Ethiopia’s Strategic Dilemma in the Horn of Africa
Published on: Feb 20, 2007
Within this regional strategic context, the most immediate threats to Ethiopia’s security arise from its neighbors. During the mid-1990’s, the most significant threat came from militant Islamic groups based in Sudan and Somalia. These threats culminated in the assassination attempts against Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995 and the late minister for transport and communications, Abdel Majid Hussein, in 1996. The Ethiopian government strategy to deal with this threat was a mixture of diplomacy and force. In the case of Sudan this included direct military pressure, and support for the Sudanese opposition, while also recognizing that a stable, united Sudan served the best national interest of Ethiopia. The military pressure included sending Ethiopian troops across the border into Sudan to conduct joint operations with the SPLA. This approach worked: due principally to Ethiopian pressure, Sudan expelled most militant groups and adopted a strategy of seeking peace in Southern Sudan. Once the Sudan government had abandoned its policy of fostering al Qaida affiliates, Addis Ababa could resume normal relations with its largest neighbor. A country that had posed a major threat to regional stability in the early 1990’s had become manageable and contained, although still prone to internal crisis and instability.

In the case of Somalia, Ethiopia took direct military action against extremist groups on Somali soil. Military attacks on the bases of the al Ittihad al Islaami group in 1996 and 1997 effectively eliminated  the threat posed by al Qaida affiliates for at least some years. During the Ethio-Eritrean war, the presence of Eritrean-backed militia in Somalia also led to Ethiopian military incursions into the country to deal with those threats. Ethiopia also supported efforts to rebuild a central government for the country, consistently extending assistance to any groups ready to work for stability. This illustrates again that, although the EPRDF government took power in 1991 with a transformative political agenda, it rapidly emerged as a status quo power in regional politics. To that end, it has consistently tried to shore up legitimate authorities in neighboring states, believing that this will serve Ethiopia’s best interests.

For the last decade, the main threat to Ethiopia has come from Eritrea. The details of Eritrea’s challenge to stability in the Horn will be discussed in the next section. The threat of the Eritrean military, never demobilized since liberation in 1991, has required Ethiopia to maintain a large standing army with the capacity to project force across its national borders. While the threat of a frontal attack by Eritrea cannot be discounted, the possibility of Eritrean-sponsored insurgencies in the south-east and south-west is an ongoing problem.

Despite the continuing problems caused by Eritrea, the Ethiopian strategy is not to re-conquer and re-absorb Eritrea. During the thirty years’ war of Eritrean liberation, Ethiopia was drained by the effort of trying to subdue a territory and its people. Even though Eritrea’s historical claims to statehood are based only on relatively recent colonial history (dating back to the Italian occupation that began in the 1880’s), the experience of fighting a long, bloody and ultimately successful war forged a spirit of nationhood among Eritreans, which is a basic reality that no amount of historical analysis can deny. While Eritrea is an immediate sore, its existence is not a strategic threat to Ethiopia. When the current regime in Asmara radically changes or is removed, Ethiopia anticipates being able to restore neighborly relations with a functioning and hopefully democratic state. Economic cooperation between the two countries would be a major benefit especially to Eritrea.

There is a host of local issues along Ethiopia’s borders which, if mishandled, could become the spark for conflict. An example of such a spark is the minor border dispute at Badme on the Eritrean border, which in April 1998 escalated from a local skirmish into a major international war that cost tens of thousands of lives. Ethiopia has many other such undemarcated borders, including very significant disputed areas on the common frontier with Sudan. Shortly after the resolution of the Eritrean war, the Ethiopian foreign ministry began a concerted attempt to ensure that all its border issues were resolved amicably with its neighbors. With no functioning government in Somalia, this has not been possible on the eastern border. Other potential flashpoints include pastoral tribes that move from one side of the border to the other, shared water and grazing rights along borders, smuggling and other illegal activities. In partnership with IGAD, the Ethiopian government has been studying these problems in order to minimize the risks they may pose.

Given the depth of historic strategic rivalry with Egypt, and potentially with a militant state in the Gulf, the range of immediate threats from neighbors, and the number of potential flashpoints, it is necessary for Ethiopia to design a security policy and defense posture that includes a capable, credible and powerful army. The usefulness of that army in turn depends upon the political analysis that determines when and how it is to be used, and the political strategy that accompanies its use.

From the above, it is evident that Ethiopia has regularly used military force in order to remove threats, to back up its political efforts and to demonstrate its power and resolve. The current EPRDF government is no exception to the pattern established by its Imperial and Communist predecessors. Somalis should be reassured that Ethiopia does not possess territorial ambitions on Somalia, and that its strategy is based upon establishing stability. Whether or not this goal can be achieved is another question, to which we must now turn.

Eritrea’s Challenge to the Region

The 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was a devastating setback to both countries. By June 2000, Ethiopia had decisively gained the military upper hand. But rather than pressing home its advantage on the battlefield, the Ethiopian government declared its war aims achieved, and settled for international arbitration on the contested border. At the time of this decision, it seemed unlikely that Eritrean President Isseyas Afeworki could survive politically given the defeat of the army that he had heralded as invincible and the opposition of most of his senior colleagues in government. However, not only has the Eritrean government survived, but it continues to do so amidst internal economic and political meltdown. Eritrea’s strategy has become one of sustaining its regional relevance by making trouble for Ethiopia and Sudan, apparently in the belief that either or both of these states will crumble and Eritrea will need to be taken into account in a new, redesigned political order for the Horn.

The official name of Eritrea is the “State of Eritrea.” There are few countries in the world that have felt the need to name their statehood in their titles: Israel, Palestine and Kuwait are the others. Each of these countries shares a common feature, namely that their independent statehood is recent and insecure. Eritreans often like to trace their statehood back to time immemorial, as though trying to compete with the Ethiopian tradition of historic statebuilding. More radical scholars have argued that both modern Ethiopia and Eritrea owe their identities to the period of the imperial carve-up of Africa in the late 19th century, during which time both nations were “invented.”2 This was the time in which the Italians carved out the territory of Eritrea from the northern periphery of Ethiopia, and in which the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II reconquered much of southern Ethiopia, absorbing millions of Oromos into the Empire. During the struggle against the military regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-91), the liberation fronts that ultimately came to power in Addis Ababa and Asmara spent much time and effort debating the nature of the identity of the countries, agreeing ultimately that the Eritrean struggle was for national self-determination, while the Tigrayan struggle was for internal self-determination for the Tigrayan nationality within the Ethiopian state.