Saturday April 6, 2019
by Mehari Taddele Maru
Recent diplomatic initiatives in the Horn are a positive step, but the region needs much more to achieve lasting peace.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, attend a meeting in Juba, South Sudan on March 4, 2019 [Jok Solomun/Reuters]Mehari Taddele Maru
Following his recent efforts to achieve normalisation with Eritrea,
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on a shuttle diplomacy
mission across the Horn of Africa. Since the signing of the landmark
June 2018 peace agreement between the two long-warring nations, Abiy
held several bilateral and tripartite summits both in Addis Ababa and in
other Horn of Africa capitals to help resolve some of the region's
deep-rooted problems and kick-start a process of political integration.
In September 2018, a tripartite cooperation agreement was signed
between Abiy, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Somalia's President
Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo following a meeting in Ethiopia.
On February 20, 2019, Ahmed met Muse Bihi Abdi, leader of the
breakaway northern Somalia territory of Somaliland, in Addis Ababa to
strengthen bilateral ties, discuss regional security issues and try to
meditate in its dispute with the central government in Mogadishu. Somali
President Farmajo, who was reportedly invited to the meeting, refused
to participate, but later voiced his administration's appreciation of
Abiy's mediation efforts and Bihi's willingness to work with the Somali
government in a tweet.
On March 4, Abiy met
Afwerki and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in Juba to further the
Intergovernmental Authority of Development-led peace process in the
Three days later, Abiy, Farmajo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta got together in Nairobi to try to resolve the maritime dispute between Kenya
and Somalia. However, this meeting failed to produce a tangible
solution, with Mogadishu making it clear that they will wait for the
decision by the International Court of Justice.
While Abiy's shuttle diplomacy received praise, admiration and
positive media coverage both in the region and across the world, it
clearly failed to produce any practical results on the ground and even
led to some new concerns and tensions.
The tripartite cooperation agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea and
Somalia, for instance, has spawned new concerns among neighbouring
countries about Ethiopia's plans for the region. Somaliland took
Ethiopia's undertaking to respect the territorial integrity of Somalia fully as indicative of a change in Ethiopia's policy that
might not be in Somaliland's interests. Furthermore, Ethiopia's renewed
diplomatic ties with Eritrea and Somalia caused its traditional
allies, Sudan and Djibouti, to feel sidelined.
Abiy's mediation efforts and other Horn of Africa leaders'
willingness to take part in them are undoubtedly a positive step towards
political integration, sustainable peace and meaningful cooperation in
the region. Diplomatic shuttles and media coverage of rapprochement
efforts play an important role in generating the political will for, and
public acceptance of, such a process.
However, shuttle diplomacy alone cannot resolve major
international problems. For such efforts to have practical consequences,
they need to be backed by well-deliberated and radical actions -
actions that have the potential to bring down the multiple barriers that
currently make political integration an impossibility in the region.
The first barrier to integration in the Horn of Africa is pervasive and entrenched distrust between states.
Real political integration requires a regime of free movement
of people, goods, services and money; and this can only be achieved if
there is a high degree of trust between all involved actors.
Unfortunately, in the Horn region, such confidence is in short supply.
Historical animosities, security threats within and beyond
borders as well as deep-rooted suspicions among state officials about
the motives of neighbouring states increase the trust deficit.
Ongoing conflicts, and serious transboundary resource disputes, which together have displaced more than 10 million people
and resulted in the presence of four peace missions (in Darfur, Sudan;
the Sudan-South Sudan border; South Sudan proper and Somalia) and the
continuing presence of more than 50,000 UN and AU peacekeeping troops in the region pose another barrier to political integration and feed into the trust deficit.
Border disputes between South Sudan and Sudan over the future of
Abyei, and between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the control of towns such
as Badme still persist. Kenya and Somalia are locked in a dispute over
their maritime border in the Indian Ocean, and Kenya and Uganda are still competing over the tiny Migingo Island in Lake Victoria.
Foreign interference in the region is yet another obstacle to
deepening cooperation and integration. Strategically positioned at the
major geopolitical and geo-economic nexus of the Red Sea and the Suez
Canal, the Horn is also a battleground for global forces fighting for
the control of large national markets and maritime domains. The region
currently hosts tens of thousands of foreign troops, with new military
bases in Djibouti and other countries in the region.
Several secessionist movements are alive and kicking in the region, with South Sudan
and Eritrea providing living examples as to how de jure independent
states can be established by any one of these movements under the right
Somaliland and its push for independence from Mogadishu also
provides a cautionary tale for all the nation states in the region. The
suspicion that secessionist threats are being fuelled by neighbouring
states and foreign forces is making many countries in the region
reluctant to push for further regional integration.
There are still ongoing tensions between states with devolved
and federated systems across the region. Forces pushing for
decentralisation, as well as internal border disputes between
subnational units, are also causing insecurities in many federated
countries, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.
There is a persistent danger that small isolated wars may erupt any
time between autonomous subnational entities, threatening the security
of both the host states and their neighbours. Intent on manipulating
these volatile political fault lines, governments in the Middle East - and from more distant regions - have lent their support to various conflicting parties.
Fuelled by new changes and old tensions, traffic in small arms and
light weapons has proliferated, while the Horn has become highly
These peace and security challenges make political integration
an agenda hard to sell in the Horn of Africa, especially when pushed to
include too many countries too quickly.
Mediation and integration can only succeed if they come on the back
of serious consultations and institutionalised efforts to build
inter-state trust and end historic animosities. One such attempt can be
the transformation of artificial borders drawn by colonial forces into
drivers of integration that reflects the socio-economic realities on the
ground, including traditional movements of people, infrastructure and
This type of progress cannot be achieved in a day or over a short
summit between a couple of leaders. First, institutional and financial
arrangements would need to be made to sustain a long peace process.
Second, geographic proximity, commonly shared interest and vision should
be used to lay a foundation of economic integration and eventually
political one. Third, plans need to be drawn and efforts made to
establish a strong political union under the auspices of the
Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
In this context, it is clear that Abiy's well-intentioned
diplomatic efforts are doomed to failure, as they lack the depth and
capacity to heal the region's trust deficit and to propose resolutions
to the multidimensional conflicts and threats it is currently facing.
What is needed to bring political integration to the Horn of
Africa is not diplomatic shuttles and official meetings, but
well-thought-out initiatives and long-term plans with institutional
support from IGAD.
Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is a scholar of peace and security, law and governance, and human rights and migration issues.