1 July 2018

East Africa: A New Game Emerging in the Horn of Africa

Photo: AlJazeera screenshot
PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki embrace on his arrival at the airport.
analysis

A combination of international, regional behind the scenes mediation and support coupled with indigenous emerging will to compromise is setting the stage for a dramatic change in the Horn of Africa, but the main question remains is whether all that could be sustained and that peace will finally be delivered to the region.

The hallmark of these development is the unthinkable meeting between the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean long time President Asaias Afwerki in Asmara earlier this month. That meeting did not end only a two decades boycott between the two countries, but it is opening gates wide open to settle a number of outstanding issues from resuming flights, reopening embassies, border demarcation and most important allowing for mutual economic benefits through Ethiopia's use of Eritrean sea ports or Eritrea's ability to tap its potash resources along the border.

However, it is becoming clear that such rapprochement has been in the making for some time with clear regional and political backing and was waiting for the young and fresh new Ethiopian premier Abiy Ahmed to blossom. The credit is shared between many among them Donald Yamamoto, US assistant secretary for African Affairs with his first-hand experience in the two countries and the ground work he laid by getting the two sides to meet in Washington back during the days of Hailemariam Desalegn; there is the helping hand provided by both Crown Princes of the United Arab Emirates Mohamed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabian Mohamed bin Salman.

Another development that is catching attention is the evolving peace deal between South Sudanese warring faction with visible regional backing and more significant it was Sudan, the mother country, who is leading the effort in brokering that peace deal. Unlike previous efforts that were either left to the IGAD or neighboring countries were competing in influencing the peace process, this time there was a clear coordination between the main IGAD capitals that are rotating in hosting various rounds of talks: from Addis Ababa to Khartoum to Entebbe, back to Khartoum and eventually to Nairobi. Of especial interest is the role played by the two most influential neighbors Sudan and Uganda. No wonder, Uganda was the main military backer of President Salva Kiir, while Sudan has its strong relations with Kiir's main rival Dr. Riek Machar and more important it has the oil card.

However, despite the high hopes of a happy ending to what is going between Ethiopia and Eritrea and in South Sudan, but serious challenge remain. The moves of Abiy Ahmed is part of an overall reform domestic and political program that includes opening up to opposition that is based on a paradigm shift that moves more than two decades of the center of power from the Tigrayans, who have been the backbone of the regime in Ethiopia given their leading role in ousting the previous regime to a new system based on the sheer weight of different ethnic groups with the Oromo having the biggest share, but whether the Tigrayans will accept this change of the game or work as spoilers remain to be seen.

In South Sudan and despite concerted regional efforts to get the warring factions to agree on the framework of the Khartoum Declaration, the ceasefire and an outline of power sharing deal, but the step taken by Kiir to use the parliament to extend his term in office, a move that was immediately criticised by Machar, show the pumps that lie ahead.

In both cases of Ethiopia and South Sudan there is a clear hesitation from some local partners to forge ahead with the promised peace deal, if not outright effort to spoil it. And that is where there is a need to combine the international backing with the regional one to influence what is going domestically.

An interesting coincidence is that the UN Security Council has issued a resolution to bar arms exports and other sanctions on South Sudan, but sanctions is just a tool that needs to be used within a greater strategy and in tandem with regional power. And this seems to be the missing factor currently and needs to be addressed urgently.

The same applies to Ethiopia somehow. The bottom message that needs to be delivered time and again is to ensure that every group has a dividend in the expected peace and to work towards that goal from international as well as regional players.

More on This

Eritrea and Ethiopia Have Made Peace. How It Happened and What Next

This week Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed visited neighbouring Eritrea, to be greeted by President Isaias Afwerki.… Read more »

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