By Awil Mohamed
After a tumultuous period of backroom jockeying the ruling party in Ethiopia (EPRDF) appointed Dr.Abiy Ahmed as the new prime minister of Ethiopia on March 27th of this year. To avoid being labelled as another titular leader-an attribution that plagued his predecessor- the new Prime minister initiated series of policy announcements that would have been inconceivable just days before his selection.
Diaspora dissidents were invited back to the country, political prisoners were released, multiparty democracy system was promised and what could only be described as a major paradigm shift in Ethiopia’s foreign policy neighbouring countries were redefined from security threats to regional allies and potential economic partners.The speed in which the new prime minister introduced these changes is a watershed moment in Ethiopia’s rigid politics and it prompted some observers to describe the rapid process as shock therapy reform strategy.
By mid-June 2018 Dr Abiy was in Mogadishu where he signed a joint communique with the President of Somalia’s federal government Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo. The highlight of the agreement was allocating four key Somali seaports for co-investment. Other consequential points in the agreement included reciprocal diplomatic offices to be opened in major cities in both countries, all trade barriers to be removed and the two nations to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
As far as the Somali federal government is concerned the agreement could not have come in a better time, it’s no secret that Mogadishu has no national-level security force able to assert its authority throughout the country. The government’s lack of power-amplified by Ethiopia’s meddling- allowed the regional para-state actors to exercise unchecked autonomy and conduct their affairs with complete disregard to Mogadishu’s sovereignty and legitimacy. It is worth noting that just a few months before Abiy’s appointment, Somali federal government officials watched in horror Ethiopia’s 19% stake formalization of Berbera port in the breakaway state of Somaliland, the deal was finalized without Mogadishu’s approval or participation.
Dr Abiy’s sudden readiness to engage the Somali federal government as the absolute sovereign of the country provides Mogadishu with a rare wiggle room and much-needed ammunition to finally repossess power from the clan-based regional actors. Given the shifting phase the Horn region is experiencing, Ethiopia’s fundamental foreign policy adjustment from zero-sum game to collaborative positive-sum is worthy of analytical scrutiny because of its profound implications and far-reaching consequence.
Many of those who closely follow the geopolitics of the Horn region almost euphorically believe that Dr Abiy’s reforms will usher in a new era of mutual cooperation between Ethiopia and its neighbours. Somali government officials are urging sceptics to disregard the relevance of history and embrace Abiy’s reforms because the memory of past animosities might entrap us into narrow nationalism they say and that might not be helpful going forward. They also call attention to the prospective economic opportunities that are attached to Ethiopia’s new approach as the impetus for a new chapter in the bilateral relations.
In response to the notion of disregarding the past one must remember in international relations, history emerges with an elegant inevitability as the best frame of reference when it comes to inferring state intentions. Intent is a private business in international relations, states have good reasons to misrepresent their intentions as Mearsheimer famously argued: “talk is cheap and leaders have been known to lie to foreign audiences”. Since enough is not known about states intentions they are presumed to be treacherous in nature and expected to contain destabilizing actions if past behaviour displayed these features. For example, current security concerns about Russia’s resurgence is due to past active measures adopted by Russia-The Soviet Union- during the cold war; because of those past actions, there is uncertainty today about Moscow’s long-term intentions.
As for the argument of economic prosperity that might materialize from Abiy’s new approach, one has to admit Somalia faces a protracted road ahead in establishing an effective and legitimate state, therefore, economic incentives are indeed in great demand, just look at how Somali stakeholders were grovelling to donors at the recent conference in Brussels. But getting financially entangled with a much larger and more powerful regional hegemon who is notoriously mercantilist when it comes to trade is a proposition that also could come with great perils.
Researchers have suggested that hegemon led regional trade strategy will not necessarily result in increased economic benefits for the other members in the region. Bhagwati, for example, suggests dominant states utilize trade as a strategy to promote their own selfish policies resulting in aggressive unilateralism. The construction of regional “hubs” and economic “corridors”-the likes Ethiopia is promising to establish in the region- has led the world bank for example to conclude would create disproportionate gains for the hegemon.
Then there is the other side of the coin, the subtle properties of coercive power embedded within the economic dependency configuration. Several scholars have been coming to the conclusion that economic coercion is as a useful tool as a military force when utilized in the context of regional interaction. Daniel Drezner of the University of Chicago even suggests since the use of force and the use of economic coercion have similar dynamics; economic coercion might have more appealing virtues than military force in the context of regional interaction considering how using force perpetuates regional insecurity. Addis Ababa has indeed learned how effective economic coercion can be, it applied it to Eritrea, and the outcome was devastating for Eritrea’s economy.
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