Why the US is engineering political change in East Africa

The competition between great powers has triggered a string of major political developments in East Africa.

Over the past year, East Africa has seen an unprecedented flurry of political developments that are changing dramatically the political landscape in the region.

Eritrea has emerged out of its diplomatic isolation, signing declarations of peace and cooperation with Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia and publicly calling for the lifting of international sanctions. After years of hostility over the building of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, Ethiopia and Egypt have seen a significant improvement in relations. Sudan, too, has mended relations with its northern neighbour and has managed to get US sanctions lifted.

Many have welcomed these new political developments with euphoria, believing that they mark a new dawn for East African politics. The Horn of Africa is indeed set for a significant departure from the past, but it is important to note that there are external factors behind these changes.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to be the sponsors of most of these diplomatic efforts, but their role too has been shaped by bigger players. The undercurrent to these changes is the major shift of US foreign and defence policy from the "war on terror" to strategic competition with other global powers, mainly Russia and China.

Since the end of the Cold War, the "war on terror" has been at the centre of all US alliances in the world, including in the Horn of Africa. However, in recent years, the US has gradually come to perceive the rise of China and Russia, and not terrorism, as the biggest threat it is facing in Africa and elsewhere.

This policy shift has been outlined in the 2018 National Defence Strategy and articulated by a number of US officials, including US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who in a January speech said:

"Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security. We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other... To those who threaten America's experiment in democracy, they must know if you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day."

It is in this context that Washington has sought to forge alliances with African forces to support its antagonistic competition with these two great powers.

Eritrea in, Djibouti out
In March this year, General Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM Commander in Africa, warned the US Congress that China would threaten US interests globally and particularly in the Red Sea if it takes a key port in Djibouti.

The Doraleh Port had been operated by UAE-owned DP World since 2006 but the Djibouti government broke off its agreement with the Emirati company and nationalised the port in February this year.

According to Waldhauser, Djibouti has assured the US that it would not hand the port over to the Chinese, who set up their first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, but he warned that if it does, this would cut off supplies to the US military base in the country and restrict the movements of US Navy ships in the area.

He further concluded that the US will "never outspend the Chinese in Africa" and he was in "the process of rewriting US military strategy in the region with China in mind." Given the heavy economic and military presence of China in Djibouti, US interests shifted towards its neighbour, Eritrea, which could - in the future - host a new US military base and provide the US with access to its ports.

For this to happen, Eritrea first had to emerge from its diplomatic isolation, especially by normalising relations with Ethiopia. To achieve that, the US launched a quiet campaign last year involving church officials and US diplomats lobbying the two sides to come together and resolve their differences.

Soon after US senior diplomats and senators voiced official calls for normalisation of relations between Eritrea and all neighbouring countries. US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE also played an important role.

While the US diplomatic offensive succeeded in pulling Eritrea out of isolation, it left Djibouti out of the grand rapprochement it engineered.

US' shifting policies
The shift in US priorities in East Africa has also introduced a number of other major changes in the region. First, it has further diminished the importance the US gives to supporting the armies of countries in the Horn of Africa, particularly that of Ethiopia. This means that the Ethiopian army's role in regional security and foreign policy will diminish, with the exception of UN peace-keeping missions.

Second, it has strengthened US support for the alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, at the expense of Qatari and Turkish interest in the region.

This shift has also favoured the Egyptian army. In September, the US reinstated $195m in military aid to Egypt which was frozen last year over country's dismal human rights record and relations with North Korea.

The US has also given its blessing for a new role of the Egyptian military in the Horn of Africa. In January this year, Cairo dispatched Egyptian troops to Eritrea, stationing them at the border with Sudan, provoking speculations that it is seeking to establish a military base there.

Third, this shift has also meant that the US government is putting more effort on the economic front, which could have diplomatic and economic implications. While the US realises that it cannot match the scale of Chinese investment in Africa, it is still looking to curb Chinese economic influence in the region.

Part of its strategy is to encourage US companies to invest more in East Africa. In Ethiopia, this trend is already visible: while in the past US officials from the Department of Defense and the White House used to visit Addis Ababa, now it is officials of the Department of Commerce with entourages of US businessmen.

Fearing reproach from Washington, some East African countries may scale down their ties with China and revise their public procurement procedures. Seeing this trend, China has already announced its decision to cut down investment in Ethiopia until its current debt payment is restructured.

The US government is also looking to set up a special agency to invest up to $60bn to counter Chinese interests in the developing world, including East Africa.

In his March address to the African Union, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: "We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese dollars from Africa. But it is important that African countries carefully consider the terms of those agreements and not forfeit their sovereignty."

This signals that just as the US is pushing on the geopolitical front in East Africa, it might start doing so on the economic one as well. While the region needs to address its rising debt and dependence on China, the economic policies that the US would press for might not be in its best interest either.

East Africa will need all the assistance it can get, be it from developed liberal states, from Gulf monarchies or Asian economic powerhouses. But as the competition between China and the US intensifies, it increasingly looks like this financial support will come with conditions.

Therefore, countries in the region and the continent as a whole should resist unwarranted interferences in their internal policy decisions and insist on their sovereignty being upheld. If they succeed in this, they will be able to reap the benefits of the emerging economically competitive multipolar world order.

Is political integration in the Horn of Africa possible?

Following his recent efforts to achieve normalisation with Eritrea, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed embarked on a shuttle diplomacy mission across the Horn of Africa. Since the signing of the landmark June 2018 peace agreement between the two long-warring nations, Abiy 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 following a meeting 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. Somali President Farmajo, who was reportedly invited to the meeting, refused to participate, but later voiced his administration's appreciation of Abiy's mediation efforts and Bihi's willingness to work with the Somali government in a tweet.

On March 4, Abiy met Afwerki and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in Juba to further the Intergovernmental Authority of Development-led peace process in the country.

Three days later, Abiy, Farmajo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta got together in Nairobi to try to resolve the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia. However, this meeting failed to produce a tangible solution, with Mogadishu making it clear that they will wait for the decision by the International Court of Justice.

While Abiy's shuttle diplomacy received praise, admiration and positive media coverage both in the region and across the world, it clearly failed to produce any practical results on the ground and even led to some new concerns and tensions.

The tripartite cooperation agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, for instance, has spawned new concerns among neighbouring countries about Ethiopia's plans for the region. Somaliland took Ethiopia's undertaking to respect the territorial integrity of Somalia fully as indicative of a change in Ethiopia's policy that might not be in Somaliland's interests. Furthermore, Ethiopia's renewed diplomatic ties with Eritrea and Somalia caused its traditional allies, Sudan and Djibouti, to feel sidelined.

Abiy's mediation efforts and other Horn of Africa leaders' willingness to take part in them are undoubtedly a positive step towards political integration, sustainable peace and meaningful cooperation in the region. Diplomatic shuttles and media coverage of rapprochement efforts play an important role in generating the political will for, and public acceptance of, such a process.

However, shuttle diplomacy alone cannot resolve major international problems. For such efforts to have practical consequences, they need to be backed by well-deliberated and radical actions - actions that have the potential to bring down the multiple barriers that currently make political integration an impossibility in the region.

The first barrier to integration in the Horn of Africa is pervasive and entrenched distrust between states.

Real political integration requires a regime of free movement of people, goods, services and money; and this can only be achieved if there is a high degree of trust between all involved actors. Unfortunately, in the Horn region, such confidence is in short supply.

Historical animosities, security threats within and beyond borders as well as deep-rooted suspicions among state officials about the motives of neighbouring states increase the trust deficit.

Ongoing conflicts, and serious transboundary resource disputes, which together have displaced more than 10 million people and resulted in the presence of four peace missions (in Darfur, Sudan; the Sudan-South Sudan border; South Sudan proper and Somalia) and the continuing presence of more than 50,000 UN and AU peacekeeping troops in the region pose another barrier to political integration and feed into the trust deficit.

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. Kenya and Somalia are locked in a dispute over their maritime border in the Indian Ocean, and Kenya and Uganda are still competing over the tiny Migingo Island in Lake Victoria.

Foreign interference in the region is yet another obstacle to deepening cooperation and integration. Strategically positioned at the major geopolitical and geo-economic nexus of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the Horn is also a battleground for global forces fighting for the control of large national markets and maritime domains. The region currently hosts tens of thousands of foreign troops, with new military bases in Djibouti and other countries in the region.

Several secessionist movements are alive and kicking in the region, with South Sudanand Eritrea providing living examples as to how de jure independent states can be established by any one of these movements under the right circumstances.

Somaliland and its push for independence from Mogadishu also provides a cautionary tale for all the nation states in the region. The suspicion that secessionist threats are being fuelled by neighbouring states and foreign forces is making many countries in the region reluctant to push for further regional integration.

There are still ongoing tensions between states with devolved and federated systems across the region. Forces pushing for decentralisation, as well as internal border disputes between subnational units, are also causing insecurities in many federated countries, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

There is a persistent danger that small isolated wars may erupt any time between autonomous subnational entities, threatening the security of both the host states and their neighbours. Intent on manipulating these volatile political fault lines, governments in the Middle East - and from more distant regions - have lent their support to various conflicting parties.

Fuelled by new changes and old tensions, traffic in small arms and light weapons has proliferated, while the Horn has become highly militarised.

These peace and security challenges make political integration an agenda hard to sell in the Horn of Africa, especially when pushed to include too many countries too quickly.

Mediation and integration can only succeed if they come on the back of serious consultations and institutionalised efforts to build inter-state trust and end historic animosities. One such attempt can be the transformation of artificial borders drawn by colonial forces into drivers of integration that reflects the socio-economic realities on the ground, including traditional movements of people, infrastructure and commercial ties.

This type of progress cannot be achieved in a day or over a short summit between a couple of leaders. First, institutional and financial arrangements would need to be made to sustain a long peace process. Second, geographic proximity, commonly shared interest and vision should be used to lay a foundation of economic integration and eventually political one. Third, plans need to be drawn and efforts made to establish a strong political union under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

In this context, it is clear that Abiy's well-intentioned diplomatic efforts are doomed to failure, as they lack the depth and capacity to heal the region's trust deficit and to propose resolutions to the multidimensional conflicts and threats it is currently facing.

What is needed to bring political integration to the Horn of Africa is not diplomatic shuttles and official meetings, but well-thought-out initiatives and long-term plans with institutional support from IGAD.

Interesting times ahead of us.
Glad USA is changing its policy in east Africa :nvjpqts:

Hope our gov is able or learns the playing of superpowers game.