Shared interests govern regional relationships
President and Prime Minister Dr of Ethiopia address the media shortly after inspecting ongoing developments at the new 32-berth Lamu Port in Lamu County. .

Relations between neighbours, households or of countries can be amusing to study. Countries quarrel over small issues then engage in diplomatic hugging when their common interests come under threat.

If it is households or individuals, the study discipline concerned is either sociology or anthropology. When a researcher studies behaviour in his or her society, it is sociology. When the people under study are foreign and in presumed need of foreign control and governance, the study becomes anthropology.

When the study is about neighbouring countries, however, the discipline concerned is called International Relations (IR), for it tries to understand how ‘nations’ relate to each other in advancing and protecting their perceived interests.

Nations often experience friction and depending on the statecraft abilities of their leaders, find ways of settling challenges and hug diplomatically.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s logic of a neighbour’s house on fire imagery takes over. It happens whether the neighbour is a household or a country. Kenya and Ethiopia are such neighbours and one of them, Ethiopia, is on fire.  

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The two countries are neighbours who started out positively, having Somalia as the ‘fire’ to be put out. Though collaborating on how to put out the ‘fire’, at times, they disagreed on whose fire engine should be used.

Shared interests govern regional relationships
Somalia President Mohammed Farmajo.

Since the fire engines tended to concentrate on the fire in Jubbaland, the water would occasionally miss the fire and drench each other while the fire spread to one of the neighbours. It happened recently when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister sided with Somalia’s Farmajo in sidelining Kenya’s .

Tanzania’s John Pombe Magufuli enjoys ridiculing Kenyan policies. Uganda’s Yoweri Kaguta Museveni shifted his transport orientation from Kenya to Magufuli’s Tanzania. 

Somalia continues to be fragmented as well as self immolate. With top officials having secure residences outside the country, they rule on behalf of extra-continental forces. As proxies of extra-continental powers, Somalia officials enjoy lighting fires in their neighbourhood, particularly in Kenya, then shift blame.

Ethiopia abandoned its commitment to the joint Lapsset transport project with Kenya in favour of Eritrea, probably with Farmajo’s connivance in the Tripartite Agreement. Ethiopia, while enjoying the warmth of the fire in Somalia, failed to notice the sparks jump into its Tigray province. This attracted Sudan and Egypt, two countries that believe something is wrong with the timber that built Ethiopia’s house. 

The spread of the Ethiopian fire and leaks in the Sudanese and Egyptian fire engines made Kenya and Ethiopia concerned. They forgot their differences enough to come together and hug.

Abiy remembered that Kenya and Ethiopia have many things in common, including  a people known as the Borana/Oromo and a border town called Moyale that straddles both sides of Kenya and Ethiopia.

Most importantly, there was the stalled Kenya-Ethiopian Lapsset transport, economy, and security stimulating project. It starts in Lamu as a potential goods receiving and distribution point and then goes north through Isiolo and Moyale into Ethiopia, and West into South Sudan, Uganda, Congo, and into the Cameroonian port of Doula. Kenya was concerned with the fire in Ethiopia because it could mean putting out an extra fire. It was  about time to rekindle Lapsset.

Visa restrictions

Somalia and Ethiopia’s perception of national interests have changed and are no longer geopolitically together. National interest necessity forced them to change. As Farmajo tried to provoke Kenya by imposing visa restrictions on travellers to Somalia, Abiy was hugging Uhuru.

They have visions of regional growth that require they put out unwanted fires before they spread. Abiy would like Kenya’s fire engines to help douse the embers in Ethiopia.

Previously visible strains between Nairobi and Addis Ababa eased as the two countries increased airlines flight frequencies, opened Moyale one-border post, and agreed on security cooperation. This means full speed for Lapsset which gave officials opportunity to smile. The subsequent Uhuru-Abiy diplomatic hugging, therefore, will go on seriously.

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU

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