Ethiopia’s Strategic Dilemma in the Horn of Africa
Published on: Feb 20, 2007
The question of whether the Oromo struggle was internal or national was never fully resolved, either between the EPLF and EPRDF or among the cadres of the Oromo Liberation Front themselves. The federal constitution of Ethiopia, adopted in 1996, represents a unique and far-reaching attempt to solve this conundrum. It grants the Oromo nation, as well as others, the right to self-determination, but this right is subject to some rigorous democratic preconditions. Immediately, the federal constitution devolves substantive government power to the regional government, seeking to create a balance between regional and national identities. The implementation of this constitution has been Ethiopia’s main domestic political challenge over the last decade and will continue to be a major challenge for the coming years.

During the period of the EPLF’s armed struggle from its foundation in the early 1970s to its victory in 1991, the Eritrean leadership believed that Ethiopia was no more than an artificial construct of different nationalities cobbled together during the imperial scramble for Africa. The EPLF gave military assistance to many regionally-based Ethiopian insurgencies. Having gained their own independence, EPLF leaders predicted that Ethiopia would fall apart like Yugoslavia. On the eve of the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998, one infamously described the country as an “overdressed Zaire.” The rapidity of the collapse of Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime in 1997 perhaps encouraged Eritrea to believe that their neighbor would simply collapse in the same way if given a sharp, well-directed military shock.

Asmara had precisely the same policy towards Sudan. In January 1994, President Isseyas declared that President Bashir would be overthrown within the year, and began hosting and sponsoring the Sudanese opposition. The rationale for this was that Eritrea was the priority target for Islamist extremists in the Horn: they saw the state as small, weak and naturally within the ambit of the Arab and Muslim world.

The predictions have not been borne out. However, the Eritrean leadership has not changed its policy, only intensified it. Asmara plays host to a number of Ethiopian opposition groups. President Isseyas sees Ethiopia’s weakest point as its south-east, where he believes the government has failed to establish a secure and working government in Region Five, inhabited by Ethiopians of Somali origin. Therefore, Eritrea has been active in sponsoring Somali militants in the hope of destabilizing Ethiopia. This has led to the curious situation in which Eritrea, while proclaiming to the U.S. that it is an ally in the “war on terror” (and has indeed begged the Pentagon to establish military bases in Eritrea), has been supporting militant jihadists in Somalia. In turn, this has meant that the Sudan government, which has an understanding with Ethiopia to contain Eritrea, has elements with ideological sympathies for the Somali Islamists, but is politically opposed to them.

After Eritrea’s defeat in 2000, it seemed as though Isseyas’s days were numbered and it was only a matter of time before his regime imploded. He has survived the immediate threats and has watched while Ethiopia has become apparently preoccupied and embroiled in the challenges of a democratic transition. The bitterly contested election of 2005 and its aftermath appeared to him to vindicate his expectation that the moment of Ethiopia’s disintegration was fast approaching. Well-publicized defections from the Ethiopian army advertised the point. Even Djibouti, a tiny country largely dependent on Ethiopia for its economic survival, was becoming less cooperative towards Addis Ababa. Eritrea was emboldened both in its policy of backing the elements of Ethiopian Opposition, the militarily-aggressive Sudanese Redemption Opposition and the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia. The myth of the invincibility of the Eritrean army having been shattered in 2000, Asmara was now banking on the even greater vulnerability of the neighboring states to destabilization through insurgency.

The military defeat of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia is a setback to the Eritrean expectation that Ethiopia is weak and its government at the point of collapse. It is also an indication that the Eritrean strategy of projecting influence through non-state proxies has over-reached. But the Eritreans will see their reversal in Mogadishu as only a tactical setback. It is most unlikely that their strategy will change. The region and the international community must develop a mechanism for, at minimum, containing Eritrea and its sponsorship of destabilizing non-state actors.

While Ethiopia’s goal of a stable status quo is tangible and realistic, what is Eritrea’s objective? Isseyas evidently intends to hang on to power for as long as humanly possible, identifying his own political survival with that of the State of Eritrea. He plays upon Eritreans’ fears that Ethiopia wants to swallow up Eritrea once again, and by keeping his country fully-mobilized for war, and keeping the region in a state of instability, he succeeds in maintaining a permanent state of emergency. The political problems of the Horn would be difficult enough to solve without Isseyas’s persistent interference, but with that interference, they are insoluble. Ten or fifteen years ago, one might have speculated that the Eritrean leadership saw a regionwide political crisis as the midwife of a new regional order based on a series of new states (such as an independent Oromia and perhaps an independent South Sudan). Today, although the vestiges of that analysis remain, along with the political links that facilitate Asmara’s destabilization strategy, the goal for Isseyas is simply survival. With his options so limited, survival is itself a strategic goal. And in that respect, he is succeeding.

The Muslim Factor

Political Islam has been a factor in the Horn of Africa since the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam has provided a ready-made framework for law, public administration and military organization for peoples without established state structures. There have been jihads in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia against indigenous states and against imperial occupation. But the most striking feature of Islam in northeast Africa has been its pacific nature and, closely linked, the tolerance between Christianity and Islam.

In recent decades, attempts by radical Islamists to forge a transformative political Islam have briefly succeeded in marshalling the energies of some young Muslims, but have failed to gain the adherence of the majority.3 The main reasons for this failure include the strong hold that is exercised by more traditional and tolerant forms of Islam, notably the Sufi orders that still have the allegiance of most Muslims, the strength of social ties that cross religious boundaries (especially the case in Ethiopia), and the fact that radical Muslims have failed to offer solutions to the real problems that people face in their everyday lives. The most surprising fact about the Union of Islamic Courts in Mogadishu is not that it was set up, but that it took as long as fifteen years from the collapse of the Siad Barre government for the Islamists to organize anything that resembled an administration.

There is, however, no reason to be complacent. Modern Ethiopia has been remarkably resistant to political Islam. However, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were ominous signs of militant Islamic consciousness among Muslim youth in the Horn. The way in which the U.S. “war on terror” is portrayed in the media, and the way in which the Ethiopian government is seen in some circles as a pawn of the U.S. in pursuing that agenda (despite the fact that Ethiopia waged its own, rather more successful, war against al Qaida and its affiliates in the 1990’s without needing U.S. support), runs the danger of creating Muslim-Christian tensions where none exist, and exacerbating these divisions where they do. It is now conceivable, however remotely, that young Muslims will gravitate towards political Islam, and that Oromo Muslims may flirt with an Islamic agenda. The potential for such divisive religious mobilization in the Horn should not be underestimated.

War is always the occasion for an upsurge in primitive nationalistic and religious chauvinism. The 1998 war with Eritrea saw many Ethiopians adopting extreme anti-Eritrean positions and declaring that the war would be won only when Eritrea was reconquered. This was never the position of the Ethiopian government, but such attitudes deepened the distrust between the two populations. Similarly, the current conflict between the Somali Islamists’ and the Ethiopians’ map contributed to anti-Muslim sentiments in some circles. Although there are Muslims in senior positions in the Ethiopian government—the chief of staff of the army is one—it is easy for the Ethiopian government to be depicted as “Christian” fighting a “Muslim” enemy.