Ethiopia power play bad for Horn region

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed address the media shortly after inspecting ongoing developments at the new 32-berth Lamu Port in Lamu County in December 2020. [PSCU]

Signs of unpleasant geopolitical rumblings in the Igad cluster are visible within and outside each of the countries. Eritrea, on the Red Sea, punches above its geographical and demographical size and often appears like the friction instigator in the Horn of Africa.

Its differences with Kenya are over the Al Shabaab terror group that operates in Somalia as if they own it. Other Horn of Africa countries have rumblings that disturb the neighbourhood. Kenya, the most stable, faces 18 months of intense political friction as power aspirants Raila Odinga and William Ruto fight to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta in August 2022. The hope is that their power struggle would not deteriorate into repeat violence.

That would worry Uganda where there is a generational uprising. A ‘son’, 38-year-old Bobi Wine, has failed to oust the ‘father’, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, 76. While ‘Baba’ Museveni clutches to his saviour image to remain in power, the generation of ‘Baby Wine’ wants little to do with Museveni’s ‘salvation.’ In South Sudan, the liberation generation remains fractured with little to show for that liberation. On their part, the Sudanese ditched Omar Bashir and have been trying to find bearings as they worry about Ethiopia’s growing instability.

Rumblings in Ethiopia disturb in part because of three factors; its geographical and demographic size as well as mythical longevity as a geopolitical entity. Its attempts to lead the region often fall short due to its internal contradictions of claiming homogeneity in the midst of identity fractions.

Its attempt to control Eritrea failed because the country had a different Italian-influenced colonial identity. The failure made Ethiopia landlocked and in desperate need for a sea outlet through Djibouti and Somalia. While Meles Zenawi had worked closely with Kenya to develop the link with Lamu in Kenya - the Lapsset project - the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, jettisoned it.

 Somehow, he was entrapped in Eritrea’s power consolidation strategy in a three-way alliance involving strongmen in Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Eritrea’s Isaias Aferwoki wanted to move his country out of geopolitical isolation and gain acceptance as a regional leader. Getting two troubled countries to follow his advice on regional issues was an ego boost.

For Abiy, Eritrea and Somalia are strategic outlets to the sea. Controlling Jubaland in fragmented Somalia looks attractive to the ambitious Abiy. He instead ended up generating under-currents of friction with Kenya over Jubaland, and fared badly. For Farmaajo in Somalia, the alliance served two purposes. First was to boost his internal political standing and second to prick Kenyan security concern. Turning Jubaland into an anti-Kenyan buffer zone using Ethiopia would possibly lure Ethiopia to endorse Somali claims to Kenyan waters. Since Faarmajo is a Euro-proxy against Kenya’s maritime interests, this made Abiy appear like a Farmaajo proxy, which meant that he was a Euro-proxy through Farmaajo.

Mending fences

Abiy’s Jubaland ventures backfired in the same way that his attempted strong-arm tactics in domestic governance did. He lost the image of a promoter of ‘democracy’ as resistance to his rule mounted. Various communities rejected his power consolidation effort, especially after the killing of a popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa. Although the government attempts to blame incitement on the Tigray People Liberation Front, TPLF, flopped, it seemed to encourage defiance in the northern state of Tigray. Fighting broke out in Tigray, Abiy sent troops to smother the ‘rebels’, and turned to Kenya to try mending fences.

In the Tigray confrontation, Abiy attracted negative imagery. Sudan complained about Ethiopian troops harassing Sudanese farmers along the border. Those who had praised Abiy castigated his actions in Tigray, especially after the killing of former Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Seyoum Mesfin, an Abiy critic. Mesfin claimed that Abiy betrayed Ethiopia by pandering to Aferwoki’s whims. In response, Abiy accused Mesfin of destroying Igad and spoiling good relations with neighbours. While Mesfin wanted Abiy out of office, Abiy succeeded in dispatching Mesfin to another galaxy. The reaction showed that Ethiopian turbulence was of global concern.


Prof Macharia is a senior associate, Horn International Institute for strategic studies