BRUSSELS – Two decades ago, Ethiopia was a Cold War battlefield. On the ideological map of the world, it was Soviet territory, a land of famine, dictatorship, and civil war. But, with the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in 1991, Ethiopia began to transform itself. Today, it ranks among the five fastest-growing economies in the world, and is a bastion of regional stability.
That stability matters, because the Horn of Africa is becoming a security headache once again. If the region is to be stabilized, Ethiopia will need to play a key part. Indeed, it should be considered an indispensable strategic partner for those in the international community who want to prevent the entirety of East Africa from slipping into chaos.
Besides the never-ending anarchy of neighboring Somalia, the regional challenges facing Ethiopia and its long-serving prime minister, Meles Zenawi, are daunting. The country remains on a war footing with Eritrea over the disputed border village of Badme. The peace deal between the government and the former rebel SPLM is unraveling fast in neighboring Sudan, where a scheduled referendum in the South in January 2011 on secession and independence – part of the 2005 peace deal – may provoke a return to all-out war.
Further south, Kenya remains scarred by the aftermath of post-election violence, and its constitutional review process could lead to yet more bloodshed. Moreover, Ethiopia’s proximity to strife-torn Yemen (where violent jihadis are congregating) just across the Red Sea, is complicating the country’s foreign policy because of its role in working to keep Somalia out of Islamist control.
Despite these myriad problems – or perhaps because of them – Ethiopia has an opportunity to emerge as the undisputed regional leader. Rapid population growth is projected to put it among the world’s ten most populous states by mid-century. Though landlocked, Ethiopia is comparatively well endowed with natural resources, not least its fertile farmland, which has attracted significant investment from Saudi Arabia, among others. A final settlement of the lengthy dispute with Egypt over the waters of the Blue Nile – which rises in Ethiopia – appears to be in sight, and could have a powerful impact on economic growth.
But, despite Ethiopia’s progress, the international community (especially the West) has been reluctant to view the country as a strategic partner. Of course, Ethiopia has its problems, but these should be seen in an African context. The human-rights situation could undoubtedly be improved – in particular, the treatment of the political opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa – but Isaias Afwerki’s regime in neighboring Eritrea is worse by orders of magnitude.
The country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, dominates the political landscape – but who can blame Ethiopians, surrounded by potential enemies, for giving priority to stability and order over Western-style democratic development? Western leaders can hardly denounce Zenawi while lauding Vladimir Putin for bringing a focus on modernization to Russia’s governance.
Furthermore, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has created what amounts to a one-party state during his 24 years in power, yet he is feted in the West as one of Africa’s visionary leaders. It seems that Ethiopia, more often than not, is the victim of diplomatic double standards.
If Zenawi consolidates his hold on power in the parliamentary elections due this May, the world should expect the stability that he has brought to take deeper root. Whether it will ripple throughout the region is another question. That is why, regardless of the electoral result, Ethiopia needs international backing.
It is interesting to contrast the likely consequences of the election in Ethiopia with the expected fallout from the presidential election scheduled in Sudan at around the same time. If Omar al-Bashir retains Sudan’s presidency, as expected, he will be emboldened to step up his hostility to the country’s restless regions. His bloody campaign in Darfur, the world should need no reminding, has already led to his indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Bashir will also no doubt try to stop the oil-rich devolved region of South Sudan from declaring independence. The people of South Sudan, most of whom are Christian or animists, are likely to favor secession – not least because of the memory of decades of war and the deeply resented imposition of Sharia law by Bashir’s government in Khartoum.
Many now believe that Bashir will seek to prevent the referendum from taking place, or to use its result as a pretext to return to war with the South – with devastating consequences across the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s diplomacy will be vital to minimizing the potential for such violence to spread, but Ethiopia can fulfill this role only if it receives strong strategic backing from the West.
Regional rivalries and past history mean that Ethiopia has few natural allies in the region. One such ally could be Somaliland, the former British protectorate, which broke away from Somalia in 1991 and lies to the northeast of Ethiopia.
Somaliland is, like Ethiopia, relatively stable, economically improving, and secure. It also has a lengthy coastline and a deepwater port, Berbera, which could help land-locked Ethiopia unlock even more economic growth. The moderate Islam practiced in Somaliland could not be farther removed from the barbarity of the Al-Shabab in Somalia. If Ethiopia were to recognize Somaliland as sovereign, other African Union countries would likely follow – and so, perhaps, would the United States and EU member states, which increasingly despair of patching Somalia together.
Ethiopia ’s leadership throughout the Horn of Africa could bring lasting change in a part of the world that has largely been written off. It is time to give Ethiopia the diplomatic tools that it needs.