Ethiopia’s Strategic Dilemma in the Horn of Africa
Published on: Feb 20, 2007
In historical and modern times, Ethiopia has never had political problems with the fact that several of its neighbors are principally Islamic. It does not have a problem with the fact that the Sudanese government has implemented Islamic law, only with the aggressive and destabilizing aspects to that Islamist agenda. The EPRDF has been resolutely secular and during its armed struggle it enjoyed support from both Sudan and Somalia. In fact, the EPRDF leadership has often expressed its admiration for Somalis, and its dismay with the collapse of the Somali state. During the 1970’s and 80’s, EPRDF leaders traveled on Somali passports and received much appreciated assistance from Somalia.

The strength of militant Islam has been as an oppositional ideology that can rally disaffected young people and latch onto local discontent. One danger today is that the conflict will generate its own jihadi logic, attracting Somali and foreign militants to a struggle that is easily portrayed as one front in a global insurgency against a U.S. agenda of dominating the Muslim world. If the Ethiopian army stays in Somalia, it will most likely be seen as an occupying force and will become a target. If the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia is seen as being installed by foreign troops, its legitimacy will be fatally compromised.

A related danger is that Ethiopia’s tradition of religious tolerance will begin to be compromised. Ethiopia has a larger Muslim population than any other country in the region save Egypt (there are more Muslims in Ethiopia than in Sudan). The question of Islam as a political force in Ethiopia has never arisen, beyond attempts to adopt Islamic law as the legal code in Muslim family and communal affairs. This has meant that the Ethiopian government has never had to seriously consider how to handle political Islam as a domestic issue. It can continue to ignore this issue, emphasizing the legal equality of all faiths in Ethiopia under its secular constitution. However, as the geographical and political center of gravity of the Horn, it is important that Ethiopia is able to articulate an agenda for governance that takes account of the emergent common sentiments among the region’s Muslims. One of the main challenges for Ethiopia’s foreign policy is presentation and public relations. Because the government makes few expansive statements of policy and intent, it leaves the field open for others to infer motives such as territorial aggrandizement and Christian chauvinism. Clearer statements of Ethiopian aims, especially with relation to Islam and the integrity of the Somali state, would do much to dispel fears.


The Horn of Africa is a rough neighborhood. It is one of the most complex and conflicted regions of the world. The current crisis has many facets, including the collapse of state authority in Somalia, the unresolved conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and a partially-developed agenda of political Islam in the region.

The current crisis has underscored that Ethiopia must lie at the center of any stabilization of the Horn. Without a strong Ethiopia or a strong Addis Ababa-Asmara axis, the problems of building viable states in Somalia and Sudan cannot be tackled effectively. With Asmara stuck indefinitely in survival mode, the burden falls upon Addis Ababa.

However, the burden of regional stability is too heavy for one government to bear, especially in a region riven by so much distrust. Ethiopia cannot stabilize Somalia on its own, both because of its own limited capacity and because of the historical political baggage that it carries. Ethiopia can only pursue its multilateral strategy successfully within a multilateral framework, including the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union and the UN. (And, in the case of Somalia, the League of Arab States.) The first step is to communicate its political aims. The overall game plan should be to build a new peace and security architecture for the Horn. The time to start discussing this framework is now.

In its Constitutive Act, adopted in 2002, the African Union has enshrined two key principles. One is that the only legitimate mechanism for changing a regime is by democratic process. The second is that no state can erect a barrier to exclude the legitimate attentions of others to its own human rights and humanitarian issues. Based in Addis Ababa, the African Union has a close relationship with its Ethiopian hosts. The AU has both endorsed Ethiopia’s right to defend itself from a clearly-identified threat emerging from Somalia, and also called upon Ethiopia to withdraw its troops from the country. The AU itself must rise to the challenge of facilitating and assisting IGAD in designing and implementing a regional order for peace and security in the Horn that ensures the integrity of the democratic processes in each of its countries, while also ensuring that every country’s legitimate interests in its neighbors’ affairs are taken into account.

Sudan should be an equal priority with Somalia. The relationship between Addis Ababa and Khartoum (and also Juba) is what will make or break stability in the Horn. Historically, the Sudan government has never been able to achieve either domestic stability or become a focus for stabilizing the region. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and the SPLA, signed in 2005, is the potential framework for Sudan’s stabilization and transition to democracy. Ethiopia is publicly committed to a united and democratic Sudan, and its active role in supporting Sudan’s peace and shepherding its democratic transition is critically important.

Ethiopia needs regional stability for its own domestic reasons. Unless the Ethiopian state is secure from destabilization and the threat of violence, the project of democratizing Ethiopia—begun under this government—cannot progress. Only when there is a strong state that commands consensus and allegiance across all sectors of its population, and commands the respect of its neighbors, can there be a successful transition and a viable Regional Peace and Security order.


1 Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, “Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy,” Addis Ababa, Ministry of Information, November 2002.

2 See e.g. Mohammed Hassen, The Oromo of Ethiopia, A History, Cambridge 1990; Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa, The Invention of Ethiopia: The making of a dependent colonial state in northeast Africa, Red Sea Press, 1990.

3 See Alex de Waal (ed.) Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa, Indiana, 2004.