The Horn Of Africa States: Regional Relations – OpEd


The world of today composes of some 196 countries of which some 194 are recognized as full members, including Palestine which was voted for full membership recently. However these countries, although independent of each other are connected through hundreds of complex groupings, which may sometimes overlap such as the EAC whose members are found also in IGAD, in COMESA, the African Union, and the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) with which the EU has a special relationship. Some of the members of the EAC are also members of the Arab League and they may all be in the No-aligned Movement or the Global South.

It is the nature of humankind to live in groups, as a social animal. It goes for the individual as it goes for communities and for countries. There have been always alliances throughout history involving defense mechanisms, social and other intricate affairs from the ancient city states of the Horn of Africa or the ancient city states  of Greece to the current transformative multipolar world. These groupings and alliances always shape the contours of global affairs.

The Horn of Africa States in its modern setting started in 1960 when Somalia in its current structure came to being as a country, uniting Ex-British Somaliland and EX-UN Italian Administered Trust Territory of Somalia. At the time there was only Ethiopia, which then included Eritrea, Somalia and French Somaliland, present-day Djibouti. Despite being countries which have similar histories, similar populations and similar cultures, the region started on the wrong footing. Whether this was of their making or not, it does not matter. The relations of the countries of the region was never close and always carried a pinch of salt, even after the collapse of the state in Somalia or the breakup of Ethiopia into two countries or the independence of Djibouti from the French, although independence from France is never clear as the Sahel countries of West Africa have recently demonstrated.

The first three decades of the region from 1960 to 1990 was marked by inter-state and intra-state wars, which ended up in the breakup of Ethiopia into present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea and to almost the total collapse of authority and governance in Somalia, which continues till today. Djibouti, which gained its independence from France  during this period has become a home base for the navies and military forces of many non-regional powers, mostly from the West but also from China. The Russians may be looking around for a footing and Eritrea, may likely provide such a foothold. It is not clear as yet.

The second three decades from 1990 to 2020, which followed was generally a period of chaos, non-governance in Somalia (warlords, terror groups, and clan competition), bad governance in Ethiopia (tribal), emergence of Eritrea as a solitary, almost hermetic state, and Djibouti’s emergence as the only semi-peaceful state in the region with all those foreign navies making it a home base. The region, indeed, owns an important geo-strategic location, which overlooks a major global shipping lane, the Suez Canal/Indian Ocean waterway which includes the Bab El Mandab choke point. The current Houthi stranglehold on that strait evidences the significance of that waterway on international maritime trade and travel.

The fourth decade is already almost halfway but the region does not seem to be improving in anyway, politically, socially and economically. As a matter of fact, it seems to be going back and reverting to the early sixties which was marked by claims and counterclaims over each other’s territories between Somalia and Ethiopia, with Ethiopia now seeking to seize parts of Somalia territories and seas.

The weakening of Somalia, the rising of Kenya as a major force to reckon with in the region, with many Somalis now moving into East Africa and making it a home, would seem to have misled Ethiopia, which itself is embroiled with tribal wars, left, right, and centre, to turn attention away from its internal troubles, to the outside and what was better than Somalia, that fragile state which is still trying to find itself after almost four decades of non-governance, and hence instigate a so-called MoU with one of the regions of Somalia, knowing that it is internationally illegal and wrong.

Like other Africans, the region does not find its strength in unity but each country tries to identify its own uniqueness and hence ability to stand alone, tall and strong, when, indeed, each is digging its own grave and receiving others from far and wide to exploit its resources, be it sub-soil or just simply around like the oceans and seas and hence beaches and fish or agricultural lands and large livestock populations, which is the source of most protein in the region and neighboring regions. No wonder the region receives the Gulf Arabs with all fanfare when the latter is either exploiting the resources of the region or standing in the way of developing its airports, seaports, roads and rail, and other infrastructures. But they also receive the West as they receive the Chinese who are all there to exploit the region and not change it for the better. If they wanted the region to change for the better and develop, it should not have been what it is today after the presence of these parties all these years. It should have developed and moved up the scale one way or the other, even if it was one country!

It is perhaps time the region revisited itself and relations within. Cooperation in trade, logistics, health and education, environment, climate and natural disasters preventions, political and economic issues and creation of closer relationships among its citizenry, would have contributed more than any billion-dollar aid from any other country or region. They have not yet tried this track of living together, since they are in the same region instead of antagonizing each other. Since one cannot change one’s neighbor, it might as well be better to have a good friend than an enemy around. Life for all countries would have been better, at least.

It is natural for relations to breakup at times, but it is not healthy if this continues forever as seems to be the case in this region. Even families have challenges but they mange these challenges. The Horn of Africa States is a region which naturally belongs to each other. How come its leaderships, both ruling and opposition, only work on further disrupting the lives of its poor populations? There are so many problems in the outside world such as Ukraine war, the Palestinian/Israeli war, the issues of Asia and the rest of Africa, which all affect supply chains and hence life in every corner of the world. Naturally, the Horn of Africa States is one of those regions which is severely affected by the traumas of other regions, and it is only natural that they should be working together, instead of adding to the fires elsewhere.

It would be more natural to have the leaders of the region holding high level dialogues, moving away from the almost childish activities of signing agreements with the oppositions of neighbors and hence negative interference in their local affairs. Instead, each country should extend a helping hand to its neighboring countries, to settle quarrels. It is what the Horn of Africa States should be engaging itself in, instead of serving the objectives of non-regional parties involved in its life processes.

The Horn of Africa States has seen so much misery and its leaderships should be striving to put an end to the war clouds that are hanging over it. The countries of the region and especially those that have started quarrels against their neighbors such as the case of Ethiopia in this instance against Somalia should demonstrate its sincerity by withdrawing openly from the actions it has recently taken, and it could be rewarded handsomely as Somalia may move forward with two steps for every step Ethiopia takes forward to improve relations. It is in the interest of the region, which will not, of course, be serving the non-regional parties, who are assumed to have been behind the issue, in the first place.

There is no ideological divide nor is there any other divide among the countries of the region. The countries of the region should be working together in their security infrastructure, economic development and a common approach to international issues and global affairs. Mechanisms to resolve disputes among the countries of the region should be put in place and this can only occur more speedily if the region started to work in a new regional set up, the Horn of Africa States region with common customs,  a single market and perhaps in due course, a single currency.

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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