Is Ethiopia changing its role in the Horn of Africa?

Sonia Le Gouriellec

Photo credit: Getty

The year 2018 marks a milestone for the Horn of Africa. The rapid pacification of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea will have surprised even the most attentive observers. Though discussions had certainly been going on for a few months, such an acceleration of regional peace was previously considered unthinkable. The 20 year old conflict was at the heart of regional instability as each protagonist intended to destabilize the other by supporting armed groups. These recent events mark a historic change in speed and is driving a profound regional reconfiguration. How can this sudden reversal be explained? Has the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, made the country a benevolent hegemon? Will Ethiopia’s wider foreign policy reflect this change?

Ethiopia’s peace with Eritrea: conditions for change

For more than three years, Ethiopia has been a victim of the social protest which caused former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign earlier this year. The new reformist Prime Minister wants to lead the opening of the country, its democratization as well as regional repositioning. Under his directive the state of emergency was lifted, political prisoners were released and the regime’s liberalization reforms were launched.

The country is, however, facing a major currency crisis. Indeed, recently, the stability of its currency was only just assured by a payment of 3 billion dollars from the United Arab Emirates. In such context, it is clear that the economic factors were also a decisive factor in the need to conclude peace with Eritrea. In particular, the Tigrayans — a minority group in Ethiopia which until recently had been in power in Addis Ababa since the early 1990s — who live on the border with Eritrea wanted an agreement because their region suffers economically. The Ethiopian army is also dominated by Tigrayans. Abiy has therefore made new appointments to weaken this influence, and the normalization of relations with Eritrea is also a means of reducing the importance of the military in Ethiopian domestic politics. Though, despite this, the Ethiopian regime is still sinking into a crisis and the party-state is trying to keep a grip on the situation by remaining true to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s legacy.

Moreover, external influences are also at the origin of peace between these enemy brothers. While the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have not decided on their own as to what direction their relationship should take. Each leader has met with Emirati officials several times before, during and after the reconciliation process. This is as the states of the region have courted the Gulf countries by offering them political loyalty and access to natural resources as a way of coping with the economic crisis and overcoming their debts. By supporting the reconciliation process, the countries of the Arabian peninsula and the United States have increased their influence on the region.

It remains to be seen whether these changes are only in appearance or whether they are profound internal transformations. Moreover, what will the impact be on a foreign policy that has long been characterized by a negative impact on instability in the Horn of Africa? Is the changing attitude to Eritrea indicative of a changing approach to the region or will Ethiopia’s track record remain muddled?

An imperfect hegemon: are regional relations changing?

Ethiopia has long been an imperfect hegemon. Indeed, the size of the country and its population — as well as its location and history — mean that Ethiopia has stood out as the regional power. This is also clear from its foreign policy which is ‘characterized by a relationship of dominance over and assumption of allegiance from its neighbours’; an attitude which paradoxically could lead to further destabilization.

In 2002, after the costly conflict against Eritrea, the Ethiopian government under Meles’s leadership constructed a new foreign policy doctrine which took for granted its status as a hub of stability in the context of the ‘war on terror’. In effect, Ethiopia created its own Monroe Doctrine in the region and prioritized development and stability as its primary foreign policy goals. Since then, its foreign policy discourse has stressed the importance of stabilizing the area. Harry Verhoeven concludes that this vision of Great Ethiopia is ‘in terms of benign regional hegemony’ and assumes that ‘[w]hat is good for Ethiopia is good for the Horn of Africa’. It is, however, important to question this claim and its regional impact. Especially as Ethiopian interventions in Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan have contributed to the perception that it is policing the region.

It is also important to recognize that Ethiopia benefits from an international context that is highly favourable both to the role of a hegemon and to the regime’s strategy which attempts to exploit the resources offered by the international system in an effort to gain international legitimacy. At the same time, however, Ethiopia remains a prisoner of history and geography, and its international legitimacy is not always recognized in the region. Moreover, the developmental state model adopted by Meles to strengthen and stabilize the country and the region is also revealing its shortcomings, as evidenced by the multiple internal disputes.

While Ethiopia does clearly possess some of the attributes of a hegemon, its ambitions to build a peaceful region favourable to its economic development have been mired by regional resistance. In the face of rising protest and the imperative of continued economic growth, the leadership is still divided and paralysed by the fragile balance of antagonistic forces that compose it, making the case of Eritrea encouraging but not necessarily indicative of a wider and successful trend.

Sonia Le Gouriellec is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lille Catholic University, France. She also teaches International Relations in Africa at SciencesPo, Paris.

Her recent article, ‘Regional power and contested hierarchy: Ethiopia, an “imperfect hegemon” in the Horn of Africa’, was published in the September 2018 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article online here.

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