by Ali Hassan
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Djibouti president Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (left) and Isaias Afwerki President of Eritrea
The positive political changes in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the dynamism in the Somali leadership had rekindled hope that the countries in the Horn of Africa (HoA) region will make headways to collectively address challenges in security, economy, poverty and lack of development in their region. The leaders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea have met several times, the last being in Bahr Dar on 9-10 November 2018 and reaffirmed to work together to address the challenges facing their countries. Majority of the population of these countries who are undergoing political, security and economic transformations opted to embrace their leaders’ efforts, knowing too well the dark history between Ethiopia and Eritrea on one hand and Somalia and Ethiopia on the other. The leaders have a small window of opportunity to make their efforts succeed, given the volatility in their region. For this project to succeed, it must be expanded to include Djibouti and Kenya to make it stronger and truly regional.
Djibouti’s Regional Contributions
There were calls from many people of all walks of life in these countries that the absence of Djibouti from this new political alignment is tantamount to betrayal. Djibouti has been the lifeline of Ethiopia’s 90 million people from June 1998 until a peace agreement was finally signed with Eritrea 20 years later. Equally, Djibouti has spearheaded to lay down the foundation of reconciliation among the different warring factions in Somalia since 2000 and supported the establishment of the first internationally recognized government after many years of turmoil in Somalia. Djibouti, is therefore central to this transformation. Djibouti is also the headquarters of IGAD which Eritrea withdrew in April 2007 over Ethiopia’s interference and manipulation of the Somalia conflict. Eritrea had been invited to rejoin the organization but has so far declined.
While Djibouti is a sovereign country to decide whether or not to join the new political alignment, nonetheless, its participation cannot be dictated by others with ulterior motives. The question in everyone’s mind is, therefore, why is Djibouti absent? One doesn’t have to look far the answer. Djibouti and Eritrea had a brief border dispute in 2008 and Eritrea forcefully took over the Dumeira island and has held it ever since. Two dozen Djibouti prisoners of war are still unaccounted for. The two countries have yet to formally close this chapter and the marathon meetings in the past few months have not yielded positive results.
Ethiopia and Somalia Goodwill Diplomacy
Ethiopia and Somalia tried at different levels and forums to breach the diplomatic impasse and continue their efforts. On 06 September 2018, Foreign ministers from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea paid a joint visit to Djibouti and held a much publicized meeting with the Djibouti foreign minister and later paid a courtesy call to president Guelleh. This was followed by another brief encounter between the president of Eritrea and Djibouti in Saudi Arabia on 17 September 2018 with some world leaders praising and calling it “historic and yet another step in the consolidation of recent peace and security gains in the HoA region”. The expectation was that the two presidents will finalize a peace agreement similar to the one between Ethiopia and Eritrea. As of this writing the issue at the center of dispute between the two countries have not been resolved. Ethiopia and Somalia have either failed to persuade their newly found friend, president Afwerki to finalize a peace agreement with Djibouti or decided to give it more time.
In addition, there were other reports that Ethiopian Prime Minister had asked the French president to help in the normalization of relations between Eritrea and Djibouti when he visited Paris in October, an indication that he doesn’t have much leverage with president Afwerki. Moreover, it was also reported that when the Somali president visited Djibouti in August, he assured his counterpart that Somalia and Ethiopia are working hard to bring to a close the dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea. It is therefore either that president Afwerki is the one calling the shots and ignoring his counterpart’s mediation efforts or there are other forces in the Arabian Peninsula that are unduly influencing the Eritrean leader.
Moreover, there are strong concerns that Ethiopia with the dominant economy, military and regional politics is the force behind this project. Equally, Eritrea has an inherent interest to open up to the world, get the UN sanctions lifted and modernize its strategic ports. Given the chance, the Eritrean diaspora could transform their country in a very short period. It is, therefore, only fair to assume that Somalia which is facing many internal challenges is at a disadvantaged position vis-a-vis the other two countries. In this context, Djibouti would have been its natural ally. It is therefore of paramount importance for Somalia to take the lead in finding a lasting solution to the political impasse between Djibouti and Eritrea.
Finally, the leaders of HoA region including Djibouti should do everything possible for a speedy peaceful conclusion and resolution on the remaining unresolved occupation of Dumeira island by Eritrea. There can never be a true reconciliation and regional reintegration until and unless the leaders have the political courage to insist the closure of this dark chapter. Eritrea should accept peace and resolve their territorial dispute with Djibouti and let go its belligerent attitude and chose to join the international community of peace loving nations.
Former Senior United Nations Official and Regional Analyst