Displaying Prudence In Pursuit Of Foreign Relations | The Reporter

The bedrock of modern Ethiopia’s foreign policy since it was founded in the late 19th century has rested on the principles of the pursuit of mutual interest and recognition of equality of states; ensuring respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity; non-alignment; and forging an environment fostering fraternal relations with other nations and their people. These tenets have been articulated in one form or another in the current constitution of Ethiopia as well as various nationally adopted documents, including its foreign and national security policies and strategies. Needless to say, the implementation of the nation’s foreign policy has always been shaped by global geo-political realities and the ideological camp to which it belonged. The actions of successive Ethiopian governments thus have not been uniformly in line with the principles set out in official foreign policy instruments.

Ethiopia’s foreign relations were relatively independent for decades after the demise in the early 1990s of the bipolar geopolitical system that had been prevailing since the end of World War Two. The emergence of a multi-polar, poly-centric global order following the end of the Cold War brought about a new power configuration in world politics that allowed Ethiopia to chart a neutral course in its relations with competing powers. This approach enabled it to garner enhanced access to foreign assistance and boosted its international standing. The seminal events that sparked profound geopolitical shifts in the aftermath of the Cold War brought about the failure of such countries as Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya that were not friendly with Ethiopia even as they caused the strength of adversaries like Egypt to wane. However, Ethiopia’s external relations have been seesawing due to a combination of largely locally-driven factors after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed office in April 2018, exacting grave political, economic and social tolls.

Ethiopia is situated in a neighborhood ravaged by prolonged conflict. Somalia, which shares the longest border with Ethiopia, has suffered an ongoing civil war since 1988 that has led to its fracture. South Sudan has been in the throes of a devastating civil war and ethnic violence soon after its independence in 2011. Eritrea waged a deadly war with Ethiopia from 1998-2000, a war, which is estimated to have cost the lives of more than 70, 000 on both sides. It also intervened on the side of the Ethiopian government in its two-year war with the forces of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) that ended in November 2022. Kenya, a relatively stable country, has witnessed several bouts of ethnic and election-related violence since 1991. On its part Sudan has a long history of civil war starting from 1983 that continues to rack it to this day. Moreover, it has long-running disputes with Ethiopia over areas both claims as their own and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Djibouti’s civil war (1991-1994) had also resulted in the death of 1,000 people in the smallest Horn of African nation. The prolonged nature of the conflicts in these neighboring countries had had and continues to have a spillover effect in Ethiopia exacerbating the political instability it has been mired in for decades.

Outside of its backyard, Ethiopia’s relations with the West, in particular, have been rocky over the past five years. The series of political and economic reforms Prime Minister Abiy introduced soon after he rose to power—releasing political prisoners, replacing draconian laws with enabling legislation, ending the twenty-year old with neighboring Eritrea, and liberalizing the telecom sector—made Ethiopia the darling of the West. The resulting improvement of the ties between the two sides helped Ethiopia reap not only political benefits, but also economic dividends in the form of billions of dollars of aid and loans from international financial institutions.

This warm relationship did not last long though. It began to cool when the West stood with Sudan and Egypt over the filling and operation of the GERD. In mid-2020, Ethiopia rebuffed the U.S. government’s attempt to strong-arm it into signing a binding agreement on the filling period, saying it did not accept the 12-21 years proposed by Egypt and had the right to fill the dam at its own pace. The repeated convening of the Security Council at the behest of Egypt and Sudan, to consider a resolution calling on Ethiopia to cease filling the GERD’s reservoir and pushing for a binding agreement between the three sides on the operation of the dam did not help matters either.

The relationship became strained further when the West tried to diplomatically isolate Ethiopia during the civil war that pitted the government and allied forces with TPLF combatants. Soon after the war broke out Ethiopia was subjected to unprecedented pressure at the hands of Western governments, the U.N., mainstream media, think-tanks and rights groups. The U.S. particularly imposed a slew of sanctions on Ethiopia, scaled back its economic assistance, and terminated the tariff-free African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for Ethiopia. Furthermore, the U.S. and its allies at the U.N. Security Council have tried over a dozen times to formally admonish Ethiopia, albeit unsuccessfully. The West also waged a coordinated information campaign against Ethiopia through the mainstream media, think tanks and so-called rights advocacy organizations. These measures brought the relationship between the two parties to a nadir.

Fortunately, the diplomatic freeze was short-lived. The conclusion in November 2022 of a surprise peace deal between the federal government of Ethiopia and the TPLF that ended the war they fought has brought Ethiopia back in the West’s graces, leading to a resumption of negotiations with the U.S. and international financial institutions on the delivery of assistance for humanitarian and reconstruction purposes as well as provisioning of loans and grants. As Ethiopia tries to thread the needle on the complex geopolitical challenges staring it in the face, the government should display prudence in how it conducts its foreign affairs policy and avoid the temptation to throw in its lot with one of the geopolitical rivals intent on asserting hegemony over the volatile yet strategic region the country finds itself in. It’s only then that its external relations can be anchored in and promote the national interest.

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