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The Horn of Africa Peace Conference

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D

December 14, 2010

The Horn of Africa Peace Conference, initiated and sponsored by [Eritrean] Citizens for Peace, took place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta between the 9th of December and the 11th of December 2010.

On Thursday December 9 (day one), delegates from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia arrived at the conference venue. All members of respective delegations, however, did not originate from the Horn of Africa; except for Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Sudan, the Eritrean and Somali delegations were entirely from the Diaspora. Even among the Ethiopian delegation, some came from the home country and others were from the Diaspora. During the reception, a ‘welcome to Atlanta’ by Seyoum Tesfaye and ‘brief introductions’ by Selam Kidane were presented; and then on Friday December 10 (day two), following the Programme, Gaim Kibreab opened the conference with a welcome speech.

On day two many interesting and significant themes were presented by panel participants, including the following: ‘The Importance of Thinking Outside a Box in Building Peace and Peace Constituency’ by Andre Zaimmen; ‘Regional Peace, An Eritrean Perspective,’ by Paulos Tesfagioris; ‘Regional Peace and Security, View From Ethiopia,’ by Berouk Mesfin; ‘The January Sudan Referendum and Its Implication for Regional Peace,’ presented on behalf of Ibrahim Mirghani by Buthaina Ahmed Elnaiem; ‘The January Sudan Referendum and Its Implication for Regional Peace, View from South Sudan,’ by Samson Wassara; ‘Regional Peace from Djiboutian Perspective,’ by Ismail Wais; and ‘The Role of the Media in the Promotion of Peace in the Horn,’ by Martin Plaut.

Day Two panel presentations, followed by floor discussion (part I) and moderated by Dan Connell, was conducted; and after lunch break part II of discussion continued through most of the afternoon when the conferees were divided into four brain storming groups, led by facilitators and rapporteurs.

Berhan Ahmed opened Day Three with ‘Introductions to the Day’s Events’ and plenary presentations and Q&A followed this. The moderator for this session was Tamrat Kebede. Since I was in Group I where I served as rapportuer and Abdelkadir Dawood as facilitator, I like to report what this group had discussed.

Under the theme of ‘New Approach to Conflict Prevention, Resolution, and Sustainable Peace Building,’ which was also discussed by other groups, Group I discussed conflicts linked to ethnicity and lack of resources; the promotion of tolerance for the sake of peaceful coexistence; the promotion of positive ideas in the form of slogan, ‘accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative’; creating conflict resolution training institutions; five keys that need to be considered in conflict prevention and resolution include citizenship, borders, regional proxy wars, external influences, and resources. Group I also emphasized the need of the interconnectedness of the conflicts and the systematic approach to the conflicts in the context of clarity, structure, and organizational culture. In order to further prevent and resolve conflicts, two examples were suggested: 1) the Southern African Game Parks that are viable economic entities where people on the border can move freely, i.e. borders that can provide a common interest; 2) Badme as a neutral zone recognized by both Ethiopia and Eritrea.  

After all four brainstorming groups reported their discussions and resolutions, part II discussion of Day Three continued and so many interesting themes relevant to the spirit of the conference were raised; some were repetitive and others were characterized by heated debates but overall the discussion went very well and, I might add, the conferees were civil for the most part. Afternoon session of Day Three was presided over by Anghesom Atsbeha, and the two speakers who delivered speeches on ‘Reflections on Peace from Regional Perspective’ and ‘Eritrean Peace Charter (an example of a peace movement)’ were Assefaw Tekeste and Dawit Mesfin respectively. The speech of the former was seasoned and the presentation of the latter was poetic and mesmerizing.

The participants in the conference were energetic and enthused and I for one was delighted to see people from the Horn discuss sensitive political issues with the highest degree of tolerance. In admiration of the quality of dialogue forged during the course of the conference, I suggested that our best bet is to talk to one another and chart the peaceful path to the next generation in the Horn and I also recommended the book authored by Fischer and Ury entitled Getting to Say Yes: Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In (first published in 1981). On top of this, I reminded conference participants that we need to digress a little bit from the major framework of thinking (conflict prevention and resolution) that dominated the conference and revisit our history and explore conflict resolution mechanisms, and I offered some examples from the Continent of Africa such as the pebble (tiny piece of stone) swallowing ritual by young boys and girls in Tigray (northern Ethiopia) and Eritrea in an effort to cement their friendship forever; the pivotal role of the Guurti (respected elders) in Somalia who were known for resolving conflicts; the Shimagle (elders) in the rest of Ethiopia who also played a crucial role in settling disputes; the council of elders who played the same roles throughout the continent of Africa; and finally I demonstrated to the conferees the ‘Blood Brothers’ of the Zande of southern Sudan and northern Congo where individuals in pair mutually scratch their hands to deliberately bleed them and then swallow each others blood to signify and symbolize permanent  peaceful coexistence. To my pleasant surprise, when I was talking about the Zande, one member of the conference said, “we have one Zande here” and interestingly the one and only one Zande, who was part of the South Sudan delegation, endorsed my story to the delight of the conferees.       

At the end of the conference, Action Planning in two parts was presided over by Mirjam van Reisen and free discussions were entertained in regards to what the outcome of the conference should be, the endorsement of what has been discussed, the formation of new committee that will ran the affairs of the peace project, and what the name of the project was going to be. After exhaustive discussion, the conferees endorsed the minutes of the two-day conference; they voted in new names from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti and along with the already existing Eritrean committee a new Horn of Africa Committee has been established.  With respect to the name of the peace project, Paulos Tesfagirogis came up with ‘Make Peace Possible’; other members of the conference suggested several names including Horn Peace Initiative, A New Awakening etc. I, for one, suggested Horn of Africa Peace Engagement or simply Horn Peace Engagement (HOPE), and despite couple of objections the majority of the conferees supported my proposal. However ‘Make Peace Possible’ also was endorsed as a secondary name of the peace project. I personally do not have any objection to the latter name, although I still think the current name is more of a phrase or slogan that may not draw the attention of people interested in the cause of peace. The name I suggested could have two significant messages to the target audience (people who are directly affected by the conflict in the Horn): 1) the peace project, beyond mere initiative and possibility, could convey real engagement by the leaders of the peace project/movement; and 2) Hope is a crucial ingredient in any undertaking especially in adverse situations like the present crisis in the Horn of Africa. In any event what matters is not the name. What matters is the translation of the peace project minutes into action; real engagement will speak lauder than the name and I hope that the momentum of Atlanta will continue to make a difference in the near future.  

The Horn of Africa Peace Conference was highly educational, constructive, and enjoyable in terms of social interaction. On a personal note, I enjoyed the conference because I met very nice, humble, and down to earth people from all over the Horn; I enjoyed the company and conversation of many conference participants, but that of Abdulkadir M Dawod and Berhan Ahmed stands out. Five individuals that impressed me with their ability to listen and absorb ideas were Surafiel Yohannes, Seyoum Tesfaye, Eden G. Fesshazion, Michael Andegeorgis, and Samuel Gebrehiwet, not to mention the born-leader Selam Kidane. Of all the presenters, one solid scholar that impressed me most was Mohammed Haji Mukhtar, interim chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Savannah State in Georgia. Another equally dynamic scholar and activist is Andre Zaaiman of South Africa. Two women that were very pleasant, with very kind personality that can easily be detected from their foreheads, were Kay Orsborn and Fawzia Hassen. Other interesting people that I have had brief conversations with are Abdillahi Jama, Berouk Mesfin, and the very candid and down-to-earth Anghesom Atsbeha.

It was also a delight to meet old friends like Hailu Habtu, with whom I had intellectual exchanges and discourse in New York; Gaim Kibreab, the dynamo and energetic professional and scholar, who compelled me to become sentimental after I met him in three decades although I have had “debates” with him several times on the VOA Tigrigna program. But of all the people that knocked me off with delight was Mehret Ghebreyesus (of CVT Global), a beautiful person that I know since my elementary school days, and it was a pleasure to see her once again in a decade and half.

The Horn of Africa Peace Conference was at once an intellectual discourse and a social gathering in which Horn of Africa Africans and non-Africans alike were able to networking and exchanging ideas and experiences that I personally have enjoyed. The Horn of Africa Peace Conference was unique because this is the first time that I have witnessed Africans gather for the sole purpose of finding solutions to the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa region. Otherwise, annual Horn of Africa conferences, scholarly in nature and in which I participated several times as a panel and floor discussant, were held for an entire decade from 1982 to 1993 at the New School and mostly at the City College of the City University of New York.

Both in the general conference and the brainstorming sessions, the objective was to generate ideas as much as possible and not necessarily to agree on all issues and this was one of the major accomplishments of the conference. The conference indeed was forum-cum-dialogue par excellence! One shortcoming of the conference perhaps was that the conferees were unable to thoroughly examine the consequences of the formation of a new South Sudan although some were talking about their concerns in informal gatherings. Both the South and North Sudan delegations seemed to have taken it for granted that a South Sudan “Republic” would indeed be formed after January 9, 2010. For all intents and purposes, the Juba new government is a fait accompli given the attitude of the Sudanese delegation and the preparation on the ground in South Sudan. Whatever happens after January 9 in the Sudan, I hope that Sudan will not be embroiled in political skirmishes and conflicts, and I wish the Horn of Africa Peace Conference in Atlanta and beyond would make an input to make peace possible! 

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