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Restive Region Demands an End to Ethiopia's Shyness in Using Hard Power

Restive Region Demands an End to Ethiopia’s Shyness in Using Hard Power

Mesle A 04-21-16

The Horn of Africa is unique not only for its constant instability but also for the lack of clear regional influential power playing a decisive role. Comprising, seven nations including Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan the region has never seen or at least recognized one strong regional leader for so long. That seems to be changing now.

Only three out of the six countries has enough internal stability to assume leadership of the region. Since Djibouti is a state-let with no chance of regional influence, Ethiopia and Kenya are the only feasible choices. Kenya have both the economic power and internal stability for regional leadership. However, it lacks the demography, security and military might its neighbor Ethiopia possesses in abundance. 

Ethiopia shares borders with all the seven countries at the horn of Africa. It is the founding member of the UN, the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Ethiopia pursues its regional interests multilaterally through these organizations, albeit mainly through a dominant role in IGAD. Ethiopia has a long diplomatic history and extensive experience in foreign relations. In assessment of the external threats to the country, the regimes of Emperor Haileselassie and Colonel Mengistu were outward-looking while Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn appears more inward-looking. Previous Ethiopian regimes, especially Mengistu’s military regime, externalized almost all the country’s problems by focusing on building military defense capabilities against the ‘historical enemies of Ethiopia’. Hence its main focus been aimed at addressing external threats.

Rooted in its ideological perspectives about the root causes of Ethiopia’s internal troubles and possible solutions, the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front- (EPRDF) led government regards regional diplomacy as another platform for solving regional problems that affect Ethiopia’s internal governance and development challenges. Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy (FANSPS) rightly and explicitly underscores foreign policy as subservient to Ethiopia’s internal policies, which priorities economic development, stability and democratic governance. Therefore, the country’s regional diplomacies are pursued through a dominant interpretation of the country’s role in the region. Ethiopia's foreign policy implicitly espouses the belief that a country that is not peaceful domestically cannot enjoy peace with its neighbors. Likewise, for the establishment of a peaceful, integrated and prosperous region, Ethiopia deems it equally necessary for its neighbors to enjoy domestic peace and stability. Ethiopia has therefore signed comprehensive cooperation agreements with Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan, reflecting its close relations with both close and distant African and

Arab countries. However, at a regional level, IGAD is a key regional institution through which Ethiopia pursues its regional objectives. Since 2008, Ethiopia has been the chair of IGAD.

Ethiopia’s economic take-off offers hope for the troubled region, and the country is increasingly attracting aid, trade and investment. It recently added a new area of focus on regional integration in IGAD through internal infrastructure development, and the export of hydroelectric power and water concessions to neighboring countries.

Ranked first in sub-Saharan Africa, third (next to Egypt and Algeria) in Africa and fortieth in the world, Ethiopia’s military strength and role in regional peace and security, and an impressive track record in peacekeeping, counter-terrorism, and mediation create demand for long-term partnerships and alliances in the region and beyond. In actual troop contribution, with a total of 12,247 troops (4,395 troops in the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)), and 7 852 in UN missions, Ethiopia is the biggest troop-contributing nation in the world. 

As the top contributor to UN peacekeeping missions in, for example, Darfur (UN AU Mission in Darfur), Abyei (UN Interim Security Force for Abyei or UNISAFA) and South Sudan (UN Mission in South Sudan), Ethiopia’s focus has been on peace and security in Africa.  Ethiopia played a decisive role in the imposition of UN sanctions against the failed state of Somalia and the regional pariah Eritrea by mobilizing other IGAD member states, lobbying the AU and by influencing the UN Security Council. The Ethiopian chief of the IGAD-led mediation for South Sudan, and Ethiopia’s role in the mediation talks between South Sudan and Sudan are a few examples of Ethiopia’s leadership prominence in the region. This strategic role attracts significant interest from Western and Eastern powers in terms of Ethiopia’s responsibility in the region and beyond.

At this time, four out of six of Ethiopia's neighbors are unstable. Ethiopia have peacekeeping troops in the territory of three of its neighbors and a significant military and intelligence resource deployments in its borders with four of them. In such a militarily and diplomatically stretching season the youngest African nation, South Sudan, is near implosion from its trials and tribulation regarding its recent political division-cum-civil war. The cross-border atrocities committed by South Sudanese tribal gangs on Ethiopian civilians is a clear sign that South Sudan is going the direction of Somalia.

In the last two decades Ethiopia mostly used its pan-African aura in its diplomatic endeavors and generally preferred using soft power instead of hard power. That earned her a level of trust and respect as it was no longer considered a regional bully. Such respect, however, only goes so far.

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, estimated to reach 8 thousand (UN estimates), were deployed in a conventional combat mission to expel an Islamist group called Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) that was threatening the weak transitional government of Somalia. That was a turning point in a sense that it was the first major exertion of hard power to intervene in neighbor's internal politics and get involved in nation building. That succeeded splendidly and immensely reduced the threat Ethiopia faces from its southern border.

The mediation process of the warring factions of South Sudan is not yet promising as the conflict prolonged for almost two years causing devastating damage to the country. The regional body, IGAD itself has expressed frustration at one point over the bickering of the two parties and how things tend to regress back every time a gain is made. Since the turmoil has reached a stage where it affects Ethiopia’s peace and the safety of its citizens, it is time for Ethiopia to stop its reluctance in using its hard power on behalf of the region.

Coming out as an uncontested leader if the region, Ethiopia have the moral responsibility to exert its power in forcing a peaceful settlement to the humanitarian catastrophe next door. Given time, the South Sudan will turn into another failed state in the horn and God knows if the region can afford that scenario. Rebuilding a failed state is costly, if it even succeeds. Hence, it is high time for Ethiopia to fully assume its regional leadership.  

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