The death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi represents a significant loss for Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region. However, its impact on peace and security will be limited. This is in large part due to the care taken by the late Prime Minister in building the governance systems and institutions so effective at governing the country and establishing its role as the key playing in the region.
The legacy of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is that of a modern state system, in which individual leaders may come and go, but the system continues. This has led to the country’s first peaceful transition of power in modern times.
The spirit of this state system, based on multinational federalism, was clearly demonstrated in the appointment of the new Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn. Dessalegn comes from a minority ethnic group, the Wolleita, from the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) region and will complete the term of office of the late Prime Minister. As pointed out by Ato Sebhat Nega, a founding member of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and veteran liberation fighter, “the system does not depend on one person.”
Ethiopia’s multinational federalist system looks after the interests of all the country’s ethno-linguistic groups, regardless of their size. Its constitutional framework has created a system of self-rule and shared rule for all ethno-linguistic groups of the country. It is a system that aims to guarantee each of its ethnicity-based member groups a share in power, at the level of the region, as well as at the centre.
The new Prime Minister, as a member of one of the smaller groups, is an important symbolic figure aiding the maintenance of the balance of power among the larger groups. This serves to diminish any possibility of a power struggle among the larger ethnicities and regions by providing a source of authority not directly connected to any of them.
Beginning his practical agenda, the Prime Minister has to implement the new five-year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) initiated by his predecessor. This is now the major guiding plan of the ruling EPRDF and will be the government’s top priority throughout the end of this term. This includes the completion of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River, the biggest of all the projects initiated by the late Prime Minister.
The EPRDF is committed to a stable multi-party democratic system, to answer the nationalities question through ethnic federalism, and to building a free-market economy. The constitution restructured the multi-ethnic country into a federation of nine ethnicity-based regional states that explicitly recognizes the equality of all groups and their respective right to self-rule and shared rule. It also enshrined protection for political freedom, liberal democracy and human rights, and recognizes the rights of ethnic nationalities, “up to and including the right of secession.”
Historically, Ethiopia has been at the centre of both stability and instability in the Horn of Africa. It has a long history of statecraft, a strong sense of national identity, and a military tradition, making it capable of pursuing its clearly-defined national interest. It has the capacity to project force beyond its own borders, while acting with sufficient restraint to avoid its use of military power turning into destabilizing adventurism. During the periods when it has been strong and respected, Ethiopia has been able to contain the threat of instability in the region. Conversely, when Ethiopia has been affected by conflict, political problems in the region have remained unmanaged and at times, out of control.
In the latter half of the past century, Ethiopia’s foreign and security policy saw radical changes, particularly after the establishment of the current constitutional system. Although there is a natural continuity in regard to the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the current constitution is not aimed at coercively holding the ‘nation’ together; rather it is based upon the free will and consent of Ethiopia’s peoples to live together.
The Horn of Africa’s regional security issues were not taken lightly by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He made clear his determination to defend the country’s borders against any and all threats. In this regard, Ethiopia found it necessary on more than one occasion to resort to the use of force against Somalia-based groups that attempted to threaten Ethiopia’s national security and its territorial integrity.
Ethiopian foreign policy under Meles also made important contributions towards limiting the spread of Al-Queda linked armed Islamist movements that posed a significant threat to the security of not only Ethiopia, but of other states of the region. The first Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) incursions into Somalia took place in 1996 against a radical Islamist group, Al Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI) which, among others, sought to annex the Ethiopian Somali Region to Somalia, as well as the ethnic Somali region of North Eastern Kenya. The AIAI made several incursions into Ethiopia and attacks on Ethiopian government targets from its bases at Luuq in south western Somalia.
This eventually led to the destruction by the Ethiopian army of the AIAI bases in Luuq, where several non-Somali bodies were recovered. This was seen as providing evidence of an international effort, possibly linked to Osama bin Laden, who had been based in Sudan.
Meles also played an important role in the peace and security of the region, through diplomacy where appropriate, as well as through the use of force, where necessary. His most recent efforts included diplomacy towards averting the outbreak of a new war between Sudan and South Sudan, and the commitment of Ethiopian forces to maintain the peace in the Abyei region, claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan.
In 2006, and thereafter, his Government provided substantial assistance to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in its effort to contain the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the predecessor of today’s Al-Queda-linked Al-Shabaab Al-Mujheddin, a radical Islamist armed group seeking to form an Islamist Emirate in Somalia, large areas of southern Ethiopia and North eastern Kenya with substantial assistance from Eritrea.
The activities of such groups have seldom been confined within the borders of Somalia, but have tended to spread across and destabilize a region that can ill afford such distractions. The countries of the region, therefore, and particularly those that border on Somalia need to give serious attention to such threats when they occur.
Ethiopia’s population is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims, the history of which has been marked by mutual respect and tolerance between the faiths. This has also marked the attitude of successive Ethiopian governments, which have always sought to nurture this accommodation and to resist the politicization of religion. Recently, however, Ethiopia has had to watch carefully the activities of foreign militants in the Horn, and their attempts to introduce destabilizing agendas, such as those Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
In 2006, the UN Security Council Monitoring Group – responsible for monitoring the UN’s largely ineffective embargo on supply of arms to Somalia – reported that several countries had been involved in the provision of arms to the Islamist ICU/SCIC, and through it, to the ONLF and similar groups in Ethiopia.
The Horn of Africa is a rough neighbourhood, and will probably continue to be so for some time to come, but Ethiopia will continue to play its role, contributing to the peace and stability of the region. This is a role that is not necessarily one of choice, but one of necessity, as its own peace, security and stability are inextricably linked to those of the region. This includes continuing to work bilaterally and multilaterally with the United States and the European Union in efforts to strengthen peace and security on the global level. The late Prime Minister created a strong foundation for Ethiopia, and now the Ethiopian government will continue to deepen it.
(The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed in this article should not be attributed in any way to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa)