AfricaDiplomacyEthiopiaGulf CrisisHorn of AfricaPM Abiy Ahmed

Commentary: Legitimacy at home is legitimacy abroad


Mukerrem Miftah (Dr.,), For Addis Standard 

Addis Abeba, July 03/2018 – For the first time in decades, the Horn of Africa is set to experiment with a relatively unchained hope for regional stability and integration. No doubt, the commencement of any hope, and conversely any fear, in the region has been contingent upon the conditions within which Ethiopia finds itself domestically and abroad. This has been the default normative framework within which analysts and social scientists engaged the Horn of Africa. Whether Ethiopia does well economically and politically has been taken as the default litmus test for the overall conditions of the Horn. There are many convincing and good reasons. In short, writings from Christopher Clapham, Haggai Erlich, Paul Henze, Kidane Mengisteab, Terje Ostebo, Tanja Muller to De Waal made the point crystal-clear: that Ethiopia is everything for the Horn.

Undoubtedly, there are new changes n this conflict-ridden, divided, and unstable region. Given what has been unfolding in the last three months in Ethiopia, the changes are apparently positive. For many of us, however, the questions are to what extent, under what circumstance, and at what cost are the resilience, and durability of this development. Nevertheless, as an initial trajectory with promising momentum, the change agenda (to a certain extent accompanied by practical moves) set in motion by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is sending a readily comforting shock wave equally felt by Ethiopians and others in the world, at least more so in the Horn of Africa. Among other things, the bold move to sharpen the political and public sphere in Ethiopia; reconciliation efforts directed at ensuring the integrity of Ethiopia as a state; reassuring the place of Ethiopian diplomacy in Africa in general and the Horn of Africa in particular; and others are worth mentioning.

In an effort to help scale up the public sphere, the newly elected prime minister, and his political vanguard, helped release high profile opposition political leaders and actors, journalists, activists, and religious leaders. This was also accompanied by the invitation of interest groups, political or not, in the remaking of the post Meles Zenawi (“and” Hailemariam Desalegn) Ethiopia. Apart from this, the prime minister has been working hard to maintain peaceful collective coexistence among the various ethnic and cultural groups of Ethiopia. His immediate-after-appointment visits to different parts of Ethiopia are good testimonies to that effect. So far, he has visited places in Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Somalia, Afar, and Southern regions of Ethiopia. These visits and other practical steps, along with his charming eloquence and charismatic character, earned him massive support in the country. This was demonstrated by massive pro-reform rallies in the streets of several cities and towns including the capital Addis Abeba and Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara regional state.

This promising development is not necessarily geographically confined to Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa as a region, like Ethiopia as a state, is also cherishing its slice of hope. Based on the aforementioned theory that Ethiopia’s conditions are very contagious in the Horn of Africa, the spillover effects of recent changes in Ethiopia are now being seen and felt in the region at large. After assuming power, one historical step taken, even against the reluctant and indecisive policy of the TPLF-led EPRDF, was to give full credence and effect to the Algiers Agreement signed on December 12, 2000, at Algiers, Algeria, between Eritrea and Ethiopia. This agreement was supposed to formally end the Ethio-Eritrean front line war fought from 1998 to 2000. In any case, unless it is for the above questions of concern, this proactive peace initiative will have important consequences. One is the reintegration of the societies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and this, in turn, will ultimately allow for mutually beneficial economic and political joint ventures.

The second is the possibility of achieving peaceful and conflict-free zone in the Horn of Africa. This may mean that none of them will be sponsoring activities that could cause any discomfort to any other. Or at least, this might be considered as one logical possibility that can accrue if what is happening now continue snowballing in the coming days, months, and years. Interestingly, following Prime Minister Abiy’s announcement of the modus vivendi, Eritrea’s reaction was positive. In fact, Eritrea’s  president Isaias Afwerki sent a delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and Presidential advisor Yemane Ghebreab to Ethiopia as a gesture for the realization of this historic initiative. Apart from its manifest of political and economic consequences, the modus vivendi with Eritrea will remain to be seen for its latent, anticipated or not, consequences and implications for the two countries and the Horn of Africa in general, in the long run.

Moreover, like the diminishing prospect for friction with the neighboring Eritrea, the Eritrea based opposition party, Patriotic Ginbot 7,  which took armed struggle in the post 2005 period, has recently announced that it was ceasing its armed struggle to support the reform efforts and shift to strategies of peaceful struggle. And the council of ministers in its regular weekly meeting on Saturday June 30 has sent a bill to parliament recommending the parliament to revoke terrorist designations from OLF, Patriotic Ginbot 7 and ONLF.

By now, it is at least safe to extrapolate that the changing political landscape in Ethiopia merits meeting the minimum bar limit for legitimacy at home. This, it is true, by no means represents standing ankle-deep in the ocean of legitimacy and support, but it is at least dipping a toe into it. Reformative, sometimes transformative not only on the level of interventions introduced but also the quality of response garnered so far (such as the case with Eritrea and Ginbot 7’s decision), efforts that have been started are producing fruits here and there. Yet, for Ethiopia to continue to have healthy and active stature in its political economy and sphere of influence, legitimacy at home is very important but only one factor. It also needs legitimacy from its region where it resides and from global actors in the world. In other words, for Ethiopia to come out, or sustain, its legitimate influence and remain as a powerful regional, if not global, actor, legitimacy must be garnered from Africa, especially the Horn of Africa, and the world.

The second important source of legitimacy that, in many cases builds on legitimacy at home, is the regional source of legitimacy. This is about whether neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa positively assess the existing conditions of Ethiopia, especially its domestic legitimacy, and whether the changing political dynamism does not at least harm their strategic and national interests. Prime Minister Abiy’s led reform efforts so far, at least manifestly, are sending positive signals. The African Union has recently welcomed and appreciated Ethiopia’s proactive move to peacefully settle the more than two decades long antagonistic and hatred-driven inter-state relation with Eritrea. As of late, the resumption of South Sudanese peace talks in Addis Abeba and the prime minister’s visits to different African countries, such as Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Uganda are also important in this regard. Simply put, rebooting Ethiopia’s status of being the custodian of IGAD and being among the few “influential” member states of the African Union, the future of garnering legitimacy in Africa may go well with lesser frictions on the way.

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The last but not the least important ingredient in Ethiopia’s recent march for legitimacy at home and abroad drives its existential energy from global actors. No doubt that Ethiopia has been, for quite some time, one of the few countries in Africa to closely work with today’s major global actors. Ethiopia, under the TPLF-dominated EPRDF, has been working with the United States on the issue of counter-terrorism (“international peacekeeping”,“combating radical Islamist extremism and other forms of terrorism”) in Africa, especially in the Horn of Africa. This has readily won the US’ support to the EPRDF’s government in many ways. However, this was challenged in the last three-to-five years when the legitimacy of EPRDF at home was in jeopardy. At some point, the US, along with a sustained pressure from Ethiopian activists, international organizations, and other interest         groups in the diaspora, made it clear that the EPRDF was in state of crisis, and as such, needed to take practical and acceptable reformative measures. This was already sanctioned by the House of Representatives through the passage of HRes. 128.

With (and even for) the advent of Prime Minister Abiy, it is safe to assume that the requirements stipulated in the resolution played some vital roles in the evolving positive political climate in Ethiopia. In other words, although Prime Minister Abiy’s quick actions to reform the political hierarchy of EPRDF owes, to a larger extent to popular unrest, dissatisfaction, and sustained protests in the greater part of Ethiopia, America’s decision to preserve its own strategic interest in the Horn of Africa cannot be underestimated. The Horn of Africa occupies a strategic relevance for the US’ foreign policy, both in the context of Africa and the Middle East. The geopolitical importance of Ethiopia still remains strong behind Israel’s continued interest and presence in the Horn of Africa. Here, among other things, the issue of Ethiopian Jews; Israel’s unpredictable relations with the Arab world, especially Egypt, and the implication of the renaissance dam being built in Ethiopia all make Israel’s continued presence in the Horn of Africa indispensable and meaningful.

Probably the same thing can be said for Turkey’s increasing presence in Ethiopia and the Horn, compared to other parts of Africa. Despite uncertainities associated with the anti government protests of the past four years Ethiopia still remains an attractive investment destination for Turkish companies which invested about 2.5 billion USD from the total of 6 billion USD Turkish foreign direct investments in Africa, according to early 2018 estimation. This is in addition to Turkey’s massive and transformative ventures in neighboring Somalia. Similarly, in early June, 2018, the United Arab Emirates pledged a total of about 3 billion USD in aid and investments to Ethiopia. All these and others can arguably pave ways for Ethiopia to come out successful in its politico-economic engagements, and thus, legitimacy for its regional leadership in Africa.

In spite of all these, it should be mentioned, by way of summary, that the advent of Prime Minister Abiy and his reform efforts will have other consequences in the alliance of global actors in world politics. We know that, for the last few months, Egypt, Eritrea, Saudi, UAE, the US, and Israel stood on one side of the Qatar crisis vis-à-vis Sudan, Somalia, Qatar itself, Iran and Turkey. In this regard, Ethiopia’s current restructuring of local and international conditions will have some consequences.

As it stands now, Ethiopia seems to be going in the right direction. The three important dimensions of legitimacy for Ethiopia, as a regional actor, appear to positively respond to the actions led by Prime Minister Abiy.  With the lessening of the prospect for friction with neighboring countries, such as Eritrea, regional legitimacy in the Horn of Africa is likely to be garnered. To be sure, for a more robust outcome, the TPLF-led EPRDF’s legacy in Somalia and its overall engagement might need a rapprochement. All in all, despite all the encouraging steps and optimistic future, time remains to be the ultimate judge for what is going to happen next in Ethiopia in the coming days, months, or years. AS

ED’s Note:  Mukerrem Miftah (Dr.,) is from Alliance of Civilizations Institute (ACI), Ibn Khaldun University, Istanbul, Turkey. he can be reached at


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