Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy American Memory

The foreign relations of the modern Ethiopian state were driven by the government’s quest to establish this multiethnic polity as a viable nation-state and to maintain its territorial integrity. In many respects, then, the foreign policy pursued by the leaders of postrevolutionary Ethiopia was consistent with the foreign policy of the old imperial regime. The aspect that changed from one era to the next was Ethiopia’s ideological alignment. Whereas the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie had relied heavily on the patronage of the United States, that of President Mengistu Haile Mariam cast its fate with the Soviet Union. Both the pre- and post-1974 governments used economic and military aid from their respective superpower patrons to augment their own meager material resources, thus enhancing the ability of the regime to pursue not only certain foreign policy objectives but also specific domestic policies. Analysis of Ethiopia’s foreign policy, both past and contemporary, suggests that, rather than serving as the pawns of one superpower or another, Ethiopia’s leaders consistently placed their perceptions of what was best for Ethiopia before all else.

Diplomacy and State Building in Imperial Ethiopia

As one of only two African states that have never been permanently colonized (the other is Liberia), Ethiopia has a long diplomatic tradition. Tewodros II, who reigned in the mid-nineteenth century, was the first modern Ethiopian leader to try to develop a foreign policy that transcended the Horn region (see The Making of Modern Ethiopia, ch. 1). His successor, Yohannis IV, followed a less dynamic course and was greatly troubled by European expansionism in general and penetration by Italy in particular. Menelik II, who succeeded Yohannis in 1889, failed to find a peaceful solution to Italy’s encroachments. He had greater success, however, in the military sphere, defeating the Italian army at Adwa in 1896.

Menelik died in 1913, and it was not until 1930 that another strong emperor, Haile Selassie I, assumed the throne. Haile Selassie quickly demonstrated that he was committed to the creation of a strong, modern, bureaucratic empire that would command unquestioned international respect. As early as 1923, while serving as regent, he negotiated Ethiopia’s admission into the League of Nations. The Italian occupation of Ethiopia between 1936 and 1941 briefly halted his efforts to establish Ethiopia’s position in the world community (see Italian Rule and World War II, ch. 1). However, when he reassumed the throne in 1941, he renewed his efforts to bolster Ethiopia’s international standing.

After World War II, Haile Selassie achieved considerable international success primarily because of his active participation in the UN, his alignment with the West, and his vocal support for the African independence movement. As a UN member, Ethiopia committed troops to the peacekeeping mission in Korea from 1950 to 1953 and to the Congo (present-day Zaire) in 1960. Moreover, Ethiopia’s military and diplomatic relationship with the United States provided it with a superpower ally (see United States, ch. 5). Finally, Haile Selassie took the lead in pressing for a resolution establishing the territorial integrity of the independent states of Africa. Over the years, he developed a reputation as a sage voice of moderation on a continent filled with militant nationalists. It was in this capacity that he offered to host the headquarters of the OAU upon its founding in the early 1960s, once again demonstrating his diplomatic acumen.

The Foreign Policy of the Derg

The foreign policy of Ethiopia did not change immediately upon the demise of the imperial regime. Initially, the country’s new leaders maintained the general thrust of the foreign policy developed under Haile Selassie and concentrated mainly on consolidating their rule. Nonetheless, the Marxist ideology of the Derg and its civilian allies made conflict with Ethiopia’s superpower patron, the United States, inevitable.

By the mid-1970s, Kagnew station, the communications monitoring base in Asmera granted under terms of the 1953 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement between Ethiopia and the United States, had largely lost its value. Advances in satellite technology had rendered land-based facilities like Kagnew station less important for long-range communications monitoring. Yet the United States felt the need to maintain a presence in this strategically important part of Africa, particularly because the Soviet Union was beginning to become active in the area. The administration of President Gerald Ford (1974-77) wanted to avoid an embarrassment similar to that experienced by the United States in Angola in 1975, when covert United States aid to anticommunist combatants failed to dislodge the pro-Moscow Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Even though President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger indicated uneasiness with Ethiopia’s violations of human rights and growing leftist tendencies, they did no more than cautiously encourage the Derg to moderate its human rights policies.

The United States began to express concern over the Derg’s human rights violations when on November 23, 1974, a day that came to be known as “Bloody Saturday,” fifty-nine officials who had served in the old regime were executed. Official United States concern intensified two months later when the Derg mobilized a force consisting of regular military units and the hastily assembled People’s Militia in an effort to resolve the Eritrean question through military means (see People’s Militia, ch. 5). But Eritrean forces attacked first, surprising the Ethiopian forces in their base camps and scoring an impressive victory.

Whereas the administration of President Ford had been reluctant to impose sanctions on Ethiopia because of its human rights record, President Jimmy Carter made human rights a central concern of his administration (1977-81). On February 25, 1977, Carter announced that because of continued human rights violations, certain governments that were receiving Washington’s military aid (including Ethiopia) would receive reduced assistance in the following fiscal year. Consequently, the Derg began to cast about for alternative sources of military assistance. Among the countries Ethiopia turned to were China and the Soviet Union. At first, the actual assistance provided by these superpowers was minimal, and the United States maintained its presence in the country. However, relations between the United States and Ethiopia deteriorated rapidly. By April 1977, Mengistu had demanded that Washington close down Kagnew station and most other installations; only a small staff was allowed to remain at the United States embassy. By then, the first supplies of Soviet military hardware had begun to arrive.

Having its military presence in Ethiopia ended, and with tensions mounting in the Middle East and Iran, the United States began to cultivate alliances in northeast Africa that could facilitate the development of a long-range military strike capability. These developments coincided with an escalation of tensions in the Horn region in general. The United States eventually began the systematic pursuit of a strategy that amounted to encircling the Arabian Peninsula. The United States asked Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Oman to allow their territories to be used as staging grounds for the fledgling Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), which later became the United States Central Command. The Soviet Union’s clients in the region–Ethiopia, Libya, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen)– perceiving Washington’s action as a threat, signed a tripartite agreement in 1981 and pledged to repulse any effort to intervene in their respective countries. However, this alliance never played a significant role in the region.

The Derg, the Soviet Union, and the Communist World

Apparently sensing that the Mengistu regime was in desperate trouble, internal and external enemies took action to hasten its demise (see External and Internal Opponents, ch. 5). Most important, civilian opposition groups began to wage urban guerrilla campaigns to demoralize and discredit the Derg, and Somalia committed regular troops to assist ethnic Somali living in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region in their efforts to separate from Ethiopia. Simultaneously, the Somali government expressed concern over the growing Soviet and Cuban presence in Ethiopia. Until then, Somalia had been an ally of the Soviet Union. After the Somali National Army (SNA) invaded the Ogaden region in July 1977, the Soviet Union withdrew its 1,000 advisers from Somalia. In November Somalia announced that it had abrogated the 1974 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union and that it had suspended diplomatic relations with Cuba. At that point, the Soviet Union adopted Ethiopia as its main ally in the Horn of Africa. In late November, it launched a massive airlift and sealift of arms and other military equipment to Ethiopia. Over the next several months, about 17,000 Cuban and 1,000 Soviet military personnel arrived in the country and were deployed to the Ogaden front. This aid turned the tide in favor of Ethiopia by early 1978.

As had the regime of Haile Selassie, the Derg accorded its international image and territorial integrity the highest priority in its foreign policy. Opposition groups had forced the regime to rely extensively on the Soviet Union to maintain itself in power and to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. From 1977 to 1990, Soviet military assistance to Ethiopia was estimated to be as much as US$13 billion. However, by 1987 there was evidence that the Soviet Union had decided to cut back military assistance to Ethiopia and to press for political solutions to that country’s several civil conflicts. By that time, there were fewer than 1,800 Soviet advisers in Ethiopia and a total of about 2,000 advisers from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Poland. Furthermore, all Cuban troops in the Ogaden had withdrawn, and the Cuban military presence in Ethiopia had dropped to fewer than 2,000.

Although Ethiopia was dependent on the Soviet Union for military assistance and sided with it in the international diplomatic arena, Addis Ababa on numerous occasions demonstrated its independence in the area of domestic policy and international economic policy. For instance, the Derg procrastinated in setting up a vanguard party despite Soviet pressure to do so. Once the party was formed, it was dominated by former military personnel, again contrary to Soviet wishes. In the economic sphere, Addis Ababa had close aid and trade relations with the West and pursued a pragmatic investment policy.

Although Mengistu eschewed any talk of Ethiopian-style glasnost, Ethiopia could not escape the global impact of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. When Mengistu visited the Soviet Union in 1988, Gorbachev told him that if Moscow’s support were to continue, the Soviet Union would have to see dramatic changes in Ethiopia’s agricultural priorities, coupled with political liberalization. The Soviet leader also refused to continue unqualified military and economic support of the Mengistu regime. A combination of economic realities and Soviet pressure encouraged the Mengistu regime in 1989 to retreat at least partially from its dogmatically statist approach to economic development (see Role of Government, ch. 3). By late 1990, the Soviet- Ethiopian alliance had ended. As a result, Addis Ababa looked to several other nations, including Israel and China, for military assistance. None of these nations, however, was capable of replacing the amount of military equipment the Soviet Union had supplied to Ethiopia.

The Derg and the West

Although the Derg depended on the Soviet Union and its allies for military aid, it was just as reliant on the West for economic development and relief aid (see Balance of Payments and Foreign Assistance, ch. 3). For example, the European Community (EC) was Ethiopia’s most significant source of economic aid. In the early 1980s, Western sources accounted for more than 90 percent of Ethiopia’s economic aid, most of which came from the EC. Since then, communist countries had increased their proportion of total aid to Ethiopia to about 20 percent. Other multilateral and bilateral donors also had provided increased aid. For example, after refraining from giving aid to Addis Ababa between 1975 and 1981, the World Bank (see Glossary) pledged more than US$250 million in project aid, the European Development Fund promised about US$300 million, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF–see Glossary) agreed to a loan of almost US$100 million. The regime accepted the IMF loan even though it claimed to disagree with IMF policies. Moreover, a joint venture law in 1983 and a foreign investment policy initiated in 1988 had stimulated the gradual return of private investors, although the level of such investments remained low.

Even though Ethiopia was dependent on Western economic aid, no Western donor was able to influence day-to-day economic policy on a regular basis. For instance, the Swedish International Development Authority, the United States Agency for International Development (AID), the World Bank, and other donor agencies historically had favored the development of agricultural cooperatives if they were organized on free-market principles. However, the Ethiopian regime attempted to guide the development of cooperatives so that they might be transformed into socialist collectives compatible with a centrally planned and directed economy. Like the imperial government before it, the Derg attempted to play off a multiplicity of donors against one another and thereby maximize certain benefits without surrendering its sovereignty.

Ethiopia’s Border Politics

As the Mengistu regime attempted to consolidate its rule, it had to cope with serious border problems, particularly with Somalia and Sudan. The point at issue with Somalia was the Ogaden region, an area that Mogadishu claimed as part of the historical Somali nation that had been seized by the Ethiopians during the colonial partition of the Horn of Africa. In fact, Ethiopia’s only undefined boundary was the border it shared with the former Italian Somaliland. On maps drawn after 1950, this boundary is termed “Administrative Line” (see fig. 1). Upon gaining independence from European colonial rule in 1960, the inhabitants of the Republic of Somalia nurtured the hope that all Somali eventually would be united in a modern nation-state. Somali claims to the Ogaden, Djibouti, and parts of Kenya, however, had been consistently rejected by the UN, the OAU, and most of the world’s sovereign states. Still, Somalia’s leadership remained unwilling to forsake these claims publicly.

In 1961, less than a year after Somalia gained independence, its troops clashed with Ethiopian soldiers along their common border. In 1964 renewed tensions erupted into a minor regional war. In both cases, Somalia was defeated. Ethnic Somali in Kenya’s northeast also unsuccessfully challenged that country’s new government in the early 1960s. Pan-Somalism, then, served as a basis for the continuance of cooperative relations between Nairobi and Addis Ababa, despite the change of regime in Ethiopia. The two countries first signed a mutual defense agreement in 1964 that resulted in the creation of the Ethiopia-Kenya Border Administration Commission.

The Ogaden War (1977-78) was the most serious border conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia (see The Somali, ch. 5). Beginning in the early summer of 1977, SNA units and WSLF guerrillas, a movement of ethnic Somali opposed to incorporation in Ethiopia, occupied vast tracts of the Ogaden and forced the Ethiopian army into fortresses at Jijiga, Harer, and Dire Dawa for almost eight months. The intention was to separate the Ogaden from Ethiopia to set the stage for ethnic Somali in the region to decide their own future.

It was only with Soviet and Cuban assistance that the Derg regained control over the region by early 1978. The Soviet Union not only provided massive amounts of military equipment but also advisers, who trained Ethiopian soldiers and pilots. Moreover, Cuban troops spearheaded the counteroffensive that began in March 1978. Cuban and Ethiopian troops quickly defeated the SNA and WSLF once the counteroffensive began. Many WSLF fighters returned to their villages or took refuge inside Somalia. In addition, some 650,000 Somali and Oromo fled from southeastern Ethiopia into Somalia by early 1978 to escape unsettled local conditions and repression by Ethiopian armed forces. After the defeat, Somali opposition reverted to sporadic guerrilla ambushes and occasional acts of sabotage.

On April 4, 1988, after several preparatory meetings, Ethiopia and Somalia signed a joint communiqu‚ that supposedly ended the Ogaden conflict. According to the communiqu‚’s terms, the two countries committed themselves to withdrawing their military forces fifteen kilometers from the border, exchanging prisoners of war, restoring diplomatic relations, and refraining from supporting each other’s antigovernment guerrilla groups. Reportedly, a separate secret accord contained a Somali renunciation of all claims to the Ogaden region. From Mengistu’s point of view, the joint communiqu‚ secured Ethiopia’s southeastern border, thereby enabling Addis Ababa to devote more resources to the struggle against the EPLF and TPLF in northern Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, by 1991 it had become evident that Ethiopia had failed to honor the provisions of the joint communiqu‚. The Mengistu regime allowed the anti-Siad Barre Somali National Movement (SNM) to maintain offices in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa and to operate five training camps near Dire Dawa. Additionally, the Ethiopian government still provided mat‚riel and logistical support to the SNM. Despite these violations, Somalia refrained from reinitiating hostilities with Ethiopia.

Relations between Ethiopia and Sudan were generally good until the mid-1980s, when the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) emerged to challenge the hegemony of Khartoum. Emperor Haile Selassie had been instrumental in mediating an end to the Sudanese civil war in 1972. However, Ethiopia regularly expressed disappointment that the Sudanese government had not prevented Eritrean guerrillas from operating out of its territory. Sudan attempted to negotiate an end to the Eritrean conflict in 1975 but was unsuccessful. When Ethiopia turned to the Soviet Union and away from the United States, Sudan’s government became concerned. Sudanese president Jaafar an Nimeiri had accused the Soviet Union of having inspired coup attempts against his regime in 1971 and 1976. Sudan recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia in January 1977, and for several years serious border tensions existed between the two countries.

Ethiopia’s turn toward the Soviet Union caused Sudan to seek the support of new allies in preparing for the possibility of external invasions sponsored by Khartoum’s regional enemies. Nimeiri decided to openly support certain Eritrean liberation movements. In addition, he supported Somalia during the Ogaden War. Nimeiri claimed that he wanted to build a “high wall against communism” in the Horn of Africa and agreed to participate with the United States, Kenya, Egypt, Somalia, and Oman in the development of the RDF. By 1980 the tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia had abated, however, with the signing of a peace treaty calling for the mutual respect of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the two countries.

The 1981 tripartite agreement among Ethiopia, Libya, and South Yemen undermined relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. For some time, the Libyan government had been trying to overthrow Nimeiri. Now Ethiopia appeared to be joining the Libyan effort. Border tensions between the two countries also increased after Ethiopia started supporting the SPLA.

After Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, Sadiq al Mahdi’s regime made it clear that it wanted to improve relations with Ethiopia and Libya. Supposedly, this was the first step in the resolution of Sudan’s civil war. The change in regimes in Sudan also prompted a deterioration in United States-Sudanese relations, manifested by Khartoum’s cancellation of the agreement calling for the participation of Sudanese troops in the Operation Bright Star exercises. Despite Sudan’s estrangement from the United States and Mahdi’s growing closeness to Libya after 1985, there was no substantive improvement in Ethiopian-Sudanese relations. The problem continued to center on Sudan’s support for Eritrean rebels and Mengistu’s continued support of the SPLA. By 1989, following the overthrow of Sadiq al Mahdi, Khartoum and Addis Ababa had offered to negotiate their respective internal conflicts, but nothing tangible came of this.

Addis Ababa and the Middle East

To undermine regional support for the Eritrean movements, after 1987 the Ethiopian government tried to develop better relations with several Arab countries. Between 1987 and 1989, high-level Ethiopian delegations visited Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. In the fall of 1988, Mengistu paid a two-day visit to Syria to explain to President Hafiz al Assad the various reforms the Ethiopian regime had recently made, including the creation of autonomous regions, designed to be responsive to the desires of groups like the Eritreans. Prime Minister Fikre-Selassie Wogderes made a visit to Cairo in November 1988 to seek improved relations with Egypt and to express support for Egypt’s offer to negotiate a settlement of the Eritrean conflict. Despite these moves, Ethiopia’s relations with the Middle East remained minimal.

By 1989 the lack of progress toward improved relations with Arab countries and the desperate need for arms appeared to have inspired Ethiopia to develop closer ties with Israel. Subsequently, diplomatic relations between the two countries, which had been broken off at the time of the October 1973 War, were restored. Approximately 10,000 Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews; also called Falasha) had been spirited out of Ethiopia to Israel in 1984 in a secret airlift known as Operation Moses, and Israel remained committed to securing the emigration of the remaining Beta Israel. In return, Israel agreed to provide the Mengistu regime with military assistance (see Ethnic Groups, Ethnicity, and Language, ch. 2).

Israel obtained the release of an additional large number of Beta Israel in May 1991 in the midst of the collapse of the Mengistu regime. Negotiations for another Beta Israel exodus were already under way, and large numbers of them had already been brought to Addis Ababa when the military government came under intense pressure from EPRDF forces. At the behest of both Israel and the United States, the government agreed to release the Beta Israel against an Israeli payment of US$35 million. On May 24-26, in what was called Operation Solomon, some 15,000 Beta Israel were airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel, leaving an estimated 5,000 behind, mostly around Gonder.