The announcement of the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — possibly a month after he actually died — starts to focus the growing confluence of events in the Horn of Africa; events which show a profound watershed in the strategic situation along one of the most significant trade routes in the world.
The death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi would have been significant — given his tight grip on power in one of Africa’s most populous and significant states — at any time. The fact that his death (announced in August 2012) occurred at the time of transitions of power in Egypt, Eritrea, and Yemen, and at a time when Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, and Somaliland are also embroiled in critical phases of their history, makes the event even more significant.
Add to this the effective withdrawal of the coercive (and stabilizing) umbrella power of the United States — creating an absence of a Western superpower dominance in the area for the first time in 500 years — and it is clear that the region is witnessing the beginning of an era which will be totally different from the past century.
To some extent, the individual problems and power vacuums which are emerging in all of the regional states are concentrating the political communities of each community on its own problems. But a regional pattern is evident in an area which is so critical for resources and trade routes. The fluid nature of the overall pattern will develop its own outcomes, and attract the attention of some longer- term players. That process has already begun, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Iran, and — hesitantly — India increase their attentions toward the area.
There are other ramifications, apart from the temporary vacuum of power, in the death of Meles Zenawi, which the Ethiopian Government announced on August 21, 2012. Meles had been a driving force in making the African Union (AU) more effective, and, in essence, was the key player in stopping the AU coming heavily under the influence of South Africa. The success of the AU’s delicate border reconciliation program, which affects virtually every African state, is now thrown open to question, particularly given the reality that South Africa stands to lose considerable territory, particularly to Swaziland, if the border adjustment process was to proceed with some legal relevance.
Meanwhile, the security problems in the Horn of Africa are far from resolved, although the damping down of US strategic engagement in the area may have led to some of the security issues moving away from the spotlight. The end of the Meles era in Ethiopia means that there is as yet no certainty that his successor will prosecute the stabilizing role in Somalia which Meles had embraced.
However, the collapse of the Mubarak Government in Egypt, as well as the overthrow of the Qadhafi Government in Libya, removed two strong supporters of anti-Ethiopian subversive activity, which had been financed through Eritrea. Egypt, under the interim Government of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, worked to reverse the Mubarak policy of confrontation with Ethiopia as Egypt’s means of securing control over the headwaters of the Blue Nile (critical to Egypt’s survival). There is as yet no indication how the Government of Pres. Mohammed Morsi will finally act on this issue, other than the fact that Pres. Morsi did attend a major AU Summit in Addis Ababa in July 2012, and (in the absence of Prime Minister Meles) met with the Abuna (Patriarch) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This held the promise that even though Egypt now has an Ikhwani Government, it would deal more pragmatically than did Mubarak with regard to finding a workable solution with Ethiopia on sharing the waters of the Blue Nile.
There are some indications, however, that Pres. Morsi could take a stronger line against Ethiopia than did Pres. Mubarak, as indicated in his initial communications with Sudan’s Pres. Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir. The only saving grace is that Pres. Morsi is presently focused on Egypt attaining a dominant role in the Mashreq through mediating the Syrian crisis. However, as the Syrian quagmire intensifies, Pres. Morsi is likely to shift attention to the traditional Egyptian hunting grounds to the south. But if Pres. Morsi finds his initial overtures toward Ethiopia are fruitful, this could be a major step toward stability in the greater Horn area (including Sudan).
In Ethiopia itself, the fate of the post-Meles Government is by no means yet determined, a fact which has been compounded by the death of Abuna Paulos after his meeting with Pres. Morsi. In this regard, the stability of Ethiopia is the critical element in stabilizing the Red Sea/Suez and Horn. To achieve this, Ethiopia will need to move back toward a more national Government, bearing in mind the reality that Meles represented a small portion of the Tigrean region, and that has only six percent of the overall Ethiopian population. In this regard, there are few over-arching national symbols which appeal to all Ethiopians, and the Crown of Ethiopia is the obvious — and possibly single — culturally-unifying symbol which crosses all ethno-linguistic groups in the country. But one of the key issues which can possibly now be addressed, given the departure of Meles and his strenuously marxist approach, would be to re-introduce private land ownership into Ethiopia.
This could be the single most significant step in moving Ethiopia back to prosperity and to overcoming productivity challenges to the agricultural sector.
Similarly, the death of Meles may allow some reform in the Armed Forces, which are at present dominated by Tigreans. Indeed, attempts to see a continuation of Tigrean dominance of Ethiopian politics may soon face a showdown. Significantly, the successor to Meles as leader of the Tigre Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) has been named as Seyoum Mesfin, the former Foreign Minister and (until recently) Ambassador to the PRC. Ato Seyoum, obviously also a Tigrean, is from an aristocratic background, and had been a sophisticated, moderating influence on the Meles Government. Now he is charged with securing the TPLF’s continued leadership role in the coalition Government, but also is capable of ensuring a movement of Ethiopian politics toward the center, and toward ethnic harmony.
Meanwhile, Meles was laid to rest in a State Funeral at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa on September 2, lying there now in the company of the late Emperor. It is significant that the passing of Meles actually brought recognition to some of his accomplishments. There is a parable in Ethiopia about the death of a village bully, and the priest asks for someone to speak at the man’s funeral. No-one will volunteer until, at last, one man reluctantly agrees, and says, over the gravesite: “Well, he was better than his brother.”
The current situation in Ethiopia is that Meles, at least, is viewed as having been a better leader than the ousted Dergue leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
But who succeeds Meles will be of critical importance, given the need for Ethiopia to reassert itself strongly, and to find an accommodation with what must soon emerge as the next government in Eritrea, over Ethiopia’s access to the sea. Meles literally gave away part of Ethiopia at the same time as he acceded to Eritrean independence from Ethiopia. Non-Eritrean parts of the Ethiopian coastline were given to Eritrea at the same time that Eritrea won independence, and there was no valid reason for Meles to have done this, isolating Ethiopia from its traditional access to the Red Sea.
Ethiopia’s next leadership will be challenged to regain that sea access, or, without it, be forever subject to constraints in trade and influence from the littoral states. In this regard, Egypt would almost certainly attempt to bolster Eritrea, again, to resist this. Egypt does not want a powerful rival power dominating the Eastern end of the Red Sea/Suez SLOC. And in this regard, it is worth noting that Ethiopia has, with some 80-million people, a similar population base to Egypt, but has a far more fertile and watered territory than Egypt. Moreover, it also is discovering that it has significant energy (natural gas) and other mineral resources, potentially making Ethiopia a more prosperous society than Egypt.
Meles’ successor, too, will have to deal with the question of supporting South Sudan, something Meles championed, and which put him at odds with Sudan. Will Ethiopia still be able to offer South Sudan a conduit for trade and support, or will South Sudan look solely to Kenya for its own maritime access, as the export conduit for its oil? In many respects, though, Ethiopia was the key guarantor of South Sudanese security from Sudanese depredations.
What, within this framework of change, is the likelihood of revived Ethiopian conflict with Eritrea? Much of the animus which created the earlier conflicts between Eritrea and Ethiopia stemmed from the personalities of the leaders of both states. And now, effectively, both leaders have been removed by illness from the scene, although the full extent of the incapacitation of Pres. Isayas Afewerke of Eritrea has yet to be divulged. He may already be dead; or he may be alive and recover his health. If he recovers, then there is a strong likelihood that Eritrea would press its border claims still further. If he does not, and a relatively strong Ethiopian leader can unify the Government and country, there is a reasonable chance that Ethiopia will press for the restoration of some of its coastline from what is now Eritrea.
All this could take several years.
In the meantime, there seems little likelihood that any new government in Ethiopia would step back from the path which Meles began of dam- building on the Blue Nile, the issue which causes Egypt (and Sudan) most concern. The opportunity exists for Ethiopia and Egypt to manage the process amicably so that Egypt does not feel any strategic threat to its vital interests, so dependent is it on the Nile water flow. But Egypt would see the revival of Ethiopian naval access to the Red Sea as competitive. But if it acts — as it has done in the past by supporting a containment of Ethiopia and by attempting to de-legitimize the Republic of Somaliland (a key access point for Ethiopia to the Red Sea) — then Ethiopia could react harshly in how it handles the Nile water flow.
There is, of course, strong residual US and Western presence and interest in the Red Sea region, and still vital Western interests there, with regard to resources, sea lanes, and geopolitical leverage. The question is whether at this point the politically embattled European Union (EU) states, or the internally preoccupied US have the will or resources to re-surge their power projection into the region. Indeed, the question remains as to just how much leverage the US could have on, say, the Egyptian Government for access to the Suez Canal in the event of a crisis.
Significantly, Israel, with its maritime access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, once again becomes a factor of interest to the US, as it is, for example, to India.
Concurrently, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece are pinning their hopes for their economic futures on their mutual access to the undersea gas fields of the Eastern Mediterranean, and this will be a governing factor in many issues relating to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Red Sea. In all of this, Iran — though itself embattled — will continue to assert itself in the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region. There can be no doubt of this. And now, the US cannot effectively offer an umbrella of protection to Saudi Arabia.
Writing in November 2008, Defense & Foreign Affairs editor Gregory Copley noted:
“Now, with the election of Sen. Obama, and his implicit promise to revive US military/strategic isolationism, the threat felt from the US has been dramatically removed for many societies, whether in Western Europe or in, say, Iran. The US is now an economic power, but its power — already in decline in real terms for the past two dozen years — can now be ignored in many respects.”
“The states of the world are going their own way. They will play with the US when it suits them. They will look Washington in the eye, and turn away when they wish. As the US ability to build security coalitions (or to retain them in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq) declines, US diplomats will become more strident, and yet more ineffective, in their pressures on onetime allies and foes. Their coercive powers will be seen, increasingly, as having been vacated.”
It is true in 2012, then, that if US Pres. Obama is elected to a second term in office, then the US ability to coerce or influence events in the region would be expected to continue its precipitate decline.
There is the real possibility that if Republican Presidential contender Mitt Romney is elected to replace Mr Obama, then he may not even have sufficient flexibility to reverse the Obama-led decline in US global strategic influence, even if he does check the slide of that influence through an improvement in US credibility and power projection commitment.
There would be a significant interregnum of power in the Middle East and Horn of Africa — and therefore with regard to the vital Red Sea/Suez SLOC — in the meantime. Will all of this encourage an increasingly independent and perhaps cooperative rise of Indian Ocean states in sensing that their interests are now dependent on them taking ownership of the strategic environment? Australia itself, for example, has proportionately as much at stake as India (and the PRC) in safeguarding the Indian Ocean SLOCs, which are of greater concern to its survival than Pacific Ocean issues.
But there is no doubt that the “new dynamic arena” is now the north-western Indian Ocean and its tendrils, reaching up the northern extent of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Persian Gulf. This is the region of contention in the new world structure.
By. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs