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Root causes of Conflict and Insecurity in the Horn of Africa and Yemen

By Abdullahi Ali Soyan

In a geographic sense, the Horn of Africa is the north-eastern part of the African continent which faces the Red Sea to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south-east and the Nile Basin to the west. It conventionally comprises the key states of Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, although it embraces geopolitically the adjoining states of Sudan, Kenya and Yemen. All these states share social and cultural values emanating from a centuries-old tradition of interrelationships, common religious practices and economic linkages. Furthermore, conflict and security fate of each state in the region has always been inextricably intertwined with that of neighboring states. Indeed, no individual state in the Horn of Africa and Yemen has been insulated from the other states’ problems, irrespective of their distance and comparative strengths or weaknesses.


map of somalia-nepjournal

Most states in the Horn of Africa and Yemen can be characterized as the most deprived and poorest region in Africa and Western Asia, if not in the world. It is a region where the most basic necessities (clean water, food, healthcare and education) are not available to the majority of the population. In the Horn of Africa and Yemen, per capita income, life expectancy and literacy are among the lowest in the world, and adult and infant mortality are among the highest. The region is prone to deadly droughts that hamper crop and livestock production. These droughts result in food deficits each year, thereby making the Horn of Africa and Yemen one of the regions with the greatest food insecurity in the world. In 2008 in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, an estimated 17 million people were in need of emergency assistance according to OCHA and World Bank. Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are each discussed below;

The most significant structural sources of insecurity and conflict in the region relate to high rates of poverty and unemployment, twinned with sharp levels of income inequality, manipulation of collective identities and a “winner-takes-all” approach to competition for control over the state. This in turn contributes to a weak political culture of dialogue and negotiation at the governmental level, abuse of power by central governments, communal struggles over valuable real estate and other scarce natural resources, external sponsorship of armed insurgencies, indoctrination of the youth by armed opposition groups, government reactive collective punishment, tensions between political “centers” in and around the capital and the largely exploited and sometimes marginalized peripheries of urban centers, piece meal try and error method implementing  devolution.

While Kenya is one of the most stable countries in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region, several of the causes identified are found to be sources of the election violence in 2007-2008. The Election have polarized the country and created animosity among the largest ethic tribes in the country. Continued work to restore long-term and sustainable peace reaching down to the roots of insecurity in Kenya is of profound relevance to the whole region. While the election of 2007-2008 functioned as a trigger for violence, the underlying issues were related to resource accessibility such as land and property. The country is beleaguered by internal insecurity triggered more by the government sending it’s military to Somalia in 2011 that led to hit and run grenades, Improvised Explosive Devices and use of Small Arms in many parts of the country including Nairobi by illegal armed group that operates from Somalia, who resorted to guerrilla warfare after they were displaced from their areas of operation in Somalia. Notable significant incidents in Kenya were the September 2013, Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi and Garissa University College attack in April 2015.

Dadaab Refugee Camps and insecurity in Kenya
Kenya hosts Dadaab refugee Camps in Kenya. The camps in North-Easter Region of Kenya were first established in 1991. Originally identified to accommodate 90,000 refugees, the camps now hold over five times their intended capacity, making Dadaab the third-largest population Centre in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa cities. Dadaab complex consists of; Dagahaley, Hagadera, Ifo 1, Ifo 2 and Kambioos. The region has always been very insecure, with special Kenyan government permission needed before any travel is allowed to anyone believed to be of high value target for armed groups. Apart from the presence of armed bandits and Armed Criminal Groups there are periodic outbreaks of clan feuding and kidnapping of aid workers.

Dadaab refugee camp

Dadaab refugee camp


Following the Kenyan government decision to send its troops to Somalia on 16th October 2011 to repulse Al-Shabaab and other criminal groups that were responsible of kidnapping visitors from its territory, security conditions in Dadaab have deteriorated to a critical level. At some point armed criminals appeared to have infiltrated the complex and used the camps as a platform to extend their surreptitious operations to other parts of Kenya. As a result, kidnappings and assaults have become more common and ominously, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attacks have also began to appear with some regularity along the roads within the complex. Killings associated with the group, targeting both security forces and civilians have increased in frequency towards the end of 2012

The situation in Dadaab camps is currently relatively calm with some of the refugees voluntarily going back to their Country, Somalia. The voluntary return came at the back of tripartite agreement between, the Governments of Kenya and Somalia, and UNHCR signed on 10 November 2013 for the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees. The fall of Kismayo and subsequent election of   a new president in Mogadishu gave the refugees a ray of hope, because they will go back to their country to rebuild back their life and the governments of Kenya anticipated a sign of relief since criminal groups were believed to hide in the camps.   While the media and political attention concentrate on the stabilization of the situation in Somalia, nobody can ignore the striking needs of thousands of people who live in these camps as well as International and National NGOs providing humanitarian services in this violent environment.

Presence of A-Shabaab in Kenya
It is appropriate to examine the state of Al-Shabaab in Dadaab Refugee Complex. Al-Qaeda the main group that Al-Shabaab is affiliated to, is becoming a something more akin to a franchise and is flourishing in places where there is weak or no government. Al-Shabaab has been waging a war in Somalia for more than two decade. Its depredations have also spilled over to Kenya – persuading Kenya to send its military that is now in cooperated into larger AMISOM troops to contain its threat and uproot it from the inside. After years of relentless pursuit, the AMISOM forces gained the upper hand – forcing Al Shabaab to abandon its positions in Mogadishu and other key cities such as Kismayo in the South, which were and are believed to be operational bases for attacks against Kenya border towns, Dadaab refugee camps, Mandera and Nairobi as well.

Of late, Al-Shabaab’s desperation has grown visibly – evidenced by collaborating Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has repeatedly reached out to the militants operating in Somalia with a series of recruitment videos showing young Somali members of ISIL urging their brothers to join them. The operation has so far seen, pledging allegiance to the global terror network with two senior al-Shabaab commanders.

This illustrates that AS is now reverting to a more lethal but asymmetrical form of guerrilla warfare which could be the real strength and danger not only inside Somalia but also in Kenya’s largest refugee camp- Dadaab, Mandera and Lamu where it’s believed they have a good number of foot soldiers and sympathizers. These area share common features while Dadaab hosts large number of refugees, Mandera shares along unmanned porous border with Somalia while Lamu particularly Boni Forest provides good cover as well stretching and joining Lagta Belta national park in Somalia. Additionally, these areas are predominantly Muslims inhabited areas where collective punishment by security forces has been reported after a significant number of Al-Shabaab attacks.

Although, Al-Shabaab has suffered some severe setbacks in the last three years- it lost its major strongholds (including the embattled port of Kismayo) and most of its southern territory. Some of its top leaders have been killed and many of its foot soldiers have defected to the government side. However, it’s difficult to predict their operation. That includes, radicalization of youths as they put it, and plans to install a whole new generation that can interact with fast moving Militancy warfare. It’s believed that Al Shabaab is likely to include a new generation of recruiters – mostly youths (under 30s) – who have Western exposure, understand their vulnerabilities, speak their language and, most important of all, appeal to the coming generation. This makes Al Shabaab the second most lethal arm of Al Qaida in the Horn of African and Yemen after Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. With high number of an unemployed and idle youths, porous borders and proximity to Somalia, Garissa, Mandera and Lamu, became the choice by Al Shabaab to carryout clandestine lethal attacks against Kenya security personal that seemed to have been surprised by the turn of event inside Kenya before the most recent attacks in Lamu in the coast region of Kenya. However, these gains by Al-Shabaab seems to have been watered down and overturned by robust intelligence sharing between the public and the security forces, posting of the son of the soil as a regional commissioner to North Eastern Region has tremendously improved security in the region.

Conflict and insecurity in Somalia find their causes both at the regional, national and local levels. Regionally, the country finds itself situated in a bad setup marked by porous borders, bad governance, poverty, inter-tribal and clan conflict, humanitarian crisis and a lack of human rights. Nationally, conflicts over territory and clan affiliation contribute to the overall insecurity and conflict situation but more important is the ongoing struggle for power. Somalia has been without an effective government for the last 24 years.

In the meantime, the weak government itself has become a main source of violent tensions within Somali society. In a highly fractured society polarized by tribal affiliation with relatively scarce resources and where the state has been and continues to be the main resource provider, the control of a revived state and power distribution becomes the focus of conflicts and insecurity. At the local level, resources such as land, pasture and water are the most common cause of conflict, in combination with the increased demand for security.


Somalia based militants Al-shabaab. Photo by AFP


The sale of security by certain armed factions and clan leaders has become a contributing factor to conflict as the restoration of security itself is seen to be the most sought-after commodity by many actors in Somalia, particularly South Central Zone. From the second half of the 1990s to 2006, the trend was that conflicts in Somalia were relatively short-lived, locally based and less deadly. This pattern was reversed in 2006 due to confrontations between the Council of Islamic Courts and the US backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter Terrorism. Since then the violence has continued to escalate within Somali society as different factions have come to fight over power in the country.

The Country has been without a functioning central government since 1991. Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of the country the same year and since 1998 Puntland has been functioning as a semi-autonomous region/state. The South-Central Somalia is marked most heavily by fighting between pro-government and rebel forces. The political situation in South-Central Somalia remains unstable and continuous fighting has, together with displacement, several years of drought, high food prices on the world market and global recession, led to an extensive humanitarian crisis. In 2010, Jubaland was established in southwestern Somalia to contain the Somali militant outfit Harakat al-Shabaab. On May 2013, Ahmed Mohamed Islam was elected by delegates in conference in Kismayu as the President of Jubaland. Jubaland is purportedly believed to have being created by Kenyan authorities to keep al-Shabaab fighters far away from the border of its North Eastern Province with Somalia to reduce or eliminate clashes and cross border incursions from the Somali militants. It has there Administrative divisions,
Gedo, Lower Juba (Jubbada Hoose) and Middle Juba (Jubbada Dhexe)

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power in 1991 by overthrowing the Marxist-Leninist regime, ‘the Derg’, which in turn had ended the imperial period with Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. In 1994 the new constitution was ratified that put in place the current political system, ethnic federalism. The federal government is considered one of the strongest in Africa. Defined as a multicultural federation that operates on the basis of ethno-national representation and self-determination, ethnic federalism remains a debated issue in Ethiopia.

Over the past 22 years, five national elections have been held; whereof the 2005 election was the most contested with post-election violence as a consequence. The Ethiopian government is challenged by intra-state armed opposition as well as tense relations with its bordering neighbors, with an inter-state war with Eritrea in 1998-2000 and military invasion of neighboring Somalia in 2006. Internally, there are a number of armed opposition groups operating in the country. Sporadic outbreaks of violence continue cross-border, covering bordering areas of Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya.

Recent tensions in Ethiopia also point to a more pronounced picture of religion playing a role in conflict dynamics although, to date, religious tolerance has been relatively high. The country is experiencing considerable economic growth and has been deemed one of the fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa in 2010. Nonetheless, periodic droughts and famines afflict the country and the 2011 Horn of Africa crisis has severely affected the country, especially in the form of large refugee flows in the hinterlands from neighboring countries. The border tension with Eritrea continues to persist after the 1998-2000 interstate war. Internally, there are intermittent inter-communal clashes along ethnic, religious and political lines and a number of armed opposition groups maintain a low-level armed struggle against the government.

Although Ethiopia has contributed to AMISOM, it had recorded no significant attacks unlike Kenya due to the following reasons; unlike Kenya, Ethiopia is a closed society where dissent that could undermine federal security is not tolerated.

Firstly, Ethiopia’s security apparatus have more leeway to ruthlessly deal with terrorists and their sympathizers. Suspects can be held incommunicado and denied legal representation.

Secondly, Ethiopia’s media is not free and it is closely monitored. Media is believed to be the oxygen of terrorism since; armed criminal groups are likely to act if their heinous actions are captured on the news. Kenya’s vibrant media and civil society has given Al-Shabaab the incentive to attack by signaling that the victim is vulnerable. In Ethiopia, any terrorist attack is unlikely to make it to the front pages or prime time news.

Thirdly, Kenya has independent judiciary and a new constitutional that protects right of individuals before courts of competent jurisdictions. Fourthly, Nairobi, unlike Addis Ababa, presents many strategic, symbolic, and value-laden targets for terrorist groups. Westgate, was rumored to have Israeli connections, posed as a high-value target that grabbed global headlines and heightened Al-Shabaab’s profile. The presence of the offices of international agencies such as the United Nations and the resultant high number of expatriates increases Nairobi’s attraction for terrorists.

Al-Shabaab is aware that it cannot get much sympathy by attacking the African Union seat in Addis Ababa. Fifth, the proximity of Nairobi and other important towns such as Mombasa and Lamu to Al-Shabaab strongholds in Somalia makes it easier to plan and launch terrorist attacks in Kenya. Addis Ababa is miles away from Al-Shabaab strongholds in central and southern Somalia. Tourism is more developed in Kenya, making it more vulnerable to attack.

Sixth, Al-Shabaab has never forgiven Kenya for driving it out of Kismayu and cutting off its main source of revenue — exportation of charcoal to the Middle East. This has constrained Al-Shabaab’s ability to raise funds for its operations. Ethiopia’s incursions in Somalia have not necessarily nipped Al-Shabaab’s financial hubs and networks.

Seventh, rampant corruption in Kenya’s security organs has given Al-Shabaab a new lease of life. Al-Shabaab operatives can buy their way into Kenya. Ethiopians do not condone corruption that can endanger their federal security and pride as never colonized African state. Kenyans’ tendency to consider all matters through ethnic lenses has caused lack of nationalism and patriotism, making the country a soft target for Al-Shabaab attacks.

Finally, Kenya open market particularly, businesses, better Education (formal and informal) that can be accessed by anyone who has a capital is noted to have some contribution that lead high population of Somalis to come to Nairobi after bribing government officials unlike Ethiopia where these sectors are regulated by the government and bribery is non-existence.

Yemen has been for long the poorest country in the Arab world. Economic difficulties have sparked unrest and Al-Qaeda insurgency is causing concern in the region. Yemen had high levels of poverty and unemployment, a low literacy rate, and an addiction to a drug called “qat.”.  It has long been a fragile state plagued by a myriad of socio-economic, conflict and security challenges and it’s a place where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates freely.

Yemen had become a major base for militants after the crackdown on al-Qaeda and closure of training bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Truce with the Houthi rebels in February 2010 allowed the government to focus on al-Qaeda and resurgent southern separatists, but the anti-government uprising in 2011 gave al-Qaeda a chance to establish several strongholds in Abyan province. Since then government forces and al-Qaeda have battled for control of several towns in the south, while the US has used unmanned drones against the terrorists.


Yemen destruction, Photo courtesy.


Security forces cracked down, often violently, on protests against President Saleh which began in late January. In parallel, a power struggle developed between rival factions loyal to Mr. Saleh, Gen Ali Mohsin, and the powerful Ahmar family. Clashes have largely taken place in the cities of Sanaa, Taiz and Aden, with hundreds of people killed and thousands injured. Even before this, Yemen was facing several daunting security challenges. In the north, government troops had been battling Houthi rebels belonging to the minority Shia Zaidi sect, though a truce was signed in February 2010. In the south, they have fought separatists who lost a civil war in 1994.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by some to be the most threatening branch of the international al-Qaeda network operates from Yemen. The political chaos in Sanaa has given militants more freedom to operate. After the Arab Spring in 2011 the humanitarian crises have intensified as one of the major humanitarian crises of the moment since 2012 with almost half of the population being food insecure. This has created an increasing unrest among the population and discontentment with the government.

In 2014 the Shia minority group, called Houthis has somehow taken control of several important cities, among them the capital Sana’a in September. Meanwhile the Southern separatist movement increased their call for an independent south while Al Qaida and linked groups (mainly based in the Eastern parts of the country) are fighting Houthis and other groups. In January 2015, the Houthis did overthrow the President Hadi and its government. He was forced to leave the country and exile in Saudi in February.

The Houthis took the cities of Taez and Aden; they consequently controlled the eastern part of the country. Since the end of March 2015, an international coalition of countries (Decisive Storm Coalition) led by Saudi Arabia allied with the Yemeni President, has launched a military campaign against the advances of the Houthis in the country. Aden has been taken back by the government forces in July 2015, after four months of war.  In August 2015, anti-Houthis forces took back the country’s largest military base of Al Adan, in the southern part of Yemen. Humanitarian truces have been decided but not respected twice in July 2015 and this constant instability makes the humanitarian needs of the population still unsatisfied.

Systemic challenges to governance and crises of political legitimacy and authority in Yemen and Somalia highlight the interlocking and transnational challenges to regional and global conflict and security. The multiple causes of human insecurity in each region act as threat multipliers that feed off each other at the domestic level and have significant spillover effects that add to destabilizing flows within neighboring polities. Although originating domestically in response to local factors, Somali and Yemeni-based networks of militants have demonstrated capability to organize and undertake attacks beyond their boundaries. This changes the regional security dynamic by linking the localized conflicts in the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula. The region is the most conflict-ridden region in the world, with conflicts – exacerbated by external interference and accompanied by widespread human rights violations – raging sometimes simultaneously within and between states.

It is also generally held that, due to the aforementioned disasters, both natural and artificial, the Horn of Africa and Yemen has recorded higher percentage of refugees and displaced population. The volatile situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate since fighting intensified in late March 2015.  Humanitarian actors now estimate about 21.1 million people – 80 per cent of the population – require some form of humanitarian protection or assistance.

As of 14 October 2015, more than 2.3 million people were internally displaced in Yemen. Out of the 166,658 who fled Yemen, 75,748 people have arrived in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan fleeing the crisis. Yemen and Somalia thus provide prescient information of how conflict, dwindling resources and the comparative absence of productive alternatives may complicate socioeconomic transitions and interact with the erosion of political legitimacy in states that can no longer redistribute resources to co-opt political support.

Although no country in the world has the capacity to eliminate risks associated with conflict and insecurity in totality, addressing inequalities, opening democratic space, coming up with home grown counter terrorism strategies that incorporate the public views and participation, fighting corruption seriously and good governance can address some of the issues identified as drivers of conflict and insecurity.

Abdullahi Ali Soyan is a Professional Public Safety and Security Adviser with special focus on the Horn of Africa and Yemen. He is currently pursuing MBA at Mount Kenya University, specializing in Strategic Management.Reach him on email

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