Is Foreign Meddling In Ethiopia Actually A Proxy War Against China?
5 JULY 2021
The US, its Western allies, and the Arab League must stop meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and the GERD issue should be resolved via African Union-led talks, not the UNSC.
Africa’s second most populous country of Ethiopia has recently experienced a surge in foreign meddling over the past year. This former kingdom, which was among the world’s oldest prior to its 1974 revolution, has always proudly defended its independence. Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italians in 1896 and secured his compatriots’ independence during the height of European colonialism. One of his successors, Emperor Haile Selassie, promoted the Ethiopian cause at the League of Nations after Italy’s fascist invasion in the run-up to World War II. His efforts generated global sympathy for Ethiopia and etched its struggle in the minds of many.
In the present day, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is following in the tradition of his predecessors by standing firm against the latest foreign meddling campaigns that once again threaten Ethiopia’s independence. The most pressing is the American-led Western pressure against him following his decision to commence a law enforcement operation in the rebellious Tirgray Region last November. To oversimplify a complex situation, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – previously the most powerful member of Ethiopia’s former ruling coalition – broke with PM Abiy, launched a separatist campaign, and was designated a terrorist group.
The TPLF was upset at the pace and scope and PM Abiy’s ambitious socio-economic reforms. They were also reportedly very unhappy with his success in ending Ethiopia’s nearly two-decade-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea which separated from the former in 1993 following a three-decade-long struggle. PM Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending this war. Although he began his rule by implying a vision of broader decentralization, PM Abiy ultimately had to recalibrate his policies due to the inadvertently centrifugal consequences thereof. This generated dissent among some of its diverse people that the TPLF then exploited.
The lingering conflict there has prompted US-led Western accusations of war crimes against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), which in turn were the pretext for Washington to impose sanctions against several individuals allegedly linked to them. America is also leading the charge in warning about a supposedly impending famine in the Tigray Province that its perception managers strongly imply would be solely due to the ENDF. Furthermore, an airstrike in the region last month is reported to have caused many civilian casualties, thus leading to more US pressure. Addis Ababa described all of this as an “orchestrated attack” against Ethiopia.
Concurrent with this is another meddling campaign led by Egypt through the Arab League. Cairo accuses Addis Ababa of weaponizing the Nile River due to its plans to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The North African state recently succeeded in getting the Arab League to call on the UNSC to intervene in this dispute. Ethiopia, meanwhile, believes that only an African Union-led resolution is acceptable. China also supports this proposal, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this month that his country opposes foreign interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.
The recent surge in foreign meddling there might be part of a proxy war against Chinese interests in Africa. Ethiopia’s developmental paradigm was powerfully influenced by China’s after the end of the former’s civil war in 1991. China is Ethiopia’s top trade and investment partner. The People’s Republic also helped construct the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, which serves as the Belt & Road Initiative’s (BRI) flagship project in the Horn of Africa. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia was Africa’s fastest-growing economy. The Chinese-Ethiopian Strategic Partnership is mutually beneficial and serves as a shining example of South-South cooperation.
Foreign meddling aims to undermine this partnership and could potentially result in Ethiopia’s disastrous “Balkanization” in the worst-case scenario. This makes Ethiopia the latest victim of HybridWar, and the stakes couldn’t be higher considering that it’s Africa’s second most populous country. Nevertheless, just as it’s historically done, Ethiopia is standing strong against the latest foreign pressure. The US, its Western allies, and the Arab League must stop meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and the GERD issue should be resolved via African Union-led talks, not the UNSC. No matter what happens, Ethiopia can always count on China’s support.
What Explains Ethiopia’s Stunning Military Reversal In Tigray?
30 JUNE 2021
Addis Ababa’s unexpected decision to implement a unilateral ceasefire in its rebellious Tigray Region following eight months of war there was influenced by its opponents’ unconventional military advantage fighting on their mountainous home turf, neighboring Eritrea’s military withdrawal from the conflict following international criticism of its activities, and the immense Western pressure put upon the aspiring Horn of Africa hegemon to prevent what the US predicted might become the world’s worst famine there.
Observers were shocked by Monday’s announcement that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) withdrew from the capital of the country’s rebellious Tigray Region and implemented a unilateral ceasefire until the end of the planting season there that’s usually sometime in September. Addis Ababa had presented its actions there as a law enforcement operation against separatists led by the previously leading force of the former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was later designated as terrorists. Government accounts claimed that the ENDF was winning though these assertions couldn’t be independently verified the entire time due to the difficulty that independent journalists had in accessing the war-torn region. The protracted conflict there also led to accusations of human rights abuses by all sides, and the US recently warned that Tigray risked suffering from the world’s worst famine if the conflict didn’t end soon.
There are several possible explanations for this dramatic turn of events. The first is that the TPLF commanded an unconventional military advantage by fighting on their mountainous home turf. The allegations of human rights abuses by the ENDF might have also inspired a massive recruitment drive among the locals if they began to view the conflict through a national liberation lense, thereby making it impossible for the military to indefinitely control the region. Neighboring Eritrea, which also militarily intervened in the region, earlier accused the US of supporting the TPLF so it’s possible that some degree of foreign backing was responsible for the militants regrouping in recent months and thus being able to more effectively launch their latest counteroffensive that coincided with the country’s long-delayed elections last week. Regardless of however they came to be so strong, the outcome is still the same, and it’s that the ENDF were just defeated by the TPLF.
The second explanation concerns Eritrea’s withdrawal from the conflict zone under international pressure. This former Ethiopian region recently emerged as the Horn of Africa’s most influential country after its decisive intervention in Tigray at least temporarily prevented its neighbor’s “Balkanization” which could have been disastrous for the region since it’s Africa’s second most populous country. Eritrea was also accused of human rights abuses and still largely remains a “pariah” state. It could have been the case that its leadership concluded that it might not be able to withstand any more international pressure so it decided to pull out of the conflict for now. Whatever its strategic calculations may have been, its departure from Tigray seems to have directly affected the ENDF’s ability to retain control of the region. This could explain the military’s unexpected defeat at the hands of the TPLF, which if truly the case, would then show how much stronger Eritrea is than Ethiopia.
The third explanation concerns the US’ dire warning that up to 900,000 of the region’s approximately 6 million people faced the threat of what it predicted might become the world’s worst famine if the conflict continues to drag on. This placed tremendous pressure upon the aspiring Horn of Africa hegemon and especially its leader Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who received the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago for peacefully ending Ethiopia’s nearly two-decade-long conflict with Eritrea. Just like its neighbor, Ethiopia was quickly on the path to becoming a “pariah” state in Western eyes and would have arguably been the world’s largest one had that scenario come to pass, which it still might. PM Abiy earlier claimed that foreign aid might be exploited as a front to arm the TPLF so his volte face speaks volumes about how desperate the military and also possibly the international political situation had become that he’d order the ENDF’s withdrawal in spite of that.
With these three interconnected reasons in mind for explaining Ethiopia’s stunning military reversal in Tigray, it’s now time to consider the strategic consequences of this development. The TPLF will likely consolidate and become stronger than ever, including as a result of foreign support that’ll enter the region disguised as aid. Addis Ababa won’t have much if any influence over this de facto independent region of the country, but a continuation war might break out after the planting season ends sometime in September if the ENDF also successfully regroup by then. It also might not, though, especially if a large part of the reason for the ENDF’s withdrawal was to reduce international pressure resulting from the US’ dire warning of the world’s worst impending famine. PM Abiy might not have the political will to risk the Western political and economic (sanctions) response to restarting the conflict under those conditions.
Unlike during the (first?) Ethiopian Civil War, the TPLF is unlikely to make a run on the capital but it might pursue hostile forces a bit beyond Tigray. That’s because the people of the neighboring Amhara Region and Eritrea will fight to the death to stop the TPLF’s invasion. Ethno-regional animosity is at an all-time high and Amhara militias have also reportedly been active in Tigray during the recent conflict in order to reclaim territory that they believe is theirs. It’s extremely unlikely that they’d roll over and let the TPLF sweep through their region en route to Addis Ababa in order to overthrow the same Prime Minister who’s emboldened them and their claims on parts of Tigray. This state of affairs suggests that the conflict might remain frozen for the indefinite future, thus creating a prime opportunity for foreign meddling. In addition, the TPLF might activate its nationwide network of agents to stage attacks behind enemy lines and incite rebellion in other regions.
The conflict between PM Abiy and the TPLF is of an existential nature. Each regards the other as illegitimate and a threat to Ethiopia. PM Abiy sees the TPLF as a terrorist group that’ll do anything to return to power even if this includes provoking another civil war while they believe that he’s the one that’s ruining the country through his ambitious socio-economic reforms that risk opening up the same Pandora’s Box that they tried so hard to keep closed during their rule. In other words, they blame one another for “Balkanizing” Ethiopia, and this worst-case scenario might actually happen whether in full or in part if the conflict isn’t politically resolved as soon as possible. Regrettably, no such peaceful resolution appears possible since neither side is willing to compromise on their maximalist aims: PM Abiy wants to wipe out the TPLF while they want to overthrow him. This creates the ideal space for foreign meddling, which will certainly exacerbate the conflict.
Here’s How Eritrea Became The Horn Of Africa’s Most Influential Country
21 JUNE 2021
Eritrea used to be regarded as a so-called “pariah state” and is still perceived that way to a certain extent among some, but recent years have seen its regional role evolve to the point where it’s arguably the most important player in the Horn of Africa right now, thereby warranting an analysis of how this happened.
Eritrea is one of the most mysterious countries in the world, which is intriguing for many outside observers, for better or for worse. It used to be regarded as a so-called “pariah state” and is still perceived that way to a certain extent among some, but recent years have seen its regional role evolve to the point where it’s arguably the most important player in the Horn of Africa right now. This development is attributable to a combination of its leadership’s vision and fast-moving events in neighboring Ethiopia from which Eritrea gained independence in 1993 after thirty years of separatist struggle. Considering its newfound importance, a general analysis of how this happened is certainly warranted.
For those who aren’t all that familiar with it, Eritrea is a revolutionary socialist-inspired state that was mostly isolated from the rest of the world after its bloody border conflict with Ethiopia from 1998-2000. It’s been previously accused of supporting armed groups across the region, especially in Somalia, including some that others have described as terrorists. The country excels in unconventional warfare considering its three-decade-long experience with it and the fact that this is the only means through which Eritrea can ensure its sovereignty from much larger Ethiopia which it always feared still harbored hegemonic ambitions against it. In fact, the previously mentioned border conflict can in some ways be seen as a “second war of independence”.
It’s neither here nor there who was in the right or wrong since the significance lies in the fact that Eritrea would probably have become a proxy state of Ethiopia had it lost that war. Ethiopia, having incomparably larger economic potential than Eritrea by virtue of its enormous population that’s at least 30x larger than its former province’s, was obviously much more important to the Great Powers than the tiny coastal state. This explains the immense international pressure that Eritrea experienced after that war which resulted in nearly two decades of isolation. During that time, the country has been accused of human rights abuses against its population, including through what some have reported is its de facto policy of indefinite conscription.
President Isaias Afwerki is considered to be a strong leader who exercises centralized control over the country. He’s also the former leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) which allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) during the Ethiopian Civil War and was thus jointly responsible for the rebels’ victory. Just as Afwerki subsequently went on to lead Eritrea after independence, so too did the TPLF essentially lead Ethiopia through the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They eventually had an acrimonious falling out which contributed to their 1998-2000 war. It wasn’t until incumbent Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and dismantled the EPRDF that the two countries finally agreed to peace.
I discussed Prime Minister Abiy’s inadvertently destabilizing reforms in a recent analysis asking, “Is There Still Any Hope Left For The Horn Of Africa?”, which goes much further in depth analyzing everything that’s recently happened there than is within the scope of the present piece. Readers should review it if they’re interested in learning more, but to oversimplify an admittedly complex situation, his visionary reforms prompted intense pushback from the TPLF, which later left the governing coalition, launched a rebellion in their native Tigray Region, was designated a terrorist group, and finally crushed through an ongoing military campaign there that’s also seen the contentious participation of Eritrean troops who’ve been accused of war crimes.
Before expanding further on that latest regional conflict, it’s important to point out that Eritrea previously took part in the GCC’s War on Yemen and even up until recently hosted an Emirati base. It remains unclear exactly why it decided to do this, but most observers agree that it was probably driven by a desire to procure much-needed funds for its struggling economy as well as pioneer a long-overdue breakout from its prolonged period of international isolation. Nevertheless, this development solidified the UAE’s growing influence over the Horn of Africa, which it later leveraged to facilitate the ultimately successful peace talks between Eritrea and Ethiopia that won Prime Minister Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize.
While Eritrea’s military involvement in that war resulted in a comparative reduction of international pressure upon it, that decision also harmed the country’s soft power insofar as it wasn’t to present itself any longer as a revolutionary state that always supports just causes and so on. It also prompted speculation that the opaque country’s economy was even worse than observers thought since it probably wouldn’t have done this if it didn’t desperately need the financial support that it received in exchange. Even so, the oft-repeated predictions among some that Eritrea is always just a step away from collapse have thus far failed to materialize, mostly due to the fact that the state itself still remains very strong (largely aided by the security services of course).
In contrast, neighboring Ethiopia has recently proven itself to be a lot weaker than some might have thought since it’s actually the regional country that’s nowadays on the brink of collapse, not Eritrea. The power reversal between these formerly acrimonious rivals tremendously plays in Eritrea’s favor, which isn’t lost on Ethiopia, hence why it requested Asmara’s military assistance in Tigray. That move was extremely symbolic since it showed that Ethiopia is no longer the regional hegemonic force that it used to be. It was also a deference to Eritrea’s comparative military strength since Ethiopia showed that it isn’t even able to control the situation within its own borders without foreign military support.
President Afwerki must have been pleased with this outcome. His vision has consistently been one of ensuring Eritrea’s security through asymmetrical and unconventional means in order to weaken Ethiopia from the inside-out, ergo its support for violent non-state actors in the region. Lo and behold, it ultimately wasn’t through militant means but political ones that Ethiopia ended up becoming destabilized, and by none other than its own hand through the inadvertent consequences of Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms. Not only that, but President Afwerki’s hated TPLF rivals became outcasts in the same country they once led, were designated as terrorists, and subsequently crushed through an Eritrean military intervention requested by Ethiopia itself.
As it presently stands, the geopolitical tables have certainly turned. It’s Eritrea, not Ethiopia, that’s the rising force in the region. Asmara, however, doesn’t intend to utilize conventional means to assert its influence. Rather, staying true to its his vision, President Afwerki seems to be cleverly manipulating the strategic situation behind the scenes through his intelligence services. His country simply can’t do much else considering how small and economically weak it is so this is the best use of its very limited resources by concentrating on its area of expertise. It’s more important to him at this moment to achieve tangible gains aimed at ensuring Eritrea’s security for years to come than to care all that much about the latest international pressure upon his country.
This explains why Eritrea controversially dispatched its troops to Tigray despite knowing that its previously secret military involvement there would eventually be exposed. The war crimes that it’s now accused of are very serious and have served to redirect international attention back to Eritrea, though of course not the kind that President Afwerki would have preferred. In his strategic calculations, however, the intervention was well worth the soft power cost since it symbolically showed that it’s Eritrea that’s calling the regional shots right now and not Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopia tacitly confirmed that it can’t ensure security within its own borders without Eritrean support, thus showing how indispensable Asmara has become for Addis Ababa. President Afwerki is expected to take maximum advantage of this new power asymmetry to continue expanding Eritrea’s influence.
The Horn of Africa’s stability is intimately tied to Ethiopia’s, which is why Eritrea’s military intervention is of regional significance. Supporters believe that it helped restore stability to Ethiopia and therefore the entire region while critics claim that it further destabilized Africa’s second most populous country. Whichever side of the debate one is on, there’s no denying the game-changing importance of this campaign, for better or for worse. Even though both countries are now coming under intense Western pressure because of it, they still enjoy the support of key non-Western states like Russia and China. They could therefore rely more on the latter group of countries to compensate for the increase in pressure from the former.
To wrap everything up, Eritrea is now the most influential country in the Horn of Africa after its military intervention in Tigray showed the world just how drastically the tables have turned in the region. Ethiopia is struggling to contain newfound separatist threats unleashed as an unintended result of Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms, and it’s ironically doing this with Eritrea’s support for the first time ever despite Asmara being suspected of patronizing such forces in the past. Since the Horn of Africa’s future is tied to Ethiopia’s, and the latter has shown how reliant it is on Eritrea to ensure stability within its own borders, it therefore follows that the Horn of Africa’s future is being disproportionately shaped by Eritrea. President Afwerki has therefore fulfilled his vision of turning Eritrea into the region’s most indispensable country despite its “pariah” status.
The US is sending its first ever Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa on a trip to Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia in what the State Department said was to address “interlinked” security issues in the region.
The Horn of Africa is arguably the most geostrategic part of the continent for the rest of the world at large so it’s only fitting that Russia crafts a comprehensive strategy for advancing its interests there, one which would become much more viable if it seriously considered partnering with the region’s de facto Emirati hegemon
The Horn Of Africa
Africa’s geostrategic significance is rising as Great Powers resume their historical scramble for influence, resources, and prestige there, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Horn of Africa. This region is arguably the most geostrategic part of the continent for the rest of the world at large given its position astride the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea (GARS) waterway connecting the Eastern Hemipshere’s maritime trade routes. It’s therefore only fitting that Russia crafts a comprehensive strategy for advancing its interests there which aligns with the model that it’s begun to experiment with across Africa, albeit of course custom tailored for the Horn of Africa’s specific context.
My recent piece asking “Is Khodorkovsky Behind Claims Of Russian Death Squads In The Central African Republic” chronologically lists my 18 prior analysis over the years on Russia’s new African outreach strategy, which should be referenced by those with an interest in the topic. In particular, attention should be paid to the one about how “The Improvement Of Russian-Togolese Relations Is A Multipolar Masterstroke” since it summarizes most of what’s been going on recently. To be brief, Russia is employing a combination of “Democratic Security” programs (counter-Hybrid War tactics and strategies), strategic economic deals, and political support to bolster the viability of so-called “fragile states” and strengthen their nation-building efforts.
Challenges & Opportunities
The Horn of Africa though already has a panoply of very confident nations, most of which which live within the centrally positioned cosmopolitan state of Ethiopia that’s recently been under severe strain as a result of the incipient “Balkanization” processes inadvertently catalyzed by its new leader’s “glasnost” and “perestroika” attempts. They therefore don’t require, nor have requested, any of Russia’s “nation-building” support, though the several states comprising this region (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan) are still attractive destinations for Russian investment though provided that the Horn of Africa eventually stabilizes. That might not happen anytime soon though, yet Russia can’t wait much longer to more actively engage the region.
Russia’s Regional Entry Point
Moscow’s entry point appears to be the naval base that it plans to open in Sudan despite recent speculation about its future. With or without a military presence there though, Russia can still utilize this location to benefit from the prospective Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road that China might eventually advance as part of its worldwide Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) upon the end of the global economic crisis brought about by the world’s uncoordinated attempts to contain COVID-19 (“WorldWarC”). Chad’s recent security challenges following the unexpected killing of its long-serving leader at the front lines of its latest war with rebel groups might further delay this project’s implementation, hence the need for Russia to diversify its regional economic outreaches.
The Prospects For Ethiopian Engagement
Ethiopia is therefore an exciting prospect and close historical ties support this possible direction of Russian policy, but there’s immense competition with China and the GCC so Moscow would need to find a suitable niche from which to establish its influence there. Interest exists on both sides since each aspires to improve their respective balancing acts via the other, but not much of tangible significance has occurred. Statements of intent are positive signs, but they aren’t anything substantive. Both sides should therefore urgently set up working groups at the intergovernmental and entrepreneurial levels to explore this more seriously. If successful, then more trade, security, and closer political ties would be mutually beneficial and also help the larger region.
Relegating The Rest Of The Region
Speaking of which, Russian engagement with the other three countries – Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia – remains minimal, which is unfortunate. They, too, are under a lot of external influence and have recently become scenes of intense rivalry between various powers, especially Somalia which is the scene of competition between Turkey and Qatar on one side and the UAE on the other. The latter engages mostly with the breakaway region of Somaliland, among the most stable and successful places on the continent despite its de facto independence being unrecognized. Closer Russian-Emirati coordination in recent years might in theory provide some openings to Moscow in that region, but it still remains to be seen whether it has the political will to engage Somaliland.
The (South) Yemeni Dimension
Regarding the UAE, Russia could also utilize its newfound ties with that country to expand its influence in Yemen, which can unofficially be regarded as a Horn of Africa country for strategic purposes. More specifically, Russia might revive its historical ties with the UAE-backed South Yemeni separatist movement, not necessarily in support of their independence agenda, but for practical reasons related to Moscow’s broader interests in the Horn of Africa region. Again, this would require political will to risk provoking the ire of its internationally recognized government just like it would Somalia’s in the event of engaging UAE-backed Somaliland, but this possible vector should be more closely studied by Russian strategists to assess the range of its pros and cons.
The Pros & Cons Of Engaging With The Emirates
Upon contemplating this, an intriguing possibility begins to emerge, and that’s of Russia partnering more closely with the UAE in the Horn of Africa in order to proverbially “piggyback” off of its recentstrategicsuccessesthere. Observers have positive, negative, and neutral views of the UAE’s grand strategic vision, particularly in the Horn of Africa, which should also be considered by Russian experts before deciding whether to move ahead with this or not. Should they end up doing so, then it might be a game-changing development since the impact of a prospective Russian-Emirati Strategic Partnership in the Horn of Africa region could improve the viability of both players’ comprehensive engagement there.
From Mutual To Multilateral Benefits
For example, they’re each formidable military players in their own right, whether with respect to their conventional or unconventional (i.e. “mercenary”) forces, and each could entrench themselves in different economic niches in select countries like Ethiopia or their subregions such as Somaliland and South Yemen. Russia and the UAE also have different networks of partnerships across the world and particularly in Africa, so coming closer together could end up being multilaterally beneficial as well provided that they coordinate their respective visions. Nevertheless, closer Russian-Emirati ties might upset Turkey, which is expanding its influence in the Horn of Africa (specifically Somalia) and the rest of Africa more broadly, but should be manageable.
What’s basically needed is a breakthrough for accelerating and expanding Russia’s outreaches in the Horn of Africa region. Bilateral efforts with certain countries like Sudan and Ethiopia have failed to reap thus far apart from a possible naval base deal in Port Sudan, hence the proposal for considering a strategic partnership with the UAE, one that would imply closer engagement with the Emirates’ partners in Somaliland and South Yemen. Russia needs to objectively assess its capabilities and realize that closer ties with the Horn of Africa require regional modifications to the strategy that it’s presently employing in other parts of the continent. Moscow might not be able to do much on its own, but together with Abu Dhabi, they might make a major impact.
The high hopes that many had for a radical improvement of the situation in the Horn of Africa just a few short years ago have been shattered by a combination of internal and international conflicts centered on Ethiopia, but it might be premature to predict that the region won’t ever recover since Prime Minister Abiy could drastically turn everything around once more should he have the political will to do so.
What Went Wrong?
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ascent to power in Africa’s second most populous country a few years back inspired high hopes for a radical improvement of the situation in the Horn of Africa. His rhetoric was regarded as an almost revolutionary departure from his predecessors’ and he quickly set out to patch up his country’s years-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea, for which he later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This makes it all the more surprising to many observers that the region is once again beset by a slew of internal and international conflicts centered on his country, making them wonder whether something had went wrong or if they hadn’t properly assessed the situation to begin with. The answer to this question is complex, but the present analysis will attempt to address it in a relatively simple way for the sake of everyone’s understanding.
To bring unaware readers up to speed, they’re encouraged to read the author’s prior works on this topic:
The rest of the analysis will reference and build upon the insight above.
Ethiopia’s Glasnost & Perestroika Experiment
The problems that have popped up in recent years weren’t exactly unexpected. For instance, Ethiopia’s federal system was always considered to be imperfect though nevertheless manageable under its prior leaders after the end of the civil war. Some internal borders didn’t match up with the ethnic demographics on the ground, thereby planting the seeds for future conflict but delaying their growth until a time that the central government became comparatively weaker than it used to be. That moment arrived with Abiy after he preached his political gospel of changing the state of political affairs in his country, particularly by loosening the reins of power that the ruling coalition held over practically all matters. This combination of Ethiopian-style glasnost and perestroika was well-intended but risked spiraling out of control exactly as its Soviet forerunner did.
Trouble With The TPLF
Instead of sitting back and letting centrifugal forces tear his cosmopolitan nation apart as he feared would inevitably happen, Abiy reacted by reversing his liberal vision and reviving some of the centralization tendencies of his predecessors. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), formerly the most powerful member of the ruling coalition, broke with Abiy and threatened an insurgency in their eponymous region that was powerfully crushed by the central government over the past half-year to much international criticism. The ongoing conflict continues to rage at a lower intensity than before and has caused much concern among observers about its humanitarian consequences which currently remain unclear due to a lack of access by independent observers.
The alternative to war was always to continue with the track that he’d previously set with his rhetoric of loosening the reins up to the point of redefining the nature of Ethiopia’s federal system, but Abiy believed that this might “Balkanize” his country, hence why he reacted the way that he did. There’s no turning back the clock and doing things differently so that decision will go down in history as a pivotal moment for better or for worse. Critics claim that he returned Ethiopia to its dictatorial ways while supporters praise him for decisively safeguarding national unity and therefore setting an example to the other separatist groups that are active all across the country. In any case, considering the fact that the conflict remains unresolved and continues to reverberate throughout society, it can be said that the short-term consequences were destabilizing.
Eritrea’s Speculative Influence Over Ethiopia
It’s important to point out that neighboring Eritrea with whom Ethiopia had only recently entered into a rapid rapprochement dispatched troops to the rebellious Tigray region where they reportedly remain despite having promised to officially withdraw. This development internationalized Ethiopia’s internal conflict and therefore raised the stakes of its outcome. It also fueled speculation that long-ruling President Afwerki is secretly puling Abiy’s strings and might have even succeeded in imposing his desired vision upon the region as expressed by Al Jazeera contributor Goitom Gebreluel in his op-ed about “The Tripartite Alliance Destabilizing The Horn Of Africa”. The expert drew attention to other destabilizing trends such as the de facto changes to some of Ethiopia’s internal borders following the Amhara Region’s military occupation of parts of Tigray.
Geopolitical Competition Between China & The GCC
Gebreluel is also against what he described as the widespread disregard for international humanitarian law and the sharp decline in multilateral diplomacy. These are pertinent points and his concerns should be taken seriously. Missing from his detailed analysis, however, is reference to how the Horn of Africa has recently become an object of competition between rising powers. Chinese investments are now challenged by those from the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia and especially the UAE. Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions risk being dealt a massive blow by the latest round of multi-sided destabilization in the region, which can create strategic opportunities for the GCC. It also deserves mention that the US is no longer exerting is post-Old Cold War leadership over the region. It’s unclear what the impact of this is though since it hasn’t been studied much.
The GERD Dispute
The heated dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) continues to afflict the region and provoke fears of a conventional military clash between Ethiopia on one side and GCC-backed Egypt and Sudan on the other. Observers should also remember that Ethiopia and Sudan have recently revived their old territorial dispute, potentially creating the pretext for another conflict that could actually serve as a smokescreen for either of them going to war over the GERD. As for Somalia, which is also mentioned in Gebreluel’s piece, its leader finally relented on his prior attempt to postpone elections that was responsible for provoking a brief round of bloodshed. He also repaired his country’s relations with Kenya too. Ironically, while Somalia is regarded as the least stable of the region’s countries, its recent actions were actually stabilizing.
The Role Of Leadership Over Regional Events
What can be learned from the Somali case is that a lot depends on the political decisions made by the region’s leaders. This is evidenced by everything going on in Ethiopia related to its internal and international conflicts. Abiy made the fateful decision to militarily intervene in Tigray, which created a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day even if national unity was preserved, albeit in a more centralized fashion than the decentralized one that his supporters had earlier expected. The GERD dispute is also largely due to the relevant leaders being unable to reach a pragmatic compromise. To be fair, there are serious ecological, economic, geopolitical, and strategic issues at play which take precedence over the personal opinions of any given leader, but these heads of state are ultimately responsible for it remaining unresolved.
Ethiopia’s Strategic Centrality
Ethiopia’s regional centrality leads one to conclude that “as Ethiopia goes, so goes the region”, which is proven by empirical evidence. The country’s recent round of multi-sided destabilization (regardless of whomever or whatever one attributes this to) has powerfully reverberated all throughout the Horn of Africa. The centralization trend that Abiy nowadays obviously supports sends the signal that decentralization trends, especially those advanced through the use of arms like Tigray’s was, will be militantly opposed by the region’s other leaders. At the same time, however, there’s no denying that decentralization is an objectively observable global trend and one that does indeed have some merits in the Horn of Africa. Alas, it won’t see any success in the immediate future considering the fear that Abiy has of it inadvertently provoking “Balkanization”.
Redrawing Internal Administrative Borders
Going forward, however, responsibly managed decentralization should be seriously considered by him and others as a compromise solution for resolving myriad internal issues, especially those of an ethnic nature. Ethiopia’s internal borders remain imperfect, but they shouldn’t be de facto redrawn through one region’s partial military occupation of another like the Amhara Region is presently doing to Tigray. This leads to the large-scale exodus of local people which can arguably be described as ethnic cleansing even if that wasn’t the intent. Replicating this model deeper in the Ethiopian heartland around the Oromo periphery for example could be disastrous for the country and potentially spell its doom in the worst-case scenario. From the opposite view, however, the peaceful resolution of such heated disputes could set an excellent example for the region.
The Most Powerful Man In Africa
What everything ultimately comes down to is the influence of leadership, especially in the Horn of Africa. For better or for worse depending on one’s perspective, Abiy is the most powerful man in the region, which thus makes him among Africa’s most powerful leaders today. His decisions set the trend that all neighboring countries follow. With this in mind, there’s still hope for the Horn of Africa, but it all depends on what Abiy decides to do. As seen from the example set by the neighboring Somali leader, backtracking on a controversial decision might improve the situation in one’s country, but Somalia is of course very different than Ethiopia so the comparison is admittedly imperfect. Nevertheless, this still shows that the region’s leaders exert powerful influence over national affairs, once again for better or for worse. Abiy could for example eventually take steps to restore the de facto collective leadership model that he inherited from the TPLF, though only if he cares to.
From A Party To A Person Being “The First Among Equals”
To explain, the post-civil war ruling coalition was largely modeled off of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Despite its faults, it succeeded in retaining stability in this very diverse country and controlling its centrifugal tendencies, albeit through heavy handed measures. Abiy retained that strict style of leadership but attempted to reform the dynamics of the ruling coalition, which in turn inadvertently destabilized the country since it was so unprecedented in the post-civil war period. Instead of the TPLF being “the first among equals”, it became him personally who fulfilled that role. His outsized influence over all matter of governing affairs has been felt by everyone, again for better or for worse. In a sense, it’s a return to history, but his evolving leadership model must continue adjusting to contemporary realities, especially the dynamics that he’s responsible for unleashing.
Ethiopia’s Most Immediate Priorities
Preserving superficial decentralization while in practice increasing centralization trends risks worsening domestic dissent, especially among the majority-minority Oromo and smaller groups around the country’s periphery. Abiy is unlikely to ever follow the Somali model of much broader decentralization for each region but some substantive movement in that direction with time might help placate some of those who’ve been provoked by his leadership style. The most immediate priority though is stopping the growing inter-ethnic violence of the past year which is driven to a large extent by various groups trying to redraw internal borders to more closely align with demographic realities on the ground. Only once this is brought under control can the state seriously start discussing the adjustment of those contentious frontiers.
The Tigrayan Tinderbox Risks Spreading Throughout Ethiopia
It mustn’t be driven by inertia into letting events unfold “naturally” and creating fait accomplis lest the resultant violence worsen the country’s already tragic humanitarian situation. Although Abiy is trying to regain control of these centrifugal dynamics, critics allege that he might secretly be turning a blind eye to some of the violence out of speculative favoritism for one or another group. This risks deepening the country’s ethnic divisions as well as the growing gap between the central government and some of the governed. What’s happening right now in Tigray might therefore spread throughout the rest of the country as Ethiopia flirts with its own so-called “Great Reset”, albeit related to redrawing internal borders and continuing Abiy’s centralization trends instead of the socio-economic outcomes generally associated with that concept (i.e. “Fourth Industrial Revolution”).
An Outsider’s Proposed Solutions
From an outsider’s perspective, Ethiopia must immediately regain control over the security situation in all parts of the country without exception, though being careful not to overreact to certain conflicts. Then Abiy must compellingly articulate his envisioned governance model to the masses. Ideally, credible representatives from each region will either support him or offer constructive critiques to whatever he proposes with an aim to improve perceived shortcomings. Only after that happens can the country then consider redrawing some of its internal borders, though that process will of course be controversial and not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. Amid all of this, Abiy must balance between the competing external forces shaping his decision making, particularly Eritrea and the GCC, while retaining Ethiopia’s traditionally excellent relations with China.
For as dramatic of a comparison as it may be, Abiy’s Ethiopia has many parallels with Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. Both visionary leaders sought to revolutionize their systems of governance but inadvertently opened up a Pandora’s Box of domestic crises. Unlike the USSR, however, Ethiopia still has a chance of surviving as a unified state, though it must eventually make meaningful reforms in the direction of substantive decentralization after stabilizing the security situation throughout the country. Abiy might also do well to consider returning to more of a collective leadership model than the one that he presently rules over where he personally wields the most power as the so-called ‘first among equals”. In any case, it all comes down to leadership, and everyone’s hopes are resting on his shoulders to see what he’ll do next.
The Geopolitical Impact Of The ‘Israeli’-Emirati Alliance Will Be Felt In Africa
17 SEPTEMBER 2020
The misleadingly described “peace” deal between “Israel” and the UAE will enable the self-professed “Jewish State” to use the latter’s military and civilian port infrastructure in the Gulf of Aden, thus challenging recent Turkish inroads in this part of the world and allowing Tel Aviv to project itself as a trans-regional power of significance, especially in East Africa and eventually everywhere else on the continent too.
From Diplomatic “Peace” To Military Partnership
“Israel” and the UAE finally formalized their hitherto not-so-secret ties earlier this week after agreeing to a misleadingly described “peace” deal brokered by the US. The author recently explained the regional strategic and soft power dividends that the self-professed “Jewish State” hopes to achieve through this development in his piece about how “The US-Brokered Mideast ‘Peace’ Deals Aren’t What They Seem”, so this present piece will therefore discuss its most likely trans-regional geopolitical dividends. The UAE commands a vast empire of military and civilian ports across the world, but the most important jewels in its crown are found in the Gulf of Aden region, specifically in Eritrea, South Yemen(including the strategic Socotra Islands), and the internationally unrecognized Somali breakaway region of Somaliland. It’s therefore predicted that “Israel” will soon have access to these facilities for the purpose of projecting itself as a trans-regional power of significance.
Although Turkey hasn’t withdrawn its decades-long recognition of “Israel”, President Erdogan has recently presented himself as the most high-profile supporter of the Palestinians. He’s also at odds with the UAE since the Gulf State fears his ideological alliance with its Muslim Brotherhood foes, especially those based in nearby Qatar. For this reason, both “Israel” and the UAE have vested interests in “containing” the spread of Turkish influence, which they can attempt to do in East Africa by combining their military and other potential in and around the Bab el Mandeb chokepoint following their mutual recognition of each other. It’s unclear how this would play out in practice, but there’s no denying the impact that a more visible “Israeli” military presence in the UAE’s relevant ports would have on changing the regional narrative in all respects. If anything, it would at the very least boost “Israeli” prestige, both at home and in the targeted region, especially the African hinterland where the self-professed “Jewish State” has been silently expanding its influence over the past decade.
The African Angle
To explain, “Israel” already has considerable influence in East Africa, especially in Ethiopia, South Sudan,Kenya,Uganda, andRwanda. It naturally follows that it would like to expand its reach to the littoral region along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in order to entrench its influence in this larger space, hence the need for more closely cooperating with the UAE to that end. “Israel” and Eritrea already have relations with one another, but the UAE is the latter’s dominant partner since it uses its territory for waging the War on Yemen. The self-professed “Jewish State” can now “piggyback” on the its official ally’s military gains there to do the same, just like in South Yemen and Somaliland. Taken together, the military dimensions of the “Israeli”-Emirati alliance perfectly complement the diplomatic and economic (agricultural,electrical hydrological, telecommunication)influence that it’s already established to solidify its sway. The only “holdouts” are Sudan, which is already under the UAE’s influence after its military coup, tiny Djibouti, and Somalia, the last of which hosts a Turkish base.
Cultivating UN Support On The Continent
“Israel’s” trans-regional strategy with the UAE, using the Gulf of Aden as its springboard for expanding influence into Africa, is therefore twofold. Firstly, it hopes to “contain” Turkish influence in this part of the world, and secondly, it wants to leverage its predicted gains to recruit more diplomatic allies in the UN. That global body’s resolutions are superficial since they lack any enforcement mechanism, but they’re still an impressive soft power tool for shaping perceptions. Since the UAE is becoming more active in the African hinterland, both on its own independent initiative and to counter Turkish influence there, “Israel” hopes to combine their efforts to turn targeted states away from the Turks and towards the “Israeli”-Emirati alliance instead. Incentives such as loans and investments (in the earlier described spheres) could basically buy off corrupt governments there who have little to lose by siding with those two since it’s extremely unlikely that voting in support of “Israel” at the UN will set off a pro-PalestinianColor Revolutionanywhere on the continent.
Many commentators have already extensively discussed the implications of “Israel” and the UAE’s mutual recognition on Mideast geopolitics,but fewother than the author have asked what the future holds for Africa in this respect. The UAE is already thepredominant powerin the interconnected Horn of Africa-Gulf of Aden region, so it naturally follows that its “Israeli” ally will “piggyback” off of gains there to combine them with its existing accomplishments in the East African hinterland. Together, “Israel” and the UAE might pool their efforts in order to seriously challenge Turkish influence on the continent, which has been spreading over the past decade despite most foreign observers being unaware of this fact except when it comes to North Africa. The overarching trend is that foreign powers — which include “Israel”, the UAE, and Turkey, but also the US, France,India,Russia, andChina— are increasingly “scrambling” for Africa in order to improve their grand strategic prospects in theemerging Multipolar World Order, and it’s only a matter of time before they clash.
Russia is planning to step up its military cooperation with African countries as part of its new Africa strategy, including building bases in six countries, namely the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. Moreover, Russia’s army is partially secretly and partially officially training soldiers from those countries.