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Ethiopia Can Become East Africa’s New Hegemon

Eight Benefits Of Resuming Economic Ties Between Ethiopia And Eritrea
A map showing the east African sub-region.

AFRICANGLOBE – Recent news that the Republic of Somalia and newly independent South Sudan have applied to join the East African Community (EAC) has elicited uncharacteristically heated debate on the hitherto rather sedate and lacklustre dialogue on the region’s economic and political integration process.

Predictably, reactions include a rehash of conventional anti-integration rhetoric about the potential threat of increased insecurity, cross border crime and terrorism. The most virulent pessimists -often associated with Tanzanian – predict a cataclysmic trajectory of regional instability and possible war. The more sober observers see increased trade volumes, market expansion and free movement. These positives will be facilitated by a resurgence of regional mega-infrastructure deals including the recent launch of a US$26 billion port, oil pipeline, rail, highway and fibre-optic regional infrastructure deal (LAPSSET) inaugurated by the presidents of Kenya and South Sudan and Ethiopia’s Prime minister.

Game-Changing Scenarios

The most interesting and more optimistic analysis is rendered by veteran Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo who cites three potentially game-changing scenarios in the region’s geopolitics: One is the likely shift of the region’s ‘centre of power’ from traditional states (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania) northwards as Ethiopia, the region’s military and economic hegemon, eventually joins the EAC. Ethiopia’s entry, it is argued, is just a matter of time considering the country’s military engagement in Somalia and its new ‘look south’ policy evidenced by the infrastructure and energy deals with Kenya as well as security and development pacts with South Sudan and possibly Uganda.

Second, a major stumbling block to a more comprehensive deepening of regional integration in Africa (and the EAC more specifically) is its infrastructure deficit. This perception seems to be the motivating factor for those arguing for the scaling down of EAC integration to the three ‘parent’ states (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania). Conversely, the expected and eventual stabilization of Somalia and the rapid progress of the Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor will undoubtedly intensify the pace, depth and geographic expansion of the EAC. Additionally, the presence of a large, commercially successful and highly diversified entrepreneurial Somali community in Kenya and Ethiopia, with established links with major trading posts in the region, will catapult already existing relations to a new level.

Perhaps most importantly, the politics and policies of integration will significantly shift from purely economic objectives to security imperatives. The East and Horn of Africa region is comprised from a group of states whose peace and security dynamics are so intertwined that they cannot be resolved independently of each other. The intricate nature, spread, impact and intensity of the myriad conflicts ranging from the great lakes, Uganda-Sudan-Central Africa Republic triangle as well as the Horn of Africa, exemplify this.

The heavy military presence of Uganda, Burundi (and latterly Kenya) and perennial Ethiopian incursions into Somalia demonstrate how nations in the region are responding to perceived common security threats and cooperating as a security block, despite the lack of a common Peace and Security Policy. The recent spike in military spending associated with the frontline states’ intervention in the Somali conflict underscores the increased importance in regional security. But the security focus in regional cooperation is not new – the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has long transformed from a drought and disaster response initiative into a fully-fledged peace and security entity.

Towards A Regional Security Community

Peace and security is emerging as the most pressing concern in the region and may be the driver of the future direction of integration. This is happening despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the flurry of activity in oil drilling and press reports regarding new energy resource discoveries in the region. While proponents predict an economic boom, detractors already foresee negative scenarios of potential regional conflict over resources.

No wonder then that the EAC is scrambling to catch up by fast-tracking the development of a Peace and Security Policy. According to its Deputy Secretary General responsible for political integration Beatrice Kiraso, the draft protocol on peace and security would need to go beyond traditional security concerns and address new security threats including cyber-crime, human trafficking, terrorism and yes, piracy. However, such a significant document that binds states towards mutual defence and the ceding of significant sovereignty powers to a supra-national entity is causing jitters in traditional laggard Tanzania. This doesn’t however mean that a regional bloc need necessarily be either an economic, security or even social community. These imperatives are not mutually exclusive as has been erroneously argued elsewhere, but are indeed often jointly necessary and mutually reinforcing.

All these rapid developments pose significant potential challenges if the region is not prepared politically, socially and economically. For starters, Tanzania’s alleged intransigence may lead to it being further isolated in the inevitable jostling for influence and power with new players moving in. Tanzania’s dual membership in the South African Development Cooperation (SADC) regional bloc is also likely to diminish its influence in EAC decision-making. It’s likely that Tanzania will have to make a choice whether to fully embrace the EAC or adopt a partial position such as the UK has done in EU.

For Somalia and South Sudan, membership in the EAC with a new security infrastructure will have mutually beneficial results in helping stabilize their fragile internal politics. The security umbrella provided by a revamped and stronger EAC may act as a deterrent against Khartoum’s aggressive stance towards Juba, while neutralising Eritrea’s meddlesome policy towards Somalia. Ethiopia would benefit significantly though access to a large regional market and will likely reap peace dividends in the resolution of long-running separatist tendencies in the Oromia and Ogaden regions in the south. As the largest and predictably the fastest growing regional economy, Ethiopia would be the regional hegemon, reaping unprecedented geopolitical gains (and responsibilities) such as Nigeria enjoys within ECOWAS.

Peer Pressure

By enhancing trade links, increased investment, access to regional education institutions, civil society interaction, political will and a common market, the post-conflict societies will have a better chance at faster and more sustainable transitions towards stability and development under a new security umbrella offering assurances against potential internal insurrections. Similarly, peer pressure akin to the NEPAD peer review mechanism would lead to the fostering of a democratic political culture through election monitoring, political party exchanges, civic education and neighbourly pressure towards accountable governance and civic responsibility.

Granted, these goals could be a long time coming. The EAC still suffers from significant institutional weakness, lack of political will and the absence of a shared common vision for its future integration. In light of the potential gains, this is the time to seize the immense opportunities offered by strong economic indicators, the discovery of new energy resources, a positive investment climate, entry of new global actors such as China, and a real chance to resolve the Somali conflict and advance nation building in South Sudan. Anything less, would be to squander a rare opportunity for the region to forge a new social, economic, political and civic architecture for the general well-being and welfare of all its peoples.


By: Josh Maiyo 

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