Anyone with even half an eye on international politics will have observed that the tectonic plates appear to be shifting. From the Brexit vote in Britain to the election of Donald Trump something is clearly afoot. Throughout history there have been eras of change and transformation, often presaged by incredible uncertainty and a general upsetting of the equilibrium. With this in mind I found myself reflecting on the current state of the Horn of Africa, and the appetite for change.
If we listen to seasoned politicians and many self-appointed pundits in the media we might well believe that very little is happening in the Horn at present. In truth the situation on the ground tells a rather different story, one that anyone with any foresight at all will appreciate has serious implications for future policy. Droughts are becoming ever more frequent and unforgiving, and daily the region is being denuded of vegetation as never before. Whilst most regional politicians barely manage to plan beyond 2020 the available demographic data, such as it is, reveals alarming population trends as we head towards 2050 and beyond.
Ethiopia, a regional powerhouse is currently undergoing one of its periodic paroxysms of social unrest that has their origins in the myopia and intransigence of the ruling elite. Eritrea remains locked in an ideological time warp that sees those in power content to see the country haemorrhage its young. Similarly, those who hold sway in Sudan seem intent on frustrating freedom of expression and thus resort to seemingly spiteful measures calculated to snuff out the merest semblance of joy amongst a people whose capacity for generosity is almost unrivalled. The body politic in South Sudan appears little more than a twitching corpse, whilst Kenya, for its lofty pretensions, snarls and lashes out at anyone who has the temerity to ask searching question of those who see democracy such as it is as little more than a license to loot.
The Horn and the Greater Horn of Africa is a tough neighbourhood in which to live. I say live, for many that really is stretching things, day to day survival is the best that they can hope for. For the thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) life is really grim. Few people care, and even the Western NGO-wallahs only make an occasional effort to champion their cause in the corridors of accountability. This year has witnessed Kenya’s callous actions in respect of Dadaab, motivated more out of Somalophobia than out of any coherent sense of what is right for Kenya and the wider region. Regionally women and girls bear the brunt of suffering, and then are expected to be eternally grateful when khat-addled old men deign to permit them a few seats in which ever talking shop is to be permitted.
Whilst men engage in their power politics, and clans seek to thwart one another at every turn, the trees are felled, the shrubs uprooted and havoc wreaked by yet another drought. Wells fall into disrepair and precious real effort in made to undertake systematic water conservation and management measures. As if this were not bad enough, there is the scourge of unemployment and under-employment. Young men kick their heels and look covetously at the flash four-wheeled drives that churn up dust. The desperation of youth saps the nation of its life blood, some are the easy target for those with radical intentions, while others seek a better life via the deserts and the sea. To my knowledge no leader has erected a monument to those who have been so failed by successive governments.
As if this were not hard enough to stomach, then there are the superannuated Westerners and their smug little homilies. Artful deceivers many of them, hectoring one minute or mealy-mouthed the next. They and their Big Man politics are as tiresome as they are sanctimonious. Strange isn’t it how these career diplomats who prate about democracy are often the same people who have little care for the democratic will of the people in their own lands. Posturing has become the order of the day, whether in be the Turks in Mogadishu or the Chinese in Djibouti, tragically the Horn’s strategic location means it is likely to remain a magnet for such activity.
For all this, the people of the region and its well-connected Diaspora care passionately. Barely a day passes without some new entrepreneurial activity or outreach, acts that belie what is portrayed in the media. This is especially true of the Somalis, as ingenious and as entrepreneurial a people as I have ever encountered. Their energy and passion is truly humbling, their sense of self-reliance an essential prerequisite for their onward journey. If they can harness their full potential and put past enmities behind them, the sky is their only limit, and even then poetry and song will carry their hopes and aspirations still further.
For Somalis history casts a long shadow. Whether you revere the flag of Somalia or Somaliland invariably defines who you are. Whilst a whole raft of issues are pressing the recognition one resonates the most. Only this week I decided to carry out a totally unscientific poll via my twitter account (@marktjones500), the question was as follows:
When will Somaliland gain full international recognition as a sovereign state?
Within the space of 24 hours some 246 people voted and this was the result was:
39% Within the next 5 years
17% By 2030
44% Not in our lifetime
What was surprising was not so much the result, as the degree of engagement. We all appreciate that there are so many variables, but people care. Some will brook no change and might be dubbed by one side as “the Haters”, whilst others yearn for the world to accept what has already become a reality. My own experience of talking to people of differing persuasions is that in truth it is perfectly possible to love Somaliland without hating Somalia and vice versa. There is always far more that unites Somalis as people than might divide them when it comes to flags or maps. Like so much in life, the situation in reality is far more complex for the Somalis themselves. Some Landers are ambivalent about recognition for they fear the dominance of a particular clan, whilst Somalis in Puntland and Jubalandand even occasionally in Mogadishu often express admiration (and even a little envy) at all that Somaliland has achieved. Somalis themselves must find their own way forward. There is a yearning for change, and for leaders across the Horn who serve, rather than self-serve. In respect of Somaliland recognition (some would say ‘re-recognition’) that is easier said the done, for the African Union is a fierce opponent of border change and most diplomats will prefer to engage in sophistry and semantics, rather than reconcile themselves to the reality on the ground. Yet we only need to look around us to appreciate that the world even of January 2016 is not the world we will wake up to in 2017.
The Horn and the Greater Horn will continue to be a challenging region. Some of its troubles will be of its own making, some from the result of both the well-meaning and nefarious activities of outsiders. Getting a handle on the current dynamics of the Horn takes some doing. The region is bedevilled by preconceptions and misconceptions that are not helped by a reluctance to visit and engage. Countries such as Sudan are largely neglected, a double tragedy both for the Sudanese and for ourselves. How different we would see things had we attended a home fixture of Al Hilal Omdurman or shared a meal with the Hadendoa. Ethiopia is patently not the country it was in 1985. The Horn is changing, and all who truly care about its future and well-being need to wake up to this fact.
Mark T Jones
International Speaker & Leadership Specialist