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Last Updated: 05/20/2004
The Horn of Africa: Prospects for Peace
By Daniel

The Horn of Africa, comprised of Somalia, the Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia, is one of the worst affected regions by prolonged interstate and intrastate conflicts. Besides the crippling conflicts inside their borders, those countries have become very active in destroying each other. Conflict, hunger, destruction and displacement have become words normally used to describe this part of the continent. One might wonder why they are so often tangling with conflicts. In particular, one might be inclined to believe that the prolonged wars have shaped the society’s behaviour to be conflict prone.


The Horn of Africa, comprised of Somalia, the Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia, is one of the worst affected regions by prolonged interstate and intrastate conflicts. Besides the crippling conflicts inside their borders, those countries have become very active in destroying each other. Conflict, hunger, destruction and displacement have become words normally used to describe this part of the continent. One might wonder why they are so often tangling with conflicts. In particular, one might be inclined to believe that the prolonged wars have shaped the society’s behaviour to be conflict prone.

It is reiterated by social scientists that conflicts are, generally, manifestations of grievance that emanate from differences in values, interests, beliefs, perceptions or ideologies. When it comes to the conflicts in the Horn of Africa one can identify intricate but open religious and interest based conflict in the Sudan; a mixture of value, interest, belief and ideology based conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea. And Somalia, a totally collapsed state inherited from dictator Siad Barre, is torn into pieces by various warlords fighting for control of power and resources.




If not the same, the trigger to the intrastate conflicts in all the countries in the region has similar roots, which is exclusion of a certain segment of the society. In Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) government, the successor of the former Dictator Mengistu Haillemariam, further marginalized the dominant ethnic groups from the political, economic, social, and/or cultural life of the country.

The federal arrangement based on ethno-linguistic diversity has resulted in various atrocious clashes and killings, fomenting further hatred and polarisation of the various Ethiopian ethnic groups. As a consequence, there are dozens of armed groups that operate against the Ethiopian government. The Oromo Liberation Front being the largest rebel group, there are also others that operate from Eritrea.  



Eritrea has the worst record in present times regarding freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, freedom of association, freedom of movement, etc’, of its citizens. It has engaged itself in wars with Yemen and Ethiopia to shift public attention from its domestic political failures.

Although there was hope to see multiparty democracy flourish in Eritrea, due to lack of political will in the part of the government, the groups who were hoping to join hands in the reconstruction of the country became opposition groups operating from exile. With the deterioration of political and economic situation in the country, the need to bring change in a short time became evident. As a result, more than 10 opposition Eritrean groups founded an alliance and declared they would engage the government diplomatically and militarily to secure its quick removal from power. 



In the Sudan, the Muslim led Khartoum government excluded the people of the, mainly Christian, South and West from resources, decision-making and government, which justified their fight for independence. The Sudan People Liberation Front (SPLA) is the major rebel group fighting the Sudanese government. After the coup d’état of Sadik El-Mahdi by the present president General Hussein Albershir, however, supporters and family members of the deposed civilian president joined the opposition group and formed an alliance to fight. 

With regard to resolving the Southern Sudan problem, mediators have been proposing federalism, full independence of the South, and establishing secular government in Khartoum as the lasting solutions to the dispute. However, the recent discovery of huge oil reserve has complicated the issue further and those solutions have become very unlikely to be implemented, as it requires an agreement regarding under whose control the oil should be.



after almost three decades of dictatorship, Siad Bare left Somalia a totally collapsed state. Somalia has no effective government that administers the country. It has become a territory governed by various warlords who operate for their own personal gain. Despite attempts to end the Somali tragedy, the provisional government in Mogadishu is not recognised by the majority of the warlords. In the East, the Somaliland, which is more stable and with effective government, has also declared its independence but has not yet secured recognition from the international community. 

Due to the lack of effective government in Somalia it has become a laboratory for various destructive grounds. Despite the arms embargo imposed on the country, neighbouring countries, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Egypt smuggle arms for various reasons. Ethiopia assists a number of the warlords for its own political stability, after rebel groups called Al-Itihad, which are claimed to have a relationship with Al-Quaeda, had attacked Ethiopia on several occasions. Similarly, Somalia has a long-standing border dispute with Ethiopia.

Eritrea has strong historical ties with Somalia because Siad Barre was one of the African leaders who stood on the side of the Liberation Front, during the armed struggle for liberation. At the same time, Egypt has a vested interest in Ethiopia, because of the Nile, and by supporting armed groups in Somalia like Al-Itihad, it attempted to destruct the Ethiopian development plan. Furthermore, the lack of effective leadership has opened the door for terrorists to flourish and take refuge in Somalia. Therefore, Somalia has become a battleground not only for the warlords but also for those who wanted to destabilise the region as a whole.  



Djibouti was historically part of Ethiopia, and was leased to France for 100 years. It is the smallest country in the Horn with around half a million people of the Afar ethnic origin. At the moment, there is an Afar movement, called Ugugmu that aims at establishing a united and independent Afar state. The Ugugmu movement involves the Afar in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Initially, the movement started as a plan to establish a unified Afar state along the Red Sea coast [South East of Eritrean and Djibouti] that insures Ethiopian access to the Red Sea.

The plan was staged based on the possibility of Eritrean independence and also Djibouti’s historical ties with Ethiopia. It was assumed that if the Afar could establish an independent state, the economic and historical potential of Ethiopia would sway the balance and could easily secure Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. With time however, the struggle spread to include the Afar in Ethiopia, and became a huge regional threat that challenged the sovereignty and national security of the countries involved.



The domestic political crisis in those countries has also impacted beyond their borders, dragging them all into extreme destruction of each other.



During the early 1990s, the Sudanese government, led by Islamic fundamentalist Dr. Turabi, advocated for Islamic movement in the region, justifying for Eritrean and Ethiopia to join hands against the Sudan. In turn, the Sudanese government also became the safe haven for Eritrean rebel groups – the Eritrean Jihad, Eritrean Liberation Front, the Ethiopian Oromo Liberation Front; various political groups that fight against the Ugandan government – the Lord Resistance Army, etc’. Furthermore, the implication of Sudan in terrorist activities also brought Western countries into the picture and indirectly supported the SPLA, via Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda.



At the moment, Eritrean supports Ethiopian and Sudanese opposition groups. It has been repeatedly accused by the Sudanese government for active involvement in armed conflicts along with the SPLA, which was denied by the Eritrean government. However, Ms. Ruth Simon, a veteran freedom fighter, who was the correspondent for the Agance France Press (AFP) was arrested after reporting the Eritrean President’s disclosure about the secret involvement of the Eritrean army in the Sudan.



Ethiopia is supporting and supplying the Eritrean opposition groups. The Eritrean National Alliance, which is composed of more than ten groups, was founded in Ethiopia. However, this Alliance lost public support for the mere reason that it was established on the backing of the Ethiopian government, which has engaged in a bloody border conflict with Eritrea. Similarly, Ethiopia backs some of the warlords in Somalia. A recent report indicated that Ethiopia is still sending arms to Somalia, in violation of the United Nations arms embargo.


The United State of America fight against terrorism

The Red Sea is one of the busiest sea routes in the world. And having collapsed states like Somalia, and Islamic fundamentalism oriented regimes in the Sudan is a huge worry to the international community, in general, and the US and Israel, in particular, when it comes to terrorism. Before his move to Afghanistan, Osama Bin-Laden had huge investment in the Sudan and also the well-known global terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, was hiding in the Sudan, before he was handed in to the French authorities.

The root causes for the tragic and vicious circle of violence that has emerged in the Horn of Africa is the domestic policies and the immeasurable human rights abuses. However, the tragedy is, the US has declared those rough regimes, that have caused the suffering and destruction of their citizens, as allies in the fight against terrorism. The US is providing them with military and financial assistance to strengthen their hold on power. This reminds me of the fact that the former dictator of Zaire [Present Democratic Republic of Congo] was staunchly supported by the US for decades despite the suffering and agony of the Congolese.


The hope for the future

Despite the widespread and atrocious conflicts in the region, the civilian population in all countries remains detached from and equally victimised by the political upheaval of the regimes involved. For instance, when the Ethiopian government deported the Eritreans who were living in Ethiopia for decades, their Ethiopian friends and neighbours took care of their properties and belongings that were left behind, and the same is true on the side of Eritrea. This supports my position that the animosity has had little or no social ramification or roots, which is a good prospect for peace building efforts in the future.

Similarly, strong NGOs, civic organisations and other nongovernmental institutions are flourishing to fight the social ills brought by those bossy regimes in the Horn. Those organisations have recognised the need to establish a cross-border networking to overcome the failures of the state institutions. Therefore, as the grassroots is moving to the right direction, the effort to build a peaceful and prosperous Horn of Africa is not that far from realisation.

Daniel is doing a graduate work at the Gender and Peace building program at the University for Peace