Opinion: Why Somalia should reconsider bid to join EAC

More than a decade ago, Somalia unsuccessfully tried to join the East African Community.

Paradoxically, in the intervening years South Sudan and the DRC — countries that also have raging conflicts in them — joined the body in 2016 and 2022 respectively.

This is due to a number of factors, including the country’s longstanding political instability, terrorism, and general incompatibility with the EAC model.

For starters, Somalia has been plagued by political instability for more than three decades, making it difficult for the country to meet the EAC’s membership criteria.

Second, terrorism is a major concern, with al Shabaab and other extremist groups posing a threat to regional security and stability. Third, Somalia’s governance structures has been cited to “not fit the EAC model,” which it has been dully informed, are based on democratic principles, the rule of law, and market-oriented economic policies. Qualities which it honestly needs — desperately!

On the last week of January 2023, EAC’s Secretary General Peter Mathuki officially launched the verification mission to assess the country’s readiness to join the community.

During the official launch, Mathuki said a report would be presented to the heads of state summit, which was expected to take place in a month.

“The verification team is set to make findings relating to the institutional frameworks in place, legal frameworks, policies, strategies, projects and programmes, areas of cooperation with other EAC partner states and expectations from the membership,” Mathuki said. 

This was comforting to Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who on his part urged the EAC to expedite his country’s admission.

The President said Somalia’s admission to the community has been a long-awaited dream for the Somali people and government, urging Mathuki, to expedite the admission so that his country can be admitted to be EAC’s eighth member.

In reading and analyzing the region’s media coverage on this, I could not help but notice an article published by the Daily Nation, Kenya’s biggest newspaper and the most widely read in the East African region.

The writer, Gitau Warigi, says what I assume every policymaker probably thinks of Somalia’s admission to the EAC but wont say out loud.

Warigi writes: “Somalia is considered problematic in its current form…. It’s unstable, with no functioning institutions and with the worst terrorist problem in the region — that of al Shabaab. In this view, Somalia is a basket case that will bring nothing to the EAC except agony.”

The columnist also reminds his readers that the EAC did not ‘defer’ as was then said regarding Somalia’s request to join in 2012 but rather utter rejection. He makes an important note on the country’s incompatibility with the common law system in place across many member states as laid down by colonial Britain.

He also puts heavy emphasis on the lack of a complete constitution, arguing it has a provisional one and appears to be indecisive on where the capital should be.

He goes a step further to say: “Though Somalia is geographically in East Africa, it does not have much in common with its EAC neighbours. It doesn’t meet the fundamental legal requirements of the EAC Treaty. Aside from lacking a constitution, its territorial integrity is fluid. That is fatal.”

He adds: “And in a continent where religion matters, Somalia’s EAC inclusion would make it the only wholly Muslim member. Within EAC countries, Muslims are in the minority.”

This comprehensive piece degenerates real quick and talks of Somalia’s citizenship law, which he says offers citizenship to “all Cushitic people in the Horn of Africa such as the Oromo and Borana, and not just to Somali speakers.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth as Somali citizenship is strictly given to only those whose fathers are ethnic Somalis as the community has been patrilineal since time immemorial.

Warigi further speaks of Kenya and Ethiopia’s unease with Somalia’s malleable position on granting citizenship to anybody who is a Somali as both countries have significant Somali populations and their past hostilities over her irredentism.

Towards this he says,“A disconcerting number in the cabinet (Somalia’s) are Somalis from Ethiopia, which has bred suspicion from that neighbour”. The ‘Ethiopians’ include Prime Minister Hamza Barre, who comes from the same Shilabo region his late namesake and third president of Somalia, Siad Barre, was born.”

At this point, I cannot help but question why would a proponent of a prosperous EAC be alarmed by citizens of one nation making to the leadership in an another? Isn’t that good for regionalism?

But no! That is not his concern because of the aforementioned ills of the country were just setting the stage for his main issue as a Kenyan because, in his own words “Kenya harbours resentment over their maritime feuds. EAC members have their border issues. Kenya’s dispute with Uganda over Migingo. Ordinarily, though, such spats tend to be sorted out internally. However, Somalia has never hesitated to internationalise her quarrels. She was quick to take Kenya to the International Court of Justice over their Indian Ocean row.”

He then disingenuously ends his piece with the problem of terrorism as the ultimate deal breaker for Somalia’s ascent to the EAC.

One may wonder why I gave this much airtime to an opinion column, although that is a valid thought to have. His piece brings forth many issues I believe top EAC bureaucrats as well as the region’s lay people view the Horn of Africa nation Somalis call home, with the same if not worse lens.

It is important to note that DRC joined the community with tense relations and ever increasing confrontations with Rwanda (another member state). I cannot help but think to myself why is it easy for them and not Somalia to join. Your guess is as good as mine and Warigi’s article is a good starting point.

Instead of Somalia trying hard to join a body that has rejected its application already and with considerable hindrances in place, I would suggest one remedy: Increased integration with the Horn of Africa region and special agreements with individual EAC member states. This, in my opinion, can be achieved in the following ways.

On is focusing on political Stability: Somalia’s political history has been turbulent, with decades of civil war, piracy, and terrorism. However, the country has made strides toward political stability in recent years, which may be jeopardized by the uncertainty of joining the EAC. A more viable option for Somalia’s future is to focus on integration with its immediate neighbours, who have relatively stable political systems.

Second is tackling common regional problems such as terrorism, poverty, and environmental degradation. Constituent countries can address these challenges collectively by pooling resources and expertise to find lasting regional solutions.

Inclusion of Somalia in such efforts will be much easier, if it focuses on integration with its immediate neighbors.

Third is seeking natural trade and economic partnerships. Somalia’s proximity to neighboring nations in the horn of Africa such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya, means there is a natural opportunity for economic partnerships and trade.

These nations already have established trade agreements and economic integration, making Somalia’s inclusion in these agreements easier than trying to join EAC from scratch.

Fourth is exploiting cultural and historical ties. Somalia shares considerable cultural and historical ties with its neighbors in the horn. These nations practice the same religion and some similar cultural practices, making integration seamless. This cultural integration is not as apparent with the EAC, which poses a stark culture clash and makes integration much harder.

Finally, focusing on integration with its neighbours in the Horn of Africa would be far more beneficial. These nations’ shared history, culture, and natural resources make integration  more feasible, allowing Somalia to contribute to and benefit from collective efforts to address the region’s common challenges.

Zakaria Deeq is a journalist and trainee diplomat who focuses on international relations, conflict, security and statehood.