international analysis and commentary

The Ethiopian flashpoint between internal and external conflicts

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Ethiopia is finding itself at odds with its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, namely Eritrea and Somalia, over its aggressive stance on gaining some form of access to the sea. The landlocked country has been trying for years to reduce its dependency on the port of Djibouti (on the Bab el Mandeb Strait that separates the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea), with its latest moves increasing the risk of a regional conflict. This would make navigation in the Red Sea even riskier, due to Yemeni Houthi rebels attacking Western-linked ships in a show of support to Hamas in its war with Israel. Regional powers, such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, are taking their chances again, profiting from the instability of this part of the world, to deepen their influence in the area. While Ethiopia’s increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, is currently looking for a nationalist cause to boost his popularity at home, where ethnic strife, economic duress, and famines are tarring his image, a war could actually result in both the balkanization of the country and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Map of Ethiopia with its regions highlighted (Source: Wikimedia). The country is home to an estimated 120 million people belonging to over 80 ethnic groups, of which the largest are Oromo and Amhara, about 34% and 26% respectively. Three-quarters are Christians of different denomination, the rest Muslims.

 

“Bounded by blood”, Ethiopia and Somalia risk fratricidal conflict

On January 1st, Ethiopia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the neighboring, breakaway state of Somaliland, where it was stated that the latter would lease a stretch of coast to the former, to build a possibly dual-purpose naval base, in addition to retain the use of the port of Berbera for commercial shipping, where Addis Abeba already owns a participation stake together with its foremost ally, the United Arab Emirates. In exchange, Addis Abeba would formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state, something the international community has never done despite it being de facto separated from Somalia since 1991. News of the deal caused considerable anger among the leaders in Mogadishu, which still consider Somaliland as an integral part of their country.

Despite Abiy’s reassurances that both countries are “bonded by blood” and that a conflict was out of the question, Somaliland’s Chief of Staff Major General Nuh Ismail Tani and Ethiopia’s Chief of Staff Field Marshal Birhanu Jula had already held talks about military cooperation a mere week after the bilateral pact. It then seemed quite timely that Somalia ratified a defense deal on February 20th with Turkey, which will provide training and equipment to the Somali Navy against threats including “foreign interference”. Ankara has become an important ally of Somali authorities in the last decade – providing military training and stationing troops – and vying against its Emirati rival for influence in the region.

Despite attempts to mend the rift, including a Kenyan offer for mediation, the bilateral relationships between Addis Abeba and Mogadishu are still souring. On April 4th, Somali authorities expelled the Ethiopian ambassador and closed down two consulates, accusing the country of “bluntly interfering” in its internal affairs. Then, on June 3rd, Somalia’s national security adviser Hussein Sheikh-Ali declared that, unless the port deal is scrapped, his government will expel the 3,000-strong Ethiopian garrison still present in the country.

The risk of a spillover of the al-Shaabab insurgency (the Islamist group is based in Somalia but has also been active in the wider region) has been a serious enough threat that the Ethiopian Defence Force[1] has conducted several campaigns inside Somalia against the jihadist formation since 2009, where they are still stationed. A threat that has not completely subsided: still as late as 2022, an expedition from the terrorist group managed to conduct an incursion across the porous, 1000-plus mile long border, penetrating for hundreds of kilometres before being eventually repelled.

A conflict with Somalia could potentially foster further instability inside Ethiopia, where over 12 million Somali live, especially in the eastern Somali Region. The two countries already fought a war over the then-named Ogaden region in 1977, which Addis Abeba won only thanks to massive Soviet aid, and today a new war could also rekindle the embers of the Ogaden insurgency, which has pitted Somali-nationalist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) guerrillas against government troops in the Somali Region between 1994 and 2018.

 

From internal conflicts to the ghost of a new war with Eritrea

A new, ethnic-based insurgency could put significant stress on Abiy Ahmed Ali, who is already facing major problems in the three most populous region of the country. The Tigray War, which raged from November 2020 to November 2022, causing the death of up to 600,000 people, has left unresolved issues, including the continuous presence of Eritrean soldiers and Amhara ethnic militias, both allied to the Ethiopian government, in some Tigrayan villages, and over 270,000 TPLF fighters yet to be demobilized. From this conflict arose, in April 2023, the one in Amhara, when the government tried to disarm the Amhara Special Forces and the Fano militia, which were discontented over the peace treaty signed without their involvement and suspect of Abiy quietly backing Oromo militias in their clashes with Amhara in mixed regions. Fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Amhara rebels is currently raging, and the rebels manage to control several swaths of land, including the outskirts of the regional capital Bahir Dar. Finally, in addition to several minor insurgencies across the country, Abiy is also facing his own ethnic group, the Oromo, as his troops battle the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a splinter group from previous rebel formation Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), with whom Ali signed a peace deal in 2018. It is worrisome that this conflict has also acquired a religious dimension, in addition to the ethnic one, as in 2023 an Oromo Orthodox Church Synod seceded from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and priests have become targets for gunmen from the opposite side depending on their loyalties. Among the most egregious incident, four clergymen were gunned down in the historic Zequalla monastery on February 25th, with OLA armed fighters being suspected as the culprits.

In addition, Abiy now faces mounting tensions with Eritrea, despite signing a historic peace deal with this neighbor that won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. After investing many resources and much manpower in the Tigray War, Asmara was dismayed, like the Amhara, that Addis Abeba signed the peace deal with the TPLF, which the Eritrean government sees as its true enemy inside Ethiopia and which it hoped to crush once as for all. Eritrean troops are still occupying several villages along the shared border and their government has now plainly stated that it does not plan to return them: A statement sent out on March 4th read that “Eritrean troops are located within Eritrean sovereign  […] that the TPLF has occupied illegally and with impunity for two decades.” Nor was of any reassurance the follow-up on April 15th, when Asmara said that, regarding the border, “unless there are violations of law between Eritrea and Ethiopian people’s or Eritrea and Tigray peoples, there is no other issue that could cause conflict”, drawing a suspicious distinction between Ethiopians and Tigrayans.

Considering that Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody war, with tens of thousands casualties, for these very same territories between 1998 and 2000, the dispute could become quite a strong topic among the Ethiopian public opinion. Given that Abiy’s recent hardline posture in foreign affairs is partly due to the need to recover popularity among his own internal base, this could lead him to approach this new dispute with a hawkish attitude. This is especially possible given that in October 2023 he had already extended, with thin-veiled declarations, the “right to access the sea” also to Eritrean ports, irking the top echelons in Asmara.

Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) military vehicles (Open-source photo). Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after thirty years of guerrilla war, and has been ruled by the absolute regime of Isaias Afwerki ever since.

 

Drones and investments versus aid: foreign powers battle for influence

The egregious human right abuses during the Tigray War have cooled the relationships between the Ethiopian government and the Western world. The United States suspended duty-free access to Ethiopian exports in 2021 and imposed other sanctions, partially lifted in 2023 after the peace deal. Conversely, the conflict became a chance for other regional and global actors to extend, or deepen, their influence on the African country.

A first opportunity presented itself with the armed forces quest to obtain fighter drones, supplementing its fleet of Israeli-made recognizance UAV. A first supplier was its staunch ally, the United Arab Emirates, which by 2021 had already established an air bridge to supply the ENDF, including Chinese-made Wing Loong drones. However, Addis Abeba has also bought Mohajer-6 drones from Abu Dhabi’s rivals, Iran, and Akinci drones from Turkey, in addition to Bayraktar TB2 drones, whose role in the conflict has been so pivotal that in 2023 Baykar’s CEO, Haluk Bayraktar, was presented the Medal of Honor, making him the first foreign national to receive Ethiopia’s highest national award.

However, Addis Abeba biggest foreign military supplier, and main economic partner, is China. Beijing, which has invested heavily in Ethiopia over the years and extended billions of dollars in financing for infrastructure projects, amounting to half the country’s foreign debt, sold weaponry worth $35 million to the ENDF in 2022, including a recent purchase of dozens of SH15 wheeled howitzers. Ethiopia is also one of the four countries where China is both exporting arms and stationing security contractors. While Russian competition does not seem to have been able to successfully breach the Dragon’s leadership in this area, it is worth noting that the Ethiopian Air Force has recently purchased two Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets, making it the fourth African nation to operate the Russian-made jets.

A better-focused approach by the West could successfully counteract these influences by leveraging on its fundamental contribution to humanitarian aid, which Ethiopia badly needs: about four million people in drought-affected areas of the country need urgent food assistance, with food insecurity and high malnutrition rates overlapping with malaria, measles, and cholera outbreaks and livestock emergencies. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, US and European countries almost single-handedly funded the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Ethiopia, with Washington alone contributing with $891 million. Also last year, the European Union signed a cooperation agreement with Addis Abeba worth $680 million, as part of an aid package that was suspended as the Tigray War raged on.

While rightfully chastising the Ethiopian armed forces war crimes, by also carrying on a more persuasive approach toward Abiy’s government, could help solve the current humanitarian crisis, as well as prevent future ones, by tackling their underlining political causes, while safeguarding the stability of a region of crucial geopolitical importance.

 

 


[1] In 2022, the country’s expenditure on military software and hardware rose by 88%, reaching one billion dollars, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).