Ethiopian Security Strategy: Upgrades Overdue

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

The strategic significance of Ethiopia within Africa and the broader Indian Ocean region cannot be under-stated. With approximately 99.5 million people residing within its borders, Ethiopia is one of the continent’s most populous countries. Covering more than 1.1 million square kilometres of land, it is also the 26th largest in terms of geographic area. Ethiopia has frequently been the main driver of regional integration processes, such as through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, given all of this, Ethiopia’s stated foreign and security policy is surprisingly, even alarmingly, unsophisticated.

The most recent strategic document from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was issued in 2002, though a modest update was offered in 2009. A detailed reading of this document suggests that Ethiopian foreign policy was, and perhaps still is, eastward-oriented: sub-sections are devoted to relations with Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as relations with Arab states (particularly Egypt) and Israel. However, little attention is paid to countries to the west and south which could also be considered part of Ethiopia’s security neighbourhood, such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Of course, both the original strategy and its update pre-date South Sudan’s independence from Sudan and the impact subsequent waves of South Sudanese refugees have had on Ethiopia.

Furthermore, the strategy envisions a unilateral approach to securing Ethiopia’s national interests and emphasizes the importance of bilateral relations. Very little attention is paid to the virtues of multilateralism, despite Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s national capital, playing host to various African Union (AU) institutions. This may simply reflect Ethiopian strategic perception at the time; when the original document was issued, substantial numbers of Ethiopian troops were deployed to Somalia in an effort to combat the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic Courts Union and tensions were simmering with Eritrea. As clashes over the Ethiopia-Eritrea border continue, with skirmishes taking place as recently as June 2016, and as Ethiopia expresses frustration with the lack of support for its efforts to stabilize Somalia, it is likely that this scepticism for multilateralism persists among Ethiopian policy-makers.

But the lack of a clear foreign and security policy since 2002 leaves little certainty over whether this is indeed the case or where Ethiopia truly sees itself in the world. Despite the myriad security threats with which the country is faced, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) also finds itself operating with largely outdated equipment. The ENDF’s ground forces predominantly use vehicles acquired from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980’s, following Ethiopia’s success in the Ogaden War against Somalia. In 2013, Ethiopia acquired newer Chinese-manufactured YW-534 armoured personnel carriers and WZ-523 infantry fighting vehicles, but much of Ethiopia’s mechanized infantry relies upon transport from Soviet BMP-1’s acquired almost 40 years ago.

Ethiopian troops, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, drive through Baidoa town with a WZ551 APC followed by an YW531 -- Chinese-made -- during a routine patrol (Photo: Abdi Dagane).

Ethiopian troops, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, drive through Baidoa town with a WZ551 APC followed by an YW531 — Chinese-made — during a routine patrol (Photo: Abdi Dagane).

Although the Ethiopian Air Force has managed to acquire several Sukhoi Su-27 multirole fighters from the Russian Federation, it heavily relies upon MiG-23 fighters purchased from the Soviet Union in the 1970’s to make up its numbers. With a total of approximately 33 fighter aircraft to secure its airspace, the ENDF still has weak airpower when compared to other regional actors. For example, the Egyptian Air Force’s complement of F-16 Fighting Falcons alone outnumbers the Ethiopian Air Force’s entire fleet or aircraft. Egypt and Ethiopia experience considerably different security situations, but the disparity in size and quality of aircraft operated by the two countries illustrates how severely Ethiopia has neglected its airpower. The ENDF also completely lacks a maritime branch. Though Ethiopia is a landlocked country, the Blue Nile flows from the Lake Tana through Ethiopia to Sudan and joins the White Nile at Khartoum. As piracy becomes a growing concern on the Sudanese and South Sudanese stretches of the Nile River, Ethiopia will require the means to deter any activities which could disrupt shipping or fuel instability, especially if Ethiopia invests in modernized riverine infrastructure. Uganda, which is similarly landlocked, nonetheless maintains a few inshore patrol vessels to secure its portion of the White Nile and Lake Victoria.

Some commentators have indicated that Ethiopia’s under-developed security policy may stem from a different conception of military power. Specifically, aside from roughly five years of Italian occupation in 1936-1941, Ethiopia is the only African country not to suffer under European colonialism. As such, history leaves Ethiopian policy-makers predisposed to regard the ENDF as a means of self-defence and nation-building, rather than a tool for power projection. This would explain the ENDF’s reliance upon mass infantry rather than a quality air force and “brown water” navy – mass infantry can be used as a means of addressing unemployment and countering any internal insurrections among Ethiopia’s diverse regions. For example, when mass protests broke out in August 2016 in Ethiopia’s Oromiya and Amhara regions, ENDF infantry were deployed and more than 90 protesters were killed.

Deficient domestic policies have ensured, in short, stunted development in Ethiopian foreign and security policy. So long as the ENDF is looked to as a means to quash internal dissent, Ethiopia will be unable to achieve its potential as a regional leader. Though an “upgrade” is long overdue both in terms of strategic orientation and defence equipment, it is likely Ethiopia will continue to be an inward-looking country.

This entry was posted in English, Ethiopia, Paul Pryce, Security Policy.

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