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CWA # 517, 21 July 2021

NIAS Africa Monitor
Africa's Ethiopia Problem

  Sankalp Gurjar

The unravelling of Ethiopia is ominous and also endangers the promising economic future of the Horn and East Africa.

Since November 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia has been at war with the northern region of Tigray. So far, thousands of people have been killed in the war, and many more are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Thousands of refugees have been pouring in from the war-torn Tigray to neighbouring Sudan. Meanwhile, the involvement of Eritrea’s Army, Ethiopia’s northern neighbour, in suppressing the Tigrayan resistance has been an open secret. Apart from the conflict in Tigray, instability is brewing in the Amhara region, which lies west of Tigray. The world is closely monitoring the evolving situation in Ethiopia, and the reputation of its Nobel peace prize winning President Abiy Ahmed lies in tatters. Owing to Ethiopia’s geostrategic location, its centrality to the Horn of Africa region and the complicated history of regional politics, conflicts in Ethiopia or in the Horn do not remain confined within the national boundaries but also spill over into the larger region. 

Ethiopia’s Geostrategic Location
Ethiopia is the second-most populous state in Africa, with a population of about 100 million. It is the world’s largest landlocked state in terms of population and links North Africa with East Africa. The Nile River and the unfolding geopolitics in the Horn over the sharing of Nile waters is also a connecting factor between North and East Africa. Ethiopia shares borders with Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland (a breakaway region of Somalia), Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan. The landlocked state is important for the stability and security of the Horn of Africa, Red Sea region as well as the East and Central Africa. Ethiopia enjoys considerable political influence in Africa as its capital Addis Ababa hosts the headquarters of the African Union (AU). Ethiopia’s economic rise in the new millennium has prepared the ground for the ambitious role that the country wishes to play in the region.    
Ethiopia’s southern neighbour Djibouti hosts military bases of the United States (US), China, France and Japan. Ethiopia depends almost exclusively on Djibouti for access to the sea. Therefore, Ethiopia has considerable stakes in the strategic rivalries as they are being played out in and around Djibouti. Lately, West Asian states have been engaging with the Horn of Africa and expanding their influence in the region. In this context, the stability of Djibouti is in the interest of Ethiopia, and similarly, due to the presence of major global powers in the region, developments in Ethiopia assume not just regional but global significance. 
Complicated History
Ethiopia’s history has been entangled with the larger region as well as global processes. During the Cold War, Ethiopia was one of the very few countries that enjoyed close politico-military ties with both superpowers at different times. It hosted a key American military base at Kagnew till 1977 and was a recipient of generous American assistance. With the onset of the Communist revolution in the 1970s, it emerged as a major strategic partner for Soviet Russia. The Horn of Africa was the only region where superpowers switched sides, and Ethiopia was at the receiving end of the superpower rivalry.
Ethiopia was also at the centre of a regional war that defined the trajectory of Somalia. The Somalia-Ethiopia war of 1977-78 was played out in the Ogaden region in southern Ethiopia. The war signalled the end of the Détente between superpowers as they were forced to take sides. The defeat in that war was a key moment that broke the Somali unity, and the state has been in turmoil ever since. Ethiopia’s role remains crucial for the stability and security in Somalia, as could be seen in the military intervention in Somalia in 2006 to prevent a radical Islamist regime from taking over power. It also participates in the AU peacekeeping force for Somalia and has supported the US Global War on Terror in the Horn.
In the 1980s and 1990s, South Sudanese secessionists were operating from their bases in Ethiopia and eventually succeeded in attaining independence. In the early 1990s, the strategically important and regionally aggressive state of Eritrea emerged from Ethiopia. Therefore, Ethiopia has been instrumental in redefining the political geography of the region. Consequently, Ethiopia’s role in regional politics remains critical, and its close ties with external powers like the US increases its leverage. 
There are genuine fears that unstable Ethiopia might also endanger the stability in Sudan, which is undergoing a difficult political transition since 2019. Besides, the South Sudanese state remains fragile and peace is precarious in the newest state in the world. In this context, instability in Ethiopia does not bode well for regional stability.  
Contemporary Developments
In the last decade, Ethiopia has built Africa’s largest dam on the Nile River, known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia has been at loggerheads over this dam with downstream countries, primarily Egypt. In fact, Sudan and Egypt have declared the issue as critical for their national security and Egypt is even prepared to go to war with Ethiopia. The dam is important for Ethiopia’s growing electricity demand and has also become a symbol of national prestige. Attempts at mediation have not yielded any results, and both sides appear to have adopted an increasingly obstinate stance. Therefore, the developments regarding the GERD are being watched closely by the world, including in India as it has implications for the global geopolitics of water.
The littoral region and the maritime space from Sudan to Somalia has attained increasing strategic importance with major powers like Russia and China establishing their bases. The competition for influence and the pressing necessity to improve regional infrastructure has led to frantic efforts for developing railroads and ports. China is particularly active in this regard. Development, with external assistance and funding, of ports in Djibouti, Somaliland and Kenya and railway lines such as Addis Ababa-Djibouti and Nairobi-Mombasa point towards the modernization of the regional infrastructure. It is expected to facilitate greater regional integration and help in the economic resurgence of the region. Ethiopia’s economic potential provides additional justification for building massive ports and modern railway lines in the region. Therefore, unravelling of Ethiopia is ominous not only for that country but also endangers the promising economic future of the Horn and East Africa.  


Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal
 

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