Why continental trade block needs to resolve conflicts in the Horn of Africa

Friday January 01 2021
Eastern Africa.

For a couple of years now, countries in the Horn of Africa have been embroiled in internal conflicts, border disputes and diplomatic tiffs, creating a lot of distrust among the states. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


Africa is at the point of making a historic milestone as it plans to fully roll out the African Continental Free Trade Area on January 1, 2021. Signed in March 2018 in Rwanda, this initiative is expected to significantly change movement of people and trade across the continent.

However, a keen focus is on how the continental trade initiative will impact on the conflict prone Horn of Africa region. Already, 54 countries have signed a free trade agreement with 34 countries having deposited their instruments of ratification ready for the January take off.

For a couple of years now, countries in the Horn of Africa have been embroiled in internal conflicts, border disputes and diplomatic tiffs, creating a lot of distrust among the states, which has failed to fade away despite the many interventions and inter-dependence among each other.

A border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia is still alive to date. Recently, Ethiopian forces reportedly ambushed and killed Sudanese troops along the border. Sudan and Ethiopia share a 1,600-kilometre-long border.

Border disputes between South Sudan and Sudan over the future of Abyei, and between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the control of towns such as Badme still persist. Also, Kenya and Somalia are locked in a dispute over their maritime border in the Indian Ocean.

Lamentably, the region has persistently demonstrated inadequate capacity to mediate and resolve disputes. The mediation processes have always lacked serious consultations and institutionalised mechanisms that can build trust among the states to end historic animosities.


The region has failed to transform artificial borders drawn by colonial forces into drivers of integration that can reflect on the socio-economic realities on the ground, infrastructure, movement of people and commercial ties.

Geographic proximity and shared interest and vision can be used to lay a foundation for economic integration. This should lead to political union under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) — which comprises Djibouti, where it is headquartered, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and Sudan, as well as Eritrea, which suspended its participation since 2007.

As currently constituted, Igad lacks teeth to effectively respond to the region’s conflict. The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, sent the federal army to Tigray on November 4 to replace the regional authorities with "legitimate institutions".

The Tigrayan leaders, who come from the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a party that held real power for nearly 30 years in Addis Ababa, had been challenging the federal government for several months.

Abiy declined a regional mediation by the Igad leaders saying that the conflict was an internal affair that should not be ‘internationalised’. He would proclaim an end to the fighting on November 28 with the capture of the regional capital Mekele.

At the same time, after months of rising tensions between Kenya and Somali, the latter broke off diplomatic relations with Kenya on December 15, accusing it of "violations of its sovereignty".

Igad devoted its conference to solving regional problems, with a focus on the situation in Ethiopia and the diplomatic tensions between Kenya and Somalia. It will be interesting to see what it will do differently to yield positive results.

When he was elected to the office, and in an effort to make Ethiopia’s Horn of Africa economic powerhouse, Abiy engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the region that failed to yield envisaged results since this was not anchored on a strong institutional foundation.

He signed a peace agreement with Eritrea in 2018. He also held several bilateral and tripartite summits both in Addis Ababa and in other Horn of Africa capitals to help resolve some of the region’s deep-rooted problems and kick-start a process of political integration.

In September 2018, a tripartite cooperation agreement was signed between Abiy, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo after the three met in Ethiopia.

On February 20, 2019, Ahmed met Muse Bihi Abdi, leader of the breakaway northern Somalia territory of Somaliland, in Addis Ababa to strengthen bilateral ties, discuss regional security issues and try to meditate in its dispute with the central government in Mogadishu. However, Somali President Farmajo refused to participate.

Earlier, Abiy, Farmajo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta got together in Nairobi to try to resolve the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia. However, a tangible solution remained elusive, with Mogadishu making it clear that they will wait for the decision by the International Court of Justice, which is hearing the dispute.

The tripartite cooperation agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia has brought its challenges too. Somaliland did not take it lightly Ethiopia’s undertaking to respect the territorial integrity of Somalia. Ethiopia has put its focus on Somaliland as an alternative sea route with the construction in Somaliland of Port Berbera.

By acquiring a 19 percent interest in the port project, Ethiopia gave Somaliland a huge diplomatic repute due to the fact that since the country declared itself as an independent state, it has never been recognized as such by any other state in the world.

Ethiopia’s renewed diplomatic ties with Eritrea and Somalia made its traditional allies, Sudan and Djibouti, to feel sidelined.

Ultimately, the challenge for Africa is to ensure that the countries in the Horn of Africa find solutions to the current crises and channels their energy towards economic development. Well-thought out initiatives, plans and support from Igad are critical for political integration, stability and economic progress in the Horn of Africa.

Raphael Obonyo is a public policy analyst. [email protected]