By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*

Geographically, the Horn of Africa today consists of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. In 1936, Italian colonialists captured Ethiopia and combined it with their existing colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to form their Italian East Africa.

Realizing the enormous economic potential of this region, the Italians allocated 133 million British Pounds for the first phase of development, an amount by far larger than what the British allocated for their African colonies. They built, in record time, a network of roads, 4,410 miles, and bridges, bearing the marks of their engineering at its best. The huge investment in road works rapidly paid off as transportation cost of a ton per mile fell from 60 cents to 8 cents on paved roads and to 16 cents on other roads.

However, Italian East Africa was short-lived; lasted five years only.  Ethiopia won its independence in 1941 and Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia in 1952.  Somalia and Djibouti became independent in 1960 and 1977 respectively. But by 1991, the Somali state disintegrated (Mogadishu and Hargeisa went their separate ways) and Ethiopia fractured into two parts: Eritrea with its center at Asmara, and Ethiopia proper centered in Addis Ababa.  Only Djibouti remained relatively stable.

Presently, the Horn is not at peace with itself. Ethiopia and Eritrea do not see eye to eye, neither do Eritrea and Djibouti. Somalia is still struggling to reconstitute itself. What happened to the Horn states? There are two schools of thought: One school argues that African states have not yet become nations. Ethnic heterogeneity, social cleavages and lack of a shared political culture and legitimizing doctrine are blamed for this.

This school sees a modern nation-state as one that has a politics of nationalism within the context of state institutions. This can occur after the gaps between elites and non-elites and between modern and traditional sectors are closed by the performance of middle level elites.

The second school of thought treats African countries as colonial countries, inhabited by colonial peoples even though they may be formally independent nations. They are viewed as the product of nineteenth century struggle among European powers for colonial occupation.  Hence, African countries are led by a small colonial bourgeoisie, serving as an agent of imperialist rule. As a result, they develop, if at all, as a response to the development of the imperialist center. Furthermore, this school asserts that because the colonial boundaries fragmented ethnic groups and loyalties, it became difficult to build viable nations in Africa.

Both schools provide us with valuable insights, but what they leave out is also quite interesting. For instance, the first school does not ask why ethnic heterogeneity did not prevent nation building in England, France or the United States of America. Furthermore, how come ethnic homogeneity did not save Somalia from disintegration, or why did Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war in 1997 despite both being ruled by the same Tigrinya-speaking ethnic group?  Similarly, the second school does not ask why the colonial bourgeoisie, which led African countries, served as an agent of communist countries and non-European regional powers.

The main problem of modern nation-state in the Horn, however, seems to be weak economy, which failed to provide the populations an adequate source of security.  During the Cold War period the Horn countries survived mainly by using the superpowers or getting used by them; and consequently, they lacked the motivation to introduce reforms necessary for economic growth and development. Thus, with the collapse of the former soviet system and change in superpower politics, the Horn states became weak and their populations regressed towards ethnic identity for their security.

As a result, nationalist forces acquired overwhelming growth and strength and worked for the dissolution of the old states and forming their own. Nationalist struggles undermined existing social cohesiveness and fragmented national markets. It is now bringing the various ethnic groups on to a collision course. In Ethiopia, for instance, a so-called Amhara domination is unravelling. This could force the center to collapse and peoples in the entire region to fight one another. What takes place in Ethiopia affects the rest of the region. Ethiopia is central to peace and development in the Horn.

Given its rich potential, (see table below) Ethiopia can serve as an anchor for a shared market and broader democracy in the Horn. A viable and strong center country is essential for pulling all Horn countries together. For example, in southern Africa, South Africa plays such vital role in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Ethiopia can do the same, if it can embark upon a genuine transition to a market economy and democracy.  What should be done?

The first requirement for a genuine transition to a market economy and democracy in Ethiopia is a permanent consensus on a representative government, accommodating Ethiopia’s vast diversity. There has to be a government with national legitimacy that can build a democratic development for all.  A regime government that serves the interest of a particular group hampers such a democratic development.  Furthermore, a regime government creates barriers for upward mobility and independent experiments, thereby inviting periodically violent and destructive feuding for succession.

Ethiopia is made of diversity and has to learn to live with it.  All individuals, groups and interests of the society have to be encouraged to reach a permanent consensus on the issue of a representative government. No group in Ethiopia can be better off on its own than as a productive member of a larger Ethiopian community.  However, no group would prefer a larger community unless there is mutual benefit from such a union.

The second requirement for a genuine transition is a permanent consensus on a collective identity for a united Ethiopian nation.  There will be no popular unity as long as one group imposes itself on the rest of the society.  The diversity of language, culture and religion in Ethiopia has to be acknowledged and protected and conditions for its promotion have to be encouraged.


  Table 1: Looking at Horn Countries (2012)                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

  Djibouti Eritrea Ethiopia Somalia*
Surface Area 23,200 sq. km 117,600 sq. km 1,104,300 sq. km 637,660 sq. km
Population 859,652 6,130,922 91,728,849 10,195,134
Population Growth Rate 1.5% 3.3% 2.6% 2.9%
Population Density 37 per sq. km 61  per sq. km 92 per sq. km 16 per sq. km
Labor Force 294,586 2,954,933 43,591,175 3,011,344
Cropland 0.00% of land area 0.02% of land area 1.10% of land area 0.05% of land area
Arable Land 2,000 hectares per capita 690,000 hectares per capita 14,565,000 hectares per capita 1,100,000 hectares per capita
GDP $2,418 Million $3,091 Million $41,718 Million $5,896 Million
GDP per Capita $2,700 $504 $455 $600
Source: The World Bank, The World Fact Book (CIA) & National Atlas of the World.

*With Somaliland


Ethiopia’s ethnic conflicts and rivalries could be constructive if structured so that one group alone cannot dominate a government.  These conflicts and rivalries cannot be ignored or banned. They are inherent to the political system, and could be shaped with compromises to benefit all groups and interests of the society in a balance of power arrangement that no member of the system be discriminated against or destroyed because that would imperil everyone else.  Everyone has a stake in the survival of even his or bitterest enemy.  Such a foundation may be possible for Ethiopia’s political system.

Before kilil (ethnic separation), something new in the history of Ethiopia, was imposed in 1991 by the current regime, Ethiopia was in a much better shape than the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda and Burundi, where it became the aim, not to just discriminate but to exterminate.  Although in Ethiopia, ethnic and religious inequalities are as old as the country, Ethiopians were not mutually hostile people until kilil was introduced.  Kilil is a discriminatory system, which denied equal citizenship to millions of Ethiopians.  “No government that denies the basic rights of its citizens is entitled to claim legitimacy” according to The United Nations Charter.

The third requirement is a permanent consensus on the primacy of the free market system as the fundamental principle of economic policy.  Private property, price and profit are the tenets of the market economy.  Thus, land and all other productive assets have to be freed from state monopoly.  Private ownership of land has to be allowed and enforced by law.  If land and other productive assets remain in private hands, no others can possess power; and consequently, the population can influence government to be responsive to its needs.

The fourth and most important requirement for transition is a permanent consensus on an all-inclusive arrangement for a peaceful dialogue among all parties, including the current regime.  The door has to be kept open for all that would like to participate in building a democratic future for Ethiopia.

Last but not least, there has to be clear rules of behavior to limit cooperation of outside powers with Ethiopia’s repressive regime. The United States and its Western allies seem to be content to doing business with the current government in Ethiopia. However, the fate of Ethiopia is not independent of the United States and its Western allies.  Negative effects in Ethiopia could be linked to the involvement of the United States and its allies.

Thus, the United States and its Western allies have a duty and responsibility to put pressure on the current regime in Ethiopia to embark upon a genuine transition to a market economy and democracy. The United States and its Western allies are capable of fostering such a transition, but this capability will not be realized unless there is a united voice in the West among all Ethiopian immigrant communities for a genuine transition to a market economy and democracy in Ethiopia.  More rebellions and clashing political forces may soon be set in motion again.  The alternative now or after more bloodshed and dying is embarking upon a genuine transition to a market economy and democracy in Ethiopia. Only such a transition can generate peace, capital and leadership for development and successful crafting of a framework for a shared market and broader democracy in the Horn.

*Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ferris State University; still teaching at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.