Amid continued domestic upheaval, Ethiopia’s foreign relations are also in crisis. This is particularly true of relations with Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries. Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea, for which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize, has morphed into a joint security pact that has now seen Eritrean troops occupy parts of northern Ethiopia for more than six months, in an attempt to defeat the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose forces are now rebranded as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). The war between Ethiopian and Eritrean allied forces and the TPLF/TDF has led to numerous atrocities, a humanitarian and development disaster, and brought the Tigray region to the brink of widespread famine. Even after sustained military operations and despite the higher number of Ethiopian federal and Eritrean troops, the TPLF/TDF have not been defeated and, as was predicted, they still retain the capacity to mount guerrilla attacks. There is little prospect that the war will be won outright by either side and, to date, the Ethiopian federal government’s commitment to withdraw Eritrean forces has yet to be fulfilled. Recent, albeit unconfirmed, reports have suggested that Somali troops may also be involved in the war in Tigray, prompting Somali parliamentarians to demand an investigation into the location of their troops.
To Ethiopia’s west, an old dispute with Sudan has flared up over the border area of al-Fashqaa, as an indirect consequence of Ethiopian military redeployments related to the war in Tigray, bringing relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa to their lowest point in years. The prospect of a Sudan-Ethiopia border war remains. Deteriorating relations between Sudan and Ethiopia have recently led Khartoum to demand the replacement of more than 3 000 Ethiopian peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). UNISFA is the only United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation whose forces come from a single country. As of April 2021, the UN Mission constitutes more than 54% of Ethiopia’s total personnel deployed in UN peacekeeping roles.
Meanwhile, negotiations with Sudan and Egypt over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River have not progressed. Downstream, Sudan and Egypt allege Ethiopia has unilaterally commenced the second filling of the GERD reservoir. Ethiopia has denied this, while asserting that the second filling will not, in any event, cause harm to its downstream neighbours.
The 2018 peace agreement with South Sudan – the antecedent of which came about because of Ethiopian mediation – continues to meander towards failure. With Ethiopia having abandoned its leadership role in the South Sudan peace process, no other country has marshalled the rest of the region towards continued collective action to prevent another peace deal from disintegrating.
To the east, relations with the Somali federal government in Mogadishu have improved in recent years, due to Ethiopia’s backing of Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also known as Farmaajo). However, Tigray’s fallout has also affected Somali-Ethiopian relations in the context of an already fraught and unstable situation in southern Somalia. Ethiopia has withdrawn some of its troops and disarmed others because they were of Tigrayan ethnicity. This has prompted fears that Ethiopia’s substantial troop presence in Somalia, both as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and in a separate, bilateral deployment, are under threat which may weaken counterterrorism efforts against the al-Shabaab terror group. Apart from the disarming of Tigrayan soldiers in August 2019, Ethiopian forces narrowly avoided conflict with Kenyan troops, who back a rival political leader in the subnational Somali state of Jubaland.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia is situated in a troubled region marked by disorder caused, in part, by some of Ethiopia’s recent actions and decisions. The change in Ethiopia’s role in the region has been as sudden as it was unexpected.
Ethiopia as ‘Benign’ Regional Hegemon: A Case of Over-optimism?
Just a few years ago, Ethiopia’s present foreign policy environment seemed unfathomable. Ethiopia is engaged in a war allied with, rather than against, its old enemy, Eritrea. It is also on the verge of a separate war with its largest neighbour, Sudan, with Ethiopian sovereign territory occupied by these neighbours (depending on how one adjudicates the legitimacy of Sudan’s claim to al-Fashqaa). This illustrates the magnitude of the changes. As recently as 2015, Harry Verhoeven wrote, ‘Ethiopia’s vision of regional integration under emerging Ethiopian hegemony is increasingly becoming a reality’, implying that the vision of ‘benign regional hegemony: what is good for Ethiopia is good for the Horn of Africa’, has effectively come to pass. Others questioned this narrative; for example, Sonia Le Gouriellec observed that Ethiopia is not a true regional hegemon, as it could not enforce adherence to the rules of the international system among its neighbours. However, she concluded that Ethiopia had some features of regional hegemony, and could thus be described as an ‘imperfect hegemon’. In retrospect, these analyses seem overly optimistic. Hegemons, even imperfect ones, are usually not so fragile. Furthermore, few Sudanese or Somalis (let alone Egyptians) would today agree that what is good for Ethiopia, as defined by its current foreign policy practitioners, is necessarily good for them or the region, broadly defined. Those South Sudanese who hope for Ethiopian re-engagement in their country’s stalled peace process might take a more ambivalent view.
It is important to note that ideas of Ethiopian regional hegemony pre-date the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government of Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn, who preceded Abiy.As Ruth Iyob explains:
Ethiopia emerged from the colonial order with a larger territory, a modernised army, and a host of states vying for its favours, thereby providing for all a demonstration of its power and status. Utilising its new-found identity as a champion of African nationalism and unity, Ethiopia legitimated its anachronistic system of absolute monarchy and neutralised any challenges to its hegemony from newly-incorporated territories. In the Horn, the death knell of self-determination was sounded by the imperial regime’s invocation of territorial integrity based on pre-colonial linkages.
Importantly, to critique Ethiopia’s contemporary foreign policy reality is not to praise the system and policies instituted by Meles and continued by Hailemariam after Meles’s death in 2012, nor to wistfully hark back to the romanticised days of Ethiopia’s empire or military dictatorship. To be clear, Ethiopia’s foreign policy prior to Abiy’s coming to power was also riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. The much-vaunted 2002 Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy, which ostensibly was the basis for the EPRDF’s foreign policy, was at times disingenuous. For example, the Policy and Strategy states:
development and democracy are the basis for national security and for peace… The goal of our foreign and security policies, formulated to ensure our national interest and wellbeing, should also serve to promote democracy and development… The fundamental goals of foreign and national security policy must be democracy and development.
For proponents of democracy within Ethiopia and in the wider region, there is little evidence that ‘democracy’ guided Ethiopia’s foreign policy practice prior to 2015. While contested, the debate over the philosophy of development in Ethiopia is one almost entirely in the domestic sphere. The ‘development’ principle of Ethiopian foreign policy also seems to have been largely rhetorical, at least in terms of dealing with its neighbours.
Earlier, Ethiopian involvement in South Sudan and Somalia was far from problem-free, from the perspective of narrow Ethiopian national interests, and from the purportedly more ‘benign’ perspective of regional peace and security. Ethiopia was far from a neutral actor in Somalia, backing various camps over the years, culminating in the December 2006 invasion by Ethiopian forces intent on removing the Islamic Courts Union government. Apart from the indiscriminate nature with which the war was conducted by Ethiopian forces and the numerous human rights abuses that occurred, some argued that Ethiopian intelligence was falsified to secure American backing for the invasion. More recently, in South Sudan, some of the Ethiopian missteps in the mediation and monitoring of the conflict may have contributed to the continuation (and renewal) of conflict, albeit as only one of several contributing factors, given the principal responsibility of South Sudanese belligerents themselves. However, in the same context, Ethiopia played an important and enduring role in South Sudan’s eventual emergence as an independent state. No matter the theatre, the implementation of Ethiopian foreign policy has been far from ‘benign’.
The Pressing Questions for Ethiopia’s Future Foreign Policy
Given the deficiencies and mixed record of Ethiopian foreign policy conducted by the EPRDF, the move to reset Ethiopian foreign policy was not necessarily without merit. The initial normalisation of relations with Eritrea signalled a paradigm shift from the EPRDF government. However, it is worth asking two fundamental questions. First, why have Ethiopia’s foreign relations deteriorated to this extent? Second, what may the future implications for the region and Ethiopia itself, be?
Some partial insights into Abiy’s foreign policy philosophy can be found in his 2019 book, Medemer. As one review of the book summarises, ‘Medemer does not agree with the idea of “there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” rather it believes in the idea of “there is no such thing as friend and enemy.”’ Unintentionally, perhaps, this element of Abiy’s philosophy echoes part of the 2002 foreign policy framework. The framework observed, somewhat disapprovingly, ‘that the foreign policies of past governments were, in part, founded on a “siege mentality” which considered the country to be surrounded by enemies.’In practice, however, such principles are difficult to translate into the tough world of realpolitik. In Ethiopia’s dispute over the GERD, for example, Egypt is implacably opposed to Ethiopia’s aspirations. Medemer does not override Egypt’s self-defined national interests. While Abiy can consider himself somewhat unlucky to have a Khartoum government, which now espouses views on the management of the GERD that are closer to Cairo than to Addis Ababa, the basic absence of a detailed foreign policy strategy over the issue is not helping Ethiopia’s cause regionally or internationally.
More fundamentally, however, Ethiopia’s loss of an even imperfect, regional hegemonic position has come about because Addis Ababa prioritised narrow domestic interests over those of the region and abandoned peace and security mechanisms that, though flawed, had their uses. In inviting Eritrea to join in its war in Tigray, Abiy hoped for a decisive and definitive defeat of the TPLF/TDF, and a consolidation of his power within the country. Instead, Abiy has lost the trust of other countries in the region for his handling of the Tigray situation and the second- and third-order consequences of a regionally resurgent Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki. It is striking that despite Ethiopia – and Abiy personally – having helped broker the transitional political settlement in Sudan after the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir, relations with Khartoum have deteriorated to the point where a war between Ethiopia and Sudan would not be a surprise.
Ethiopia’s partiality in Somalia limits its ability to be a constructive player there, even as the country’s simmering political crisis seems to have been averted for now. With regard to the Horn of Africa’s regional peace and security architecture, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), piloted and conducted by Ethiopia, now seems almost entirely hollow and without direction.
Abiy is near certain to be elected with a large majority in Ethiopia’s June 2021 elections, giving him the full mandate to govern. This may lead to further domestic consolidation of power within the newly reconfigured ruling party that replaced the EPRDF. However, Abiy may not find it as easy to regain Ethiopia’s mediating and power-brokering role in the region. Today, the region’s central actor in peacemaking roles, as mediator, peacekeeper, and sometimes enforcer, is much diminished, even if, in practice, Ethiopia still plays a leading part in, for example, UN peacekeeping, ranking second only to Bangladesh in terms of peacekeepers deployed worldwide. Ethiopia’s diminution is a loss for the region. It is also a danger for Ethiopia, given that several of its neighbours seem likely to face new crises in the years ahead, with the concomitant transboundary risks of displacement, economic damage, proxy warfare, and regional escalation. No country is an island in the Horn of Africa, and landlocked Ethiopia is especially not. Regional crises would once have been assured of Ethiopian leadership. It is now far from certain whether other countries in the Horn would accept, let alone welcome, the future involvement of an Abiy-led Ethiopia in their disputes, even if Addis Ababa was willing to help. Given the region’s challenges, the absence of a strong and capable third-party state presence to defuse and manage crises poses many risks.
Aly Verjee is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute and a non-resident Senior Advisor to the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
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 Ibid, p. 269.
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 United Nations Peacekeeping (2021), op. cit.