An Introduction to the Religious, Ethnic, and Geopolitical Makeup of the Horn of Africa
By A. Joseph Lynch
Christian Ethiopia is by far the region's dominant nation. Not only does it control 60% of the region's land area, Ethiopia is home to roughly 85% of the region's 100 million people. Ethiopia's Lake Tana provides the source of the Blue Nile flowing out of Ethiopia's highland core where the capital city of Addis Ababa sits at the foothills of Mt. Entoto. Ethiopia is, however, landlocked and dependent on its neighbors (mostly Djibouti, Kenya, and Somalia) for transportation of its exports. Ethiopia is the continent's greatest supplier of coffee, and also exports agricultural goods and gold. Militarily speaking, Ethiopia has an army of roughly 135,000 men with another 3,000 in air forces. The landlocked nation has no navy. Ethiopia is also the third largest Christian nation in Africa (behind only Nigeria at #1 and the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the ninth largest in the world. Christian roots in Ethiopia run deep as the evangelist St. Matthew brought the faith to Ethiopia in the first century, and Scripture records St. Philip's conversion of the Ethiopian court official (see Acts 8:26-38). Christianity was made the state religion of Ethiopia around the year AD 330, but with the rise of Islam across north Africa in the seventh century, Ethiopia was cut off from its brethren in the north.
At around nine million people and about one third of the region's land area, Somalia is the second largest country in the Horn of Africa and the region's largest Sunni Muslim country. Where Ethiopia has no coastline, Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and is situated near the geostrategic choke point of the Bab El-Mandeb strait (which links the Mediterranean-Suez-Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea). Despite its access to the sea and its strategic location, Somalia has been wracked by civil war for decades. While some stability is growing from its southern coastal region around the capital of Mogadishu, Islamic terrorists networks (like Al-Shabab) remain strong in the southern hinterlands while the northern-most region of Somaliland (the former British colony of 4.5 million ) has declared independence and is considered an autonomous region within the country. Dangers from Islamist forces have led to interventions by Christian Ethiopia (2006-2009) and Christian Kenya (2011's Operation Linda Nchi - "Protect the Country.") An excellent historical review by J.Peter Pham.
Eritrea (6mill) is the region's other country with a substantial coastline. Unlike Somalia, however, Eritrea's coast is contained within the Red Sea, oriented toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen; and its southern-most point is located at the northern boundaries of the strategic Strait of Bab El-Mandeb. Eritrea is also torn between Islam and Christianity -- with Christianity holding a slight majority in the nation. Having been incorporated into Ethiopia in the years after World War II, Eritrea fought a 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia ending in 1993. From 1998-2000, Eritrea sparked (and lost) a border war with Ethiopia. With Ethiopia still holding lands in Eritrea, the region's two most populous Christian nations have relatively poor relations with one another. Eritrea also began a short border war with the Islamic nation of Djibouti, and yet holds an observer status in the Arab League. Eritrea, it seems, is thus neither integrated into the Islamic nor Christian worlds. Eritrea's strategic location and large copper, gold, granite, marble, and potash reserves, however, make it a potentially important regional ally to whoever can forge a lasting relationship.
With a population just under that of South Dakota (approximately 810,000) and amassing just one percent of the region's land area, Djibouti is the Horn of Africa's smallest country. The former French Somaliland has French and Arabic as official languages but Somali as the most spoken. The port city and capital of Djibouti City provides an important commercial hub at the entrance of the Bab El-Mandeb strait. Although Djibouti is 94% Sunni Muslim and only 6% Christian, it practices religious freedom and acts as a key partner of Christian Ethiopia as 70% of all port activities involve shipments for the landlocked nation. As a member of the Arab League, Djibouti also maintains strategic ties to the wider Sunni-Arab world.