Mooted Horn of Africa Alliance poses opportunities on a banana-skin path


EDITORIAL | On January 27, the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia made a formal proclamation suggesting a new region bloc was in the offing and confirming what experts had talked off before.

Meeting in Asmara, Eritrea, the leaders said their “candid and extensive discussions” on the situations in their countries had seen a solution could come from some sort of formal cooperation.

“The three leaders adopted a Joint Plan of Action for 2020 and beyond,” said a dispatch shared by Villa Somalia, the official residence of Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo.

“It will focus on consolidating peace, stability, and security as well as promoting economic and social development,” the communique explained.

The three countries have faced civil strife in the last three decades. Now just stabilising, they are now facing the threat of al-Shabaab and a teeming mass of youth who remain unemployed and politically dangerous.

According to various UN reports, terrorism, arms smuggling and human trafficking are the key issues facing the three, and the Horn of Africa in general. Yet the dispatch also acknowledged that the potential economic rise here has been hampered by poor infrastructure, inadequate skilled human resources and generally net import economies.

The leaders; Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, Farmaajo of Somalia and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia also admitted that they could probably not do it alone; and promised to engage “their friends and partners, on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

Those partners were not indicated, but they could well come from the neighbourhood, meaning Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan could be in the offing…or even countries from across the Arabian Peninsula.

So, why are these countries planning a new bloc when they already belong to one; the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)? One reason, argue experts is that IGAD, which was formed to deal with regional security crises and natural disasters has experienced internal wrangles.

“IGAD is a security bloc which might be made irrelevant along the way,” argued Prof Macharia Munene, lecturer of history and international relations at the USIU-Africa.

“But it is a matter of power politics. If the rulers of Eritrea and Ethiopia now feel they are love with each other think they can form a formidable economic bloc, with the still troubled Somalia; it points to strategic ambitions…. Ethiopia wants an outlet to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea…and once it gets that; it will not need Djibouti.”

Eritrea has boycotted IGAD (whose other members included Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia) meetings for nearly a decade although observers think it suspended itself as relations with Addis Ababa soured over time. Addis was chairman of IGAD until 2019 when it handed over to Khartoum. But an Ethiopian national is now head of the secretariat at IGAD, based in Djibouti. Eritrea and Djibouti have some issues to iron out over their border so they have not been at ease with each other. But President Afwerki and Premier Abiy signed a historic peace deal in 2018, subsequently opening channels between the two countries in nearly 20 years. Abiy has since won the Nobel Peace Prize for it.

“Afwerki’s eyes were always on the ball, which was to guide the Horn into some sort of Cushitic Alliance,” observed Dr Alex Owiti, Coordinator of the Centre for Conflict Research Institute in Nairobi, a think-tank that focuses on political situations in the eastern Africa region.

“He was in the shadow as Abiy won the Nobel, but he is the eldest statesmen of the three. He definitely wants a controlling stake in the power games. Now he is asserting himself,” observed Dr Owiti.

Among IGAD states, Kenya was the most stable, having a secretary since 2010 and often influencing, alongside Ethiopia, decisions of the bloc. Few wanted to be controlled this way, and Dr Owiti says the motivation for Afwerki was to get something they could use for their benefit. That thing is now the mooted Horn of Africa Alliance.

The charter, launch or where the secretariat will be based are all a matter subject to agreement between the three leaders. But some observers think it is the work of entities beyond the region. Situated near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, Eritrea and Somalia had often left the mantle to Djibouti which now hosts military bases of every global power, except Russia.

With logistical interests in the area, Prof Munene argued some foreign nations may be motivated to seek a coalition and ensure the stability.

“It does appear to me like it is an external influence. It looks like some of the countries in the Horn have been persuaded to form an alliance.”

Ethiopia imports most of its goods (95 per cent) through Djibouti. But experts say it will be foolhardy for Addis Ababa to put all its eggs in one basket by banking on just Djibouti.

“It needs access to the Red Sea through Eritrea. It needs the Indian Ocean through Somalia and Kenya. It is strategic insurance in case relations sour with Djibouti, for example,” argued Mahmoud Yusuf, a security analyst and retired Kenyan diplomat.

“Besides, Ethiopia is a big country, the south of it is probably going to depend on Kenya and Somalia. The northern parts may need the Red sea. This could be a cost-cutting measure if we are talking about import economies.”

So far though, it looks like only those seeking access to the sea or political power need the alliance. Kenya and Ethiopia enjoy what is called ‘special status’ agreement; which means trade deals between them have certain privileges. Both countries, with South Sudan, signed a deal to construct an ambitious infrastructure project known as Lapsset-Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor.

Estimated to cost $1.2 trillion in 2012, the project involved a port in Lamu, Kenya and highways, railways, pipelines and airports in the three countries. So far, the port’s four berths are almost complete, and the highway between Nairobi and Addis is nearing completion. And while Ethiopia has routinely said its stake in the port is intact, the mooted alliance could distract it, experts think.

“Kenya needs to keep working on the port, and implement the programmes on its side of Lapsset,” Munene added.  “That will give it a strategic advantage because Ethiopia still needs access to the Indian ocean.”

There is one thing though; Farmaajo’s critics have said he is behind the alliance just to secure external support against internal opposition.

“President Farmaajo is lobbying Eritrea to depart from its principle policy of non-interference, wants to get arms, ammunition, soldiers to use in internal fighting,” claimed Idd Bedel Mohamed, a former Somali diplomat, now seeking to contest in the planned elections later this year.

“It is important for both Eritrea and Ethiopia to maintain neutrality; otherwise Somalia is heading to civil war. It will not serve your interest.”

Villa Somalia has denied using external actors to play politics in Somalia, but this criticism indicates the alliance could die if any of the opponents defeat Farmaajo; or if the partners change governments and the new guys reconsider the stance.

Meanwhile, an IGAD official denied such an alliance could kill the body, instead, he argued the alliance could, in fact, complement its work of solving regional problems.


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