By Neamin Ashenafi

At a time of political upheavals, mass protests and violence taking place even after the state of emergency was ratified by lawmakers, the world’s superpowers seem more interested in the Horn of Africa more than ever.

In the last month, Ethiopia saw major shifts, forced or not, that could propel the fast-growing country into a different era. Currently, Ethiopia is entertaining Secretary of State of the United States, Rex Tillerson, and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to strengthen ties with the two global superpowers. With this in mind, label it coincidence or not, both are here and who would stake a claim, explores Neamin Ashenafi.


politics2_0Ethiopia is witnessing one of the greatest political tests since the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), took power in 1991. The resentments and series of demands in the area of democratic and human rights, widening of the political space, equal access to resources and employment opportunities from the public reached its peak and turned into mass protest and violence.

These continuous demands from the public that resulted in chaos and trouble throughout the country, forced the government to declare a state of emergency twice in one-year. Similarly, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn also presented his resignation letter to his party and the coalition, which in turn created a vacuum in the political leadership of the country.

The political upheaval in Ethiopia has attracted the interests of many countries across the globe and many partners of Ethiopia expressed their concerns over the resignation of the prime minister and declaration of the state of emergency.

In this regard, many argue that the concerns from the international community is due to the country’s role in bringing peace and stability to the conflict-driven region— the Horn of Africa.

The region, strategically speaking, is an important location and waterway, for the many countries establishing their own military bases located in the Horn. China being the latecomer in doing so, European and Arab countries are rushing to establish their own base in the region.

The US and Russia are also competing to win the hearts and minds of the countries in the region. The two are archrivals in the region, especially during the Cold War era. Following the collapse of the Soviet camp, the US was the dominant power in the region. However, the Russians now are coming back to Africa generally and the Horn in particular.

Therefore, it is in this context that, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, and US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, visited Ethiopia this week. Though the purpose of their visit focused on enhancing the bilateral relations and discussing other pertinent issues both at the continental and regional level, some say it is also to deliberate with Ethiopian officials about the ongoing political upheavals in the country.

Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst says: “The two leaders are here with a different purpose, the relation between Russia and Ethiopia is celebrating its 120-year anniversary. Therefore, in-line with these long-standing relations, Lavrov is here to strengthen these relations and to uplift it to a higher level. Tillerson’s visit is aimed at calming the tense relationship between Africa and the US following the speech made by the US president that offended Africa as a whole.”

Apart from this, “I think, since Russian domination in the region has dwindled after the end of the Cold War, they might want to regain their historical domination in the region and compete with the emerging ones and with its archrival the US,” Leulseged argues.

On another note, Abebe Ayenete, a geopolitical analyst, told The Reporter that the purpose of the visit by the two distinguished ministers might focus on countering terrorism “One of the purposes of the visit in my view might be focusing on fighting terrorism especially in fighting ISIS, and they might think that since ISIS has been defeated from its strongholds in the Middle East (Syria and Iraq) and if they leave, they might get sanctuary in a Sub-Saharan Africa; specially the Horn of Africa. Therefore, their visit might focus on how to fight such incidents from occurring.”

However, for Abebe, the argument that stated the US and other countries are competing in the region is unacceptable. “America’s foreign policy is not clear after President Donald Trump assumed power; however, since the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has already been established back in 2007 to fight terrorism in the region, the comment that the US is competing with others in the region doesn’t hold water for me,” Abebe says. In that regard, he says that the visit by Tillerson is to reconcile the US with Africa and strengthen the existing interest in the continent, generally, and in the Horn of Africa, specifically.

“Of course, this does not mean that there will not be a competition. But in my view, the visit is not focusing only on winning or participating in the competition with others. This might be their second agenda,” Abebe opines.

The issue that the two are here to play their role in the current political turmoil in Ethiopia is demystified by Leulseged who argues: “Democratization process should be homegrown; there has not been direct involvement of foreign forces. They might be concerned; however, they are not allowed to order to do this and that in local affairs. Since Ethiopia is not entitled to intervene in other counties local matters the same is true for the others too.”

Historical context

The diversity, history, population, politics, and culture have left the region prone to conflicts and it is those differences that have allowed outsiders to play proxy politics in the region.

The Horn is also a region that has been at historical crossroads. Traders have traveled through the region, north to south and west to east. Empires have grown and subsided. Islam and Christianity embedded themselves in the region from the earliest days of each faith. People, who live along the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean, have been engaged in trade for millennia, linking people on either side of the coastline.

Through the Cold War, Moscow gave due emphasis to Africa in terms of global competition with the US. The large and fast growth of Moscow’s relations with African countries began in the late 1950s and early 1960s when they were achieving independence. The Non-Aligned Movement also provided a momentum to encourage other African communities towards independence. Thus, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) showed its support to the decisions of the Bandung Conference regarding them as anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist.

American and Soviet foreign policy in the Horn of Africa paved for more conflicts in the 1970s. Coincidentally, from the 1970s to 1980, the Horn of Africa was the arena of strong competition between the US and the USSR for supremacy in regional military presence.

Nevertheless, superpower rivalry was not the only factor for Soviet activism in the Horn of Africa. During the Cold War era, US National Intelligence Council Memorandum ‘Soviet Policy and Africa’ (1975), determined the USSR’s interests in the region as; reducing Western influence, power, and presence, gaining political influence on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea, supporting and protecting its flanks in the Middle East, securing access to support facilities for its naval forces in the Indian Ocean and countering Chinese influence. All of the interests are related not only geopolitically but also include economic and cultural implications.

The end of the Soviet Union disrupted the ties of Russia with African countries. The relations with Africa turned into one of the last places among foreign-policy priorities. In 1992, Russia locked nine embassies and four consular office doors and most cultural missions and centers disappeared on the continent. On the other hand, it was especially accepted in the 1990s that the African mass media began to insist on the theme “Russia has left Africa to the mercy of fate.”

Although Russia’s superpower status disappeared with the Soviet Union, there is a remarkable consensus in Russia that it has been, is and will remain a great power on the global arena because of its geopolitical status, rich energy resources, armed forces with nuclear capabilities and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

In general, Russia has several interests in Africa and the Horn. In order to categorize Russia’s renewed interests of today, it will be helpful to identify the aforementioned Cold War interests in the Horn of Africa. They were produced in bipolar world rivalry and security approach to the Cold War. Today, Russia’s position in the international community is different from the Cold War. Currently, Russia’s Horn of Africa policy is not only focused on the flow rate and volume of natural resources, trade, and economic partnership but also is interested in humanitarian issues such as peace and education, together with security.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Workneh Gebeyhu (PhD)
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Workneh Gebeyhu (PhD)

Through the late 1980s, the Cold War determined US policy in the Horn. The US concentrated its economic and military support in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile-Selassie, who was a reliable ally to the US. The US military maintained a critical communications station known as Kagnew outside Asmara.

In 1974, when the military junta seized power, the US tried initially to maintain cordial economic, political and military relations with the new left-wing regime. The US refused to provide all of the military assistance requested by Mengistu and Ethiopia turned increasingly to the Soviet Union for support. As Ethiopia slipped into the Soviet camp, the US looked for a new ally in the Horn.

The Cold War no longer dictated US policies in the Horn. Its termination presented an opportunity for the US to focus on economic development throughout Africa. Instead, there was strong competition for scarce US financial resources and relatively little interest in Africa. As a result, the 1990s witnessed a series of ad hoc decisions in Washington for dealing with both the Horn and Africa generally.

In 1991, the United States played a key role in helping to broker the departure of Mengistu from Addis Ababa, the replacement of his regime with the EPRDF and the independence of Eritrea.

The Clinton administration’s policy in the region was the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative. It was intended to mitigate conflict and improve food security in the five countries of the Horn; in addition to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. While it had some positive impact on improving food security, it failed as a conflict mitigator for many reasons, not the least of which were new conflicts such as the Ethiopia-Eritrea war that overwhelmed the initiative.

During the Cold War era, the two superpowers were competing with each other to exert their political ideology and interests, both in the region and in Ethiopia particularly. During the military regime, Ethiopia allied with the USSR which in turn upset the US. This disappointment was described in Paul Henze’s book entitled Ethiopia in Mengistus Final Year. “He [Mengistu] was unable to understand that he had adopted a bankrupt ideology and was trying to imitate a system of governance and economic development which was collapsing.”

This clearly proved that both the Russians and the Americans wanted to exert their political ideology and interest in Ethiopia. Therefore, the current visit might be to reinstate this long-standing interest.


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