The new regional cooperation between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia comes amid a long history of distrust and unresolved boundary disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Djibouti and Eritrea, and Kenya and Somalia. It also comes on the heels of internationally praised rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In July 2018, neighbours Eritrea and Ethiopia ended their two decades of no war, no peace over the 1998-2000 border dispute war. A few weeks later, Eritrea and Somalia agreed to resume diplomatic relations, ending over a decade of tensions. Since 2006, Somalia has accused Eritrea of supporting the Islamic militant rival group to the transitional government in Mogadishu while Ethiopian troops were supporting the latter.
In September 2018, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia held their first meeting to build comprehensive cooperation, resulting in a joint commitment to build closer political, economic, social and security ties and promote regional peace and security.
Many observers have wondered about the motivation behind this new alliance and its impact on interstate relations in the Horn of and East Africa, and what it means for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional body.
What value would a new regional bloc of three states bring to the vast and diverse East African region? And might it add to the complexities and tensions in an already fraught region, or reduce them? What does it mean for interstate relations in the region and for the future of IGAD?
The cooperation could contribute to regional stability in two ways. First, it already represents an improvement of relations among previously conflicting countries. It could also help Eritrea and Ethiopia align their vision on how to resolve Somalia’s conflict. This is critical in the context of the proxy war between the two countries over Somalia’s internal politics.
Second, if managed well the new cooperation could be a vehicle for Eritrea’s return to the IGAD family. Eritrea has stayed away from IGAD since it suspended its participation in 2007, and when it unilaterally decided to return in 2011, IGAD member states did not agree to accept its return. Eritrean leaders have made it clear that it will only rejoin a reformed IGAD, and it’s hoped that this new alliance could provide opportunities for this to happen.
So the new cooperation, by virtue of rapprochement among the three, opens the door for IGAD to constructively engage its member states on issues that concern the region. The fact that Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia initiated efforts to mediate the conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea also highlights the bloc’s potential to stabilise the region. The mediation effort hasn’t progressed in addressing the main issues of the border and Djibouti’s missing soldiers, but the normalised relations are nevertheless a positive step.
The new tripartite alliance does however pose risks for integration in the Horn of Africa. If the three states concerned aren’t cautious, their agreement could increase distrust between states in the region. Already the lack of communication and consultation with other IGAD heads of state (Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Djibouti and South Sudan) on the details of the cooperation has raised suspicion that the three states aim to establish another bloc in the region that could rival IGAD.
Apart from general statements about the three countries’ regional security and economic development, their joint communiqué stated that the 2020 joint plan of action included combating common security threats and improving economic ties. Details about what this means and how these goals will be achieved aren’t clear.
IGAD has a robust security sector and counter-terrorism programmes and one wonders what new approaches the alliance proposes. Clarifying this is essential. The communiqué mentions ‘terrorism, arms and human trafficking and drug smuggling’ as examples of common security threats, although such threats in the region are covered by IGAD’s mandate. Sharing these details with IGAD and the rest of its member states builds transparency and trust among the region’s states, avoiding unnecessary speculation and suspicion.
It would also be useful to know why countries like Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda were excluded from the alliance, especially as this is happening amid dampened diplomatic relations and cross-border security tensions, and the maritime boundary dispute between Kenya and Somalia. Other thorny issues for the alliance are the unresolved boundary dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea and tensions between Somalia and Somaliland.
There could be domestic and regional interests for the three countries’ alliance. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is steering a delicate democratic transition at home, while building on a firm foundation of a peace deal with Eritrea and seeking greater regional peace and stability. In Somalia, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is set up for a tightly contested election later in the year, and needs the support of both Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Many analysts say Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki is behind the new alliance. Some believe the new bloc could be Eritrea’s strategy to establish an alternative intergovernmental arrangement in its move from ‘isolation to regional influence’.
Other regional analysts say the new alliance could be a response to IGAD’s failure to perform as an effective regional bloc. Although it has performed well in brokering regional peace, the continued tension between its members and lack of economic integration shows its underperformance.
This raises the question of how the new alliance will relate to and work with IGAD. The alliance must complement IGAD and avoid overlapping mandates. Competition between the blocs would make regional integration more difficult than it already is. Ethiopia and Somalia should ensure their continued commitment to IGAD and encourage Eritrea to be an active member. This would help minimise the risk of weakening regional cohesions among countries in the Horn.
IGAD should strengthen its ability to serve the diverse interests and get the buy-in of its member states, making it more relevant in the region. IGAD’s reform process, which aims to review and update its structure to ensure a rule-based, effective and predictable organisation, must be fast-tracked.
IGAD is already working to become more effective in the region and internationally, starting with the new Executive Secretary’s 100-day plan focusing on reform. What the proposed reform entails is however still unclear.
More than any other time, the Horn requires a strong regionally coherent bloc that articulates and negotiates the interests of its over 282 million citizens. In the face of security threats such as political conflicts, terrorism, drought, and external powers’ interference, the new alliance will only be useful if it complements and strengthens IGAD, rather than creating disharmony with other member states. If well managed, the new alliance could make IGAD stronger.
Selam Tadesse Demissie, Research Officer, Horn Security Analysis Programme, ISS Addis Ababa
In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.
Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS