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People-to-People Regional Reconciliation in the Horn of Africa

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The Horn of Africa has endured the debilitating effects of violent conflict for several decades. Despite policy frameworks and the utilisation of significant resources to stabilise countries, conflicts in the region have remained resistant to resolution. The Horn of Africa’s crises demonstrate that conflicts have a tendency to spill across borders, affecting communities in more than one country.[1] Traditional inter-state wars in the region have been increasingly replaced by intra-state conflicts. However, these intra-state conflicts, more often than not, have an inter-state or regional dimension in the way that they are resourced and executed. Furthermore, the Horn of Africa demonstrates that intra-state conflicts usually have a regional dimension, as they include more than one state as either the primary or secondary actor. The Horn of Africa’s regional conflict systems is notoriously difficult to stabilise, as the implicated state actors do not adopt a coordinated regional strategy to promote and consolidate peace.[2] It is therefore increasingly evident that regional reconciliation is required to ensure consolidated peace. The absence of a coordinated approach to regional reconciliation in the Horn of Africa, and the lack of resources and capacity means that these mechanisms remain incapable of promoting and sustaining regional peace, justice and reconciliation.

Regional Reconciliation in Context

Political reconciliation requires that the affected parties i) recognise their _interdependence _as a prerequisite for consolidating peace; ii) engage in genuine dialogue about questions that have caused deep divisions in the past; iii) embrace a democratic attitude to creating spaces where they can disagree; and iv) work jointly to implement processes to address the legacies of socio-economic exploitation and injustices.[3] At the heart of reconciliation are justice and equity.[4]Traditionally, the focus has been on national reconciliation. The question is whether or not we can scale up national reconciliation to begin to talk about regional reconciliation.

Since conflicts, atrocities and violations straddle borders, we have to determine how reconciliation can also take place across borders. It becomes clear that we are talking about processes for which we do not have any precedents in of Africa.

Regional reconciliation would require implementing processes of truth recovery, accountability and redress across borders as preliminary processes. The practicalities of how we operationalise regional reconciliation are challenging but not insurmountable. The reluctance of nation-states to devolve their sovereignty and adopt processes that might be seemingly outside of their sphere of authority and control through the establishment of cross-border institutions will be a primary obstacle to implementing regional reconciliation. Articulating the compelling case for a policy of regional reconciliation exposes the limitations of retaining a state-centric approach to dealing with the past and ensuring redress and accountability.

When we apply a regional lens to reconciliation, it becomes evident that the war-affected states and communities in close proximity to one another would need to recognise their regional interdependence. Furthermore, these states and communities would need to engage in a genuine regional dialogue in order to identify the issues that have caused deep divisions and generated violence in the past. As with processes for promoting reconciliation nationally or locally, regional reconciliation will require the creation of spaces to develop inclusive narratives on the past and shared visions for the future. There is a need to move beyond transitional justice and reconciliation processes that have been largely state-led and restricted to national borders. Consequently, despite the growing acknowledgment of regional conflicts, regional reconciliation has not been the norm. Regions have to find collective solutions to the conflicts contained in their spheres of influence through a new policy framework of regional political reconciliation.

The Three Pillars of Regional Reconciliation

Regional reconciliation requires three pillars in order to become functional, namely:

  1. Leader-to-leader dialogue and problem-solving;

  2. Government-to-government joint policy development and implementation;

  3. People-to-people professional, academic, social, entrepreneurial exchange;

Sustained dialogue at the leadership level is the most crucial of these pillars due to the centrality that leaders play either as war-lords or peacemakers. Leaders need to convene the difficult conversations with their counterparts some of whom they are actively fighting against, either overtly through military support of armed militias stationed in their respective countries, or covertly through surreptitious intelligence subterfuge.

Building upon the policy and decision-making guidance provided by leaders, governments need to work out the practical modalities of implementing the regional reconciliation policy with specific concrete interventions. More specifically, governments should identify the resources that will be utilized to support the implementation of these processes, including supporting leader-to-leader dialogues as well as facilitating access for people-to-people interactions as they are required, without influencing the content and outcome of the people-to-people processes.

The people-to-people exchanges are already a common feature of the regional reconciliation landscape and are happening around the world. These can be convened by civic, academic, business and cultural leaders without the approval of the states, though they can benefit from the support of governments. Consequently, people-to-people processes are the most flexible of the three pillars to convene and operationalize.

Regional Reconciliation as an Intermediate Phase of Regional Integration

If regional reconciliation is operationalised in a progressive and cascading manner it can contribute towards regional integration. In the absence of a genuine belief in the intentions of neighbouring countries then it becomes difficult to achieve regional integration. This is currently the situation that bedevils Africa’s sub-regions. Consequently, the processes and mechanisms that are designed and adopted to implement regional reconciliation will undoubtedly play a catalytic role in promoting regional integration. Regional integration requires a high degree of coordination and harmonization of policy agendas which the three pillars of regional reconciliation can contribute towards. More specifically, leadership, government cooperation and citizen buy-in are equally the core ingredients of regional integration.

Regional Dimensions of the Somali Conflict System

Perhaps one of the most critical examples of the need for regional approaches to reconciliation is the situation in Somalia. Following the disintegration of the Siad Barre regime, the resulting centrifugal forces fragmented Somalia’s central sovereign structure and the state in effect disintegrated. A series of peace agreements ensued. However, following the failed UN interventions in the early 1990s backed strongly by the United States, which led to the death of foreign troops (dramatised in the Hollywood fictional film Black Hawk Down), the international community has had a lukewarm approach to further engagement in Somalia.

The current African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has singularly failed to stabilise and consolidate peace. Despite the existence of a government that has nominal support within the country, the Somali crisis continues unabated. Furthermore, the Somali crisis has spilt over into Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, has drawn Eritrea into the conflict system, and has generated maritime insecurity and piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Throughout the crisis, neighbouring countries have intervened ostensibly to address their own self-defined national interests. Ethiopia undertook military operations in Somalia, and the current peacekeeping intervention by the AU includes troops from Uganda, Kenya and Burundi.

Fast forward to October 2013, when we witnessed what seemed a surreal event: a vicious attack over several days against unarmed civilians in the commercial Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. This attack was directed by the Al-Shabab movement, which is fighting the AU troops in Somalia. Indications are that the participants in the attack were not only from Somalia but were in fact drawn from many countries, including the United Kingdom and Norway. In March 2015, 147 students were killed in the Garissa University massacre, which was believed to have been executed by the Al-Shabab. Following the Westgate Mall and Garissa University attacks and assuming that the indications that this was conducted by the Al-Shabab militia were true, the question becomes: can the Kenyan and international victims find a basis for redress?

We can also turn the question around: Are innocent Somali citizens in Somalia, who may have been negatively impacted upon – as collateral damage – by the history of military incursions by neighbouring countries, also entitled to some form of redress? Given this new reality that we are in, it does not only matter what is done internally in Kenya in terms of reconciliation. If nothing is done in Somalia to promote people-to-people reconciliation with societal counterparts in Kenya, then we can expect further attacks along the lines of what was witnessed in October 2013, in Nairobi, and March 2015 in Garissa.

Today, military operations continue in Somalia to root out and eliminate Al-Shabab, with US drone assistance operating out of the American military base in Djibouti. This will only get the region so far, and is a case of treating the symptoms rather than the causes. Even if all of the _Al-Shabab_militia members are eliminated, the extremist views that they harbor might simply be adopted by another grouping. It seems that promoting genuine people-to-people reconciliation in Somalia and linking this to people-to-people reconciliation processes in Kenya, not least because Kenya has a sizeable Kenyan citizens of Somali heritage, is ultimately a more effective and sustainable approach to reducing the war and strife generated by the Somali conflict system.

Given the fact that Kenya is on its own journey of national reconciliation, due to the aftermath of the post-electoral violence, and now with the added dimension of the Westgate attack, there is the increased prospect for further ethnic polarisation and the targeting of Kenyan citizens of Somali heritage. So there is an additional need: to implement cross-border people-to-people reconciliation between Kenya and Somalia.

The 2013 South Sudan Conflict and Regional Reconciliation

The violent conflict in South Sudan which escalated on 15 December 2013, plunged the young country into a debilitating and brutal conflict which begun as a dispute between members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM), notably the incumbent President Salva Kirr and his deputy, former Vice-President Riek Machar. The conflict immediately drew in Uganda, which deployed troops into South Sudan to shore up Kirr’s government. Machar in turn received diplomatic, political and military support from the government of Sudan. In addition, Juba was transporting arms through logistical routes in Kenya, given the long-term relationship between the South Sudanese and Kenyan elites.[5] Similarly, Ethiopia, which shares a border with South Sudan, has economic interests in South Sudan and consequently wanted to see an outcome that would be to its advantage. In effect, the South Sudan conflict immediately took on regional dimensions.

The mediation process was led by Seyoum Mesfin, the former Ethiopian Foreign Minister, with Lazarus Sumbyeiyo, the Kenyan envoy, as part of the third party intervention team. In August 2015, the South Sudan Peace Agreement was ultimately signed, even though shortly thereafter it was periodically violated by both sides. For all intents and purposes, the Peace Agreement will continue to be implemented in this imperfect condition of continuing incidents of sporadic violence. This suggests that unless a genuine and urgent commitment is undertaken to operationalize all three pillars of regional reconciliation, namely, the leader-to-leader, government-to-government and people-to-people dimensions then the South Sudan Peace Agreement is unlikely to succeed. The ability of the South Sudan government to implement the Peace Agreement will be contingent on leader-to-leader dialogues between Kirr, Machar, Museveni, Al Bashir, Desalegn of Ethiopia and Kenyatta of Kenya. In addition, given the dispersal of the South Sudanese diaspora into Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda as well as around the world, means that there is significant scope for them to convene people-to-people regional reconciliation processes, with a view to improving the relationship with neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa. A regional reconciliation process that draws in all of the protagonists, antagonists and stakeholders involved in the South Sudan crisis, can in fact serve as the platform for a genuine and sustained dialogue which can begin to address the malignant and corroded relationships that persist in the Horn of Africa region.

People-to-People Regional Reconciliation between Ethiopia and Eritrea

In light of the historic tensions between the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, there have been no open leader-to-leader or government-to-government initiatives that have entrenched a framework of regional reconciliation. However, at the cultural level people-to-people exchanges have been transpiring between Ethiopians and Eritreans in an informal manner. For example, cultural exchanges in terms of the exchange of music between Addis Ababa and Asmara, contributes in a small way towards people-to-people interaction which can cascade and be further amplified into government-to-government exchanges, which can at some point down the line lay the foundation for leader-to-leader dialogue.

Examples of People-to-People Regional Reconciliation

The Karamoja Cluster Project works across the Kenyan and Ugandan borders to promote people-to-people regional reconciliation and peacebuilding.[6] This cross-border initiative brings together the Karamoja communities of eastern Uganda and western Kenya which have endured cyclical violence related to livestock theft and violent conflict over limited scarce resources and access to land. Concretely, this initiative utilizes the establishment of people-to-people dialogue platforms in order to address key concerns and raise pertinent issues. In addition, the initiative convene educational and training programmes to raise awareness among members of the Karamoja community as to how to promote effective strategies to ensure that the livelihood of all members is protected. In addition, the people-to-people regional reconciliation initiative is also driven by women-led peacebuilding initiatives, in order to increase the focus on how the violent conflicts and the destruction of the social fabric of societies affects the women of the Karamoja Cluster differently to their male counterparts. The cross-border initiative also draws upon the convening of cross-border cultural and sports activities to increase the levels of people-to-people interaction among the Karamoja. This form of interaction creates new and innovative opportunities to engage in dialogue and deepen the understanding between communities that have traditionally only engaged each other through violent conflict. The Karamoja Cluster Project should more appropriately be understood as a work-in-progress rather than a fait accompli in terms of its efforts to promote people-to-people regional reconciliation across borders. The initiative however demonstrates that regional reconciliation is in fact already taking place, and the insights drawn from the Karamoja Cluster Project can be replicated in other border regions of the Horn of Africa. This people-to-people initiative also demonstrates that higher-level and elite-driven regional reconciliation processes can also draw insights from the manner in which former enemies can come together in the spirit of addressing common concerns and developing joint solutions to enhance the livelihood of citizens of the Horn of Africa.[7]

Implementing Regional Reconciliation

Regional reconciliation cannot proceed without the establishment of carefully constructed and coordinated infrastructure for promoting peace. Formal regional reconciliation processes could be facilitated by the state or by inter-governmental bodies, such as the IGAD, EAC or other regional bodies like the African Union (AU). These institutions would derive their legitimacy, and hence formality, from the authority of the sovereign states that constitute them. Informal regional reconciliation processes would operate outside state structures. This would include civil society interventions in regional reconciliation. In addition, the Diaspora could play a role in actively participating in and supporting regional reconciliation initiatives. Typically, informal regional reconciliation processes could complement the more formal processes, and ideally they should proceed without the sanction and imprimatur of the affected states. In practice, state-actors would want to be informed of potential informal regional reconciliation processes due to their claim of sovereignty over their territory.

Similarly, civil society needs to coordinate itself to more effectively support formal regional reconciliation initiatives. Where state and inter-governmental initiatives are lacking, civil society organisations can nevertheless pursue cross-border regional reconciliation initiatives. For example, given the novelty that would be associated with the notion of regional gender reconciliation, these processes are unlikely to receive the attention and resources that they deserve. This may require informal processes and non-governmental organisations to take the initiative to put in place processes to promote redress for victims of gender-based violence and other atrocities across borders. This would then require an appropriate infrastructure, such as civil society organising itself through a decentralised regional network, to advance work on regional reconciliation.

Policy Recommendations

  • Adopt people-to-people and leader-to-leader regional reconciliation as a strategic objective of foreign policy in the Horn of Africa and mandate regional institutions, such as IGAD and the EAC, to function as the infrastructure or mechanisms for regional reconciliation.

  • Allocate the necessary resources and personnel to further develop and implement people-to-people regional reconciliation.

  • Ensure that the notion of people-to-people regional reconciliation is adopted as a key pillar of peace agreements, to reflect the interdependence of countries.

  • Mainstream gender considerations in designing and implementing people-to-people, as well as, IGAD and EAC and member state regional reconciliation initiatives.

  • Operationalise the three pillars of regional reconciliation as they relate to South Sudan and neighbouring countries, in order to launch the process of regional stabilization and integration.

  • Undertake people-to-people and national reconciliation in Somalia, as part of a larger process of regional reconciliation in the Somalia conflict system, involving Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

  • Support and strengthen cultural exchanges in order to enhance people-to-people interaction, particularly between Ethiopians and Eritreans, as a strategy to enhance regional reconciliation in the Horn of Africa.

  • Establish an IGAD and EAC coordinating mechanism to oversee interventions to address trauma. In addition, designate and appoint advisors on trauma and reconciliation for all regional sub-bodies, who will generate policy initiatives to be implemented on the ground.


While there is growing recognition of the value of regional interventions, the idea of promoting “reconciliation” across borders remains uncharted territory for states and inter-governmental organisations alike. Regional mechanisms also tend to place an emphasis on security interventions – such as conflict management and peacekeeping – that merely address the symptoms rather than the deeper causes of Africa’s conflicts. These approaches overlook the structural origins of conflict that manifest themselves so violently across borders.[8] Consequently, cross-border and joint peace and security operations focus resources on military operations – such as those of the South Sudan conflict system or the war against Al-Shabab. If state resources were deployed in equal measure to lay the foundations for regional reconciliation, this would be a more effective way to stabilise countries and improve their relations with their neighbours. Military operations are only a temporary stop-gap measure for containing violence and are ultimately doomed to fail, unless concrete efforts are geared towards dealing with the past and promoting regional reconciliation in the Horn of Africa.

**Tim Murithi **is Extraordinary Professor of African Studies, Centre for African Studies, University of the Free State and Head of Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town, South Africa. He may be reached at