By Niyi Aderibigbe
VENTURES AFRICA – Africa has had its fair share of crisis, but its current developmental strides is shifting focus from the continent’s troubles to the abundant potentials and opportunities. These positive changes have been reinforced by continuing regional integration in the Eastern, Southern and Western parts of the continent. However, the countries in the Horn of Africa are still held back by age-long skirmishes, which are still barriers to socio-economic cooperation. This lack of transnational partnership continues to hamper the growth and development of these countries, who have, among them, states languishing at the bottom of international societal indexes.
In a High Level Joint Commission Meeting of neighbours Ethiopia and Djibouti, whose diplomatic relations date back to 1984, the leaders of the two countries underscored the significance of enhancing bilateral cooperation in the political, economic and social sectors. Djibouti’s Prime Minister Ismail Omar Guelleh and his Ethiopian counterpart Hailemariam Dessalegn reiterated their commitment and determination to consolidate the existing strategic relations between the two countries and peoples in all fields of cooperation.
Ethiopia building bridges to economic prosperity
Landlocked Ethiopia is a major economic partner of Djibouti and Sudan, whose ports it uses for imports and exports, although negotiations are still ongoing with the Omar Al-Bashir-led administration over boundary issues. About 85 percent of the country’s yearly oil consumption comes from Sudan via the Port of Djibouti. A protocol concerning Ethiopian access to Port Sudan was signed between the two countries in 2000 in Khartoum. They are now in the process of linking their power grids.
Ethiopia has also improved relations with Somalia, a country bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east. Although Somalia is just recovering from years of civil war and insurgency by Islamist extremists, Ethiopia and its ally, Djibouti have expressed commitment to helping Mogadishu in all areas, in an effort to ensure that the peace building process would be irreversible. However, Ethiopia’s dealings with its northern neighbour Eritrea are extremely tense due to an ongoing border dispute between the two countries. A 30-year war for independence was not enough to end their enmity, as tension has continued since Eritrea became a free state in 1991. While Ethiopia has flourished and has become one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, the story of their neighbour has only gotten worse.
Now, Ethiopia’s fears are not about another war, but the effect that chaos in Eritrea may have on its growing economy.
Eritrea’s change may be tied to a new leader
Eritrea’s stance on issues, and the way the international community holds the poverty-stricken nation, may only change with a change in leadership. In a Joint Communiqué released by both Guelleh and Dessalegn after the Joint Meeting held from Feb. 2 – 9, they condemned the continuous destabilization policy of the Eritrea Government and urged the international community to tighten sanctions imposed on the regime in Eritrea, led by Isaias Afwerki, who has been president since 1993. The country has been a target of UN sanctions due to its support for Somali-based rebel groups. Djibouti and Ethiopia’s leaders are not asking for sanctions to further put pressure on the failing state, but on its leader, who has shown no signs of readiness to make changes.
However, a refugee crisis, high-level defections, and recently, mutiny in the army, indicate that Afwerki’s regime is seriously threatened. It may fall sooner than later. The process of change began for Ethiopia after long-time strongman, Meles Zenawi, died in 2012; Afwerki’s ouster may signal the beginning of change for Eritrea also. While everyone affected by the tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea craves peace, one important factor should not be forgotten, the contested border town of Bademe.
The town which was awarded to Eritrea by the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) may have to be let go by Ethiopia for the sake of peace. But this will exert more pressure on Afwerki, whose one-man rule system, compulsory military conscription and other obnoxious policies had been justified by the perceived threat posed by Ethiopia. He loses this leverage if Addis Ababa should let go.
Djibouti is Ethiopia, Ethiopia is Djibouti Apart from having a common enemy in Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia have always had good relations. There have been reports of genetic linkage between the two countries, which has been further reaffirmed by a proposed unification of the nations. Prime Minister Ghelle last May said there was no difference between them: “We believe that Ethiopia is Djibouti and Djibouti is Ethiopia, no difference at all.” According to the Ethiopian Reporter, Djibouti proposed a unification with Ethiopia, which the latter is likely to embrace. However, the people and the governments of the two countries should be the ones to decide what kind of integration they would like to forge.
The Horn of Africa could form an important economic quartet if relations with Eritrea improves. The East African Community is arguably the most important economic bloc in Africa, and the regional integration has fostered the economic growth of member states. Such success can be replicated in the Horn of Africa, but it requires vision, commitment, will, and most importantly, that Ethiopia settles its scores with Eritrea. Ethiopia and Djibouti may not be enthusiastic about having an economic bloc in the Horn of Africa, but both countries have recommitted to the decision of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Assembly of Heads of State and Government to revitalize the eight-country trade bloc, to speed up the regional integration process. It remains to be seen whether countries in the EAC, who are comfortably building Africa’s largest economic bloc would be ready for an extra commitment with IGAD.