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Red Lines: Upheaval and Containment in the Horn of Africa

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This is the final part in a series of three analysis features covering unrest in Sudan. The first in the series — Riders on the Storm — explored the dynamics and agendas which resulted in the Juba Peace Agreement. The second — Danse Macabre — examined the origins of the uprising in Sudan and its trajectory following the coup of April 2019. This final analysis situates Sudan’s current upheaval in the context of the Horn of Africa, and extends the scope of analysis to encompass conflict in Ethiopia and the region.


Since 2018, the Horn of Africa has made headlines for a series of dramatic developments. Following years of protests in the restive Oromia region, a power transition took place in Ethiopia in April 2018.In December of that year, anti-government demonstrations began. This culminated in a coup in April 2019 which was greenlit by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (Gallopin, 2020). A dubious peace deal was reached in South Sudan in September of 2018 at the insistence of Sudan and Uganda, months after Saudi Arabia and the UAE brokered a peace agreement in Ethiopia and Eritrea in July (see Woldemariam, 2018; Watson, 2019).

Events in the Horn have not proceeded entirely smoothly since these changes, despite initial optimism that a more pluralistic form of politics led by civilians would take root in Sudan and Ethiopia. Sudan’s military and paramilitary forces have cast an increasingly long shadow over the supposed transition underway in the country, while growing tensions between Ethiopia’s new administration and its former rulers — the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — led to fears of civil war, as disorder spread to several parts of the country (see International Crisis Group, 2020a).

Things escalated further on 4 November 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared “the last red line has been crossed” after soldiers of the TPLF attacked a number of federal military bases the previous evening. The Prime Minister ordered federal soldiers alongside forces from the Amhara region to remove the TPLF leadership and dismantle the political and security infrastructure of the former ruling force in Ethiopian politics. The events have sparked alarm as contending military forces — including forces from Eritrea — have plunged the northern region of Tigray into war. The war in Tigray, together with escalating violence in Benishangul-Gumuz, has resulted in soaring fatalities in the Horn, following an unsteady decline in recent years (see figure below).