An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2018

The Practicalities of Living with Failed States

Seyoum Mesfin and Abdeta Dribssa Beyene
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State security and survival are critical issues in the rough regional environment of the Horn of Africa. Ensuring security for a state and its population is a priority and a raison d'ětre for any government. The buffer zone has emerged as a key strategy for nations in the Horn of Africa to manage successfully the security challenges of the several failed states in their neighborhood. Buffer zones are established adjacent to the borders of stronger states that oversee the buffer zones' affairs directly or through proxies. This essay explores the practical aspects of power asymmetries between successful and failed states from the perspectives of two officials in successful states who deal directly with this security challenge within the constraints of current norms and practices of sovereignty. The situation in the Horn of Africa provides insights into the effects of failed states on the security of their neighbors and the challenges that failed states present to the wider international community.

SEYOUM MESFIN is Ethiopia's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China. Prior to that appointment, he was the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs for nearly twenty years.

ABDETA DRIBSSA BEYENE is the Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogue, Research and Cooperation (CDRC) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He previously served as Director General for African Affairs at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Failed and failing states lack the political will and the capacity to enter into, much less abide by, agreements with other states to ensure mutual security. This situation points to problems that attend the growing asymmetry not only in the capacities, but also in the divergent character of the domestic political orders in the Horn of Africa. This asymmetry, assessed from the perspectives of two officials of a nation adjacent to two failed states, challenges some of the basic tenets of an international system of states, such as government capacity to abide by agreements. These failed states fundamentally lack the capacity to fulfill obligations of sovereignty, such as monitoring and governing their territories to prevent different actors there from launching unauthorized attacks on neighbors or more generally spreading disorder across their borders. These problems remain a primary source of conflict in the Horn of Africa, and have become increasingly pressing for countries that neighbor Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and other tumultuous and failing states.

The Horn of Africa hosts an assortment of failed and failing states. Somalia and South Sudan clearly belong to the category of totally failed states. Officials in Sudan and South Sudan have lost a significant portion of their capacities to enforce their authority in large parts of their respective territories; Eritrea’s leadership frequently defies basic international norms; and Kenya’s recurrent electoral violence raises doubts about whether its government can ensure domestic stability. In addition, states in the subregion face very real threats of terrorist attacks from Al Shabaab, a Somalia-based terrorist group. This regional political environment tempts governments to use armed groups as proxies to influence politics in neighboring countries. Since the 1960s, many countries have participated in tit-for-tat violence to undermine rivals, forcing some to create buffer zones along their borders.

Ethiopia, for example, engaged in this retaliatory violence in the 1980s when its government provided refuge to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army as leverage against Khartoum’s support for rebel groups inside Ethiopia. In this case, Ethiopia was reciprocating against Sudan and Somalia, which had similarly protected groups hostile to Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s. This symmetry of support for proxy-armed groups also meant that the governments routinely agreed to cease this behavior for mutual benefit. The records of these agreements from that time show that these governments possessed the political will and the capacity to abide by these agreements. While Ethiopia’s government strives to abide by the principle of respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors, the practicalities of living next to failed and failing states now challenge the country’s official commitment to adhere to these principles.

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