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The Horn of Africa: Unchanging Political Seasons

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Historically, the African region that contains Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia has been considered Horn of Africa countries though Sudan doesn’t belong to that geography. But the above countries are so much related and influenced by each other.

These countries have no properly defined geographical limits, therefore, they are haphazardly known as the countries of the Horn of Africa, the most unstable in the region.

There is no simplistic answer remedy to the perennial problems killing the dreams and aspirations of the people of the region whose governments have accepted bloody existence as a norm. Worse, the crisis is exasperated because most are within the national borders, and they often spill over to the neighboring countries.

During the decolonization of Africa, all these countries were abruptly pushed into the modern times on a shaky foundation, without going through the process of a natural state building process. Today, over seventy years later, they have failed to build a solid political structure with the citizen at its center. That haphazard development aroused religious, ethnic, and tribal sentiments and has hampered the building of cohesive national identities. To this day, the political elite could not free itself from primordial affiliations and sentiments. It finds that practical to cling to the pre-nation structure for support to replace the replica of the colonial systems with their own.

And there is an anomaly: Ethiopia, though it claims to have had a long history of independence, and the West spoiled it by considered it its anchor in the region by supporting the theocratic systems for centuries, emotionally, it’s where it was centuries ago.

The Sudan, like the rest, is composed of over a dozen ethnic groups, “hundreds of sub-groups and about one-hundred languages and dialects”. It suffers from a rift between Arabs and non-Arabs and host of other maladies. Sudan, despite its historically, and relatively, better school systems, is in the same club. The post-independence political structure was inherited by the major social and regional groups at the expense of the minorities and fringe social groups. Its power center is still concentrated around Khartoum, a legacy of the 19th century Mahdi movement and its allies. The unresolved lack of equality among its constituent parts led its southern part to secede in 2011. Its western regions have been rebelling for decades; its eastern parts live in political uncertainty.

Ethiopia, the land of myths and legends, has always been a theocratic state—even at this age, the prosperity party that came to power in 2018 under Abiy Ahmed, is treading a theocratic path. However, new evangelizing religions or ancient, both cannot produce anything different but a theocratic system. And that can be observed from the religious fanaticism and extremism sweeping Ethiopia.

Somalia (formerly known as Italian Somaliland) is probably the only country where the prevailing regional conflict-politics fail to make sense. Almost all Somalis are Muslims, though belonging to different sects, and they all speak the Somali language. But they have a curse of tribalism is still prevalent. Worse, as everywhere in the region, the political elite find tribalism and ethnic strife a useful tool to garner support and control over the people.

Djibouti, with a population of about one million, is the smallest country in the region. Its mild polarization factor is characterized by the main languages its people speak: Afari and Somali, though Arabic and French are widely spoken. Djibouti is relatively stable, though its 75-year-old president has been in power since 1999.

The breakaway state of Somaliland (formerly known as British Somaliland) has declared its independence after the fall of Ziad Barre in 1991. So far, only Ethiopia and few countries recognize its de-facto independence. However, Somaliland is arguably the most stable, much secure with a functioning economy, it is relatively the most democratic country in the entire region. The current (and fifth elected) president of Somaliland is Muse Bihi Abdi who took office in the 2017 election. The next election is expected to be held towards the end of 2022.

Eritrea which achieved its independence in 1991, after decades-long costly struggle, in terms of lost opportunities, human lives and property, is today ruled by the 76-year-old Isaias Afwerki and his only “legal party”, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Eritrea is the only country in the region with no freedom of expression and free press, without a constitution, and a party led legislative process where the citizens have no say. The struggle that Eritreans paid for liberation and independence, has become an illusion; 31 years after independence, the country remains highly militarized and ruled by single party dictatorial system. A large portion of its population has escaped the country for political and economic reasons, and it is still bleeding its youth in endless wars.

The Horn of Africa region is unruly and confrontational in nature. It prone to famine, bloodshed and destroying what it builds. It habitually ignites conflicts and then blames the donor states for not responding to their wishes, forgetting its problems are mainly of its own making. If any news item from the past is posted today with a current date, it will still sound fresh news. Nothing changes.

The rulers of the region have traditionally adhered to the old tactics of dividing the people along privileged and downtrodden classes–supporters, and enemies. Historically, with a few exceptions, the ruling classes have always resorted to bloodshed to resolve crisis that shouldn’t have been started. Yet, they conveniently forget the cause of the whole problem: corruption, primordial values, and feuds. That’s why they mainly depend on one ethnic group against the other. This has made some groups to consider their thus acquired political leverage as a natural right that everyone should accept. The ancient ruling tradition–an unjust sort of political master-serf relation, where some are led to believe they have a mandate to rule, forces the victims to rebel.

In recent years, the never-ending Ethiopian rivalry has manifested itself in a showdown that represent the corrupt systems of the region. The Ethiopian conflicts are the showcase of similar conflicts that are raging in the region; in Ethiopia, it’s between the privileged theocratic system and its victims. Unless this inequality and imbalance is recognized and resolved, the cycle of violence will continue. And the region will not see a day of stability unless the systems reorient their policies towards the wellbeing of the forgotten citizens.