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Challenges to Peace and Stability in the Horn of Africa

World Affairs Council of Northern California

Westin St. Francis Hotel
San Francisco
12 March 2010

David H. Shinn
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the World Affairs Council of

Northern California. I will discuss “Challenges to Peace and Stability in the Horn of
Africa,” which I define as Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. Dr. Charles
Kupchan provided a macro analysis of emerging threats and strategic challenges. I will
offer a micro approach. While my opening remarks focus on the Horn, I would be
pleased to take questions on Africa generally.

The Most Conflicted Corner of the World

In the post-World War II era, the Horn of Africa has consistently been the most
conflicted corner of the world. That is a bold assertion, but hear me out and then tell me
if there is another region of the world that has consistently been more conflicted.
Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea recovered from wartime Italian military occupation
only to confront soon thereafter a series of internal and inter-state conflicts. In the case
of Ethiopia, this included a rebellion in Eritrea province, the violent overthrow of the
Haile Selassie government by a military junta followed by an expanded internal war that
in 1991 removed the military government that had deposed Haile Selassie. This event
coincided with the hard fought independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia.
A bloody border war then broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998.
Although it ended two years later, it did not resolve the border disagreement and the
leadership in the two countries remain implacably at odds. The government of Ethiopia
faces opposition from elements of several armed ethnic groups clamoring for more
political power or even independence. There is also a growing Eritrean exile community
opposed to the government in Asmara.
Somalia engaged in periodic conflict with Ethiopia and occupied nearly a quarter
of the country in the late 1970s before Somalia collapsed and became a failed state in
1991. Somalia has been in constant turmoil ever since; the northwest part of the country
—Somaliland—declared independence but no country has recognized its status. The
weak Somali Transitional Federal Government faces a severe threat from an extremist
organization allied with al-Qaeda. The government’s lack of control over most of the
country has resulted in the worst outbreak of high seas piracy in the Gulf of Aden and
Indian Ocean since the days of the Barbary Coast pirates.
The north-south civil war began in Sudan in the mid-1950s and continued until
1972. It resumed in 1983 and did not end until 20 years later. As soon as northern and

southern Sudan achieved a cease fire, conflict stemming from political marginalization
and scarce resources broke out in Darfur that continues to the present day. There has also
been conflict in eastern Sudan as a result of political marginalization, which could flare
up again at any time.
Tiny Djibouti has experienced the least amount of conflict, but even it faces
opposition from elements of an ethnic minority that periodically attacks the central
All of these countries, except Djibouti, have a long history of supporting dissident
groups in neighboring countries for their own perceived advantage. This tit-for-tat
activity poses an additional challenge to stability and security. Today, support for these
opposition groups is especially troublesome in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. As
elections in Sudan take place next month and a referendum on an independent southern
Sudan takes place early next year, Sudan may once again find itself either confronting
dissident groups supported from neighboring countries or even supporting dissident
groups in neighboring countries.
Add to this situation a more recent overlay of international terrorist activity
centered in Somalia. Al Shabaab, an organization linked to al-Qaeda, has become well
established in Somalia. Several non-Somalis involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S.
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania took refuge in Somalia. One of them may be leading
al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s tactics include political assassinations and suicide bombings.
Al-Shabaab has even recruited for its campaign in Somalia a couple dozen young
Somalis from the diaspora in the United States.
I should mention an additional potential challenge to stability in the region.
Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea are among the 10 Nile Basin riparian states that contribute
water to the Nile or rely on it for water. Egypt derives 95 percent of its fresh water from
the Nile. Ethiopian tributaries provide 86 percent of the water that reaches the Aswan
dam. All Nile water flows through Sudan en route to Egypt. And there is not yet an
understanding among all 10 riparian states on future use of the water.
I rest my case; the Horn of Africa has been the most conflicted corner of the
world since the end of World War II and this situation is not likely to change any time

Reasons for the Instability

You may be wondering why has there been so much conflict and instability in the
Horn of Africa over the past sixty years or so. There are many reasons. While most of
the causes of conflict in the Horn exist in many other parts of the world, I doubt that as
many of them occur elsewhere with such frequency or persistency.
The officials, both colonial and local rulers, who delineated the borders in the
Horn generally did so in an arbitrary fashion, often dividing ethnic groups. The borders
are not only arbitrary but they are porous; one can easily cross them undetected. They
invite conflict. Small arms are readily available throughout the Horn, especially in
Somalia, and they move from one country to another with ease. Easy access to these
weapons increases the lethality of conflict when it breaks out.
The Horn is located on a religious fault line. Sudan is about 70 percent Muslim,
up to 10 percent Christian while the remaining Sudanese follow traditional African

religions. Ethiopia is about 44 percent Ethiopian Orthodox, 34 percent Muslim, 19

percent Protestant and 3 percent who follow traditional religions. Eritrea is almost
equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Somalia is entirely Muslim. Djibouti
is 94 percent Muslim and 6 percent Christian. Among the Muslims, there has been a
growing influence from Wahhabi and Salafi fundamentalists that has challenged the more
numerous followers of moderate Sufism. The big surprise with this complex mix of
religions is that it has not contributed to more instability than it has.
The borders cut across ethnic groups throughout the region; this has led to
increased ethnic conflict. This is the case, for example, with Somalis, Afars and Nuers.
But ethnic differences have also contributed to conflict when they exist almost entirely
within the borders of a country as we have seen in southern Sudan and Ethiopia.
All five countries suffer from high levels of poverty. Even Sudan’s oil wealth has
failed to improve the well being of most Sudanese, especially those who live on the
periphery of the country. The annual UN Human Development Index constitutes a global
poverty ranking. The 2009 index evaluated 183 countries. The best performer among in
the Horn was Sudan in position number 150. Djibouti was number 155 while Eritrea
ranked 165 and Ethiopia 171. The index did not even include Somalia.
High population growth rates add pressure on governments that are trying to
resolve long-standing social and economic problems. The annual growth rates range
from a low of 2.3 percent for Sudan to a high of 3 percent for Somalia.
Scarce resources, especially good pasturage and adequate quantities of potable
water, add to the potential for local conflict in much of the region. These local conflicts
have the potential to exacerbate national conflict.
Deforestation, environmental degradation, political conflict, bad government
policies and the vicissitudes of weather add to the misery. The entire region periodically
faces serious food shortages. On less frequent occasion, severe famine has ravaged parts
of the Horn as happened in Ethiopia and Sudan in the mid-1980s and in Somalia in the
early 1990s. The impact of global warming on the region is not yet clear, but there is a
good chance it will accelerate environmental degradation. These countries should not
expect anything good to come out of global warming.
There are leadership deficiencies in all five countries. Only Djibouti has a
constitution with term limits (two 6 year terms) for the principal national leader. The
president of Sudan has been in power continuously since 1989 and is also under
indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The prime
minister of Ethiopia has been in power since 1991 through elections that were heavily
criticized by the political opposition. The president of Eritrea has held power since 1991
without holding national elections. First elected to office in 1999, the president of
Djibouti was reelected in 2005 without opposition and won 100 percent of the vote. The
president is now considering amendment of the constitution so he can serve a third term.
While the president of Somalia has only been in power for just over a year, his
government controls very little of the country.
Only Somaliland, the region that separated from Somalia, has regularly changed
leadership by elections generally considered to be democratic, and even it has postponed
on several occasions the last scheduled election. Since independence, none of the five
countries has consistently pursued democracy as we understand it in the West.

Political marginalization of certain ethnic, regional and religious groups is

endemic in the region. Economic inequality and social alienation are also common. All
five countries permit and in some cases encourage human rights abuses. There is no
truly independent judiciary in the region. None of the countries has a strong free press,
although there are variations. Surprisingly, Somali journalists are among the most
outspoken and also subject to frequent assassination by their political opponents.
Corruption is a serious problem in all five countries. Transparency International
ranked 180 countries globally in 2009 on its Corruption Perception Index. All five
countries fell well below the half way mark. Djibouti had the best ranking at number
111, Ethiopia at 120 and Eritrea at 126. Sudan ranked number 176 and Somalia was dead
last at 180. Some of this corruption extends into the security forces and immigration
personnel, which adds to the security challenges facing each state.
The World Peace Foundation does an annual ranking of African governance. In
its 2009 ranking, all five countries fell below the mid-point of the 53 African countries
evaluated. Djibouti scored best at position number 32, Ethiopia next at 37 followed by
Eritrea at number 47. Sudan was second to last at 52 and Somalia again dead last at 53.
It should come as no surprise that the region ranks poorly on Foreign Policy
magazine’s annual Failed States Index. In 2009, Foreign Policy identified 60 countries
globally for its index. The number one ranked country (most failed) was Somalia. Sudan
captured position number 3, Ethiopia number 16 and Eritrea number 36. Only Djibouti
did not make the top 60.

There Are Also Positive Developments

I have highlighted negative indicators for countries in the region in order to

explain why the Horn of Africa has been the most conflicted corner of the world. I would
be remiss if I did not point out there is some good news in the region.
Except for Somalia, there has been significant improvement, for example, in basic
education and literacy rates. Immunization of children has increased significantly
throughout the region. Most of the countries seem to have turned the corner on the high
HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti are experiencing improved
GDP growth rates.
There are additional positive developments. Nevertheless, the negative factors
clearly overwhelm the positive ones and this will not change in the foreseeable future.

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