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Scramble in the Horn

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Scramble in the Horn

A region at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, the Horn of Africa is generally taken to refer to the easternmost extension of land in eastern Africa, home to the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, whose cultures have been linked throughout their long history. Much of this historical interconnectivity has been underwritten by trade, befitting such a crossroads region, with a contemporary resurgence in trade now helping it to cast off the reputation for violence and disorder that has dogged it for so long. 

The Horn has made dramatic progress in the past two decades,” says Matt Bryden, a Horn of Africa political analyst and executive chairman of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based research institute. “But there remain numerous challenges.”

The fighting that broke out at the Ethiopia-Eritrea border on 12 June, reportedly involving artillery and tanks, resulting in hundreds killed and wounded, has highlighted how old-fashioned power politics has not disappeared, and can still pose a threat and risk scuppering progress made in the region through the more diplomatic channels of economic integration. The current truce – if the perilous situation can be called that – at the border hangs by a thread. In addition to this continuing stand-off, Bryden says, ongoing problems for the Horn include Somalia consolidating its state-building process and establishing a stable system of governance, and resolving the vexed question of Somaliland’s status. 

Ethiopia with its important population, the second largest in Africa, has become the driving force of the Horn thanks to its recent economic growth and its military strength.” Robert Wiren, journalist

Despite such challenges, many involved in the Horn remain optimistic, arguing it can have a more stable and prosperous future, forged through trade and industry developments in progress. 

It would be a gateway to Africa, not just to Ethiopia,” Sharmarke Jama, a trade and economic adviser for the Somaliland government, says of the $442m deal with Dubai-based DP World to manage and expand Somaliland’s underdeveloped and underused Berbera Port. “The multiplying benefits for Somaliland’s economy could be endless.”

Ethiopian linchpin 

Ethiopia, by far the largest and, increasingly, the most economically powerful of the Horn countries, has a critical role to play with all its neighbours, and thereby in whether lasting development and stability can be achieved in the region. 

Ethiopia with its important population, the second largest in Africa, has become the driving force of the Horn thanks to its recent economic growth and its military strength,” says Robert Wiren, a French journalist who has been writing about the Horn for the last 18 years.

Therein lies a stark choice – with its regional ramifications – for Ethiopia: whether it pursues the course of soft power, wielding influence through its expanding economic clout, or the course of power politics backed up by military muscle. Up until the beginning of June, the economic option had appeared most in evidence.  

Ethiopia’s projection of soft power, including trade relations with its neighbours, the development of cross-border economic infrastructure and sharing of services like electrification is helping to bind these nations more closely together and demonstrating in tangible ways the benefits of integration,” Bryden says.

Djibouti’s emergence as the dominant trade hub of East Africa has had much to do with Ethiopia. About 90% of Ethiopia’s trade goes through Djibouti – in 2005 this amounted to 2m tonnes, it now stands at 11m tonnes, and during the next three years it is set to increase to 15m tonnes – accounting for 85% of the port’s cargo-in-transit trade, representing 45% of the port’s output. 

Now Somaliland is pegging its economic hopes for the future to Ethiopia’s apparently upward trajectory. Speak to ministers and business folk in Somaliland and you’ll hear a lot of talk about Berbera Port’s potential and what might be achieved with the market opportunity offered by Ethiopia’s 100 million population – set to reach 130 million by 2025, according to the United Nations.

Africa’s Cold War 

But any Ethiopian galvanising effect in the Horn of Africa vanishes around the border with Eritrea, where the mood harks back to days of the Cold War, with antagonism, distrust and counter-accusation the order of the day. 

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following one of the longest running civil wars in African history (close to 30 years). Many Ethiopians have never accepted the tearing apart of what they perceive as their sacred motherland, and the two countries clashed in a devastatingly debilitating war for both sides between 1998 and 2000 – primarily over disputed land in the form of a random piece of scrubland – and have remained at loggerheads ever since amid a hair-trigger atmosphere, hence the June clash. While the artillery shells have stopped falling for now, the border dispute remains entirely unresolved. This is used as an excuse by the Eritrean government to keep the country on a war footing, its populace burdened with compulsory military service that often proves indefinite.

Thousands of young people have left the country in order to escape to an endless military service,” Wiren says. “After war-torn Syria, Eritrea comes second for the number of refugees trying to reach Europe.”

Hence a humanitarian crisis is added to a situation threatening regional stability, as well as also acting as a drag on the Horn of Africa’s economic resurgence. Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has much in common with Eritrea through a shared language and culture, as well as former family links either side of the border (before both countries set about expelling residents from the other when war broke out). In the northern Ethiopian cities of Mekele and Adigrat close to the border with Eritrea, locals lament lost market opportunities for both sides, remembering when trade once flowed freely along the main
road toward and across the border.

Even if Ethiopia and Eritrea can resolve their differences, which doesn’t appear will happen any time soon, Ethiopia is so heavily invested in Djibouti that it won’t be able to switch to Eritrea’s ports,” says Mehari Taddele, a law and governance professor at Addis Ababa University, and a member of a high-level advisory group to the African Union. “They used to be perfect trading partners but with Djibouti now central to Ethiopia’s economy, they can’t go back to when Eritrea got almost all of Ethiopia’s trade. That’s one of the saddest implications of the war.”

There is some speculation that Ethiopia’s actions mid-June were a way to test likely international reaction to any potential bigger push into Eritrea to topple President Afwerki. For while the AU, the UN and US State Department went through the motions of issuing conciliatory statements calling for restraint by both sides, the fact remains that the international community has done little during the last 14 years, since an international boundary ruling in 2002 that has never been fully implemented, to properly settle the border stand-off. Hence Ethiopia may decide it has had enough, and take matters into its own hands.

Eritrea has been involved in all sorts of provocations against Ethiopia,” says Getachew Reda, minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office. “This is a regime whose sole vocation is destabilising the region; this is a regime bent on sowing discord among neighbours and literally taking an entire region hostage for nearly 20 years.”

Intrigue and blunders in the Horn 

The saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has served as a guiding principle in the Horn, Wiren says. In the past, Ethiopia helped South Sudanese rebels because Khartoum was assisting the Eritrean Liberation Front, while more recently Eritrea supplied weapons to Somali Islamist groups fighting Ethiopian troops. There is no love lost between Eritrea and Djibouti, either, with their own border clash in 2008, and the breaking of diplomatic ties since.  

Relations between Ethiopia and Somalia are not as bad, but neither are they particularly cordial either. Somalia has long claimed Ethiopia’s Ogaden region as one of five parts of a Greater Somalia (the others being Somalia itself, Somaliland, Djibouti and Kenya’s Northern Frontier District). The Ogaden War, also known as the Ethio-Somali War, was a Somali military offensive in the late 1970s to win back the Ogaden that proved a disastrous failure.   

Meanwhile, foreign intervention has scored one its greatest own goals in Somalia, where two decades of efforts towards stabilisation have been an international collective failure at astonishing expense in blood and treasure, while fuelling Islamist radicalism. Ethiopian military are present in Somalia as part of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a peacekeeping mission embroiled with al-Shabaab militants, who pose a clear threat to Ethiopia, further stoking tensions between the two neighbours.

Even relations between peaceful neighbours Djibouti and Somaliland are not as amicable as they might appear. For while Djibouti’s ruling family have invested in significant business projects in Somaliland, there remain tensions and suspicions of intrigue.Djibouti received sustained support from Somaliland during its bid for independence from France in the 1970s, but when Mohamed Siad Barre’s military regime attacked the people of Somaliland in the late 1980s, the Djibouti government was not receptive to the flood of refugees seeking shelter. Most ended up in refugee camps in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, Djibouti has not supported Somaliland’s quest for recognition at the international level, while some political observers argue Djibouti is actively engaged in thwarting Somaliland’s political ambitions. 

An unresolved and big Somali squabble

Then there are the seemingly intractable complications between Somaliland and Somalia – whose peoples share the same language, culture, religion and ethnicity – which cannot be adequately dealt with in the confines of this article. Suffice to say it amounts to another stand-off, though one that is more political than militaristic: Somaliland insists, as it has since 1991, that it has broken away from Somalia and now exists as a separate sovereign nation; Somali insists this is not the case and will not hear anything of it. Similar to the Eritrea-Ethiopia stalemate, the international community has all but washed its hands of the matter, insisting this African problem must be resolved by the AU. A reasonable-sounding supposition, perhaps, although the AU has not established a reputation for proactivity and alacrity on such issues. 

Somaliland pursued recognition for 21 years in the absence of a Somali government and was unsuccessful,” Bryden says. “Now that there’s a recognised government in Mogadishu, Somaliland’s challenge is even greater. Whether they stay together or separate, Somaliland and Somalia must talk to each other: their populations, economies, even security are interdependent. They have no alternative to dialogue.”

Whether they stay together or separate, Somaliland and Somalia must talk to each other.” Matt Bryden. Horn of Africa political analyst and executive chairman of Sahan Research

Unfortunately, both sides have not made much progress since official talks began mid-2012, while some argue neither side has shown genuine conviction for meaningful resolution due to no agreements from any such talks ever actually being implemented. Until the AU decides to pull its weight, might Ethiopia, which certainly has increasing sway and influence over Somaliland, act as a meaningful interlocutor, leveraging the economic argument for some sort of resolution? Perhaps. But increasingly, Ethiopia has matters closer at hand to worry about. 

Sorting out one’s own house

When it comes to Ethiopia continuing to spread economic love in the Horn, this may well depend on whether the government can resolve its thorny internal issues, especially its tricky balancing act between its commitments to developmental state ideology on the one hand, and democratisation and human rights on the other.

[Ethiopia] can contribute to the stability of the region provided its authoritarian regime in the hands of an ethnic minority accepts democratic reforms and moves toward an inclusive and true federalism,” Wiren says. “The recent demonstrations among Oromos show that political frustration may lead to dangerous upheavals.”

And in July violence erupted in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, involving the Amhara, who make up Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, complaining the government was not representing their interests.

Faced with such turbulence in the country that has long been a relative oasis of calm in the Horn, and the ongoing challenges of the other Horn countries, it would be foolhardy to suggest the region is free of its darker days yet. But when viewing how Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland are cooperating and developing together, there appears reason for cautious optimism – perhaps even some celebration. It does not seem far-fetched to imagine the countries of the Horn eventually becoming a regional bloc akin to the East African Community, now the most integrated trading bloc on the continent. Speak to Ethiopian business people working in Djibouti and they say they feel quite at home, comparing Djibouti City to the eastern Ethiopian cities of Dire Dawa and Jijiga, while talking of the two countries basically operating as one economic entity. 

Such regional trade blocs make sense for Africa. The national economies of many African countries are small, not helped by diminutive population sizes and internal markets – Djibouti, Somaliland and Eritrea being prime examples. Regional groupings have more clout, and, some suggest, could one day form the basis of a continental free-trade area. But for such grand progress to have a chance, a few grudges remain to be sorted in the Horn, without unravelling everything that’s been achieved so far.   

This kind of integration between Ethiopia and Djibouti has been praised by the African Development Bank as an example for the rest of Africa,” says Samir Aden, advisor to Djibouti’s Minister of Economy, Finance and Industry. “It’s not that one depends on the other, rather it’s inter-complimentary.”      

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