Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
African Arguments – Debating Ideas is running a 24-week special series ‘Civil Society Dialogues in the Horn of Africa’. In the series’ introductory blog, Rachel Ibreck speaks about the prospects of change from below.
The Horn of Africa is once again at a critical juncture. Countries that had progressed towards peace and development have regressed in 2020. Ethiopia recently fractured into a civil war that is costing unnumbered lives in and beyond Tigray, and continues to spiral without any agreement even to talk about political solutions. Uganda’s latest election campaign has seen deadly clashes and police brutality, forcing the opposition presidential candidate to suspend his campaign. Kenya’s leadership is back-peddling on promises of political transformation. Sudan’s democratic revolution is unfinished and precarious. Meanwhile, Eritrea’s regime remains brutally tenacious – and is even extending its influence in the Horn – and South Sudan and Somalia’s complex conflicts are simmering. All this on top of the calamities of floods, a plague of locusts, a global pandemic and the ever-present climate crisis.
New ‘African solutions’ must be found to confront this unique confluence of political problems. Current approaches, steered by the continental body, the African Union (AU), and the sub-regional organisation, Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), look good on paper, but have turned out to be woefully inconsistent in practice. If the AU’s most recent actions and inactions are anything to go by, institutionalised Pan-Africanism is regressing and is in danger of losing all legitimacy from a human rights perspective. Regional bodies urgently need better ways to protect lives and promote the accountability of political elites to their citizens.
As members of a Research Working Group on the Horn of Africa (RWG HoA), in support of an African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) initiative, we have been exploring questions of democracy, diversity and state fragility in dialogue with civil society activists. We are interested in the potential of a ‘thick multilateralism’ involving civil society directly in responses to political crises at the regional level. Regional organisations have established norms, principles and procedures in favour of human and people’s rights, democracy and justice. States have often acceded to these, but rarely abide by them. At the same time, in the Horn of Africa, non-state and informal actors generally do much more than press states to implement commitments. They defend, and sometimes directly deliver, basic rights at local and national levels. They even make and administer laws. Regional bodies have roots in a Pan-African people’s movement, and they already have commitments to embrace and include civil society. They must act much more vigorously on these, not least because civic mobilisations across the region – including massive pressure for democratisation in Sudan and Ethiopia – have demonstrated the popular will and capacity for change.
The region is in flux, with progressive politics emerging beyond the state and across borders. What looks like backsliding can also be understood as a push-back by military and political elites against recent demands for radical change. The dominant modes of governance are not designed to be inclusive, provide public goods or promote basic rights; indeed they were fashioned in the remnants of colonial states, conditioned by international systems and power-brokers and by turbulence at the global periphery. In contrast, the concerns and methods of the marginalised majority are being expressed in a vibrant mosaic of youth and women’s movements, community associations, and NGOs. With the help of digital technologies, they are increasingly networking and linking struggles from the bottom up.
For sure, civil society is vulnerable, both to state repression and to various other violent threats and internal fractures; exclusionary political and commercial interests also operate and evolve in this plural domain. But ‘civicness’ has already made tangible progress in harsh circumstances in the Horn, and the moment is ripe for counter-hegemonic forces in a world shaken by the climate emergency. The question is whether regional institutions have the will or wherewithal to support and help to connect these wider struggles. The AUHIP initiative indicates openness, but regional institutions are themselves complex entities with internal reformers and resisters and they are often hamstrung by the interests of states.
The Research Working Group has collected a series of reflections on democracy, gender equality, diversity, justice, peace and human rights from activists and academics working to understand and transform the politics of the Horn. Some of their contributions are being shared in this Debating Ideas series on a civil society dialogue in the Horn of Africa. Others, including a policy brief on Covid-19, and an array of blogs, are posted on Justice Networks in Eastern Africa. Debating Ideas also features two podcasts from the research: Abdul Mohammed, the Chief of Staff and Senior Political Advisor to the AUHIP, and a cluster of academics and activists discuss Red Sea politics, and the influence of the Gulf states in the Horn; and feminist thinkers including Mbalenhle Matandela and Rosebell Kagumire, chart a feminist agenda for regionalism. In addition, when the various participants in the project came together in an online dialogue in July 2020, three collective recommendations stood out.
First, regional organisations must step up their engagement with civil society. They need routine and functional mechanisms to involve non-state actors in the development and implementation of policy, to harness relevant technical expertise, and to bridge the distance between the organisations and citizens of the region. Such mechanisms would improve their understanding of complex and dynamic conflict situations and their capacity to respond and engage with civil society at moments of crisis.
Second, civil society networking across the region is essential for mutual solidarity and learning. The dialogue demonstrated existing connections and commonalities that cross borders and the scope for harnessing digital technologies to strengthen these further.
Third, feminists are invigorating and redefining Pan-Africanism. They are organising locally, nationally and regionally across geographical borders and social boundaries. The movement is led by women, and foregrounds violations and deprivations of women’s rights, but is also concerned with the rights of other marginalised groups. The AU and IGAD should attend more closely to feminist critiques and proposals and not only engage them on ‘women’s issues’ like gender-based violence but also on wider questions of peace, justice and security.
In short, it is urgent to expand and enrich the regional project, connecting formal institutions to the social movements and civic organisations and networks that are working for peace, justice and equality. Exclusionary politics and militarised masculinity are fuelling conflicts in the Horn of Africa. In response, we need a new feminist and participatory regionalism oriented towards inclusive and democratic solutions.
 The research team comprised Rachel Ibreck, Raga Makawi, Amira Ahmed, Mbalenhle Matandela, Nanjala Nyabola, and Njoki Wamai. It was supported by a consortium of European donors in Addis Ababa in partnership with the Horn Economic and Social Policy Institute. We warmly thank the funders and partners for their support. We also thank the 24 civil society researchers and participants in the dialogue in July 2020 for their contributions.
 See de Waal, A. and Ibreck, R. (2018). ‘A Human Security Strategy for the European Union in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.’ In Kaldor, M., Rangelov, I. and Selchow, S. EU Global Strategy and Human Security: Rethinking Approaches to Conflict, Abingdon: Routledge.
 See Ibreck, R. (2019) South Sudan’s Injustice System, London: Zed Books.