The Horn Of Africa States: Failures Of Foreign Policies Of Region (Part I) – OpEd


Modern traffic is fast and plenty and can cause great dangers to both life and properties, if not managed well. This has necessitated the erection of many signals to guide motorists and pedestrians. One such sign may read: “Keep to Your Lane.” This is an effective safeguard against causing an accident or averting danger of colliding with other motorists, and eventually, helping one complete one’s journey safely. Life is also all signs and politics whether one is managing a corporation or a country do also have signs and signals that tell stakeholders what is happening around and what one should expect as a result of happenings and events reported or taking place.

One should, therefore, confine one’s activities to what is useful to one and not infringe on others’ spheres, which, if it happens, can cause a clash with them. Life is full of signs, which appear to societies and countries, which politicians and executives should read as to what they indicate and imply. The unfortunate story of the modern Horn of Africa States region is that it is full of amateur politicians who jump into conclusions and judgements without really having understood well the import of these on the region and its geostrategic position. 

They have, in their haste and unnecessary annoyance with others and each other, caused more harm to the region than good. They appear to act only on what they see and do not try to look deep into what lurks behind and on the background. Small rich countries like the UAE use them like toys and have already cost the region’s politicians a lot through sweet talk and possible help with a few greasing financial reliefs at the personal and even country levels.

It is well known that the UAE maintains good relations with Somaliland of Somalia, Puntland of Somalia, Jubaland of Somalia, South West State of Somalia, and even Federal Government of Somalia but they do not bring them together. They are all part of Somalia, a “brotherly Arab State and a member of the Arab League.” The UAE should have been able to bring them together and create peace among the Somali brothers. But alas, the UAE relationship with the region and with Somalia in particular is antagonistic and it appears it does not want to see Somalia rising again from the ashes like a phoenix. The UAE spends a lot of energy and resources on keeping the country disintegrated and dismembered as it is or even perhaps worse. From all signals of its behavior, the UAE appears to be enjoying keeping the Somali regions apart and at each other’s throats.

It is also known that the UAE maintains clearly good relations with Ethiopia and some even accuse it of having been the force behind the recent signing of the illegal MoU between Ethiopia and one of the regions of Somalia, setting up a precedent in international relations, where a country can come forward blatantly and sign a covert agreement with a province or provinces of another country. It could probably be a stronger nation that would come one day to sign agreements with one of the seven emirates of the UAE without due respect for the UAE federation rules and constitution. Ethiopia is a poor country that could not even repay one of the IMF/World Bank tranches that came due late last year. 

It could not have dreamt of building a naval force and a port with all the necessary infrastructures unless a rich uncle was financing it, and encouraging it, when it is a landlocked country. The UAE seems to be the rich uncle financing it through perhaps long-term loans or through access to the rich underground resources of the region which among others include oil and gas, gold, uranium, platinum, lithium, cobalt, copper and others, and of course the maritime blue economy of the region, delaying the developments of the ports of the region for the next fifty to hundred years.

Some of the leaders have also jumped on the bandwagon of regionalism without understanding the processes and how to choose well into what region one belongs to and/or can join. Somalia is one such country that always fails to choose well. It first joined the Arab League in the seventies of the last century when it knows it does not belong to that group. The fact that it is not an Arab country is quite clear to anybody. 

Somalis speak Somali, the language, which is a Cushitic language and not Arabic. The DNA of the Somali, the culture of the Somali and the character of the Somali is different from those of an Arab. The fact that Somalis are Muslims does not make them Arab. There are baseless stories of Somalis who claim Arab ancestry but they cannot prove them for there is no such written histories inherited from those ancestors. It is ironic that when Somalis attend Arab conferences, it is a great embarrassment for both the hosts and the Somali guests. Arabs chatter, discuss and negotiate in Arabic and document their agreements in Arabic. Somalis generally remain outside such discussions and perhaps address some of the meetings in English.

As if that was not a lesson for Somalis, the current regime in the country ran and joined a club of the Swahili world, the East Africa Community, when Somalis do not speak that language and have little to share with the Swahili culture. This happened late last year. Unfortunately, Somalia, in its haste, did not understand nor study the intricacies and the pitfalls that lay behind the scenes of the beautiful and graceful literature of the organization. When it was joining the Arab League, it was a dictatorship that was responsible and no one had a say in the matter. In these present times, when there is a parliament, it is a great embarrassment that it also approved the membership of Somalia in the EAC on the recommendation of the emerging authoritarian President of the Federal Government of Somalia.

Little does Somalia know of the major problems of the EAC, which include among others many ugly trade and diplomatic issues among the members. Little did Somalis know that many East Africans saw Somalia’s membership as an ignominious and wrong move in the expansion process of the EAC. Little did Somalis know of the brewing problems of the DR Congo which joined the club just before Somalia including the saga and troubles of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) in the east of the DR Congo. According to some reports the Heads of States of the EAC are not even briefed on the serious matters related to the EACRF in the DR Congo.

It is reported through many media outlets that Rwanda is not happy with the organization, nor is Museveni, who used to be excited about it only years ago, hoping that he would be its first president. A general unhappiness on the organization’s performance does not inspire confidence on its future particularly with respect to creating a new African country – the East Africa Federation. In its place some who loved the idea of an east African country are putting forward a new name for a new East African country to be called the East African Peoples Republic (EAPR), Somalia included!!!!!

The afore-noted is a precursor on the subject matter – the failure of the foreign policies of the Horn of Africa States and we may perhaps start with the inability of the region to stop one of its own, Somalia, going astray to join a fruitless and unsuccessful organization such as the East Africa Community. The other significant failure of the Horn of Africa States region was Ethiopia’s thoughtless provocation with its Neighbor Somalia, when it directly signed an illegal MoU giving it access to Somalia’s sea without going through the normal rules between nations in the modern world. The illegal quest of Ethiopia for a sea outlet, which belongs to it has unnerved the other two Horn of African States countries, namely Eritrea and Djibouti, as well, jeopardizing the peace that was slowly but surely developing among the countries of the region.

A further failure of the region’s foreign policies is marked by the absence of a concerted regional approach to the growing threats around the region involving the Suez Canal/Indian Ocean waterway, the presence in the region of many military and naval forces from afar and beyond the region and comprising major competing powers and regional powers. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has also irked Egypt and Sudan and adds to the list of issues for which the region needs to develop a common approach, but where it has failed. This absence of a concerted effort in the region has perhaps its roots in the long struggle between Ethiopia and Somalia over Somalia’s liberation attempts of Somali territories in Ethiopia, which was seen and read by Ethiopia as a territorial expansion on the part of Somalia on Ethiopia’s territories. Two other countries have joined Somalia and Ethiopia in the region, with Djibouti coming to being in the late seventies of the last century and Eritrea in the early nineties of the same century.

 In the past, at least, each of the two main countries of the region did have foreign policies that were dictated by their internal infrastructures and internal hopes. In the case of Ethiopia, which at the time included Eritrea, its foreign policy was mainly driven by the main objective to build a viable nation state comprising a multiethnic polity. In the case of Somalia, the other main country of the region, its foreign policy was driven by the main objective of uniting Somalis in the Horn of Africa under one flag, the sky-blue flag with the five-pointed white star in the center and one contiguous territory as they always were. The white star represented the five regions of Somalia, which include Ex-British Somaliland and Ex-Italian Somaliland, which together form the current Federal Republic of Somalia, Ethiopian Somaliland which is currently represented by the Somali State of Ethiopia, French Somaliland, currently the Republic of Djibouti, and the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, still a region in Kenya.

The foreign policies of Eritrea and Djibouti evolved over the years from the birth of the two nations as tangent of the other two countries. In either case, both Eritrea and Djibouti were borne into a violent region and of course their foreign policies was and is still determined by their relations with the neighbors. In the case of Eritrea, it did have a violent clash with Ethiopia which led to the latter moving its use of the Eritrean ports to Djibouti which currently handles some 95% of its exports and imports. Eritrea also clashed with all the neighboring countries including Yemen across the Red Sea over some islands, which both claimed. The case was settled by the International Court of Justice. It also had clashes and skirmishes with both Sudan and Djibouti. 

Currently the country is generally referred to as the North Korea of Africa, a hermit state controlled and managed by a single party under the leadership of its president, Isais Afeworki. A little over five years ago, however, the situation of Eritrea and its foreign policy seemed to be changing. A new leadership in Ethiopia came to office and signed peace with the country. The two were joined by Somalia and there was, indeed, talk of a Horn of Africa regional grouping. 

Only Djibouti was not yet in the group, which also explains Djibouti’s wariness of the bigger and violent neighbors, encouraging it to seek security through leasing its ports and camps to major foreign military and naval forces. These include mostly NATO countries but also China. Its relations with these foreign parties determines, in the main, Djibouti’s foreign relations and of course, its affinity to both Somalia and Ethiopia where its populations also reside. It maintains good relations with both countries but not Eritrea with which it does have a territorial/border dispute.

The four countries of the region own and possess all the advantages a region could have. They own a sizeable population of some 160 million at present and hence a large market and a large labor force, a significant arable land and hence the possibility of a secure food source, plenty of water including the Blue Nile, the Shabelle, the Juba, the Omo, the Tekeste rivers and others, many lakes and of course, a vast maritime space of about a million sq. km. The region owns the longest coast of Africa of about 4,700 km and hence a huge blue economy potential. The region is reported to also have vast oil and gas reserves, a third of the world’s uranium reserves, platinum, lithium, cobalt, iron ore, zinc, tin, bauxite and many other minerals. But more importantly than the inanimate wealth, the region’s ethnic populations are mostly related and belong to the vast Cushitic people, who inhabit most of north and northeast Africa, as far as the Maghreb. Hence the region enjoys a cultural affinity, which can only help in forging an incredibly strong regional entity in its vast area of some 2 million sq, km.

The main question is why they have failed to build a common foreign policy. As we noted earlier, the region started on the wrong footing in the early sixties and continued reading the same antagonistic page. The collapse of both the Ethiopian and Somali military regimes, helped a little but the ethnic violence that resulted from the chaos that took away the authoritarian regimes was not healed quickly in the case of Somalia, which went into a cycle of internecine bloodletting for many years. That civil conflict still lingers on and resulted in the creation of a federal state in the country, although the whole country is generally one tribe. In the case of Ethiopia, the ethnic conflict was delayed by the strong regime that took over from the military regime. Fortunately, the administration that followed the military regime got support from the West and kept the country together, only delaying the conflict that should have happened in the early nineties. Currently that tribal conflict, indeed, the many nations that comprise Ethiopia are now at each other’s throats, fighting each other and fighting with the current Ethiopian Federal Government. The Amhara, the Tigray, the Benishangul, the Oromo, the Afar, the Somali and many others are either fighting each other or fighting the federal government.

Foreign policies define the relations of countries with each other. It is how countries relate to each other. Successful foreign policies lead the owning countries to successful relations with other countries and protect the rights and wealth and resources of a country. So far, the Horn of Africa States have not developed a successful foreign policy either individually or collectively. Each of the countries of the region remains in a precarious situation, which could change for the worst at any time. It is perhaps time they put some thoughts into their foreign policies. Setting up friendly relations within the region is perhaps the best starting point. 

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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