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Understanding Ethiopian Geopolitics: A Historical and Contemporary Assessment

1.0. Introduction  

This article will try to enlighten the inner Ethiopian power politics, its implications for the greater Horn of Africa region and beyond. Ethiopia is a peculiar country situated in the Horn, with many aspects that makes it unique in the study of African regional relations. Apart from being the biggest country in terms of population which doesn’t enjoy a direct access to the sea, Ethiopia is also the only example of an African state who fought-off European colonialism successfully. It even demonstrated its own imperialistic agenda amid the age of European colonization of Africa. To understand the current power politics of Ethiopia, it is essential to know the general aspects of the Ethiopian history in the late modern age. This article will examine the Ethiopian case from a different and non-traditional standpoint, granting it a special role in the development of the modern Horn of African state and nationhood. The aim of this article is therefore to propose a new insight on Horn of Africa affairs with a local focus on Ethiopia, encompassing regional prospects and power relations.  Throughout the article, it is highlighted that Ethiopia is not a victim of and contrarily, an agent of colonization in Africa. Stemming from this view, the article will present a revolutionary overview of the Horn. From Shewan expansion in the 19th century to the incorporation of Eritrea a century later, the article will cover Ethiopian history in the late modern age in order to bring specific features to light. Plus, a brief introduction to Ethiopian national security and its strategic culture together with implications for the greater Horn will be presented in the study. Finally, the article will touch upon the recent port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland and try to assess it from the special perspective that is going to be introduced. 

2.0. Expansion and Imperial Buildup 

As widely known, the period known as the Scramble for Africa was an outcome of the  Berlin conference held in 1878 composed solely of European colonial powers. In this  traditional sense, the role of colonialism in Africa is attributed only to European states. In the  Berlin Conference of 1884, one of the aspects emphasized by the signatories was the principle  of effective occupation. This principle implies that the colonial rights are acquired only and  only if the colonizing power has treaties with local leaders, can fly its flag over the land, has  an administration to govern the territory and a law enforcement force to keep order. These  criteria reached in Berlin coincide with a period of disarray and disintegration of long-lived  African kingdoms and states, namely the Kingdom of Kongo in the south, the Oyo Empire in  West Africa and disintegration of the Ethiopian Empire into smaller kingdoms. It was thanks  to this period of upheaval and dissolution of central authority in Africa that the European  powers were able to reach out the continent militarily and expand their coastal outposts into  the hinterlands. When we examine each African state, including colonial regimes, in light of  the principle of effective occupation, we see that Ethiopia complies with it to a large extent. 

In contrast with the traditional accounts on the Scramble for Africa, we gain a new insight  of the situation in the Horn of Africa in the late 19th century if we take Ethiopia as a  “participant” to the process rather than a victim of it. In the beginning, the situation in  Ethiopia was resembling to those of other disintegrating African states like Kongo and Oyo.  By the mid-1800s, Ethiopia was only existing in a nominal sense. Territories which make present-day Ethiopia were inhabited by small size kingdoms, one of the most prominent being the Kingdom of Shewa located in Addis Ababa.

The territorial evolution of Ethiopia from 1880 to 1913 involved the subjugation of smaller  kingdoms through Menelik’s campaigns.

Simultaneously with European colonizers who were undertaking serious territorial gains in  Africa amid the Berlin Conference of 1884, the Kingdom of Shewa was also making a series  of conquests in its periphery under the rule of Menelik the II, soon turned to be what we know  today as Ethiopia. 

During the early stages of rapid European colonization of the African continent, Horn of  Africa was undergoing a period of disarray similar to other parts of Africa. The Kingdom of  Shewa was the mightiest of all disarrayed kingdoms among other small states inhabiting the  Ethiopian core. It was ruled by emperor Menelik the Second from the Solomonic Dynasty  who claims its ancestry from the biblical land of Sheba and its famous queen. Two years prior  to the Berlin Conference, king Menelik II launched a lightning campaign against neighboring  kingdoms. As a result of his successful military campaigns, Menelik was able to put an end to  the kingdoms of Harrar, Kaffa and conquer large parts of Oromo and Hadiya lands within a  period slightly longer than twenty years. 

The bloodiest of all Menelik’s campaigns was against the Kingdom of Wolayta in which  hundreds of thousands of lives were lost by both sides. In turn, Menelik II was able to  transform the weak Kingdom of Shewa into a mightier Ethiopian Empire also called the  Abyssinia. By the end of his reign in 1913, Ethiopia was looking like it is today, with the  exclusion of Afar region. He was able to build a strong state with highly centralized  governmental structures during an era of European domination over the entire continent. The  legacy of Menelik’s ruthless campaigns still stands firm in the modern Ethiopian society. The  bronze statue of Menelik in Addis Ababa portraying him on his horse overlooking the Adwa  battlefield may be a symbol of oppression and persecution for some groups of Ethiopia, as  much as it is a symbol of African and Ethiopian stance against European colonialism. 

2.1. First Italo-Ethiopian War 

The 1895-96 war with Italy is significant in many aspects. First of all, Europeans ruinously  learned that there are other parties involved in the race of territorial grab in Africa apart from  those invited to the Berlin Conference. It was an African demonstration of force that a nation  has long been seen as a land to conquer and colonize like Ethiopia, can militarily defeat a  European power. Secondly, European colonialists saw the necessity of reaching Ethiopia  diplomatically, treating it as an equal power within the Westphalian state system. The Treaty  of Addis Ababa reached between Ethiopia and Italy in the aftermath of 1869 war is a  benchmark in the colonization of Africa, implying that Ethiopia is to be treated equally not  only by Italy, but also by France, Great Britain and therefore by all other colonial powers  involved in Africa. This affirmation of Ethiopia’s independence has also a tacit implication  concerning its own imperialist agenda. With the Treaty of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia demarcated  its borders and justified its territorial conquests and subjugation of other smaller kingdoms by  the Kingdom of Shewa under Menelik II.  

Today, Ethiopia celebrates the Adwa Victory Day on 2nd of March each year, paying tribute  to the decisive Ethiopian victory in the Battle of Adwa that concluded the First Italo Ethiopian War in favor of the latter. Though, different groups within Ethiopia have varying  interpretations of this historic moment. Amharas tend to credit emperor Menelik II while  Oromos are emphasizing the role of Oromo cavalry in ensuring victory. Tigrayans, on the  other hand, praise General Ras Alula who undoubtedly had a great impact in attaining the  victory. For some, Menelik II is a strong leader standing firm against European colonialism  while for others, he is a figure of domestic colonization and repression within Ethiopia. 

2.2. Colonial Practices 

Having discussed the historical evaluation of Ethiopia as a colonial state of its kind during the  Scramble for Africa, we can thereon move to a case study of Eritrea’s integration into  Ethiopia in 1952 and the subsequent Ethiopian attempts in establishing a colonial pressure  over it. In this chapter, the outline of Ethiopia’s evolution into an imperialistic and colonial  power of its kind is discussed, with a special insight on Eritrea which was acquired back by  Ethiopia after the Second World War. 

The region that makes Eritrea today fell under Italian rule around the same time as the  Kingdom of Shewa was undergoing its expansion into Ethiopia under Menelik’s rule. This  leads us to the fact that, both the newly conquered territories of Ethiopia, and the region  called Eritrea went through strong centralization processes at the hands of different states. On  one hand, we have the new Ethiopian territories of Harrar, Hadiya and Wolayta together with  a bunch of other territories that were experiencing strong centralization attempts by Addis Ababa while on the other hand, we have the Red Sea coast and its periphery facing the  colonial integration as a part of Italian colony of Eritrea. This resulted in the development of  two different identities as Ethiopian and Eritrean, in a region which is long characterized as  made of similar groups inhabiting the same land for centuries. The Italian colonial rule that  was practiced over Eritrea was sort of a wash-off from the previous Ethiopian dominance  over the Red Sea coast, as many Eritreans were introduced to Italian style education and other  public services coupled with the investments in rail and cable roads. When the nearly sixty  years of Italian rule over Eritrea came to an end in 1941 following the Allied conquest of  Eritrea as a part of the East African Campaign of the Second World War, people inhabiting  Eritrea were already equipped with different cultural values that clear cut separate them from  the rest of Ethiopia, both in terms of colonial experiences and ways of governing. The British  military administration in Eritrea (1941-1952) that followed the Italian rule consolidated the  division between Eritrea and Ethiopia proper, making any attempt of merging the former into  the latter incredibly challenging. Following the UN mediation and a period of uncertainty,  Eritrea eventually joined the Ethiopian Empire as a federation, taking the new name of the  Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The association of these two distinct countries was ill  fated even from the very beginning. As said before, Eritrea was facing a different colonial  practice than the rest of Ethiopian regions that were incorporated into the empire and  therefore it was kept aside from Ethiopian realities and specificities for decades under Italian  rule. The Ethiopian practices in the region made it worse, revealing the Abyssinian  imperialistic intentions of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie the Second, a relative of  Menelik II. 

Imperial Ethiopia under the emperor Haile Selassie encountered several challenges when it  came to establish an effective administration in Eritrea. After the Addis Ababa peace treaty  that concluded the First Italo-Ethiopian War, officially handing the region of Eritrea to  Italians, imperial elite was still regarding Eritrea as an inseparable part of Greater Abyssinia  and an integral part of the Ethiopian imperial crown. Therefore, the acquisition of Eritrea in  1952 by Ethiopia in the form of a “federal region” was seen as a rightful conquest of a  territory which had been taken away by European colonialists. Adding the Ethiopian  resistance against Italians during the occupation of 1937-41, Eritrea was clearly the rightful  price to be taken back from Italians at the peace table. Soon after the integration of Eritrea  into the Ethiopian Empire as a federal state, indications of ineffective governance arose.  Differences in governance in Eritrea were too large that cannot be tackled single handedly  from Addis Ababa, so the imperial regime decided to appoint a supervisor as a military chief  to Eritrea. General Abiye Abebe was sent to Asmara in order to have a more direct control  over the territory against the fundamental ideas that federated Eritrea and Ethiopia. The  undermining of Eritrean autonomy gave rise to discontent among the population. Political situation in Eritrea was also dire, with people divided in two camps: those who are favoring a  union with Ethiopia and those who are willing to part ways. Centralization attempts by the  imperial crown were not well received by the Eritrean population in general, and there has  been a growing increase in the number of independentists who were seeking for a separate  Eritrean state. Throughout the 1950s, several laws were passed to incorporate Eritrea even  more into the Ethiopian Empire. Discarding its totally different historical path of sixty years  of Italian colonial rule, new Ethiopian rulers passed laws imposing Amharic language as  mandatory in Eritrea. Plus, Eritrean politicians with Muslim backgrounds rising through ranks  created more tension with Addis Ababa. As a result, a group of Eritrean degree seekers  established the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1961 in Cairo, to find a peaceful solution to the  Eritrean question. Nevertheless, events took a violent turn and ELF launched an armed  struggle in September same year, marking the beginning of the Eritrean War of  Independence. Ethiopia responded to the armed incursion by annexing Eritrea as its twelfth  province, thus ending the normative federation. Thanks to their irregular warfare strategy  based on guerrilla warfare tactics and foreign support mainly from Egypt and Syria, ELF was  able to gain ground in Eritrea against the imperial Ethiopian army. In the 1960s, it became  obvious that Ethiopia’s incorporation program for Eritrea had backfired and people were  rallying around the ELF at an increasing rate. 

The 1974 coup that deposed emperor Haile Selassie brought hopes of peace in Eritrea, with  the establishment of a new Marxist-Leninist regime in Addis Ababa under Mengistu Haile  Mariam, also known as the Derg regime. However, the new regime came up with more  oppressive measures and the Ethiopian army doubled its presence in Eritrea. Yet, there was a  stronger opposition against the Derg regime also in other parts of the country outside of  Eritrea; as people of Tigray, Oromo, Amhara and others formed liberation armies in their  respective regions in order to fight against Mengistu. By 1974, the conflict had turned into a  full-blown civil war in Ethiopia, which would end only in 1991 with the fall of Addis Ababa  to the rebel forces. The Ethiopian civil war of 1974-1991 demonstrates a pattern of complete  breakdown of the system that was established by Menelik II nearly a century ago. Still, the  foundations laid down by Menelik survived the destruction of the Derg regime and resurfaced  in a new form in the 21st century. 

2.3. A New Prospect 

Considering Ethiopia as an imperialist power, the Eritrean war of liberation gains a different  ground as being the sole example of an African nation waging a liberation struggle against  another African colonial power. If we see things this way, one may ask why didn’t Ethiopia  disintegrate in 1991 when rebel forces took the capital Addis Ababa. The reason for Ethiopia  remaining intact after the civil war, from a more constructivist view, is because of the fact that Ethiopian history is rich in moments full of inner-regime changes, meaning that the  Ethiopian strategic culture has evolved as such throughout its medieval and early modern  history. Starting with the reign of Tewodros II and Yohannes IV, followed by Menelik II, the  Ethiopian leadership was mostly dominated by struggles within different power groups in the  country, which are linked to different ethnic groups with the most dominant being the  Amharas and Tigrayans. The Ethiopian strategic culture evolved in this competing  environment of different ethnic groups. The natural association of the country’s ethnic mosaic  is also the force that keeps it together. To justify this argument, we can put forward the recent  Tigray War of 2021 and the current upheaval in Amhara region, in which we see the uprising  of an underrepresented community rebelling against a homogenous centralized leadership in  Addis Ababa, in this case against the Oromo dominated Abiy Amed presidency. Even in  times of dominance by one ethnic group, we don’t observe a militant group like the Tigray  People’s Liberation Front -TPLF- or the Amhara Fano militia seeking independence from  Ethiopia. Instead, what we observe mostly is that these groups are aiming to get into power in  capital Addis Ababa to replace the current leadership with a substitute that serves their  interests the best. Thus, the association of different communities in the leadership and equal  representation of all nationalities of the state are of vital importance for the survival of  Ethiopia as it is today. If we see the 1991 event from this perspective, it won’t come as a  surprise that Ethiopia didn’t come apart. When tackling ethnic based power politics within  Ethiopia, we encounter different groups trying to exert control over others through the means  of state, therefore by getting into power in Addis Ababa. This behavior is visible in Amharas  and Tigrayans the most, attributed to their longstanding rivalry in taking power in turns. In  other smaller groups such as Afars, this aspect is negligible. On the other hand, the  secessionist tendencies are more prevalent among groups that associate themselves with  another nation state, such as the case of Ogaden and Somalia. So far, we demonstrated that  the power politics between two most dominant groups of Amharas and Tigrayans, together  with a rising Oromo, are aimed at preserving the centralized state institutions in order to use  them to keep other ethnicities under domination. 

2.5. Aggression and Beyond: Ethiopia’s National Security 

Since the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, Ethiopia engaged in multiple armed conflicts with  its neighbors, most prominent ones being the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea and the Ethiopian  intervention in Somali civil war from 2006 to 2009. In both cases, Ethiopia contributed with  

its national standing army in large contingents, demonstrating a clear interventionism by  military means in its periphery. Stemming from our analysis of Ethiopian expansion during the late 19th century and colonial practices of a century later, Ethiopia's current behavior in its periphery comes as no surprise. However, understanding Ethiopia’s current geopolitical  dynamics requires more than knowing about its late history, an insight on its strategic culture  herein is needed.  

By default, Ethiopian national security after 1991 is characterized by two aspects which are  the acquisition of an access to the sea and the prevention of the emergence of a strong  neighbor, potentially and historically Somalia. The first aspect concerning the naval access  has been the top priority of Ethiopian policy makers, as it gained a new momentum in  October 2022 when the prime minister Abiy Amed delivered a speech emphasizing the vital  importance of reaching the sea for Ethiopia at all costs. The Ethiopian ambition in acquiring a  coastline can also be observed in Abiy Amed’s decision in 2018 regarding the re establishment of the Ethiopian Navy which was disbanded five years after the loss of  coastline in 1991. The sea access was the top priority also before Abiy’s presidency. The  1998 border war against Eritrea that escalated into a full-scale war was also based on an  assumption that the EPLF-led Eritrean state may collapse anytime, therefore leading Ethiopia  to the Red Sea again. This proved to be wrong as Eritrea held out militarily and was able to  recover the disputed territories later through diplomatic means. The acquisition of a coastline  remained a central element of Ethiopian foreign policy in the coming decade. The sea access  question reached a climax in last October, when speculations arose stating that it’s a matter of  time when the Ethiopian army crosses into Eritrea and takes the port of Assab by force.  However, the Somaliland port deal appears to have lifted some of the pressure on Eritrea,  examined in detail in later paragraphs. 

Ethiopia’s other national security aspect, which is the prevention of the emergence of a strong  adversary neighbor, is well grounded in the Ethiopian historical and strategic culture dating  back to the 16th century. At the time, a strong Somali state known as the Adal Sultanate was  ravaging eastern parts of Ethiopia, overrunning Ethiopian and therefore Christian cities. As a  result of Adal incursions, Ethiopia was reduced into a central chunk near Addis, isolated from  rest of the Christian world. This period of regression and territorial loss penetrated deep into  the Ethiopian strategic culture, with the experience of ancient Christian towns and villages of  Ethiopia being overrun by Muslim invaders. The 16th century experience took a new form  three centuries later. This time, it was the Mahdist forces of Sudan who were threatening the  northern regions of Ethiopia. When we observe the Mahdist War in Eastern Africa and Sudan  in 1881, we see Ethiopia acting preemptively by joining British and Italian forces against the  Mahdist army by opening a third front in the south with the Treaty of Hewett in 1884. The  elimination of the Mahdist threat proved to be a temporary non-existence of a strong  neighbor. A century later, Ethiopia felt threatened once again by the successor state of the  once mighty Adal Sultanate, which is Somalia. Somalia had gone through rapid militarization following its independence in 1960 under the iron fist regime of General Siad Barre.  Ethiopian fears of repeating the 16th century experience came true when Somalia attacked and  invaded the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977. Thanks to the Soviet switch of sides, Ethiopia  successfully repelled the Somali attack. This recent experience consolidated the Ethiopian  thought that the emergence of a strong and centralized neighbor has to be prevented at all  costs. Ethiopia’s 2006 intervention in Somalia is therefore the putting into practice of a  conception evolved throughout centuries. The 2006 intervention by Ethiopia is directed to  keep Somalia divided. A strong and functioning state apparatus in Somalia is in fact a  national security issue for Ethiopia and that’s why Addis Ababa uses informal alliances with  different tribal groups in Somalia to prevent a unity around Mogadishu. 

The January 2024 port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland marks a cornerstone for  Ethiopia’s pursuit of its national security interests in the region. Herein, it is essential to recall  that Somaliland is a breakaway state established in 1991 with no current international  recognition. Internationally, Somaliland is a part of the state of Somalia and therefore doesn’t enjoy any diplomatic representation at the international level. Though the situation on the  ground is not as it seems on the map. Somaliland functions as a separate state apart from  Somalia proper with its own laws and armed forces. The breakaway country is characterized  by strong tribalism, just like the rest of Somalia. Clans are an integral part of both Somali and  Somalilander society, granting them a highly specific complexity in internal matters. Given  the context, the Ethiopian deal with Somaliland addresses two fundamental benchmarks of  the country’s national security agenda: gain sea access while keeping an adversary divided.  The port deal means much more than granting naval access to Ethiopia, especially for  Somaliland who enjoyed a formal recognition from another player in the international arena.  The Ethiopian access is expected to bring prosperity to Somaliland in addition to diplomatic  recognition, due to Ethiopian investments on Somaliland’s infrastructure and the scheduled  construction of the port facility in the Berbera port. On the other hand, on Somalia's side,  there is not much that can be done rather than officially condemning the deal. Mogadishu still  has no full control over its national territory and can’t regulate its rebellious regions like  Puntland in the north, right next to Somaliland. Thus, if Ethiopia is to move its troops into  Somaliland in the near future, there is not going to be a Somali national army standing in their  way. 

3.0 Broader Conclusions 

Ethiopia is a peculiar country. Being the largest country in the Horn by all means and one of  the future powers of the thriving African continent, Ethiopia and inner-Horn relations are going to be more studied in the near future. To stimulate development, production and  welfare in the Horn of Africa, it is essential to ensure peace in the long term. To overcome the  chronic cycle of violence in the Horn in the post-cold war period, the focus should be directed  to Ethiopia and the way it behaves in the region which often contains aggressive military  moves as a foreign policy tool. To study this aggressiveness inherited from its history of early  modern times, one should see the colonial buildup in the region from a different standpoint by  including Ethiopia to the list of colonial powers in a non-traditional way. The colonial  perception of Ethiopia that was discussed throughout the article originates from its historical  evolution around competing ethnic groups of Amhara, Tigray, Oromo and so on. The degree of violence within Ethiopia, and outside of its borders as a reflection of it, depends on how  divided the Ethiopian society is in ethnic terms. The self-colonialism of different ethnic  groups is the real source of domestic violence and the main aspect to be addressed by means  of education and persuasion. To close with, note that the long-term peace and prosperity  depends on the survival of Ethiopia as a unified entity and in order to maintain this unity,  ethnic divisions are to be softened to a greater extent. The building of an Ethiopian national  identity freed from ethnic backgrounds is an integral element of inner-Horn relations and is  going to be studied more in the near future. 


• Tekeste Negash, Eritrea and Ethiopia the Federal Experience, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet,  Uppsala 1997 

• Dr Yerasework Kebede Hailu, Did Ethiopia Survive Coloniality?, University of South  Africa, Journal of Decolonising Disciplines Volume 2, Issue 2 (2020) 

• The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy  And Strategy, Ministry of Information Press & Audiovisual Department, November 2002  Addis Ababa 

• Alemayehu Fentaw, Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy: The Case for  a Paradigm Shift 

• Patrick Gilkes, Wars in the Horn of Africa and the dismantling of the Somali State 

• Michael Weldeghiorghis Tedla, The Eritrean Liberation Front Social and Political Factors  Shaping its Emergence, Development and Demise, 1960-1981, University of Leiden  African Studies Center

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