Hostage to conflict: security and economic interdependence in the Horn of
Africa – By Sally Healy, Chatham House
December 7, 2011
Sally Healy is Associate Fellow, Africa Programme at Chatham House – she is
the author of the recent report
> Hostage to
conflict: prospects for building regional economic cooperation in the Horn
The IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) region continues to
raise the bar on standards of regional activism and intervention. Political
manoeuvring around Somalia has intensified. Uganda, Burundi and Kenya all
have troops on the ground and Djiboutian forces will join them shortly. At
its recent summit, IGAD called upon Ethiopia to support operations in the
In Sudan too there are Ethiopian forces on the ground, operating in a
peacekeeping role in Abyei on the disputed border. Tremendous unresolved
problems exist between the governments of Sudan and South Sudan, which are
not making much headway in negotiations to resolve them. Meanwhile,
relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea remain frozen.
Regional insecurity has become such an entrenched feature of politics in the
Horn of Africa that it’s sometimes hard to imagine what peaceful cooperation
in the region would look like. But we should not lose sight of regional
economic relations. There is an interesting juxtaposition of two things –
the dynamic of conflict and disintegration in the political life of the
region and the growing logic of interdependence and integration in many
sectors of its economy.
Conflicts in the Horn invariably have a regional character and tend to
involve neighbours in a highly interventionist role. Conflict inside any one
country or between any two will always have important ramifications for all
the rest. As in Somalia, neighbours get drawn in to support their own
Conflicts in the Horn also have a tendency to result in the break up of
states. It started with the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993,
followed by the independence of South Sudan this year. Somaliland is another
potential case and has been running its affairs separately from the rest of
Somalia for 20 years.
The point about these separations is that while they might appear to solve
the problem of how to live together politically, they don’t provide
solutions to the underlying problems of how to live together economically.
The disintegration of existing states has accentuated the geo-political
dependencies among the countries of the region, not least by producing
The IGAD sub-region now possesses three of the world’s 48 land-locked
countries (S.Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda), two of them created in the last
twenty years as a result of irreconcilable political differences. The
economic challenges they face as landlocked countries creates
interdependence around access to ports.
Ethiopia’s imports and exports have expanded rapidly in the last ten years
and so has the port of Djibouti on which it depends. Good political
relations are an economic necessity for both countries, but in the long run
Ethiopia’s expanding economy needs port options. One of the economic
questions that hang over the region is whether, when and how Ethiopia might
return to using the Eritrean port of Assab on which it relied for well over
80% of its trade before 1998.
Politics tend to overshadow the rational use of seaports and the region’s
interlocking economic potential: Ethiopia has no desire to trade through
Assab, preferring to stifle Eritrea economically. Berbera’s potential for
regional development is restricted by non-recognition of Somaliland. Even
Djibouti is not immune, with hopes to develop the port as a major
transhipment centre compromised by the scale of piracy along the coast.
Another example of economic interdependence – the sharing of energy
resources – is equally constrained. The division of Sudan, the region’s
sole oil producer, has placed an estimated 75% of the country’s oil reserves
in South Sudan. Yet much of the infrastructure needed for extraction,
including the pipeline and oil refining capacity, has remained in Sudan and
arrangements for resource sharing and joint exploitation of oil are not
agreed. So far, South Sudan and Sudan are being held together by their
common need for the oil revenues on which each depends. But politically they
remain at loggerheads and – like Ethiopia and Eritrea – either side might
decide to turn their economic interdependence into a weapon.
A third network of regional interdependence centres on regional livestock
production and trade. The Ogaden region of Ethiopia is at the heart of a
vibrant livestock economy that spreads across Somalia and into Kenya,
providing a vivid example of a regional economy in full swing. This economy
functions largely outside formal economic institutions and has coped
exceptionally well with the political turbulence of the region. But steps
that could strengthen the trade, including disease control and
certification, are difficult to achieve because of poor political relations,
security problems and trade blockades.
In theory, regional economic integration provides an answer to all this.
Africa’s regional economic communities – including IGAD – are part of an
institutional landscape, backed by international agencies and outside
donors, especially the European Union, which see them as important
mechanisms for achieving economic development and improving peace and
In practice, the template for the African Economic Community does not fit
very well with the economic and political realities of the Horn. The
standard regional economic integration model – based on trade in the first
instance – requires models of statehood, standards of regulation and levels
of cooperation that don’t actually exist across the region. At the same time
the model seems unable to capitalise on the wealth of informal trade and
cross border interconnection that does actually exist.
Where the Horn of Africa demonstrates true regionalism is in the strength of
its informal cross-border trade. This is built on the close social bonds
linking people across borders and underpinning the trading networks that
play such a vital part in economic life. The success of the informal trade
networks shows the economic value of cross-border linkages and the neglected
potential of the border communities themselves.
The security concerns that engulf this region encourage the closure of
borders and seek to clamp down on freedom of movement and open commerce. The
logic of economic integration would point in the opposite direction, and
would benefit from all the connections that exist.
Regionalism may seem a political impossibility but could prove to be an
Representatives of IGAD's member states celebrate the anniversary of its
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Received on Thu Dec 08 2011 - 12:28:10 EST