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Trouble returns to Ethiopia

The ongoing civil war in one of Africa’s most stable countries will have important ramifications for the region’s geopolitics.

Written by Gurjit Singh | New Delhi | Updated: December 16, 2020 6:30:56 pm
Ethiopia Tigray Conflict, Ethiopian forcesThe current regional crisis which has emerged due to the civil war in Tigray has likely consequences for the region, whichever way the conflict finally ends. (AP via Ethiopian News Agency)

A civil war has unfortunately erupted in Ethiopia, the largest country in the Horn of Africa and one of the continent’s leading economies. Ethiopia has been a stabilising force since its liberation from the Derg regime in 1991. In the post-Cold War period, it has played a bigger role in the region, contributing to the building of peace and security supported by the USA.

These included diplomatic efforts with Sudan and a military effort in Somalia. The role was continued by the youthful Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was inducted in 2018. His most notable success was the peace with Eritrea which fetched him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Since then, he also helped in repairing the relationship between Djibouti and Eritrea who had fallen apart over Somalia. Ahmed’s role in Sudan, to stabilise the transitional government and in South Sudan to keep the peace, were statesmanlike diplomatic interventions. He helped in creating goodwill for himself which was important for both domestic and regional statecraft.

There were several Ethiopian rebellious groups in the neighbouring countries against Ahmed’s EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) government. They were from different regional states like Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Gambella and Benushungul Gumuz. By developing relations with the neighbours, Ahmed succeeded in getting regional governments in Ethiopia to make peace with these rebellious groups and bring them back into the political space opening up under his watch.

Some of these efforts were also directed at isolating political rivals, like the TPLF, which withdrew to the northern Tigray region. The rapprochement with Eritrea was internationally awarded, regionally applauded but treated with suspicion by Tigray.

Initially, it seemed that the diplomatic enthusiasm in the region was to secure support for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the share of Nile’s waters but it had deeper ramifications. This diplomatic goodwill particularly with Sudan and its transitional government helped Ahmed counter the rivalry with Egypt on the GERD. He had a successful visit to Egypt in 2018 to defuse the situation arising out of the GERD but the initiative dissipated due to ancient rivalry with Egypt, which is too deep-seated.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was established in 1986 and revitalised in 1996. The member countries of IGAD include Kenya, Uganda, both Sudans, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Though IGAD is not among the most effective regional communities of Africa, its role in Somalia in conjunction with the African Union has provided the cover for regional troops to be deployed to counter the threat from the terrorist group Al Shabab.

Prior to the UN-approved AMISOM deployment in 2007, IGASOM troops from Uganda and Ethiopia had been the main stabilizers. IGAD believes that Ethiopia has been a beacon of stability and economic development in the region and a pillar for peace and security.

The Horn of Africa has faced frequent wars and strife. Ethiopia was involved in the long-drawn Ogden war started by Somalia in in 1977 which ultimately saw the degeneration of Somalia into chaos. The role of Ethiopia in converting American influence to a stabilising force in the region was widely accepted after 1991.

The region has seen the birth of two new countries after 1991. Eritrea peacefully seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, though it was involved in a destructive war in 1998-2000. It joined the AU, IGAD and the UN. South Sudan, after 22 years of struggle and the deployment of several UN and AU missions in different parts, finally broke away in 2011, creating Africa’s 54th country. Another regional break-up includes the quasi separation of Somaliland and Puntland from the troubled Somalia. Both now operate quite independently, and Somaliland has even opened its doors to Taiwan. It is the most stable and best performing part of Somalia and de facto runs itself, including holding elections distinct from Somalia’s.

The situation in Somalia now hangs in the balance. The AMISOM with troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia are facing new foreign forces from Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, which seek to influence the course of events as an extension of the rivalry in West Asia, the Red Sea and in Yemen.

The current regional crisis which has emerged due to the civil war in Tigray has likely consequences for the region, whichever way the conflict finally ends.

Somalia, Uganda and Djibouti have elections in early 2021 and Kenya in 2022. Sudan needs space to manage its transitional government. They prefer the region to remain stable, particularly in Somalia. The responses from their leaders to Ethiopian envoys on the Tigray crisis have been muted in support of Ahmed.

The biggest challenge lies in Somalia. Beside the regular AMISOM contingents, Ethiopia has 4,000 additional troops who monitor the areas of hostile activity across Ethiopian borders. Due to the Civil War, these additional troops are being drawn down creating a vacuum which the Al Shabaab could take advantage of.

The other challenge lies in the GERD diplomacy, where the AU initiative is weakening. Egypt remains antagonistic to Ethiopia over the quantum of Nile waters to be received in the dry season. Sudan vacillates between the two but now has taken a harder position since 40,000 refugees from Ethiopia have entered its borders due to the civil war. The refugees are mainly from Tigray, who are antagonistic to the Ethiopian government complicating Sudan’s own situation.

Egypt is seeking to reap the wind and is making forays into friendship with South Sudan and others. Its Arab ally, the UAE, has had a drone and naval base at the Eritrean port of Assab on the Red Sea and used it to police the area, particularly attacking its opponents in Yemen. The Egypt-UAE alliance which works in Somalia and Libya to counter the alliance of Turkey and Qatar in those places, is facing a contradiction in the Ethiopian civil war. Eritrea sees this the best chance to settle scores with Tigray. The UAE drones in Assab seem to be used to attack Tigray on behalf of Eritrea/Ethiopia which Egypt is competing with. If the civil war goes on longer, the Egyptians may like to support Tigray to annoy Ethiopia but this will bring them into rivalry with Eritrea and the UAE, further complicating the situation.

If the UAE role expands, then Turkey and Qatar can’t be far behind. Qatar had monitored the live border between Djibouti and Eritrea till it withdrew in 2017, when both warring parties backed Saudi Arabia in the Gulf. Ahmed had visited Qatar in 2019 and the UAE in 2020 to restore relationships but when strategic objectives are concerned, both cannot be on the same side.

The USA has quickly tempered its criticism of Ethiopia over the GERD and supported it in the civil war to retain its influence over its best regional ally. It remains apprehensive that the role of Eritrea and the Somalia imbroglio could bring the Gulf rivalries into the opening provided by Ethiopia. The region’s future, therefore, now rests on the fate of the civil war and how its ramifications are handled.

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador to Germany)

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