Somalia has joined the EAC regional bloc. What happens next?

Business News Somalia

After more than a decade of intense lobbying, Somalia has been admitted into the East African Community (EAC). After ratification by the Somali Federal Parliament, the membership will become official.

The application process, started by former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in 2011, had been long and arduous with some member states allegedly hesitant to bring Somalia into the fold.

The process finally yielded fruit this year after the current president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, appointed a special envoy to accelerate the admission process not long after he came into office in August 2022 for a second time. Mohamud, who was also president from 2012 to 2017, was a key backer of regional integration during his first term.

“We are a significant country in the region which can contribute a lot, and we will also benefit from them,” Mohamud said as he landed in Mogadishu after an EAC summit in Arusha, Tanzania, where Somalia was admitted into the bloc on Friday.

The president has said Somalia’s membership will also benefit EAC members Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

Critics of the move said the admission of Somalia, a country of more than 17 million people and a long history of conflict, could introduce security challenges for the bloc, which now has a combined population of more than 300 million people, or a fourth of Africa’s population.

However, experts argued that Somalia has taken significant strides in its fight against the armed group al-Shabab and point to security challenges in other EAC members such as the DRC, where at least 120 armed groups are fighting in its volatile east, and South Sudan, which has been in and out of a civil war since before its independence.

Challenges and opportunities

The EAC was stablished in 2000 and is headquartered in Arusha. Its mission has been to foster economic growth by, among other things, eliminating customs duties among member states. It established a common market in 2010.

Somalia’s primary economic activities are livestock and agriculture, and they have proven to be highly vulnerable to climate change. Livestock remains Somalia’s main export, followed by bananas, fish, hides and skin, and charcoal, but the country is believed to have potential offshore resources like oil and gas.

Since 1991 when Somalia’s government collapsed, leading to three decades of political instability and the rise of al-Shabab, the country’s trade volume with its neighbours shrank rapidly.

Still, analysts said, Somalia, which has Africa’s longest coastline and an estimated two million citizens in the diaspora, is ripe for economic integration with its neighbours.

“I think EAC countries also see Somalia’s … successful investments by Somalis in EAC countries,” Mohamed Abdi Waare, political analyst and a former president of Somalia’s Hirshabelle state, told Al Jazeera. “They also see its vast blue economic potential in its long coastline, the opportunities to participate in the reconstruction of Somalia and to leverage Somalia links with its diaspora, its links with the Middle East and its strategic location.”

“With massive natural resources, the rebuilding and reconstruction boom after the defeat of al-Shabab, Somalia will provide an excellent opportunity for regional investment in its blue economy, its infrastructural rehabilitation and its real estate and construction industries,” he added.

However, not everyone is on board with the integration, even within the Horn of Africa nation.

Friday’s announcement has become contentious among Somalis. Many have described the integration as rash or too early.

One of them is Abdirahman Abdishakur, the presidential envoy for humanitarian coordination, who said EAC membership is different from that in other bodies like the African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development, Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Conference.

“We understand that all [those bodies were] formed for political, peace and development cooperation, but the EAC bloc is different and was mainly formed for economic and trade purposes,” Abdishakur, who is also a member of parliament, told Al Jazeera. “For Somalia, we don’t have goods, services and economic ideology to bring to the table.”

“Almost every Somali middle-class [citizen] bought an apartment and has their family in Nairobi, and the real estate is booming, which signals [an] advantage for Kenya’s economic growth and other countries want the same,” he said. “It’s an added advantage [to member states] for Somalia to join the bloc, but we are not gaining much.”

He added that Somalia could be better off joining the bloc in the future if the country’s leadership could provide resources, energy and ideas to stabilise the country first.

There are also other challenges.

After its accession, Somalia is required to put elements of the treaty into law within six months of signing the document.

In a report released this month, the Heritage Institute, a Mogadishu-based think tank, stressed that this could be tough to do and thus hinder Somalia from being an effective member of the EAC. This, the report said, was due to the country’s poor track record on governance, human rights, rule of law and socioeconomics. Additionally, “constant friction between the Somali federal government and member states” could also hinder smooth ratification of the treaty in parliament, the report said.

“Any infrastructure that Somalia lacks will only delay the part of the integration for which such infrastructure is needed,” Bashir Sheikh-Ali, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Institute and the author of the report, told Al Jazeera.

For instance, the EAC expects partner states to have dispute resolution forums for interstate matters within the bloc, Sheikh-Ali said. Without an independent judiciary, Somalia may not be able to fully participate or benefit from the bloc’s binding resolutions, he said.

“If the Somali government takes the creation of an independent judiciary seriously, Somalia will have a shot at having a full-fledged government, which should lead to a better environment for people in all aspects of their lives,” he added.

The institute suggested in its report that the country create a comprehensive risk minimisation plan and secure a prolonged period of treaty implementation.

Conflict resolution

In recent years, relations have soured between Somalia and its autonomous region of Somaliland over the disputed city of Las Anod. Some of the EAC members have a diplomatic presence in both territories, and it remains to be seen how the bloc would help keep the peace after Hargiesa, capital of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, previously shunned Kampala’s effort to mediate with it and Mogadishu.

Previously, Somalia was embroiled in a diplomatic rift with Kenya – the only bloc member that directly borders it – over a maritime dispute. The former asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on the case after out-of-court negotiations between the two nations failed.

Although Kenya refused to acknowledge the ICJ ruling in 2021 that favoured Somalia, experts said the two countries now have a platform to resolve any future disputes.

“For the Kenyan side, there was no avenue to resolve the issue, but now after the admission of Somalia to the East African Community, there is hope any future dispute between the two countries can be resolved through the mechanisms of the economic bloc,” said Abdullahi Abdi, an analyst on Horn of Africa affairs.

Signs of that new harmony could manifest soon enough.

In June, the AU Transition Mission in Somalia, previously known as the AU Mission in Somalia, began winding down its peacekeeping mission. Established in 2017, its mandate fully ends next year. Thousands of the AU peacekeepers came from three EAC members.

Analysts believe that Somalia’s accession will only increase its neighbours’ desire to focus on eliminating the armed group al-Shabab. The EAC has deployed a regional force to the DRC, the last member to join, and could well do the same for Somalia.

If that leads to the decimation of al-Shabab, which is infamous for its resilience, then Somalia’s admission into the EAC could turn out to be a masterstroke not just for the country but also the region, they said.

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