A decade ago, the Horn of Africa was the scene of one of the most spectacular geopolitical realignments in Cold War history. A devastating famine helped trigger the ouster of Ethiopia’s strongly pro-US emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. A military junta seized power in Addis Ababa and pledged to place the strife-torn empire on the road to “socialism.” Three years later, the US and the Soviet Union switched positions in Ethiopia and Somalia and the entire region rippled with the aftershocks.

The immediate results were a crushing defeat for Somalia in its effort to annex Ethiopia’s southeastern Ogaden region and a severe setback to the Eritrean independence movement to the north. Within a year, Ethiopia was officially allied with South Yemen and Libya, talking with Syria about a mutual defense pact, and engaged in a rapprochement with neighboring Sudan.

Yet Ethiopia’s dramatic political ascendance as the leader of a self-described, pro-Soviet “anti-imperialist” regional bloc has collapsed almost as rapidly as it materialized. The corrosive effect of economic stagnation, coupled with renewed famine and continuing conflict, have laid the groundwork for a new series of political shifts that promise to keep the region off balance for years to come. Increasingly isolated from its erstwhile area allies, the tenacious regime of Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam has quietly but steadily drawn inward, simultaneously reconstructing relations with the West while retaining a military and political alliance with the Soviet Union.

The tripartite alliance spanning northeast Africa and the Red Sea that tied Libya, South Yemen and Ethiopia in a military and political pact has disintegrated, leaving Ethiopia where it was in the Haile Selassie era, with Egypt and Israel its closest local friends. The economic crisis manifested in the 1984-85 famine also increased dependence on Western Europe and the US, but it did not substantially alter the global picture. Nor did it move the region any closer to peace.

Today Somalia is quiescent but simmering in its deep-rooted hostility toward its long-time antagonist. Sudan is at war with Ethiopian-backed guerrillas in the south and is barely speaking to Addis Ababa. Libya has broken its treaty with Ethiopia and sided with the new civilian regime in Sudan against the southern Sudanese rebels it once funded. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) has stymied all attempts to break the bitter stalemate on the northern war front where close to half the Ethiopian army remains tied down.

Famines of disastrous proportions bracket the radical shifts in the 1970s and the 1980s. The famines are the consequence of enduring economic strains, and what continues to push the economic crisis is war. Drought is a cyclical phenomenon, striking Ethiopia with alarming but predictable regularity. It is the failure to accumulate reserves that inevitably leads to famine when a downturn occurs. Gross inequalities and unbridled consumption by the aristocracy under Selassie were the key factors in draining Ethiopia’s not insubstantial resources in the 1970s; unprecedented military growth and consumption are the hallmarks of the Mengistu regime, leaving the impoverished peasant farmers in much the same state of precarious existence they were in a decade earlier. Multi-billion-dollar arms purchases, coupled with the drain on productive manpower and the sheer extent of physical destruction wrought by Ethiopia’s several wars, were the prime causes of the 1984-85 famine.

The continuing threat of economic disaster has had significant consequences for Ethiopian policies and alignments, as well as those of the movements which are challenging the central government. At this critical moment, Egypt and Israel offer desperately needed resources to move Ethiopia out of its slump and away from the threat of the urban unrest that so often follows prolonged austerity. Ties between Ethiopia and Israel remain as opaque as they have been since they were inadvertently exposed by Moshe Dayan in a 1979 Knesset speech mentioning trade in military spare parts. Nevertheless, the exchange of intelligence that resumed in the autumn of 1982 with the transfer to Addis Ababa of Eritrean documents captured by the Israelis in Beirut has blossomed into discrete consultations on military and political affairs and large-scale trade in non-military items.

Egyptian concerns have acquired extensive mining concessions and construction contracts for roads and new buildings, partially relieving the strain on the Egyptians that resulted from the sharp decline in worker remittances from oil-producing countries. Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak met Ethiopia’s Mengistu last December and has scheduled more talks this spring to increase Egyptian involvement in a range of development projects.

US strategists since 1978 have bet on economic incentives to “wean” Ethiopia away from the Soviet Union, much as they did in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and a string of former “non-capitalist” Soviet allies. The more ideologically-oriented Reagan advisors have hedged these bets over the past five years — especially since
the massive input of Western famine assistance in the mid-1980s failed to produce measurable progress — by tunneling covert aid to rightwing anti-government forces of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Alliance and by building ties with what they describe as pro-Western “moderates” within the regime. According to this
scenario, as anti-Soviet sentiment builds in Ethiopia, along with frustration at the country’s stagnating economy, a civilian-military coup will bring Ethiopia back into the Western fold.

US policy remains fascinated with intramural intrigue at the seat of power. Regional allies — Egypt and Israel — provide primary analysis of local crises. Late Carter administration policies have been modified only by the obsession of both Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker and Reagan himself with displacing the Soviet Union from the area. This, in turn, has made the nuances of the local situation even less relevant in shaping policy, except to dismiss potential support to the Eritreans who are adjudged “as Marxist-Leninist as the Ethiopians,” as one State Department official recently put it.

What impact will the new Soviet focus on domestic economic and political matters have on its ongoing military commitments to Ethiopia? The breakdown in relations between Ethiopia and Libya cost Ethiopia substantial subsidies for its Soviet military purchases (close to $4 billion since 1977). Annual “final” offensives in Eritrea have continued to strain Ethiopia’s military resources. The 1986 Eritrea campaign never got off the ground.

If the 1984-85 famine compounded Ethiopia’s economic and political problems and fostered openings toward the West, the crisis also precipitated cracks in the anti-government alliance of nationalist movements arrayed against the Amhara-dominated regime. The famine hit the Tigrayans hardest. They were the primary targets for a massive resettlement campaign designed to undercut the popular base of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Mass migrations of refugees to neighboring Sudan, coupled with Ethiopian air raids on feeding stations and supply routes, severely disrupted the relief effort and strained the entire fabric of Tigrayan society. This heightened political tensions within the guerrilla movement. One outcome was a formal break in relations between the TPLF and the EPLF over a broad range of political and strategic questions.

Consequently, the EPLF shifted away from a strategy of military initiatives within Eritrea coupled with support for an alliance of Ethiopian movements challenging the Mengistu regime. EPLF leaders now say they look to strains within the Ethiopian military to precipitate large-scale mutinies similar to those in 1974 that brought down the Selassie regime. They note the absence of an urban-based opposition capable of challenging the government; they dismiss the US-held notion of a sudden coup that would sharply reshape the country’s policies; and they offer pessimistic assessments of a serious challenge from the weakened rural-based nationalist movements. EPLF strategists argue that the military is now — as it was in 1974 — the only organized force in a position to bid for power, despite the difficulties inherent in fostering a military upheaval against the highly security-conscious regime now in power.

During March 1987, the EPLF is holding its first organizational congress in 10 years to redefine its program and priorities formally and to elect a new leadership. The new strategy will likely call for a prolonged military stalemate — repeated Ethiopian failures on the battlefield coupled with occasional commando raids on key government bases — until the costs become prohibitive. Also on the agenda is a more “pragmatic” EPLF approach to foreign relations, with the aim of mobilizing Western pressures on Ethiopia to negotiate with the Front.

For their part, Ethiopia’s rulers show no inclination to negotiate an end to the war. Washington’s hopes for a shift from military to economic priorities, accompanied by a realignment from the USSR to the West, are based on the supposition that the Eritrea war will wind down. This is simply not in the offing. Any decrease in Soviet support will force Ethiopia to seek military help elsewhere. Stronger relations with Egypt and Israel is the more likely option, with Israel resuming a higher level military relationship on behalf of Western interests and in pursuit of its own anti-Arab regional front. Should the carnage continue at current levels, one outcome will be an even more devastating famine in the early 1990s.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Alignments in the Horn," Middle East Report 145 (March/April 1987).

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