The Horn Of Africa States: Misguided Policies Ruin Countries – OpEd


According to Britannica, the United Nations under the prompting of the United States resolved to hand over Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1950. This was completed through a process culminating in a  federation, where the United Kingdom, which was holding the Ex-Italian colony, Eritrea, finally relinquished control to Ethiopia on September 15, 1952. That federation ended on November 14, 1962, when Eritrea became a simple province of the Ethiopian empire, which gave rise to a liberation struggle that lasted for some three decades. Eritrea as a country, officially regained its independence in May 1993. The period 1952 to 1993 (some 41 years) was the only time in recent history, when Ethiopia had access to a sea.

Before then and after then, the region was always divided into the highland regions and lowland regions. There were no such countries as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, or even Djibouti. These are all European concoctions, which are now causing headaches for the peoples of the region, who lived together and traded with each other for always. Indeed, there were principalities and city states and sultanates with differing names, but it is not the purpose of this article to provide a lecture on the history of the region. It is to deny the assertion that is being made by Ethiopia that it cannot develop without an owned access to a sea.

The most development it ever did throughout its history was only from 1993 to this 2024 when it did not have access to a sea. It grew mostly at double-digit rates during this period when it became the largest East African economy, even surpassing Kenya, the region’s powerhouse. What is this complaint that it cannot develop without a sea? The IMF and the World Bank both report that the country has experienced robust and steady growth at some 6.1 percent in 2023 and that it is expected to grow at 6.2 percent in 2024, above both regional and global growth rates. The Ethiopian complaint that its economy is stunted because of lack of an outlet to a sea is misplaced and incorrect. But who is Ethiopia, anyway?

Ethiopia is a name that was given to the country that in 1932. Before then it consisted of several principalities that were concocted and kept together by force and named Abyssinia. It was, indeed, a creation of Menelik II during the second half of the 19th century and completed by Emperor Haile Selassie I. Do we have to go back to wars and creation of new empires in this 21st century? I guess this beats any logic, when people should be living under governance infrastructures where they should be choosing their leaders through democratic processes.

The region, in its current infrastructure – the SEED countries – should be living together and working together without one acquiring the territory of another. They all need each other. Ethiopia is a large country, indeed, but it contains different countries within it. They include among others Tigray, the Somali State, the Afar State, Harar State, Oromia State, Sidama State, Benishangul State, the Amhara State, and many others, all with different cultures and languages. It is a federation, which can split up into its component parts as per article 39 of its constitution, which recognizes the unconditional right of any of its sub-states to secede as a constitutional right. None of the other countries of the region have such a clause in their constitutions. It is not clear why Ethiopia, which lives under a glass house is throwing stones at others and specially at Somalia, at present.

Perhaps the regime in Ethiopia has lost its path and needs to revert back to being a good neighbor as was developing before its arrival in 2018. The huge welcome that was awarded to the new administration may have been misplaced as was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to its Chief, Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister, Abiye Ahmed. He chose to part ways with some of his close friends such as Demeke Mekonnen Hassan, the country’s deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister just yesterday. Others may be on the way. The Justice Minister is also rumored to be on the verge of leaving, although some already report that he did resign and leave his job. The President of the State, President Sahle-Work Zewde, a seasoned diplomat, is reported not to be pleased with the current contours of the country’s foreign policy. She did mention in some encounters, during the Ethiopian Diplomacy Week about fifteen days ago, of the challenges in Ethiopian diplomacy, and in particular, during the most recent years.

It would appear that the parting of ways of the deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister was due to differing thoughts on the attempt by Ethiopia to force an agreement involving part of Somalia’s coastal regions. It has already acted in the process by signing an MoU with a region without following the rightful channels between countries and neighbors and especially one with which it had a long history of violent past.

Any type of maritime cooperation agreement could be handled with ease through the traditional highland/lowland cooperation of the region, where Ethiopia as the hinterland country can have agreements with all the littoral countries (Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti) either separately or collectively. Unless one is deliberately attempting to force deals, which is what Ethiopia did, this falls far short of good neighborliness, and this may not be bad for Somalia but for Ethiopia itself in the long run. It is not the only country that is landlocked. There are many others, big and small, rich and poor and they all live with their fate and enjoy good relations with their coastal neighbors. They do not go around playing childish stunts, signing illegal agreements with regions and districts of other countries without going through the proper channels.

It is not clear if the Ethiopia administration is acting on its own. There are those who assume that Ethiopia is actually acting on behalf of other countries who have deep interest in stunting development of ports in the Horn of Africa States region, which is basically Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. They have already stunted development of ports on the Arabian side of the major Red Sea/Indian ocean waterway. No one hears of the major ports of Mocha, Aden, Mukalla or Hodeida anymore. The actions of Ethiopia with respect to Somalia only makes the region’s already chronic instabilities worse, which might draw in outside actors as well. 

Major powers including the United States, China, Russia, the UK, France and others are already in the region with their naval forces but worse is the oncoming competition among West Asians in the region involving the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Although it has not officially commented on the Somalia/Ethiopia deal, the United Arab Emirates is being reported to be siding with Ethiopia, which it wrongly assumes would be easier to deal with.

To ease matters, Somalia should, perhaps, offer Ethiopia to buy the naval equipment, vessels and gear Ethiopia already acquired. It spent quite a lot on an impossible project, when it did not even have a sea. That was lunatic in the first place. But Somalia, which owns the longest coast in Africa , some 3,333 km, should be kinder to its neighbor and offer to purchase all the equipment it has so far acquired through a price to be negotiated, perhaps at a discounted price of 25%. It would recover at least something instead of wasting them lingering in far distant ports/stores where they were built and paying rents for parking/storing them. One must pay a price for following misguided policies. They often ruin countries.

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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