Misreading Ethiopia’s foreign and security policy


Mulugeta Alemu

25 November 2009


Alemayehu Fantaw’s piece titled Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy: The Case for a Paradigm Shift has ambitious and lofty reach. The paper claims that protecting the sanctity of territorial integrity is the fundamental premise of the current Ethiopia’s foreign and security policy. This, according to the writer, relegates non-military aspect of security into a secondary place. The author also charges that the Ethiopian government is spending too much on boosting its defense capabilities taking the nation’s meager resources away from sectors vital for protecting ‘human security.’ This policy, continues the writer, also fails to ensure meeting Ethiopia’s security objectives particularly with respect to both in Eritrea and Somalia. These scathing criticisms are not limited to the policy itself, but are also directed at the way the Ethiopian diplomacy is being run. It is argued that not only does the policy ignore the role of women, but its implementation is undermined by a lack of ‘definite career path to diplomacy for qualified professionals.’ To be fair to the author, not all these claims can simply be dismissed. But the essential elements of his critique of Ethiopia’s foreign policy are gravely mistaken.


The writer rightly points out the necessity of zeroing in ‘human security’ as a principal objective of security policy.  But he wrongly attacks Ethiopia’s foreign and security policy for failing to recognize this. Contrary to the author’s claim, Ethiopia’s policy is very much attuned to the imperative of reorienting the tools of diplomacy in the service of promoting economic development and improvement of the human condition in the country. The policy underlines that the nation’s survival is principally predicated on the welfare of its citizens. It is ludicrous to suggest that a country’s foreign and security policy should not focus on the sanctity of territorial integrity. No country stipulates policies to dismantle its territory. As is well known to the author, this is a cardinal principle of international law inscribed in the Charter of the United Nations.  If the writer is insinuating that the policy bestows on the doctrine of territorial integrity as an overriding foreign policy and security objective, nothing can be further from the truth. Such a policy would have blatantly been incompatible with the FDRE Constitution including its article 39. The irony of this criticism is that detractors of EPRDF often claimed that the government’s sponsored documents and policies do not sufficiently express a zealous commitment to territorial integrity.


Protection of human rights, democracy and good governance underpin the Ethiopian foreign and security policy. The country is still struggling to perfect its path towards the fullest realization of human rights implementation and democratic governance. Without achieving these goals, the welfare of citizens and the future of the nation can not be guaranteed. This is indeed why we have a constitution that radically transformed the political landscape by granting the erstwhile oppressed ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ greater freedom and entitlements. That is also why the country continues to run elections, numerous challenges and setbacks notwithstanding. Calling for better implementation of human rights and democratic principle enshrined in the constitution is noble. But arguing for human rights protection in Ethiopia can hardly be a radical vision. Neither can it be promised as a proposal for a paradigm shift in Ethiopia’s foreign policy. It is a simply a reinstatement of what the current policy proscribes.


No solid security policy can be imaginable without a robust military preparedness and capabilities. Ethiopia undoubtedly needs a well-equipped and well-staffed national defense force. Any viable economic development in a volatile region for which the Horn of Africa is an imminently fit example can only be achieved if ‘spoilers’ in the region have reason to be circumspect in their military adventures. The current level of military expenditure, within the range of less than two percent of the nation’s GDP, can hardly be a good example of uncontrolled expenditure. Ethiopia’s budget is substantially dedicated to meeting social and economic objective including by expanding roads, schools, health services and infrastructure. There is no room for fabrication or playing the data. One can simply look at the annual budget of the country which is regularly published in the federal Negarit Gazette.


The stalemate with Eritrea is costly. But is Ethio-Eritrean deadlock a result of a wrongheaded policy by the Ethiopian government or an outcome of combination of factors?  No matter how well Ethiopia’s policy is articulated, it can’t always guarantee the creation of an outcome the government desires. Ethiopia is a very poor country. Its power to effectuate policy outcomes is thus considerably limited. Ethiopia thus needs a smart policy toward Eritrea, which can compensate for its apparent lack of capacity to meet its objectives via diplomacy by other means. Many seasoned observers quietly acknowledges how well disposed Ethiopia has been in taking full advantage of its rich tradition of diplomacy. Thanks partly to Ethiopia’s skillful use of diplomacy and also to Eritrea’s own failed policies, Eritrea now is not a mortal enemy and is totally alienated by the international community including by the African Union. 


Does Ethiopia need well-equipped and well-trained diplomats? Certainly.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs like numerous government institutions is struggling to keep its own experienced staff, let alone attract the brightest men and women to its HQ and missions abroad. There are some legitimate grounds to criticize the ministry for this state of affairs. But brain drain is a ‘national crisis’ affecting all our institutions. The writer correctly identifies the disappointing representation of women in the ministry. But he does not show interest to discuss the steps that are being taken to rectify this gap. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now a portfolio dedicated to following issues of interest to women both within the ministry and beyond. The ministry, among others, has actively supported Ethiopian women to join international organizations. Some few months back, one of its highly experienced female diplomats was assigned as UN envoy to the peace-support mission in Central Africa Republic. These examples are admittedly anecdotal, but they do indicate the serious effort being undertaken to address the problem.


The writer has picked up an issue that is worthy of discussion and debate. This much needed dialogue, however, could have been enriched if the author spent a little more time to check some of his facts and sweeping conclusions.