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Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy One Year After Meles Zenawi – an Opportunity for Transformation

August 23, 2013



A woman harvests roses in a greenhouse at the ET Highland Flora flower farm, just outside Addis Ababa.

Today, on 21 August 2013, a year has passed since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the man considered to be the leading architect of post-Derg Ethiopia.

Following his death, the future of a resurgent Ethiopia hung by a thread. Uncertainty mounted in the vast country of over 80 million inhabitants, with over 60 diverse ethnicities and two major religions that have cohabitated uncomfortably for decades.

The death of Meles did not result in friction or major collapse, nor did it lead to impermeable divisions within the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The EPRDF leadership handled the succession process deftly and out of public sight, mainly in line with its five-year succession plan of 2011, allowing the late Zenawi’s deputy prime minster, Hailemariam Desalegn, to step into the position of Prime Minister until the general elections in 2015.

The legitimisation of, and overwhelming vote of confidence in Desalegn (representing a minority from the South) as leader of the EPRDF by the 180-member party council in September last year signalled the grip of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) within the ruling party.

Moreover, it illustrated a concern with the fragile ethno-religious equilibrium and porous political alliances that have been at the centre of Ethiopian politics since the founding of the EPRDF in 1989.

Irrespective of the tense political situation and delicate transition of 2012, according to the World Bank’s June 2013 Ethiopia Economic Update, economic growth over the past decade has averaged 10.7%, making it one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world.

However, Ethiopia’s relative stability and remarkable economic growth rates do not mask the domestic fault-lines – religious and ethnic – that have a profound impact on the country’s foreign policy, and particularly the country’s role in the Horn of Africa.

The degree to which Ethiopia under Hailemariam Desalegn can re-engineer the domestic order to reflect democracy as one of the country’s foreign policy stated doctrines remains an obstacle to a bolder Ethiopian diplomatic and economic role within and beyond the Horn of Africa.

Regional security as domestic stability

With the exception of Kenya, with which Ethiopia has a stable border and cordial relations and free movement of people, including Kenya’s constructive role in the Ogaden conflict, the country’s regional policy is navigating a myriad of security challenges that interact dangerously with its domestic stability.

The country’s unstable borders include an defensive Eritrea to the North, a fragile Somalia to the south, and South-Sudan and Sudan uneasy co-existence around its western borders.

This explains why Meles’ Ethiopia pursued an ambitious regional security policy, largely concerned with the structural requirements for state survival.

Thus, the country’s diplomacy has been pragmatically focussed on domestic stability, food security and climate change, including harnessing aid and investment in order to deal with pressing domestic developmental challenges.

These priorities in the country’s foreign policy have been articulated in several ways.

First, under Meles, Ethiopia became a staunch ally of the United States (US), by far (alongside the United Kingdom) the country’s largest bilateral donor.

Second, the country hosted US bases with their complement of drones for patrolling Somalia and to combat terrorist organisations.

Finding common cause with an America fighting al Qaeda emerges from the serious threat of sectarian violence in Ethiopia that the EPRDF leadership is all too aware of.

In this vein, the country twice sent troops into Somalia, first in 1996 and again in 2006 to fight Islamist militants linked to Al-Qaeda, including Al-Shabaab.

Third, in order to secure peace on its northern border, Ethiopia under Meles allowed Eritrea to secede in 1993, then fought – allegedly against Zenawi’s own advice – a bloody war with the new country from 1998-2000.

Fourth, Ethiopia is the sole troop-contributor (4,200 increasing to over 5,000 in the short-term) to the UN Interim Stabilization Force in Abyei (UNISFA) on the border between South Sudan and Sudan.

Ethiopia plays an important role in advancing regional integration and mitigating regional conflict in Somalia and the two Sudans.

Playing such a role, including through military force, is considered to be in Ethiopia’s interest because the country continues to host a stream of refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. Moreover, since taking office Prime Minister Hailemariam has organised two summits of the leaders of the Sudan and South Sudan to facilitate negotiations.

He pressed Sudan to negotiate with rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement; and urged Sudan to allow humanitarian aid into Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces. The Government of Ethiopia has also contributed more than 2,000 personnel to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

In light of these initiatives, there is greater appreciation in Ethiopian foreign policy that the country should continue playing a crucial role in fostering peace and stability across the volatile Horn of Africa, particularly in weakening al-Shabaab.

But what tools should be available in the Ethiopia’s foreign policy for it to play a more strategic, transformational and developmental role in the region and beyond?

Democracy: the missing pillar in Ethiopia’s foreign policy

Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy of 2002 position the country as a viable multi-ethnic entity, able to advance the goals of peace and security, democracy and development.

While foreign policy-makers have been modestly successful in morphing the country from a militaristic regional profile to a slightly more progressive posture, acutely aware of the potential developmental boon from a regional peace dividend, democracy has been the missing link and weakly articulated.

For the country to posit democracy as an important guiding principle in its foreign policy implies a domestic order that is fairly consistent with this aim.

At present this is hardly the case, and Ethiopia’s regional security challenges mirror to a certain degree its own domestic order.

But a very important step has been made less than two weeks ago under Hailemariam Desalegn’s gentle hand when the Ethiopian government allowed the opposition Semayawi (blue) party to stage peaceful protests demanding the release of prisoners of conscience.

Allowing peaceful assembly and protest can only bode well for the country’s image and prestige. This could in turn have positive ramifications for the country’s foreign policy and role as a regional broker, able to sponsor transitions to democratic orders in the region.

Ethiopia can play a better regional and continental role when it integrates sufficiently the normative anchors of its foreign policy as not just mere principles that informs the domestic environment, but crucially part of the country’s own external projection.

A year after the death of Meles Zenawi, the current leadership should pursue the transformation of the country’s domestic order, and crucially its foreign policy, to adequately reflect its own codified democratic aspirations that can potentially pacify the Horn of Africa.

Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is head of SAIIA’s South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme (SAFPAD).

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