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.