By Balal Mohamed Cusman
Monday July 3, 2023
The history of the Horn of Africa is marred with conflicts. Communities in the region had and still have different views and interpretations about historical events and their significance, particularly conflicts. The difference in views and significance of various aspects often stems from disparities in ideological, political, and cultural interpretations, as well as occasionally from traditional storytelling narratives within different countries and communities.
The countries and the communities in the region experienced various forms of conflict throughout their history. At the communal level, some of the major drivers of conflicts could have been ascribed as a result of general political instability in the region, grievances, ethnic conflicts, religious tensions, and competition for resources (land, water, and grazing), whilst, on the other hand, the conflicts between the countries is mainly attributed to the political and the hegemonic aspirations of one country or ethnic over the other. As a result, countries in the region fought bloody wars in the past resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more further undermining any effort for this region to enjoy peace and stability. Another key factor that contributed to the complications in the region is poor governance, which countries in the Horn of Africa have been experiencing for the better part of their contemporary history. Last but not least, external innervations from the big and middle powers in the region had exacerbated the already fragile situation in the region. One distinct example of such foreign innervation was that, during the Cold War Era, the region was a hub for proxy wars between the then USSR bloc led by Russia on one hand and the NATO bloc led by the United States on the other hand further contributing to the rift between the countries in the region.
Although the cold war is long gone, the region is still subject to geopolitical competition prompted by its strategic location and untapped resources. So far, all the attempts to fundamentally solve the conflicts in the region didn’t produce a lasting solution partly because the underlying factors were not thoroughly considered or if any, they were short-term oriented exercises. Once again, another noticeable example of such a failed trial to superficially solve one of the longest conflicts in the region was in 1986 when the then leaders of Somalia and Ethiopia took preliminary steps to discuss the resolution of their long-standing territorial disputes. As a result, the two sides claimed that they, in 1998, reached a peace settlement and agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations, withdraw troops from border areas, and exchange prisoners of war. Both parties committed to refraining from employing or intimidating the use of force against one another's territorial integrity or political independence. But the historical root causes that initially gave rise to these conflicts encompassing factors such as border disputes, historical grievances, injustices, ideological disparities, and marginalization were not adequately considered, rendering the agreement a temporary respite for the leadership at that time.
The only tangible step taken achieved towards reconciliation was the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and prisoner exchanges through ICRC mediators. These examples are not isolated cases specific to the Somalia – Ethiopia conflict but all the evidence shows that the same applies to the whole region – where there has been/is conflict. Therefore, given the persistent inability of past efforts to bring about lasting solutions and the continuous cycle of fighting between countries and/or communities, coupled with the lingering grievances from previous conflicts that still reside in the hearts and minds of the affected communities, I was prompted to reflect and devise a new model that may hold the potential to resolve these entrenched conflicts in the Horn of Africa region.
Where there are deep-seated cases of grievances and bloody wars are fought, such as the case in the Horn of Africa, resorting to a simplistic reconciliation method could be ineffective, making it necessary to employ a combination of fitting-reconciliation methods that consider the complexity of these deep-rooted issues and thereby can galvanize a common recognition, acknowledgment, and understanding of the past events. First, as an essential condition for achieving long-lasting peace and prosperity allowing the healing of past wounds and then rebuilding the trust and cooperation necessary for a common approach and sustainable peaceful coexistence for all in the future.
Conflicts are by nature an unavoidable part of human relationships, be it at personal, communal, or national levels. However, since conflicts are an inevitable part of our lives, maintaining a harmonious coexistence requires a common approach to conflict resolution, in other words, a common approach that is inclusive and equitable is necessary to solve such conflicts. For the conflict resolution process to be considered as inclusive and fair by all parties, there should be a mutually acceptable process that can satisfy all stakeholders. In the Horn of Africa region, each stakeholder has his own unique historical perspective about the past events/conflicts, therefore to cultivate a lasting peace in the region, the perspectives of all sides must be heard and taken into account as a starting point. This could be the beginning of a unique conflict resolution process in the region leading to the creation of a conducive environment that can promote recognition and understanding. Creating a safe and supportive environment where people feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and experiences without fear of judgment or retaliation, particularly from the authorities is also necessary. This involves, among other things, setting ground rules for communication behavior that promotes personal safety, respect for human rights, and supports understanding between sides. Ultimately, one should avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions based on preconceived notions or biases, at this stage, as everyone involved in the process has his/her own preconceived beliefs over the other, and until differences are bridged, a common approach towards finding a mutually acceptable solution could be difficult.
Besides, the concept of using armed forces to achieve peace and stability may sometimes seem practical and it is true that there has been a noticeable instance where, through military means, peace and stability were restored. One classical example of such situation that, so far, worked well is the Second World War (WWII) where the Allied Forces defeated Germany, Italy and Japan Axis Powers through the barrel of the gun with the ultimate goal of creating a sustainable peace. However, given the history, it is worth noting that the use of force had never worked in the Horn of Africa and it may never work in the future because any previous attempts for one country to conquer over the other in the Horn of Africa through military means has failed miserably. Therefore, I want to rule out the “use of force” as a method to bring peace and stability into this region. As stated in my previous article (/op4/2023/apr/190637/sustainable_peace_and_stability_for_horn_of_africa_region.aspx), to find a common approach towards resolving the conflicts in the Horn of Africa, it is essential to employ a combination of non-traditional and traditional conflict resolution methods. Therefore, the rest of this article will delve into an examination of these two approaches. e
Non-traditional Conflict Resolution Method:
As a starting point for solving historical conflicts, employing a non-traditional method involves all parties recognizing and acknowledging past conflicts and their historical significance as a prerequisite. This entails showing remorse for the consequences of the historical events and creating a common understanding about them to form a common approach to solving differences for future coexistence. This is also an essential step in the process of healing and reconciliation – a step that is always overlooked in the process of conflict resolution in the Horn of Africa Region. This involves all parties acknowledging and sharing the reasons behind the historical conflicts, experiences, and perspectives of different communities. It also involves one’s confession to take responsibility for his/her actions and the consequences that followed. Collectively acknowledging and confronting mistakes made and the negative impacts that those historical conflicts may have had on the different countries and/or communities leads different communities to fully understand on each other’s perspectives. This also creates a safe and supportive environment and makes people eventually work collaboratively towards a shared future and thereby develop a plan moving forward. Sometimes problems could only have existed for a false interpretation of the historical events forming a mistaken public perception that one country/community develops over the other. Therefore, recognizing and acknowledging historical conflicts in a fair and inclusive manner exposes those false narratives and interpretations of the historical events, making communities easier to move forward for more peaceful and harmonious coexistence. However, failure to address historical events and jumping to conclusions to superficially make peace agreements may only result in short-term relief at best.
Traditional Conflict Resolution Method:
This conflict resolution method is by nature forward-looking, and it mainly involves focusing on identifying and exploring current conflict and thereby trying to find options that meet the present needs of parties involved in the conflict. This may sometimes lead to compromises and concessions between warring parties but most of the time, these compromises, and concessions never last long. As we have mentioned earlier, having a common understanding of historical events is a prerequisite for having peaceful coexistence. Agreeing on the root causes of the conflict(s) and showing remorse for the harm that has been caused by these historical events can help to promote a sense of closure and allow communities to move forward. This is particularly important in situations where there have been significant human and financial losses such as the perpetuated conflicts in the Horn of Africa region.
Bearing in mind the Geopolitical importance of the Horn of Africa region as well as the abundant natural resources endowed to this region leaves us to ask ourselves who should take the peace initiative in the first place. In response to this question, I strongly believe that any peace initiative in the Horn of Africa Region should be home-grown (Indigenous). Therefore, establishing an Indigenous Organization mandated to find a lasting solution to these centuries-old conflicts can be a powerful tool for promoting lasting peace in this region. An organization with experts consisting of all countries from the region who can understand the nature of the historical grievances, feelings, and perspectives of the different communities should be able to find a more just and equitable society leading to a better outcome for all. Most importantly, establishing such an indigenous organization is likely to earn the trust and confidence of all communities. An equally important issue is that countries of the region should solely finance the activities of such an organization to protect the independence of the organization’s activities and most importantly to shield the organization from external influence. The fact that this region has over the years produced intellectuals with the right skills, knowledge, and experiences, there should be no reason to resort to foreign entities for a solution.
The different views and interpretations held by each community about historical events had proven to become the biggest obstacles to finding a common approach for everlasting peace and stability in the region. Therefore, any attempt to find a common approach towards a peaceful coexistence between the communities in the Horn of Africa shouldn’t be ashamed to revisit and unpack those historical events to bridge the historical differences and to create a common understanding about them in order to forge a shared future for all. Similarly, the escalating geopolitical competition worldwide and the significant geopolitical importance and abundance of natural resources in the Horn of Africa with the potential to attract even more players into the game and the fact that, nowadays, creating conflicts seems to be an easy means to control countries and communities should be seriously taken into the consideration.
Finally, it is my belief that the societies in the Horn of Africa have now developed the desire for lasting peace and thereby stand as one of those areas in the world where conflicts, if approached and addressed with the right intention and acknowledge past faults, learn from them and make amends, can strive to become a better version of themselves, however, if left unattended, these conflicts can escalate and turn increasingly violent, leading to enduring and persistent conflicts, which may significantly affect the rest of the world. _____________________________________________________________________
Balal Mohamed Cusman the former State Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Somalia. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]