The Nordic Africa Institute has published an excellent paper on one of the world’s most conflict prone regions: the Horn of Africa (which, broadly defined, encompasses Somalia/Somaliland, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and parts of Kenya, Sudan, and Southern Sudan).
Kidane Mengisteab, the author, does an especially good job analyzing “the core and contextual factors” that underlay the large number of “inter-state, intra-state and communal” conflicts that have long plagued the region. By examining history, social relationships, the fragmentation of institutions, and regional politics, the paper is able to get at the driving forces that have created vicious cycles of social exclusion, weak government, and zero sum competition for resources. It correctly articulates that any solution will have to include simultaneous efforts on “diversity management, nation-building, democratization, and institutional reform at all levels.”
The paper’s strength lies in its examination of issues that are typically neglected, such as the institutional framework that shapes how societies and states operate:
The countries of the Horn, like most other African countries, are characterized by fragmented economic and institutional systems. The economic systems in the subsistence peasant and pastoral communities and those that the state and the modern sector operate under are often incompatible. The institutional systems that correspond to the different economic systems are also different. Customary land ownership rights and resource allocation mechanisms, as well as the systems of adjudication and resolution of conflicts in the two spheres, are disharmonious and represent different economic, political and cultural spaces. Such fragmentation of the political space exposes the segments of the population adhering to traditional economic and institutional systems to economic and political marginalisation, as is evident from the disproportionately high poverty rates and low access to public service among the peasant and pastoral communities.
Government ignorance of customary property rights laws, resource allocation mechanisms, and conflict-resolution systems when, in most cases, the overwhelming majority of their populations are governed by such institutions, is a major factor behind conflict across Africa and many other fragile states.
Although still tentative, Ethiopia and Kenya, the countries with the most developed administrative systems in the region, are at least taking some steps to address these issues. Somaliland, possibly because it is the best example of bottom up state formation on the continent, has depended on customary practices since its founding (as there was no government to impose an alternative).
The clash between the states and societies plays an underappreciated role in the issues that receive the most attention by outside researchers and policymakers, such as “the predatory nature of the state, the unaccountable governance and the ethnocratic and self-serving characteristics of the leadership.” These latter issues should be seen as products of the institutional frameworks within which the state operates rather than independent variables that can be directly addressed. Reworking the institutional frameworks are thus a prerequisite to promoting stability, good governance, inclusive leadership, and development.
Many of the Horn’s intra-state conflicts are caused by some combination of real or perceived social exclusion (as embodied in uneven levels of development) and how elite competition, ineffective governance, and the ethnocratic characteristics of the state play out. Neighbors often intervene on the side of government opponents because they see weak central authority as being in their own interests. Border disputes, such as those between Ethiopia and Eritrea, can end up playing a role weakening many states because the countries involved work through proxies to gain advantage.
Inter-communal armed conflicts are often fought between different ethnic and clan groups over resources such as land, water and even livestock. Deteriorating environmental conditions and rapid population growth generate a scarcity of resources, increasing the chance of conflict.
The report describes the two failures that characterize the states in the region:
One failure relates to the self-serving behaviour of most leaders and other functionaries of the state. Given the weakness of the political systems, leaders are often able to subordinate broad social interests to their own private interests, including monopolising political power. Often they also become ethnocratic . . . since they tend to rely on ethnic affiliations to secure their power. In some cases, such self-serving leaders may even perpetuate wars and ethnic/clan conflicts when they find them to be instrumental in extending their hold on power.
The second and more general failure relates to lack of understanding of the nature of the contextual impediments and/or inability to transform them. The legacies of precolonial empires and colonial state, thus, remain largely intact. The fragmented ethnic groups in the region have seen little by way of arrangements that would help alleviate their burden. . . . The postcolonial state also continues to operate on the basis of imported institutions and is largely oblivious to the institutions adhered to by most of its population. Efforts at transforming traditional modes of production and thereby at harmonising the fragmented modes of production have also been grossly inadequate. Under the prevailing institutional and economic fragmentation, neither nation-building nor viable democratization is feasible.
The paper goes on to say (with obvious exasperation):
None of these intergovernmental bodies has been effective in reducing the conflicts of the region. Although the continent is replete with border disputes, intergovernmental organisations, including the African Union, have yet to develop effective mechanisms for settling boundary disputes before they escalate into war. . . . It seems the resolution of African conflicts is often outsourced to actors outside the continent.
Unfortunately, as I have argued elsewhere, the best way to deal with many of these issues is at the regional level. The paper concludes:
The success of regional integration schemes is, therefore, imperative not only for economic development but for internal and regional peace and stability.
There is also great need to research and creatively link up the multiple competing institutional systems that weaken governance in these countries, as I mention here.
Democratisation also requires reconciliation of the fragmented institutions and integration of the fragmented modes of production. Effective democratic governance under conditions of fragmented and incoherent institutional systems is hardly conceivable. Institutional reconciliation, in turn, implies contextualisation of democracy to ensure it reflects local realities and becomes relevant to the population under both institutional systems. Without institutional transformation, current democratic efforts lack the foundations to develop into genuine democratic systems that bring the marginalized segments of society into the political process.
Unfortunately, there has not been much effort towards structural and institutional transformation in the region, without which the region, sadly, is likely to remain conflict-prone for the foreseeable future. There has also not been much research undertaken into how the state can reconcile the fragmented and incoherent institutional systems.