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Prospects Of Collaboration In The Horn Of Africa And The Red Sea Region

Red Sea and Horn of Africa
Red Sea and Horn of Africa region (Google Map)


By Kidane Alemayehu.

  1. Objective

The main purpose and objective of this paper is to identify the main challenges being encountered by the countries and people of the Horn of Africa as well as those adjacent to the Red Sea. It is well known that the region is bestowed by immense natural resources including water, rich soil, oil and a significant geo-political importance. However, it is also recognized for being a region of repeated conflicts and a seemingly ceaseless insecurity. Nevertheless, with the highly encouraging initiatives by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister, H.E./Dr. Abiy coupled, hopefully, with a positive leadership and policy by most of the other concerned countries as well as the international community at large, there are good prospects for achieving peace and development in the region for the benefit of the region and all other interested countries. A pragmatic collaboration by the region’s nations could resolve equitable serious challenges such as the controversies related to the Ethiopian Nile River Dam as well as the serious constraints being faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

  1. The Horn of Africa

In his book entitled: “The Horn of Africa: Conflict and Poverty”, Mesfin Wolde-Mariam uses “common boundary”, as an indicator for determining those countries that constitute the Horn of Africa. Accordingly, he suggests that the “PRINCIPAL” Horn of Africa countries are Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland.(1) He also includes what he calls “PERIPHERAL” countries i.e. Kenya and the Sudan because they share boundaries with the “core country”, namely, Ethiopia. Southern Sudan should also be included in this list.

A statement in the German foreign policy strategy on the Horn of Africa, refers to Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia as the countries that constitute the region.(2)

Using terms such as “The Greater Horn of Africa”, other sources include a wider range of countries, namely, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

For the purposes of this paper, the countries  Mesfin calls “PRINCIPAL” constitute the Horn of Africa region with the exception of Somaliland which is yet to be recognized by the United Nations as an independent country. This is based on their relatively higher level of mutual cultural and social affinity, shared history and interdependence. For a more comprehensive study and analysis of the cultural traits of the people in the Horn of Africa using objective criteria, please see Donald Levine’s “Greater Ethiopia”, pp 47-64. This paper may appear ethio-centric mainly due to the propensity of Ethiopia’s recorded history but it is by no means intended to diminish the historical evolution of the other Horn of African nations.

Publications on the Horn of Africa tend to dwell, on the most, on the huge constraints encountered in the region and very little on its glorious past as well as the specific strategies for its development. It appears, at times, as if collaboration and integration in the Horn of Africa were a totally new phenomenon. One need only have a closer look at the region’s history during the first millennium to discover the level of strength and respect it was able to muster. This paper attempts to fill that gap. This is not to glorify colonialism by any party but simply to underline the importance of unity and collaboration. It is also important for the current and future generations in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere to be aware of their legacy so that they can aspire for higher goals and objectives. This paper  further attempts to draw attention not merely to the challenges and risks being faced but also to the opportunities and benefits available to all the stakeholders and interested parties from the region’s vast human and natural resources. 

There are substantial sources for work on the Horn of Africa. For the purposes of this paper, few, carefully selected materials are utilized mainly aimed at triggering more intensive and practical discussion and action by concerned individuals, institutions, organizations and governments as well as the private sector.

A special word of appreciation is owed to Prof. Bahru Zewde for his review of this paper and incisive remarks and suggestions.  

  1. Horn of Africa’s Glorious Millennium
  1. Horn of Africa as a Superpower in Eastern Africa and the Middle East

The Horn of Africa used to be known by a variety of names including Punt, Ethiopia/Nubia, and Ethiopia. The area extended from today’s eastern parts of the Sudan to the Indian Ocean including today’s Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Please see Figure 1: “Trade Routes to the Land of PUNT”.(3) Please see also Figure 2: “The Empire of Ethiopia According to Monumentum Adulitanum”.(4) Richard Pankhurst states: “The coastal areas of Ethiopia in Pharonic times formed part of what the ancient Egyptians termed the land of Punt, and sometimes God’s Land.”(5) According to E. Naville, Punt “….must have begun near Suakim or Massawah and stretched to the south, perhaps even beyond the straits of Bab el-Mandeb and the Cape of Gardafui to the coast of Somalis”.(6) Sergew Hable Selassie states: “No doubt that the present (1972) Ethiopian Empire was included within the region of Punt.”(7)

During the early parts of the first millennium A.D. the Horn of Africa’s (i.e. Ethiopia’s) authority extended to South Arabia. H. von Wissman states: “….the first Ethiopian occupation in Arabia lasted over one and a half centuries, from 80 or 90 A.D. to 265 A.D.” (8) By the 6th century, Ethiopian territory in the Arabian peninsula included not only “the Kingdom of Himyar  and Saba but extended further to the north as far as Nagran….” Ethiopian garrisons were present in “key positions” such as Zafar and Nagran.(9)

As the major power in the Horn of Africa and with territories in South Arabia, Ethiopia was treated with the respect and deference due to a superpower. The Emperor of Constantinople “….dispatched an ambassador to Axum (Ethiopia) to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the Negoos and to bring about his friendly attachment to the Roman Empire….”(10) The renowned sociologist, Donald Levine, states: “In the latter part of the third century Mani wrote that Axum (Ethiopia) ranked third among the great powers of the world…..To many Byzantine emperors Ethiopia appeared a most desirable ally….”(11) Quoting Antonio Gramsci, Daniel Kendie states: “Having controlled the Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade,…..Axum carved out an empire that extended from Nubia to Somalia, and from South Arabia to Southern Ethiopia” (12)

Among the numerous occurrences of those times that clearly illustrate the might of Horn of Afirca’s Ethiopia was the event that took place in Nagran and Zafar. An Arab prince by the name of Dhu Nuwas had converted to the Jewish faith and, in his effort to convert the residents of the two settlements to Judaism, had massacred around 3000 people including Ethiopians. Although the Ethiopian king of the time, Emperor Caleb, was already in the process of taking punitive measures, the head of the Roman Empire, Justin I (518-27) attempted to persuade” …the Aksumite (Ethiopian) King, Kaleb to go to the rescue of groups of Christians (attacked) by a South Arabian prince who had adopted the Jewish faith…..”(13) Emperor Caleb launched a counter attack using 70 large and 100 small ships built at Adulis in Ethiopia and 60 additional ships obtained from elsewhere along with an army that was reported to range from 70,000 to 120,000. He undertook two military expeditions into Southern Arabia in 523 and 525 which resulted in a complete victory and the restoration of Ethiopian authority over its territory across the Red Sea. (14)  “The success of the Abyssinian expedition in 525 A.D. has led to the founding of a new and powerful dynasty at Sanaa, the capital of Yemen”(15)

The other event that is even more renowned is the expedition to Mecca by the Ethiopian Emperor’s representative in South Arabia, Abraha and his army, which was accompanied by elephants. This occurred in 570 A.D. and according to Ethiopian historians, the main purposes of the expedition were to divert trade from Mecca to Sanaa and to destroy the Kabba which was at the time a place for worshipping idols. On his way to Mecca, Abreha’s force defeated two resisting armies. The story as to what transpired once the army reached Mecca varies. The Arab version which is related to this day is that the sky was filled with birds each of which had three pebbles of stone, one in its bill and the others in its feet. The birds dropped the pebbles on the Ethiopian army which suffered death and defeat. This expedition is referred to in the Holy Quran as “Um al-Fil” meaning the Year of the Elephant. The Ethiopian version, however, is that the Ethiopian Army was affected by the incidence of smallpox. In any case, Abreha returned with his army to Sanaa and continued his reign until he died and was replaced successively by his sons Yaksum and Masruk. (16)

The Ethiopian occupation of South Arabia was ended as a result of several factors including the waning strength of the Axumite empire, the harsh rule by Abreha’s sons in Southern Arabia, and the intervention by the Persian Empire at the request of one of the Arabian princes, Sayf b. Dhu Yazan.(17)

Nevertheless, the Horn of Africa continued, through Ethiopia, to be a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern affairs. This is illustrated by its strong and positive support on the advent of Islam in the 7th century when its first followers suffered persecution and the Prophet Mohammed advised them to take refuge in Ethiopia. He is quoted to have stated that Ethiopia had “….a king under whom none are persecuted. It is a land of righteousness where God will give you relief from what you are suffering.”(18) It is interesting to note that the Prophet chose Ethiopia as a place of refuge over Persia and the Byzantine Empire. He was wise in doing so as soon after the first migration took place in 615, the Meccan officials (the Quraysh) followed them to Axum and tried, unsuccessfully, to have them repatriated to South Arabia. The refugees numbering over 100 and including the Prophet’s daughter Rockeya and her husband Othman, stayed in Ethiopia for some 15 years and those who wished to do so eventually returned to their country safely.(19)

Another example of the continuing prowess of Horn of Africa’s Ethiopia is its invasion of Jeddah in 702 A.D. and its attempt, again, to march to Mecca. Another attack on Jeddah took place in 768. Both attacks were, however, repulsed.(20)

During the first millennium A.D., the Horn of Africa was reputed for its civilization and commerce. It had its own written language, an active trade with Egypt, Persia, the Arab Peninsula and India in valuable products including gold, spices, cassia, calamus, animals and animal products.(21) The Horn of Africa accepted Christianity (22) and Islam peacefully i.e. without any military duress. 

With the increasing expansion of the Ottoman and Arab hegemony, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa became isolated and the region’s decline set in during the 9th and early 10th centuries. In addition, internal conflicts intensified thereby finally ending the glorious reign of the Axumite Empire.

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  1. Well referenced and written paper by Brother Obbo Kidane Alemayehu. If this MOU was signed between Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia or even Kenya, it wouldn’t have been so controversial for so many. The problem has its roots way back in 1960 when the decision making individuals in British Somaliland chose not to be an independent nation. That decision came to bite them 30 years later that cost them almost a million lives. After horrific deaths and destruction they have gone their separate ways since 1991 and shown the rest of the world that Africa can have a nation with peace, stability and fledgling democratic governance. But recognition as an independent nation has been hard to come by for them due to the current binding charters of the AU and The UN. The current regime in Asmara will never give them recognition. Djibouti and other nearby countries are not ready to do so either. Even South Sudan will not budge on this one. Referendum? That could be the ultimate solution. But who will endorse that for them? Everyone is afraid that such move will open a floodgate of calls for referendums from Bosaso to Dakar, Senegal. I can see how it has become a nightmare for policy makers every where. The 2nd chance they missed was after they formed a separate governance in 1991. They did not push their demand for a referendum hard enough like the Eritreans did at that time. The current leaders in Asmara got their way but those in Hargeisa did not, even though they share identical history in the 19th and 20th centuries. So what will this MOU bring for the people of Somaliland? You guess is as good as mine.

    Keep writing and educating us brother!


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