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Ginbot 20 - The turning point from military diplomacy to economic diplomacy

By Saba Habtamu
Tigrai Online, May 29, 2015

Ginbot 20 EPRDF vivtory Day celebrated in Ethiopia
Ethiopia has become a real force for peace in the East Africa region thanks to the victory of EPRDF - Updated

The role and influence of Ethiopia at regional and international level has reached an undeniable height. Last month's visit of two global powers, the Secretary of State of United States and the Prime Minister of China is a re-confirmation of that. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly said that: "Ethiopia plays such an essential role – a key role, a leadership role – and we’re very, very grateful for that".

On another speech, he underlined that: "Ethiopia has been a very strong partner, a very important partner in efforts with respect to Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia. I worked very closely with former Prime Minister Meles, who – I came here to Addis Ababa, we worked on the issue of the comprehensive peace agreement and the referendum and moving South Sudan to independence. And we worked on the questions of Abyei and the two areas.  We are particularly grateful to Ethiopia for their initiative, a very important initiative in respect to Somalia. It has helped significantly to be able to produce a new opportunity for governance. And it is governance now that is the greater challenge, rather than the al-Shabaab threat."

These international respect, recognitions and cordial relations are not accidental. They are rather results the carefully crafted and executed foreign policy in the past twenty three years.

Historically, the foreign policy of Ethiopia had been limited more of defensive to foreign pressures/actions. There was no policy document and it was not aimed at improving the lives of the people, but aimed at serving personalities and dominated by feudal elites for their own benefit and reputation. The foreign relation activities were not subject to accountability.

It was directed at achieving military supply and priority was given to the military needs of the kings, both for internal and foreign wars.

Even though Ethiopia was able to maintain her sovereignty and territorial integrity and entered into treaties to that effect

The Kings’ priority had been to their power and religion, therefore kept foreign relations of the state minimal for fear of foreign influence. Economic and commercial relations were ignored, except for purchase of armaments and luxury goods to the king and nobles.

Moreover, the rivalry between the kings and territorial expansion and rivalry had opened a door for foreign intervention.

Even if we consider the period after the Italian invasion, the foreign policy direction of Ethiopia remained vague. It was characterized by personal diplomacy of the King and focused on promoting the reputation of the emperor. It was also dependent on one superpower, USA, and showed disregard economic, development and trade relations.

The Derg regime more or less followed the feudal path. There was no fundamental changes in policy objectives, except the “socialist principles”.

The Derg regime foreign relations approach was characterized by high priority on getting arms and military diplomacy without paying attention to economic diplomacy. It also exhibited extreme ideological dependency on the east, emphasizing on maintaining good relations with the socialist world and promoting socialist principles on international forums. Economic development of the state was disregarded and there was no peace with the neighboring states.

After May 28/1991, the foreign policy orientation of Ethiopia shifted dramatically.

The gist of Ethiopia's Foreign and National Security has become characterized by the determination to improve [citizens] lives by deploying everything for economic development and democratization free from arrogance and adventurism.

As summed up by the renowned scholar Alex De Waal: "The first objective of Ethiopia’s national security, not as having a strong national defence force—however important that may be—but as human security for Ethiopians. The centerpiece of what we might call the “Meles Zenawi doctrine” of national security was promoting and defending national economic development. For without the conquest of poverty, Ethiopia would remain weak and vulnerable, no matter how many tanks and helicopter gunships it might be able to deploy."

Even prior to the preparation of the Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy document in 2002, Ethiopia’s handling of neighborly relations were deeply rooted in the principles of promoting peace, cooperation and economic diplomacy.

Especially since the reform of the party in 2001-2, Ethiopia engaged with more clarity of purpose to construct the architecture for the new economic and political integration in the Horn that enables herself and the region to exploit the opportunities to lift the people out of the quagmire of poverty and bring a permanent end to instability. Ethiopia employed a careful and creative study of its relations with every country—examining the best forms of integration with the neighbors, and the best forms of development partnership that each developed country had to offer.

This led to a strategic engagement with neighboring countries, with emphasis on the economic and infrastructural integration with all of its neighbors, especially in terms of transport, communications, and energy.

Adjacent to this is a parallel commitment to peace and security in the region. Ethiopia’s strong desire for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa is central to all its regional policies. Peaceful neighbors are good trade partners and regional stability enables a country to focus resources on addressing poverty and the development of good governance and the democratic developmental state.

Despite the challenges faced both in terms of unruly neighbors or ideological crusaders of all varieties, Ethiopia today enjoys largely cordial, indeed beneficial, relations with dozens of partners around the world.

Even in the face of high-handed tactics and at times violence, Ethiopia has taken care to avoid conflict at any level as far as possible in the clear understanding that only more progress in both poverty reduction and good governance can create the real answer to such ‘spoilers’ in the region. It has achieved excellent relations with almost all its neighbors on the basis of policies designed to encourage the highest levels of economic cooperation as well as close and friendly political and security relations based on mutual trust and confidence.

The central factor in Ethiopian policy in the Horn of Africa has been its aim to build and cement relations with all its neighbors on the basis that economic links are the bedrock of sustainable policies. This is what underlies Ethiopia’s involvement in, and commitment to, regional bodies such as the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development, and its continuous support for the regeneration and revitalization of the Authority. This two-fold approach paid off both in terms of the anti-poverty effort and the strengthening of Ethiopia's national security.

The impact of this major shift, after May 28/Ginbot 20, from militarized foreign relations to approach to the current economic diplomacy approach can be demonstrated in specific cases.

Derg's relation with Somalia was characterized by supporting and organizing Somali insurgencies so as to destabilize it, banning Somalian pastoralists from crossing the Ethiopian border to pressure their government

Derg's relation with Djibouti was focused at prevent Djibouti from being the foot hold  of our "Arab enemies and imperialists", not treating Djibouti as a foreign state.

Derg considered Sudan as anti-Ethiopian unity and anti-revolution, that has strategic relations with Saudi Arabia and imperialist USA. Therefore, it focused on helping the South Sudan insurgent groups with armaments and logistics and convincing the socialist world to help the insurgents, since Sudan is an imperialist. 

Derg regards Kenya as an enemy ideologically, but as a tactical ally since Somalia is a common enemy. So, its approach was focused on building covert personal relations with Kenyan elites.

From the above cases, what we observe is that the foreign policy of the Derg was securitized and militarized with little or no regard for economic, trade and people-to-people aspects.

However, after Ginbot 20 Ethiopia's relations with these neighbors increased both in its scope and scale.

For example, in the past 23 years, Ethiopia's relation with Kenya reached a historic level of cooperation and bonds of close friendship. The close links between Ethiopia and Kenya have been particularly visible in the way the two countries have constantly supported each others positions in international forums in many different areas. Ethiopia and Kenya share a common understanding on such issues as cross-border terrorism, piracy, regional integration under the umbrella of IGAD and the prime importance of peace and security in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Their common involvement in IGAD provides a significant indication of the strength of their relationship. Both countries have consistently demonstrated their common interests through the organization, their support for revitalizing IGAD and for ensuring that it provides the basis for one of the AU's Regional Economic Units.


Ethiopia and Kenya have also cooperated closely over cross-border problems. One important element has been successful in organizing and expanding community-led peace initiatives in areas all along the border, including the Maikona and Dukana Peace Accords that have significantly reduced violent incidents among communities on the borders while enhancing peaceful interaction and resource sharing.

The cooperation bore fruits in economic matters as well. Both countries have embarked upon a number of joint development programs in road construction, commerce and trade and other areas.  Ethiopia has been exploring the possibility of using Mombasa as a port, and is taking a keen interest in the discussions about the creation of a new port at Lamu and the possibilities of rail links with other areas. One major new project has been the development of the Omo River valley which alarmed some conservationists in Kenya, worried about the impact on Lake Turkana. In fact, the series of dams in the Omo Valley, in particular Gilgel Gibe III, will generate nearly 2,000 MWs of hydro-electric power. A significant amount of this will go to Kenya, and as Kenya’s Environment Minister said “Gilgel Gibe III should brighten not threaten our future.”

Similarly, Ethiopia and Somalia are now enjoying all-round relations despite the scars left by past regimes. Since 1991, the two countries had entered a new stage of working for mutual cooperation, which had allowed the relationship to build on a solid foundation. They currently enjoyed consolidated relations in the areas of peace, security and economy on the basis of mutual trust and benefit.

The people and government of Somalia have developed solid trust and confidence that the people and government of Ethiopia were cooperating in the areas of peace, security, economy and politics. There are also agreements at ministerial level to ensure a healthy economic integration. The people and government of Somalia gave credit to the sacrifices paid by the Ethiopian forces to maintain peace and security in their country.

The relation with South Sudan is indeed another showcase of Ethiopia's responsible and far-sighted foreign relations direction. During the six year interim period, before the independence of South Sudan, the governments of Ethiopia and South Sudan had taken important steps to consolidate our bilateral relations. Umbrella agreement on technical, economic, social and cultural cooperation was signed on December 2007. On the basis of this agreement, the government of Ethiopia has provided limited capacity building support in the form of scholarships and trainings to South Sudanese personnel.

Since the formal deceleration of South Sudan's independence last July new avenues for consolidating our bilateral relations have been created. Both countries have upgraded their missions to an embassy level and have appointed Ambassadors to each other's country. Various spheres of cooperation agreements are now on the table. These sectoral agreements are expected to transform the general framework agreement signed in 2007 into concrete framework of cooperation and bring the dream of closer cooperation into fruition.

The same direction has been followed in regional and multilateral forums. Ethiopia has persistently used multilateral institutions like IGAD, COMESA, the AU, the UN and other institutions to pursue shared interests. This is not confined to infrastructure and economic development. It also aims to build political trust and discourage disorder in the region. Ethiopia has played a major role in supporting IGAD’s peace and security activities, including the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan and the peace process for Somalia. It has been active in deterring cross-border conflicts in pastoral areas through IGAD’s Conflict Early Warning Response Mechanism (CEWARN).

Indeed, Ethiopia has become a very real force for peace in the East Africa region. Enjoying the trust of both Khartoum and Juba, it has been brokering efforts to resolve the disputes between South Sudan and Sudan. It has sent troops to the joint UN – AU peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) to help maintain peace and stability in that troubled region. It has also deployed 4000 troops in Abyei to maintain peace and stability for the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). Again, it has cooperated with the Somali government to fight terrorism and extremism. It has been playing a vital role facilitating dialogue and providing support to enable the Jubbaland administration and the Federal Government of Somalia to work jointly in building the Federal State of Somalia.

The pragmatic and scientific foreign policy approach that Ethiopia followed since Ginbot 20 can be summed up in the following words:

"Our policy in the Horn of Africa should, like all our other policies, be free of different sentiments and proceed from a sober analysis of the situation, keeping in constant view our development and democracy agenda.  It should understand that the success of our development and democratization has a positive contribution not only to Ethiopia but to all neighbors as well; and that a policy that is free of arrogance and greed would contribute to changing the entire region.  These are the premises on which our policy is based. 

On the other hand, although our neighbors have little direct influence on our economic development, their role could grow in time, and as they would then have a bigger capacity to adversely affect our peace, our policy should focus on developing the culture of dealing with contradictions through discussion and negotiation while reducing our vulnerability to danger and to ad-dress security threats appropriately."

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