Wednesday, April 17, 2024
CommentaryThe Horn of Africa States: Surviving the manipulations

The Horn of Africa States: Surviving the manipulations

The relations among great powers and regional leaders are getting increasingly tough, antagonistic, and undeterminable as to how they would end. This leaves the Horn of Africa states in a precarious situation, where the impoverished countries of the region seem to be exposed once again to their traditional complexities and complications, which are being exploited to the full, apparently by the powers that be in the region.

There seemed to be some kind of semblance of peacebuilding in the region over the past thirty-some years when the people of the region were exposed to each other after a hiatus of over a century and a half of colonial rule, followed by systems left in place by the colonialist countries of Europe, which kept the countries of the region at each other’s throats, much like the rest of Africa.

This region is, however, marked unlike the rest of Africa, by a long history of sovereignty and even empire building across continents before the arrival of Europeans. It indeed had its own idiosyncrasies as usual, and there were, at times, historical battles among its own inhabitants, empires, kingdoms, and regions.

Come forward to the last century, and the countries of Ethiopia and Somalia, the two largest countries in the region, were at each other’s throats, fighting over territories. Somalia claimed and sought to achieve its goal of acquiring Somali territories in Ethiopia through force.

Eritrea, currently an independent country in the north of Ethiopia and on the Red Sea, was also fighting to regain its independence from Ethiopia, which had absorbed it through manipulation of others in the mid-20th century.

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Djibouti, the last of the four countries in the region, remained a colony for much of the century, only regaining its independence in 1977.

It was a period of wars, propaganda, intelligence conflicts, and undermining of each other, which lasted for some thirty years. These conflicts resulted in the collapse of the governments of the time and their replacement by other autocratic authorities in some cases, and chaos in others. Throughout this period, non-regional parties continued to be involved in the affairs of the region up to the present day.

The last three decades of the region were marked by the exposure of the people to each other, after they had been kept apart by the old colonial systems. They discovered that they were not really different from each other and that they shared a lot, including common ancestries and historical cultures that could be described as mirrors of each other at best. The old antagonisms created by the systems of those bygone days seemed to die away. However, the region possesses several major assets that attract others for their own ends rather than for the interest of the region.

A geostrategic location

The region lies between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, making it an important waterway for global trade. The Horn of Africa States covers an area of approximately 1.9 million square kilometers and has a long coastal belt spanning about 4,700 kilometers, excluding the coasts around the islands. It also has a maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of around one million sq. km.

The region features diverse geographical elements, including highlands, a long coastal belt, vast plains (both desert and savannah), and it is crossed by the Equator. The coastline extends along the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. The Highlands are a rugged mass of mountains, often referred to as the “Roof of Africa” due to their height and extensive coverage.

The region’s shape resembles a horn, hence its name, and it extends to the Guardafui Channel, the Somali Sea (Northern Indian Ocean), and the Red Sea. It is supported by the massive Ethiopian Plateaus and highlands. The coastal belt covers the western side of the southern coast of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the western coast of the northern Indian Ocean (the Somali Sea).

The Horn of Africa States faces the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula, and at its closest point, the two regions are separated by a narrow strip of water approximately 28 km wide – the Bab El Mandab Straits, also known as the Gate of Tears. The Horn States sits on the equator and extends halfway to the Tropic of Cancer. A small portion of the region lies to the south of the Equator. The Great African Rift Valley divides the region into almost two halves. The Great Rift Valley is a fissure in the Earth’s crust that stretches from Turkey all the way to Mozambique.

The people

The region is inhabited by an almost homogeneous Cushitic-speaking and Semitic-speaking peoples who share many features. It currently has a population estimated to be about 157 million people, most of whom live in Ethiopia (120 million) with Somalia at 30 million, Eritrea at six million, and Djibouti at one million.

The people of the Horn of Africa States are linguistically and ethnically related, and the major languages spoken in the region include the Afaan Oromo, Somali, Amhara, Tigrinya, Hadiya, Agaw, Afar, and Saho languages. There are also the Omotic languages, mainly spoken in southwestern Ethiopia.

The region produced several native writing systems, the most important of which is the Ge’ez Script, developed some 2,000 years ago. This script, the fidal, is used by the Amharic and Tigrinya languages. Somali wadaads and sultans used the Arabic script for centuries until Somalia adopted the Latin script in 1972. Before the adoption of the Latin Script, some Somalis used locally developed scripts such as the Osmania Script in the far northeast and the Gadabursi Script in the far northwest of Somalia.

Many of the other languages of the region, such as the Afaan Oromo and the Afar languages, also currently use the Latin script. Accordingly, only two alphabets are used in the region: the Ge’ez or Fidal Script and the Latin Script.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are the three major religions of the Horn of Africa States. Islam was introduced into the area almost from the beginning of the religion, late in the seventh century. Zeila’s Labo-Qibla mosque is Africa’s oldest mosque. Christianity came to the region early in the fourth century Anno Domini, while Judaism goes back much earlier.

Tolerance is generally what marks religious life in the Horn of Africa States. All religions have shown and demonstrated remarkable harmony and varieties and are not exploited for political purposes. Religion in the Horn of Africa States is more of a communal and social identity, and there were interactions and tolerances among the religions of the Horn of Africa States. One cannot say that the region was absolutely conflict-free when it comes to religious matters, but the various communities of the region are generally more tolerant of each other and share many social and communal structures.

The Horn is historically culturally rich. It was and continues to be the torchbearer of both Islam and Christianity. The region is uniquely defined by cultural and historical closeness and similarities of its peoples and presents itself as a large and growing market.

Natural wealth

The region is endowed with substantial surface and subsoil wealth. The first is perhaps the immense maritime economic zone which, once fully exploited, could rise to a giant economy in the form of tourist resorts, fishing, ship and boat building, ship repairs, bunker fuel depots, water sports, and many other water-related activities and businesses. The region owns a substantial animal population, probably the largest on the African continent in terms of cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. It is a natural environment for domesticated animals and hence a source of much-needed protein in the world.

The region also owns vast agricultural lands that can not only feed its growing population of some 160 million but many more millions outside the region. The mineral and subsoil wealth of the region is enormous and includes, among others, uranium, lithium, oil and gas, gold, iron ore, copper, cobalt, tin, lead, and nickel, among many others. The region has hours of sunshine and can be a source of immense solar energy potential. Its wind energy potential is also equally enormous.

But another major asset of the region is water, as its highlands and plateaus remain a catchment area for significant rainfall, which has given rise to rivers like the Blue Nile (which provides most of the water to Sudan and Egypt), the Shabelle and Juba rivers (which provide most of the water to Somalia), and the Omo River (which waters southern Ethiopia), among others such as the Tekeste in Eritrea. It is indeed a wealthy region but remains poorly managed.

Shouldn’t the region be economically integrated?

Indeed, it should be, but major powers, regional powers, and even neighboring African regions, such as the EAC, do not like the idea. There is an unwarranted belief that they would lose to the region or to ‘others’ who may exploit it for their own ends. This remains the source of most conflicts in the region, which have been ongoing since the opening of the Suez Canal back in 1869 by the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps.

For many in the region, the Horn of Africa States as a regional block would seem to be an audacious proposal, and in fact, this is exactly what it is meant to be. However, if we look at the proposition very carefully, we will find that it is beneficial for the peoples of the region and would put a halt to all the miseries and wars that have ravaged the region for so long. We must look at the countries of Europe and how they have overcome their terrible twentieth century and how they are replacing it with a hopeful and peaceful twenty-first century for themselves.

Why shouldn’t the peoples of the Horn of Africa have a similar hope, and why should they pay heavy prices for the greed and senseless politics of their politicians and dictators? Why shouldn’t the people aspire to develop like their co-citizens of this earth and become useful citizens instead of being beggars and paupers, as they seem to be today? This, however, has irked many, and clearly, a pushback is currently in process.

The region’s old antagonisms, schisms, and indeed, idiosyncrasies are being deployed, and to the maximum. The growing closer relations of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and even Djibouti are being shaken hard through the exploitation of the animal instinct of survival, which, in fact, is not the case, as all the countries and peoples can live together in peace. This has been amply demonstrated over the last three decades when peoples of the region started to travel to each other and work in each other’s countries without any undue disturbances to peace or even threats of one taking another’s land or sea, as is currently being propagated through social media.

If a contract is signed between two parties in the region, it does not mean that lands or seas or ports would be taken. It is indeed a mutual commercial contract, which should not be misrepresented, as it appears in many social media outlets in the form of a frenzy feed, just like the so-called Arab Spring of about a decade ago.

A memorandum of understanding is not an agreement and not a contract. It is exactly what it is, an understanding between parties, and all parties can walk away from it at any time. Any lease agreement on ports in the region, if any, would be discussed by legal personnel and would be ratified by the parliaments of the countries concerned.

The region must indeed be careful and aware of those who do not wish it well, both from the vicinity and from afar. These actors often exploit the long-standing conflicts and fragilities in the region, using structural, economic, socio-cultural, and political triggers to fuel tensions. They benefit from the fragilities and weaknesses of the region, particularly in large states like Somalia and Ethiopia, by sowing division and creating barriers between them. These actions are carefully calculated to prevent the populations of the region from finding common ground and living in peace together.

While the region is currently economically dependent on many parties for survival, it should strive to balance the influence of external actors. At the very least, the countries in the region should avoid antagonizing each other and should not view each other’s activities as inherently contrarian and antagonistic. Communication and dialogue play a crucial role in any relationship, and if they fail to communicate, all parties involved will lose out.

As Africans often emphasize the need for African solutions to African problems, the leaders of the region should prioritize direct communication and engagement with each other rather than relying on media, both formal and social, or involving other countries and organizations.

It would be beneficial for the leaders of the region to revisit past discussions and initiatives, such as the ones that brought Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia closer together a few years ago. No one outside the region can solve its problems except the people and leaders within it.

The responsibility lies with the leaders to navigate the manipulations of others and find sustainable solutions. By taking the lead and working together, they can help the region survive and thrive despite external influences.

 (Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Contributed by Suleiman Walhad (PhD)

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