Regional Friends and Foes

A North Korean defector was discussing the relationship between China and his country and rightly repeated the historical fact that there is no such thing as eternal friendship or indeed eternal enmity in geopolitics.

The Americans and the British may now talk of an alliance, but two centuries ago, they were warring. The French and the Germans could not love each other more (they should get a room, and they did, the European Union), but two World Wars tell a different tale. As the Brexit negotiations are being hashed out, we are also learning that whatever goodwill existed between the EU and the United Kingdom is fading away.

Only days ago, the heads of Somalia and Ethiopia met in the capital, Addis Abeba, for talks regarding various regional issues. If physical gestures are anything to go by, the leaders of the two countries seemed like childhood friends. Both seemed euphoric to see each other, giddy members of the same team, working towards the same agenda.

Only 40 years ago, Somalia had tried to invade Ethiopia or at least part of it. Ogadēn, a long-disputed land between the two countries, had served as a major source of contention. Rebels, mostly financed by the nationalist government of Mohamed Siad Barre, captured the land in 1977. But Ethiopia had powerful friends back then, like the USSR and comrade Castro – courtesy of being a socialist country – and we took back control very quickly.

Similarly, we have had a love-hate relationship with most of our neighbours. Of course, the pendulum of dealings does not swing back and forth as frequently as it does in other continents with more democratic countries for the mere fact that most African leaders stay on as “leaders” for quite a long time once they make it into office.

Ethiopia shares a border with Somalia in the south-east and east, and Kenya in the south-west. To the north-east, the country borders with Eritrea and Djibouti, in the north-west with Sudan and in the west with South Sudan. Together these countries make up what is known as the Horn of Africa, which, along with Egypt, have been a setting for some of the world’s oldest some.

Somalia today is pro-Ethiopia or at least locales of the country that recognise the federal government are. A portion of Somalia is still under the grip of extremist groups or local tribal leaders. The government is impotent in many regards – it relies heavily on United Nations forces. As a result, the lack of peace and stability has made Somalia severely susceptible to human-made famines whenever a drought occurs.

South Sudan is just as miserable and conflicted as Somalia, if not more. Being a very young nation, born out of decades of violence and destitution and an overwhelming referendum, it lacks a legitimate government. A civil war still reigns in the country, migration out of the country is rife, and the government (or what passes for it) has recently declared a famine. All of this, despite the fact that South Sudan has one of the largest oil reserves in Africa.

Until very recently, South Sudan was a part of Sudan, which was the largest country in Africa. After South Sudan’s secession, Sudan lost a considerable portion of its mineral resources, forcing the country into economic hardship. Though far more stable than either Somalia or South Sudan, the nation still suffers from maladministration and corruption. Only two years ago, the president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Kenya is Ethiopia’s most affluent neighbour, and a close competitor in the latter’s favourite sport, track-and-field athletics. Kenya, like most of its neighbours, is a former British colony. But unlike the others, and despite many problems in governance, the nation is enviable for its relative economic dynamism.

If Kenya, Sudan and Somalia are close friends, which Ethiopia could reasonably depend on for various geopolitical issues, the Djiboutians are our half-brothers. Travel between the two countries is very porous. In fact, there is a rail link between the countries’ capitals. Being a landlocked country, Ethiopia depends on Djibouti’s modern seaport. It is also one of Ethiopia’s major export markets.

On the contrary, Eritrea, less than 26 years ago a part of Ethiopia, is the most troubling neighbour. Ongoing border skirmishes haunt the two countries, sometimes taking many lives. Like a number of its neighbours, Eritrea is destitute, and badly administered, leading to a massive exodus of its people.

Few countries in the world could similarly boast to being surrounded by so many troubled and troubling neighbours as Ethiopia. The country often finds that, from terrorist attacks to migration influx to outside political influence, geopolitical diplomacy is just as significant as domestic policies.

Ethiopia is the most populous – and in years to come, the most affluent – country of its region. And though the country has its fair amount of headaches, which are unlikely to be solved anytime soon, it has a responsibility to ensure the stability of its region. This responsibility does not rest on the nation’s shoulders for moral or humanitarian purposes (only), but because it is vital to Ethiopia’s own safety and economy. Ask the Turkish; they can probably tell you what I am talking about.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a writer at large whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at

Published on May 16,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 889]



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