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The Politico-Economic Crises in the Horn: It is People who Suffer

Seyoum Hameso

The 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.[1] 

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 economic rights.

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.[2] 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 of population.[3] 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.[4] 

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 aid.

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.

No wonder 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 aid.

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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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 all-embracing crises.


History, politics and economics

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.[7] 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.”[8] 

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.”[9] 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.

It should also be said that inappropriate structural adjustment programmes and aid policies of donors have reinforced and broadened the general uncertainty and insecurity.


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 human insecurity.

     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 strong tyrannies.

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 polity.

However 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 useful.

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 the future.


Table 1: Some Comparative Indictors of Courtiers in the Horn


Country size

‘000s sq. km. 1999

Population in millions


GDP per capita US $ 1999

HDI Rank* 1998


























   * 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

Sudan: 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 heavily circumscribed.



Ethiopia: Political 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.

Eritrea: Extended 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 killed.

Somalia: Divided 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.


[1] Writing about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Michel Chossudovsky noted that the flare up of a deep-seated economic crisis preceded the civil war. It was the restructuring of the agricultural system that precipitated the population into abject poverty and destitution.” M. Chossudovsky. “Human security and economic genocide in Rwanda,” in Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkin (eds.) Globalisation, human security and the African experience. Colorado: Lynne Reinner, 1999, p.117.

[2] T. R. Gurr. Why men rebel? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

[3] Amartya Sen. Development as freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

[4] Seyoum Hameso. Development, state and society: Theories and practice in contemporary Africa. San Jose, New York, Lincoln and Shangai: Authors Choice Press, 2001, p.121.

[5] Galbraith, John. The world economy since the War. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, p.177.

[6] Jeniffer Hyndman quoted in David Moore. “Humanitarian agendas, state reconstruction and democratization processes in war-torn societies. New issues in refugee research,” UNHCR Working Paper No. 24, 2000, pp.23-24.

[7] M. Salih. “Horn of Africa: Security in the new World Order,” in Thomas and Wilkin (eds.), 1999, p.130.

[8] M. Salih, ibid.

[9]  Khalil, ibid.



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