Due to a range of demographic, economic and political factors, Ethiopia is one of the most influential actors in the Horn of Africa region, which makes Ethiopian policy a key determinant of the regional interplay. Since Abiy Ahmed came to power as Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018, the country’s policies have undergone remarkable changes. They have had widely divergent impacts, depending on the issue at hand, from promoting regional peace and economic integration to sowing instability and insecurity.
This article offers an analytical reading of the recent evolution of Ethiopian policy and its repercussions on the security and stability of the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region. For the purposes of this article, the Horn of Africa includes, in addition to Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, Sudan because of its geopolitical relevance to developments in the region and its importance in understanding changes in Ethiopian policy.
Ethiopian policy towards the Horn of Africa can be broken down into two main phases, each shaped by a set of major determinants reflected in the decisions Ahmed has taken on a number of critical issues. His decisions have not only set the mode of relations between Ethiopia and its neighbours, but they have also influenced the upward or downward trajectories of regional peace and security.
In hindsight, when we consider Ethiopian policies as a whole since Ahmed came to power, we can identify a pattern that might best be termed “strategic deception.” This has involved engaging an assortment of diplomatic, economic and military tools both at home and abroad in order to control the course of developments in the Horn of Africa and strengthen Ethiopia’s regional position.
PHASE ONE: BREAKING ISOLATION: Ahmed understood that in order to strengthen his country’s regional position to better control the political equations in the Horn of Africa and to attract regional and international investment in bilateral or multilateral economic partnerships with Ethiopia, he had to convince opinion at home and then in Ethiopia’s immediate neighbourhood that Addis Ababa was embarking on a new political and economic era.
Towards this end, he took a number of steps that generated the impression that Ethiopia was working to change for the better and that Addis Ababa wanted to turn over a new leaf. This applied both abroad, especially with Eritrea with which Ethiopia shared three decades of enmity, and at home where he released many political prisoners, lifted the state of emergency that had been in place since the uprisings that had forced Ahmed’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn to resign, and revoked the terrorist designation from militant popular fronts paving the way for their integration into the political process.
He also took measures to liberalise the economy, privatising a number of state-owned companies in the communications sector and upgrading manufacturing and service-sector infrastructure in order to attract foreign investment.
In June 2018, Ethiopia announced that it would unconditionally abide by the Algiers Agreement, signed by the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia in December 2000 to end the two-year Eritrean-Ethiopian border war (1998-2000). In September 2018, the two countries signed a Gulf-sponsored formal peace agreement, ushering in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara and the resumption of transport and economic cooperation and the provision of Ethiopian manpower for Eritrean ports.
As a result of the peace agreement, international sanctions were lifted from Eritrea in November 2018. The sanctions had imposed an arms embargo and travel bans on a number of Eritrean officials and political entities in response to Eritrea’s violation of international law with its invasion of Ethiopia in 1998.
With regard to Somalia, with which Ethiopia has had five military engagements in modern times, Ahmed maintained a neutral stance on the conflict between Somalia and the Republic of Somaliland and between the central government in Mogadishu and the Somalian regional governments. He simultaneously worked to improve relations with Mogadishu by promoting economic and security cooperation and political coordination on various regional issues. In return, landlocked Ethiopia gained access to more maritime ports.
Addis Ababa took further steps to strengthen its role and image as a pillar of peace in the region. It increased its presence in counter-terrorist forces in Somalia, mediated to resolve a maritime border dispute between Somalia and Kenya, and brokered a historic agreement between Eritrea and Somalia that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Asmara and Mogadishu in July 2018.
It has tried to cajole Somalia and Somaliland towards national and regional reconciliation, which may explain Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo’s apology to the Somali people of Somaliland for the suffering they endured in the period of president Mohamed Siad Barre’s rule between 1969 and 1991. The surprise apology followed the African Union (AU) summit in February 2020, during which Ahmed reportedly arranged a meeting between the two sides on the fringes of the meeting.
In March 2018, the Emirati multinational Dubai Ports World (DP World) signed an agreement with Somaliland and Ethiopia entitling Addis Ababa to a 19 per cent share in the strategic Port of Berbera. In accordance with an agreement signed with Somaliland in 2016, DP World obtained a 51 per cent share in the port and a 30-year franchise to operate the upcoming trade and logistics hub.
Under the agreement, Ethiopia will also take part in the establishment of a free zone and in developing the infrastructure for the Berbera Corridor linking Ethiopia to the Red Sea Port. In like manner, Ethiopia has obtained usufruct rights to the Port of Garacad in Somalia, 300 km from the Ethiopian border. Ethiopia is currently contributing to the development of this port on the Indian Ocean. This is in the framework of 16 economic cooperation agreements signed between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu in June 2018, which also brought the resumption of direct flights between the two countries in September 2018 after a 41-year hiatus.
Ethiopia has long had generally good relations with Djibouti, characterised by cooperative arrangements in various fields, especially infrastructure projects. The two countries are linked by a railway connecting Addis Ababa with the Doraleh Port north of the capital of Djibouti. The multipurpose port is another cornerstone in Ethiopia’s plan to acquire shares in maritime outlets, one that also includes the new Lamu Port in Kenya and Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Addis Ababa signed the agreements on these ports with Nairobi and Khartoum in 2018.
Up until this point, the Port of Djibouti had been the sole maritime outlet for approximately 90 per cent of Ethiopia’s foreign trade. In May 2018, Addis Ababa obtained a 30 to 40 per cent share in the Doraleh Port, while Djibouti obtained comparable shares in a number of Ethiopian state-owned companies.
It drew no small amount of attention to Ethiopia when this landlocked nation chose Djibouti to host the Ethiopian Maritime Centre, with headquarters based in Bahir Dar, the capital of Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Upon coming to power, Ahmed pledged to build the Ethiopian navy in order to defend the country’s economic interests in the Red Sea and protect Ethiopian commercial vessels based in Djibouti.
He is clearly positioning Ethiopia to become an active player in the protection of the Red Sea corridor. In March 2019, during the first visit by a French president to Addis Ababa since the 1970s, Emmanuel Macron and Ahmed signed a defence cooperation agreement, in accordance with which Paris pledged to help develop the Ethiopian navy and train its personnel in France. In May 2021, Ethiopia laid the cornerstone for a new naval training centre in Bishoftu in the Oromia region.
Finally, as a crowning act of this phase of Ahmed’s premiership, Ethiopia brokered the Juba Peace Agreement between Khartoum and a number of militant Sudanese opposition movements in October 2020.
His first year in office was thus a consummately revolutionary phase in Ethiopian policies and in his handling of various crucial regional issues. His actions strengthened his weight as a regional player in the Horn of Africa region who could use his influence to promote regional peace and economic integration – a main reason why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
PHASE TWO: SHIFT TO UNILATERALISM: After such hopeful beginnings, the Ahmed government swung sharply towards a more aggressive tack on a number of issues of vital concern to its neighbours and other regional powers.
The slide into conflict and tension took the international community by surprise and forced it to reassess its opinion of Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian prime minister, especially in view of the repercussions of his policies on the strategic Red Sea corridor.
TIGRAY AND FASHQA CONFLICTS: One of Ahmed’s foremost objectives after coming to power in 2018 was to sideline the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and to rid Ethiopia’s central government agencies of members affiliated with the former ruling party.
If the purge seemed to express a long-harboured thirst for revenge against the Tigray people and their representatives, in more practical terms its purpose was to promote two interrelated aims. One was to reshape Ethiopia’s political identity in favour of the prime minister’s political alliances, which relied heavily on the Amhara people, especially after opposition voices gained momentum among the Oromo, his own ethnic affiliation.
The second was to strengthen the central government at the expense of the regional governments. Tensions between Addis Ababa and the regional government of Tigray reached a breaking point last autumn. On 5 November, the federal government declared war against the Tigray regional government, and on 28 November, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) took control of the Tigrayan capital Mekelle.
The fallout from this conflict should not be underestimated. Sudan, in particular, has been harmed economically and its security jeopardised at a very delicate phase in its post-revolutionary transition process. In addition to receiving thousands of refugees from the war, around 75,000 by March 2021, Sudan also faced an influx of Ethiopian militiamen. The Sudanese army and intelligence have reported a spike in arms and explosives smuggling operations, such as that exposed on 22 March this year. The discovery heightened fears of a surge in cross-border organised crime, which thrives on deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions such as those that exist in the Tigray region or in the refugee camps in Sudan.
The Tigrayan conflict inevitably spilled over into Sudan, whether as a natural product of the unrest or due to the identity of the participants that entered the war alongside the ENDF. In this context, the militias from the Amhara region stand out. Just as the Amhara claim a historic right to portions of the Tigray region, they also believe they have a right to the fertile Fashqa region in eastern Sudan. When siding with the federal government in the war, they undoubtedly believed they would win its support for their territorial claim.
Fighting erupted between Amhara militias and Sudanese forces along the entire Ethiopian-Sudanese border, in contrast to previous border flareups that were limited to specific areas. Sudanese forces repelled the incursions, but their scale fired suspicions that Ahmed planned to impose a de facto occupation of Sudanese land as a means to reward the Amhara militias.
After Ethiopian forces withdrew from the border areas, Ahmed’s envoy to Khartoum asked Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereign Council Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan to deploy Sudanese forces along the border to block the escape of Tigrayan rebels. The Sudanese army seized the opportunity to tighten border security, reassert Sudanese sovereignty over its territory and prevent future incursions by Ethiopian militias.
In addition to averting more costly open warfare with the Amhara and minimising further spillover from the mounting ethnic conflicts in Sudan, these actions bolstered the status of the Sudanese army as the guardian of the country’s security at this critical stage in Sudan’s history. By 4 April 2021, the Sudanese army had succeeded in taking back 95 per cent of the Fashqa region.
Another consequence of the war in Tigray was that it created a security vacuum along the border with Somalia when the ENDF withdrew 600 troops from the area in order to support the offensive against Mekelle. This came at a time when tensions in Somalia were on the rise against the backdrop of presidential and parliamentary elections, a constitutional crisis, and increased activity of the Shabab terrorist movement.
The Tigrayan war and the Fashqa dispute also increased the likelihood of proxy warfare in the region, especially given the proliferation of militia groups in the volatile economic and political terrain of the Horn of Africa. A case in point is the Ethiopian use of Eritrean forces in Tigray, which enabled the latter to satisfy their thirst for revenge against the TPLF and to win control over the disputed Badme territory on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.
Another instance was exposed on 8 March 2021 when Khartoum accused Ethiopia of furnishing logistic support and military materiel to Joseph Tuka, deputy head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM–N) in Sudan’s Blue Nile state. Ethiopia’s aim was to divert the attention of Sudanese border patrol forces and to compound pressures on Khartoum during the transitional phase even after the Juba Peace Agreement.
Reports of Somali youth being conscripted into Eritrean forces fighting in Tigray are consistent with such developments that augur ill for mounting militia warfare and are a growing threat to regional security and stability.
THE GERD CRISIS: Addis Ababa’s war in Tigray and the spike in Ethiopian-Sudanese border skirmishes coincide with the dead end in the tripartite (Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan) negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Although negotiations over this mega-project have lasted ten years, the dispute has reached a critical point now that Ethiopia has vowed to proceed unilaterally with the second filling of the GERD reservoir when the Nile flooding season begins in July 2021.
Egypt and Sudan have explored all diplomatic means to persuade Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam that would ensure Ethiopia’s right to development and safeguard the vital water rights of the downstream nations. Now that the last in the series of AU-sponsored talks broke down last month due to Ethiopian intransigence, Egypt and Sudan are confronted with a ticking time bomb.
As Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas acknowledged on 2 June, the AU track not only failed to lead the disputants to a just and binding agreement, but it also actually deepened the gap between them. Egypt and Sudan are now coordinating their positions closely as they explore all possible options in their drive to build up regional and international pressure on Addis Ababa.
Cairo has made it clear that it has not ruled out the military option (in coordination with Sudan) in order to defend the Egyptian people’s existential rights. If this option seems to offer an immediate solution to the dispute, it also carries considerable risks, as it would force Ethiopia to consider reciprocating whether by striking vital targets in Egypt and Sudan or by unleashing its proxies to foment strife and discord in Sudan, which falls within the realm of Egyptian national security.
The situation could easily spiral out of control, engulfing other parties and jeopardising the interests of many regional and international stakeholders in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea corridor.
ETHIOPIAN POLICY AND RED SEA SECURITY: Although Ethiopia is a landlocked country, it has managed to break its geographical isolation by forging a network of alliances that have enabled it to expand and diversify its maritime outlets on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, as seen above.
Ethiopia’s entry into the competition to build and utilise ports giving access to the world’s most important maritime trade routes has helped to boost the Ethiopian economy, strengthened Addis Ababa’s weight as a regional power and increased its opportunities to build bilateral and multilateral partnerships with diverse regional and international powers.
This success also positions Ethiopia in the equations of cooperation and conflict in the Red Sea. Addis Ababa cannot be overlooked as a strategic partner in arrangements to safeguard international shipping lanes in the Red Sea corridor, especially in the light of the establishment of an Ethiopian maritime centre in Djibouti and Ethiopian plans to establish a naval base in a country overlooking the Red Sea.
Such developments have spurred the already intense regional and international rivalry over the Red Sea, as evidenced by Egypt’s activities in this regard. Egypt, a major player in Red Sea security, has been looking for new partners to add to the list of alliances with which it works to build diverse modes of bilateral and multilateral economic, political, military and security cooperation. The Egyptian president’s visit to Djibouti on 27 May this year was an important development in the light of Cairo’s regional influence, Djibouti’s geostrategic importance and the strategic partnership between it and Ethiopia.
As much as the Red Sea inspires cooperation, it is also a region rife with conflict and tension and, thus, an environment conducive to a resurgence in piracy off the Somali coast. Despite the fact that no incident of piracy had been recorded off the coast of Somalia for the three years up to 2020, the UN Security Council nevertheless renewed the counter-piracy mechanism in December 2020 due to the ongoing threat of resurgent piracy and armed robbery at sea.
There simultaneously remains the persistent threat of organised crime and resurgent terrorism, as epitomised by the Shabab movement’s call on 28 March this year for attacks on US and French interests in Djibouti. The danger has led regional and international powers to reassess their approaches to security in the Horn of Africa, raising the likelihood of a larger foreign military presence in a region where there are so many vital interests at stake.
However these powers recalibrate their alliances and arrangements, their calculations will need to take into account the many direct and indirect regional impacts of the changes Ethiopian domestic and foreign policy have undergone since Ahmed took office.
*The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Al-Malaf Al-Masry.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly