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Imperative Issues for Durable Peace and Stability in the Horn of Africa

Close up picture focused on Djibouti on a colorful map of the Horn of Africa with its main routes marked in red and with the rest of the countries blurred out
Close up picture focused on Djibouti on a colorful map of the Horn of Africa with its main routes marked in red and with the rest of the countries blurred out

The Horn of Africa remains a region marked by persistent conflicts and the constant risk of instability. The unprecedented realities in the recent conflicts in Sudan and Ethiopia indicate how the region is susceptible to state failure. 

Socioeconomic factors and historical ties have specifically affected the rise of conflict within the region. This then encourages the development of national, regional, and global based policies that can aid in its resolution. Issues that tend to garner the most attention include democratic governance, border disputes, and the usage of Nile Waters. Moreover, there should be more efficient and timely regional responses to conflicts to prevent immense human suffering and destruction.

Thus, the past and current experiences in the area provide the regional countries, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union (AU), and global partners the opportunity to critically assess how far their efforts helped to address underlining issues. This can help them to design better approaches to preventing or responding to conflicts. 

Democratic Governance and Inclusion in National Affairs

The lack of democratic governance and restricted participation of citizens in national affairs is a persistent challenge in the Horn of Africa. Formal democratic rule still lags in many countries in the area, except for Kenya, which has better experience in conducting elections. This lack of formal democratic processes is attributed to a lack of political accountability and outdated democratic institutions.

Failing to establish democratic order and pluralism in the region is a major factor in creating socioeconomic inequalities and poor governance practices. This ultimately pushes communities towards political methods of extremism, which can easily brew longstanding conflicts. Lack of democratic order further prevents the implementation of effective peacebuilding in the region. The current realities in Sudan and other parts of the sub-region affirm that taking up arms is still considered an easier option to achieve political objectives. 

These factors urge governments of the Horn to be courageous for a political transition that ensures democratic governance and inclusion of diverse voices. Governance structures should create open and accountable institutions. In this regard, the role of civil society is critical in building an institutional foundation for democratic order and pluralism in Horn states. 

IGAD and international partners, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union, should also emphasize their supportive role for democracy thriving in the region. Through its political affairs program, IGAD can set up a common platform with member states and partners to revitalize initiatives for promoting democratic governance.

Unresolved Disputes and Tension across Borders

Border disputes have been a common phenomenon in most of the Horn states. Such as the unresolved border issues between Ethiopia and Sudan over Al-Fashaga or between Kenya and South Sudan over the Ilemi triangle. Recent uncertainties in the disputed land of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan following the Sudanese conflict are among other potential threats of instability in the region. The recent history of Ethiopia and Eritrea’s war over the border control of Badme gives a hard lesson on how border disputes may have devastating effects.

To avert violent conflicts, regional countries must establish or revitalize bilateral mechanisms like the joint boundary commission or, as in the case of Ethiopia and Sudan, a joint committee that provides effective communication channels. In addition, Horn states should cooperate to expand socioeconomic activities at their common borders, including border trades that can boost interdependence among communities. Parallel to this, regional countries should work on demarcation, as some of them have already agreed to do so. As the demarcation process requires significant resources and technical know-how, besides individual states efforts, IGAD can set up a regional framework to help facilitate and mobilize resources and technical assistance. 

The Nile Waters 

The Nile Waters issue will continue to be a potential threat of instability unless a lasting solution is achieved. While there has long been a lack of trust between Ethiopia and downstream states—Egypt and Sudan—their relationship further deteriorated due to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Attempts to resolve their differences, including through the tripartite declaration of principles could not bear fruit. The UN Security Council encouraged the three countries to proceed with the AU-led negotiation. 

Though a concrete resolution was not conducive enough for the AU to restart the negotiation process due to conflicts in Ethiopia and now Sudan, resuming the process is critical to reaching a mutually agreed solution. 

International partners should support the AU-led negotiation process between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. It is worth noting that AU’s partnerships with the United StatesEuropean Union, and the United Nations, among others, on its peace and security agenda provide an opportunity to help prevent and resolve conflicts. Of note, during the AU-led negotiation of the Ethiopian conflict in Pretoria, the complementary role of the United States contributed to the AU’s success in achieving a peace deal amongst the parties. Accordingly, the AU can replicate a similar methodology of using the complementary role of partners agreed upon by the negotiating parties. 

It is recommended that the three countries work on building direct lines of communication through bilateral or trilateral engagements even before the start of the negotiation. This is to further encourage the establishment of trust and understanding. 

Implementing policies that involve citizens in national affairs, build open and accountable institutions, and open regular channels of communication with their neighbor states can help regional countries address the causes of conflict.

Regional Responses to Conflicts

IGAD is primarily expected to release a regional response to conflicts in the Horn. It played an instrumental role in peace negotiation processes in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Its Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) has helped to reduce conflicts in border areas of some member states. IGAD has also been working to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Despite IGAD’s efforts for regional peace and security, member states’ concern for sovereignty and its weak institutional capacity hindered the regional bloc to prevent and respond to conflicts effectively. In addition, the competing interests of external actors contributed to creating a challenge for a regional response to conflicts. 

Now, it is time for IGAD to change its course. Besides, strengthening CEWARN and other mechanisms, it should build the capability to prevent and respond to conflicts, including institutionalizing sanctions against those threatening regional peace and security. In addition, triangular cooperation between the AU, IGAD and the East Africa Community (EAC) should be established to strengthen the Eastern Africa Standby Force (EASF) response capacity.

Regional leaders should establish a political commitment to strengthen IGAD’s institutional capacity based on the agreement establishing the regional organization. Member states should not engage in initiating separate blocs within the sub-region. This is due to the increased potential of weakening the larger regional body and member state cooperation, particularly in regard to peace and security. 


The Horn of Africa region has faced multifaceted issues causing violent conflicts and threatening regional peace and stability. Implementing policies that involve citizens in national affairs, build open and accountable institutions, and open regular channels of communication with their neighbor states can help regional countries address the causes of conflict.

IGAD should strengthen its institutional capacity and capability to prevent and respond to conflicts. The AU on its part, in addition to coordinating with IGAD and regional countries to prevent and respond to conflicts, is encouraged to further implement the complementary role of partners when leading negotiations to resolve issues of conflict such as the Nile Waters usage. Similarly, global long-term partners have a crucial role to help address major issues of conflict in the Horn of Africa. 

Nebiyu Daniel Meshesha was a former Ethiopian diplomat that served at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi and Washington, DC. He has BA degree in Political Science and International Relations and MA degree in International Relations from Addis Ababa University.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Nebiyu Daniel Meshesha

Former Ethiopian Diplomat for the Ethiopian Embassy

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more