Challenges to Ethiopia’s Regional Ambitions

11 September 2019 Xian Hong Say, Research Assistant, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

On 7 September, Maekelawi detention centre was opened to the public as a museum, to highlight the human rights abuses that occurred within the facility under previous administrations. This is a move by Addis Ababa to reassure Western investors that the African state is continuing down the path of political liberalisation, despite recent ethnic conflicts. As one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, Ethiopia is aiming to achieve regional hegemony over the Horn of Africa, much as it did at the height of its imperial power. External circumstances and internal instabilities pose significant challenges to those ambitions, however. The opening of the Maekelawi prison seems to be less an expression of an honest political will to liberalise, than a façade to keep foreign investors happy in the face of perceived concerns of sectarian violence.

Comment

The Maekelawi prison had a history of torture and repression until it was officially closed on 7 April 2018. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to open it to the public, was praised by human rights organisations as the next step towards political liberalisation. The timing, however, is suspect, given the recent sectarian violence and the failed coup d’état in mid-June 2019. Although Ahmed is trying to liberalise his country, the suspension of the internet during the coup d’état created doubts as to the sincerity of his political reforms. Indeed, the assassination of the Chief of General Staff, Se’are Mekonnen, during the coup attempt, created a political crisis in Ahmed’s administration.

At a time when inter-ethnic violence is becoming more common and opposition parties are threatening an election boycott over the perceived advantages enjoyed the ruling party, the coup attempt only served as a further headache in Ahmed’s political career.

With Foreign Direct Investment accounting for 27.7% of Gross Domestic Product in 2018, it is not surprising that Addis Ababa wants to reassure investors as to the stability of the country. Ethiopia cannot afford to scare away potential investors due to concerns surrounding internal instability; neither is reverting to political repression viable, because that would alienate Ethiopia’s connection with Europe and, particularly, France.

Currently, Ethiopia’s largest foreign investor is China, with Beijing supporting Addis Ababa in the development of infrastructure, telecommunications and, most importantly, agriculture. As a rising regional power, Ethiopia wants pre-eminence and security in an often unstable region. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (which is now being completed by China), is geostrategic in its importance, allowing Addis Ababa to effectively control the Nile River, while also providing Ethiopia with hydroelectric power. The strategic importance of the dam has not gone unnoticed, with Egypt and Sudan both viewing it as a threat to their agriculture and water security; Egypt even announced that it was planning to bomb the dam if it was completed.

At the same time, Ethiopia has strengthened its military relations and investments with France. Ethiopia is planning to rebuild the navy that was lost as a result of the 1991 Eritrean War for Independence. The new navy is to safeguard the shipping lanes used by landlocked Ethiopia. That deal coincides with the partnerships between Ethiopian shipping companies, such as the MACCFA Freight Logistics of Ethiopia, and French shipping agency, CMA CGM France. Paris has a strategic goal of broadening its influence in non-Francophone Africa, while countering Chinese influence in the region. Thus, Ethiopia stands to profit from both Chinese and French investors as Beijing and Paris compete for Addis Ababa’s favour.

French expertise in naval construction would be a benefit to Ethiopia; despite its landlocked situation, Addis Ababa would deploy any ships that it acquired in the ports of neighbouring Djibouti. An Ethiopian naval presence would give Addis Ababa significant geopolitical clout in the Horn of Africa, effectively granting it leverage over the highly strategic Bab-el-Mandeb chokepoint.

The talk of a new Ethiopian navy has alerted both Eritrea, a former imperial province of the Abyssinian Empire (Ethiopia’s predecessor) and Somalia (Ethiopia bought a 19 per cent stake in the Berbera Port of self-declared Somaliland). While Eritrea and Ethiopia are in the midst of a remarkable rapprochement, some suspicion still lingers and the return of an Ethiopian naval fleet has made both Eritrea and Somalia nervous.

Ethiopia is likely to encounter resistance from Asmara and Mogadishu if the naval plan goes ahead and also from Cairo and Khartoum when the Grand Renaissance Dam is completed. Coupled with increasing Oromo nationalism and threats to split the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in two, the path to Ethiopia’s revival as an influential power in Africa is presenting challenges. Initiatives such as the opening the Maekelawi detention centre, are thus little more than a useful tactic to distract foreign investors from underlying problems.

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