Ethiopia’s Strategic Dilemma in the Horn of Africa
Published on: Feb 20, 2007


The current crisis in the Horn of Africa, including the Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia in pursuit of what Ethiopia perceives as its legitimate national security interest—namely to ensure that the Transitional Federal Government defeats its adversary, the Union of Islamic Courts—has led in some circles to much polarized and simplistic thinking and analysis on the region. Some analysts portray the war in Somalia as the latest in a long round of national and religious wars between highland Christian Abyssinians and lowland Somali Muslims. Others portray this as Ethiopian aggression in pursuit of territorial aggrandizement and its centuries-old search for secure access to the sea. Others portray the conflict as a pre-emptive invasion to prevent the establishment of a Taleban-style state in Somalia that would provide a home base to al Qaida. Some insist that it is a proxy war between Ethiopia and its arch enemy Eritrea.

The reality is more complicated and lies in the peace and security dilemmas of the Horn. This essay explores three elements that lie behind the current crisis. One is the role of Ethiopia, and specifically its national security strategy. The current military incursion into Somalia is only one instance of Ethiopia’s strategy for dealing with immediate threats to its national security and regional stability, which uses a combination of diplomacy and force in pursuit of consistent goals. In the 1990’s, Ethiopia successfully neutralized serious security threats arising from radical Islamism and it is currently doing the same again. It would be lazy thinking and condescending to see Ethiopia as a pawn of U.S. policy, following a strategy dictated from elsewhere.

A second element is the Eritrean strategy, notably its continuing conflict with Ethiopia. Eritrea has also been extremely consistent in its analysis and action, seeing its national interest as best served by a weak, unstable or dismembered Ethiopia. A third theme is the role of Islam in the region, with a focus on the danger of allowing local conflicts to become submerged within a wider confrontation between the U.S. and global Islamic militants.

A fundamental point that recurs is one of political and ideological consistency. The Ethiopian government has acted consistently in pursuit of what it identifies as its national interest and in accordance with its political analyses of the region. Political Islam has sometimes been a rogue element but has more often been ready to accommodate the structures of state and civic power, peacefully pursuing modest goals within those frameworks. The great danger that faces the Horn today is that problems, which are essentially local and manageable, are allowed to spiral out of control, leading to an escalation in violence, confrontation and polarization. It is our collective responsibility to prevent this from happening, and the first step is a sober and rigorous analysis of the current situation.

Ethiopia and its National Security Dilemmas

Historically, Ethiopia has been the hub of either stability or instability in north-east Africa. Although poor, Ethiopia has a long history of statecraft and a sense of national identity and a military tradition, which together mean that it is capable of acting in pursuit of a clearly-conceived national interest. Ethiopia can project force beyond its own borders, and also act with sufficient restraint to prevent its use of military power from turning into a destabilizing adventurism. During the periods in which Ethiopia has been strong and respected (the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, approximately 1960-68, and the period after the fall of the Derg 1991-97), the country has been able to contain the forces of instability in the region. When Ethiopia has itself been conflicted, or has been seen as weak, political problems in the Horn have remained unmanaged, and have often run out of control.

Since the Second World War, Ethiopian foreign policy has been primarily focused on maintaining the nation’s independence and territorial integrity. Throughout abrupt changes of regime and the reversals of political ideology, successive governments have pursued foreign policies of remarkable consistency. Ethiopian governments have often supported rebel groups fighting against governments in Somalia and Sudan, but in all cases this has occurred in response to similar actions by that neighbor against Ethiopia, and in all instances the Ethiopian government has been keen to ensure that the insurgent group concerned is unified and disciplined, with a clear political agenda. The single major change has been the recognition of Eritrea as an independent state. But the readiness to fight a costly war over the disputed boundary with Eritrea in 1998-2000 indicates that the new northern border of Ethiopia is regarded with just as much seriousness as previous borders.

Many of the key questions concerning Ethiopia’s national security interest were raised in an Ethiopian government White Paper in 2002.1 Building on this official analysis, we can identify three concentric rings of Ethiopian national security concern. The outermost ring is the strategic challenge, posed by Egypt and a possible future militant Islamist state in the Arabian peninsular. In the middle ring are the neighboring countries that can pose an immediate security threat through invasion or destabilization, the latter through sponsoring rural guerrillas or urban terrorists. In the innermost ring are those local issues in sensitive border areas that can provide a spark for conflict, which may then escalate out of control. One may agree or disagree with the analysis and the conclusions of this White Paper. But it is notable that the Ethiopian state is capable of articulating and pursuing a coherent security strategy and foreign policy.

Historically, Ethiopia’s principal rival for control over the Horn has been Egypt. For Egypt, the Nile is a matter of life and death, and Egyptians have been fearful that those who control the Nile headwaters can hold the country ransom. Egypt’s concern over the Nile has increased in recent years, because the country has been taking more water than it is allocated according to the 1955 Nile Waters Agreement—an agreement that was based on estimates of river flow from an era of high rainfall, which may now be coming to an end on account of climate change—and because peace in Sudan and the prospects of economic development in Ethiopia imply that upstream states will be utilizing more water from the river. The Nile Waters Agreement was signed by most of the countries of the Nile Basin, but not by Ethiopia. About 80% of the flow of the Nile originates from the Blue Nile, which has its source in Ethiopia, and other tributaries in the Ethiopian highlands. Currently, Ethiopia utilizes only a fraction of its potential for irrigation and hydroelectric power. If Ethiopia were to exploit this resource—which may soon become an issue of national survival in Ethiopia, given its chronic vulnerability to drought and famine—Egypt will become gravely concerned. In its quest for a secure flow of water, Egypt has historically sought to dominate Sudan and encircle Ethiopia.

Under the auspices of the World Bank, the Nile Basin Initiative has taken important steps towards harmonizing the interests of all the riparian states in a common water use strategy. This is an important step forward that begins to move Egypt from seeing the Nile Waters as a zero-sum game. The two countries, both status quo powers, have many common interests that could best be served by partnership.

Ethiopia also harbors a strategic concern over radical Islamism in Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. Ethiopia’s population is equally divided between Christians and Muslims and the country contains the city of Harer, which is one of Islam’s holiest sites. For the last four hundred years, with only brief interludes, Ethiopia’s history has been marked by mutual respect and tolerance among faiths. The attitude of successive governments has been to nurture this accommodation and resist the politicization of religion. However, Ethiopia has needed to keep a watchful eye on the activity of foreign militants in the Horn, who regularly introduce destabilizing agendas. An attempt by radical Islamists to create Islamic states in north-east Africa, fully backed by the power and wealth of the Gulf states, would be a profound threat to Ethiopia. However, the activities of those militants actually present in the Horn—located in Sudan in the 1990's and in Somalia recently—remain a smaller-scale threat. This set of issues will be explored more in the third section of this essay.