Following the historic trip of Abiy Ahmed to Eritrea and the dynamic created in the wake for peace in the horn of Africa, the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, at their third joint session in January of the current year, proposed that the three countries, in cooperation with each other form a new regional cooperation bloc, which later got the name of the Horn of Africa cooperation Bloc. Formation of this cooperation bloc has so far posed contradictory opportunities and threats in the regional cooperation in the horn of Africa and neighboring countries in the red sea and east Africa.
Relations in the horn of Africa are too complicated and intermingled. Forming an economic and political bloc could be a solution for bringing peace and strengthening trade, but it may risk sparking distrust among the other east African countries and regional institutes like IGAD.
This risk is more exposed with the deeply-ingrained rivalries already among Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia in the contentious and conflict-ridden region of the horn of Africa; a region for decades known for civil wars, conflict and weak economic development.
Somalia is a textbook example of state collapse and the most fragile state in the world, in the 90s decade, the state disintegrated to the extent that the basic conditions and responsibilities of its government would not work properly .
Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war for many years. Also Somalia and Ethiopia have shared a history of confrontation and violence well recorded between them. One example of that ongoing conflict is the struggle to control the Ogaden region.
But when the Ethiopian prime minister , Abiy Ahmed , made his historic peace trip to Eritrea in 2018, the conflict between the two states came to an end, consequently for his move receiving the noble peace prize.
This peace deal brought about a new dynamic in the horn of Africa which was followed by the popular revolution and a recent peace deal in south Sudan.
Following this peace deal, on January 27 2020, the leaders of Eritrea , Ethiopia and Somalia held their third trilateral meeting, during which they proposed to form a new regional bloc later branded as “ the Horn of Africa”.
Formation of this new bloc would be an addition to the existing regional institutes in which these countries are members of. This means , in addition to their membership in the African union, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, Eastern Africa Standby Force as well as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development they have to accept membership in a new bloc , simultaneously taking the risk of interfering memberships and commitments and new conditions, a situation the handling of which is a tough task.
The new bloc risks alienating the other countries in the east and horn of Africa region , because it may undermine the security measures of other regional institutes like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African union, and the Eastern Africa Standby Force . Therefore, the promises and pitfalls of the new bloc can shape the regional structure not only in the horn of Africa but in the greater horn of Africa including Sudan and Egypt to east Africa and spark new and complicated political and security tensions among the neighbors and regional states and organizations. Despite these threats that are in the calculations of these three countries leaders, there must be done a thorough examination of the causes of forming such a regional bloc.
Altogether, it seems in addition to the regional challenges in the horn of Africa and domestic concerns of each related country, other factors are involved such as the regional and international powers’ interference and strategies including the American macro goals in realizing the Deal of the Century, shift of power to the new region of the horn of Africa and red sea to diminish the Persian gulf influence by some Arab states, power and territorial disintegration of the African union and heavier presence in the sensitive region of Bab-el-Mandeb and the red sea as a global trade crossroad for confronting China and creating a new economic market with regard to the considerable regional population and resources and a plethora of macro and micro goals of regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE , which each in turn demands a separate discussion. However, when looked at from the perspective of the proposing countries, it seems the security challenges in the horn of Africa and domestic concerns of each of these three states are core motivations for forming this new cooperation.
It is obvious the regional cooperation addresses a number of key issues such as trade and the environment and is the most key element in addressing security threats . A regional institute assigned for peace and security, it can help solve the differences among the three countries in the horn of Africa as well as handle domestic security threats.
From an economic perspective, it is not clear how these three countries mange to strengthen their economic ties. This is because a big part of trade in the regional countries is carried on a small, local and informal scale, and now and then, illegally.
In terms of trade, there are many restrictions among the three countries. Ethiopia the most advanced state of this bloc is locked by land and is willing to strengthen its relations to find access to the sea to find a pathway to the world market. When it comes to Somalia, the country has neither a reliable economic base to export goods nor the financial resources to import them. In the case of Eritrea and Ethiopia, the recently concluded conflict between them translates as the reestablishment of economic bonds.
Nevertheless, closer cooperation in the horn of Africa carries with it the potential of strengthening trade and economic ties among the three states.
The formation of a new regional bloc is also an opportunity for the leaders to display activity and their status in the region. Putting the horn of Africa cooperation plan on the table can divert the public attention from the domestic challenges these three countries are faced with. As we get closer to the elections in Ethiopia and Somalia , Abiy Ahmed and Farmajo need to gain support for reelection. In Eritrea, Mr.Afwerki regards the issue as an opportunity for boosting regional reputation for himself and Eritrea and a channel through which it can sideline the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which he has boycotted for several years due to its stance on fundamental principles of good governance and the influence of Kenya.
After formation, the horn of Africa cooperation bloc would be a direct rival of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development comprises if Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, south Sudan, and Uganda. These eight stats’ efforts for containing the conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and south Sudan within the framework of the organization has been fairly successful in recent years. However, it seems, the organization lacks an economic integration perspective among the member states and is suffering from ineffective governance structures and insufficient resources as well. The horn of Africa cooperation proposal could be also an effort for reforms within the organization. But the new regional bloc will have a tough time obtaining credit visa vis authority. The horn of Africa cooperation could affect the east Africa standby force and more significantly the African union security efforts in the region through new reforms in the peace and security architecture of Africa.
Also, this cooperation is for deflecting regional partners who are faced with diminishing regional influence. For this, the initial reactions from Kenya and Djibouti were cold. Djibouti is neighbor to the three states and a potential candidate to enter the cooperation bloc. Yet, Djibouti hosts the Intergovernmental Authority on Development as well as the US Combined Joint Task Force in the horn of Africa. In addition, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway is currently Ethiopia’s only access to the sea and Ethiopian business produces a considerable revenue for Djibouti ports. Thus, transport links through Eritrea or Somalia could undermine Djibouti’s position as an economic and logistical hub. For Kenya as a regional powerhouse for development in the horn of Africa, Closer cooperation among the three neighbors could diminish its influence in the region.
Kenya’s influence as a major player for development in the horn of Africa and its position will be undermined by a competing horn of Africa cooperation. In this regard, Kenya’s transport link with Ethiopia , south Sudan and Djibouti, and overall, the convergence created in the IGAD organization could be threatened by the new Cooperation Bloc. So, it is not surprising that in Kenya and within the official circles the Cooperation Bloc has been branded as “anti-IGAD”.
From the perspective of the public opinion of the regional countries, so far, there have been mixed reactions to the idea of the horn of Africa cooperation bloc . after the trilateral announcement by the Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somalian leaders , Adam Hirsi , former Somalian state minister, launched a twitter poll:
“Do you think the creation of a brand new regional body Horn of Africa (HoAC) is good idea?”
The majority of the respondents in the three countries , over 53%, were in favor of it. Generally, this shows that the public in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia hail the idea, while, the people and authorities in Djibouti and Kenya still have reservations about the idea. To put it in a nutshell, the horn of Africa bloc proposes addressing the problems beyond the borders and more cooperation among the three states. However, the formation of a new bloc sparks further distrust, and new conflicts in the region which could affect neighboring countries’ relations as well as further complicate cooperation with other regional states.
This can negatively affect the peacekeeping activities in the horn of Africa region through to the greater horn of Africa including Sudan and south Sudan. Yet, for the present, it has to be waited and seen whether the new initiative pushes these conflict-ridden states further away from each other or pulls them closer together.
Mohammad Nikkhah, Senior Expert at African Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)