The Friendship Hall is known as a conventional venue for many activities, but an event that took place last week was a different one, given the speaker and the subject. On Thursday Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn spoke before a Khartoum audience about the chances of creating an economic bloc in the Horn of Africa.
Premier Desalegn is one of the new breed of African leaders, who could be described as benevolent dictatorship, or those who pushed for the development of their countries even at the expense of other important issues like democratization and human rights.
In his lecture he emphasized the geopolitical importance of the Horn, the diversity and richness of its resources and that it is high time to utilize that for the sake of the region’s population. More importantly, he said, is the need to start with economic cooperation before bothering about security and politics. Though he recognized the existence of disputes between the states in the region, still he gave priority to creating a base that can help the region in the age of globalization before moving into other areas of cooperation. A forum for the leaders of the Horn is scheduled to be held in Khartoum in October.
However, without delving in discussing the content of his talks and its chances of being implemented, it worth noting the nature of his collective approach to the issue, an approach that brings back to the fore issues of pan-Africanism and its regional component.
This approach is highlighted when compared with what is happening in the Arab world, Sudan’s other window. In the past years and especially after the Arab Spring that erupted six years ago, the Arab world is left in a state of continuous deterioration. From the collapse of the centers of government, modernization and leadership in Iraq, Syria and to some extent Egypt to the de-stabilization of the Gulf countries given the Saudi-led row and boycott of Qatar, the Arab world is on a decline spree mood. The last bloc that was relatively stable was the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), that has been heaven for many by providing help to other countries and job opportunities for hundreds of thousands, thus helped in alleviating economic hardships in many places including those in the Horn.
Instead of moving forward to strengthen its cooperation in economic, financial and even security and political areas, the GCC is bogged down and seems to have run out of steam after more than three decades of its establishment.
Then came the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar to send GCC into complete paralysis. At the time Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are on one side, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar stayed at various degrees of aloofness. It is hard to imagine that the GCC will be able to carry even its conventional exercises of holding regular ministerial meetings. That situation will bring it in line with another defunct organization, the Arab League.
Those organizations are symbols of joint efforts at the Gulf and the Arab levels at large. With the lack of joint activity and shared political will, it is natural to see them heading to demise.
And that is why it is remarkable now to see an African leader speaking about a collective approach to issues of development.
Though Sudan is an Afro-Arab country, but its Arab side has dominated its character given the links of history, religion and culture and sometimes at the expense of its African component, which helped in a way in fueling its internal strife that led to decades of instability.
Sudan needs to take note of those developments as it is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about joint Arab projects or a pan-Arab approach to any issue. Rather it is the age of bilateral relations.
Even the much publicized talk about signing an MOU with the GCC seems to be very much in question now given what is going on in the Gulf countries.
A more emphasis on the African arena seems to be more rewarding and can help what Desalegn was talking about: highlighting economic cooperation. For instance
Sudan’s Red Sea Port, Port Sudan, should be looked at as a regional hub to serve four land-locked African countries, namely: Ethiopia, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad thus strengthening the base for economic cooperation and opening the way for some economic gains at grassroots levels to supersede political disputes.