Ethiopia: Western Ally and Regional Heavyweight

Ethiopia's Foreign Policy
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia

AFRICANGLOBE – Meles Zenawi will be a hard act to follow, but Hailemariam Desalegn should not be underrated. As foreign minister he played a pivotal role in the peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan.

A s the region’s largest country and leading military power, Ethiopia has taken advantage of its status to broker close relations with the West while becoming the region’s principal arbiter.

In those pursuits, former Premier Meles Zenawi was a powerful tool.

None of that, say analysts close to the ruling party, should be confused with the notion that the late premier was the main driver of Ethiopia’s foreign policy.

As prime minister, Meles Zenawi was the voice of the ruling party and the face of the country – and he acted on behalf of both rather than as an individual, they say.

The reality may be a little more complicated.

In a region where ‘big men’ still adopt singular pursuits and shape regional relations, the late prime minister was an influential force, especially considering the long-running feud with Eritrea, a country forged out of a common liberation struggle and with which both Ethiopia’s ruling party and the late premier personally shared blood.

At a recent meeting in Addis Ababa of the foreign policy community, some pointed to the fact that Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki has used the hostility between the two countries as a shield to prevent scrutiny of his government.

Others said recent incidents demonstrate that the man in Asmara is no longer completely in charge, so Addis Ababa could directly intervene with no lasting consequences for itself.

But senior members of the ruling party ruled out any discussion of ‘regime change.’ Addis Ababa’s policy towards Asmara since the 2003 ruling by the United Nations’ boundary commission on Badme had been to accept the findings and recommendation, as the government remained open to peace talks.

Burying the Hatchet

With Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in office, the question of whether Ethiopia will continue to wield as much international influence is still important.

To its advantage, Addis Ababa remains a key Western client as far as the regional counter-terrorism agenda is concerned.

Somalia under Al-Shabaab control was the main headache. With a new government in Mogadishu, relations between the two have eased substantially.

“The Somalis used to call us charaa, satan,” says a government official who asked for anonymity.

“For the first time in modern Ethiopian history, there is now a popular acceptance of us in Somalia because of our role intervening there in 2006 and the fruits of that, which they are now seeing.

“The rivalry that existed between us for four centuries no longer exists.”

At the same time, the United States’ pursuit of drone warfare has not necessarily meant a diminution of Addis Ababa’s importance.

In terms of regional diplomacy, Ethiopia’s domination of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, under whose ambit peace and security policy is shaped, means that there is unlikely to be a substantial shift in Addis Ababa’s strategic thinking.

“Ethiopia has moved up the continental diplomatic pecking order for several reasons. One is the decline of major powers, namely South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

“The other is the character of Meles Zenawi. Will new prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn be able to fit into his shoes? Not likely, but don’t forget that he cultivated lots of experience during his time as foreign minister.

“He is not to be under-rated. His role in brokering the peace talks between the Sudans was pivotal. And Ethiopia continues to enjoy lots of respect from the two countries,” says a Western observer.

In addition, Ethiopia has integrated its infrastructure investments into its regional strategy.

There are plans for a pipeline and road linking South Sudan and Djibouti.

Similarly, its ambitions as an energy exporter – it has already signed deals with Kenya and Djibouti, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is eliciting interest from Khartoum and Cairo – will bolster its influence.

“We want to begin cultivating our soft power options in the region,” says an Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front insider.


By: Parselelo Kantai