Politico-Economic Crises in the Horn: It
is People who Suffer
states and peoples of the Horn of Africa have duly been compelled to choose
between total collapse through civil wars or political survival with an
uncertain future. Both choices have been detrimental to human security and have
at times augmented insecurity.
— M. Saleh, 1999, p.141.
I am delighted to present this paper on the occasion of TBOA’s 27th
anniversary. During the time nearing three decades, TBOA has obviously made
marked contribution towards the articulation of the national problems facing
millions of people in the region also known as the Horn of Africa. Those who
helped found this association and those who carried the spirit of the struggle
for freedom and justice deserve our appreciation. Had it not been for these kind
of unique spirits, our world would have been gloomier and presentations such as
this one would not have been possible.
The topic of this presentation
is the "politico-economic crises in the Horn" with a telling subtitle:
it is people who suffer. The presentation should not be taken as an entire focus
on horrendous crises, even if it seems, it should be borne in mind that it is
out of crises that great changes that shaped history came from.
The word “crisis” is
descriptive enough of the depth of the problems facing people in the region that
is known as the “Horn” of Africa. To begin with, the word itself strikes
something of an irony. As if Africa is an animal with horns whose purpose is to
fight, those who named it as such must be thinking if this geo-political
expression has lived to its intended purpose. Evidently, there is no logical
reason that this region should possess a natural propensity for conflict and
violence, save its closeness to one of the most volatile regions in the world,
namely the Middle East. Yet violence and conflict have unfortunately become one
of the defining elements of the region.
In addition to conflict, the region is embroiled in a series of crises
including the intensification of political violence, violation of human rights,
lack of freedom, large scale displacement of people, inequitable distribution of
resources, the spread of abject poverty, destitution and famine, spread of
deadly diseases, environmental disasters, widespread insecurity and generalized
despair. It is the contention here that the crises confronting the peoples in
the region are essentially political with economic, social and humanitarian
dimensions. It should be said that ubiquitous national disasters and
“ethnic” conflicts have underlying social and economic causes.
The purpose of this brief presentation is to demonstrate: a) the nature
of the crisis in the region, b) the causes of the crises, and c) how people
suffer under these circumstances.
The crisis in the region is
crucially political. It is common knowledge that politics has always been an
arena of mediating diverse interests. These interests could be economic,
cultural, religious or ideological. This arena could be a pitch with intense
conflict and competition or a forum of discussion and understanding. The crisis
in the management of diverse interests holds the key to comprehend intertwined
circles of political crises.
The above point needs to be underlined because the political medium
controls and regulates access to vital resources. Thus, the control of political
power translates to the control of society’s economic and cultural resources.
It is evident that political decisions and outcomes affect people as individuals
and as members of a collective group. Who is not affected by state’s tax,
health and education policies? Who is not affected by regulations that restrict
investment and employment opportunities? Who is not affected by government
policies on private and public ownership? Who is not affected by immigration
control and movement restrictions?
The question therefore is how pernicious polity could ruin the chances of
progress. In the Horn region, colonial style polity based on domination of
diverse national groups is at the centre of the problems. At one time or
another, most of the countries of the region practiced dictatorial and
exclusivist politics. The ensuing marginalization of communities and national
groups worsened their poverty while at the same time heightening the competition
for the control of limited resources and thus violence.
This means there is a crisis of representation and legitimacy. In almost
all parts of the region, there are substantial segments of populations that are
marginalized, excluded and discriminated against. Politically induced
discrimination leads to discrimination in economic and social life.
In Ethiopia, the problem of nations and nationalities is so critical that
it is one of the reasons for the rise of national liberation fronts including
the TPLF, EPLF, OLF, SLF, and ONLF. The multiplicity of these fronts tell any
political analyst that there is a serious problem, or a grievance powerful
enough to ignite the imagination of these societies, mobilizing and motivating
them towards resistance. People offer themselves only when they have sufficient
reason to do so. On the other hand, none of the regimes were capable of
addressing this fundamental problem facing peoples. The issues here are both
individual rights and collective cultural, linguistic, and political and
The situation in Sudan resembles that of Ethiopia. The conflict there is
cast in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion. The Southern Sudanese struggle
for autonomy and the reconstruction of state has taken nearly two decades with
devastating impacts on people and forgone economic progress. The main
protagonists to the conflict, namely the SPLA and the Khartoum government
repeatedly failed to agree on the basic framework of solving the crises. A
series of meetings and negotiations under the auspices of IGAD failed to produce
concrete outcomes. The key points of disagreement are the separation of religion
from state, the holding of referendum and the demarcation of areas that belong
to South Sudan.
As the result of the lack of appropriate legitimacy, states depend on
coercion and repression, which in effect leads to rebellion and more repression.
Oppression and repression cause reactions and resistance which in turn take
either peaceful or violent forms. As Ted Gurr argued, it is human nature that
with prolonged or intense frustration, dissatisfaction and grievance, aggression
is quite likely, if not certain to occur.
When peaceful mechanisms of redress are frustrated, dissent takes violent
forms. This invites more violence while states seek to criminalize dissent
rather than seeking political solutions or addressing the real problems. As the
result, violent confrontations became the dominant modes of existence in
Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. (See also appendix).
The expansion of conflict has multifarious implications. Intra-state
conflict develops into inter-state conflict. It expands to regional levels and
even beyond attracting the intervention of international forces, as in the case
of UNMEE on Ethiopia-Eritrea border. States intervene in the polity of
neighbouring states for what they regard as affecting their security. In effect,
they export their own problems onto others. This becomes part of the regional
political instability fuelling wars between states.
It is evident that states of the region have visibly failed in their
obligations to maintain the security of the people. They failed in their social
and economic obligations. The deployment of domestic resources and foreign aid
by corrupt and predatory ruling elite for purposes remotely related to the
social and economic development needs of the people further undermined the
potential for improvement of human welfare. For example, despite generous
backing that the imperial government of Ethiopia received from the West,
devastating famine caused the death of nearly a million people in 1973/74. It
happened again a decade later in 1984/85 and again in 1998/99.
It is equally evident that famine and bad policies are linked to poverty
and lack of democracy. Following Amartya Sen, we argue that famine and related
disasters are not allowed to occur in democratic polities because people have
established mechanisms to compel governments to address their needs and pressing
problems. Moreover famine in general and death from famine and starvation in
particular happens because of the failure of entitlement of the weaker segments
Democratic governments are bound by social and political contract to
respond to the needs of their citizens. They know that failure or breach of
contract on their part brings an end to their stay in power. At the same time,
citizens perform their duties according to the contract they consensually
entered. Attempts to improve economic welfare or to contain economic decline or
reduce poverty are indicative of the positive linkage between economic progress
and democratic dispensation.
Negligent governments fail to help the people. At the same time,
inefficient and predatory administrations impose additional burdens on farmers
and rural residents who lack the reserve that carries them through natural and
man-made hardship. They expose the urban poor to severe unemployment and misery.
Farmers are not encouraged to diversify production; they are not offered
incentives to increase the productivity of their main asset--land--which is
often owned by state. They are also discouraged to preserve their environment.
Eventually, the vulnerability of the poor yields perpetual dependence on food
The crisis is economic
First the centralization of
economic opportunity worsens the conditions of excluded national groups
contributing to their marginalization. Excessive centralization of economic and
political activity accompanied by ethnic discrimination and competition escalate
conflict which discourages economic activities. Perverse discrimination and the
monopolization of economic sectors by states or parties affiliated to it stifle
entrepreneurship. The polity also fails to create alternative mechanisms to
dependence on natural resources.
then that an estimated 16-18 million people are at risk of starvation in the
region. In Ethiopia alone, at least 5-6 million people are at risk and the most
affected areas are parts of Ogaden and Borana. Natural calamities and the lack
of rains compounded by the farmers’ lack of reserve asset enhance their
vulnerability. Given the political negligence and wrong priorities such as the
pursuit of war and slow response in identifying and tackling emergency
situations disaster is certain to strike. In Somalia, for example, factional
fighting and crop failures exacerbate food insecurity. In Eritrea, the 1998-2000
war has displaced hundreds of thousands of people who are now dependent on food
Secondly, the lack of economic growth or its inability to keep pace with
growing needs of the people means falling standards of living or the rise of
poverty. This intensifies the struggle over resources. No country can hope to
prosper amid civil war and instability. John Galbraith goes further: “Nothing
is more damaging to successful development than incompetent, irresponsible and
corrupt government; nothing brings development more effectively to an end,
indeed so effectively reverses it, as internal conflict.”
Productive investment is hardly possible under conflict-ridden conditions. Even
when they take place, they are in extractive activities such as mining or oil
exploration whose value to the needs of the populations is of dubious value.
Third, political instability and corruption prevent effective economic
management. The pursuit of war diverts vital economic resources to waste whereas
the resulting flight of people to escape war and lack of opportunity sap the
economies of their vital energy. They are already stifled by brain drain coupled
with the burden of debt which forestalls the chances for economic recuperation
already handicapped by mismanagement and pernicious policies.
The crisis is humanitarian
Human rights violations such as
the repression of freedom of expression and association eventually cause
persecution, suffering and forced displacement of people. At the continental
level, there are over 21 million displaced people of which 5 million are
refugees. Life in many refugee camps is a kind of hell. A generation of young
people are barely surviving in desolate conditions in disease infested refugee
camps. It is not immediately clear if the world in the twenty-first century is
comfortable to live with the reality of growing number of Internally Displaced
Persons and refugees, within or from Africa, who are “counted, their movements
monitored and mapped, their daily routines disciplined and routinized by
institutional machinery of refugee relief agencies.”
Hundreds of thousands of people leave their homes to escape war and
famine. The likely destinations for most people are neighbouring countries while
a few make it to Europe and America. The plight of refugees at refugee camps is
not getting the attention it deserves.
The crisis is social
As communities cannot cope with
excessive burdens and social break down and polarization are bound to occur. In
some circumstances such as Ethiopia, tensions reminiscent of Rwandan tragedy of
1994 are present. The government, which is obviously in turmoil, seems
determined to conduct its flawed campaign under the so-called “Revolutionary
Democracy” which may as well target national groups to fight what it calls
“narrow nationalism” and “chauvinism.” Similar campaigns were conducted
by the preceding derg regime. Such acts by vicious states set one group of
people against the other causing tremendous suffering.
At the same time, the growing levels of unemployment associated with
dwindling economic activities and lack of social security systems exacerbate
social ills. Riots and lawlessness are real possibilities. The societal health
is further undermined by physical health hazards such as the AIDS pandemic that
has reached catastrophic proportions. The United Nation’s Population Division
noted that countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have at least two million sufferers
each, and at least 20% of the populations are infected. The report further
stated that life expectancy in these countries would have dropped by 17 years by
2005. The disease impoverishes families and shreds the fabric of communities.
Millions of children face the spectre of becoming orphans.
The crisis is environmental
Add to these the reckless
exploitation of natural resources and wilful destruction of forests contribute
towards deforestation with detrimental effects on environmental and climatic
conditions, the outcome is a complex quagmire. This is worsened by reported
damping of toxic waste in the shores of some countries. All this underlies
chronic human insecurity and the question now is what are the causes for such
History, politics and
The colonial legacy and its
continuation bear strong effects on the peoples and nations of the Horn of
Africa. The arbitrariness of borders erected by colonial powers and the
co-existence of similar nationalities divided by these borders have intensified
the problems and at times contributed to wars.
The liberation wars within Ethiopia, war between Somalia from 1997 to
1978, and the recent war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998-2000 are a few
of the examples.
In Sudan, the South had faced complete neglect during British colonial
administration. According to M. Khalil, the condition was only worsened after
independence in 1956 “thanks to the prejudice and short-sightedness of
Northern politicians. Memories of past slavery have been rankled by present
injustice and marginalization. Moreover, any hope for reconciliation has been
shattered by the determination of the ruling Islamic fundamentalist regime of
Khartoum to transform the Sudan into an out-and-out Islamic state.”
In Somalia, the divided memory of Somali-speaking people under British,
Italian and French rule was further hurt when, ten years after independence,
Siad Bare seized power by a coup d’état “ushering two decades of
misrule characterised by a sinister mix of clanism, nepotism and an ignorant
understanding of scientific socialism.”
What followed Bare’s departure in 1990 was complete anarchy in most
parts of Somalia. The once British ruled part of Somalia declared independence
without securing international recognition.
Ethiopia’s historical legacies, unique as it may be, have similar
features with the rest of the region. The inclusion of the nations and peoples
of the South was done by means of conquest which was accompanied by
marginalization, oppression and discrimination of these people. Subsequent
resistance to anachronistic polity led to the demolition of the autocratic
system in 1974, not to mention prolonged wars and famine. The system promoted
predatory political culture of the few at the expense of economic, social and
political marginalization of the majority.
In most of these cases, states installed at independence pursued policies
that were remotely based on the needs of the people. They focused on state
building rather than catering for the needs of the people. Though they were
largely non-democratic and unenlightened, they were supported by the logic of
the Cold War. At one time or another, the major Cold War rivals, namely, the
Soviet Russia and the USA, interchangeably supported tyrants and dictators in
Somalia or Ethiopia.
Political crisis at the centre of other problems because it translates
into crises in other walks of life. When there is politically induced
insecurity, instability, repression, people’s economic and social well being
will be affected. When there is lack of freedom of association and lack of
voice, there will follow restrictions on economic opportunities.
Misled and harmful policies such as the policy bias against agrarian
sector and the rural poor contribute to agricultural decline. Heavy debt burden
is sustained due to bad governments that borrow money to conduct wars instead of
financing productive investment. An example here is the derg regime’s
borrowings from the former Soviet Union that was largely spent on the
procurement of armaments. The mismanagement of foreign aid because of corruption
and discrimination worsens the problem of debt. Thus bad polity causes diversion
and waste of resources.
should also be said that inappropriate structural adjustment programmes and aid
policies of donors have reinforced and broadened the general uncertainty and
The redress to the crises lies
in holistic reform that starts with the polity. What is the need for political
authority that does not protect the people which it controls? What is the need
for a polity if all that emerges out of it is destruction? The redress is that,
first, states that have become no more viable and no more necessary shall be
reformed or replaced by other forms of polities. The reform can be significant.
Worn out strategies of ‘conflict management’ and ‘peace-building’ will
remain ineffective if they fail to address the basic issues that impact on the
polity and economy in the region.
Second, the legitimacy of group rights should be recognized. The western
focus on individual rights is premised on the assumption that the state is
representative of its people and it will take care of group rights. In other
words, state is assumed to be the social guardian sometimes autonomous of
society and yet its representative. In the Horn region, these assumptions are
hardly valid. The state emerged as the guardian of itself and it is preoccupied
with its own security. Worse still the states themselves became the source of
The possible redress is not expected to come from nowhere; it should come
from the people themselves. This means political and opinion leaders in the
region should recognize the seriousness of the crises. The legitimacy of
resorting to violent and repressive measures to conflicts will only have
devastating impacts on all involved. Leaders should re-think what was not
thinkable only a decade ago. Amicable resolution of the demands for national
self-determination, democratisation and orderly transfer of power will serve the
political process better. Those in power could as well entertain the idea of
being known as the former presidents, former prime ministers or former leaders.
It means the people who are eventually the source of political and
economic power should be clear and determined about their demands and
responsibilities. After all, it is them who bear the brunt of political
repression, economic deprivation, and cultural suppression. It is their
economies that are ruined by wars and bad governance; it is their cultures that
are suppressed; it is their future which is squandered. They need to be
persistent to demand accountability from the polity. Weak societies produce
It also means the outside world has a role. As it abundantly contributed
to the problems, it can also help positively address the problems. The
international community should realise that the culture of predation, rebellion
and repression needed to change. Peaceful options include building political
associations that have not been part of the mechanism that has contributed
towards the current situation. The role for development co-operation lies in
identifying, enabling and empowering them. Such an approach can be mutually
beneficial. Economic enterprise cannot flourish in conflict-ridden conditions.
Neither peace and democracy nor law and order can function smoothly where
injustice is rife. The outside world need to listen to the voices that it is not
accustomed to listen; it has to help empower the affected people. So far, the
responses from regional or international groups are lukewarm and ineffective.
Regional groups including IGAD have only limited impacts as they focus on state,
rather than, human security.
In sum since politics, economics
and societies interface with each other, a political problem affects the economy
just as an economic problem affects society. Therefore, fundamental reform in
politics is necessary to curb economic decline. Changes could be oriented toward
making politics people-centred whose focus is human security rather than state
security. Concern about the people avoids the possibility of venturing into bad
policies, into war and conflict. It encourages leaders to consider helping their
own people. It nourishes trust; it builds bridge between the people and the
pitiful states have become, by their persistent failure in providing basic
security to people, the hope also remains in making and re-making them. That is
where the significance of political change needs to be highlighted. Without
reforming the polities in each state of the region, the hope of building peace
and democracy at regional or macro levels is like building on a sand foundation.
It simply does not hold. The policy direction should be identifying the problems
at all levels including the village level where the ultimate brunt of structural
and policy-induced problems lies.
As a concluding remark let me introduce the idea of ‘Small is
beautiful” as one of the alternative framework of thinking towards solutions.
The idea is simple. It implies the formation of smaller, coherent and healthy
polities that may aspire to form economic unions. This requires thinking beyond
the framework of the existing polities. So far, big territorial entities brought
big problems. Sudan is the biggest landmass in Africa. The solutions to its
problems are mind-boggling to anyone who is involved in the search for
solutions. So, is Ethiopia.
It could be strange, but Djibouti, a small size country with not so small
image holds out promise (See Appendix). It has organized a peaceful conference
that established the basis for a government of its neighbour, Somalia. It
recently made peace with one of its opponents. The agreement between FRUD
rebellion and the government, if it is sustained, may have lessons for others.
Small size may be an asset, and a significant transformation of the polity is
required to turn the liability of big size to the one that is inclusively
It may require a paradigm shift in our thinking towards the human
condition in the region. People in the region are armed with rich experience of
past debacles and crises. The awareness of the magnitude of the crises offers a
rare opportunity for change and betterment of life. Unless people chose to
squander them, these opportunities may hold out promise to replace the vicious
cycle of despair by a virtuous cycle of hope and revival, one has to warn that
if political reform is not possible, conditions could deteriorate further
possibly inviting external intervention with all that implies, and that may not
necessarily be to the satisfaction or interest of the local populations, and
what awaits millions is the spectre of major tragedy. Those who are making
decisions today at all levels must be prepared to live with the consequences in
Table 1: Some Comparative Indictors of
Courtiers in the Horn
sq. km. 1999
per capita US $ 1999
* Human development Index rank out of 174 countries.
Source: World Bank, UNDP, OECD, 2000 Reports.
Table 2: Some Features of the Crises Facing in the States of the Region
Severe conflict and war based on identities and religion, reported
slavery. Since 1983 until to date, a large-scale war is being fought, 2
million people are killed. It has been ruled for most part by military
regimes. The economic base is agriculture and now oil sector which is
fuelling war than development. Human rights and political rights are
unrest, violations of human rights, disease, poverty, conflict, war, and
famine. Poverty is widespread. Per capita income is about $100 a year
which is a quarter of the sub-Saharan average placing Ethiopia as one of
the poorest countries in the world, ranking 172 out of 174. More than 50%
of the population live below poverty line and economic conditions are dire
in rural areas where more than 80% of the population live. An estimated 3
million people are believed HIV positive.
war of independence from 1960s to 1990s. The most recent war of1998-2000
was devastating in human and economic terms. Close to a million people
were displaced. Most were internally displaced while some crossed to the
neighbouring Sudan. Dependence on food aid is significant. The war caused
severe economic slide and insecurity. Officially, about 19,000 people are
by historical legacy was burdened by post-independence dictatorship and
mismanagement. The demise of the Siad Bare regime in 1990 threw the
country into anarchy. Profound insecurity, regularised violence,
inter-clan warfare, cross-border military engagements by neighbouring
states and frequent natural calamities continue to claim lives. Hundreds
of thousands of Somalis are dispersed throughout the world as refugees. A
newly formed government struggles for public acceptance.