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EurAsiaReview.com: The Horn Of Africa States: Surviving The Manipulations – OpEd

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 04 January 2024

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Relations among great powers of the world and even 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 being exposed once again to their traditional complexities and complications, which is being exploited to the full, apparently by the powers that be, in the region.

There seemed to be some kind of semblance of peace building in the region over the past thirty some years, when the people of the region were exposed to each other after some 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 of the region were at each other’s throats fighting over territories with Somalia claiming and seeking to achieve its goal of 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 towards the mid of the last century. Djibouti, the last of the four countries of the region remained a colony for much of the century only to regain its independence in 1977. It was a period of wars, propaganda, intelligence wars and undermining of each other, which lasted for some thirty years and, which resulted in the collapse of the governments of the time, and their replacement by other autocratic authorities in some and chaos in others, all the while with the involvement of non-regional parties in the affairs of the region continuing to this date.

The last three decades of the region were marked by exposure of the peoples of the region to each other after they were kept apart by the old colonial systems when they discovered that they were not really different from each other or that they shared a lot and had common ancestries and historical cultures that were at best describable as mirrors of each other. The old antagonisms that were created by the systems of those by-gone days appeared to die away but the region owns several major assets which attract others to the region for their own ends and not for the interest of the region and here is a brief presentation of each:

The geostrategic Location

It lies between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, an important waterway for global trade. The region of the Horn of Africa States covers an area of approximately 1.9 million square kilometers and owns a long coastal belt excluding the coasts around the islands of about 4,700 kilometers, and a maritime EEZ of some 1 million sq. km. The region contains diverse features including highlands, long coastal belt, vast plains both desertic and savannah and it is also crossed by the Equator. The coastline stretches from coasts on the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean. The Highlands are a rugged mass of mountains that is sometimes called the Roof of Africa for its height and the large area it covers.

The region is shaped like a horn and, hence the name, and extends to the Guardafui Channel, the Somali Sea (Northern Indian Ocean) and the Red Sea. It is buttressed by the massive Ethiopian Plateaus and highlands. Its coastal belt covers the west side of the southern coast of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the west 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 part, the two regions are separated by a narrow strip of water of some 28 km wide – the Bab El Mandab Straits, or the Gate of Tears. The Horn of Africa States sits on the equator and stretches halfway to the Tropic of Cancer. A small portion of the region lies to the south of the Equator. The Great Africa Rift valley divides the region almost into two halves. The Great Rift valley is a fissure of 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 6 million, and Djibouti at 1 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, the Somali, the Amhara, the Tigrinya, the Hadiya, the Agaw, the 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 is 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 of Africa States is historically a culturally rich region, It was and continues to be the torch bearer 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 sub-soil 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 substantial animal population, probably the largest in 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 protein needed 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 more outside the region. The mineral and sub-soil wealth of the region is enormous and includes among others uranium, lithium, oil and gas, gold, iron ore, copper, cobalt, tin, lead and nickel and many others. The region owns many man-hours of sunshine and can be a source of an immense solar energy potential. Its wind energy potential is also equally enormous. But another major asset of the region is water for its highlands and plateaus remain a catchment area for significant rainfalls, which have given rise to rivers like the Blue Nile, which provides most water to Sudan and Egypt, the Shabelle and Juba rivers which give most water to Somalia and the Omo river which waters southern Ethiopia and many 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 some outside ‘others’ who may exploit it for their own ends. This remains to be the source of most conflicts of the region, which has been going on since the opening of the Suez canal back in 1869 by the French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps.

For many, in all the countries of 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 to a halt 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 peoples of the Horn of Africa 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? However, this 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 and Eritrea and even Djibouti is being shaken and hard through 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 the social media.

If a contract is signed between two parties of 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, un understanding between parties, and all parties can walk away from it at any time. Any lease agreement on ports of the region, if any, would be discussed by legal personnel and would be ratified by the parliaments of the countries concerned. 

But the region must be careful and aware that those who do not wish the region well, and there are many in the vicinity of the region, let alone those who come from afar, would not like the region to rest or have a breathing break from the long conflicts of the region with which the region is marked. They deploy all the trickeries of the old games such as structural, economic, socio-cultural and, indeed, political triggers of conflicts. They are currently benefitting and using it to the maximum the fragilities and weaknesses of the region, as the large states of the region, namely Somalia and Ethiopia both appear to be. They are being used to hate each other, distance from each other, and indeed, barriers are being placed with great due diligence and care just as a rat would do breathing on the spots it bites, so that the populations of the region do not feel heat of the games played on them. The populations of the region are, indeed, being denied their needs to live in peace together and co-exist and unfortunately many of the leaders of the region are playing parts without understanding the import of their actions in the long run and the future.

Can the region balance the acts of the foreigner in the region? At present this is difficult for the region is economically dependent on many parties for survival. But they should, at least, not antagonise each other and should not see, each other’s activities as contrarian and antagonistic. Discussions and communication play a major part in any relationship and if they do not communicate, they would all lose. As Africans always talk of African solutions for African problems, the leaders of the region should be doing exactly that instead of talking to each other over the media both formal and social and through other countries and other organizations. They should go back to the drawing board and revisit the discussions of a few years ago among themselves, when Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, appeared to be getting closer, sitting around the table. No none outside the region would solve the region’s problems except themselves and the onus remains in the court of the leaders, which is why they should lead the way to survive the manipulations of others.

Dr. Suleiman Walhad

   *Dr. Suleiman Walhad writes on the Horn of Africa economies and politics. He can be reached at suleimanwalhad@yahoo.com.


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