The Horn Of Africa States: The Region’s Red Sea Opportunity – OpEd


Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India is reported to have said that “Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think.” They also say that every crisis is an opportunity, but an opportunity always favors those who are prepared for it and the good thing about a crisis is that, at least, it wakes one up.

The current crisis in the Horn of Africa States region and more specifically the current stand off between Somalia and Ethiopia and the Red Sea crisis both point to an inflection point should the region’s leaders stand back and think positively to shift gear for a more positive approach. 

In the case of Somalia and Ethiopia, international law cannot be breached, and borders cannot be changed through force or through cheating. On the contrary the two countries and, indeed, the whole region of the SEED countries could launch a better format for living together in peace. They should not be lectured on the values of peace and stability for they live in instabilities and chaos. They need peace and stability more than any other group of countries. It is most unfortunate that a country such as Ethiopia, which is undergoing through a soul-searching process and through a chaotic ethnic-based wars should embark on another adventurous task beyond its capacity to complete and hold, which is related to acquiring a piece of Somalia’s territory through stealth and cunning. In Somalia, they say a thief with a head bent but whose back is being seen is not hiding. A state close to an imminent collapse can only think in those terms and perhaps, the Ethiopian administration must be licking its wounds before even a major calamity of the region has begun.

On the issue of the Red Sea, the region, fortunately or unfortunately, is located on a geostrategic location where some 12% of the world’s trade and nearly 60% of its energy (oil and gas and products thereof) passes through its maritime zone. The current crisis is already affecting that flow of trade and less and less of the goods that were passing through the waters of the region are moving to other parts and other sea lanes. There was not much of a resource for the region anyway, for the region’s port infrastructures  and other services are not as developed as they should have been.

In either of the Somali/Ethiopian conflict or the Red Sea conflict, there stares at the region an opportunity to change course for the better starting with the countries of the region realizing that they are, indeed, a region and an important one. It owns nearly 4,700 km of coasts excluding those of its many islands and it is the source of the Blue Nile, which provides most fresh water to northeast Africa including most importantly Egypt. It is structured into a highland and lowland geographic zones, which complement each other, and it enjoys a significant population, some 160 million, and hence market and labor force. The region, indeed, needs to craft a new infrastructure through which the countries and populations of the region can live together in peace and stability, each at its place and geography, without infringing on another’s. They do not have to re-invent the wheel. There are infrastructures across the globe, which they copy and emulate should, the leaders of the region see the potential opportunities, on the other side.

We have presented this case for many years, and it is perhaps time the region considered its merits. It is the only way forward, a new regional platform, not vastly different from that of the European Union but amended for the region’s own peculiarities and specificities. This would enhance the region’s democratic processes, legalities, accountability of leaders and indeed, the check and balances within the governing infrastructures of each of the countries, each in its own territory. This would be complemented by the ability of the citizens of the region to be able to travel throughout the region with ease, do business within the region and trade with each other with better terms and conditions than is currently the case.

It is perhaps high time the leaders of the region opened doors for such debates within their countries and become the pioneers of a region much better than the one they started with, when they came to power in their respective countries. There is no need for the region to be dependent on others to feed it. The region owns vast agricultural lands, vast livestock populations and, indeed, vast maritime foods. At present the region seems to live on a culture which glorifies violence and where murderers and killers are associated with bravery. It is not the best way to settle differences.

The better way to settle differences is to create national and regional platforms that do create trust among communities within each country and among the countries of the region, where the constitutions are protected and followed and laws are applied in the face both the rich, the powerful and the poor and the weak. I know that the Horn of Africa people know this message very clearly – there is the unengaged silent majority that have no say in their affairs and those in the seats of power, and we know most of them came by accident or through dubious means, should recall their humble beginnings and have the courage to put back some into those environments from whence they came.

John F. Kennedy is reported to have said that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, with one representing ‘danger’ and the other ‘opportunity.’ The current crisis of the region do indeed, represent both danger and opportunities and the leaders of region, should emphasize on the opportunities – create a new regional platform that sets out a code of conduct that deals with relations within the region and with relations with non-regional parties. That is the Red Sea opportunity for the Region.

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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