Lessons for Ethiopia from Russia–Ukraine relations to deter the looming threat from Eritrea
By Haile Tessema
Ethiopian News, Tigrai Online, December 29, 2015
It’s not new for a country that has achieved its independence to have a hostile relation with the country it separated from. A good and most recent example of this is Ukraine, which became independent after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. However, no sooner than Ukraine left the Union did disputes began to emerge with Russia over natural gas supplies, prices and debts.
Russia and Ukraine went through “periods of ties, tensions, and outright hostility” for over 20 years. Following the Feb. 2014 Ukrainian “Orange Revolution”, which resulted in the ousting of pro-Russia Victor Yanukovych, Russia annexed Crimea (“a major land mass on the northern coast of the Black Sea that is surrounded by water”) triggering border dispute, ethnic conflict and the subsequent formation of the Republic of Crimea.
Indeed, while there have been historic and contemporary political and economic causes of dispute, analysts believe that Ukraine’s flirtation with EU and NATO came as the final blow to a peaceful coexistence between the two countries and the ultimate showdown. John Mearsheimer, a professor at University of Chicago, points out:
“It was EU expansion, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West coupled with the February 22, 2014, coup that ignited the fire ... [and] fear is at the root of Russia’s opposition to the prospect of Ukraine becoming a Western bastion on its border. Great powers always worry about the balance of power in their neighborhoods and push back when other great powers march up to their doorsteps.”
The Relevance to Ethio–Eritrea Relations
Since Eritrea’s separation from Ethiopia, the relation between the two countries has seen more of turbulences and hostility than cooperation. A war purportedly over a border took place resulting in high human and material loss on both sides. Some analysts assert that – similar to that of Russia and Ukraine relations – economic factors (trade and currency related) were behind the Ethio-Eritrea conflict.
Following the end of the war in 2000, a no war, no peace relation has reigned over Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, a new development is likely to change things even from bad to worse. The UN Tribune in an article titled, “UAE, Saudi Using Eritrean Land, Sea, Airspace and, Possibly, Eritrean Troops in Yemen Battle” has reported that “The United Arab Emirates has leased a key Eritrean port for 30 years and along with its Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has established a military presence in Eritrea in return for monetary compensation and fuel supplies”.
On that note, only those with shared ideology/vested interest or the politically naïve would believe that the military expansion of the Gulf States to the Horn of Africa has all to do with the proxy war in Yemen.
In an article titled, “Saudi Arabia and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are Expanding to Eritrea. Geopolitical Implications for Ethiopia”, Andrew Korybko of Global Research rightly observed:
“... an argument can be made that it’s also just as much about Ethiopia as well. Unbeknownst to many, Qatar is the “ox driving the cart” in this case, and whether they like it or not, the rest of the GCC states will be reluctantly forced to follow its destabilizing lead if Doha decides to throw Ethiopia into chaos”.
Indeed, the move is about making Eritrea the Arab “bastion”, which has serious implications for Ethiopian national security and survival of the Ethiopian state.
Eritrea’s Flirtation with Arab Countries and Its Geopolitical Implications for Ethiopia
- Eritrea’s backroom deal to financial and material gain: To begin with, this is in breach of the UN Security Council resolution 1907 of Dec. 23, 2009, which imposes “arms embargo on Eritrea, travel bans on its leaders, and froze the assets of some of the country's political and military officials”. Sure enough, Eritrea’s unholy contractual marriage with Arab countries allows the country to obtain the financial and material supply, and use it on what the Eritrean regime knows best: destabilizing the region, particularly its archenemy Ethiopia.
- Eritrea’s fascination with the Arab League: Adopting Arabic as one of its national languages, Eritrea has been dying to join the Arab League, in which it currently has an “Observer” status. Thus, by providing its “land, sea, airspace and, possibly, Eritrean Troops” to the Gulf States, Eritrea could be on its way to securing Arab League membership.
Although the purpose of the Arab League is said to be “to strengthen ties among member states ... and promote their common interests”, the League is expanding its mandate by creating a joint military force in apparent reaction to the crisis in Yemen. Likewise, if Eritrea becomes a member, it means that the League will feel entitled to get involved in the Horn of Africa country’s affairs and in its disputes with neighbours.
- The role of Wahhabism: Saudi Arabia’s obsession with exporting Wahhabism to all corners of the globe has been long known, although it’s only now that politicians are beginning to openly speak about it. Just recently, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar publicly accused Saudi Arabia of financing Islamic extremism in the West, and warned that “the time of looking the other way is over”. And it’s an open secret that Ethiopia has been on Saudi Arabia’s target list for Wahhabi conquest.
When it comes to Qatar – “the ultra-rich Gulf state that tries to lift above its weight in international relations acting like miniature superpower” – it’s to be recalled that Ethiopia severed ties with the country in 2008 accusing it of “destabilizing the sub-region and its hostility towards Ethiopia”. And, although the two countries have reportedly mended fences since, there is no sign that Qatar has stopped nurturing the rogue regime in Eritrea. So, how convenient for these Persian Gulf states to be at the doorsteps of Ethiopia to carry out their separate as well as collective overt and covert operations.
- The Egypt factor: Egypt’s misguided sense of exclusive entitlement to Nile water, and its long destabilizing policy towards Ethiopia would be made a whole lot easier with Arab League member countries flexing their muscles in the region.
- Lack of Access to Sea: Ethiopia’s landlocked status, and its current dependency on Arab League member countries for access to sea – currently the Djibouti port as well as Port of Sudan and Port of Berbera, Somalia, as second and third choices – could easily be manipulated to Ethiopia’s disadvantage if or when the Arab countries unleash their destabilizing plan with the ultimate objective of “throwing Ethiopia into chaos”.
Internal Contributing / Exacerbating Factors
- Economic determinism: Every time the issue of access to sea is raised, the ruling party and its supporters tend to see the value of a port from a narrow economic perspective only, hence they argue that Ethiopia has no shortage of choices when it comes to ports.
However, not only does this fallacy fail to see the high economic cost associated with lack of a port (in the form of hard currency, tax revenue as well as port related business activities and employment opportunities lost), but the security aspect of it is grossly overlooked. Now, the time has come to re-evaluate the policy of downplaying the value of a port and access to sea.
- A political leadership and diplomatic impotence: The Ethiopian Government has been reluctant to play a proactive role in the international stage choosing, instead, to downplay the threat posed. For instance, PM Hailamriam Desalegn was quoted recently as saying, “Saudi Arabia and the UAE will bear the consequences of Ethiopia’s response if their operation in and around Eritrea’s Port of Assab supports the Eritrean regime’s destabilization agenda against Ethiopia”.
This leaves the impression that the PM is giving the deal the benefit of the doubt as supposed to outright and strongly denouncing it as breach of the UN resolution; condemning the Gulf Countries’ military occupation in the Horn as a grave national security threat and a recipe for regional disaster, hence unacceptable.
- A political gap left unabridged: Ethiopia is at a disadvantage by a party that outrageously controls 100% of the House of Federation as well as the House of People’s Representatives, and a government that thinks it can go it alone. This denies the country a forum for a bi-partisan consensus building on issues of common national interest, and vital support from citizens of all backgrounds and political stripes.
Conversely, opposition parties – some that suffered from political exclusion and others with a strong “the enemy of my enemy” mindset that fails to see the bigger picture of Ethiopia’s long-term interests in national security and the country’s very survival – are directly or indirectly allowing themselves to serve Arab countries’ interests.
To this end, the very presence of a coalition of hostile forces at the country’s doorsteps makes it a whole lot easier to manipulate the gap to the enemies’ political, diplomatic as well as military advantage.
- The lack or scarcity of policy studies: For a country located in conflict ridden region and embroiled in territorial and water disputes, it’s far from endowed with adequate think-tanks/policy institutions that carry out research on issues of relevance, particularly on national security. And the websites of the two primary such institutions – Ethiopian International Institute For Peace & Development (EIIPD) and the Addis Ababa University’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) – do not address Ethiopia’s security interests as boldly and as effectively as they should.
After all, in the form of research, such institutions are supposed to serve as opinion leaders and advocates for the country’s national interests in the international arena. However, the way things are now, relevant information is likely to be obtained from foreign sources, instead.
- Intellectual slackness: Ethiopia has no shortage of intellectuals in the field of political/social science, international relations, international law and other pertinent field of studies. However, while many are active in writing opinion pieces and producing papers on domestic matters, there is silence when it comes to Ethiopia’s geopolitical interests and external threats facing the country.
What needs to be done?
- Ethiopia has to firmly and incessantly protest to the UN that Eritrea is breaching the UN resolution, and that member countries are illegally and unethically accommodating Eritrea’s financial and material needs the UN has denied it, and thereby seek action.
- As this is not the time for diplomatic niceties, Ethiopia has to speak up openly and clearly of its concerns about Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their allies’ sinister motives under the guise of security concerns.
- Ethiopia has to seek and rally support from IGAD and AU and the international community by amplifying its concerns related to militarism and neo form of colonialism in the Horn of Africa.
- The Prime Minister should surround himself with national security advisors with profound knowledge in the international relations, laws and regulations. (On that note, the role of “advisor to PM” should not be a kind of retirement job or a position to accommodate demoted ministers or other high ranking officials, but rather a vital medium to keep the PM abreast of issues of concern, and equip the Office of the PM with information on policy alternatives.)
- The Ethiopian Govt. has to start bridge building with broadminded opposition parties, groups and individuals to seek their advice and rally support. Similarly, opposition parties need to make every effort to put partisan politics aside, and see the bigger picture of protecting the country’s common interests. A bi-partisan advisory group could be formed for this very purpose.
- Every effort should be made to involve and empower the existing think-tanks/policy study institutions as well as create new ones, and enable them to become effective in publicizing Ethiopia’s national security concerns nationally, regionally as well as internationally.
- Intellectuals of Ethiopian background need to leave partisan politics and differences aside for the sake of the country’s common long-term interests, and focus on conducting research; share their opinions and publish their papers in influential print and online media with the objective of promoting Ethiopia’s national security interests.
All said and done, while the aforementioned measures are expected to mitigate the emerging problem, they are not going to deter enemies of Ethiopia from looking for a way to get back at the country, and try to subjugate its people. That’s where the Russian approach comes in as a lasting solution.
Indeed, as the end justifies the means, Ethiopia has to use everything at its disposal to take a swift military action against Eritrea; get rid of its hostile government; annex Assab and declare any deal with a foreign country as null and void, based not only on history, geo-politics and demography, but also the clear and present danger the country is subjected to, and the lives of 90 million people that is put at risk.
Naysayers would rightly argue that, unlike Russia, Ethiopia is not a superpower with nuclear weapon in its arsenal to get away with its actions. But neither is Eritrea Ukraine, nor is the Arab League a NATO like force. Truth is, not only is Ethiopia capable of emerging victorious from any potential war, but – considering Saudi Arabia’s religious extremism exportation and Qatar’s obsession with a sphere of influence – the world is likely to see Ethiopia’s legitimate security concerns as just cause.
To sum up, Eritrea’s flirtation with Arab countries should come as a wakeup call for Ethiopia to end the looming threat from Eritrea once and for all. To that end, the best defense is a good offense adage comes as the one-and-only option to bring a lasting peace not only to Ethiopia, but also to the entire region.