Sudanese demonstrators wave flags at a rally in Khartoum honoring fallen protesters in July 2019
Sudanese demonstrators wave flags at a rally in Khartoum honoring fallen protesters in July 2019
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / REUTERS

It’s the end of an era in the Horn of Africa. After three decades in power, Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir fell in April. Mass antigovernment protests erupted, and a military coup soon followed. Now the remnants of Bashir’s security state are locked in a protracted standoff with an indefatigable pro-democracy movement over control of the country. The governing Transitional Military Council has cracked down violently, killing more than 100 protesters in a wave of repression that began on June 3. But it has also promised to facilitate a transition to civilian rule as part of a tentative power-sharing agreement with the Forces of Freedom and Change, an umbrella organization representing the demonstrators.

The upheaval in Sudan comes at the same time as Ethiopia’s reform-minded prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is dramatically expanding political space in his country, while battling an attendant surge in ethnic violence. Together with subtler stirrings in Eritrea and elsewhere, the historic transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia could change the trajectory of a volatile corner of Africa for decades to come. The question that now hangs over the region is what the next era will bring: Will it usher in a new, more democratic order built on a shared foundation of national sovereignty and collective security? Or will it bring a closed, authoritarian order that is beholden to extraregional powers? Sudan, in particular, is a microcosm of this broader struggle to reshape the regional order, as well as a likely harbinger of its outcome. On one side of that struggle is a coalition of African states, bound together by the African Union and an important East African regional bloc. On the other are the oil-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf.


The Horn of Africa has remained steadfastly authoritarian since the dying days of the Cold War, during which the United States and the Soviet Union vied for dominance by arming the region’s despots. Much of Africa transitioned to competitive political systems in the 1990s, but not the Horn: there a new generation of autocrats consolidated power. In 1989, Bashir led a military-Islamist cabal that overthrew the elected government of Sudan. Shortly thereafter, guerrilla leaders took control of Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. By the end of the 1990s, Djibouti’s ruling People’s Rally for Progress party had engineered a transition from one strongman to another.

At first the United States did little to halt the rise of this new generation of autocrats. Then, after the 9/11 terror attacks, it began to aid and abet them in the interest of fighting terrorism. The bloated national-security states that came to dominate the region promoted an ideology of authoritarian stability, but they provided only authoritarianism. Inherently insecure and militaristic, they feuded and repressed their way from one regional crisis to the next.

Over the last three years, the edifice of that old order has begun to crack. A prime minister with reformist zeal rode a wave of popular protest to power in Ethiopia, where he has released thousands of political prisoners, improved media freedoms, and ended the two-decades-long feud with neighboring Eritrea. A similar uprising in Sudan sank the region’s longest-serving dictator, although what sort of regime will replace him remains to be seen. The political transitions in both countries—the region’s two largest, most powerful, and economically important—will have ramifications for Eritrea, Djibouti, and South Sudan, where looming succession crises, among other pressures, are placing autocracies under stress.

Shifting external forces have accompanied—and to some extent caused—the changes in the Horn. Under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, U.S. influence has waned across Africa, but especially in the Horn and the adjoining waterways of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Washington’s competitors and newly assertive allies have stepped into the breach, each of them keen to carve out a foothold in a critical maritime region. China, Russia, Turkey, and even the European Union have made gambits. But the most formidable bids for regional dominance have come from the middle powers of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Crown Princes Mohammed Bin Zayed and Mohammed Bin Salman have sought to radically transform their countries’ relationships with their neighbors across the Red Sea.

Faced with expanding Iranian influence, the destabilizing precedent of the Arab Spring, and a shrinking American security umbrella, Crown Princes Mohammed Bin Zayed and Mohammed Bin Salman have sought to radically transform their countries’ relationships with their neighbors across the Red Sea. In 2015, the UAE established a military base in Eritrea, from which the Saudi-Emirati alliance has waged war in Yemen—often relying on Sudanese troops and paramilitaries for ground operations. The UAE is now building a second military base in Somaliland’s port of Berbera while the Saudis are planning their own military facility in neighboring Djibouti. Both countries have also expanded their commercial ties to the Horn, and provided large cash infusions to Sudan and Ethiopia. A major goal of these efforts is to align the Horn states with the Saudi-Emirati axis against Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. To that end, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi find it useful to protect the region’s autocratic regimes, because the Gulf states’ interests don’t always align with popular opinion in the Horn. In Sudan, for example, the government has supported the Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen despite vocal criticism from across the Sudanese political spectrum.

The Horn’s two most important African-led bodies have quietly but persistently set themselves against the region’s emerging Gulf-led order. The African Union and an East African regional bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, seek to craft a regional order that rests on the sovereignty and collective security of African states. The commitment to democracy within these institutions remains weak, as evidenced by the many authoritarian leaders in their ranks, but the organizations do embrace norms of constitutional governance and civilian supremacy in politics far more than the leaders of the Gulf states.

The Gulf states, on the one hand, and the African-led organizations, on the other, have sought to formalize their competing visions in recent years. Just last December, the Saudis inaugurated a Red Sea forum, which includes all of the Horn’s coastal states as well as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan. The forum will organize working groups at the ministerial level, in order to coordinate policy across the region in areas like defense, intelligence gathering, economic cooperation, and environmental policy. For more than two years now, the African Union and IGAD have also sought to foster dialogue and cooperation on Horn and Red Sea issues—including Gulf interventionism. The African Union expanded the mandate of its special panel on Sudan and South Sudan to address broader regional issues, and IGAD recently extended the mandate of its Special Envoy for Somalia to include the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. IGAD’s Council of Ministers also strongly endorsed a common approach to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and in April it established a task force to begin formulating one.


The battle lines in Sudan have been drawn. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have lined up behind the ruling TMC, offering the post-coup government their political and military support. (Egypt and Eritrea, two important African allies of the Saudi-Emirati axis that share long borders with Sudan, have adopted a similar stance.) The TMC’s leaders—Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti—commanded Sudanese troops in Yemen and so have long-standing ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In fact, the two Gulf monarchies encouraged the generals to overthrow Bashir, whom they viewed as unreliable because of his warm relations with Qatar and Turkey, and his Islamist leanings. They backstopped the TMC with $3 billion in aid immediately following Bashir’s ouster, and the UAE appears to have supplied Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces with Emirati armor. And although they have tempered their public support for the TMC after Hemedti’s troops massacred civilian protesters in early June, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have continued to provide political cover to Sudan’s generals as they battle for control of the transition.

IGAD and the African Union have taken the side of Sudan’s democracy movement and pushed the TMC to relinquish power to a transitional civilian administration. The efforts of these African-led organizations have at times been haphazard and uncoordinated, but the groups’ position is clear. The African Union’s powerful Peace and Security Council initially demanded in mid-April that Sudan’s military cede power to a civilian government within 15 days of toppling Bashir. Roughly a week later, it extended the grace period to three months. But after the slaughter of the protesters, the council suspended the TMC’s AU membership and threatened to impose further sanctions if an agreement on a civilian-led transition was not reached by the end of that month. The Ethiopian prime minister then attempted to broker a deal for a civilian-led transition, using the AU and IGAD position as a starting point. The two sides eventually agreed to share power for three years until elections can be organized, alternating leadership of a council made up of an equal number of military and civilian representatives. The agreement remains fragile, but the Peace and Security Council appears ready to monitor its implementation before readmitting Sudan to the African Union.

What happens in Sudan will likely determine the future of the Horn for the next decade or more. If the TMC clings to power, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will not only have secured an important political and military ally; they will have positioned themselves as regional kingmakers, capable of imposing their foreign policy priorities on the countries of the Horn and forestalling democratic transitions. But if the African Union and IGAD can shepherd a transition to civilian government in Sudan, they will have laid the groundwork for a very different regional order, one that can deliver peace, development, and accountable government.

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  • MICHAEL WOLDEMARIAM is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies
  • ALDEN YOUNG is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and a member of the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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