Kenya-Ethiopia bilateral ties have historically been anchored on the quest for stronger trade and security relations.
In 1963, the two nations signed a defence pact, pledging military assistance to each other in the event of an attack on either by another country. Although the pact was largely seen as targeting the then increasingly belligerent and expansionist Somalia, it set off a long tradition of bilateral engagements geared to boosting both economic and military cooperation. The most recent such agreement was the March 2022 pact on enhancing peace and security between the two nations.
Earlier in February, police chiefs of the two countries had agreed to work together in combating cross-border crimes. Back in 2011, Kenya and Ethiopia had signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence and Security focused on enhanced coordination in tackling common security threats at the regional level. Then came the Special Status Agreement of 2012 seeking to enhance trade, investment, infrastructure, food security and sustainable livelihoods.
The opening of the Moyale One Stop Border Post in 2021, further cemented Ethio-Kenya economic ties. There has been good progress with the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia transport corridor (LAPSSET) with the completion of Lamu Port Phase 1. Given this long history of reciprocal engagements around security and trade, it is not surprising that Addis Ababa views Kenya as a trusted ally. To underscore this fact, Kenya played an instrumental role in the recent ceasefire between the Ethiopia Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, ending the two-year raging conflict in the Tigray region.
The breakthrough peace deal under the auspices of the African Union (AU) was signed in Pretoria, South Africa on November 2, following talks chaired by former presidents of Kenya and Nigeria, Uhuru Kenyatta and Olusegun Obasanjo.
In November 2021, when the Tigray conflict assumed a deadly turn, President Kenyatta visited Ethiopia and held talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde, urging them to resolve the crisis. By then, Nairobi was already angling to play the role of a neutral mediator, leveraging its influence as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and as a member of the AU Peace and Security Council.
Kenya’s involvement in the Tigray peace process, more so the successful Pretoria talks, has reinforced her credentials as a geopolitical force within the region, and as a champion of peace and security in the Horn of Africa and greater Eastern Africa.
One may argue that Kenya has a vested interest in a more secure, stable Ethiopia given the growing presence of Kenyan businesses in her northern neighbor. Notably, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunications firm, has just acquired a licence to operate its popular M-Pesa money transfer service in Ethiopia, a country with a population of 110 million people.
The critical nexus between security and trade in the bilateral relations between the two countries is a perfect case study on the benefits of framing Kenya’s geopolitical interests in the region and beyond on a purely security-trade paradigm, whereby security underpins trade, which then brings prosperity and reduced security risks. As Gordon de Brouwer, a senior advisor at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes, “First, a country should be clear about its national interest. The national interest has three components – security, prosperity, and social wellbeing – and they should all be part of framing the problem and solutions. All three matter. More than ever, they reinforce each other. Security underpins prosperity, prosperity creates power and pays for security, and a well-functioning society reduces economic and security risks.”
Based on this, Kenya’s geopolitical posture in the East and Horn of Africa region, should not be entirely preoccupied with trade and investment deals, rather, prioritize a regional security configuration that favours expansion and deepening of economic and commercial ties with her neighbours, as is the case with Ethiopia.
The logic behind this approach was apparent when Kenya recently deployed peacekeeping troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as part of a joint East Africa Community regional force to disarm recalcitrant rebels.
However, Kenya also argued the need to protect her strategic investment interests in DRC, underlining the primacy of security in safeguarding national economic interests beyond her borders.
This binary security-trade approach to bilateralism that Kenya has perfected with Ethiopia, will ensure a safe, secure and stable geopolitical environment in which our economic and commercial interests in the region can flourish.
Mr. Choto is a legal and policy analyst.