Peace is just the beginning for regional integration in the Horn of Africa – Liban Obsiye


By Liban Obsiye

The peace and reconciliation bandwagon continue to roll through East Africa. Only last month Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, without diplomatic relations until only a few months previously, signed a trilateral agreement to cooperate in many areas of common benefit including economic development and security in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. More importantly, the Foreign Ministers of all three nations travelled together to Djibouti to successfully begin the dialogue on the Djibouti-Eritrea peace process. This was warmly welcomed by Djibouti and the diplomatic relations have now normalised. Of course, there will be further discussions and it is crucial both sides have frank deliberations about the way forward and how to rectify the past. However, for now, the hostilities are finally over and a new glimmer of hope and a path to reconciliation has emerged.

The message delivered by the Eritrean Foreign Minister on behalf of his own leader Esaias Afwerki to President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti was: ‘‘This is the season for peace in the Horn of Africa and this peace should be inclusive to all.’‘This was swiftly followed by a meeting of the two Presidents in Saudi Arabia which ended the political and diplomatic stand-off. This is a welcome event for the entire Horn of Africa region which also witnessed a “final” peace agreement signed between President Silva Kiir and rebel leader Machar to end the brutal civil war in South Sudan and the return of banned political leaders to Ethiopia on the promise of fully participating in the future of their country’s politics spurred on by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Despite these momentous changes, the East African region is arguably the least effective in cooperating on key issues due to political differences and disagreements when compared to the other thriving African Regions. The longstanding dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea and Somalia and Eritrea were resolved with the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the forward-looking approach to strategic partnership with their neighbours on the part of himself and the President of Somalia Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo. The trilateral agreement between Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea will no doubt now include Djibouti after the reconciliation dialogue but while this peaceful development is a matter for regional celebration, is it enough to sustain its overall ambitions?

Regional solidarity has long been the theme underlining the fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa while also growing national economies through inter-connectivity. Regional organisations like IGAD have worked for decades to coordinate common action and policies for joint progress with mixed results owing to the complexity of the region’s challenges and the internal complexities of individual nations and their own mistrust of one another. These challenges will not be easily resolved overnight but now that there is the intention to, the leaders of the Horn must re-evaluate their priorities and their individual capabilities to achieve this at home. Only with this honest assessment can the regional peace agreements be converted into the joint development and inter-connectivity policies and projects that solidifies it.

The Horn of Africa is home to some of the most dynamic and successful people and nations in the entire continent of Africa. The region is one with a rich history, diverse thoughts and ideologies as well as leadership that appears to understand each other now. It appears, finally, most of the East African leaders have woken up to the fact that they will be left behind or have uneven development which will sow the seeds of future tensions and rivalries which will only be to their detriment if they do not cooperate now for common prosperity. Now that some of the East African leaders’ frowns and suspicions towards each other are starting to turn into smiles and embraces, it is time for them to take regional economic integration more seriously and act on the past aspirations and pledges.

Kenya and Uganda have thriving and growing economies and these nations investment in infrastructure, human capital development and security are an example for the region. Although not directly involved in the peace process in Djibouti and between both Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, these two nations are an anchor for the cooperation the Horn of Africa needs and seeks. Both nations have contributed to regional security, especially, with their troops contribution to AMISOM in Somalia, in hosting refugees from regional conflicts and working to end the South Sudan conflict. Now, these gains must be built on regionally with greater knowledge exchange, diverse cooperation and with a commitment to genuine free trade. This deeper inter-connectivity and interdependence will cement the peace dividend from all the positive reconciliation that is happening in the region.

There is no need to start from scratch in regional integration because the physical integration of the Horn of Africa has been the agenda of IGAD for the last decade and central to Ethiopian economic and security policy. As a landlocked state, Ethiopia, more than any other nation needs transport infrastructure connecting it to the world markets though ports like Berbera, port of Sudan and Djibouti. It is also better connected to Kenya and Kenya to Uganda via infrastructure which already opens a large part of the region up to itself. The peace and reconciliation within the Horn region will offer an even greater opportunity to accelerate the physical connectivity by bringing those that still behind like Somalia and Eritrea on board. Furthermore, the peace and reconciliation efforts will ensure that East African states do not build for the sake of survival but to thrive in an interconnected open market based on agreed trade rules.

The arrival of a private commercial flight which will connect Addis Ababa and Somalia is the latest symbol of the evidence and commitment to cooperate on further connecting the region but there are more opportunities that exist that will bring greater benefits if the regional leaders of the Horn of Africa think together.

Bilateral and multilateral partners like China, Turkey, the European Union and some Arab states have expressed their interest in financing cross border infrastructure projects. Most of these are already busy in individual states like Kenya and Ethiopia. The private sector will no doubt find this proposition profitable and invest through Public Private Partnerships. The World Bank Group Board of Executive Directors have endorsed a new strategy to partner with Sub-Saharan African countries and regional bodies to deepen regional integration. What this means is not yet clearly defined but infrastructure connecting and increasing productivity and economic output in the Horn region like roads, railways and sufficient affordable energy is what can potentially be achieved. Alongside the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund is encouraging regional and global economic integration to grow the economies of the world to create jobs, improve productivity and increase domestic revenue generation for key government priorities including education, health and infrastructure. Therefore, if ever there was a time and opportunity to integrate the Horn and connect it to the wider global economy, this is it.

A major potential benefit of a successful East African integration will be that all the states can capitalise on the best partnerships and opportunities with the international community and individual states while also been able to unite to mitigate the negative impact of possible meddling like was witnessed in Somalia. When these countries stand together and are fully integrated, they can assist one another to defend their common goals and their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The peace process in the Horn of Africa is impressive, much needed and has caught the world by surprise. It is good news in a region full of challenges. However, with effective regional partnership, strategic common actions, and the supportive international environment, many of these obstacles will be outweighed and side-lined by the greater opportunities available for Win-Win economic development. This is what the people of the Horn need most and must be achieved by their leadership.

Liban Obsiye is the Senior Policy Coordinator in the office of the Federal Finance Minister and former senior adviser at the Somali Foreign Ministry.
He can be reached
@LibanObsiye (Twitter).