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.
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.
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.
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 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.