The Horn of Africa (alter natively north-east Africa, and sometimes Somali peninsula) is a peninsula of East Africa that extends for hundreds of miles into the Arabian Sea and lies along the southern side of the geostrategic ally important waterway of the Gulf of Aden. It is the easternmost projection of the African continent. The term also refers to the greater region containing the countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. As such, it covers approximately 1,242,742 square miles (2,000,000 square kilometers) and is inhabited by about 86.5 million people. In the 2000s, the term Horn of Africa has often been extended to cover the member countries of the region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), namely Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda (this more expansive definition is disputed by some scholars). Regularly hit by both natural disasters (floods in Somalia, droughts in Ethiopia and Eritrea) and violent conflicts, the Horn remains among the world’s poorest regions.
History Of The Region
Many countries in the region have proud historical roots, reaching back as far as four thousand years in the case of Ethiopia (whose emperors claimed lineal descent from King Solomon of the House of David). Partly colonized by Italy (Somalia and Ethiopia) and France (Djibouti), the countries of the Horn regained their independence between 1941 (Ethiopia) and 1993 (Eritrea). During the cold war era, ever-changing alliances between the countries of the region and the two superpowers, as well as frequent conflicts, characterized the region. Far from increasing stability, the end of the cold war and the subsequent diversion of superpower attention away from Africa’s proxy battlegrounds further fueled the region’s many conflicts.
In 1991, the expulsion of Somalia’s long-reigning dictator Siad Barre led to Somalia’s descent into a civil war. A United Nations (UN) intervention (UNISOM) between 1991 and 1995 failed to reconstitute the state. While the situation in southern Somalia has since further deteriorated, the northwest of the country (Somaliland), which had declared its de facto independence in May 1991, seems to have managed a transition to democracy, reaching a climax with parliamentary elections in September 2005.
In Ethiopia, the civil war between the Communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam (which had toppled the monarchy in 1974) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led by Meles Zenawi and Issais Afewerki’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) finally came to an end in 1991.Two years later, Eritrea officially seceded from Ethiopia. Both countries have since fought several times about disputed territories, most recently in a war between 1998 and 2000 that cost approximately seventy thousand lives.
In Sudan, a coup d’état brought General Omar al-Bashir and his National Islamic Front (NIF) to power in 1989. As a result, the long-running civil war between the Arabic and Islamic north of the country and the African and Christian south escalated and fighting between government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) intensified. Following substantial international pressure and the dispatch of a UN mission (UNMIS), a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005.
Prevalence Of Conflicts In The Region
Despite certain positive developments such as the peace accord between North and South Sudan, the situation in the region has further deteriorated in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Somalia, for example, entered a new conflict phase in June 2006 when fighters of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized power in Mogadishu, causing Ethiopia to intervene in December 2006. Since March 2007, an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force (AMISOM) has been deployed to Somalia but, as of mid-2009, has failed to create stability in Mogadishu.
Concurrently, the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea over the border enclave of Badme remains unresolved. The ruling of an international arbitrary commission, the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC), has not been implemented. In July 2008, the mandate of the UN observer mission (UNMEE), in place since 2000 to keep the fragile peace between the two countries, was terminated.
The Sudan continues to be the theatre of several conflicts, of which at least one, in the western province of Darfur, is intensifying. Despite the presence of a twenty-seven thousand strong joint United Nations–African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) and substantial international attention, the fighting between local movements and government-supported Arab militias known as Janjaweed has already cost up to five hundred thousand lives.
These conflicts all led to seriously strained interstate relations in the region. In order to improve these relations and provide an anchor of stability, in 1996, the countries of the Horn decided to transform the region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (IGADD) into a broader cooperative venture addressing issues of peace, security, and development. Renamed Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the organization has since made great strides in bringing the region’s states together in common projects, such as the creation of a regional multinational brigade as part of the African Union’s planned African Standby Force (ASF) and a regional conflict early warning system.
International Interests In The Region
Given the prevalence of conflict in the region as well as its geostrategic location, it is not surprising that the Horn of Africa continues to be the subject of considerable external interests (both African and non-African). Fearing the Talibanization of Somalia (as a safe haven and training ground), the United States, for example, has substantially increased its engagement in the region. The United States maintains particularly close relations with Ethiopia, which may eventually even serve as the location of the U.S. strategic Africa command (AFRICOM) currently being established in Stuttgart, Germany. Several other countries, such as China, India, and Malaysia, have increased their presence in the region to satisfy their growing needs for natural resources. In order to curb the increasing piracy in the region and safeguard the Babel Mandab, an important chokepoint for international trade located between Yemen and Somalia, the international community has launched two maritime missions (NATO’s Operation Enduring Freedom and the EU’s Operation Atalanta) to monitor the waterways.
The State Of The Region
Since the 1990s, the Horn of Africa has become a synonym for despair. Ranging from serious interstate conflicts, civil wars, piracy, and terrorism to regular natural catastrophes, the problems of the region appear virtually insurmountable. The most pressing challenges confronting the region at the end of 2009 included the deteriorating situation in Somalia, the radicalization of Eritrea, and the various potential hotspots in Sudan, ranging from Darfur and the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court to an upcoming referendum between the north and the south of the country. Without significantly increased support from the international community, a lasting solution to any of the Horn of Africa’s manifold problems will remain out of reach for the region and its member states.
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- Flint, Julie, and Alexander de Waal. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books, 2008.
- Jacquin-Berdal, Dominique, and Martin Plaut, eds. Unfinished Business: Eritrea and Ethiopia at War. New York: Red Sea Press, 2006.
- Kibreab, Gaim. Critical Reflections on the Eritrean War of Independence. New York: Red Sea Press, 2007.
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