When we think of countries competing for power and influence in the Horn of Africa, a short list of candidates come to mind: the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Turkey and various European powers. Notably absent from this list are countries from within the region itself. But this may be about to change. Ethiopia has recently launched a number of political, economic and foreign policy reforms aimed at redefining the country internally and externally. These moves are a sign that Addis Ababa wants to increase its influence in the region and might be laying the groundwork to emerge as a regional power.


Ethiopia is uniquely positioned to take on this role. It has a history of resisting foreign intervention and remaining, for the most part, free of external domination in a region that was widely colonized by European powers. Now, as the presence of foreign powers grows, Ethiopia will need to become more assertive if it wants to compete for influence with these outside forces. But it has a number of challenges with which it must contend if it is to project power beyond its borders. This Deep Dive will examine the country’s history that has led it to this unique point in time and the conditions it must meet before it will be able to wield more influence in the region.

Ethiopia: A Regional Power In The Making

Ethiopia’s Glory Days

At first glance, Ethiopia may appear weak relative to the foreign powers with a growing interest in the area, but history shows that the country has the potential to be much more powerful than it is today. Two empires predating modern Ethiopia – the Aksum Empire (A.D. 100-940) and the Ethiopian Empire (1270-1974) – amassed enough power to define at various points the course of events on the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia: A Regional Power In The Making

During its heyday, the Aksum Empire controlled approximately 500,000 square miles (1.25 million square kilometers) of territory in what is now northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, northern Sudan, southern Egypt, Djibouti and western Yemen. The empire prospered because of its position at the intersection of Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman world and its access to major maritime trade routes. A strong navy helped control sea lanes, while a sizable army ensured control over land. Much like Ethiopia today, the empire ruled over a multitude of diverse ethnic groups. According to some historians, the monarch maintained control over his subjects by dividing his forces into small groups and assigning them to a specific geographic area.

The territory controlled by the Ethiopian Empire was more limited, but the empire’s power was reflected in its ability to continuously repel the foreign invasion. During the Abyssinian-Adal and Ethiopian-Egyptian wars, it faced aggressors that had the backing of the Ottoman Empire. The Egyptians were repulsed after two years of fighting, while the Adal Sultanate occupied Ethiopia for 14 years before being pushed out by domestic forces with support from the Portuguese. At the 1885 Berlin Conference, where European powers partitioned countries as part of the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia was one of only two countries (the other being Liberia) that was not divided. A decade later, Italy tried to colonize Ethiopia but was defeated. Italy’s second invasion of Ethiopia in the mid-1930s was more successful, but its success was short-lived – Italy was uprooted during World War II. So with the exception of two brief occupations, the country managed to maintain its independence, preventing any major foreign power from completely monopolizing the Horn of Africa.

Federalism Takes Hold

It may be hard to believe that Ethiopia once had the power possessed by these empires, but that history has helped shape the country into what it is today. The area is one of the longest continuously inhabited parts of the world, with Egyptian historical references to Ethiopia going as far back as 980 B.C. Though Ethiopia’s borders have changed over the centuries, its current borders fall within those of previous empires, and many of the same ethnic groups are still present there. Because Ethiopia has, for the most part, maintained its independence, it has been able to preserve the cultures that developed there over centuries.

Ethiopia has a population of over 100 million people and is dominated by two religions, Islam and Christianity. According to the United Nations, more than 80 ethnic groups reside in the country. The largest is the Oromo, which accounts for 32 percent of the population. The Amhara are the second-largest, making up 28 percent of the population. The Tigrayans and Somalis each represent another 6.5 percent of the population. Another nine ethnic groups have 1 million or more members. Both the Aksum and Ethiopian empires managed these differences by centralizing power and preventing rebellion by force. When the Ethiopian Empire fell in 1974, a military dictatorship took power – and it, too, used force to keep the population in line.

Ethiopia: A Regional Power In The Making

But when the military regime was abolished in 1987, an ethnic-based federalist system of government was established. In 1994, a new constitution was adopted, and the country was divided into nine regions and two autonomous cities based on the ethnolinguistic makeup of the local population. It was thought that giving the different ethnic groups greater autonomy would make it easier for the central government to manage the country’s differences while keeping it united.

But there have been some bumps in the road. In 2016, there were widespread protests against the central government. The unrest started when members of the Oromo community rejected government development plans for Oromo-majority areas and then demanded more representation in the federal government, which had been dominated by members of the Tigray ethnic group since the country held its first elections as a republic in 1995. Other ethnic groups across the country, including the Amhara, soon joined the protests. Some analysts have argued that the federalist system has been ineffective and that the ethnic groups should break away from Ethiopia and form their own states, similar to what happened in Yugoslavia.

But supporters of the federalist approach say it is the best system available, even if its execution has been flawed. One of the flaws has been that people who don’t belong to the dominant ethnic group have been left out of decision-making, particularly at the regional level. Another is that the central government never really represented multiple ethnic groups as it was designed to. After multiple groups united to oust the military regime, the Tigrayans monopolized power and used force to keep the other groups in line. Ultimately, the 2016 protests forced the prime minister to resign and jump-started renewed efforts to form a strong but inclusive central government.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, took office in early April and now finds itself in a decisive moment in the country’s history. The Horn of Africa has always been a valuable geopolitical real estate, given the trade routes that pass by its shores. But the region has also been fraught with challenges, including the spread of extremist violence and spillover effects from conflicts in the Middle East. Foreign powers are increasingly trying to gain a foothold in places like Djibouti and, to a lesser extent, Somalia and Sudan, particularly through cooperation on military matters. Ethiopia has always been wary of foreign interference in the region, but it is even more so now after the 2016 protests left it vulnerable to intervention. Now that it’s stabilized, it can either stay out of the affairs of other countries in the region or assert itself as a leader. Recent government moves – and Abiy’s statement that “Ethiopia will get back its lost glory” at a political rally in the capital in June – indicate that Addis Ababa has chosen the latter.

Conditions for Asserting Power

But before it can restore even some of its past glory, it needs to make some changes. To project power in the region, the Ethiopian government must achieve three main objectives: maintain control over the domestic population, secure its borders and diversify its sea access. The rise of the Aksum and Ethiopian empires was possible only with these three conditions in place. And indeed, there are signs that the country is already moving in this direction.

Domestic Stability

Before adopting a more assertive foreign policy, a country needs to have its own affairs in order. This includes maintaining stability and peace at home. In the wake of the 2016 unrest, the government is trying to re-establish domestic stability in three ways. First, it is making changes on the political front. Abiy is the first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, and under his leadership, Ethiopia seems prepared to develop an authentic federalist system that will be more representative of the general population than it had been in the past. He also has both a Muslim and Christian background. He has already replaced the heads of various security forces in the country and criticized the use of brutal force by past governments. He invited exiled opposition groups like Ginbot 7 back into the country and called on local leaders in conflict-ridden areas to resign. So far, the response has been positive: Multiple opposition groups unilaterally suspended the use of arms in all self-defense activities, and the chairman of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the ruling party in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, resigned after ethnic clashes in the region.

Ethiopia is also trying to build a sense of unity and shared an identity that supersedes ethnic affiliations, a concept popularly referred to as Ethiopiawinet. With a unified population, it will be better able to resist intrusion by outside powers and work toward common goals. The central government would also be empowered to act more decisively and independently in international affairs with the support of Ethiopians from all ethnic and religious groups. This wouldn’t require an overhaul of the federalist structure and would allow ethnic groups to maintain some autonomy. The government has made some efforts toward building a sense of unity by reminding Ethiopians of the country’s history of resisting Egyptian, Ottoman and Italian invasions, a point in which the people of Ethiopia take great pride. The government can use this shared history as a way to motivate the population to restore the country’s past glory or, at least, resist attempts at foreign interference.

On the economic front, the government wants to bring back the strong growth rates the country experienced just a few years ago. The recent bouts of domestic unrest resulted in temporary factory closures, road blockades, restricted internet access and slumping investor confidence. Poor financial management, drought, and famine have also taken a toll on the economy. The country is now facing a declining currency and liquidity problems, a heavy dependence on imports and growing debt. The government’s plan to address these problems involves full or partial privatization of public enterprises, including major companies like Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Electric Power, and Ethiopian Shipping and Logistics Services Enterprise, as well as sugar industries, railway projects and industrial parks. There are also plans to develop partnerships between local and foreign private sector firms. Finally, the government is looking for ways to increase exports to stimulate growth and bring in more foreign exchange.

Secure Borders

Ethiopia has tried to secure its borders by improving relations with its neighbors, in the hopes that it can eventually allocate resources to other areas and provide a secure environment for economic development. But in a region plagued by instability, that hasn’t been easy. Ethiopia has fought multiple conflicts with Somalia and Eritrea over border disputes, and Somalia and South Sudan have been engaged in civil wars for years, with some of the violence spilling over into Ethiopian territory. In each of these cases, Ethiopia is now trying to resolve the conflicts or, at the very least, reduce their impact.

In June, Ethiopia said it would implement the 2000 Algiers Agreement, which ended the most recent war with Eritrea, without any preconditions – a rare sign of conciliation in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea’s president responded by meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart in Addis Ababa. Mending ties with Eritrea benefits Ethiopia on multiple fronts. First, it reduces a long-standing security risk, thus freeing up military resources to be used elsewhere. It will also help improve investor confidence in the country. And it may give Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports. Relations between the two countries have been tense in the past because the Tigray have been among the most antagonistic groups toward Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region in Ethiopia. In fact, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, a party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, initially opposed reconciliation with Eritrea and was the last major group to support the government on the issue.

Ethiopia has an equally complicated past with Somalia. Fighting between the two countries has broken out five times since the early 20th century. But relations have been more cordial of late. The leaders of both countries have expressed a strong interest in economic integration and agreed to further enhance security cooperation. Ethiopian troops have played a key role in African Union counterterrorism missions in Somalia, which are set to wind down in the next couple of years. Once that happens, Somalia will still need security support, which Ethiopia could provide.

In June, Ethiopia announced that it will start its first crude oil production tests in the Ogaden region – officially, and confusingly, called the Somali region – which borders Somalia. There are plans to build a pipeline that will eventually export hydrocarbons from the Somali region via Djibouti. This could be a very lucrative project for Ethiopia, and building up security along the Ethiopian-Somali border will help ensure it is executed effectively, especially because these types of projects have been targets for militants in other countries.

In South Sudan, Ethiopia recently helped broker a cease-fire deal in a five-year civil war. In 2013, at the beginning of the conflict, Ethiopia tried to contain the fighting, but it nonetheless resulted in a flood of refugees – and occasional casualties – on Ethiopia’s side of the border. According to estimates, there are now 400,000-500,000 South Sudanese in Ethiopia’s Gambella region. Ethiopia thus has an interest in ensuring that the cease-fire turns into a lasting peace.

Port Access

As a landlocked country, Ethiopia needs to find a way to access ports if it wants to engage in global trade. Addis Ababa lost direct access to the sea when Eritrea gained independence in 1991. This was a huge blow to Ethiopia’s geostrategic standing in the region. The country suddenly became much more dependent on neighboring states to send its exports to global markets. Sea access would also be necessary if Ethiopia wanted to defend its interests in the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden. Though the idea of an Ethiopian navy sounds far-fetched at this point, the prime minister has reportedly said the country should consider developing some sort of navy in the future. In fact, the Aksum Empire had a formidable navy of its own.

Ethiopia: A Regional Power In The Making

For now, however, Ethiopia’s focus remains primarily on its economic interests. Some 90-95 percent of Ethiopia’s exports are delivered by sea, and most of them pass through Djibouti, which has one of Africa’s few deep-water container port terminals. Depending so heavily on such a small country for virtually all of its exports is a huge vulnerability, and Addis Ababa is growing increasingly concerned about the presence of foreign naval forces in Djibouti. Right now, Djibouti and Ethiopia have a strong relationship, and any actor that could alter that dynamic is perceived as a direct threat. There is already some evidence that Djibouti is under pressure from foreign countries that have interests there. In February, it seized a container terminal operated by United Arab Emirates-based DP World, saying the contract between the two parties was infringing on Djibouti’s sovereignty. The government had previously said the port would remain “in the hands of our country” until it found new investors.

To mitigate this vulnerability, Ethiopia is now trying to gain control of, rather than mere access to, ports along the coast of the Horn of Africa. In April, Djibouti and Ethiopia brokered a deal to jointly develop and operate the Port of Djibouti. The government of Djibouti has approved Ethiopia’s proposal to acquire a share of the port, though they have yet to agree on the details. In return, Djibouti will get shares in state-owned Ethiopian companies. In addition, Ethiopia recently acquired a 19 percent stake in Somaliland’s Berbera port. (DP World owns 51 percent of the port and Somaliland has 30 percent.) Under the deal, Ethiopia has committed to construct the 480-mile (780-kilometer) road between the port and the Ethiopian border town of Togochale. Addis Ababa is looking into other port projects, including a deal with Kenya that would allow Ethiopia to acquire land on the island of Lamu as part of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport project, as well as joint investment projects on four potential ports in Somalia. Ultimately, Ethiopia needs guaranteed port access through a partner it can either control or rely on with confidence.

On the surface, all these moves could be seen as motivated not by aspirations for regional leadership but by a desire to grow the economy. But considering the rising presence of foreign forces in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s historical resistance to foreign powers in the region and Abiy’s recent statements, it appears that Ethiopia is laying the groundwork to assert itself and compete against outside powers that are increasingly active there. This may take many years if not decades to achieve if it is achieved at all. But at the moment, the region is without a leader – a country that can help resolve some of the conflicts that have plagued it and prevent foreign forces from amassing too much influence there. Ethiopia has proved in the past and, to an extent, is proving today that it is willing and able to do both.

Ethiopia: A Regional Power In The Making

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