The conflictual state of the Horn of Africa
Located on the easternmost peninsula of the African continent, the Horn of Africa, home to the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia (including Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda, if we refer to the broader definitions of the region), is notorious for being one of the most violent, conflict-prone, and frangible regions in the world. This vulnerability stems from a complex mix of historical, political, and socio-economic factors.
Many conflicts in the Horn of Africa are born from different colonial experiences. Of all the countries in the region, only Ethiopia has never experienced colonialism. Instead, Ethiopia participated in the imperial partitioning of the African land and peoples by annexing Eritrea and the Somali-inhabited Haud and Ogaden regions. These expansions, combined with the involvement of European colonials, resulted in the incorporation of diverse ethnic groups and territories into Ethiopia, creating a long history of border disputes in the Horn of Africa. For instance, Somalia rejected the colonial boundaries that were drawn without taking into account the needs and identities of local communities as it was trying to consolidate its legitimacy as a newly established independent nation-state in 1960. Similarly, Eritrea opposed the formation of the Ethiopian–Eritrean Federation, which was imposed by Western powers in 1952 based on their geostrategic interests, that abolished Eritrea’s federal institutions and autonomy, reducing it to a mere province in a centralized state. The colonial legacy of border disputes continues to this day as many cases remain unresolved, such as the struggle for the disputed lands of Abyei (between Sudan and South Sudan), Al-Fashaga (between Ethiopia and Sudan), Badme (between Ethiopia and Eritrea), and the Ilemi Triangle (between Kenya and South Sudan).
Another persistent challenge in the Horn of Africa is the lack of democratic governance and limited civic participation. In recent years, there has been a concerning trend in which governments across the African continent become more authoritarian. Heads of state moved to undermine term limits, postpone general elections, rig the ballot, muzzle prominent political opponents, and restrict the freedom of the media and the people—all in the name of maintaining their power. The declining state of democracy and civil society, accompanied by widespread corruption and kleptocracy, contributes to political turmoil due to the failure to establish democratic order and pluralism, increased militarization and levels of violence, and the obstruction of socio-economic development, which will only worsen as elites compete for power and society resists oppressive regimes.
When it comes to conflicts in the region also known as the Somali Peninsula, civil wars are perhaps one of the most devastating and significant. As mentioned earlier, Western colonialism (and Ethiopian expansions) created border disputes that, when examined further, were rooted in the division of ethnic and religious groups across national boundaries, creating a ‘crisis of state identity.’ There are numerous examples of civil wars that arose because ethnic and religious communities found themselves in the wrong states or rebelled against attempts to strip them of their identity and marginalize them as minority groups, such as the Shifta War (1963–1967), fought by ethnic Somalis against the Kenyan Government; the Ogaden Insurgency (1994–2018), fought by Somalia-sponsored Ogadens’ liberation movement against the Ethiopian Government; and the Afar Insurgencies (from the 1990s to the present), fought by the Afars against the Issas (in Djibouti and Somalia), as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments.
On top of attempts to bring together scattered ethnic and religious groups in different countries, civil wars in the Horn of Africa are also linked to atrocities perpetrated by both governments and rebel groups amid a deteriorating democratic situation—Mengisteab, in his writing, “Poverty, Inequality, State Identity and Chronic Inter-State Conflicts in the Horn of Africa” (2013), even argues that it is more appropriate to call some of these conflicts one-sided wars. These wars include: the Ethiopian Civil War (1974–1991), fought between the military junta of Derg and the Ethiopian-Eritrean anti-government rebels; the Somali Civil War (1981–present), fought between the ruling military junta and armed rebel groups; and the Tigray War (2020–2022), fought between the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Decades of conflict have led to political instability and civil unrest, resulting in this region of 1,882,757 square kilometers being one of the poorest in the world. Reflecting the dire economic situation, almost all countries in the Horn of Africa have been classified as LDCs shortly after gaining independence—with the exception of Kenya, as it is ‘only’ classified as a lower-middle-income country (regardless of this status, it is noteworthy to emphasize that the country’s economy is not much different from other countries in the region). As LDCs, countries in the Horn of Africa face numerous challenges, including low average GNI (other than Kenya, only Djibouti and Sudan fall within the lower-middle-income range based on the threshold for Fiscal Year 2024 set by the World Bank), low HAI that comprises health sub-index (under-five mortality rate, maternal mortality ratio, and number of stunting cases) and education sub-index (lower secondary school graduation rate, literacy rate, and gender equality in education level), and high EVI that comprises economic vulnerability sub-index (contribution of the agricultural, forestry, and fisheries sectors to the GDP, remoteness and landlockedness, export concentration, and instability of exports of goods and services) and environmental vulnerability sub-index (population distribution in coastal areas and drylands, agricultural production instability, and disaster victims). It is not surprising that all these problems have made the Horn of Africa countries highly unstable and vulnerable.
One of the many reasons why the Horn of Africa is extremely poor is the low volume of trade, accounting for only 6% of the region’s total GDP. Prevalent conflicts that have ravaged the region make trade a perilous enterprise. Congested, unsafe, and poorly maintained roads, frequent accidents and breakdowns, limited fueling stations and roadside infrastructures, and the risk of looting from rebel groups drive costs up and profits down. As a result, countries in the Horn of Africa are being viewed as less than ideal trading partners—thus, limited trade activity.
Social and economic conditions in this region, which has a total population of roughly 140 million and is rapidly growing, are being exacerbated by a prolonged and severe drought caused by La Niña. The drought that has been going on for several years curtailed agricultural production, destroyed crops, and killed over three million livestock—threatening the livelihoods of approximately 80% of the population, who work as farmers or pastoralists. Crop failures, livestock deaths, and spikes in food prices due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine have left more than 20 million people at risk of starvation. Additionally, nearly six million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition. As famine intensifies, so do conflicts over scarce natural resources and warring parties’ activities that hinder the movement of humanitarian supplies and personnel.
Why is Switzerland interested in this region?
Despite the ongoing intra- or interstate armed conflicts and climate-related disasters, the Horn of Africa is still one of five geographical priorities in Switzerland’s Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy 2021–24. This regional approach is driven by three key factors. First, Switzerland wishes to build more effective relations with Africa, recognizing its growing global significance and economic potential. Second, Switzerland benefits when Africa prospers and can fulfill its demographic and economic potentials, as it is part of Switzerland’s extended regional context. Finally, Switzerland has a long-standing tradition of partnership with Africa and has never acted as a colonial power, therefore, it is held in high regard among countries in the region.
In the context of the Horn of Africa region specifically, it is widely regarded as one of the world’s most strategically important regions. It serves as a link between Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East via the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea, making it a crucial transit point for world trade, particularly for the EU, with 20% of its exports and imports passing through the region’s coast. Moreover, the Horn of Africa has huge natural wealth potential as it possesses rich deposits of untapped resources, including petroleum, gold, salt, hydropower, and natural gas. Given these values, it is in Switzerland’s interest to be involved in the Horn of Africa and promote its peace, security, human rights, prosperity, and sustainability.
Swiss Cooperation Programme Horn of Africa and its achievements
Based on these aforementioned thematic priorities, Switzerland, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), established the Swiss Cooperation Programme Horn of Africa. The program focuses on four sectors related to security issues in the region: good governance, food security, health, as well as migration and the protection of vulnerable communities. Although the Cooperation Programme targets the entire Horn of Africa, as its name implies, the geographical focus of the SDC engagement since 2014 has been more in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.
Tangible results achieved by Switzerland’s Cooperation Programme began to emerge following the implementation of the 2018–2021 Programme. Under this program, Switzerland has provided extensive assistance across the four sectors previously mentioned:
- Good Governance (and Peacebuilding)
In the Good Governance sector, the assistance provided by Switzerland includes (a) Support for Public Financial Management reforms, which have resulted in the more efficient use of public resources; (b) Support for local governments and civil society, especially through co-financing the Local Development Fund, which has helped to establish legal frameworks, structures, and capacities at the local level, as well as fostering peace and development by effectively and responsibly responding to the needs and rights of the people; (c) Facilitate the holding of democratic local elections; and (d) Assistance in the reconciliation process in several disputed areas and between the national governments and opposition groups;
- Food security
In the Food Security sector, the assistance provided by Switzerland includes (a) Development of Early Warning Systems, which have succeeded in providing communities with the capability to respond better to climate shocks, support evidence-based policy planning, and improve coordination in policy implementation; (b) Implementation of women economic empowerment initiatives, which have increased food production capacity of around 27,000 women; (c) Development of innovative technologies, which have increased the efficiency of irrigation systems; (d) Support for MSMEs through private financing of $13.5 million; (e) Humanitarian aid, which is estimated to have helped 320,000 people experiencing hunger; and (f) Facilitation of policy dialogues with local authorities, which have increased people participation in developing policy frameworks related to livestock disease control and management of water, rangeland, fodder, and livestock marketing;
In the Health sector, the assistance provided by Switzerland includes (a) Support for better access to primary health services and skilled birth attendants, which have benefited over 1.3 million people and 130,000 women; (b) Support for 15 midwifery schools; (c) Gender-based violence (GBV) services, which have successfully reached over 33,000 GBV survivors; (d) Private healthcare network, which has organized 200 businesses and served approximately three million people annually; (e) Development of the “One Health” approach through the formulation of curricula in universities, research partnerships, and regional rollout of mobile units; and (f) Take on the crucial role of the forefront of COVID-19 response by launching intervention initiatives, integrating COVID-19 into existing health and crisis programs, and establishing partnerships; and
- Migration and Protection of Vulnerable Communities
In the Migration and the Protection of Vulnerable Communities sector, the assistance provided by Switzerland includes (a) Skills training for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and establishment of the Challenge Fund to improve their incomes and employment opportunities; (b) Financial assistance for vulnerable households, malnourished children, and pregnant or lactating women in IDP settlements; (c) Experts sent to the UN Resident Coordinator Offices to assist in the development of normative and institutional frameworks for internal displacement; and (d) Advocacy for protection, inclusion, and durable solutions at the national and local levels, which has succeeded in producing national migration policies, strengthening national coordination schemes, and facilitating consultation and implementation of durable solutions.
What’s next for Switzerland’s Cooperation Programme?
The accomplishments attained from the 2018-2021 period are poised to advance even further with the 2022-2025 Programme. This latest Cooperation Programme seeks to address several unresolved issues, mainly in the governance sector (e.g. tax administration). Nonetheless, it remains steadfast in prioritizing the same four priority issues as its predecessors.
For the Good Governance portfolio, the overall outcome to be achieved is a more inclusive political settlement and bottom-up state-building process that promotes reconciliation and accountability, leading to an improved social contract. Together with local authorities and multilateral partners, Switzerland will work towards supporting reconciliation and local peacebuilding efforts, increasing the voice and representation of citizens in political processes, and facilitating dialogue on power- and resource-sharing between the center and peripheral players in the federal system.
For the Food Security portfolio, the overall outcome to be achieved is pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in rural and peri-urban areas that are climate resilient and have better, sustainable livelihoods. To ensure safer livelihoods and that food needs during emergencies are met, Switzerland will strive to support the adoption of climate-smart practices (including rehabilitation of degraded environments, capacity and technology development, and extension services), launch initiatives that will address challenges in regional livestock value chain, provide support for the establishment of robust frameworks and governance mechanisms towards enhanced food security and livelihoods, and increase access to Early Warning and Early Action Systems to prevent the escalation of natural or human-made hazards into crises.
For the Health portfolio, the overall outcome to be achieved is a strengthened health system that provides better access and quality basic health services for the population, particularly vulnerable communities. To ensure that everyone can enjoy an adequate and sustainable healthcare system, Switzerland aims to expand access to human and veterinary health services through the One Health approach and provide health and protection services for mothers, children, and GBV victims.
For the Migration and Protection of Vulnerable Communities portfolio, the overall outcome to be achieved is displacement-affected communities and migrants in vulnerable situations that are better protected and advanced on durable solutions, thus gaining self-reliance, inclusion, and sustainable integration. Considering that the Horn of Africa is a shelter and transit point for millions of people forced to flee their homes due to spiraling conflicts and climate shocks, Switzerland is committed to advocating for humanitarian issues affecting vulnerable communities, promoting sustainable mechanisms to address displacement situations and their effects, and strengthening the capacity of local, national, and regional authorities in formulating and implementing migration policies.
By examining the various efforts that Switzerland has implemented over nearly a decade, it is evident that the country’s role in enhancing security and stability in the Horn of Africa neither focuses on intervention nor involvement in armed conflict, as it contradicts the country’s principle of neutrality. Instead, Switzerland focuses on what it does best: fostering stability and resilience amid conflicts through peaceful and cooperative approaches.
While Switzerland may not have a direct role in enforcing resolutions for armed conflicts related to border disputes or ethnic and religious tensions, the country is committed to preventing the escalation of conflicts arising from undemocratic governance that limits people’s freedom by promoting dialogue and mediation, advocating for various human rights issues, encouraging democratization, and supporting the implementation of the rule of law. The ultimate goal is the realization of good governance practices, which are believed to be the foundation for a more stable and secure region. Switzerland is also actively working on improving the welfare of people in the Horn of Africa by addressing the issue of food security through climate-smart practices (and related initiatives) and humanitarian aid, as well as various other socio-economic issues that concern the local population and IDPs in need of protection and better living conditions.