The Ethiopian Herald BY Mulugeta Gudeta
The Horn of Africa is increasingly becoming a region with growing military strategic and economic assets. Great economic powers such as the United States, China, the Gulf States, and some European countries are vying for control, influence if not the domination of the region’s economic potentials. Since the time of colonialism, the region has attracted the attention of foreign powers because of its strategic position. British and Italian colonialisms have fought a tooth and nail struggle to dominate the area extending from the Gulf of Aden in the north to the south Indian Ocean.
The post-colonial period too has witnessed imperial contention for political and military control. The Cold War’s greatest rivals were the United States and the Soviet Union that provoked proxy wars and internal conflicts in order to realize their hegemonic ambitions. This trend is still continuing today with greater subtlety albeit similar objectives. The difference from past rivalries is that the present one is more about soft power and less about hard power. It is more about economic interests and influence than about military conflict. Major shifts are taking place in strategic alignments or regional as well as domestic alliance of forces.
On the other hand, countries of the Horn of Africa have gone a long way to recast themselves in new economic, political and strategic molds and cast away their old image of passive witnesses of the great power political dramas that were taking place under their very eyes. Nowadays, these countries are rising to ascertain themselves as political actors in their own rights in order to define and promote their interests vis-a-vis the external influences that are challenging their sovereignty, economic and political rights, and most of all, their right to control their resources in order to develop their economies. A new idea is gripping the imagination of leaders of the Horn region. Peace and economic development are becoming indispensable preconditions for the region to put its destiny back into its own hands and achieve genuine economic independence without which political independence has no lasting significance.
For the last many years, Horn of Africa countries have been struggling to promote a strong regional integration within the framework of the greater African project to ultimately achieve an economically united Africa by 2060. For most of its existence, the process of regional integration in the Horn has gone through difficult periods as well as successful experiments. The Inter- Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD) that started as a regional bloc against drought back in the 1980s, is now focusing exclusively on regional economic cooperation although the tasks of regional economic integration might have proved Herculean.
One of the merits of regional economic integration is, as we can infer from the European and other experiments, not only about building of strong economies within individual members states. It is also about serving as a potent negotiating force for countering external economic domination and unjust relations and achieve fair and balanced trade deals with countries outside the region.
If we bring this assertion within the framework of the economic realities of the Horn, growing economic integration among countries would be tantamount to having a growing voice and negotiating clout with outside forces that are trying to take advantage of the economic resources of the region. The outcomes of negotiations are more positive and advantageous when African countries present themselves as a group rather than individually.
It is quite obvious that African countries themselves will have to come together in peaceful and mutually beneficial relationships before they could become a powerful negotiating force as a region. Thus, improving the nature of relations between or among Horn countries themselves is an indispensable precondition for making regional integration a tangible reality. In this sense, the recent peace overtures between Eritrea and Ethiopia can be seen as a model of restoring peace before embarking on the easier path of bilateral economic cooperation or regional integration.
The other positive factor for peace and economic cooperation is the friendly relation that is evident between Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia has invested a great deal in the struggle against terrorism and in the emergence of a stable government and a federal arrangement. In what was a failed state a few years ago, there is now a functioning state that is of course facing domestic and foreign challenges to its continuing stability and viability. Ethio- Somali relations are well on the way of consolidation and strategic alliance in view of the growing foreign influence in the Horn region as a whole.
Somaliland is not an independent state and has not so far enjoyed international recognition as such. Ethiopia does not want Somalia to split into two or more entities because the territorial integrity of African nations is one of the strongest pillars of Ethiopia’s foreign policy. Ethiopia does not want African countries to split into smaller and ineffectual or weak territorial entities but works hard so that they remain united, viable and effective in regional and global economic and diplomatic relations.
This is in fact the basic spirit of African unity and the cornerstone of the continental organization. It is notable to realize that Ethiopia is working to bring about lasting peace and strong economic cooperation between and among countries that were previously separated due to unfortunate historical and political circumstances such as the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Landlocked Ethiopia maintains a cordial and functional relationship with Somaliland that is serving as one outlet to the sea and a regional trade and logistic hub. This is normal particularly at this time when foreign countries too are showing greater economic interest in Somaliland and Ethiopia is benefitting from the creation of a trade and maritime transport hub.
Current relations between Eritrea and Somalia is assuming a new form and content as the two countries leave behind the past and cooperate to build a new future together. In the past, Somalia was often portrayed as a staging ground for waging proxy wars by regional and extra-regional powers in addition to being the scene of protracted domestic conflicts further exacerbated by international terrorism. Nowadays, it is changing its image fast and becoming a normal state with normal national and regional ambitions.
The political and economic rapprochement between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia is sometimes giving rise to speculations about the three forming a regional bloc within the regional integration project, If true, this should not be a big concern for anyone because as long as the said bloc is predicated on the maintenance of lasting peace and economic development, such a regional alliance would only be a welcome development. Cooperation between and among African countries in whatever form would only be a welcome development as long as this is done for the sake of peace and economic cooperation. Ethiopia being a key partner of all Horn countries in the region it is duty bound to promote bilateral economic cooperation with all the countries of the region. It has already done so in its relation with Djibouti and Somaliland as well as with countries such as Kenya further to the south.
The Horn of Africa is nowadays becoming a dynamic center for economic competition and cooperation between and among regional and foreign interests. This is not a bad thing as such provided that it is conducted peacefully and in a legitimate manner as well as promotes regional integration and wealth creation. In the final analysis, the effective antidote against hegemonic ambitions, if any, would be the long-term regional integration of Horn countries and this should now be the priority among member states of IGAD. In fact, the need to upgrade IGAD into a regional economic integration body is at no time felt as it is now.