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



It is often said that failure is a common occurrence in life  as is success, but when coupled with a positive attitude, such failure can be transformed into a success. However, when failure is coupled with a negative attitude, it only compounds the failure and hence complicates matters. We noted in part one of the series some of the foreign policy failures of the region, but we did not truly attend to why foreign policies are so important for nations. We will address this, and other issues related to the foreign policies of the region in this article and others that would follow.

Foreign policies generally guide nations’ attitudes towards others and hence the kind of relations one country may wish to have with another or with the rest of the world and with respect to peace and security and general human life on earth. It is usually the source of the successes and failures of nations, and most nations develop general guidelines, which enhance its diplomatic engagements and partnerships and/or where a nation considers possible sources of dangers to its security in every aspect of its life processes and developments.

We concluded in part (I) of this series that setting up friendly relations within the region is perhaps a good starting point with respect to laying a foundation for the foreign policies of the region both at the regional and national levels. A foreign policy usually draws from the root of nations and how they were formed in the first place. In the case of the Horn of Africa States region, each of the countries had its own histories, but they mostly go back to the early sixties when the current infrastructures as nations were laid down.

Brief Histories 

Initially there was only Ethiopia, which but for a brief period during the Second World War, remained largely independent of European rule. The other countries of Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti were all created out of European influences on the region without truly seeking inputs from the owners of the lands. Eritrea was originally created as an Italian territory of influence as was Italian Somaliland. British Somaliland was created as a British territory of influence as was the NFD of Kenya, which is a Somali territory, and French Somaliland, currently Djibouti, was created as a French territory of influence.

The wind of change, as was coined by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the UK in front of the Parliament of South Africa on February 3rd, 1960, which was sweeping through the African continent then, brought in the Republic of Somalia on July 1st, 1960, as the only country in Africa, which created its own borders when Ex- British Somaliland, which gained its independence on June 26th, 1960 and the Italian-administered UN Trust Territory of Somalia, which gained its independence on July 1st, 1960, united and hence removed the European created borders between the two territories. 

Somalia – The Aggressor

The Republic of Somalia was borne with a great ambition to unite all Somali territories in the Horn of Africa. This was,  indeed, a major new change to the region which had by then generally stayed calm since the end of Second World War in 1945. It irked not only Ethiopia whose eastern third is a Somali territory, but also the UK, which ruled over then, the Kenya colony, which included the NFD, another Somali territory. This also annoyed the French, who then controlled French Somaliland, the current Republic of Djibouti, which was its only base on the eastern shores of the African continent and on the major commercial Suez Canal/Indian Ocean shipping route.

The foreign policies of all these countries in the region were then all on the same side and on the capitalist camp led by the United States and geared to oppose and thwart the Somalia objective, which forced Somalia’s foreign policy to swerve to the unexpected quarters of the Eastern bloc, the then socialist camp led by the Ex-Soviet Union. In this context, one can recall that global politics and hence militaries, were then divided into the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances and the Non-Aligned Movement, which generally stayed in the middle although each country therein moved freely in its preferred direction.

The Horn of Africa, sometimes referred to as the Somali Peninsula, since most of it is a Somali territory, was then a theater of competition between the two camps, the capitalist and socialist. How Somalis, a nomadic free-spirited people and capitalists at heart (traders who plied the Indian Ocean, the Somali Sea and the Red Sea throughout history) could become socialists was never considered. It was not a feudal society but pastoral in nature where people move with their livestock in the vast territories of the Horn of Africa. The capitalist camp was supporting Ethiopia, which then included Eritrea and the socialist camp was supporting Somalia. This was not good for the region which became a theater of proxy warfare and battleground between those two competing powers, superseding the real interests of the region.

The foreign policies of the region, building a nation state out of a multiethnic polity in the case of Ethiopia and uniting all Somalis in the case of Somalia, were supplanted by the competition between the two major competing camps of the world and this led to the wars, which also brought Somalia and Ethiopia switching sides during the process. Ethiopia went over to the socialist camp and Somalia went over to the capitalist camp, which looked more natural as Ethiopia was then more of a feudal society liberating itself from its feudal landlords while Somalis are by nature democratic where decisions are usually taken under major umbrella trees in the vast leopard-colored lands of the Somali. No wonder, in the Somali law, the tree is often referred to as the court, where decisions are made and where every adult has the right to participate in deliberations.

The old histories of the region which date back to thousands of years, even beyond those of Europe were suppressed and the region had to imitate like other developing countries in the south the ways of the north. The culture, the life styles and the decision-making processes and societal management including relations with non-regional parties were affected and seriously compromised. No wonder the region seems confused and its leaders are lost between following their true feelings and copying others, which appears to them as the norm. The region thus became characterized by conflicts mostly arising from its traditional idiosyncrasies and tribal/clan folies and complicated by foreign interferences. 

Instead of stabilizing itself after the collapse of the military regimes of Ethiopia and Somalia, it only led to more conflicts fueled by foreign hands, who know better and have interests in the region’s resources. These resources include its population which represents a large market and a large labor force, its location which overlooks a major seaway, its food production possibilities, and its vast maritime spaces. It continued to be a battleground for foreign actors now including the West as led by the United States and the East mostly China but also other emerging regional powers such as the newly rich Gulf countries who needed playgrounds to practice their international diplomacy in the form of weaker countries, they can manipulate with uno poco di dolari.

It was during this turbulent period that Djibouti emerged from under the French and Eritrea emerged from under Ethiopia. They were borne into a violent region marred by enmities between Ethiopia and Somalia, and they did not help in easing the conflict between these two competing countries in the region but only added more fuel to the already combustible region. Their foreign policies, like the other old two, became instruments deployed by non-regional parties against every other country in the region, never in the interest of the region.

Failure to Create a Regional Infrastructure

The continuing conflicts led not only to strained relations among the countries but also internal internecine conflicts within each state of the region. The transformation of the inter-governmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (“IGADD”) into the regional organization called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (“IGAD”) did not work. There are too many hands in the broth as the entity included other countries which are members of other regional organizations. Three members (South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya) are already members of the EAC, which was also joined by Somalia last year. IGAD is also financed by non-regional parties who then have a say in its affairs and business. It is not truly a regional organization, but a large NGO deployed by non-regional parties for their own ends, whatever that may be.

The region could not, thus, help itself in forging a foreign policy of its own. None of the countries of the region, other than regurgitated literatures on foreign policies, has a definite foreign policy objective. They are either too busy dealing with putting out internal fires or are being led by foreign hands for the interests of those foreign hands. The recent illegal MoU of Ethiopia with one of the regions of Somalia is a perfect example of one such foreign policy debacle directed and managed by non-regional parties. Many fingers point at the United Arab States and the Gulf states in general, and perhaps others, as being behind the signing of the MoU.

Ethiopia Transforms itself into an Aggressor

The MoU further glared a new phase in the life of the region. In the past, Somalia with its declared objective policy of uniting all Somalis in the region in one country, was seen as the aggressor in the region. The Illegal MoU pushed by Ethiopia, perhaps under the patronage of third parties, marks a change with Somalia becoming a victim of Ethiopian aggression for the first time in centuries. This has changed the position of Ethiopia in the regional struggle from the victim position it always played from the early fifteenth century, when she encountered Portugal, the first European nation to visit the region, to that fateful date of January 1st, 2024, to an aggressor and a bully. Ethiopia, probably under pressure from the patron parties which pushed it into the project in the first place, has not yet repented on the matter, which does not augur well for the region. This has not only drawn the anger of Somalia and Somalis, but also terrified the other two smaller countries of Eritrea and Djibouti. A regional bully appears to be emerging. The only obstacle holding it back is its internal civil wars which appear to be tearing it apart into its national components of Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, Asfar, Somali, Sidama, Benishangul and others. Ethiopia forgot that it is, indeed, a multiethnic polity, which is yet to complete the process of forming that desired nation state.

The traditional matrix of the region has thus shifted glaringly, with Somalia becoming a victim in the region, where its foreign policy appears to be shifting to defending its territorial integrity and sovereignty against a much larger neighboring country, Ethiopia, while the latter appears to be taking advantage of Somalia’s weak state. However, Ethiopia appeared to have misjudged the reaction of the Somali Peninsula, which houses most Somalis in an area of some 1.1 million across three countries out of the region’s total area of about two million sq. km. and a population of some seventy million out of the region’s total population of 160 million, which is not an easy opposition despite the weak governance of Somalia, noting that the remaining ninety million are not all on the same boat.

Even the Western countries still read the region under old prisms and fake statistics still hope re-invigorating a much-weakened Ethiopian governance system. They still use the same old tools of rough persuasion, sanctions, and covert support for rebellions to exert pressures on the governments of the region, while at the same time showing overt support to the governments of the region with military and naval presence and small meaningless financial assistance, that only perhaps grease few pockets. The West, indeed, is not economically well.

Regional Self-Reliance

It is under these circumstances that the region needs to revisit its wellbeing, devising new ways of survival in a harsh world of worsening global politics. It will not be easy, under the present set up of the region and the measurably long distances between the possible objectives of its various component SEED countries. The region should not, however, lose hope for it will only be the region that can devise its own policies of survival and not others, who appear to be friendly but are not really friendly. It is important that each country should examine its current “friends” and its currently assumed non-friendly nations. It should also look seriously into the neighborhood and review where it can work with them with ease and how it should stop hurting them.

Perhaps the current leaders should revisit their priorities and see what their populations want and not what they personally want. This would give them a measure of at least the direction their future policies should be taking. This should, no doubt, include on how to live and deal with the Horn of Africa States region, which will not go away. It is a reality they should live with and should help them devise ways to remove the general despair and hopelessness and the unnecessary hostilities in 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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