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Military Affairs & Counter-terrorism Society (MACT)



Ethiopia: Enigma and Dilemma

By uctzbsh, on 16 February 2018

We are honoured to have Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Guido visiting us in late April as our first guest from the military to enlighten us on military affairs in counter-terrorism efforts. Below is his working paper on Ethiopia’s present and prospective status quo in the military and security domain, a prelude to a deeper discussion in our April seminar.

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Ethiopia: Enigma and Dilemma

Ethiopia—a foreign policy risk or an economic opportunity? This essay presents contemporary risks and opportunities by analyzing Cold War Ethiopian-American relations and contrasting them with current events in order to derive foreign policy lessons for contemporary policy practitioners.

Author Bio:
Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Guido is a US Army sub-Saharan Africa Foreign Area Officer, warrior-diplomat, and security professional. He previously served as the Chief of Security Cooperation at the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the Chief of Security Cooperation in Djibouti. He is presently the Chief of North-West-Central Africa in the Security Cooperation Directorate at US Army Africa. His security force assistance experience spans more than a decade of military intelligence and oversight of security cooperation programs, activities, exercises, and contracts across sub-Saharan Africa. He received a Master of Arts in African Studies with a Certificate in International Security Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor of Science in International and Strategic History from the United States Military Academy. He has lectured and written about security and African affairs. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the US Army or the US Department of Defense.

Ethiopia: An Introduction

The United States military could learn a lot from Ethiopia. The current government, itself born in the 1980’s insurgency against the Soviet-sponsored, Stalinist dictatorship of Mengistu Halie Mariam, intrinsically and intuitively knows insurgency and counterinsurgency. Recently, Ethiopia’s record economic growth reached double digits in the face of global recession. President Barack Obama’s visit several years ago as the first sitting US President to visit Ethiopia underscored the increasing prominence of Ethiopia in international affairs in part due to security concerns from the terrorist group Al Shabaab in the fragile and “failed state” of Somalia (1), the multitude of nations with military bases in Djibouti including the US and China (2), instability and violence in South Sudan and Yemen, renewed Somali pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden, and continued droughts and food insecurity in Somalia and Ethiopia. Ethiopia remains in the middle of this (3).

Ethiopia is unique: the only nation in Africa except Liberia never to have been colonized, the oldest country in Africa, the second largest population on the continent, one of the largest territories in Africa, and the largest country in the world with no sea access. Furthermore, Ethiopia comprises an enormous range of diversity—geographic, climate, biological, and ethnographic—yet is a nation three-thousand years old which is steeped in legend and myth (4). This unique position provides a strong foundation for good governance and security, but regional instability and challenges to central authority pose internal and external challenges.

Ethiopia has an exceptionally proud military tradition which has included decisively defeating the Italian army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 (5), contributing to the UN military forces in the Korean war (6), serving as the cornerstone of the first UN mission in Africa in 1960, defeating a Somali military invasion in 1977, and fighting two violent and costly conflicts in the 1980’s (7). More recently, Ethiopia fought another costly border war with Eritrea in 1998-99 (8) and unilaterally intervened in Somalia from 2006-2010 to defeat the Islamic Courts Union. Today, Ethiopia is the largest troop contributing country for UN missions in the world with one of the largest and most professional armies in Africa playing critical roles in both Somalia and South Sudan (9). The US Africa Command considers Ethiopia a priority country and listed Ethiopia as one of eight African “Anchor States.” Former American Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn noted that “The United States sees Ethiopia as one of its most important African partners in the battle against terrorism.” (10)

Despite its significant military capabilities, Ethiopia is considered one of poorest counties in world with a per capita annual income $590 with approximately 1/3 the population living in extreme poverty (11). The World Health Organization reports that only 50% population has access to minimal levels of health care and around 50% have access to safe drinking water (12). The economy, largely agricultural, is highly vulnerable to external shocks such as droughts or international commodity prices for goods like coffee. Ethiopia’s massive population has resulted in Ethiopia importing food since the 1960’s and irregular rains have caused several severe food shortages over the past several decades. Transparency International ranked Ethiopia 108 out of 176 countries in 2016 for corruption in land administration and high levels of bribery. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation ranks Ethiopia 31 out of 52 African countries for good governance, “with the country showing weakening performance in Sustainable Economic Opportunity fueled by deterioration in Business Environment. Moreover Ethiopia remains one of the ten lowest scoring countries in Africa in Participation & Human Rights.” (13)

Ethiopia’s large and rapidly growing population about 100 million, almost half under fifteen years of age, comprises at least 85 different ethnicities with a wide range of conflicts between groups such as the Afar, Oromo, Somali, Nuer, and Anuak. This multitude of identities belies the multicolored and interwoven social and religious fabric of Ethiopia. A 1994 Ethiopian Census reported that 51% Ethiopians are Orthodox; 10% Protestant; 33% Muslim. However, a 2015 International Religious Freedom Report by the US State Department indicated only 44% are Orthodox, while 19% are Protestant and 34% are Muslim (14). Importantly, Ethiopia is home to the 11th highest number of Muslims in the world, more than Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq, or Afghanistan individually. Given the history of Christian control in Ethiopian politics, the Muslim population has not yet exercised political influence commensurate with its size (15). This diversity, complexity, and history makes Ethiopia an enigma for Westerners while its geostrategic position, importance, and military capacity pose a policy dilemma.

Ethiopia: Enigma

Whether the final resting place of the Arc of the Covenant (16) or whether the Ethiopian Imperial court comprised the “Solomonic Dynasty” traced directly back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—Ethiopia presents the world with an enigma. Ethiopia remains a myth, a mystery, and a series of complex and often opaque contradictions (17). The military affairs elements of the Ethiopian enigma can be elucidated through Ethiopian-American relations during the Cold War. Emperor Halie Selassie concluded at the end of World War II that the United States would be the future partner of choice while the US saw opportunity in Ethiopia for a key African ally in the post-World War order (18). Halie Selassie’s policy points to FDR characterized Ethiopian foreign policy goals until the Derg seized control in 1974: Ethiopian ownership of the Franco-Djiboutian railway, restoration of Eritrea to Ethiopian control, war reparations from Italy, US investment in Ethiopian development projects, and US security assistance to develop a professional and modern military (19).

The United States supported these objectives. For example, the US concurred with the “Four-Power Commission” recommendations regarding Eritrea and sought a federal arrangement which suited Ethiopia’s desires as well as American interests. The US wanted to demonstrate gratitude for Ethiopia’s support in the Korean War as well as secure Radio Marina, renamed Kagnew Station, a radio intercept facility located seven thousand feet above sea level which could monitor signals from across the Horn of Africa, Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Ethiopia became an important regional player and critical American ally in the Cold War.

On 15 May 1952, the US signed the “Four Point Agreement” which administered technical assistance to Ethiopia in areas the Ethiopian government sought specific assistance. One year later, in May 1953, the US signed a base and facilities agreement coupled with security assistance assurances in order to guarantee access to Kagnew Station, base US service members in Ethiopia, and fly patrols from Ethiopia into the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. Kagnew Station sprawled over 3,400 acres and was home for over 5,000 American citizens during its peak years of operation during the 1960s, the largest contingent of US military on the African continent. In exchange, the US placed a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) in Addis Ababa to provide equipment and training to professionalize and expand the Ethiopian military into a modern, 20th Century fighting force numbering more than one hundred thousand soldiers organized into three divisions. The Imperial Ethiopian Army, Air Force, and Navy were envisioned to be outfitted with the latest American equipment to include tanks, artillery, and a jet-powered air force. However, it was Ethiopian investment and not Wall Street capital and US defense investment which ultimately sustained over 70% of US assistance efforts. The US was a partner with financial limitations and global obligations.

Ethiopia in turn sought further autonomy through diversification of international donors. Czechoslovakia built an ammunition factory and provided technicians while Sweden provided training & jet fighter aircraft to the air force. In 1959, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia with a credit line for more than $100M (at 1959 market value) after visiting several Eastern Bloc countries; a sum he then informed the American ambassador he would only use if the US would match it with a US assistance package. The Emperor’s enigmatic behavior toward his superpower sponsor successfully bartered the Ethiopia’s political influence and American access in Ethiopia for military and development assistance.

Simultaneously, Halie Selassie slowly increased his personal control of government functions by consolidating his authority over the administration of the state—legitimizing and institutionalizing pre-existing power relationships. Halie Selassie’s need for obedience and control undermined Ethiopian development efforts and fostered corruption and sycophancy. The ruling elite controlled all economic institutions, such as the textile and coffee boards, extracting high profits transferred back to the elite. Financial investment, internal security, public works, education, and social services were all concentrated in Addis Ababa, creating a contradiction between the lives of everyday Ethiopians and the lifestyle in the capital city of the ruling elites (20).

Meanwhile, Ethiopian youth sought greater social equality. In December 1960, several ideological and social reformers such as the commander of the Imperial Bodyguard staged a coup against Emperor Halie Selassie. Although the US Embassy had assisted in suppressing the revolt, American diplomats understood its implications: only a month after the coup attempt, a key American advisor warned the Emperor that “disaster and catastrophe” would result if a “truly responsible government” were not empowered soon (21).

The Emperor did not heed this advice, however, and instead consolidated and closed traditional pasturage, limited access to water, evicted inefficient producers, and increased rents (22). Urban students increasingly found explanation for the exploitation of Ethiopian farmers through the Marxist doctrines popular with students worldwide in the 1960’s:

Any satisfactory answer to the country’s problems, they contended, had to deal with the authoritarian political culture, the exploitive social relations of production—the nexus which was land—and the unequal treatment of the country’s various ethnic and linguistic groups…[and] were hostile to “American Imperialism” as they were to it local client, the Ethiopian monarchist regime. (23)

The Imperial government felt cornered. Instead of devolving power, it increasingly resorted to military force to maintain control. In Eritrea, growing discontent and dissatisfaction with Ethiopian rule resulted in armed revolt by the Eritrean Liberation Front. The Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency in 1970 and replaced its governor with a military commander, seeking assistance from Israel to organize and train commandos in counterinsurgency tactics— corroborating Muslim suspicions that the Imperial government was an Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim stooge of the West. This resentment fueled Arab and Muslim distrust of the Emperor, the West, and the US. Military force became the principle tool for control of the population by the Imperial government. Consequently, the Emperor became increasingly reliant upon the military while the Imperial government grew distant from everyday Ethiopians, maintaining status quo by promoting loyalty to the crown instead of competence and ability (24). The US found itself in an enigmatic position of supporting a totalitarian and militarized regime which was systematically undermining free market forces, democracy, and meritocracy. Ironically, the US ideologically supported student movements which were largely based in the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and rhetoric characteristic of the 1960’s.

The sharp jump in oil prices due to the Yom Kippur War and the failure of seasonal rains in 1973 and 1974 which led to widespread famine in Ethiopia were the two unforeseen shocks when combined proved fatal to the monarchy. These dual crises starkly revealed that the Imperial government was neither aware nor competent enough to meet the needs of millions of poor, rural subjects. But the American Embassy refused involvement in 1974 as they had in 1960, emboldening the opposition and ultimately abandoning the Imperial government which it had supported since 1943. Thus, the US watched idly by while the American trained and equipped Ethiopian military forces overthrow Emperor Hallie Selassie in a military coup on the morning of 12 September 1974. The eventual leader of the military junta known as the Derg, Mengistu Halie Mariam, saw the Ethiopia’s future in land reform, national unity, and Marxist revolution. Moderate solutions would not address peasant grievances and Ethiopia could not survive division: internal dissent was crushed through the total liquidation of the Imperial government and any potential competitors in a historical episode known in Ethiopia as the “Red Terror,” more reminiscent of Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” than Marxist ideology. President Carter ultimately broke with Addis Ababa since improved technologies rendered Kagnew Station redundant and Mengistu’s socialist rhetoric and Red Terror violence proved too volatile to support. The base at Kagnew Station was closed in April 1977 followed by secret negations the following month between Mengistu and Moscow for Soviet military assistance and support (25).

To summarize the US Cold War experience in Ethiopia, the US continued to support the Imperial Ethiopian government after the 1960 failed coup despite criticisms of corruption and with full knowledge that increasing authoritarianism and force were undermining American policy objectives of accountability, free-markets, representational governance, and human rights. It was common security interests, not an understanding of shared values, which drove Cold War relations. Ethiopia played the US against other potential benefactors in Cold War politics as well as kept decision-making processes closed. The lack of transparency, corruption, and paranoia of the Imperial government ultimately resulted in one of the most enigmatic episodes in Cold War History and what Cold War Historian John Lewis Gaddis refers to as “the tail wagging the dog:” the realignment of America’s great African ally Ethiopia to the Soviet Union in 1977 followed by the Soviet ally Somalia switching allegiance from the USSR to the US by 1983. Despite years of assistance and interaction by the US, Ethiopia defied common expectations in the West to become more democratic after the fall of the Empire and instead transformed into an African pariah of Stalinist totalitarianism, forced militarization, and protected civil war.

Ethiopia: Dilemma

The use of force in Ethiopia has a long history. Emperor Menelik II informed a British delegation in the 19th Century that

We cannot have elaborate formalities, and policemen, and magistrates, and juries, and all that sort of thing…. We consider ourselves very fortunate in catching as many culprits as we do. And when we catch them it is absolutely necessary to make an example of them. (26)

Ethiopia has sought to exercise strong central control, especially concerning security and political power, and has always remained vigilant against its own inherent weakness due to its diversity and size. Violence has proven an important tool for the government to maintain control: “Ethiopian governments link power to guns, and if democracy is to prevail it is necessary to change this dynamic.” (27)

Foreign policy-makers constantly chooses between interests and values. The US and Ethiopia share significant security interests, such as maintaining counter-terrorism cooperation and regional stability. But they often differ when it comes to issues like human rights, freedom of speech, representational governance, and economic liberalization. The programs and activities the Government of Ethiopia desires are consist with our interests in neutralizing Al Shabab and Islamic State terrorist movements or stabilizing South Sudan. But the Government of Ethiopia is not interested in programs and activities intended to promote democracy and economic opportunities. The key to a successful strategy in Ethiopia is to unify and promote activities the Ethiopians are interested in with activities which are consistent with values rather than blindly encouraging programs which may hinder the rule of law and public accountability.

Ethiopia’s size and significance, role in regional security issues and ongoing conflict in South Sudan pose a policy dilemma for the United States given Ethiopia’s authoritarianism as the recent “State of Emergency” in Ethiopia highlighted (28). On the one hand, Ethiopia is a capable and willing partner in an important country in a fragile region with difficult and complex security issues. It is in the best interest of the US to engage with Ethiopia on these issues and work with the Ethiopian Police & Defense Forces to promote security and stability. On the other hand, Ethiopia’s opaque security apparatus, controlled markets, and history of oppression and human rights abuses make it a questionable American ally. Politically, Ethiopia’s commitment to democracy poses challenges for domestic US politics as the current government in Ethiopia is still wedded to Maoist economic and political policies focused on command markets and state-owned enterprise.

The contradiction to support security on the one hand and democracy and good governance on the other remains the single greatest challenge of US efforts in Ethiopia. If Ethiopia fails to reconcile its multitude of challenges with improved governance and continues coercion, intimidation, and violence, then history may repeat itself. Ambassador Shinn notes,

Ethiopia currently is not a center of international terrorism. But a combination of poor Ethiopian decisions on political and social economic policy, further alienation of Oromo and Somali, and disenchantment or demoralization within the security service and the army could make it so. (29)

Ethiopia is a case of convergent state security interests but divergent national values. Ethiopia is the most important & capable security partner in the region and guarantor of stability ranging from Somalia to South Sudan. But it is possible future civil conflict in Ethiopia could result in a radical departure to another system of governance. As the Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella noted about violent groups which invoke “police networks, house searches, the arrest of suspects and innocent persons, and the closing off of streets make life in the city unbearable…. [so that] The political situation in the country is transformed into a military situation…” (30). In other words, there is no purely military solution to a fundamentally social and economic problem. In the dialogue between government and the governed, it may be Ethiopia who could learn something from the United States.

It is in everyone’s best interest to maintain internal stability in Ethiopia. An Ethiopian proverb advises “To have more and more friends means to have less and less foes.” (30). The foreign policy challenge is to find a wider friendship and partnership consistent with the interests and values of all. We certainly have to lot to learn from one another and need more friends.

The views expressed here are the authors and do not represent those of the US Army or the US Department of Defense.


[1] Somalia is often referred to as the archetype “failed state.” For example, see The Economist “Somalia,

Most-failed state: Twenty-five years of chaos in the Horn of Africa,” 10 September 2016, available online at http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21706522-twenty-five-years-chaos-horn-africa-most-failed-state .

[2] China’s recent interest in Djibouti has raised concerns in Western media and defense circles. For example, see New York Times “U.S. Wary of Its New Neighbor in Djibouti: A Chinese Naval Base” By Andrew Jacobs and Jane Perlezfeb, from 25 February 2017, available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/25/world/africa/us-djibouti-chinese-naval-base.html?_r=0 or” Why China and Saudi Arabia Are Building Bases in Djibouti” by Joseph Braude in The Huffington Post, available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-braude/why-china-and-saudi-arabi_b_12194702.html .

[3] For international relations theory regarding the politics of the Horn of Africa, see Peter Woodward, The Horn of Africa: Politics and International relations (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003). For a theoretical analysis of conflict in the region, see Richard J. Reid, Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since 1800 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] For a personal account, see Wilfred Thesiger, The Life of My Choice. (New York: WW Norton & Company).

[5] Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011).

[6] S.L.A. Marshal, Pork Chop Hill (Nashville, TN: The Battery Press, 1986) p 233.

[7] Gebru Tareke, The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

[8] Tekeste Negash & Kjetil Tronvoll, Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[9] In 2002, Ethiopia was re-organizing the military following conflict with Eritrea. The total number of active armed forces personnel was estimated at 252,500. The army, which was in the process of being organized into three military regions, was equipped with an estimated 300 main battle tanks. The air force, with personnel estimated at 2,500, was equipped with 55 combat aircraft and 30 armored helicopters. The military budget for 2001 was $800 million, or 12.6% of GDP.” Taken from http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Africa/Ethiopia-ARMED-FORCES.html , accessed 1 October 2015. In 2012, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimated that the ENDF has 135,000 personnel in the ground forces and 3,000 in the air force. Taken from http://www.iiss.org/ in The Military Balance.

[10]  Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 110. Chapter 5: “Ethiopia-Governance and Terrorism” by Ambassador David H. Shinn.

[11] The World Bank, 11 October 2016, available online at http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/ethiopia/overview .

[12] The World Health Organization, available online at http://www.who.int/countries/eth/coop_strategy/en/index1.html ; however, these statistics are dated and likely more current data would be more positive.

[13] “2015 Ibrahim Index of African Governance: Country Insights, Ethiopia,” ed. Mo Ibrahim Foundation (2015). Available online https://static.moibrahimfoundation.org/u/2015/10/02201348/19_Ethiopia.pdf , accessed on 4 April 2017.

[14] US Department of State, “Ethiopia 2015 International Religious Freedom Report,” (Washington, DC: 2015), available online at https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/256235.pdf .

[15] Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, 97.

[16] Graham Hancock Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant (New York City, NY: Touchstone, 1993).

[17] Other writers also characterize Ethiopia as an enigma. For example, “Of all African nations, Ethiopia is prone to the most misconceptions.” Philp Briggs, Ethiopia: the Bradt Travel Guide (Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2010), 5th ed., back cover.

[18] For his personal account until this period, see Emperor Haile Sellassie I, My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, Volume I: 1892-1937 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1976), trans. Edward Ullendorff.

[19] Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 156. Updated edition 2002.

[20] For a detailed study of Economic theory behind the Revolutionary movement, see Timothy Derek Fernyhough’s Serfs, Slaves, and Shifta: Modes of Production and Resistance in Pre-Revolutionary Ethiopia  (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Shama Books, 2010).

[21] “We must not be misled into believing that we have a choice….The forces of history are in motion, and while they may be halted temporarily, they can never be repulsed permanently. We must either move with them or be overwhelmed by them. But this is not a real choice. Even if your Imperial Majesty feels the risks are great, they must be accepted.”  Donald E. Paradis, “Memorandum to His Imperial Majesty, 16 January 1961,” ed. US National Archives (11, College Park, MD: 1961).

[22]   Marcus, A History of Ethiopia, 176.

[23] Tereke, The Ethiopian Revolution, 25-26. For a detailed social movement analysis of the revolutionary and anti-Imperial groups, see Gebru Tareke Ethiopia: Power and Protest: Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century (Asmara, Eritrea: The Red Sea Press, inc., 1996).

[24] Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (New York: Vintage International, 1989), trans. William R. Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand.

[25] For a brief history of these episodes and the aftermath from a US military perspective, see William G. Thom’s African Wars: A Defense Intelligence Perspective (Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2010), 125-165.

[26] Herbert Vivian, Abyssinia, through the Lion-Land to the Court of the Lion of Judah (London: C.A. Pearson, ltd., 2005; repr., Elibron Classics), 243.

[27] Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, 107.

[28] For more information, see https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/08/07/state-emergency-ends-ethiopia and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-politics/ethiopia-lifts-emergency-rule-imposed-last-october-after-months-of-unrest-idUSKBN1AK0QV .

[29] Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, 110.

[30] Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla, 1969, reprint from Edition 2011, San Barnardino, CA: 10 September 2017.

[31] Negussay Ayele, Wit and Wisdom of Ethiopia (Hollywood, CA: Tsehai Publishers and Distributors, 1998), 83.

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