As Horn of Africa tensions lessen, trade and transportation opportunities proliferate

By James Hall

Analysis in brief: In East Africa, countries that were once bitter enemies have quickly patched animosities and now seek ways out of old impasses, with regional security and economic trade benefitting. The following article is based on information obtained by the author while undertaking a comparative study on African nations’ competitive statuses for clients of IOA. Other IOA research is also referenced.

Ethiopia’s economic miracle – becoming East Africa’s largest economy after a decade of 10% growth per annum – found its twin accomplishment in the political miracle of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reformist government. He took over in April 2018 from hardliners that made Ethiopia one of East Africa’s most repressive governments, in stark contrast with the country’s progressive economic achievements. Ahmed has freed political prisoners, expanded the political space, and put in the past the record of the past few years that saw continuous States of Emergency, concentration camps and human rights abuses perpetuated against the largest ethnic group, the Oromo. As the world absorbed and applauded the domestic change, Ahmed charged into diplomatic movement to inform change, beginning with Eritrea.

Tensions have existed between Ethiopia and Eritrea since the latter became independent in 1993, taking former Ethiopia territory along the Indian Ocean and rendering Ethiopia a landlocked country. A 2000 Algeria Peace Accord intended to end a border war between the countries was never ratified. Both nations officially declared the war to be over in June 2018, when Ahmed traveled to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. The surprisingly fast normalisation of relations, after decades of animosity, has caused the region to consider and act upon other ways to reduce neighbour upon neighbour tensions. Simultaneously, long frozen trade and transportation links are thawing, with prospects of regional prosperity rising with each daily development.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki sign a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between the two countries.
Image Courtesy of iAfrica

An Ethiopia-Eritrea détente proves an example to be followed

On 15 July 2018, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki made his first visit to Ethiopia in more than two decades in response to Ahmed’s trip to his country. All diplomatic, trade and transportation links were immediately restored. The first beneficiaries were families that had been separated in the disputed border areas. The reopening of embassies then followed, in tandem with air flights and direct telephone connections between the countries. Two weeks later, Eritrea mended fences with another neighbour, Somalia, whose government was impressed by Ethiopia’s diplomatic success. Once again, years of animosities evaporated as Afwerki signed a communication with Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to exchange ambassadors. Trade and transportation links are to be normalized as well.

By the start of August, Djibouti was also showing signs of seeking a diplomatic solution to problems with its neighbour Eritrea. Djibouti called upon the UN Security Council to mediate its border dispute with Eritrea in an effort to resolve another year’s long impasse. The flurry of quick diplomatic maneuvering has shaken Qatar and its rival, the United Arab Emirates, which have been contending for influence on the Horn of Africa. Somalia is aligned with Qatar and has poor relations with the UAE, which is a major benefactor of Eritrea where a UAE military base is located. Ethiopia has also sided with the UAE. However, if the Middle East countries’ client states on the Horn of Africa grow more amicable, they may diplomatically influence Qatar and UAE to do the same.

Eritrea, terrorism and other significant impediments to development

Re-establishing normal relations with Eritrea, Somalia called for an end of international sanctions against the Afwerki regime. The development drew attention to the reason for Eritrea’s isolation in the first place. The country is run by an oppressive dictatorship that perpetually violates human rights. Due to Eritrea’s hermetic nature, the country has been dubbed ‘the North Korea of Africa’. Eritrea’s dictatorship is one major obstacle to normalcy in East Africa. To his credit, when Afwerki met with Somalia’s Mohammed, he noted, “The region has been destroyed by ethnic and clan cleavage and external pillage and internal thievery.” If he were to acknowledge that, in Eritrea, his government is guilty of those abuses, the self-realisation could lead to the type of reform Ethiopia’s hard-line government saw as an impediment to further national economic and social development.

Some of the Ethiopia’s old guard still harbours resentment against the erstwhile antagonist Eritrea, and Ahmed was the target of an assassination by grenade attempt in June. He survived, but the assassination plot was a reminder that domestic political obstacles can threaten reform efforts. Another continuing threat is regional terrorism. Al-Shabaab terrorists have destabilised Somalia and are causing death and destruction in Kenya. There is a possibility that normalised relations between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia will allow for a new and concerted effort against al-Shabaab on land and a resurgence of piracy off Somalia’s coast.

Newly trained al-Shabaab fighters, who have pledged allegiance to ISIS, continue to expand their presence in East Africa.
Image Courtesy of Independent

Normal relations allow normal transportation, support backbone of trade and economic growth

With old enemies now transformed into trading partners, the region’s transportation picture suddenly changes. While at war with Eritrea, landlocked Ethiopia could not find access to the sea through its antagonists’ territory. An elaborate and costly transportation alliance was forged instead with Djibouti. Ethiopia invested heavily in Djibouti’s port, and built a high-speed rail system from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, which opened in 2017. However, Ethiopia now enjoys another port option with Eritrea, and may use this as leverage with Djibouti in future dealings or with regard to the Qatar-UAE diplomatic matter.

Meanwhile, normalised country ties opening long-closed borders and transportation links bring a host of trade opportunities. With the completion of major hydroelectric dams, Ethiopia is poised to export significant amounts of electricity, and has established ties with new customers. Trade in Ethiopian goods is next, to be followed by overall gains in regional trade as the perennially volatile Horn of Africa continues to stabilise.

Key points:

  • Ethiopia’s new reforming government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed quickly followed domestic political initiatives with a diplomatic outreach to Eritrea to end a two-decade old state of war.
  • Eritrea responded positively to Ethiopia’s overtures, and with diplomatic and trade links swiftly restored, Somalia sought to reconcile with Eritrea as well.
  • Djibouti now also seeks resolution to its impasse with Eritrea
  • Newly opened borders will boost economic trade and transportation and reunite separated families.