III. Ethiopia, regional interconnectedness and Abiy’s negotiation of constraints
Within the context of Ethiopia’s regional vision and how this has been reflected in regional integration efforts, this section (a) considers the shifts and continuities in Ethiopia’s relations with other countries in the Horn under Abiy and (b) examines the intersection of Abiy’s approach with important shifts in the approach of the Arab Gulf states—especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE—to the Horn of Africa since 2015. After outlining recent shifts in the Horn of Africa’s evolving relationship with the Gulf, the analysis moves to three specific regional situations: the Ethiopia–Eritrea rapprochement; Ethiopia’s relations with its Somali periphery—including Somaliland, Somalia and the various Somali federal member states—and the implications for its relations with Kenya; and Nile Basin dynamics in light of GERD development.
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Physical integration and connectivity have been and continue to be key elements of cooperation (and sometimes contestation) between the countries of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s priorities in the Horn of Africa, and to some extent the wider region, had been fairly consistent for about two decades prior to Abiy’s emergence as prime minister in 2018. With Ethiopia left landlocked by Eritrea’s independence, physical integration has been at the core of Ethiopia’s regional policy and remains so. Ethiopia’s priorities are reflected in the integration agenda of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the main regional body for the Horn of Africa.33
IGAD’s integration agenda stems from a combination of pragmatism and realpolitik. Decades of mistrust and political intervention across borders in the Horn of Africa circumscribed the ambitions for the revamped IGAD in the 1990s. Integration efforts were further constrained by the bloody 1998–2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the resulting fall out: Eritrea suspended its participation in the organization and Ethiopia refused to cede the rotating chairmanship of the bloc between 2010 and 2019, further limiting IGAD’s traction. Nevertheless, IGAD has maintained a focus on promoting physical connectivity, a relatively easy goal in a region marked by decades of underinvestment.34
Ethiopia’s road and rail building programme since the early 2000s has greatly increased its connectivity to neighboring countries, and thereby to their ports.35 This dovetails with Kenya’s vision of its own role as a regional entrepôt, including through the development of new port and road infrastructure intended to facilitate access to the Ethiopian and South Sudanese markets.36 Ethiopia’s focus on hydropower is also part of its physical integration agenda, with transmission lines connecting it to Djibouti and Sudan, and a new interconnector to the Kenyan grid entering the testing phase in September 2019.37
Abiy’s administration has not shifted far on the principle underlying decades of Ethiopian foreign policy: that economic security via reduced donor dependence is essential to its national security in a region marked by insecurity and a history of poor relations
As such, Abiy’s administration has not shifted far on the principle underlying decades of Ethiopian foreign policy: that economic security via reduced donor dependence is essential to its national security in a region marked by insecurity and a history of poor relations. Nevertheless, there are some indications that Abiy sees opportunities for more collaborative and mutually beneficial regional relations in the Horn of Africa, shifting markedly away from the politics of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. During his initial flurry of regional diplomacy in 2018, Abiy’s focus was on repairing relations with Eritrea and Somalia, where he sought to establish personal relationships with presidents and repeatedly articulated a vision based on medemer, which he has translated as ‘synergy’.38 In October 2019 Abiy released a monograph in Amharic and Oromo—titled Medemer or Ida’amuu, respectively—which elaborates on this concept and how it relates to his government’s economic, political and foreign policy agenda. The emerging EPP has reportedly adopted medemer as the basis of its forthcoming manifesto.39
During Abiy’s first months in office, he visited all the neighboring countries along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He has promoted a more personalized, collaborative tone in Ethiopian regional diplomacy, although his unilateral decision-making and policy-planning style has sometimes wrong-footed Ethiopia’s foreign policy and security institutions.40 In the Horn of Africa, his agenda has shifted some important dynamics, which has created some uncertainty for other regional players along with delivering benefits and setbacks to different actors. Abiy’s relations with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s administration and the Federal Government of Somalia led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also known as Farmajo) and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Kheyre mark particularly significant shifts in tone. Abiy also became personally invested in the mid- 2019 political crisis in Sudan, diving into a mediation role between the protest movement and the security sector.
Given the Red Sea’s global significance and the importance of maritime security to the oil and gas sectors in the Gulf itself, the Horn of Africa has been an increasing priority for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Both before and since Abiy came to power, the Arab states of the Gulf have factored significantly as actors in some of these processes and in terms of the impacts of their enhanced activity in the region. The reactions of the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula (especially Saudi Arabia) to pressures since the global economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Arab Spring have also had significant impacts in the Horn of Africa.41 Domestic pressures fed into populist policies that targeted migrant labour from the Horn of Africa (and other regions), including more than 160 000 from Ethiopia who were expelled from Saudi Arabia in 2013–14.42 The loss of potential remittance income and the return of thousands of additional unemployed and frustrated young people (mainly men) may have been a significant factor underlying the large-scale protest movement in Ethiopia, the first outbreaks of which came in April 2014.43 The 2015 Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and attendant shift in Saudi Arabia’s regional security policy have brought Eritrea and Sudan into the scope of the intervention.44 This more assertive Saudi security stance has largely dovetailed with the UAE’s approach.45 Given the Red Sea’s global significance and the importance of maritime security to the oil and gas sectors in the Gulf itself—and the Emirati role in global logistics via its flagship enterprise Dubai Ports World—the Horn of Africa has been an increasing priority for both countries.46
The significant developments in the Horn of Africa over the past two years have been affected by the influence of the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris, as well as by the fallout from the 2017 re-opening of the rift between Saudi Arabia and the UAE (allied with Bahrain and Egypt) on one side and Qatar (allied with Turkey) on the other. The affected scope of the rift includes the Eritrea–Ethiopia rapprochement, the Sudanese political transition, and the political dynamics in Somalia between the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and the regional administrations. As such, it is essential to consider how the new Ethiopian government’s engagement in the Horn of Africa has intersected with evolving Gulf dynamics.
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