For the Horn of Africa, peace is the easy bit

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For two decades, the Horn of Africa has been one of the most hostile corners of the world, its jagged topography reflected in the bitterness of its political relations. Yet the region has become a hive of diplomatic activity over recent months, driven by Ethiopia’s dynamic young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ethiopia and Eritrea inked a historic peace agreement in July, and further agreements have since between signed by Somalia and Djibouti.

The flurry of agreements has kindled hope of lasting peace and economic progress. But if the Horn’s constituents want genuine change, they must address the chronic economic and political problems which still hold them back. What’s more, they must shake off the influence of cynical foreign states, which want to turn the Horn into a theatre for their own squabbles and threaten to pull its members into conflicts thousands of miles away.

Of course, the recent diplomatic thaw is great news, particularly for Ethiopia and Eritrea, which had been locked in a 20-year border dispute but can now look forward to manifold commercial possibilities. Ethiopia will once again have access to the Red Sea, providing further stimulus to Africa’s fastest-growing economy, and the border region has already transformed into a thriving, bustling trade zone. Plans are now in place for a wider integration strategy which promises to boost trade across the Horn, and international politicians are calling on their investors to get behind it.

Yet amid all the glad-handing and photo ops, it’s worth remembering we’ve been here before. In 2000 Ethiopia and Eritrea signed an agreement to resolve the border spat, only for Addis Ababa to then completely ignore it. In 2004 Eritrea and Djibouti signed a raft of cooperation pacts, only to split over their own border dispute four years later. Students of the Horn’s history will find these broken promises depressingly commonplace.

Will 2018’s frenzy of bridge-building be any different? Well, if it is to be, then the Horn’s member-states must address a number of systemic problems. Many of them centre on the region’s economies, left scarred by years of bloodshed and trade freezes. Eritrea’s currency is so volatile that Ethiopian traders worry about a black market exchange beyond the border, and debt is a major problem for all four countries. Even Ethiopia, the Horn’s economic poster child, is creaking under a debt pile which exceeds 30% of GDP.

Litany of problems

This economic malaise is directly linked to a litany of political problems, which have spooked foreign investment and allowed corruption to flourish. Somalia’s struggles, of course, are well-documented: the country remains locked in a power struggle between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and the restive regions, and this weakness has allowed Al-Shabaab to remain gain vast swathes of territory. Yet Somalia’s neighbours face the opposite problem: their authoritarian governments have repressed people’s basic human rights and create an atmosphere inimical to a modern, progressive economy.

In Eritrea, authoritarianism is so deeply entrenched that the country has been likened to North Korea by some commentators. The two-decade spat with Ethiopia provided the pretext for a fortress state, which has yet to be dismantled despite this summer’s diplomatic breakthrough. Parliament remains in permanent suspension, the press remains tightly controlled and critics of the government, such as the former newspaper editor Amanuel Asrat, are routinely disappeared. President Isaias Afwerki’s brutality has brought sanctions from the UN, and these punishments, combined with the government’s hardline commitment to nationalisation, has prevented Eritrea from capitalising on its prime location at the crux of the Red Sea trade route.

Now, these same problems risk creating a refugee crisis in Ethiopia, where the UN says aid facilities have been “overwhelmed” since this summer’s border opening. Ethiopia, whose ethnic clashes have created the world’s biggest internally displaced population, can ill-afford this influx. Prime Minister Ahmed is frantically trying to fix the country’s problems, promising fair elections and curbing institutionalised corruption. By reopening the  frontier with Eritrea, he risks ruining his own reform agenda – and undoing his country’s amazing economic progress.

On the other side of the border, Djibouti presents a very different fly in the ointment. President Ismail Omar Guelleh has overseen rapid economic growth and courted foreign investment for years. But his desire for international capital could turn his country, and the wider region, into a proxy battleground for great-power rivalries. In February, his government seized control of the Doraleh container terminal from its joint venture partner, Dubai’s state-owned DP World, and analysts fear the port will now be handed over to China, which has used cheap loans to bury Djibouti beneath a mountain of debt. Given Beijing has already built a military facility in Djibouti, a Chinese takeover of Doraleh would be particularly worrying for the U.S., whose own Camp Lemonnier is just yards away. American officials have already accused China of aiming lasers at their planes over Djibouti, and given the deepening rift between the Trump administration and its Chinese counterparts, Djibouti risks becoming a pawn in a far bigger game.

Elsewhere, UAE has offset its Djibouti debacle by ratcheting up its influence. Along with Saudi Arabia, it won acclaim for brokering this summer’s peace talks between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But, to cynics, the two Gulf allies are simply trying to increase their regional powerbase and strike a blow to their arch-enemy, Qatar. The two factions have already carved up Somalia, the Qataris backing the government and the Emiratis constructing military bases in the regions. Will the rest of the Horn face similar meddling? It’s certainly not hard to see Qatar, seething at its rivals’ diplomatic success, attempting to disrupt the region’s hard-won peace.

None of this detracts from the significance of this summer’s agreements. After years of bickering, the Horn can now pool its efforts towards a brighter future. But, if its members want to finally ensure lasting improvement, they need to recognise that this summer’s agreements are just the start.