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Challenges to Integrating the Horn of Africa Region (HOA): IGAD as an Alternative- Part I

By Faisal Roble

Editor’s note: This study consists of two parts: part one looks at the setting of the Horn of Africa region and its implication for integrating the region at this time.  Part two will evaluate the merits and demerits (benefit cost analysis) of Somalia joining the HoA region versus IGAD.


The ascendancy of Dr. Abiy Ahmed to the premiership of Ethiopia in April 2018 ushered an unprecedented political change. Prime Minister Ahmed quickly transferred power from the Tigray-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) to its hitherto junior Oromo partner (Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, now Oromo Democratic Party).

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

In due course, the new premier significantly changed the trajectory of history at least in several major ways; he has already put state power into the hands of the Oromo majority.

The December 8, 2018 issue of the Economist Magazine correctly captured the shifts at hand: “Prime Minister Abiy has acted quickly, lifting a state of emergency, freeing thousands of political prisoners and vowing to hold fair elections in 2020. He has signed a peace deal with Eritrea reopening the long-closed border with what was once a mortal enemy. Accordingly, the UN secretary-general recognized these changes as a “wind of hope blowing across the Horn of Africa.”

He has also proposed a tripartite Horn of Africa (HOA) regional integration covering Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. To follow suit, in the months of June to October 2018, he shuttled between these three countries culminating in the issuance of a highly publicized communique on November 10, 2018 to formalize the vision for the HOA integration, despite Djibouti was left out. However, beneath Prime Minister Abiy’s enthusiastic and overreaching clarion calling for integration are multifaceted socio-political challenges, which is the subject of this essay.


In a recent policy briefing paper, SIRDA institute gives a cursory review of the challenges and recent political history of the HOA. This region is geographically contiguous characterized by acute poverty, underdevelopment and lack of good governance. Corruption is rampant.  More seriously, it is cursed with a history of conquest, political conflicts and social disorders that make it one of the most incongruent political geographies in the continent. The region is unique in that it has produced Africa’s lone Black colonial power and the attendant subjects; hence it shares with Russia the infamy of being “the prison of nations,” suggesting that there is a locally produced colonial power and its subjects.  Those colonized believe that their brand of “Black colonialism,” is characterized by repeat cycles of state violence and is harsher and more devastating than that imported from Europe.

The Horn of Africa

In the last 30 years, the region has seen collapsed (Somalia) or semi-collapsed states (Ethiopia, Eritrea) states in the thick of ethnic and clan hostilities as well as unresolved contemporary political entanglements.  I will argue that these critical challenges, mainly within the Ethiopian body politic, are not conducive to a hastily organized and understudied regional integration for Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea; Prime Minister Abiy’s proposal so far excluded Djibouti. However, in my analysis for this article, I will consider Djibouti as part of the HOA.
The HOA region reads different things to different people. The proposal of PM Abiy thus far covers only three countries. To hardcore environmentalists, Somalia is the lone HOA country.  To others, Sudan and South Sudan are included.  Still, others include Kenya and Uganda.  For the purpose of the Ethiopian-led proposal for regional integration, the HOA is conveniently meant to comprise Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, even though PM Abiy has yet to include Djibouti in the tripartite negotiations. 

Weaponization Population: A Regional Reality that Should Worry Somalia

When, in July 2018, a young Gurage man asked Prime Minister Abiy a political question and wanted to know the reason why the Gurage nation cannot have its own regional state, he answered this way: “Why would you need a state and confine yourself here when you can go and work and live in Mogadishu.” The PM’s answer here has two dimensions. One is that such a response to   Gurage was a stereotypical and racist answer implying that Garages have more interest in money making than in governance and politics.

The other was an implicit indication of Ethiopia’s longing for a scheme to creating a gateway for its massive population to the over-populated agricultural belt of Ethiopia and use Somalia’s less dense districts as a sway out. If not carefully watched, Ethiopia’s massive population can be weaponized to easily overwhelm Somalia and the region in general.

The four HOA countries occupy approximately an area of 1,882,757 sq. km. with a total population of 126 million broken down as follows: Ethiopia tops with 104.3 million, followed by Somalia’s 11.4 million; Eritrea is about 5.5 million and the tinny city-state of Djibouti stands at a little less than a million. In short, Ethiopia’s population is 6 time the size of all those three HOA countries combined.

CountryPopulation (2016)Density: persons/sq. km.GDP in BillionsHuman Dev’t Index rank/188
Ethiopia104.3 million11093174
Somalia11.4 million23N/AN/A
Eritrea5.5 million536.3179
Djibouti0.9 million372.1172

Table: I Source: African Development Bank Group, 2017.

The average population density of the region is 56 persons per sq. km. By world standard, it is within average density. For example, Bangladesh is on the high end of 1,250 persons/km as of 2016.  Ethiopia on its own has a relatively higher density of approximately 110 population per square km, comfortably higher than the world’s average of 56 persons/square km.  Eritrea’s 53 persons/sq. km is an acceptable average, followed by Djibouti’s 37 persons/sq. km, and Somalia’s paltry 23 persons per sq. km. Both Somalia and Djibouti have half of the world’s average density, making them land rich and population poor in the face of Ethiopia with a massive population.

Ethiopia’s density is much higher in its northern provinces. Gonder, for example, averages a density of 175-180 persons per sq. km; in highly density area, it is much higher.  On the contrary, the Somali regional state under Ethiopian occupation is as low as that of Somalia. In addition to high density, Ethiopia will expand its lead in population strength into the future and will further dwarf the rest of the region. By 2040, Ethiopia will register a total population of approximately 165 million as opposed to Somalia’s 21 million; the delta for Somalia is only 6 million in more than two decades, whereas Ethiopia will add approximately 60 million to its population for the same period.  As shown below chart, Ethiopia houses about 84% of the entire regional population, which makes it inescapable for a future dominance dominant and would have serious policy implications for the HOA region. 

In the past, the search for new territories informed Ethiopia’s feudal expansion to the south and its colonial conquest of Somalis.  According to John Markakis, “land hunger was the prime force that propelled the spectacular territorial expansion of the northern Christian kingdom in the late 19th century and led to the creation of Ethiopian Empire.”  That Empire has always been organized into two incongruent layers – a Center where Ethiopian identity has taken roots and the Somali periphery region where Ethiopianism largely remains absent. A weaponized population by Ethiopia can easily colonize Somalia and other countries in the region, directly or indirectly.

Ethiopia sits in the belly of the HOA region, and it shares borders with all the three countries. Additionally, it shares common borders with Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya, making Ethiopia the beast in the belly that connects the rest of the greater Horn of Africa region. The centrality of Ethiopia and its dominant population in the HOA region, therefore, would call for a clear population policy regionally as well as by each respective country.

It is simply a matter of time to feel the impact of Ethiopia’s population by Somalia and Djibouti.  As a matter of fact, north-south migration has already started in earnest; an estimated 1 million Ethiopians have already settled in Somalia, following the demise of the Somali state – this population is larger than the current entire population of Djibouti and it is about 9% of the total population of Somalia. Future unplanned north-south migration would certainly shape the geopolitics of regional integration, and if left unchecked, will lead to conflicts on land and water resources. A multinational policy intervention and a workable mitigation plan is needed before it is too late.  Such a plan is mainly to the advantage of Somalia and Djibouti where more Ethiopian immigrants are expected to settle. If not managed, an Ethiopian population avalanche can negatively impact the Somali peninsula.

Whereas it is certain that integrating the region will help Ethiopia unburden its weighty population growth, it is uncertain the degree to which a north-south migration would benefit Somalia.  There are those Somalis who believe an integration would also benefit Somalis for the simple fact that they are business entrepreneurs.  Often the success Somalis have had in Kenya is cited.  However, the Kenyan experience is much different from that of Ethiopia.  First, of all, Ethiopian feudal system has serious barrier to free market, a problem that Kenya does not have.  Secondly, the level of animosity Ethiopians have for Somalis is so unique that Somalis never ventured for more than one hundred year into traditional Highland of Ethiopia. Anecdotally speaking, there are more Somali-owned business in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, UAE, and even Minnesota than there are in traditional Ethiopian areas. It is plausible to suggest that if such a north-south migratory trend in the future takes place, it could be a one-way passage towards the Somali peninsula, and this will exacerbate conflicts on meager resources in the Somali peninsula, including in the Ogaden oil resources in the Somali Regional State.

The Geography of Poverty and underdevelopment

The HOA region’s relatively small GDP of $92.6 billion (2016) testifies to the high level of chronic poverty. The economy of the region is by far what economists call an import substitution-based economy, where a country exports raw material in exchange for hard currency to buy finished goods such as consumer materials.  For example, Ethiopia’s economy is based on exporting gold (21%, coffee 19%, Khat 19%, live animals and oilseed).  Although data is scarce, Somalia also exports livestock, bananas, skins, and fish, charcoal and scrap metal. In exchange, everything that matters in life is imported to both countries, and that kind of development model perpetuate poverty and underdevelopment.

However, Ethiopia has been registering an impressive economic growth averaging about 10.4%. Between 2000 and 2016, Ethiopian GDP was the third fastest-growing-economies-in-the-world , only behind that of Myanmar and China. Accordingly, the IMF projects an impressive growth at the rate of 6.2% to the year 2022. This sustained growth for the last 15 years led to a reduction in poverty (from 30% to 24%). Most of the gains are concentrated in urban areas because the engine driving such a fast-paced growth were services and transportation sectors. These two sectors share two attributes: foreign investment and development of infrastructure both of which were concentrated in urban areas. In the same token, according to World Bank data, life expectancy in Ethiopia is now one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa while that of Somalia is one of the lowest.  Moreover, school enrollment has improved in the case of Ethiopia while that of Somalis is dismally low.

However, rural poverty in Ethiopia remains high.  By some estimates, over twenty million rural people live under extreme poverty. In the case of Ethiopia, 33.5% live below the poverty line; only 30% of rural people have access to water (the same is true for Somalia). Sanitation conditions are generally at unacceptable levels. Approximately 67% of Ethiopia’s rural residents lack sanitation. Things don’t fare better when it comes to providing for birth-age mothers. Additionally, improvement in the health sector is particularly lagging. For example, inEthiopia for every 40,000 residents, there is one doctor compared to Somalia’s 14,000 residents to one doctor.  Only less than 10% of births in the region are attended by a health care professional inside or outside a medical facility.

Food shortage in the HOA

In the last twenty years, food dependency of the region on outside sources has dramatically increased; while local food production fell by about 20 percent region-wide, food import rose by about 4%. Such a dependency trend has been exacerbated by massive displacement of civilians who are now housed in permanent refugee camps in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. As of 2018, as many as 13 million people are “food insecure,” of whom 7.9% is in Ethiopia compared to 2.7% in Somalia (or 25% of the entire population) and another 2.4% in Kenya (World Bank). 

Since Dr. Abiy Ahmed took the premiership, about three million people, mostly Somalis, Guji, and Oromo, Gedeo have been displaced by a surge of ethnic conflicts.  Somali inhabited areas show extreme shortage in food availability, while the entire region is at the risk of risk of perpetual famine.  The root cause to such an extreme shortage in food availability is the political disarticulation in Ethiopia and Somalia.  Another factor contributing to shortage in food in the region the Greenhouse. Livestock in the Somalia peninsula, a main source for food and wealth, has been devastated by climate change in the last two years, and there are no public services to mitigate food shortage in the region.

 Historical Disarticulation

If poverty and underdevelopment are the common denominators that tie the HOA region together, history, religion, and political conflicts equally divide them. Divisions are within and between countries in the region. Religious differences, for example, prominently feature in Ethiopia in that the society is divided into Muslim, Christian and a small number of Judaism followers.  Within Christians, the division is along Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholics. The ever-growing Pentecostal Church, which is making remarkable inroads into the traditional Orthodox society, raises the spectrum of conflict between the followers of these two churches.

The Pentecostal church has in the last few years emerged as a powerful sect in contemporary Ethiopia. Many of Ethiopia’s contemporary ruling elites are devoted Pentecostals.  PM Abiy Ahmed, his predecessor, Haile Mariam, and Abiy’s powerful alley and the regional president of Oromia are all members of the Pentecostal Church.  In general, members of Team Lema, a euphemism for the newly empowered ruling elite that is largely of Oromo extraction, are followers of this Church. In a recent article, “God wants Ethiopia to Prosper,” the Economist Magazine (November 24, 2018) gives a fascinating account of the growth of Ethiopia’s newest religion, accounting for under 5% in 1984 to about 20% in 2018.  By 2040, it could easily rival the Orthodox believers. 

The historically disenfranchised Muslim majority has been carrying unmistakable patch of dishonor for generations.  Ethiopia never had a Muslim leader, except Ali Yajju, who went by the name of Ali Gwangul, popularly known as “Ali The Great, who ascended to the throne after he defeated Atse Tekle-Giorgis I, Emperor of Ethiopia in 1784” writes Fikre Tolossa, Ethiopian Review, 1992. Ali of Yejju, whom the Orthodox Church denounced as a Muslim, despite Ali’s counterclaim that he was both a Christian and an Oromo, never earned the recognition of the Church.  The Islam factor in Ethiopia is a batch of dishonor for being a member of oppressed and debased community.

As a matter of fact, most of the nations and nationalities who are historically oppressed, such as Somalis, Afar. Benishangul, Eastern Oromo happen, to be Muslims and are treated as a second-class citizen. To be Muslim in Ethiopia, therefore, is synonymous to be a member of an oppressed nation or nationality. The intersectionality between Islam and oppression is described by F. Peter Frod’s “Christian-Muslim Relations in Ethiopia.” If Ethiopia’s 1970s revolutionaries believed that the “national question is a peasant question,” it is rather more fitting to argue today that the national question in Ethiopia is a Muslim question.

The closest that Muslims came to shade off the yoke of Amhara-Tigrigna Christianity-based domination came not in Ali Yejju but in Ahmed Al-Khazali (Ahmed Gury) who in the 16th Century conquered most of Ethiopia, including parts of Gojjam and Gonder.

However, following that eventful day of Rabi’ul Awal, a Sunday morning, when Garad Mattan Usman Khalid was killed at Ankobara, the Somali conquest of Abyssinia was reversed for good; the region has since assumed a lasting political geography where northern Christians became rulers of Southerners including Somalis, Oromo, Afar, and others.

Ethiopia’s Precarious Political Geography

Somalis, Afar, Oromo, and other groups are part of Ethiopia not by choice but by a conquest in history.  The geographies of these nations have been violently incorporated into the Ethiopian empire. Today, nations like Somalis, Afars, Sidama and others are only part of this ancient empire by the current military complex of EPRDF.  In the case of Somalis, the struggle to be free has been going on for the last 150 years.  From the 1948 Geri revolt, through the 1960s Geesh movement, the 1977 Western Somali Liberation Front-led war (WSLF), and the 1984-2018 Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) insurgency, the struggle to be free remained unabated (Selassie, 1980). The same is true for Oromo, whose armed struggle took shape in the early 1970s; the same could be said for Afar, and Sidama. The historical similarities between these groups lies in the history of conquest that violently incorporated them into the Ethiopian ancient empire.

The impacts of Amhara-Tigrigna conquest of the South persists to date, despite leadership change at the top and the coming of Prime Minister Abiy. A recent survey of major job centers in Ethiopia (Airline, energy and banking sector) by the Oromo Media Network (2018) found out the near suffocation level of dominance of Amhara-Tigrigna elites of key positions in all these sectors remains unabated. In fact, the modern sector of the economy is dominated by an entrenched Amhara-Tigrigna elite.

The political history of Ethiopia is the history of conquest. It is a history unique only to the region.  Successive governments ignored to address the question of conquest. The late Meles Zenawi, who took power after his TPLF defeated the Dergi regime, promised to resolve the country’s vexing national question.  Not only did he fail, but he established a one-party dominant system of government presided by the minority Tigre, whose elite looted the country. Relations between nationalities hit an all-time low. As a result, Prime Minister Abiy inherits a divided country fraught with a volatile inter-ethnic conflict and a disarticulated polity that is a far cry from a democratic one. In fact, Meles Zenawi is responsible for the death of thousands of Somalis in Mogadishu and in the Ogaden region in 2007 when he masterminded a national emergency blockade of food and medicine for four zones.  In some circles, there is a credible argument that Ethiopia committed genocide in Mogadishu and in four zones in the Somali Regional State.

Promising reform and referendum, both the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) signed an Eritrean-brokered peace treaty with Prime Minister Abiy’s government towards the end of 2018.  In return, both fronts agreed to voluntarily disarm. However, expectations for a transformative change has been scaled down, especially after an open conflict broke out between Abiy’s troops and those loyal to OLF in December 2018. On the ONLF side, political clarity as to their goals and objectives are less clear. In a recent tweet by the ONLF leadership, the Front uncharacteristically praised both the change and the leader that is leading Ethiopia, PM Abiy. In the Somali region, ONLF is still weighing its options for some of the promises made to its leaders have been rolled back. Whether ONLF finally accepted the territorial integrity of Ethiopia is yet to be seen.

History is in the way of Ethiopia to forge ahead with a regional integration in the HOA. However, dealing effectively and democratically with its ethnic question could pave the way for a meaningful regional integration. Particularly, any integration with Somalia is predicated on how and when the Somali question in Ethiopia is addressed.  Democratically handling this question can create a more conducive environment in the future. To the contrary, if Addis Ababa bits ONLF against the recently installed administration, the region will succumb to the 1994 scenario and the idea of HOA integration will remain a pipedream.

Some of the hope that came with the ascendency of Abiy Ahmed to the office of the premiership are already slipping out of hand. The surge in Oromo nationalism represents a serious test to the existence of Ethiopia as we know it. Tigray region is outside the control of Addis Ababa; the solidity of the new love affair between Ethiopia and Eritrea has yet to be seriously evaluated. Also, Ethiopian troops are fighting inside Somalia, and the region today is blanketed not by the democratic reforms PM Abiy promised, but the clouds of war like that of 1994.  

By Faisal Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.

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