Opinion| Ethiopia on the brink: Why it needs to save itself from collapse

Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad
17 Min Read

Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa that faces multiple crises at any given moment in history. It is now in grave danger of disintegration due to various internal and external conflicts. It is suffering from a brutal civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an armed group that controls its northern Tigray region, where people are starving to death every day.

It is also involved in a border dispute with Sudan, a renewed hostility with its northern neighbor Eritrea (which supported it in the civil war), and tension with Egypt over the Nile River. Moreover, it is plagued by a vicious cycle of ethnic violence that affects over 70% of the country and causes chaos and despair. As if these problems were not enough, Ethiopia has also violated Somalia’s sovereignty and the African Union’s charter by pledging to recognize the breakaway ‘Somaliland’ region (internationally regarded as part of Somalia) in exchange for a 20 km stretch of sea that it claims as its own, either through negotiation or by force. Ethiopia in 2024 is like a man who cannot carry a backpack but insists on carrying the whole mountain on his back. It needs to save itself from itself before it is too late.

Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad
Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad

History is not just a linear progression of time, nor did it start today. In the recent past, under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has witnessed many changes. He was initially seen as a reformer, but he gradually lost his goodwill in the Horn of Africa. In 1991, according to the former Ethiopian Ambassador to the European Union,

Professor Mohammed Hassan, Ethiopia underwent a change of power when the military regime of Colonel Mengistu was defeated and a new political, social, and economic program was expected by the people of Ethiopia from the rebel coalition that took power—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was dominated by a small faction, the TPLF. However, the TPLF, a well-organized and armed group, refused to participate in a long transitional government.

Instead, they imposed their narrow agenda on others, resulting in a minority rule that lasted for 27 years until 2018 and became a source of regional instability. The TPLF waged a bitter war of aggression with Eritrea, intervened heavily in Somalia, causing prolonged division and violence, and eventually invaded Mogadishu in 2006, killing thousands of Somalis. Despite the hope for a new start during the popular uprising between 2016 and 2018 that brought Abiy Ahmed to power, Ethiopia continued to face instability due to the destructive actions of this minority group.

Ethiopia after the war: how Abiy Ahmed’s mistakes fuelled more conflicts

Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa that has been plagued by various internal and external conflicts. It recently emerged from a civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an armed group that controlled its northern Tigray region, where people are starving to death every day. The war also involved Sudan, Eritrea, and Egypt, who had their interests and disputes with Ethiopia. The war ended with a ceasefire and disarmament agreement between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF on 2 November 2022, and the establishment of an interim regional administration in Tigray on 23 March 2023. However, the peace did not last long, as Ethiopia faced more instability and violence due to the mistakes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018 as a reformer but soon lost his credibility and legitimacy.

According to Professor Mohammed Hassan, a former Ethiopian ambassador to the European Union, the TPLF was a minority group that ruled Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018 and became a source of regional instability. They waged a war of aggression with Eritrea, intervened heavily in Somalia, causing prolonged division and violence, and imposed their narrow agenda on other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. After being removed from power, the TPLF retreated to their ethnic stronghold in Tigray and organized the population to take back control of the government. They believed they had the military upper hand, as they dominated the army. Their strategy included besieging government forces, persuading them to join their cause, and launching a simultaneous attack on the capital, Addis Ababa. However, they miscalculated the situation. The Ethiopian government, led by Abiy Ahmed, had a stronger alliance with other Ethiopian opposition groups. Moreover, the TPLF invited Eritrea to join the war, which proved to be their major mistake, as Eritrea responded swiftly and decisively, leading to the decimation of a large portion of their army.

The war changed Abiy Ahmed, who made one mistake after another, leading to the regionalization of conflict that was inflamed by ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. His first mistake was his weak attempt to maintain dominance and grab power, resulting in the division of his own Oromo ethnic group and the rise of the Oromo Liberation Front, which now controls 18 out of the 21 provinces in the Oromia region. His second mistake was his handling of the Amhara people, who had long been oppressed by the TPLF and demanded fair and equitable representation. After the agreement to end the war, Abiy turned against the Amhara’s many armed groups and considered them a threat, leading to a rebellion that gave birth to the Amhara FANO militia, which now controls most of the Amhara region and is just 180 kilometers from the capital Addis Ababa. Abiy’s actions have led to internal instability in the country, with more than 70% of Ethiopia’s population in the Oromo, Tigray, and Amhara regions now out of Abiy’s control.

Furthermore, Abiy’s desire to illegally acquire a naval base in Lughaya, run by the separatist entity inside Somalia’s land, is unacceptable to the Somali people and has ignited widespread bipartisan Somali nationalism. There are 32 active armed separatist movements in Africa and 4 of them are present in Ethiopia. If Abiy is not ready to have 5 Ethiopians, then why does he think Somalia can be further subdivided? I say subdivided because a third of Ethiopia is already Somaliland, which was given away by colonial Britain to imperial Ethiopia. The two countries fought a war over it in 1977, which is still fresh in the memory of many Somalis who feel that it was an unjust crime against the Somali people and the state.

Ethiopia’s alliance with Somaliland: a desperate move that angers the region

Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa that has been involved in various internal and external conflicts. It recently made a controversial move by pledging to recognize the breakaway ‘Somaliland’ region (internationally regarded as part of Somalia) in exchange for a 20 km stretch of sea that it claims as its own, either through negotiation or by force. This move violates Somalia’s sovereignty and the African Union’s charter and angers the region that supports Somalia’s territorial integrity.

Somaliland is a secessionist movement that claims the British protectorate borders in northern Somalia, but it is not a de facto state recognized by any country in the world, let alone regional blocs like IGAD, East African Community, or multilateral bodies like the African Union or the United Nations. This entity lacks legitimacy in the region it claims sovereignty over, and its current leader Musa Bihi Abdi, a former combat pilot in the Somali Air Force, has been ruling with an iron fist since his term of office expired in November 2022. He is a former rebel leader in the Somali civil war, who once said “If I can kill, I will show no remorse or clemency”. He has lost over 40% of the landmass to unionists in Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn regions (SSC), who resisted his separatist domination after eight months of continuous shelling and bombardment of Las Anod, the biggest city in Sool region, which left thousands dead and 200,000 more displaced from their homes. He has also suppressed any protests that challenge his dwindling rule in the tri-city administration of Somaliland proper, that is Hargeisa, Burao, and Berbera, by using live fire to disperse crowds, which in turn has led to many dissenting groups taking up arms against his administration in the mountainous parts of Somaliland. In the far-flung countryside from his seat at Hargeisa, Musa rules by proxy with traditional leaders he has bribed and ragtag local militias who regularly switch to the unionist side whenever their payments are delayed or cut off. It is this desperate leadership of Musa Bihi that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed found an equally desperate partner to distract from their internal problems and failings.

How will the region react to Ethiopia’s violation of Somali sovereignty?

Djibouti, which has a significant Somali population and whose port Ethiopia uses for all its commercial needs, has reiterated its support for Somalia’s territorial integrity, although the Djiboutian leadership is not the most transparent and works hand in glove in emboldening the secessionist movement in Hargeisa through diplomatic cover. Their cause of concern might have been the proximity of the Ethiopian naval base, which is to be acquired off the coast of Somaliland and lies within striking distance of Djibouti. Eritrea, which enjoys a centuries-long relationship with Somalia and continually trains Somali soldiers in their fight against terrorism as the country struggles to regain its footing on the world stage, favors a stronger and reenergized Somalia any day of the week. This has been precipitated by a multitude of factors. Eritrea fought a long and bloody war of independence from 1961 to 1991 against Ethiopia, to which it was annexed. Somalia provided significant support to Eritrea during its war of independence against Ethiopia. Under President Mohamed Siad Barre, Somalia played a key role by offering military assistance, training Eritrean fighters, and providing financial aid to the Eritrean liberation movement—the Eritrea People’s Liberation Front. This support was aimed at promoting self-determination for Eritrea, which Eritrea gallantly attained after decades of struggling against insurmountable odds. It is for this timeless reason that the State of Eritrea remains protective of Somalia, even going as far as quitting the regional body IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) in protest when Ethiopia (a member state) invaded Somalia (another member state) in 2006.

Ethiopia’s challenge to Somalia’s sovereignty: why Egypt stands with Somalia

Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa that has been involved in various internal and external conflicts. It recently made a controversial move by pledging to recognize the breakaway ‘Somaliland’ region (internationally regarded as part of Somalia) in exchange for a 20km stretch of sea that it claims as its own, either through negotiation or by force. This move violates Somalia’s sovereignty and the African Union’s charter and angers the region that supports Somalia’s territorial integrity.

One of the major supporters of Somalia is Egypt, which has reiterated its support for Somalia and warned against any threats to its peace and stability. Egypt said it would be forced to intervene on the side of Somalia, a fellow Arab League member state if Ethiopia’s move escalates into a conflict. This is not the first time that Egypt has shown such a kind of support for Somalia. Egypt is also seeking a negotiated settlement to Ethiopia’s giant damming of the Blue Nile, which affects daily life in Egypt, which relies on the Nile River for its very existence.

Somalia and Egypt have enjoyed a cordial relationship over the centuries, with many current and contemporary Somali scholars studying at Egypt’s famed Al-Azhar University, which is a center of Islamic academic excellence from the Middle Ages. Throughout the 20th century, Somali-Egyptian relations were characterized by diplomatic interactions and cooperation on regional and international issues. Key factors include the colonial period, post-World War II independence, Pan-Arabism and Afro-Arab cooperation, Somali-Ethiopian conflict, and Cold War dynamics. Somalia was divided into British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, and French Somaliland (Djibouti), while Egypt was also under British influence. Ties grew stronger with Somalia’s ascension into the Cairo-based Arab League in 1974. Egypt supported Somalia’s claim to the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which was inhabited by ethnic Somalis, and provided military and diplomatic assistance to Somalia during the Ogaden War of 1977-1978. Egypt also mediated between Somalia and Ethiopia in the aftermath of the war and helped Somalia restore its relations with the Arab League, which had been strained by Somalia’s alliance with the Soviet Union. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were maintained, but engagement varied, with Egypt playing a key role in regional diplomatic initiatives.

The 70s and 80s were the peak of Somali-Egyptian cooperation, when Egypt signed the Camp David Accords with Israel, all Arab League countries severed ties and expelled Egypt, but Somalia was the only country that did not sever ties with Egypt. This strong bond probably explains why the Somali president Mohamed Siad Barre was awarded the highest civilian honor in Egypt by then-Egyptian president Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, while his counterpart Mohamed Hosni Mubarak was reciprocally awarded Somalia’s highest honorary award.

Although the Somali Civil War in the 1990s led to Egypt’s challenges in engaging with a politically fragmented Somalia, Egypt tried to support various peace initiatives and reconciliation efforts but faced difficulties in dealing with the fragmented and factionalized Somali political landscape. Given Egypt’s powerhouse status in the African continent and the Arab world, it would be interesting to see how it stands against any forthcoming violation of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad: A research scholar who serves as the Founder and Executive Director at the Afro-Asia Institute for Strategic Studies.

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