Could the horn countries become Africa’s most important economic quartet?

In 2015, I wrote about the need for countries in the Horn of Africa to settle their differences. I opined that if they did, they could form an important economic quartet in Africa. I noted that Ethiopia had to lead the way by settling its scores with Eritrea and also highlighted what the country has to give up for the sake of peace. But I warned that it required vision, will and commitment.

It’s only five months since Abiy Ahmed took over as Ethiopian Prime Minister and the process to put the Horn of Africa on a path to prosperity has begun. First, Ethiopia and Eritrea ended years of hostilities, following a peace deal restoring diplomatic and trade relations. And due to close relations between Ethiopia and Djibouti, it was only a matter of time until Djibouti ended confrontations with Eritrea. Conflict between the two countries was due to clashes over a disputed territory in 2008. More than 100 people were killed.

Early September, Djibouti and Eritrea agreed to restore ties. Delegations from Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea had met in Djibouti to discuss the issues between the two countries, leading to the peace accord. Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia also signed a cooperation agreement in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, to restore peace and stability in the region.

Ethiopia reopened its embassy in Asmara, a day after an Ethiopian ship docked at an Eritrean port for the first time in 20 years. Eritrea has also reopened its embassy in Addis Ababa and has announced plans to upgrade a road to Ethiopia. Phone calls and flights between the two countries have also resumed.

Ethiopia wants to grow its economy and its leaders understand that peace in the region is key to achieving desired growth. The landlocked country is a major economic partner of Djibouti, relying on the country’s ports for imports and exports. About 85 percent of Ethiopia’s yearly oil consumption comes from Sudan via the Port of Djibouti. Ethiopia has also improved relations with Somalia, a country bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east. The new peace drive which has repaired relations with Eritrea opens up another port access to Ethiopia and will deepen integration in the region.

The reopening of Ethiopia-Eritrea border gives Ethiopia access to the port of Assab. Another border post, near the Ethiopian town of Zalambessa is also set to reopen.

Beyond borders

A border dispute between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour Eritrea was the cause of armed confrontations which has now ended. The border dispute followed the end of a 30-year war in 1991. Although, the contested border town of Bademe was awarded to Eritrea by the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC), Ethiopia refused to relinquish control. Now, Ethiopia has agreed to let go.

“All that we have achieved from the situation of the last 20 years is tension,” Ahmed said in a speech in Addis Ababa.

“Neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea benefit from a stalemate. We need to expend all our efforts towards peace and reconciliation and extricate ourselves from petty conflicts and divisions and focus on eliminating poverty.”

“Putting an end to this situation and finding peace is necessary beyond anything else not just for Ethiopia but for the wider Horn of Africa,” the Ethiopian prime minister said.

“Every Ethiopian should realise that it is expected of us to be a responsible government that ensures stability in our region, one that takes the initiative to connect the brotherly peoples of both countries and expands trains, buses and economic ties between Asmara and Addis Ababa.”

It was also a border dispute that strained Djibouti-Eritrea relations. Now everyone is seeing beyond borders to development, with the two countries finding a common ground, as well. Somalia too, is at peace with Eritrea, announcing in July that it was in support of lifting of UN sanctions on the country.

The United Nations Security Council imposed the sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 for its alleged support of al-Shabab in Somalia and its border conflict with Djibouti. With the two issues now out of the way, UN sanctions are expected to be lifted soon.

IGAD as a lever for growth

As the four countries in the Horn of Africa continue to work together to fully normalize relations, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) could be used as a lever for growth in the region. The regional economic community which has now been revitalized to efficiently deliver on its mandate covering Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Development (ALFS); Natural Resources and Environment Protection (NREP); Social Development (SD); Regional Economic Cooperation and Integration (RECI); Peace and Security (PS); and Gender Affairs (GA), has the Horn of Africa, the Nile Valley (Sudan and South Sudan) and the African Great Lakes (Kenya and Uganda) as members.

IGAD’s over-arching objective of regional integration is to create an open, unified, regional economic space for private operators – a single market open to competitive entry and well-integrated into the global economy. Already, the bloc is building infrastructure and drafting policies for the removal of physical and non-physical barriers to inter-state transport and communications.

In a bid to speed up integration in the IGAD region, the IGAD Horn of Africa Initiatives aim to construct 7,000km of road, rail links and pipeline links between IGAD Member States in the next five years. While initiatives like these will help grow the economies of member states, peace is essential to make integration work.

IGAD leaders will be hoping the wind of change blowing through the Horn of Africa reaches all IGAD member states and the region can attain its growth potential. Sudan and South Sudan recently entered into a peace agreement which seems to be holding, raising hopes that an end to years of conflict is nigh.

Looking inwards

Once stability is achieved in the region, each country would need to look inwards and enact policies that will encourage trade, uphold human rights and enable press freedom, whilst fighting corruption. Ethiopia’s Aby Ahmed has shown readiness to enact necessary reforms. This stance should be replicated by other leaders in the region. With continuous growth of the economy, better livelihoods and poverty reduction, the region can look forward to a future filled with sustainable peace and prosperity.

“I think the future is bright for all of us, you know,” Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Djibouti’s ambassador to the United Nations told VOA. “As far as Djibouti is concerned, we’ve been building and investing in world-class port facilities that are designed not just for the region but also the COMESA countries (a trade agreement between 19 African members). And we would really like to see those facilities serving the purpose of supporting the economic development of the region, the Horn,” he added.