By Dr. Suleiman Walhad
April 9th, 2023
The security landscape of the Horn of Africa States has not changed since the opening of the Suez Canal. Although the region was always prominent in and important for human travel and trade over millennia, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, put it squarely on the front screens of major powers since then. It remains to be so today and more particularly with a view to the current ongoing upheavals in Europe between Russia and NATO through Ukraine.
The region overlooks one of the important seaways of the world where over fifteen to twenty percent of commercial shipping ply annually. Some of these ships carry oil and gas for Europe from the GCC countries and is hence particularly important for global trade and economy. The waterway of the region includes southern Red Sea, the Bab Al Mandab Straits and the Gulf of Aden and the northern Indian Ocean. It stretches for some 4,700 km. But equally important is that the region is the source of most fresh water for northeast Africa (Sudan and Egypt), via the Blue Nile, which starts in the roof of Africa, the extended plateau of Ethiopia.
The region’s long coast is well disposed for development should there be peace and stability and this appears anthemic to some other regions such as the GCC countries and most notably the UAE, which owns and operates the most significant port infrastructures in West Asia, and the EAC and most notably Kenya which currently handles most imports and exports of some of the landlocked African countries which can be also served by ports in the Horn of Africa States region such as South Sudan and Uganda and further on the east of DR Congo.
Currently, the region is conflicted and is marked by violence, instability, poor governance, weak economic infrastructures, and poor living standards. We are, indeed, looking at continuation of the lost decades of the region. This partly explains the presence of foreign troops and mercenaries involved in the domestic and internal conflicts of the region. There are navies from major powers such as those of China, the United States of America, France, Spain, Germany and their satellites in the region. One also notes the United Arab Emirates, which has military bases in Somalia and other parts of the region. These foreign forces and mercenaries, religious or otherwise, fuel inter-communal strives and draw the attention of the regional governments away from their normal jobs of governing to concentrating on defense and security only.
Imported terrorism, intent that no state is stable in the region, and African soldiers not willing to die really in the Horn of Africa, add to the dilemma of instability in the region, which already suffers from its own tribal/clan politics. In Ethiopia, one notes the Tigrayans against the Amhara and the Tigrayans against the Oromos and the Amhara against the Tigrayans and the Oromos as well. The only paradox, perhaps, in Ethiopia is that the Somali state which always was a thorn on the side of Ethiopia during the past century, today remains the most stable region of Ethiopia. In Somalia, the intense competition among the multitude of clans in the country although, all related by tongue, blood, and culture, seem to be a like a family feud, which does not want to go away. It has been going on for over four decades since the late eighties of the last century. Djibouti suffers from its clan/tribal conflicts, which flare up intermittently from time to time. Eritrea which separated from Ethiopia in 1993, appears to be still under control although the aging leadership could spur competition among those who may want to inherit the mantle some time in the future.
In view of the aforenoted, it appears that an alliance and multi-lateral agreements among the states of the region, the SEED countries, in the form of a regional block would strengthen the region and hence its development. This would disrupt the activities and hence goals of the external forces intent on keeping the region unstable and conflicted. In a region such as the Horn of Africa States, there are a multitude of vectors that can be deployed to disrupt any progress in the direction of collective solutions of the region’s problems, some of which are endemic, while others are foreign.
A regional block of the Horn of Africa States would do away with many of the destabilizing factors in the region including but not limited to disintegrative ethnicity, primordialism and/or nationalism, which are the root causes of internal as well cross border conflicts within the region. Once such an organization is set up, peace and security would improve greatly in the Horn of Africa States region, which is directly and indirectly crucial for international stability, trade and global economic growth.
At present, the SEED countries operate as unitary states, which puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with other countries of the world, which are much bigger or are united in blocks. The region, once united, would acquire a bigger and stronger voice and negotiating ploy. It would do away with and be saved from the vagaries of strategic clientelism. A united front will allow the region to be more productive to contribute to others instead of always being on the receiving end of charities.
Formation of HAS as a regional block would have other advantages for the region such as curtailing of the migration of its youth to other parts of the of the world as the economic prospects of the region through the peace and stability improves. The youthful population would have better opportunities within the region and travel/invest within the region with ease. There would be a rise in regional trade and hence growth of the region’s economy.
All of this would add to the betterment of the security of the region and hence reduction of concerns on issues like piracy, terrorism and other evil forces within the region that have kept it on its toes for a long time, thus allowing the governments of the region to concentrate on governing and providing the necessary services for the populations of the region. This would allow peaceful flow of commercial shipping in the region from the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean as well as peaceful flow of the waters of the Nile northeast as always. The fact that there is now the GERD would not disrupt the flow of water, which would be managed together with the downstream countries that also need the waters.
Thus, the creation of the Horn of Africa States should not be read only from the disruptive angle of those who currently benefit from chaos and distractions of the region but from the positive angle of improved peace and security, lower costs of cargo, ease of people’s travel, growth of tourism and further opportunities of investments for those who seek profiting from the region.
A regional construct would assist removal of most obstacles to regional growth such as poor governance, civil strives, unwanted foreign interferences, heavy cost infrastructures, and expensive commodity prices. It would allow investments into the region which will also necessitate improvement of the quality of education and healthcare systems in the region and equipping of the region’s population to take advantage of and harness the digital age of today and the future.
A regional construct would assist align the region’s monetary and fiscal policies. Regional cooperation and coordination on matters of public-policy measures would add to the positive developments of the region. Governments would coordinate and avoid implementing conflicting measures that affect the region negatively. They would work together on matters of international debts, prices, employment and poverty alleviation and others.
A third effect of a regional construct would be the reduction of foreign trade costs. Working together and sharing of infrastructural costs that enable the region to trade more widely with others such as ports, roads and rail would improve the costs to the region and hence price of goods, whether for export or imports.
The regional construct would further improve the service industry of the region, where the costs infrastructures as noted earlier would be reduced drastically. Telecommunication networks, the tourism industry involving tours to both highlands and the lowlands, and the warm blue waters of the region should add on to the growth of the economy of the region.
And a regional construct would also improve job opportunities for the youthful population of the region, who can seek jobs in the region. It is generally reported that women participation in the labor force is about three quarters of men across the globe. Female participation in the region is not yet as documented but is generally lower than men. A coordinated improvement of women participation in the labor force throughout the region would add on to the development of the region.
It appears that the world is on the threshold of a new order but what shape it would take is unclear. Perhaps a regional construct of the Horn of Africa States would enable the region look into the unknown void with a better vision collectively than through single country lenses. A regional perspective would always be better than a single country perspective and this would be useful not only for the region but also for the world.