The Horn of Africa: Building Sustainable Security in a Fragile Region

Tasneem Jamal

Abdul Omar

The Ploughshares Monitor March 2001 Volume 22 Issue 1

Since 1994 Project Ploughshares has been engaged in a number of peace and disarmament initiatives in the Horn of Africa. In partnership with the Africa Peace Forum (APFO), a Nairobi-based NGO, we have undertaken a process of Track II diplomacy in the Sudan conflict, and have been coordinating the International Resource Group on Disarmament and Security in the Horn of Africa (IRG) in a program to promote civil society engagement in research and dialogue on key security issues. The programs also promote engagement with government officials. The IRG activities focus on three themes: small arms and light weapons, security sector reform, and regional security cooperation. This article surveys the security environment in this war-torn region and offers policy prescriptions.

Political instability, civil strife, and interstate conflict have been defining features of the Horn of Africa.1 Ethiopia and Eritrea are in the process of ending a bitter border conflict that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Sudan is in the midst of a conflict that pits the Islamist government in Khartoum not only against the south, but also against northern opposition groups of varying political stripes. Clan warfare still looms large in Somalia, despite some success in reconciling Somali clans and forming a national government. None of these conflicts remains within state borders, and all have bearings on the security of neighbouring states.

In a region rife with conflicts, the imperative of sustainable security offers the best hope of reversing the insecurity that has reigned for decades. Sustainable security can be understood as a process of addressing current traditional and non-traditional security threats, while developing and maintaining mechanisms and structures designed to meet future security challenges. This article will first explore the dynamics of the key conflicts in the region and will then suggest that the region would benefit from sustainable security based on people-centered security, good governance, security sector reform, and ongoing dialogue.

The Ethiopian-Eritrean border war

In May 1991, after thirty years of fighting, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) captured Asmara, the Eritrean capital, from Ethiopia. At the same time, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a northern rebel group, wrested power from the Ethiopian government led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The two rebel movements had cooperated in the efforts to oust the Mengistu regime, with the Eritreans mainly interested in gaining control of their own territory. After two years, Eritrea gained formal independence, which was recognized by Ethiopia’s new government, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and the United Nations (UN). With these important changes, it seemed that Ethiopia and Eritrea would soon begin a new era based on mutual understanding and leave behind decades of bloodshed.

Yet in February 1998, the former rebel allies were fighting each other for control of Badme, a stretch of barren border area with little economic value.2 As with other contested areas along the 1,000-kilometre border between the two states, the rightful ownership of Badme is extremely difficult to determine. The fact that the border shifted numerous times with various administrations makes it difficult to decide whether Badme falls on the Ethiopian or the Eritrean side. Therefore, the case of Badme is not as clear as both governments would suggest.

While the confrontations between Ethiopia and Eritrea can be characterized as a border war, other factors certainly contributed to the hostilities. Among other things, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had sharp differences over currencies, trade, and access to port facilities. When Eritrea became independent, it opted to use the Ethiopian birr as its currency, and the two neighbours agreed that Ethiopia would have continued access to the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa. To exercise its independence, and for macroeconomic reasons, Eritrea introduced its own currency, the nakfa, in 1997, but this quickly led to a serious trade dispute and disagreement over port access. Also relevant to the border war is the personal pride of the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders (Strategic Survey 1999/2000; Smyth 2000).

Regardless of what triggered the war, the hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea reshaped the security landscape of the region. Ethiopia and Djibouti forged a strategic partnership, while Djibouti and Eritrea terminated their diplomatic relations. The war gave the Sudanese regime the opportunity to move towards a rapprochement with Ethiopia and Eritrea. Encouraged by the sidelining of Sudan’s Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi in December 1999, Ethiopia was interested in gaining access to port facilities in Sudan, while Eritrea was keen on establishing friends in the region. In Somalia, the war deepened clan conflict, as Ethiopia and Eritrea introduced more weapons into a fragile situation. Ethiopia was even believed to have taken part in factional fighting in southern Somalia in support of its allies.

Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders signed an OAU peace plan on December 12, 2000 in Algiers, Algeria, committing themselves to working with a commission that will demarcate the common border and ensure that hostilities do not resume when more than 4,000 UN peacekeepers, who are in the process of being deployed, depart from the region.3 The accord follows a June ceasefire agreement that ended the fighting. Certainly, the peace agreement is a step in the right direction, and Ethiopia and Eritrea have already moved to exchange prisoners of war. However, an end to the conflict that minimizes the impact on this volatile region will depend on the success of the commission, which is by no means assured, given the arduous task of demarcating a border that has shifted numerous times. Eritrea’s suspicions of Ethiopia and the latter’s interest in seeing a new regime in Asmara 4 will also make the settlement of the border question difficult.

The clan feuding in Somalia

The conflict in Somalia has its roots in deep-seated clan alienation which deepened during the administration of President Mohamed Siad Barre.5 Barre gained power in a military coup in 1969, after successive democratic governments failed to balance clan interests. Also failing to promote equality among clans, and resorting to force to maintain power, Barre was ousted from power in January 1991 by United Somali Congress (USC) militia led by General Mohamed Farah Aidid. The USC victory quickly degenerated into factional fighting after General Mohamed Farah Aidid challenged the formation of an interim government and the selection of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, another leader from his group, as president.

The fighting between the USC factions resulted in a humanitarian crisis of great proportions. Militia attacks disrupted normal economic activities and caused insecurity, starvation, and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Somalis to neighbouring countries. In 1992, the international community intervened in Somalia in various peacekeeping missions, but all peacekeeping efforts ended in 1995 after the 1993 killing of 18 American servicemen by militia loyal to Aidid.

When the international forces left Somalia, clan feuding resumed, albeit at a much lower intensity. Most of the fighting was concentrated in the central and southern parts of the country. With the security situation in the south so fluid, and no central authority in Mogadishu, Oromo and ethnic Somali groups fighting against Ethiopia began to use Somalia as a convenient place to train recruits and launch attacks. These rebel groups felt that the Tigrayan leadership in Ethiopia had excluded other nationalities from power.

However, the presence of these rebel groups in Somalia provoked repeated Ethiopian incursions as early as 1996. It was also responsible for the Ethiopian government’s involvement in factional politics in Somalia. Ethiopia provided arms to several Somali factions, particularly the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA), which had been engaged in military confrontations with Hussein Aidid’s (the son of the late General Aidid) militia for control of the southwestern city of Baidoa.

During its border war with Eritrea, Ethiopia stepped up its military activities in Somalia. In June 1999, Ethiopia was reported to have actively participated in an RRA military operation that captured Baidoa. Ethiopia’s increased military involvement followed reports that Eritrea was channeling weapons to Ethiopian opposition groups in Somalia through Hussein Aidid, who was critical of Ethiopian operations in Somalia and its support for his rivals. Eritrea was reportedly interested in taking the war to Somalia to deflect the Ethiopian attention from the battle fronts around Badme.

The situation in Somalia has been showing signs of recovery. A new interim government was formed in neighbouring Djibouti in August 2000. Led by President Abdulqassim Salad Hassan, who has his mandate from 245 assembly members largely chosen by Somali clans, the first central government since the ouster of Barre is attempting to revive state institutions. But it will be a long time before the new regime can play a viable role in domestic and regional security. Leaders in the breakaway region of Somaliland and the regional administration of Puntland, both in the north, oppose the new central government and have rejected separate Italian and Libyan mediation efforts. Mogadishu-based warlords also pose a challenge to Hassan’s administration. The militia of one of these leaders, Muse Sudi Yalahow, fought with government forces in December 2000 after the government attempted to intercept an arms consignment from Ethiopia.

Bashir’s war(s)

Like most complex conflicts in Africa, the long-running civil strife in Sudan defies easy categorization. Following the Anya Nya rebellion of 1955 to 1972, the current round of fighting erupted in 1983, when President Jaafar al-Nimeiri suspended regional autonomy for the south and introduced Sharia law throughout Sudan. Southerners, who were mainly Christian or animist, viewed these actions, particularly the imposition of the Sharia, as efforts to turn Sudan into an Islamic state. The Sharia has remained in place under different Sudanese administrations, including the current regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, which assumed power in a 1989 military coup.

The conflict in the Sudan transcended the north-south divide in 1995, when northern groups – the biggest of which were the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – came together and formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Subsequently, the NDA was able to secure military assistance from Ethiopia and Eritrea. These states had strained relations with Sudan’s Islamist regime because of Sudanese support for Islamic groups interested in overthrowing both governments.

Nonetheless, the Ethiopian-Eritrean war presented itself as an important opportunity for Sudan to pursue a rapprochement with its neighbours. In a series of diplomatic activities, Khartoum improved its relations with Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both states were willing to soften their stance on Sudan, partly because the border war required peaceful co-existence with other neighbours, and partly because their fears of Islamic extremism were dampened by the decline of Hassan al-Turabi’s political influence in Khartoum. Turabi, who had engineered President Bashir’s rise to power, was held personally responsible for the destabilization campaigns of various Islamic groups in the region.

Sudan also attempted to improve relations with Uganda, but met with little success. Uganda and Sudan have a long history of supporting each other’s opposition, with the former backing the SPLM/A and the latter the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In December 1999, Ugandan and Sudanese leaders signed an agreement paving the way for normal relations. Among other things, the agreement called for the parties to renounce the use of force to resolve differences; disband and disarm terrorist groups; cease support to any rebel groups; and return all prisoners of war to their respective nations.6 Uganda and Sudan are finding it difficult to translate these and other important provisions in the agreement into practice.

To reduce its vulnerability, especially at a time when Eritrea has yet to end its support for the NDA, Sudan has moved to reconcile with northern opposition groups. The Umma Party leader, and former head of state, Sadiq al-Mahdi, has recently returned to Khartoum where he is engaged in talking with Bashir about participating in the government. A splinter group of the DUP has opted to take part in a new February 2001 cabinet. With northern opposition eroding, the fighting in the south – parts of which are rich in oil – remains the key challenge in the Sudan. To end this prolonged civil war, and contribute to regional security, the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A need to become fully engaged in the peace talks conducted under the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Towards sustainable security

Undeniably, the security environment in the Horn of Africa is volatile and requires major improvements. Given the interconnected nature of the region, and the depth of the security challenges, it is doubtful that security can be achieved without overcoming domestic political weaknesses and engaging in collaborative regional efforts to foster security-building. Weak governance and the elusive search for security through force both within and beyond national borders are hardly the right ingredients for durable stability. To overcome chronic conflicts and maintain stability, the region would be served best by a strategy which emphasizes sustainable security. Such security thinking will embrace the safety of people, good governance, security sector reform, and sustained dialogue. To produce tangible results, these elements must not only be adopted, but also maintained on a regular basis. Moreover, security should be viewed as a broader goal of ensuring the safety, and fulfilling the basic needs, of regional constituencies.

People-centered security.
Few would dispute the importance of a state to protect itself from threats that could undermine its existence. But this is not an end in itself. The thrust of security is to create a peaceful environment in which citizens can pursue normal lives. The states in the Horn of Africa need to place the security of people at the centre of their security agenda. The protection of people from threats such as the proliferation of small arms should be a major security concern. It should be no surprise that a state that ensures the safety of its people from both traditional and non-traditional threats is far more secure than a state which seeks only to preserve itself. The region has so far failed to achieve stability because the state-centric approach to security it has adopted does not contribute to the security of either the states or the people.

Good governance. Many problems in the region result from poor governance. Many governments in the area have a narrow support base, and bar their political opponents from power. If durable stability is to be achieved, it is crucial to embark on a process of empowerment, in which people genuinely elect their governments, and public institutions are open to scrutiny. A state characterized by openness and transparency has the advantage of playing a collaborative role with its citizens in dealing with security threats.

Security sector reform. The security sector includes the military, paramilitary, and intelligence services, as well as those civilian structures responsible for oversight and control of the security forces. Security sector reform involves strengthening civilian management of the security forces and the accountability of the security forces to civilian authorities; encouraging transparency in security sector planning, management, and budgeting; creating a climate in which civil society can actively monitor the security sector and be consulted regularly on defence policy, resource allocation, and related issues; fostering an environment that promotes regional or sub-regional peace and security; and prioritizing disarmament and demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants in countries emerging from civil war (Ball 1998). Of course, elements of the security sector reform agenda are being practised in parts of the region, yet a lot of work remains to be done. Kenya, for instance, which has a long history of civilian oversight of its military institutions,7 has the reputation of fielding abusive, corrupt, and unaccountable police forces. In a volatile region like the Horn of Africa, reforming the security sector will not be easy. It is important to start by moving towards good governance, then defining the roles of security institutions and structures and the place for civilian leadership and oversight. Security institutions with appropriate civilian leadership can play a positive role in domestic and regional security.

Ongoing dialogue. The only regular meetings of the leaders in the region are the OAU and IGAD summits. Tackling the security challenges facing the region requires more frequent contact. While developing a broader understanding of security problems, frequent engagements also build confidence among the leadership. However, the heads of state should not be the only focus of a sustained dialogue on security issues. Senior officials from governments as well as the civil society groups in the region should also be given the space to articulate regional security threats and creative responses to them. The international donor community can play a complementary role in building a viable security environment in the Horn of Africa by assisting forums that seek to overcome security challenges.



1 For the purpose of this article, the Horn of Africa region refers to the members of IGAD: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda.

2 For further background information on this conflict, see Lata 1999.

3 In a nutshell, the OAU peace agreement calls for a cessation to hostilities and attempts to establish commissions to mark the border, exchange prisoners, return displaced people, and hear compensation claims. The commission that will demarcate the border will consist of two Ethiopians, two Eritreans, and an independent chairman.

4 For discussion on Eritrean suspicions and Ethiopian views on the Asmara government, see “Horn Peace Deal Signed,” BBC News, December 12, 2000.

5 See Omar 2000.

6 See “Agreement between the Governments of Sudan and Uganda, December 8, 1999.”.

7 For a broad discussion of the role of the civilians in the Kenyan army, see Githiora 1999.


Ball, Nicole 1998, “Spreading good practices in security sector reform: Policy options for the British government,” Saferworld, December.

Githiora, Col T.K. 1999, “Civil-Military Relations in Kenya,” April.

Lata, Leenco 1999, “The search for a lasting resolution of the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict,” The Ploughshares Monitor, March, pp. 6-8.

Omar, Abdul 2000, “Somalia: A new beginning?” The Ploughshares Monitor, December, p. 22.

Smyth, Frank 2000, “Africa’s Inexplicable Horn,” Intellectualcapital, December 18.

Strategic Survey 1999/2000, The International Institute of Strategic Studies, Oxford.

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