Ethiopia – Defining Its Role in the Horn

by Zelalem

With a long history of statehood and independence, Ethiopia is arguably the oldest country in the Horn of Africa and the continent alike.

However, Ethiopia’s role in shaping the economic and political life of both the continent and the Horn of Africa remained largely limited, according to scholars. Indeed, the country is one of the founding members in the global multilateral structures like the UN or the continental organization, the AU. In a way, many attribute the leadership of the early pan-African movements to the country on account of its resistance to foreign invasion most importantly colonial advances. Although, this gave the nation a unique chance of assuming a concrete leadership role in the continent or even the region scholars believe that the country has not yet rose to that level. According to them, this is mainly because the country has been preoccupied by its internal political strife for many decades.

However, the pundits also observe that the Horn of Africa is one unique region not only for its constant instability and human suffering but for the lack of clear regional influential power playing a decisive role in shaping its own destiny and the ones around it. Comprising, six nations including Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and South Sudan the region has never seen or at least recognized one strong regional leader in its existence. According to scholars, few like Sudan and Kenya could be considered as candidates for this role. But, they argue that Ethiopia by far stands a better chance of assuming that role. As to the Sudan, many argue that the nation itself do not aspire to evolve as a leader of the region, but rather want to align more with the Arab world across the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Kenya’s longstanding isolationism policy towards the troubled Horn region is the factor behind Kenya not coming out as strong leader of the region.

Ethiopia is rather a complicated case, they say. For one, the state stood a better chance of assuming the leadership role from a military standpoint. A country of more than 90 million today, Ethiopia is believed to have one of the strongest, if not the strongest military in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, weak domestic political conditions, war with neighboring countries ans prevalence of poverty effectively shielded it from playing the stated role.

Now, the narratives are changing. Again, the leadership position in one of world’s most unstable corner seems to be up for grabs once again. And, this time round, the countries themselves, especially Ethiopia, are coming with a renewed image. To back this claim, the scholars direct attention to the fresh political instabilities and unrests in the Horn of Africa and the role that is played by countries in the region. Under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which as argued by many is predominately influenced by Ethiopia, countries of the region are major players in dealing with recent instability in South Sudan and Somalia.

As chairperson of IGAD, since 2008 and symbolizing the country’s role in the region, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, is increasingly becoming vocal on issues of neighboring countries and the Horn region in general. In fact, traditionally, an Ethiopian head of government is a person who is rather swamped with local matters such that he rarely ventures on regional politics, unless directly linked to domestic conditions, while addressing the Ethiopian public. In his recent media briefing, PM Hailemariam was seen devoting considerable time to addressing issues in the Horn perhaps a bit more than usual. He talked in length about the youngest African nation South Sudan and its trials and tribulation regarding its recent political division-cum-civil war. The most troubled, Somalia; newest ally, Kenya and Ethiopia’s gateway to the sea, Djibouti.


Arguably the first bold move by Ethiopia to go beyond it boarders to defend its national security/interest is to Somalia. In 2006, Ethiopian National Defense Forces, who at the time were estimated to reach 8 thousand (UN estimates), was deployed in a conventional combat mission to expel an Islamist group called Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that was threating the weak transitional government of Somalia formed in Kenya. This was a turning point in a sense that since the EPRDF-led government assumed power Ethiopia has seen a shift in foreign policy direction. According to scholars, the government unlike its predecessors pursued an inward looking foreign policy that is largely guided by insuring the peace and development of the nation. Of course, the preconditions of the intervention was a clear and present danger that the group [UIC] posed on Ethiopia. However, it also had a larger goal of supporting a stable Somalia under a strong stable government.

Since then, Ethiopia got involved in fighting extremist groups in Somalia and went back to the country in 2011, and finally under the AMISOM in 2013. Currently, Ethiopia has 4395 troops in Somalia fighting the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab. According to Hailemariam, Ethiopian troops are still playing a significant role in Somalia cleansing 65 percent of the territory from Al-Shabaab. “Although the other peacekeeping forces are significant in number, the territory that they control is nowhere near to that of Ethiopian peacekeepers,” he lauds the performance of his troops.

In fact, one significant role that Ethiopia plays in the Horn is in the form of peacekeeping. The country stands as number one in terms of troops contribution to UN peacekeeping mission across the continent. Currently, the state donates little over 12,000 soldiers to peacekeeping missions in Sudan-Darfur under the auspice of UNAMID, to the disputed region of Abyei under UNISFA, to Somalia under AMISOM and also to South Sudan under UNMISS, among others. According to analysts, the deployment of troops to the disputed region of Abyei was quite different in its nature as it involved for the first time peacekeeping forces of a neighboring country monitoring condition in another neighboring nation. In fact, the deployment of the Ethiopian contingent to Abyei was fully supported by the two conflicting nations – Sudan and South Sudan. Hence, they argue that this constitutes acceptance by the countries in the conflict of the prominence of Ethiopia in terms of maintaining peace and security in Ethiopia.

Commanding around 140,000 trained military personnel, Hailemariam as well says that his troops has a specific military discipline that enables them to maintain peace and eliminate threats like Al-Shabaab. “We are working round the clock to deliver trainings packages to Somali forces,” he told journalists. The military discipline that Ethiopian troops possess will be transferred to the nascent Somali army so that the latter could gradually takeover the leadership in the fight against Al Shabaab, Hailemariam said. “Sooner or later, the Ethiopian forces will to leave Somalia and the local forces should have the capacity to carry on the work we have been doing.”

On the political front, Hailemariam admitted to the challenges that is posed by political infighting between the ruling circle itself in Somalia. Recent reports has shown that the internal rift between the president of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his second prime minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed has ended in the prime minister being voted out by parliament and replaced by Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. According to Hailemariam, the crisis did have some limited effect on the fight against Al Shabaab. This happened for the second time, he told local journalists, and that it is indicative of some issues to be addressed in the political front. “We know how they are,” the PM explained, and hence Ethiopia is a big player in the political dialogue. “We tried to bring all supporters of a stable and united Somalia under the IGAD system to find solutions,” Hailemariam explained further, and to that end he said his governments efforts were successful.


Meanwhile, Kenya, which has remained fairly distant from actual peace and security matters in the Horn, finally joined the fight in Somalia in 2011 citing an attack on tourists inside the territory of Kenya by Al Shabaab forces. This brought Kenya one step closer to the security matters in the Horn. Soon after, the Kenyans started supporting Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia and the sanction on Eritrea in this context. Scholars argue that it is still not possible to argue that Kenya is endorsing leadership role that Ethiopia is playing in the Horn security matters, however, it has teamed up with Ethiopia in IGAD and has become an important ally against common enemy, Al-Shabaab. Taking things up a notch, Kenya introduced a controversial anti-terrorism act last week, which apparently was a source of a major contentions in Ethiopia back when it was introduced in 2009. The Kenyan parliamentary showdown when the bill was passed was quite unique. According to Hailemariam, Kenya did right thing in enacting the controversial proclamation.”Terrorists are changing their tactics these days and are posing more threats to global community,” he argued, and hence the Kenyans were absolutely in their prerogative when they passed the terrorists act. “Some of the western countries are becoming increasingly frustrated because some of their citizens are turning into terrorists. Even those countries who were telling us to relax our terrorist proclamation are now tightening their anti-terrorist laws,” he said.

South Sudan

The involvement in South Sudan is perhaps the most unique. During the armed-struggle days of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), successive Ethiopian regimes have helped the cause of South Sudan which at the time earned her the name of a midwife to the birth of the youngest nation in Africa. Its diplomatic role has continued after independence of the country where the the two Sudans were at loggerheads following disagreement on some outstanding issues like share of oil revenue and territorial demarcation.

Nevertheless, the troubles in South Sudan did not end there. Just last year, an internal political fracture, which later turned into a civil war, rocked the core of the young nation. Ethiopia, under the IGAD platform, was quick to act to the situation in South Sudan. It was just days after the conflict erupted that Tedros Adhanom (PhD), Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, jumped on a plane to speak to leaders in Juba. Soon after, Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopian Ambassador to China, was put in charge of the mediation process representing IGAD.

The mediation process was not that easy as the conflict prolonged for almost a year causing devastating damage in the country. At one point, IGAD itself has to express frustration over the bickering of the two parties and how things tend to regress back every time a gain is made. “The people of South Sudan has suffered for 50 years, they deserve peace and prosperity,” Hailemariam said expressing the frustration of IGAD and other mediating parties over the lingering of the talks between the two parties. In fact, the UN as well was vocal with regards to the stalled peace process that is being brokered by IGAD. Hailemariam does not believe any global body including the UN can do a better job than the one being done by IGAD. “The only thing they can come up with is a punitive measure that would compel to parties to table,” the PM argued. Logically, there are no other choices but to be patient. The two parties has to come together and discuss and that requires time, he said, one cannot replace them or bring other bodies in their place.

At present, the two parties did agree to establish a new national government and end the violence. However, the process has run up to a big roadblock since they could not agree upon the form of government, on what the powers the two leaders (Prime Minister and President) should have and on the composition of a reintegrated military. Hailemariam is still hopeful that it does not mean that the negotiations have failed. He says, “We need to bring the two parties together and urge them into the right direction”. Nevertheless, Hailemariam also admits that when its comes to economic interest, the role of Ethiopia is quite insignificant compared to likes Uganda and Kenya. For instance, Uganda is estimated to have some 500 million dollars worth of trade relations with South Sudan when Kenya is increasing its influence in the financial sector of South Sudan. In fact, Uganda’s interest was clearly seen from its decision have troops on the ground side of South Sudan when the conflict broke out. According to the PM, it is the lack of infrastructure which is hurting Ethiopia’s business involvement in the oil rich South Sudan. But, on the other hand, analysts argue that in the long run Ethiopia’s influence in the young nation depends on the extent of the business ties.


On the contrary, Djibouti is one neighboring nation with whom economic integration has reached higher levels. The nature of Ethiopia’s relations to Djibouti is quite different from the other Horn of Africa countries. Following the bloody boarder war between the Eritrea and Ethiopia, the latter started to depend heavily on the Port of Djibouti for access to the sea. Now, the majority of the economic activities in Djibouti is linked to the port serves that is it gives to Ethiopia.

According to Hailemariam, the level of economic ties are growing at a rate that is desirable to the two parties. He, however, says that the economic ties are also being accompanied by the people-to-people relations that the two countries have. He says, “Djiboutians have a special provision that is not given to no other in the region”. They can own properties in Ethiopia, Hailemariam said, and that can further nurture the relation. However, Hailemariam is not that easy about political integration at this stage of the relation. He told journalists that political integration with Djibouti is not threated any different from the rest of African and for that we have a time table that is 2063.

However, what is interesting is that Ethiopia has never stated any possible aspiration to emerge as a leader in the troubled Horn region, although scholars and analysts see it as being the only logical candidate at this moment.

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