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Ethiopia and its regional diplomacy: Ethiopia’s dominant interpretation of the Horn of Africa

Dr Mehari Taddele Maru

Officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), Ethiopia shares borders with eastern African countries that include Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. A founding member of the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Ethiopia’s regional interests are mainly pursued multilaterally through these organizations, albeit mainly through the IGAD.

Ethiopia’s perception and analysis of challenges and opportunities in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) region have become increasingly dominant. Owing to the following four reasons, Ethiopia’s pivotal role within the IGAD and to a limited extent in the AU will continue to grow.

The first relates to Ethiopia’s inward looking foreign policy orientation and effort to address longstanding internal political instability. Ruled by a highly centralized military dictatorship under Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam who hijacked the revolution of 1974 that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie’s monarchy, Ethiopia has endured protracted conflicts, particularly in its northern and south-eastern provinces. Since 1995, the current coalition government, the EPRDF, has promoted a constitution establishing a federation of linguistic and cultural communities reflecting the social bases of the armed forces that toppled the Mengistu regime. Despite improvements in governmental effectiveness and minority rights, and addressing major sources of national conflicts in previous years, the current political space is characterized both by the fear of politics and the politics of fear. Thus, on the political front, there are many challenges concerning human rights, political competition, good governance and corruption, confronting Ethiopia’s quest for peace and development.

Partially attributable to the inward looking orientation of its Foreign Affairs and the disciplined application of its National Security Policy and Strategy (FANSPS), Ethiopia’s views have been widely accepted and accordingly acted upon by IGAD, the AU and the international community.

Second, its recent promising economic performance offers hope for its people and externally draws aid, trade and investment. Recently, Ethiopia added a new area of focus on regional integration within IGAD through internal infrastructure development and the export of hydro-electric power and water concessions to neighboring countries. This approach may constitute a major improvement in addressing the shortcomings of Ethiopia’s regional diplomatic practices, regardless of its current policy orientation. In his most recent remarks during a meeting with Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, President Barack Obama neatly pointed out the “enormous progress in a country that once had great difficulty feeding itself. It’s now not only leading the pack in terms of agricultural production in the region, but will soon be an exporter potentially not just of agriculture, but also power because of the development that’s been taking place there.” Referring to the various outlooks on Ethiopia’s economic performance as “one of the fastest growing economies in the world”, he dubbed Ethiopia as exemplary of the “bright spots and progress” in Africa. Recent promising mega trends in economic growth and relative stability in the region, coupled with an expected expansion of middle class and market fuelled by fast growing population has created a surge of interest in trade and opportunity for investment.

Third, ranked the first in the Sub-Sahara, third (next to Egypt and Algeria) in the entire Africa and fortieth in the world, Ethiopia’s military strength has an excellent track record in its role in the regional peace and security, counter-terrorism, and mediation which creates demand for long-term partnership and alliance in the region and beyond. In actual troop contribution, with a total of 12,247 troops (4395 troops in AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and 7852 (UN Missions), Ethiopia is the biggest troop contributing nation in the world. As the third contributor to UN Peacekeeping missions in Darfur – UNAMID (2561 troops), Abyei-UNISFA (4011 troops), South Sudan-UNMISS (1265 troops), and UNMIL (11 troops) and UNOCI (2 troops), Ethiopia’s focus has been in the peace and security of Africa. Since the establishment of the UN, Ethiopia has successfully participated in more than ten peacekeeping missions at continental and global level. With one of the strongest armies in Africa and a track record of excellence in peacekeeping globally, Ethiopia has been in the top ten troop contributing countries. Entirely composed of Ethiopia’s troops, UNISFA in the disputed area of Abyei is unique in the history of peacekeeping for various reasons. With 4250 Ethiopian troops, unlike most peacekeeping missions in the World, UNISFA is entirely composed of Ethiopian peace troops. The Force Commanders of UNISFA and UNMISS have been Ethiopian Generals. Attesting to this fact, President Obama went on to say “… in discussions with Ban Ki-moon yesterday, we discussed how critical it is for us to improve our effectiveness when it comes to peacekeeping and conflict resolution. And it turns out that Ethiopia may be one of the best in the world — one of the largest contributors of peacekeeping…”

Despite its own cause, means and end state, as well as priority, Ethiopia as a victim of a series of external and internal terrorist attacks, is a natural and strong ally in the fight against terrorism in the IGAD region. With this overlapping interest, all African, Western and Eastern countries, partner with Ethiopia as a genuine and strong military ally in the fight against terrorism. Attesting to this fact, President Obama said “obviously we’ve been talking a lot about terrorism and the focus has been on ISIL, but in Somalia, we’ve seen al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al Qaeda, wreak havoc throughout that country. That’s an area where the cooperation and leadership on the part of Ethiopia is making a difference as we speak. And we want to thank them for that. So our counterterrorism cooperation and the partnerships that we have formed with countries like Ethiopia are going to be critical to our overall efforts to defeat terrorism.” Ethiopia played a decisive role in the imposition of United Nations (UN) sanctions against Somalia and Eritrea by mobilizing other IGAD member states, by lobbying the AU and by convincing the UN Security Council (UNSC). This strategic role attracts significant interest from western and eastern powers in terms of Ethiopia’s responsibility in the IGAD region and beyond.

Fourth, with its Pan Africanist historical legacy, Ethiopia has recently increased its effective use of multilateral platforms. Located in this troubled region, with its own internal political history marked by violent conflicts due to internal and external factors, Ethiopia has previously faced serious foreign aggression, not only from Italy, Egypt, and Britain, but also from its neighbouring countries Somalia and Eritrea. Said Barre’s regime in Somalia instigated the border war of 1977, and through terrorist attacks by Somali extremist groups such as the defunct Al Ittihad Al Islamyia (Al Ittihad) and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) as well as Harakat al Shabaab al-Mujahedeen (Al Shabaab). Ethiopia has remained in a state of war with Eritrea since the 1998 border conflict. In addition, state failure in Somalia allowed for armed groups from Ethiopia, such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Islamic Front for Liberation of Oromia (IFLO), to operate and launch attacks against Ethiopia. Eritrea exploited these stateless armed groups as proxies to weaken Ethiopia’s focus on the border war. The rivalry with Egypt over the Nile also threatened to destabilize Ethiopia when Egypt exploited the various armed conflicts in Ethiopia. Emanating from a history of victimization and repeated external threats to its independence, Ethiopia strongly supported collective security and multilateral platforms and institutions such as the UN and its predecessor, the League of Nations, in order to pursue its own interests and seek solutions to threats to its sovereignty.

Since 2008, Ethiopia has been the chair of IGAD. Under its late Prime Minister, the country chaired NEPAD for almost eight years, and has represented Africa in the G7, G20 and World Climate Change Summit. As one of the leading founders and main architects of Organization of African Unity (OAU), Ethiopia’s rich history served as seedbed for Pan Africanism. This legacy sustained by an active participation, disciplined position and multilateral approach exudes confidence among its peers at the AU and IGAD. In addition to these factors, the intellectual competence, persuasive skills, Pan-African disposition, personal ambition and trust that Ethiopia’s leaders enjoy from the IGAD region and within the Pan-African and international community determines the extent to which the country’s natural and political endowments will be used to the exercise of effective regional diplomacies.

The underpinnings of Ethiopia’s foreign policy
Stability, Peace and Development

After thousands of years as an independent African country, Ethiopia has a long diplomatic history and rich experience in foreign relations. The external threats to Ethiopia, as identified by four administrations, namely those of Emperor Haile Selassie, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the current administration of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn, have generally been quite similar. While the regimes of Emperor Haile Selassie and Colonel Mengistu were outward looking in perspective, the current regime, first under Meles Zenawi and now under Haile Mariam Desalegn, is extremely inward looking. Previous Ethiopian regimes, particularly Colonel Mengistu’s military regime, externalized almost all the country’s problems by focusing on, and building military defense capabilities against, the ‘historical external enemies of Ethiopia’. Partially attributable to the Cold War, socialist ideology and protracted civil war under Colonel Mengistu, Ethiopia enjoyed much less trust and influence in Africa and elsewhere. For a long time, Ethiopia’s main focus has been to address external threats and collaborate with regional and global actors for collective security. Rooted in its ideological thoughts about the root-causes of Ethiopia’s internal troubles and possible solutions, the EPRDF-led government of the FDRE regarded regional diplomacy as another platform for solving regional challenges that affected Ethiopia’s internal governance and development problems. It also regards economic development, stability and democratic governance as the country’s domestic and national priorities. The FANSPS rightly and explicitly underscores that foreign policy is subservient to Ethiopia’s internal policies.

Bilateral Relations :Ethiopia and its neighbors

Implicitly FANSPS espouses that a country that is not peaceful domestically cannot enjoy peace with its neighbors. First, Ethiopia needs to focus on its peace and security challenges so that it can also have peaceful relations with other countries. Similarly, for the establishment of a peaceful, integrated and prosperous region, Ethiopia believes it is equally necessary for its neighbors to also enjoy domestic peace and stability. Ethiopia has signed comprehensive cooperation agreements with Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and South Sudan. Extraordinary and far reaching in many ways, Ethiopia and Somalia have signed bilateral agreement that includes common defense and cooperation in counter terrorism and violent extremism. The first in the history of Ethiopia and Somalia, the agreement may close the hostile chapters in the relations of the two countries. This close relation extends to distance African and Arab countries. Ethiopia enjoys strong security collaboration with Yemen since October 1999, immediately after the Ethio-Eritrean war. Recently, similar agreement has also been signed with Nigeria.
The homework ahead

Six Ethiopian missions in IGAD member states, with 36 diplomats, constitute 11.5 per cent of all Ethiopian diplomats serving in foreign countries. With an average of 6.24 diplomats serving in Ethiopian missions worldwide, Ethiopia’s missions in IGAD countries rely on slightly fewer diplomats per mission than the average number of Ethiopian diplomats serving at missions elsewhere. Whereas Ethiopia’s prominence and influence in international and regional diplomacy depends heavily on the country’s successful role in IGAD peace and security activities, its actual deployment of diplomats does not match this role. MoFA needs to address this mismatch between its policy focus on the IGAD region, and the human and material resources apportioned through commensurate allocation of resources corresponding to the prominence FANSPS confers on the region.

Given that Ethiopia’s trade volume with Sudan is five times bigger than its trade with Kenya, and the strategic economic importance of Sudan (Ethiopia obtains more than 80 percent of its oil from Sudan) and Djibouti (Ethiopia’s maritime lifeline) the disparity in the number of Ethiopian diplomats stationed in Nairobi compared to Djibouti and Khartoum implies the inconsistent application of the economic diktats of Ethiopia’s foreign policy. In order for Ethiopia to seize economic and trade opportunities in its immediate neighborhood, the rationale for the allocation of resources (diplomats and financial resources) to the missions in neighboring countries need to be reconsidered so that it align the primacy of economic diplomacy as clearly accentuated in FANSPS.

Located at the centre, Ethiopia could be a hub of regional integration in the IGAD region. But this integrative economic and trade opportunities need a proactive foreign policy focus to going regional in doing business. This will require a shift of focus to economic and trade diplomacy in the region, as is the case with other regions, without undermining and paired to the importance of its role in regional peace and security.

Finally, it is time to take stock of the FANSPS’s disproportionately inward looking orientation when it comes to economic and trade opportunities, access to the sea and port services, and external threats particularly emerging from Eritrea, Somalia and potential changes in neighboring countries and in Egypt and their implications to Ethiopia’s peace and development.
A specialist in international human rights and humanitarian law, Dr. Mehari is an international consultant on African Union affairs, and an expert in Public Administration, Policy and Management. He also lectures at the NATO Defense College (Rome), the United Nations Institute for Economic Development and Planning (Dakar), the National Defense University (USA), and Center for Federal Studies at Addis Ababa University.

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