Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrived in the country yesterday to launch a multimillion-shilling border crossing with Kenya, the only one of its kind on a shared boundary of about 850km.
Yet the fanfare and the presence of President Uhuru Kenyatta at the Moyale One Stop Border Post, which was funded to the tune of Sh800 million by the African Development Bank and the UK government, was more symbolic.
President Kenyatta and Prime Minister Abiy had met four times before, but this was the first time they were meeting since Addis Ababa launched a crackdown on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, now known by the Abiy administration as a ‘criminal clique’.
Yesterday, analysts of the Horn of Africa political scene said both Kenya and Ethiopia may use the two-day visit to boost their image and bring back the perceived long-lost friendship back on track.
“Ethiopia and Kenya are some of the most powerful countries in the region. But their bilateral relations have been frosty based on their approach to Somalia,” Mr Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group, told the Nation on Wednesday evening.
“So it is encouraging to see them engaging and restating their commitment to regional unity and cooperation.”
Ethiopia was the first African country to establish diplomatic ties with Kenya. And officially, diplomats from both countries reject the idea that there have been any frosty relations. Mr Meles Alem-Tekea, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya, had told the Nation in an earlier interview that Ethiopia “values all friends” and that it was in Addis Ababa’s interest to ensure all its neighbours are in good terms.
Kenya and Ethiopia have had an existing security pact since 1964 when President Jomo Kenyatta and Emperor Haile Selassie signed a mutual security cooperation agreement, technically meant to defend one another in the face of a common adversary.
Abiy’s coming to power in April 2018, however, tilted the policy: He befriended Somalia, an erstwhile enemy under the TPLF regime. In fact, Abiy focused on developing some new alliance between Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, which some experts dubbed as the ‘Cushitic Alliance’.
In truth, however, Kenya may have more Cushitic people compared to Eritrea.
“This is about pushing economic integration and I think Kenya needs to focus on what works for its economy as far as regional cooperation is concerned,” argued Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Kenyan academic who has authored several books on the Horn of Africa politics.
Dr Abdisamad told the Nation that the recent tensions between Ethiopia and Kenya over several issues such as the stance on Tigray (Ethiopia rejected peaceful resolution calls by Nairobi, insisting on what it called a law enforcement operation) and doubts over validity of the mutual security pact, are a risk to the stability of the region.
As a landlocked country, Dr Abdisamad, who runs the Southlinks Consultants in Nairobi, said Ethiopia knows it cannot rely on one import route through Djibouti, nor depend on the port deals it signed with Somalia recently as the country still faces security challenges.
“Kenya will learn that good relations with neighbours is crucial. Many people have asked why we have bickered with Tanzania, Somalia and been tense with Ethiopia. This is a region of more than 200 million people so it is good to see it as a market, not a battlefront.”
With the One Stop Border Post (OSBP), Kenya and Ethiopia were signalling intent to deepen integration with a new border crossing after years of struggling to conduct robust trade between under a regime of bad infrastructure.
The two leaders were also expected to tour the Lamu Port, which is part of a wider project under the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor.
Launched in March 2012, the project has largely been uncertain. Countries on the corridor were supposed to raise a total of Sh2.4 trillion to establish a port, highways and an oil pipeline.
Leadership changes in Ethiopia and Kenya meant priorities differed and some of the initial projects have remained untouched.
The Moyale One Stop Border Post came after the two sides signed various bilateral agreements and instituted several trade-friendly measures, most of which have remained unimplemented.
A Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Oil and Gas sector had been signed in June 2016 between Kenya and Ethiopia, then under Hailemariam Desalegn. The MoU was yet to be moved to a formal agreement and no talks on an oil pipeline have continued.
Yet in Moyale, leaders saw a new dawn as well as continuity of past friendships.
“Today marks yet another important milestone in the excellent relations that exist between our two nations,” President Kenyatta said in Moyale.
“The One Stop Border Post that we have launched is both a testimony of our concerted efforts and also a mark of our commitment to continue on the path of deepening our bilateral relations.”
But the two leaders yesterday agreed to strengthen the strategic alliance that has existed between them for years, and continue to cooperate on economic ties even as both sides focus on advancing security in the region.
They exuded confidence on the benefits of increased investment and employment, market expansion and reduction in the cost of transporting goods and people from the joint Kenya-Ethiopia efforts.
PM Abiy said the two governments need to further work together to open up new overland transportation routes and reduce the bureaucratic barriers to moving goods and services
“The true success of these projects will be measured by how effectively we collaborate within and across our institutions. It will also be measured by how much we have been able to seamlessly boost trade volumes between Kenya and Ethiopia,” Mr Abiy said.
They also launched the 500km Hawassa-Hagere-Mariam-Moyale road. AfDB thinks trade between the two sides can reach at least $175 million from the initial $35 million, if proper infrastructure is put in place. Customs officials expect to collect at least $17 million in revenues every year from the border post.
The new border crossing consolidates clearances for travellers and transporters under one roof so that they don’t have to undergo two processes for approval.
Bilateral trade between the two countries has been subdued as a result of non-tariff barriers such as long bureaucratic procedures, bans and sanctions.
Moyale, situated at an equidistant position between the two countries’ capitals, has had another problem, though: Straddling the border, it has been used as a clash scene between Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and fighters of a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Two weeks ago, the Ethiopian security forces raided the Kenyan side and detained several Kenyans for supposedly hiding OLF militia.
Some sources told the Nation the Ethiopian leader was using the tour to show that things are back to normal back home and that he could now travel abroad to engage with other leaders on matters of cooperation, especially after criticism over the humanitarian situation back in Tigray.
However, other experts said Kenya should press for a final understanding on the raids, given Ethiopian forces may have violated the law by arresting people outside of their territory.
“Border relations [have been] strained by frequent ENDF incursions. [President] Kenyatta should use the opportunity to nudge Ethiopia towards a political settlement,” Mr Rashid Abdi, a Kenyan analyst of the Horn and Gulf argued.