World leaders gather in New York this week to tackle a plethora of global problems, from climate change and migration to humanitarian disasters and war. Amid all these challenges, there is at least one positive note: The Horn of Africa’s swift and crucial diplomatic turnaround.
After decades of hostility and rivalry, a recent thaw in relations between nations in the region have shocked observers and brought hope for long-term peace. In June, Ethiopia and Eritrea ceased decades-long hostilities, agreed to reopen borders and embassies, and resumed flights between their capitals. The following month, Eritrea and Somalia restored relations, after nearly 15 years of animosity with Mogadishu accusing Asmara of funneling money to insurgents.
On Sept. 11, Eritrea followed suit by signing an accord with Djibouti after more than a decade of border disputes over the Dumeira mountain and Dumeira island along the Red Sea. The next day, South Sudan’s warring leaders gathered in Addis Ababa and signed a deal to end the brutal five-year war that has ravaged the world’s youngest nation.
A historic “wind of hope” is blowing in the Horn of Africa, United Nations secretary general António Guterres recently said, adding the rapprochement represents a significant moment for global peace.
The Abiy effect
Changes in the region were precipitated by Ethiopia’s election of Abiy Ahmed Ali, a 42-year-old former minister with a doctorate in conflict resolution. Abiy, a member of the country’s Oromo community, was picked to head the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition after years of anti-government protests led by his own people. The Oromo, along with the Amhara, had agitated against the Tigray-dominated government, demanding land reform, full political participation, and an end to human rights abuses.
Abiy’s ascension as Africa’s youngest leader was also predicated on the resignation of premier Hailemariam Desalegn, who left in February to pave the way for “sustainable peace and democracy.”
Abiy didn’t disappoint. After taking over, he immediately ended an internet blackout, released journalists and critics, engaged exiled opposition groups, closed notorious prisons, and promised to open up the economy. He also reached out to long-time foe Eritrea, saying Ethiopia will fully accept the terms of an agreement signed in 2000 which ended the war between the two nations over a disputed border. He also cooled tense relations with Egypt over sharing the Nile waters, flew to Mogadishu to solidify bilateral and trade relations, and oversaw the first meeting in two years between South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and his arch-rival, Riek Machar.
By breaking with the past, Abiy “ushered in a new administration that has prioritized regional integration, and provided an opportunity to pursue new relationships without the legacy of historical baggage,” says Omar Mahmood, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa.
The (growing) role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE
The second important shift in relations was also the result of back-channel talks facilitated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates between Ethiopia and Eritrea, says Jason Mosley, a research associate at the African Studies Center at Oxford University. The two nations are leading the military coalition prosecuting the war in Yemen, and have pushed their presence in the Horn to counter Iranian influence.
Mosely says “the increasingly proactive and robust security posture” was heightened following the Qatar-Gulf crisis that began last year. The Saudi-UAE breakthrough in the region has, however, raised concerns of a new scramble in a geostrategic region already packed with competing global powers.
The policy shifts are now set to create a conducive moment for economic cooperation in the region. With over 100 million people, landlocked Ethiopia has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Djibouti and Somalia are both located at a critical corridor for international shipping while Eritrea’s Red Sea coast has untapped oil and gas reserves.
Mahmood says Ethiopia’s bet on manufacturing and exports could be a good spring-board to guarantee the peace deals’ success in the long run. “There is a clear strategy behind the pursuit of economic integration, which should, in turn, reduce the prospect of political competition in the Horn.”
Progress will also hinge on bringing Eritrea from the cold by lifting UN Security Council sanctions and allowing it back into the East African trading bloc IGAD. Nations will also have to start work on the technical details of cooperation.
“In that sense, patience will be required to truly develop long-lasting peace,” Mahmood said.