: By contrast, were the election to go poorly or there to be violence either before the election or after the election, the risks of state collapse are huge. The consequences of that, both for U.S. interests and for the interests of our allies in Europe, would be devastating in terms of mass migration, flows of weapons, and other really tremendous threats emanating from a country under such severe distress.

Kent Klein: I would imagine that that would also have a ripple effect throughout that part of the continent.

Payton Knopf: That's absolutely right. As I said, it does sit at a particularly strategic crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, connecting the Gulf to the East, Egypt to the North, the Sahel to the West, and all the way down to East Africa. Vital maritime trade routes here. Again, very important for our European allies as well as it's more or less their near abroad.

Kent Klein: Talking with Payton Knopf from the United States Institute of Peace. Also, Sudan is continuing its transition. Bashir, al-Bashir, will be handed over for the genocide trial. That could be important in Sudan's transition, as I understand it.

Payton Knopf: There was this announcement yesterday by a member of the government, as you said. It remains to be seen how that will be implemented in practice. Sudan is also, as you said, going through its own transition from the previous regime of Omar al-Bashir, and currently you have a transitional government that is a cohabitation agreement between the military and civilian forces. So, there are multiple centers of power and decision-making in Khartoum.

Payton Knopf: What you see in this instance is a reflection of that, where you have one part of the government indicating the potential to hand over Bashir and some of the other individuals who were indicted by the ICC. It's not clear if that will be followed through, how it will be followed through. That can be said about a number of different policy decisions that have been made in recent months, because you see this constant give and take, back and forth, between the civilian authorities and the military leaders in the course of this very fragile transition in the country.

Kent Klein: What are they transitioning to? What will things look like when this is all finished, assuming that it progresses as hoped?

Payton Knopf: Yes. The plan is after 30 months of a transition, there will also be elections in that country, and again, not dissimilar to Ethiopia. The risks of this sort of transitional period are tremendous. Sudan is, as you said, had been under dictatorial rule for nearly 30 years. There is a very vibrant civil society. There is a vibrant history of political parties, but there are also a number of entrenched interests.

Payton Knopf: The security sector that more or less dominated the country, including the economy under the Bashir regime, remains largely unreformed. So even in the course of this 30-month period, and with the very concerted efforts of the civilian authorities, it remains to be seen whether a true democratic election can take place and whether that can lead to long-term stability for the country.

Kent Klein: Now, there are some international actors involved here. Who's involved and what kind of effect are they having?

Payton Knopf: One of the more interesting developments affecting both of these political transitions is that the dispositive role that the states of the Gulf are playing in this region, it's a role that's become much more assertive in recent years. The United States, certainly after the end of the Cold War, had been the dominant external actor in the Horn of Africa.

Payton Knopf: That's been less and less the case in recent years. So you see, rather unfortunately, some of the rivalries of the Middle East, let's say the Turks, the Qataris on one hand, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates on the other, competing with one another in the Horn of Africa for influence. Given the fragility in Ethiopia, the fragility in Sudan, and some of the challenges that these countries are facing at this very delicate moment, that has tended to exacerbate some of the internal tensions and political and security dynamics in these states.

Kent Klein: Now, talks begin this week on a dam on the Nile river, and the U.S. is taking the lead in mediating those talks. What are the issues at hand and where is that all heading?

Payton Knopf: As you know, the Nile for Egypt is an existential question. It's vital to its economy. Something like 90% of the Egyptian population lives on the banks of the Nile. So this is really a part of the Egyptian ethos. Ethiopia a number of years ago began construction of the largest infrastructure project in its history, which is a dam on the Nile designed to generate hydroelectric power, which would be transformative for Ethiopia. Interestingly, the Ethiopian government chose to self-finance this project, and so the Ethiopian people themselves contributed to the financing, and so really see themselves as having a stake in its success.

Payton Knopf: There had been, in the course of this project, tensions develop, quite significant tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt fearing that the dam would lower the Nile as it flowed upwards, and Ethiopia of course, quite a poor country, trying to transform itself developmentally as I suggested. Last fall, the Egyptian president requested President Trump to mediate this dispute on the Nile. So there've been a number of rounds of talks in Washington, convened under the auspices of Steve Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury. The most recent round of those talks is as you said, happening today, and it will be very interesting to see whether they are successful.

Payton Knopf: There is, to some extent, a sort of zero sum debate between Egypt and Ethiopia on these issues. The Nile of course also flows through Sudan, and so Sudan is part of these talks. Their position had been aligned very much with Ethiopia's, but as I suggested earlier, there are multiple centers of gravity of decision-making in Khartoum, and so the Sudanese position may be evolving. The United States of course does have tremendous leverage over all three of these countries, given its influence, given the assistance it provides to Egypt, given that both Sudan and Ethiopia very much need U.S. support and assistance as their transitions unfold. So it's a very dynamic situation and has consequences for all of the political and security dynamics that we spoke about earlier.

Kent Klein: Absolutely, so that certainly bears watching, and we thank you for filling us in on all that. We appreciate it.

Payton Knopf: Thank you for having me, Kent.

Kent Klein: Absolutely. Payton Knopf is an advisor with the Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace, and you can find him on Twitter at the Institute @USIP.

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