The East African Community Heads of State Summit, sitting in Arusha, Tanzania, on Friday evening, agreed to fasttrack the verification of Somalia’s application to join the bloc.
Mogadishu had applied, for the second time, in 2019, but the Community never sent a team of experts to the country to determine if it qualified for membership. The decision on Friday means the procedure for joining will now commence and could take at least two years.
“The Summit directed the Council of Ministers to expeditiously fastrack the verification exercise in accordance with the EAC procedure for admission of new members into the EAC and report to the 23rd meeting of the Summit,” the leaders said in a joint communique.
After barely three months in office, Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud this week formally requested the EAC to consider his country’s application to be the eighth partner.
On July 12, DR Congo deposited the instruments of ratification and formally became a member of the bloc.
President Mohamud has previously led the country from 2012 to 2017.
After being sworn in in May, he chose Hamza Barre, who hails from the volatile Jubbaland, to be the country’s Prime Minister, and the push to join the EAC indicates that President Mohamud is ready to advance national rather than partisan interests, as seen in past Somali administrations.
This week the president was on a whistle-stop tour of East and the Horn of Africa capitals in pursuit of an obvious outward foreign policy.
“We don’t want to be a liability anymore,” he told a gathering of Heads of State and dignitaries in Arusha, where he was a special guest at the just concluded High-Level Retreat of the EAC Common Market protocol.
“We want to be a contributing partner to this great community of nations. It will be a dream come true on the day that Somalia will access this great community,” said President Mohamud.
The sentiment within the bloc is that Somalia’s membership should be considered. According to the regulations, it will take at least 18 months before a decision is made.
“Somalia belongs to East Africa. There is no country among the seven countries sitting here that Somalia is not linked to by business, by community or by any other means,” said President Mohamud in his address.
Four months ago, when Somalia was facing uncertain elections, the idea of joining the EAC may have been dismissed. The country had asked to join the community in 2012, but the other partners were reluctant.
In 2019, then president Mohamed Farmaajo reapplied alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last February, the bloc decided to begin admitting Kinshasa but delayed a decision on Mogadishu, pending verification by a team of experts to determine Somalia’s readiness.
On Thursday, President Mohamud told the Summit that he understood where his country was coming from. He said Somalia now feels ready to play its part, using its pool of industrious entrepreneurs and exploiting its blue economy — natural resources such as fish and expansive coastline — to boost regional economies.
Tanzania was the fourth country in the region that President Mohamud visited after taking power, having already been to Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya. He also went to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, international partners that have heavily funded projects in Somalia.
On his visits, he spoke of “cordial” relations and “brotherly” ties.
As far as seeking membership to the EAC is concerned, Somalia’s problems — from the civil war to al-Shabaab attacks, internally displaced people and refugees — have affected its neighbours too.
President Mohamud thanked neighbouring countries for doing their part to protect Somali citizens.
Joining the EAC means Somali citizens will have freedom to move and do business across the bloc, and the country would benefit from the economic, political and social support programmes of the Community.
Medal of honour
In Djibouti on Monday, host President Ismail Guelleh awarded him the country’s highest medal of honour, which he said was to “reaffirm the deep ties”.
In March 2021, Mogadishu accused Djibouti of siding with Kenya in interference with its internal affairs. This was after President Guelleh, in December 2020, volunteered to nominate a team of experts to help look into Somalia’s allegations. After a month of interviewing officials from both sides, Djibouti published a report saying there was no evidence.
Relations have since thawed after President Mohamud met with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya last week.
President Mohamud’s visit to Kenya is significant because he was president when Somalia sued Kenya at the International Court of Justice in 2014 over the maritime border. The case was determined last year, largely in favour of Somalia, but Kenya said it would not obey the decision.
After the visit, the two countries agreed to iron out their diplomatic issues through the Joint Commission on Co-operation.
President Mohamud is expected to visit Ethiopia and Uganda, regional countries crucial to Somalia’s internal security. Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Burundi contribute troops to the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), which is currently building the country’s security capacity.
But these countries have chequered relations with Somalia.
Mogadishu had initially severed relations with Kenya over allegations of “interference”. Then Djibouti offered to mediate, but Mogadishu accused it of “abandoning” a brother by allegedly siding with Kenya. The federal government in Mogadishu had improved ties with Ethiopia, but federal member states remained suspicious of Addis Ababa.
Meanwhile, Eritrea’s decision to train thousands of Somali troops, without parliamentary approval by Mogadishu, remained controversial and the nature of the training is unclear three years on.
Following his visit to Asmara, a joint dispatch said the visit “underscored the historic fraternal ties and mutual solidarity between the peoples of Eritrea and Somalia”.
On his recent visit, President Mohamud signed an MoU that Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said “covers co-operation between Somalia and Eritrea in the spheres of politics, diplomacy, economy, social co-operation, culture, defense and security”.
The question of the whereabouts of the Somali troops Eritrea has been training for the past three years remains unanswered.
Last week, President Mohamud appeared in public with some of the said troops in Asmara but did not say when or if they will return to Somalia. He met with their relatives and offered to reconnect them soon.
Adam Aw Hirsi, an ex-civil servant turned political analyst, said President Mohamud’s early days in office show that many lessons were learned, both from his earlier stint as president and his predecessors’.
“Severing diplomatic relationship with a country that has hundreds of internationally sanctioned military personnel in your country has always been impractical. There ought to have been other avenues to address the grievances and flare-ups,” said Mr Hirsi told The EastAfrican this week in reference to Kenyan troops in ATMIS. They have been there for 10 years, earlier as members of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
On his visit to Kenya two weeks ago, President Mohamud lifted a ban on miraa imports from Kenya and permitted Kenya Airways to start scheduled flights to Mogadishu, frozen in the past five years. He told a joint press conference that he was ready to “repair” relations with Kenya based on mutual respect and to tackle common challenges.
“There is more to bring us together than to divide us,” he said in a joint briefing with President Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi. “The common challenges we have are not limited to terrorism or droughts. We have a lot more challenges that require us to work together for our people.”
A joint communique later said that miraa exports from Kenya to Somalia and fish exports from Somalia to Kenya will resume “with immediate effect”.
The two countries also agreed to formally reopen their borders closed in 2007 that are a conduit for terror merchants and trade in illegal consumer goods.
The two governments “agreed to facilitate, diversify and promote trade and economic co-operation between the two countries” as well as amend visa processing to a maximum of 10 working days on the application for ordinary passport holders, and visas on arrival for diplomatic passport holders who get an endorsement from their respective Foreign Affairs ministries.
“President Mohamud’s priority with neighbouring countries is to defuse tensions, which paves the way for more security, and economic cooperation,” said Abdirisak Aden, the executive director at Farsight Africa Research and Policy Studies, a Mogadishu-based think tank.
And it seems now Mogadishu is pushing for cooperation with neighbours.