The greatest and most imminent threat to Ethiopia lays in the sphere of ethno-separatism, the sentiment of which has continued to boil even after the Cold War-era civil war was brought to a close. Part of the reason for this is that Eritrea’s independence set a dangerous precedent for the militant representatives of the country’s disaffected ethnic groups, which it seems include just about every single one of them in some capacity or another (even the dominant Oromo and Amhara pluralities). The reason for this is that Ethiopia is a hyper-eclectic country with a wide array of identities within its federal structure, and in such a situation, it’s always difficult for any governing authority (let alone what some rebel groups allege is the present Tigrean-dominated one) to strike the perfect balance between each of them and leave everyone satisfied. This preexisting state of divisive affairs was utterly exacerbated by the Ethiopian Civil War that broke out against The Derg, where ethnic-affiliated rebel groups banded together in order to overthrow the central governing authority. The militant comradery that developed within each identity community as a result heightened the self-awareness that each of them felt about their differences and thus made a post-war federal structure the only realistic means of keeping the country together, especially after Eritrea’s successful secession in 1993.
The identity divide was so entrenched in Ethiopia after the civil war that the new federal units were formed around ethnic affiliation. Here’s a map of them as taken from Wikipedia:
Adding another crucial demographic layer to Ethiopia is the percentage of Christians (Ethiopian Orthodox and Protestant) and Muslims in the country, which is 62% to 33.9%, respectively, or almost 2:1. The following map demonstrates the geographic divide over religion and shows how this has a distinct overlap with certain federal units:
The Afar and Somalis are a very small minority of the population and by themselves cannot account for the 33.9% of Muslim adherents in Ethiopia, and as the above map indicates, many believers in this religion live intertwined with Christians in Oromia, the most populous region. By itself and with the absence of context, this isn’t anything particularly relevant to Ethiopia’s stability, but recalling how Qatar and its Saudi ally have been front and center in provoking a clash of civilizations through their support of Islamic terrorism, this demographic factor becomes perhaps one of the most important of all. Al Shabaab in Somalia is pretty much one of Qatar’s proxy creations, just as ISIL is, and its proximity and ethnic overlap with the Somali Region is a definite cause for concern.
Taken together, a Qatari-orchestrated jihadist-separatist war emanating from the Somali Region could prove to be the catalyst that sets off a whole conflagration of nationwide conflict. This initial Unconventional War has a very real risk of occurring due to the doubly second-class status that Somalis feel they are afforded due to both their ethnicity and Muslim faith. Al Shabaab’s terrorist war in neighboring Somalia actually began as an Islamic-tinted national liberation movement in response to Ethiopia’s 2006 occupation, but it rapidly descended into the jihadist nightmare that lay at the core of its proponents’ true vision. Although it showed its true colors and most undoubtedly scared away many possible supporters that would have otherwise flocked to it for its originally marketed national liberation agenda, it still commands some indigenous support inside Somalia, thus raising the risk that it could also do the same amongst the Somali community in Ethiopia that might still consider itself occupied (or be led to think in such terms).
Carving Out The Caliphate
The concept here is that Qatar would use jihadism to radicalize separatist Somalis in getting them to become diehard supporters of the cause, holding out the carrot of a Greater Somalia if they’re successful. This irredentist dream would neatly overlap with Qatar’s own of creating a proxy caliphate in the Horn of Africa, but it also places limits on the primary geographic area of focus for its terrorist campaign. However, with the nature of terrorism inherently being that it knows no borders, it’s of course possible that attacks could take place in the densely populated and centrally positioned Oromia Region, which could have the effect of sharpening the Christian-Muslim divide in the area and prompting copy-cat and reprisal attacks. The destructive chain reaction that this might set off could only realistically be put to rest by a heavy-handed military response, albeit one which may scare investors right out of the country and lead to Western condemnation. In and of itself, whether or not the jihadist-separatist war succeeds in its stated goals, it would still accomplish what might have been the indirect (perhaps even actual) objective all along of weakening Ethiopia and possibly even China’s position in the continent depending on the degree of closeness and importance that Addis Ababa occupies for Beijing by that time (which is expected to be ever increasing).
Regardless of whether or not Qatar ever goes forward with the previously described scenario, that won’t in any way prevent Eritrea from continuing with its own, as it bases its national security on keeping the Ethiopian military distracted and divided through its support of ‘stand-alone’ and unified rebel movements so that it can’t ever solidly converge against the country. Eritrea would like to one day liberate the city of Badme that Ethiopia has refused to cede to its control after the Algiers Agreement ended their bloody and stalemated 1998-2000 war and a Hague border commission ruled that it’s Eritrean territory, and it might be using its support of various rebel groups as a means of pressuring Addis Ababa into acceding to its international legal obligation.
Asmara’s aspirations are to assist neighboring Tigray Region fighters in their quest for independence, mirroring Eritrea’s own, in order to create a buffer state that would insulate it from any future aggression from the rump Ethiopian state. At the same time, however, Eritrea also has ties with rebel groups operating deeper in the country, and if significant battlefield coordination can ever be maintained between Eritrea and the Oromo separatists (the ethnic group of which is the most populous and geographically central in the country), then it would go a very long way towards giving Asmara a lever with which it can trigger serious damage to Ethiopia’s national unity. Some Oromo might be attracted to the nationalist rhetoric coming from their militant-separatist counterparts that allege that the group is being exploited to support the minor peripheral ethnicities, and any visible “Tigrean-dominated government” crackdown on their civilian representatives might add credence to this belief. Eritrea might even ‘get lucky’ if the current tribal violence in South Sudan motivates a spillover effect into the neighboring Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (home to 45 different ethnic groups) or Gambela Region that ‘naturally’ creates the state-fragmenting process that it and Qatar and looking to achieve for their own respective ends.
On a final note, concerning any strategic Eritrean-Qatari collaboration in a future destabilization campaign against Ethiopia, the potential exists for Doha to stab its ‘ally’ in the back if its jihadist campaign is ‘too successful’. Eritrea might ironically be even more susceptible than Ethiopia is to an Islamic terrorist campaign because it has a similar proportion of Muslims that are also living in a similar economically challenging environment, and thus, might be ripe for ideological-religious manipulation under the ‘proper circumstances’. Additionally, the Muslim Afar living in the east partially represent Eritrea’s version of Ethiopia’s ethno-religious identity overlap that the latter has with the Somali Muslims, thus potentially leading to the same type of strategic vulnerabilities in this scenario. This factor could also be used by Qatar to manipulate Eritrea and keep its leadership in check, just in case the improbable happens and for whatever reason it decides to turn its back on its new patron.
On the flip side of things, so long as Asmara remains a loyal client of the Emir (which doesn’t seem set to change since it desperately needs the money and diplomatic support), it shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Eritrea is also much smaller than Ethiopia in both demographic and geographic terms, so it’s a lot easier for the state to exercise supervisory control over what’s going on and nip the jihadist process right in the bud before it fully blooms. However, as chaotic processes always prove themselves to be time after time again, once the genie is let out of the bottle, it’s impossible to stuff it back in, and even if Qatar doesn’t plan for it to happen, the jihad it unleashes in Ethiopia could also infect Eritrea in no time.
While it may not seem like it at first, the GCC’s military-logistical move into Eritrea is predicated just as much on influencing Ethiopia as it is about dominating Yemen. The Saudis and Emiratis may have just recently incorporated Eritrea into their coalition framework, but Qatar has been cultivating close ties with Asmara for the past 5 years as part of its “mediation” role in resolving the Djibouti border dispute, which incidentally saw it deploy 200 troops to the country. This means that the Muslim Brotherhood-espousing state is in a position to project its ideology throughout the region and intensify cooperation with its Al Shabaab proxy in nearby Somalia. The Saudis and Emiratis may initially be adverse to Qatar ‘rocking the boat’ in the region until after they’ve already tapped all of its economic benefit (which could take decades), but given Doha’s emotional- and ideological-driven foreign policy, it might do just that because it senses a ‘good opportunity’ here or there for furthering its self-interested geopolitical project.
In such circumstances, the GCC wouldn’t be able to indefinitely hold out the threat of Islamic-inspired terrorist destabilization as a means of blackmailing the world’s fastest-growing economy and one of Africa’s up-and-coming powers, but would have to reluctantly join in the Qatari-initiated unrest so as to secure whatever benefits they can while there’s still the ‘opportunity’ to do so. The ethnic, social, and religious cleavages already prevalent (and even overlapping in some cases) in Ethiopia provide more than enough domestic ‘gunpowder’ for a strategically placed spark to set the whole powder keg aflame, with the only fail-safe solution being for Addis Ababa to overwhelmingly respond with military force. Such a reaction might predictably scare away the investors that are needed to keep the ‘Ethiopian miracle’ alive, and the combination of capital outflow plus military suppression (no matter how justified it may seem) might further exacerbate the domestic differences in the country and place them in a perpetual process of worsening, up to the point of the country approaching the geopolitical abyss of dissolution along preexisting ethnic-federative lines.
Any disruption of Ethiopia’s stability could also be used as an indirect means of attacking Chinese interests in Africa, since Beijing has invested billions in helping the country rise and is expected to become increasingly dependent on its African economic partnerships in order to sustain its own growth at home. Large-scale unrest in Ethiopia could thus offset China’s plans for cooperating with the country on a high-level strategic basis, and it would thus lose not only a crucial marketplace for its goods or an attractive investment destination, but also its place in influencing the African Union right at its headquartered source in Addis Ababa. Therefore, many layers of intrigue blanket the possibility that Qatar may lead the GCC into a proxy confrontation with Ethiopia, be it out of its own regard or acting on behalf of American ‘advice’, which could see the Gulf using the country of Eritrea alongside Al Shabaab jihadists to dislodge China from its most important foothold in Africa.
By: Andrew Korybko