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The Bleak Future of the Horn of Africa

By Dr. Mahamud M. Yahye

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While browsing the internet for new articles on Somali affairs, I have recently come across an interesting but alarming piece on the Horn of Africa published by the respectable British weekly magazine, the Economist, last year, titled “The Horn of Africa: The Path to Ruin”. This magazine asserts that the Horn is a region endangered by widespread weapons availability, unprecedented population explosion and the emergence of radical Islamists. Because of the very gloomy picture that it paints with regard to the near future of that wretched region, in general, and that of Somali inhabited areas, in particular, I would like to summarize and share with my fellow countrymen the salient points of the said article.


The thrust of the article could be summarized by the following statement which the Economist makes right at the outset: “The Horn of Africa has long been haunted by hunger and by violence. … Islamist expansionism in Somalia – and the armed resistance to it – plus uncontrolled population growth throughout the area could result in whole pockets of the Horn facing collapse. This would be a humanitarian disaster; it could also lead to a much wider conflict, involving several countries.” 1

Let us now start our review with the last factor in this foreseen catastrophe, i.e., the Horn’s population explosion. The Economist has looked at the trend in five countries in the region, namely, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. It predicts that in less than quarter of a century (or in about 23 years), i.e., by the year 2030, the population of the Horn will reach around 240 million, as compared to a total population of about 126 million recorded in 2006. In other words, the total population of this region in Africa would almost double in just 24 years. By that time, Somalia’s population, for instance, will be around 20 million, while that of Ethiopia will rise to 144 million, and that of Kenya will be approximately 67 million. In terms of rate of growth, or fertility rate, Somalia tops the list at a rate of 6.8%, followed by Djibouti at 5.3%, and Ethiopia at 5.2%. (In my adult life, or in the span of less then 50 years, I have personally witnessed the population of my homeland, Somalia, jumping tenfold, from about one million at independence in 1960 to almost 10 million at present).  

This is so, because, according to the above-cited magazine, the Somali inhabitants in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia/”Somaliland” proper have one of the highest fertility rate in the world. Somali women in the rural areas of these countries could have 6 or 7 children, against 3 in the cities. Besides, no meaningful family planning is being undertaken in these Somali inhabited regions. Thus, more than half of their population is currently aged 15 years or under. This serious demographic problem is compounded by the fact that the Horn is said to represent “… among the most degraded eco-systems in the world, with only 5% of its original habitat remaining”, due to over-grazing and cutting trees to be used as fuel or charcoal. (According to some other reports, exporting huge quantities of charcoal and rare species of animals/birds - mostly to the countries of the Arabian Gulf - has been one of the main economic activities in Somalia in the past 17 years or so, and a major source of wealth for the various warlords and their armed militias). This appalling environmental degradation is particularly severe in a county like Somalia where there has been no functioning central government in almost the past 17 years to regulate these matters. And one of the perennial causes of both inter- and intra-clan wars is presently attributable to fighting over meager natural resources in terms of pasture, water and firewood. Likewise, in urban areas, warlords and faction leaders have been fighting for almost two decades over the control of the national government – not to serve the Somali people, but to take over illegally the country’s scant resources for their own personal interest and that of their armed tribal militias. When Somalia had a functioning national administration, there used to be an autonomous governmental body whose main duty was to prevent serious over-grazing. For this reason, whole sways of land would officially be designated as areas not available for gazing for some time in order to give it a chance to recover. To put it differently, the main problem in the Somali inhabited areas remains, according to the Economist, “the stark environmental fact that there are simply too many people and too many animals and not enough grass.” This reminds me about the theory of the famous English economist, Thomas R. Malthus, which I had studied during my undergraduate days. Malthus argued in early 19th century that human population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence; and that unless it is checked by moral restraint or disaster (as disease, famine or war) widespread poverty and degradation will be the natural result. 

Another important factor that contributes to the predicament that faces the above-mentioned Somali inhabited regions is the fact that they are awash with all kinds of weapons that easily ignite fighting among competing clans/tribes. (The greater part of these weapons is reported to have been dumped in the region, especially in Somalia, by both the ex-USSR and USA during the Cold War era). A good quality AK-47 machine-gun is estimated, according to the Economist, to sell now for 3 cows, while an American M-16 machine-gun costs 5 cows! However, no meaningful disarmament has been carried out in these regions – particularly in anarchic Somalia.


A fourth factor that contributes to the worsening situation is the present negative climate change or global warming. As such, according to some experts, the Somali inhabited regions have been witnessing, in the past decade or so, more frequent cycles of drought accompanied at times by huge river floods or other inundations that have never been seen before. The Economist confirmed this by making the following credible statement: “The drought cycle has shrunk from once every eight years to once every three years, according to the American Government’s Famine Early warning System”. Besides, the Economist sees another complicating factor in the emergence of extremist Muslim fundamentalists who wish to establish through violent jihad a Taliban-style regime, or a caliphate, not in Somalia alone but in the entire Horn of Africa region.

As Mr. Hasssan Mahadalla put it: “the civil war in Somalia resulted from the boundless competition among groups [or clans] for the limited resources of the country.” He continues by arguing that: “Somalia is a poor country whose meager resources cannot accommodate the basic needs of its population.” 2       In this regard, the collapse of the Somali state itself could be attributed to the country’s high level of poverty.  This was forcibly argued by Menkhaus and Predergast who wrote in 1995, right after the failure of the United Nations’ UNOSOM mission in Somalia: “Economically, there was never in Somalia’s history a sustainable material basis for a viable central state authority. In the past, the Somali state was funded entirely by Cold War-driven foreign aid, leading to a bloated and artificial structure which collapsed soon after that aid was frozen in the late 1980s. There are not prospects for such large quantities of foreign aid for Somalia in the post-Cold War, post UNOSOM era, which means that a central Somali state will have to subsist primarily off resources extracted through taxes and modest amounts of foreign aid.” 3


That is also why national reconciliation has become so elusive and has failed to achieve real success despite the fact that 15 such reconciliation conferences have so far been held, the last being the one convened for the first time in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, last July. This failure is partly attributable to the international terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, which is currently devoting “a lot of rhetoric and resources to turning the Horn of Africa into a new battleground”, according to the latest article by the Economist. 4


In conclusion, the Economist suggests the following important steps to be taken as soon as feasible in order to address the above-mentioned serious problems: (1) To restore peace and security and install a “moderate and competent government” in the region, particularly in the war ravaged Somalia, which had no a really functioning central government for nearly 17 years; (2) This should be followed by disarming and rehabilitating the faction/tribal militias, especially those situated in borderlines between the countries of the Horn of Africa; (3)  Upon the restoration of law and order to the region, some meaningful control of population growth should be introduced, particularly among the city dwellers who could have easy access to the existing facilities. Here, educating the girls is crucial, because in the light of the experience gained from other countries of the world, “the more  educated a  girl  is, the fewer children she is likely to have”; and (4) The dangerous over-grazing of land in this already barren region should be strictly controlled and minimized as much as possible. In this regard, pastoralists in areas where no grass is left could be helped in moving to urban areas where they may find jobs and would almost certainly have fewer children.


But I don’t personally support the idea of moving all, or even the majority of the Horn of Africa’s inhabitants, to the cities as it would be quite unrealistic. Instead, we should allow the presently miserable countryside to become a good environment, where people can live in peace and harmony, by developing it and making the basic facilities of decent livelihood available over there. I also earnestly hope that many of the Economist’s heart-breaking predictions would not materialize, as some elements of the equally gloomy Malthusian prophecy have not occurred in their entirety everywhere in the world


Mahamud M. Yahye, PhD

e-mail: [email protected]


1  The Economist,  “The Horn of Africa: The Path to Ruin”,  10/08/2006, pp. 1-5


2   Hassan Mahadalla, “The Somali Conflict: Clan Rivalry or the Cabals of a Few?”,  Horn of Africa magazine, Vol. XVI, No. 1-4, December 1998, pp. 163-64


3  Ken Menkhaus and John Prendergast, “Political Economy of Post-Intervention Somalia”, Somali Task Force Issue Paper No. 3, April 1995, pp. 1-15


4  The Economist, “Somalia: Reconciliation is as Elusive as Ever”, July 19, 2007.  See also Dr. Mahamud Yahye’s article titled: “Somalia’s Next Reconciliation Attempt: Will it Succeed?”, posted on most leading Somali websites in June 2007, and which could be accessed through Google under its title or the author’s name. And see his article on “How to Tackle Unemploymet in Somalia  by googling.

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