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By Kidane Alemayehu
April 29, 2020


The main purpose and objective of this paper is to identify the main challenges being encountered by the countries and people of the Horn of Africa as well as those adjacent to the Red Sea. It is well known that the region is bestowed by immense natural resources including water, rich soil, oil and a significant geo-political importance. However, it is also recognized for being a region of repeated conflicts and a seemingly ceaseless insecurity. Nevertheless, with the highly encouraging initiatives by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, H.E./Dr. Abiy coupled, hopefully, with a positive leadership and policy by most of the other concerned countries as well as the international community at large, there are good prospects for achieving peace and development in the region for the benefit of the region and all other interested countries. A pragmatic collaboration by the region’s nations could resolve equitable serious challenges such as the controversies related to the Ethiopian Nile River Dam as well as the serious constraints being faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

During most of the first millennium A.D., the Horn of Africa constituted a region that was a superpower in the affairs of northeastern Africa as well as southern Arabia. Its influence and, at times, its authority extended from Egypt to the Indian Ocean and across the Red Sea all the way to Mecca. The capital for its overseas territory in south Arabia was Sanaa in Yemen. It was a major partner with the other superpowers of the time: Persia, Byzantium, and India on matters of trade as well as political and military issues. Like USA today, the Horn of Africa was the place of refuge for people escaping various forms of oppression such as the first followers of Islam who survived the onslaughts by Meccan authorities by residing in Axum, Ethiopia for some 15 years before they were able to return home.

During the second millennium A.D., the Horn of Africa suffered a severe decline due to internal and external conflicts as well as diminished trade. Not only did it lose its overseas territories but it also became victim to the avarice of colonialists who bit off all the peripheral parts along its borders at the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. By the end of the second millennium, the Horn of Africa comprised a number of fragmented countries largely known for their crippling poverty, insecurity, and lack of democracy, severe environmental degradation, prevalence of pandemic diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, and continued tension. The only saving grace during this period was the amazing survival of Ethiopian independence and the liberation of Djibouti and Somalia from colonialism. Eritrea’s cessation resulted from unfortunate conflict within Ethiopia.

The conflict that is going on in Yemen is one of the current challenges facing the Arab countries. The relentless struggle being undertaken for a mutually satisfactory and beneficial resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another challenge being faced in the Middle East.

At the beginning of the third millennium A.D., the Horn of Africa is still fraught with the major ills and scars that have been afflicting it during the previous millennium. Among the important indicators of the global concern for conditions in the Horn of Africa is the presence of numerous military forces on the African side of the Red Sea, namely, from China, USA, France, U.K., Japan, Germany, Israel, Italy, Spain, Egypt and UAE. (SIPRI: “The Foreign Military Presence in the Horn of Africa” April 2019) ( Al Shabab’s unending attacks in Somalia and Kenya is another source of concern. The prevalence of Ethiopia’s ethnic based political system continues to pose a major threat to the country’s stability. The issue now is whether this region shall continue with its socio-economic and political conditions of misery or transform itself into being, if not a superpower, a self-reliant, peaceful, and democratic entity. Given the current Horn of Africa population of 136 million (expected to increase to 153 million by 2025), taking into account its substantial natural resources including water, agricultural, and mineral, given a more positive role by the international community as well as civic organizations and the private sector, it is the view of this paper that there are good prospects of hope for peace and a sustainable economic development in this beleaguered part of Africa. Such a hope, however, presupposes a more vigorous effort by all internal and external stakeholders including governments, non-governmental and international organizations as well as academic institutions in the formulation, promotion and achievement of appropriate socio-economic and political development strategies for the benefit of the region and the international community. The increasingly active engagement of China and India in the development of the Horn of Africa, especially that of Ethiopia, is a source of encouragement and mutual satisfaction. It is hoped that the recent move by Iran to have a foothold in the Red Sea region, particularly the Assab port in Eritrea, would promote increased trade and development and not, as some skeptics indicate, create possibilities of another flash point in terms of Iran’s negative stance towards Israel and western interests. It is, therefore, suggested that the strategic interests of the United States and its allies in the Horn of Africa be predicated on the long-term intrinsic values of the region for mutual benefits and not, as has been the case so far, for the mere protection of the oil lanes/sources, the fight against international terrorism, and Israel’s survival.

This paper also addresses a type of thinking outside the box, so to speak, with regard to the need for collaboration among the countries around the Red Sea including African, Arab and the Israeli nations.

It is also important to refer here to the encouraging initiative by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, H.E. Dr. Abiy Ahmed, for the achievement of peace in the Horn of Africa, especially the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is hoped that it would result in concrete measures for political and economic collaboration among the Horn of African countries. The Prime Minister’s positive contacts with the neighboring Arab countries and Israel is another source of encouragement for the achievement of peace and development in the region.

  1. The Horn of Africa

In his book entitled: “The Horn of Africa: Conflict and Poverty”, Mesfin Wolde-Mariam uses “common boundary”, as an indicator for determining those countries that constitute the Horn of Africa. Accordingly, he suggests that the “PRINCIPAL” Horn of Africa countries are Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland.(1) He also includes what he calls “PERIPHERAL” countries i.e. Kenya and the Sudan because they share boundaries with the “core country”, namely, Ethiopia. Southern Sudan should also be included in this list.

A statement in the German foreign policy strategy on the Horn of Africa, refers to Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia as the countries that constitute the region.(2)

Using terms such as “The Greater Horn of Africa”, other sources include a wider range of countries, namely, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

For the purposes of this paper, the countries  Mesfin calls “PRINCIPAL” constitute the Horn of Africa region with the exception of Somaliland which is yet to be recognized by the United Nations as an independent country. This is based on their relatively higher level of mutual cultural and social affinity, shared history and interdependence. For a more comprehensive study and analysis of the cultural traits of the people in the Horn of Africa using objective criteria, please see Donald Levine’s “Greater Ethiopia”, pp 47-64. This paper may appear ethio-centric mainly due to the propensity of Ethiopia’s recorded history but it is by no means intended to diminish the historical evolution of the other Horn of African nations.

Publications on the Horn of Africa tend to dwell, on the most, on the huge constraints encountered in the region and very little on its glorious past as well as the specific strategies for its development. It appears, at times, as if collaboration and integration in the Horn of Africa were a totally new phenomenon. One need only have a closer look at the region’s history during the first millennium to discover the level of strength and respect it was able to muster. This paper attempts to fill that gap. This is not to glorify colonialism by any party but simply to underline the importance of unity and collaboration. It is also important for the current and future generations in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere to be aware of their legacy so that they can aspire for higher goals and objectives. This paper  further attempts to draw attention not merely to the challenges and risks being faced but also to the opportunities and benefits available to all the stakeholders and interested parties from the region’s vast human and natural resources.

There are substantial sources for work on the Horn of Africa. For the purposes of this paper, few, carefully selected materials are utilized mainly aimed at triggering more intensive and practical discussion and action by concerned individuals, institutions, organizations and governments as well as the private sector.

A special word of appreciation is owed to Prof. Bahru Zewde for his review of this paper and incisive remarks and suggestions.

The Horn of Africa used to be known by a variety of names including Punt, Ethiopia/Nubia, and Ethiopia. The area extended from today’s eastern parts of the Sudan to the Indian Ocean including today’s Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Please see Figure 1: “Trade Routes to the Land of PUNT”.(3) Please see also Figure 2: “The Empire of Ethiopia According to Monumentum Adulitanum”.(4) Richard Pankhurst states: “The coastal areas of Ethiopia in Pharonic times formed part of what the ancient Egyptians termed the land of Punt, and sometimes God’s Land.”(5) According to E. Naville, Punt “….must have begun near Suakim or Massawah and stretched to the south, perhaps even beyond the straits of Bab el-Mandeb and the Cape of Gardafui to the coast of Somalis”.(6) Sergew Hable Selassie states: “No doubt that the present (1972) Ethiopian Empire was included within the region of Punt.”(7)

During the early parts of the first millennium A.D. the Horn of Africa’s (i.e. Ethiopia’s) authority extended to South Arabia. H. von Wissman states: “….the first Ethiopian occupation in Arabia lasted over one and a half centuries, from 80 or 90 A.D. to 265 A.D.” (8) By the 6th century, Ethiopian territory in the Arabian peninsula included not only “the Kingdom of Himyar  and Saba but extended further to the north as far as Nagran….” Ethiopian garrisons were present in “key positions” such as Zafar and Nagran.(9)

As the major power in the Horn of Africa and with territories in South Arabia, Ethiopia was treated with the respect and deference due to a superpower. The Emperor of Constantinople “….dispatched an ambassador to Axum (Ethiopia) to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the Negoos and to bring about his friendly attachment to the Roman Empire….”(10) The renowned sociologist, Donald Levine, states: “In the latter part of the third century Mani wrote that Axum (Ethiopia) ranked third among the great powers of the world…..To many Byzantine emperors Ethiopia appeared a most desirable ally….”(11) Quoting Antonio Gramsci, Daniel Kendie states: “Having controlled the Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade,…..Axum carved out an empire that extended from Nubia to Somalia, and from South Arabia to Southern Ethiopia” (12)

Among the numerous occurrences of those times that clearly illustrate the might of Horn of Afirca’s Ethiopia was the event that took place in Nagran and Zafar. An Arab prince by the name of Dhu Nuwas had converted to the Jewish faith and, in his effort to convert the residents of the two settlements to Judaism, had massacred around 3000 people including Ethiopians. Although the Ethiopian king of the time, Emperor Caleb, was already in the process of taking punitive measures, the head of the Roman Empire, Justin I (518-27) attempted to persuade” …the Aksumite (Ethiopian) King, Kaleb to go to the rescue of groups of Christians (attacked) by a South Arabian prince who had adopted the Jewish faith…..”(13) Emperor Caleb launched a counter attack using 70 large and 100 small ships built at Adulis in Ethiopia and 60 additional ships obtained from elsewhere along with an army that was reported to range from 70,000 to 120,000. He undertook two military expeditions into Southern Arabia in 523 and 525 which resulted in a complete victory and the restoration of Ethiopian authority over its territory across the Red Sea. (14)  “The success of the Abyssinian expedition in 525 A.D. has led to the founding of a new and powerful dynasty at Sanaa, the capital of Yemen”(15)

The other event that is even more renowned is the expedition to Mecca by the Ethiopian Emperor’s representative in South Arabia, Abraha and his army, which was accompanied by elephants. This occurred in 570 A.D. and according to Ethiopian historians, the main purposes of the expedition were to divert trade from Mecca to Sanaa and to destroy the Kabba which was at the time a place for worshipping idols. On his way to Mecca, Abreha’s force defeated two resisting armies. The story as to what transpired once the army reached Mecca varies. The Arab version which is related to this day is that the sky was filled with birds each of which had three pebbles of stone, one in its bill and the others in its feet. The birds dropped the pebbles on the Ethiopian army which suffered death and defeat. This expedition is referred to in the Holy Quran as “Um al-Fil” meaning the Year of the Elephant. The Ethiopian version, however, is that the Ethiopian Army was affected by the incidence of smallpox. In any case, Abreha returned with his army to Sanaa and continued his reign until he died and was replaced successively by his sons Yaksum and Masruk. (16)

The Ethiopian occupation of South Arabia was ended as a result of several factors including the waning strength of the Axumite empire, the harsh rule by Abreha’s sons in Southern Arabia, and the intervention by the Persian Empire at the request of one of the Arabian princes, Sayf b. Dhu Yazan.(17)

Nevertheless, the Horn of Africa continued, through Ethiopia, to be a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern affairs. This is illustrated by its strong and positive support on the advent of Islam in the 7th century when its first followers suffered persecution and the Prophet Mohammed advised them to take refuge in Ethiopia. He is quoted to have stated that Ethiopia had “….a king under whom none are persecuted. It is a land of righteousness where God will give you relief from what you are suffering.”(18) It is interesting to note that the Prophet chose Ethiopia as a place of refuge over Persia and the Byzantine Empire. He was wise in doing so as soon after the first migration took place in 615, the Meccan officials (the Quraysh) followed them to Axum and tried, unsuccessfully, to have them repatriated to South Arabia. The refugees numbering over 100 and including the Prophet’s daughter Rockeya and her husband Othman, stayed in Ethiopia for some 15 years and those who wished to do so eventually returned to their country safely.(19)

Another example of the continuing prowess of Horn of Africa’s Ethiopia is its invasion of Jeddah in 702 A.D. and its attempt, again, to march to Mecca. Another attack on Jeddah took place in 768. Both attacks were, however, repulsed.(20)

During the first millennium A.D., the Horn of Africa was reputed for its civilization and commerce. It had its own written language, an active trade with Egypt, Persia, the Arab Peninsula and India in valuable products including gold, spices, cassia, calamus, animals and animal products.(21) The Horn of Africa accepted Christianity (22) and Islam peacefully i.e. without any military duress.

With the increasing expansion of the Ottoman and Arab hegemony, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa became isolated and the region’s decline set in during the 9th and early 10th centuries. In addition, internal conflicts intensified thereby finally ending the glorious reign of the Axumite Empire.

  • Horn of Africa’s Millennium of Misery and Struggle for Survival
  • The decline of the Axumite Empire was precipitated by external attacks such as the one by the Bejan invasion as well as the devastating impact of Gudit’s attacks which resulted in the destruction of numerous churches and monuments. The fall of the Axumite Empire was finally made definite when the Zagwe Dynasty took over during 1030-1050 and lasted up to 1268 or 1270.(23). Nevertheless, as correctly observed by Bahru Zewde, there were periods during this millennium when the Ethiopian empire extended over a much wider area. In his book entitled “Church and State in Ethiopia 1270-1527”, Taddesse Tamrat states: “For a period of just over a century and a half after the establishment of the new dynasty in 1270, the Christian kingdom underwent an intensive process of expansion throughout the Ethiopian region. In the south, with the early conquest of Damot and Hadya….the presence of the kingdom was felt ….in the basins of Gibe, Gojeb, and Omo rivers ….The Falasha country was gradually brought under Christian control. King Yishaq (1413-30) probably sent his troops into the country of the so-called Shanqilla west of Agaw-Midir in Gojjam.”(24) Tadesse Tamrat further states: “More reliable sources indicate that King Dawit (1380-1412) took the offensive against Egypt much further than his father ever did. Maqrizi reports that in 1381 news arrived in Cairo that ‘an army sent by Dawit, son of Sayfa-Arad, king of Ethiopia, had entered in the territory of Aswan, had defeated the Arabs……King Dawit had in fact led his troops beyond the northern frontiers of his kingdom..” (25)

In reaction to the persecution of Christian Egyptian copts by the Mamluke sultans of Egypt, the Ethiopian King, Zara-Yaiqob (1434-68) “also made a reference to the Nile, which, he said, rose in his realms, and it was within his power to divert its course. He desisted from doing it, only for the fear of God, and in consideration of the human sufferings that would result from it.” (26)

Though such aggressions may not be condoned even in an historical context, these episodes nonetheless clearly indicated the extent of regional power exerted by the Horn of Africa during that period.

In any case, subsequent periods of internal conflict coupled with colonial interventions effectively ended the region’s military and economic predominance.

As far as the interests of the Horn of Africa were concerned, this millennium ended with its decline and fragmentation making it vulnerable to its age old enemies which for ever remained bent on weakening the region and attacking it at its moment of disunity and weakness. For instance, the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Ismail was pursuing his dream of establishing a huge African empire in order to make the Nile an Egyptian river and to annex the whole geographical area of its basin.(27) No wonder Egyptians had such ambitions as their country depended, and continues to depend, on Horn of Africa’s Nile River for 85% of their water supply. While the Mahdists of the Sudan were prosecuting their incursions into Ethiopia, Egypt was also trying to encircle it occupying its border on the Red Sea and going far inland up to and including Harar. The Egyptians waged two wars against Ethiopia at Gundet and Gura in 1875 and 1876 assisted by American mercenaries including General Loring who was Chief-of-staff and second in command of their army. The Ethiopians defeated the Egyptian army in both instances.(28)

By the middle of the 19th century, European colonialism was at its height and had its sight on the Horn of Africa. The British and the French were competing for the control of the Horn of Africa while the Ottomans and their Egyptian vassals were weakening. When an Egyptian garrison, a British surrogate, was under attack by the Mahdists, the British requested the assistance of the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes to rescue it. This was undertaken successfully under the infamous Hewett Treaty between Ethiopia and Britain in June 1884.(29) Under the Hewitt Treaty, a “country called Bogos” was to be restored to Ethiopia. The British, however, committed one of their worst betrayals against Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. “The problem for Britain was what to do with Massawa. So on October 20, three months after the ratification of the treaty, Lord Granville sounded Rome’s ambassador in London about eventual Italian occupation of Massawa, which he allegedly did not want to leave to the barbarians (read Abyssinia)* or to a rival power (read France)*…..On 5 February 1885 the Italians landed at Massawa.”(30) Thus, the British seed of betrayal subsequently resulted in the establishment of a colony within the Horn of Africa’s Ethiopia, which the Italians named Eritrea. The French leased Djibouti from Emperor Minelik while the British and Italians colonized Somaliland and Somalia respectively. The Italian attempt at colonizing the rest of the Horn of Africa i.e. Ethiopia suffered an ignominious defeat at Adowa in 1896. Although the Italians tried again during the Second World War, they were booted out after a short period of occupation.

*brackets: not mine.

The survival of Ethiopian independence was the beacon of hope from the Horn of Africa that ignited the yearning and struggle for independence by colonized people in Africa and throughout the rest of the world.

From mid-19th century onwards, successive Ethiopian Emperors particularly Tewodros, Yohannes, Minelik II and Haile Selassie I were largely engaged in uniting the country and resisting foreign domination. Emperor Tewodros was fully aware of what the colonialists were up to when he stated: “I know…..the tactics of European governments when they want to seize a country. First they send missionaries, then consuls to support the missionaries, then battalions to sustain the consuls. I am not a raja from Hindustan to be made a fool of like that: I prefer to engage the battalions at once”.(31)

During the 20th century, the last period of the 2nd millennium A.D. the Horn of Africa comprised of four independent countries most of which have been at war with each other: two wars between Ethiopia and Somalia, and one between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The millennium of misery has left the countries and people of the Horn of Africa destitute with the highest levels of poverty, environmental degradation, illiteracy, absence of democracy, and prevalence of pandemic diseases. Tribalism and corruption are rampant. The Eritrean and Ethiopian Governments were not even on talking terms let alone engaging in matters of common interest until Dr. Abiy Ahmed took over as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia and initiated fresh and positive contacts among the leaders of the Horn of African countries, especially the Eritrean Government. Nevertheless, instead of being a place of refuge, the Horn of Africa has still remained to be a region of emigrants subject to a continuous brain drain.

rd millennium A.D. the Horn of Africa finds itself facing extremely serious socio-economic and political challenges as well as opportunities. The big question at this stage is which direction the countries in the region as well as the international community should take for their long-term mutual benefits. There are options: at least two. One that is unacceptable is to continue with the legacy of the misery that afflicted the region during the 2nd millennium A.D. Regrettably, Ethiopia had occupied southern Somalia in 2006 in reaction to threats by fundamentalist Somali leaders. There was also a brief clash between Djibouti and Eritrea. The untenable situation of a no-war and no-peace condition between Eritrea and Ethiopia appears to have eased, thanks to the remarkable initiative by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy who has achieved a direct transformative process with the Eritrean Government. Somalia is known to be a failed state torn as its by clan affiliations, the establishment of semi-independent states, namely, Somaliland and Puntland, as well as the advent of Islamic fundamentalists e.g. the Al Shabab group. Ethiopia’s ethnic based political system is another major challenge to the achievement of peace and development in the region. The second option is to systematically do away with the fundamental causes that brought about the region’s current predicaments and make a concerted effort in achieving a collaboration for mutual benefits, peace and development in the Horn of Africa in a context of democracy, respect for human rights, transparency and accountability. The following aspects deserve a special consideration:

The most fundamental challenge facing the Horn of Africa today is the abject poverty that its people are suffering under. This is mainly due to a lack of collaboration among the regimes in the Horn of Africa as well as due to the prevailing poor governance, and underutilization of the region’s huge natural and human resources. At the international conference on possibilities for a confederation in the Horn of Africa, organized by the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Center in collaboration with the University of South Florida in November 2002, it had been resolved to recommend, inter alia, to initiate the preliminary measures needed to facilitate a confederation among Djbouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. It was also recommended that steps be taken to formulate a comprehensive development strategy for the region.(32) Accordingly,  a series of international consultative meetings are expected to take place the first one of which was organized by the Africa Program at the University of Texas (Arlington) in collaboration with the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Center  in Dallas, Texas during October 23-25,  2006. The proceedings of the conference can be viewed at There is no doubt that a carefully formulated and practical action towards a confederation in the Horn of Africa as well as the implementation of a comprehensive development strategy will be a catalyst for achieving an enhanced collaboration leading to an enduring peace and prosperity in the region.

The need to enhance democracy and rule of law is one other fundamental requirement in the Horn. Tribalism, corruption, arbitrary arrests and trampling on human rights are rampant. These are the realities that fuel the grinding poverty in the region and the breeding grounds for international terrorism. Meaningful changes for improvement can be achieved only if internal efforts are strengthened by concrete support from the international community which is capable of taking effective steps to inhibit dictatorship and create suitable incentives for positive change. Horn of Africa people living in the diaspora could also play a pivotal role by working together for achieving a meaningful change in the region. In his book: “Yekihedet Qulqulet” (approximate translation: The slippery slope of Betrayal), Mesfin Wolde-Mariam states: “When those who have the responsibility for ensuring the respect of law trample on it irresponsibly, they are leaving the door open for others to do the same.” He goes on to state: “We should learn from the sad conditions in Somalia how harmful and endless tribal conflicts are.”(33) The need for an appropriate constitution based on collaboration, mutual benefits, rule of law, democracy, development, accountability, peace, security, etc. has become obvious and a matter of urgency.

In this age of globalization and the pursuit of direct interests, it is essential to determine the extent to which there is a positive internal and external perception about the importance of the Horn of Africa.

It is evident that until H.E./Dr. Abiy emerged as the Ethiopian Prime Minister with his fresh and positive initiative regarding the Horn of Africa, previous regimes and numerous intellectuals in the Horn of Africa gave, in the most, scant regard to the strategic interests of the region as a whole bent as they were on internal conflicts and their mutual tensions including narrow tribal affiliations. They were part of the basic problem facing the Horn. On the individual level, some have been known to ask what, for instance, Ethiopia would benefit from collaboration in the Horn context. It would not be surprising if the same query is raised by individuals in the other Horn countries. The answer to such questions is that no enduring peace and development can be achieved in the Horn without mutual collaboration in the region based on democracy and mutual respect. The absence of collaboration will only mean the continuation of conflicts, tension and heavy spending on defense and security instead of investing the scarce resources for the benefit of the poorest people on earth. Loud words of bravado notwithstanding, the Horn of Africa ports on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean are important to Ethiopia while the huge natural resources in Ethiopia are essential for the other Horn countries. Above all, what bind the people in the Horn of Africa are their common history, culture, shared values, interests and geography.

Ironic as it may seem, the Horn of Africa which is at the bottom of any scale of economic development, does have substantial human, agricultural, water and mineral resources which, with good management and governance, would extricate it from the grips of the stifling poverty. In his excellent work expounding the potential for economic cooperation, Daniel Kendie has identified specific and practical development schemes that could transform the Horn of Africa into a self-sustaining and stable region which would not be vulnerable to international terrorists. The schemes he refers to include the establishment of a transport and communication system to link the various countries, the development of the Wabi Shebelle and Juba River basins, the exploitation of the natural gas and oil resources discovered in the Ogaden region, and the full utilization of the substantial agricultural and water resources including the highly beneficial project: the Nile River Dam.(34) The accelerated development of such a huge potential ought to be of direct interest to the people of the Horn as well as to the international community.

For their own selfish agenda, some so called leaders and intellectuals betray their legacy by alleging, for instance, that Ethiopia’s history is only a century old! For a fascinating discussion of this subject, please refer to Mesfin Wolde-Mariam’s book: “Yekehedet Qulqulet”. Horn of Africa’s rich history over several millennia is a matter of an established record not subject to whimsical manipulations based on narrow and myopic objectives of tribalism and thirst for power.

According to Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, Ethiopia (including Eritrea at the time of his writing) was of interest to USA only in terms of “its location across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, (and) was of no direct strategic value.” (35) He goes on to state that USA interests in the Horn were for the purposes of:

  • Protecting the sea lines of communication or oil lanes;
  • “Supporting Egypt’s efforts to protect its southern flank and the Nile waters”; and
  • Blunting destabilization activities aimed at Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western States. (36)

Mesfin Wolde-Mariam states: “For the United States, none of the countries of the Horn have any significance outside its material interests on the Arabian Peninsula, and the prosperity and military strength of Israel.” (37) He adds: “No country in the Horn or the Middle East has any strategic importance in a modern global and military sense. Their importance is purely regional and can be assessed only in terms of their capacities to affect each other. Beyond that they were of very little use to the superpowers, and they have very little use to the US today.”(38) Since the 9/11’s Al Qaeda attack on the United States and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the importance of the Horn of Africa has somewhat been enhanced in the context of the war against international terrorism. Ethiopia’s occupation of Southern Somalia has had the blessing of the international community despite an earlier resolution by the UN Security Council to the effect that the armies of the countries neighboring Somalia should not have been involved in dealing with the vocal challenges encountered from the fundamentalists in Mogadishu. It should be noted that the continued weakness of Somalia’s Government on the one hand and the increasingly emboldened fundamentalist, Al Shabab group, had left no option but direct incursion by Ethiopia in central and southern Somalia as requested. Kenya had also invaded part of southern Somalia. The African Union and IGAAD have so far been unable to provide an adequate peace making and keeping force in Somalia without involving Ethiopia. It is obvious that as a regionally significant power, Ethiopia’s engagement would be a matter of necessity as long as it is for mutually beneficial objectives.

It would appear, from the above, that the Horn of Africa is sadly of no strategic interest to the international community except in the context of international terrorism and the specific interests of some Western countries.  It would also seem that the USA, French and other forces present in the Horn of Africa are there, arguably, as mere preventive measures of containment. Sadly, the regimes in the Horn of Africa seemed, until the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy emerged with apparently fresh initiatives, to be playing along with the myopic western view about the region. Be that as it may, in the opinion of this writer, the strategic importance of the Horn would be in direct correlation with the extent to which there is unity, peace and development in the region. A divided house commands no respect or as per an Ethiopian saying: “Salt, be tasteful for your own sake”.

It has often been stated that Egypt is “the gift of the Nile” in view of its almost total dependence on the Horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia, for its water supply. Mesfin Wolde-Mariam states: “The Horn of Africa constitutes, for the Arab Peninsula, the gateway to the heart of Africa” (39) The relationship between the Horn of Africa and the Arabs in general over the last two millennia has not been one of a sustained collaboration and mutual respect. As has been presented above, the Horn had the upper hand during the first millennium while the Arabs have been having a negative impact on the region’s internal affairs during the second millennium. Current developments that should be considered with a serious concern include the presence of armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Eritrea; and from Turkey in Somalia as well as significant investments from Qatar. It is also well known that Djibouti is hosting various military and other presences from a number of countries including China. This, again, is the result of the Horn’s own internal fragmentation and disunity albeit resulting, partly, from the Ottoman, Arab, British, French, and Italian colonial onslaught on the region. The best option for both the people of the Horn and the Arabs is to take new and positive initiatives for the mutual benefit of both regions as well as the international community. Specific examples of such measures include: (a) The Nile Basin Initiative being promoted by the World Bank as long as the interests of the upstream states are duly protected; and (b) the proposal to establish a Red Sea Co-operative Council comprising all the countries surrounding the Red Sea including Ethiopia.(40) Such an institutional capacity would enable the 400 million people living in the wider region to take advantage of their complementary resources: human, agricultural, water, and mineral on the part of the Horn, and oil plus investment resources on the Arab side, as well as technology from the Israelis. The enhanced peace and development that could ensue from such initiatives would no doubt be of great benefit locally as well as internationally moving away from two millennia of conflict and distrust to an enduring partnership based on mutual respect, peace, security and an enhanced development.

As the only region that had, in part (i.e. Ethiopia), successfully survived the onslaught of Arab and European colonialism, the Horn of Africa certainly contributed positively to the continent’s renaissance and achievement of independence in the 20th century. No wonder that all the most important regional institutions concerning Africa i.e. the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and IGAAD are all located in the Horn of Africa. The Horn of Africa has been an active participant in African and UN affairs. Peacekeeping forces were sent to Korea, the Congo, Liberia, and Burundi from the Horn. The challenge in the 3rd millennium is how the regional institutions based in the Horn of Africa could make effective contributions to bring about concrete improvements in terms of socio-economic and political developments. Collaboration within the Horn of Africa would facilitate and enhance the achievement of the objectives of African unity as well as development efforts through the UNECA, the World Bank, NEPAD, COMESA, IGAAD, etc.

One of the most important developments at the onset of the 3rd millennium in the Horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia, is the increasingly substantial involvement of China, and, to a lesser extent, of India in the region’s trade and development. It is hoped that this development would be taken as an exemplary step especially by the neighboring Arab countries and the international community as a whole for mutual benefits so that the Horn of Africa region would extricate itself from its current abject poverty and become an effective partner in economic prosperity.

There are reports to the effect that Iran and Israel have, with Eritrea’s collaboration, set foot in the Red Sea. It is hoped that Israel’s motive would go beyond a mere self-interest to one focused on a long-term regional development and peace. Iran has a presence at the port of Assab. (41) Notwithstanding the concerns of some skeptics as to Iran’s motives, especially those that contend that Iranian presence in the Red Sea area would pose a threat to the important international sea lane that is critical especially to the west, it is hoped that Iran’s genuine intention is to contribute to the development of trade in and with the Horn of Africa rather than increasing the tension that is already debilitating the region. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Iran’s move would be watched by the international community with a great deal of interest.

In his farewell address on September 17, 1796, George Washington stated: “The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”(42)

In 1993, Tesfatsion Medhanie had urged Eritrea and Ethiopia “….to work for a process whereby the two states would be reunited within a framework of confederation”. (43) His prophecy that the alternative would be war turned out to be regrettably quite accurate. The ill-conceived policy of secession has brought about disastrous consequences including a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in which over 70,000 people lost their lives. Since the UN peacekeeping force left the Eritrean side of the border, the tension between the two nations caused serious concern among the affected people as well as the international community until the emergence of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who initiated an environment of tranquility. Current relations among Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia appear to be positive but need to be placed on firm grounds by formulating and establishing effective mechanisms including socio-economic and political collaborations for the achievement of peace and development in the Horn. This was certainly the case during the preparations for and arrangement of the international conference on prospects of a confederation in the Horn of Africa  which took place in Tampa, Florida (

The fundamental causes of extreme animosities vary but they could be ascribed to the highly controversial and negative policy of secession and ethnicity adopted in the Ethiopian constitution and the lack of focus on opportunities for the common benefit of the region’s population. It is surprising to note, for instance, that certain political entities try to use Horn of Africa wide efforts for the promotion of their narrow minded ethnic oriented agenda instead of promoting visions of unity and integration. They care little for the dire consequences of pitting tribe against tribe. Others are engaging in religious fundamentalism. The article in the Reporter on 1/12/04 about the attempt by the Wahabists to influence the election of officers for the National Ethiopian Majlis for Islamic Affairs using 4 million Saudi Riyals is very revealing. For more details, please see Hibret Selamu’s article: “Proof of Wahabi Activities in Ethiopia”, on Ben’s News Page. It would seem that external elements with latent motives intend, hopefully in vain, to arouse religious conflicts in Ethiopia.

It is incumbent on all interested parties, including those in the diaspora, to seek all ways and means of responding to the divisive issues afflicting the Horn in a positive manner having regard to the interests of the poor people and not for the mere perpetuation of power and corruption. In this regard, it would be useful to consider seriously the findings and recommendations contained in the Declaration on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in the Horn of Africa adopted at the conclusion of an international conference held at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, USA on November 11, 2011 organized by the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Center. (please see .

As stated above, governments in the Horn are engaged in preliminary efforts to promote peace and development in the region. However, urgent and meaningful initiatives need to be enhanced  in the region as well as the diaspora in order to facilitate practical discussions and awareness of the opportunities and challenges facing the Horn and the international community. An example of such an initiative is the recent establishment, but unfortunately currently dormant, of the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Centre as per Texas laws ( The Centre’s mission is to facilitate dialogues and research on the Horn’s socio-economic and political issues. The anticipated institutional arrangement of the Centre is such that while its headquarter will, at least initially, remain in USA, its sub-committees are expected to be established, in due course, in each of the four Horn countries.

Another important shortcoming is the lack of focus by Horn political parties on the region’s issues. It is time that they recognize the fact that they need to widen their perspective to regional and international issues if they do intend to strengthen peace and development in their own respective countries.

The active participation of political, civic, community based and non-governmental organizations including associations, churches, mosques, academic institutions, the media especially the private sector, etc. in the important quest for peace and development in the Horn within a democratic and equitable framework could go a long way to achieving the eventual objective of a united, strong and self-reliant Horn of Africa.

The main lesson to be learned from the Horn of Africa’s experience during the 1st millennium A.D. is that it was a world power when the people were at peace and united under effective leaders with appropriate vision and strategies. When they were able to devote energies to the defense and development of their region, they achieved a high rate of success both at home and abroad.

The Horn fell to bad times during the 2nd millennium A.D. There are lessons that should be learned from the negative causes that brought the region to such depths of utter poverty and insecurity. Quite aside from external factors such as colonialism, the main factors that had devastating effects on the Horn were and continue to be internal. These include the highly devastating effects of myopic tribalism or ethnicism, lack of democracy and good governance, corruption, and the absence of a cohesive vision and strategy that could bind the people of the Horn together for the common good.

There is now a fresh opportunity to learn the right lessons from the successes and failures of the past two millennia and proceed positively on the path of peace, unity, democracy and sustainable development during the 3rd millennium A.D. Will there be hope for the Horn of Africa?

  1. Prospects of a Red Sea Cooperative Council
  2.  Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the Red Sea has become one of the most important sea lanes in the whole world. Billions of dollars worth of goods including oil are being transported through the Red Sea which facilitates quite a robust trade between the West on the one hand and the Middle East and Asia in general on the other hand.

What is, however, easily noticeable is the fact that the countries adjacent to the Red Sea, particularly those on the African side are mere observers of this huge trade flowing relentlessly in front of their noses but are not part of it in any meaningful manner.

For all intents and purposes, the Red Sea is, as far as the adjacent countries are concerned, a huge ocean keeping them apart instead of serving as a medium of collaboration and mutual support. Unlike the Arab Gulf Cooperative Council which brings together Arab countries adjacent to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea is being utilized merely as a trade sea lane for the rich and the powerful in the West, Asia and Australia.

Immense benefits could accrue to all the countries surrounding the Red Sea only if the governments were to come together and chart out an appropriate strategy and action plan to make full use of the huge resources that the region as a whole could offer for the benefit of their peoples currently totaling 200 million and increasing to over 400 million in 20 years.

Among the potential benefits of collaborating in the context of a Red Sea Cooperative Council, the following could be sited as examples:

The existing mutually advantageous resources among the adjacent countries e.g. oil and investment on the Arab side and agricultural, mineral, water, and human resources on the African side could be exploited for a common advantage including the avoidance of an unnecessary conflict regarding the Ethiopian Nile River Dam;

The mostly underdeveloped eleven seaports around the Red Sea could be upgraded to provide, similar to Dubai, Singapore, etc. international standard maritime service thereby bringing in increased trade and development;

The utilization of the Red Sea for common advantages would render it a region of peace instead of the current situation which has made it an area of serious potential dangers involving, on the one hand, France, Israel and the United States, and Iran on the other hand;

The peace and stability that could prevail as a result of a sustainable collaboration among the countries adjacent to the Red Sea could go a long way in alleviating the current state of conflict, grinding poverty, and endemic diseases such as malaria and TB;

The underdeveloped but huge resources especially on the African side such as water, agriculture, minerals, and the environment could be put to a better advantage for the benefit of the region’s people as well as for the international community;

Effective utilization of the region’s resources as well as the achievement of peace and stability in the region could relieve the international community from the perennial demands for financial and other assistance;

The achievement of a sustainable development through an integrated or a holistic development strategy that spans all the countries in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) as well as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Yemen would bring about a level of prosperity that would, among other things, avoid making the region a breeding ground for international terrorism.

There are, unfortunately, serious underlying constraints mitigating against a meaningful collaboration among the countries adjacent to the Red Sea. The constraints are so inhibiting that the whole idea of collaboration in the region appears, at least at this stage, highly speculative and a virtual pie in the sky. Evidence of the negative line of thinking includes the presence of military contingents of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Eritrea as well as the expected Turkish military contingent in Somalia. Such a line of thinking, however, merely subscribes to the current state of affairs in which countries in the region continue to be at loggerheads among each other thereby perpetuating conflict and poverty.

In order to move towards the higher objective of collaboration in the region, it is essential to identify the challenges clearly and meet them headlong. Otherwise, there would be no prospects of achieving peace and development in the region. The underlying challenges facing the region at the moment include:

The myopic interests of the international community; for instance:

China which is merely interested in short-term gains: selling its services and obtaining some natural resources;

India which is interested in obtaining land at give-away rates in Ethiopia;

The Arab Gulf countries which are, in the most, intent on short-term gains including exporting Wahabism to Ethiopia;

Europe which seems to be interested in keeping the region at bay and selling its products at a very minimal level;

USA which appears to be satisfied with keeping the region under its control against international terrorism;

Japan which is satisfied in selling its products also at a minimal level;

The absence of good governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights in the

region and the prevalence of a huge system of corruption;

The ineffectiveness of the international and regional organizations such as the

UN, AU, IGAAD, etc. in dealing with the serious economic, social

and political challenges resulting from the obviously flawed policies of the

various governments;

The presence of leaders in the region that are intent on merely subjugating their

respective people and have no qualms about perpetuating a state of conflict with

their neighbors;

Even a cursory look at the Red Sea region’s history, and current status, will reveal that it is marked with conflict, continued tension, and the absence of any mechanism or institutional framework for collaboration. Egypt and Ethiopia have engaged in over ten wars with each other. They had occupied each others’ territories. Ethiopia had occupied parts of Saudi Arabia as well as Yemen for centuries at the beginning of the first millennium. Ethiopia and Somalia have engaged in devastating wars. Over 70,000 people have died as a result of the recent war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Religious fundamentalists supported by Arab sources have caused huge conflicts within Ethiopia and Somalia.

On the other hand, there are also positive aspects that could be considered a harbinger of peace and development in the region. Examples of these include the first Muslim refugees from Mecca to Ethiopia when they were persecuted there and directed by Prophet Mohammed himself to flee to Ethiopia where they would find adequate protection. Over 100 of the Muslim refugees including Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, Rockeya and her husband, stayed in Ethiopia and returned to Mecca when peace prevailed there. Another important example is the fact that 86% of the water that cascades to Egypt in the form of the Nile river emanates from Ethiopia. In addition, Ethiopia is currently engaged in the development of hydropower and wind energy that would be of benefit to the region. Taking into account the huge water quantity that evaporates from the Nile River and the water that flows out of the Nile Delta into the Mediterranean Sea, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that even if part of this resource could be saved, it could be utilized by those nations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia whose needs for water are bound to increase in the future.

Despite the above positive examples, however, the extent of collaboration and mutual benefit from the region’s huge natural and potential resources is unfortunately highly limited. What reigns supreme in the region is mutual animosity, suspicion, tension, intolerance instead of collaboration for mutual benefits.

3.4 Need for a Red Sea Development Council

It is, therefore, time for the governments and people of the region to consider forming a mechanism for a full collaboration among themselves. This could be in the form of a Red Sea Development Council (RSDC) with a vision for peace and an accelerated development in the region. RSDC could formulate the region’s policy, strategy, and action plan (short-, medium, and long-term) focused on the achievement of the fullest stability, democracy, and an accelerated socio-economic development.

In order to achieve a practical meaning to the fundamental concept behind the principles of RSDC, arrangements could be made whereby regional frameworks of collaboration could be established on issues of mutual interest such as research, trade, industrial activities, social services including regional sports programs, intellectual services, communication such as joint television, radio, internet, and other media operations.

In order to avoid any semblance of hegemony on the part of any country within the RSDC, it would be essential to ensure that institutional mechanisms are established including internationally agreed legislations, policy declarations and institutional arrangements so that all member countries are treated in an equitable manner. This should include the establishment of RSDC Centers in all member countries, chairmanships of RSDC annual conferences on a rotating basis by heads of the various member governments.

The establishment of a Red Sea Region with a leadership having a clear vision, strategy, and an action plan (short-, medium-, and long-term), in a democratic context could engender a lasting peace and an accelerated development that could place the region among the major partners on the global level. The region would thus finally extricate itself from being one of the areas of tension, poverty and under-development (on the African side), and exporter of fundamentalism (on Saudi Arabian side), to an era of a lasting and sustainable peace and an accelerated development.

  1. The Red Sea Region as an Area of Peace and Development for the Horn of Africa, the Adjacent Arab Countries and Israel

There is no doubt that with a leadership that has a positive vision and initiative, the prospect of achieving the required peace and development could be brought to reality for the benefit of the countries in the region as well as the international community.

The region that is blessed with immense natural resources including water, mineral, energy, geo-political significance, etc. could be put to a sustainable advantage instead of the current challenges of poverty, conflict  and endless threats.

It is, therefore, extremely important to initiate pragmatic measures aimed at achieving a Horn of African Confederation as well as a Red Sea Cooperative Council.


  • Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, “The Horn of Africa: Conflict and Poverty”, 1999, pp.68-69
  • German Foreign Policy Strategy on the Horn of Africa, website update, January 2004
  • Sergew Hable Sellassie, “Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270”, 1972, p.22
  • , p.64
  • Pankhurst, Richard, “The Ethiopian Borderlands”, p.1
  • Naville, E. “The Tomb of Hatshopsitu, Her Life and Monuments”, 1906, p.26 (cited by Sergew Hable Sellassie op.cit., p.21
  • Sergew Hable Sellassie, “Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270”, 1972, p.25
  • , p.80 (cited from H. von Wissman, “Himyar”, p.191
  • , p.121

(10)Miles, S.B., “The Countries and Tribes of the Persian Gulf”, p.24

(11)Levine, Donald N., “Greater Ethiopia”, 1974, p.7

(12)Kendie, Daniel, “The Five Dimensions of The Eritrean Conflict, 1941-2004”, p. 5

(13)Ibid., p.7

(14) Sergew Hable Sellassie, “Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270”, 1972, p.128-137

(15) Miles, S.B., “The Countries and Tribes of the Persian Gulf”, p.24

(16) Op.cit., pp.135-154

(17) Ibid., pp.155-157

(18) Ibid., p181

(19) Ibid., pp.182-186

(20) Ibid., p.195

(21) Ibid., p.141

(22) The Holy Bible, New Testament, The Acts, Chapter 8 Vs: 26-40

(23) Op.cit., p.239

(24) Taddesse Tamrat, “Church and State in Ethiopia, 1270-1527”, 1972

(25) Ibid., p. 255

(26) Ibid., p. 262

(27) Rubenson, Sven, “The Survival of Ethiopian Independence”, 1976, p.311, citing Donia, “Ismail”

(28) Ibid., p.324

(29) Ibid., p.356

(30) Ibid., p.362; Source: Giglio, “Ethiopia-Mar Rosso”, Vol. I, pp335-54, 369-83

(31) Ibid., p.231: cited from Lejean, Theodore II, p.160

(32) Tampa Declaration, 2002 (from the Institute on Black Life, University of South Florida website)

(33) Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, “Yekehedet Qulqulet”, EC 1996, pp 120 and 171

(34) Daniel Kendie, “Problems and Prospects for a Horn of Africa Confederation”, 2002

(35) Lefebvre, Jeffrey A., “Arms for the Horn”, 1991, p.270

(37)Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, “The Horn of Africa-Conflict and Poverty”, 1999, p.84

(38) Ibid., pp.95-96

(39) Ibid., p.79

(40) Kidane Alemayehu, “Turn from the Brink-an Opportunity for Eritrea, Ethiopia and the International Community”, 2001

(41) Be Amer, Yaser, “Assab Port, A Cause for Serious Dispute Between America and Iran”, Al Watan, Feb 5, 2010.

(42) Cited by Lefebvre, Jeffrey A., “Arms for the Horn”, 1991, p.3

(43) Tesfatsion Medhanie, “Ethiopia, Eritrea and Confederal Union”, 1993

Brief Resume

Note: Kidane Alemayehu is a retired United Nations official after serving for 28 years as Senior Advisor in Africa  (Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, The Gambia, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, and Swaziland) and the Middle East (Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). Prior to that he had served for 12 years during Haile Selassie I’s government as a senior official in the Ministries of Education, and Interior as well as the Telecommunications Board in Ethiopia. Among his many activities, he is credited for having founded the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Centre. For more details, it would be useful to refer to his book: “My Journey with the United Nations the Quest for the Horn of Africa’s Unity and Justice for Ethiopia” (2017)