What is in Belt & Road Initiative for African Continental Free Trade Agreement?

In PublicationsJune 2, 202319 Minutes

What is in Belt & Road Initiative for African Continental Free Trade Agreement?

By Endalkachew Sime (Ph.D. Candidate, Peking University)

Mr. Endalkachew Sime has extensive experience in the Ethiopian private sector working in progressive leadership positions in key sectors of the economy for more than a few couple of decades. Having obtained his first degree in Agricultural Economics and his second degree in Development Economics, Mr. SIME also worked as a Senior Economic Advisor, and board member representative for the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF) and COMESA Business Council (CBC). He has worked as the Secretary General of the national private sector organization, the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association (ECCSA), as well as the CEO of the Ethiopian Textile and Garment Manufacturers Association (ETGAMA). Most recently, Endalkachew Sime served a term as a State Minister of the Ministry of Planning and Development of Ethiopia. Mr. Endalkachw is currently a Ph.D. student at Peking University, Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), majoring in National Development.

I. Introduction

This article tries to explain the relevance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for the four-year-old African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). In doing so, the article attempts to site counter-intuitive examples to gauge the claim of Shaffer and Gao (2020), which considers BRI as a re-purposed exporting tool of the Chinese development model aims at nurturing the new Sino-centric economic order that stretches to ‘outgrow’ the existing Western-led liberal model of development. In the following sections, we will see the critical gap BRI could fill in the new continental economic development space being created under AfCFTA against the above backdrop. This article concludes by proposing actionable recommendations based on observed limitations, targeted to key stakeholders of BRI mainly China, as well as decision-makers of the African Union and its member states as an audience.

II. The African Continental Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)

Having more than 16% of the global population, Africa’s share of global trade and GDP remains as small as 2.1% and 2.9% respectively (IMF, 2020). And Africa has embarked upon a development plan called ‘Agenda 2063’ to change this situation.
According to the African Union Commission (2015), Agenda 2063 is a 50-year development blueprint prepared by the African Union (AU) in 2013 and forwards a vision of building an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa by 2063. Creating One African Market through the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063.

AfCFTA is an agreement that provides a framework for trade liberalization of goods and services among African countries. Once fully implemented, AfCFTA is expected to cover all 55 African countries with an estimated combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion and a population of over 1.2 billion. In terms of population, the AfCFTA will be the largest free trade area in the world (IMF, 2020).

After its launch in May 2019, 54 of the 55 African counties endorsed AfCFTA and moved to implementation on January 1, 2021. Its implementation entails the gradual dismantling of tariffs on 97 percent of intra-African trade over 13 years. Full implementation of the agreement is forecasted to boost intra-African trade from 13% to around 52% (A. Mold, 2022).

According to World Bank (2020), the full implementation of the AfCFTA has the ability to lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty and boost the incomes of nearly 68 million others who live on less than $5.50 a day by boosting wages for skilled workers by 9.8% and the wages for unskilled workers by 10.3%.

But Africa’s large infrastructure deficit in roads and ports are among the major challenges hindering AfCFTA implementation. Estimates by the African Development Bank (AfDB, 2018) show that the continent’s infrastructure needs amount to $130–170 billion a year, with a financing gap in the range of $68–108 billion. The same document shows Poor infrastructure shaves on average up to 2 percent off Africa’s average per capita growth rates.

On the other hand, debt distress is affecting African nations’ eligibility for international infrastructure financing. According to China Daily (2022), from 1970 to 1987, the ratio of total external debt to GDP in African countries skyrocketed from an estimated 16% to 70%. And unsettled multilateral debt obligations rose from $58.7 billion to $110.45 billion between 2010 and 2018. This critically challenges the loan-soliciting efforts of African nations to finance their infrastructure gaps.

In summary, there is a pressing need to address Africa’s infrastructure gap to make the attractive promises of AfCFTA a reality. But on the other hand, debt stress is shadowing the attractiveness of Africa for International financers.

III. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

The Belt and Road Initiative – China’s proposal to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in cooperation with related countries – was unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visits to Central and Southeast Asia in September and October 2013 (Silk Road Briefing, 2021).

Infrastructure connectivity is high on the BRI agenda. According to Silk Road Briefing (2021), as of April 2020, China had invested in BRI projects in 42 different African countries in 74 Ports either as developers or operators, or both. One of the most noticeable discussions around these projects includes the study by Shaffer and Gao (2020). This paper considers BRI as non-original thought but a repurposing of an existing one. It further depicts BRI as an exporting tool of the Chinese development model with the purpose of building a new Sino-centric economic order that emphasizes the key role played by the government through massive infrastructure investments. Such a move, according to the paper, contrasts the liberal model of development of the West, grounded in private enterprise and market competition. This short article lacks the necessary scope and depth to prove or disprove the diverse list of claims described in the paper.

But rather, it tries to shed light on what is BRI for Africa especially in the context of the crying need of Africa to harness its new opportunity seen in AfCFTA. Let us cite a specific example, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway (AADR) project, whether Shaffer and Gao’s claim of China’s imposition of development model has got space on the ground or not.

After 1992, when a couple of Ethiopia’s Red Sea ports (Asab and Massawa) were lost to the then-new state of Eritrea and Ethiopia became land-locked, the port-related logistics were a growing concern for the Ethiopian economy. Many research discussions were being made both in the government as well as in the private sector, especially in the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce. And through the proactive move of the Ethiopian government and cooperative responses from the Chinese government, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway (AADR) became a reality in 2017.

According to Capital Ethiopia (2022), before AADR replaces the century-old Italian-built Ethio-Djibouti railway in 2017, containers were taking more than 3 days to reach Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, from Djibouti port. The electric-driven AADR has reduced the 3 days to less than 20 hours and has also reduced the cost by at least one-third. The same report shows that the volume of goods transported is increasing by 25% every year on average, which was interrupted during the COVID-19 period.

Therefore empirically speaking, the above reality shown with AADR project, as part of BRI, does not go with the conclusion made by Sheffer and Gao, which describes BRI as a Sino-centric tool of exporting China’s development model to build a new global economic order.

IV. Challenges – sustainability and performance

Key stakeholders, especially the African Union and member states need to give attention to sustaining the growing role of BRI in addressing Africa’s infrastructure gap. According to R. Bociaga (2023), Belt and Road investment in sub-Saharan Africa fell by 54% in 2022, to $7.5bn from $16.5bn in 2021, according to a recent report from the Green Finance and Development Centre at Fudan University in Shanghai. The reason behind such changes needs to be closely followed up. The above report also explains, since December 2019, the US Congress has been funding a ‘Countering Chinese Influence Fund’ used by the executive branch to challenge Chinese influence, including through the BRI, in Africa and elsewhere. African Union and member states need to be aware of such situations that might reduce the growing Africa-BRI cooperation and take the necessary actions.

The other challenge is related to implementation and project management. All BRI projects in Africa are not successful. There should be a detailed performance evaluation of projects that leads to the success of all projects, which is important to attract more investments.

V. A Way forward?

For a better realization of AfCFTA’s aspirations, BRI can be taken as one strategic opportunity to address the infrastructure gaps in Africa. But what are the key points key stakeholders should give attention to?

1. Strategic planning on Infrastructure

Efficient utilization of expensively built infrastructure helps in addressing the growing concern of debt distress in Africa. The best way to address this is to strategically align each infrastructure project into the country’s national development plans.

2. Cross border Infrastructure for Intra-Africa Connectivity

It is common to plan and build infrastructures at a country level. But cross-border initiatives like AfCFTA needs cross-border infrastructure planning that connects compatible comparative advantages of neighboring countries.

Learning from others on the intra-regional trade-building process.

Even though Africa has been dealing with many RECs (Regional Economic Cooperation) and trade agreements, AfCFTA is a huge task for the AU and member states to deal with 54 fragmented market spaces with diverse statuses and political-economic thinking. Africa can learn a lot from Asia in this aspect. Osvaldo R. (2007) explains that mounting evidence suggests trade liberalization and the ability of much of Asia to respond flexibly to world demand is the best explanation for the spectacular growth of South-South trade.
Therefore, the South-South Cooperation (SSC) platform should be seen by AU and member states as one soft capacity-building opportunity. SSC has gained good momentum in its relatively intensive past engagements in Asia, which can be used by Africa to learn from past experience.

Improving debt management capacity

The other learning area for Africa is debt management. The spectacular promises of AfCFTA we have seen above in figures are trapped in challenges such as infrastructure gaps. On the other hand, debt distress is a growing challenge in the continent. And as recommended by A. Mugasha (2007), Trade and proper debt management are the two solutions for the growing debt of middle-income developing countries. Prudent and strict implementation of the plans of AfCFTA enables Africa to gain from its intra and inter-Africa Trade for its debt distress. But on the other hand, the debt management capacity of Africa needs special emphasis. The available menu of options for debt management, as explained by A. Mugasha (2007) includes securitization, secondary markets, renegotiation including debt write-off as well as debt-for-equity schemes. The capacity of Africa to implement such debt management schemes should be strengthened both at the continental organization level such as AU and AfDB, as well as at the level of the member states.

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Chris, D.(2021). China’s African Belt & Road Initiative – It’s Not What You Think It Is, Silk Road Briefing. China’s African Belt & Road Initiative – It’s Not What You Think It Is – Silk Road Briefing
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World Bank. (2020). The African Continental Free Trade Area: Economic and Distributional Effects. Washington, DC The African Continental Free Trade Area (worldbank.org)
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The State of Counter-Terrorism Coordination in Africa and the Fated Decline of Al-Shabaab Staff Writer

In PublicationsMay 31, 20237 Minutes

The State of Counter-Terrorism Coordination in Africa and the Fated Decline of Al-Shabaab 

By Staff Writer

Terrorist groups have continued to wreak havoc in many parts of the world, causing fear, destruction, and loss of lives. Africa has not been immune to this problem, with various extremist groups wreaking havoc in different regions of the continent. One such group is Al-Shabaab which started as a small faction in Somalia and eventually grew to become one of the most formidable terrorist organizations with a vast network in Africa. However, with the concerted efforts of African states and international partners, there has been a remarkable decline in Al-Shabaab’s power and influence. This article explores the state of counter-terrorism in Africa and the factors that led to Al-Shabaab’s downfall.

The Rise of Al-Shabaab

Al-Shabaab is an Islamic extremist group formed in Somalia in 2006. Its main aim is to establish an Islamic State in Somalia and impose Sharia law on the people. Although the group started as a relatively small faction, it gained momentum and popularity due to its ability to provide basic services such as healthcare, education, and security in areas where the Somali government had failed. This made it easier for the group to recruit members, particularly among the youth that feels disenfranchised and marginalized by the government.

This made it easier for the group to recruit members, particularly among the youth that feels disenfranchised and marginalized by the government.

Al-Shabaab’s activities expanded beyond Somalia, with the group launching attacks in neighboring countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. These attacks often targeted civilians, government officials, and military personnel, intending to undercut government apparatus, spread fear, and further destabilize the region. Al-Shabaab funds its activities through various illicit means, such as extortion, piracy, and smuggling. It also receives financial and logistical support from international terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda.

The State of Counter-Terrorism in Africa

African states and their international partners have made significant strides in countering terrorism in the continent in recent years.

African states and their international partners have made significant strides in countering terrorism in the continent in recent years. One of the key strategies adopted by African governments is the formation of regional and sub-regional organizations to coordinate counter-terrorism efforts. For instance, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have established regional counter-terrorism centers that provide training, intelligence sharing, and joint operations among member states.

International partners, particularly the United States, have also provided support to African states in the fight against terrorism.

This support includes training, equipment, intelligence sharing, and financial assistance. In addition, the U.S. has established a military presence in Africa through the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which coordinates military operations and provides logistical support to African states.

The Downfall of Al-Shabaab

Despite its initial success, Al-Shabaab has suffered a significant decline in recent years due to concerted efforts by African states and international partners. One of the key factors that led to the group’s downfall was the increased military pressure on its strongholds in Somalia. With the support of the AU and U.S. forces, the Somali government launched several offensives against Al-Shabaab, leading to the group losing control of many towns and villages. The group also suffered significant losses regarding the number of fighters and leaders killed or captured.

Another factor that contributed to Al-Shabaab’s decline is the disruption of its financial networks. African states and their international partners have taken measures to track and disrupt the group’s illicit financing activities, cutting off its ability to fund its operations. In addition, the group has struggled to maintain popular support due to its brutal tactics, including the use of child soldiers, the recruitment of young people through deception, and the imposition of harsh punishments on civilians.

Going forward, African states and their partners must continue to work together to address the root causes of terrorism, including poverty, marginalization, and political instability, if they are to ensure sustained peace and security in the region.

The rise of Al-Shabaab in Somalia posed a significant challenge to the stability and security of the region. However, with the concerted efforts of African states and international partners, the group has suffered a significant decline in recent years. The strategies adopted, including military pressure, financial disruption, and the provision of basic services to areas previously underserved, have been critical in countering the group’s activities. Going forward, African states and their partners must continue to work together to address the root causes of terrorism, including poverty, marginalization, and political instability, if they are to ensure sustained peace and security in the region.


Pham, J. P. (2018). State of the Terrorist Threat in Africa. Linchpin Strategies, LLC.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020). Terrorism Prevention – Africa. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/terrorism/prevention-africa.html
United States Department of Defense (2018). “Special Briefing on U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts in Africa”. https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/


Is the United States a better-suited ally than China? An Exploration of United States' Comparative Advantage in Africa

In PublicationsApril 30, 202319 Minutes

Is the United States a better-suited ally than China? An Exploration of United States' Comparative Advantage in Africa

By Yirga Abebe

Yirga Abebe is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Dire Dawa University in 2010 G.C and a Master of Arts Degree in Peace and Security Studies from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University in 2014 G.C. Yirga has more than 10 years of professional experience in education and research in Ethiopian institutions of higher learning. He was a lecturer at Wollo University, Department of Peace and Development Studies, from September 2018-January 2021, and Jigjiga University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, from September 2010-August 2018. In addition to teaching, Yirga is actively engaged in conducting research on various themes at local, national, and regional level initiatives including customary conflict resolution, pastoral conflict management, conflict-induced displacement, women & election, parliament, and conflict management, peacebuilding, conflict trends, and geopolitical dynamics.

Africa has long been a center of intense rivalry between major powers. The continent has one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, the world’s most diverse ecosystems, abundant natural resources, and one of the largest voting blocks in the United Nations Assembly. The United States and China have been vying for political, economic, and regional influence in Africa since the early 2010s; it has, in recent years, intensified and brought ideological and geostrategic divisions to full display. The history and current state of relations that the two countries have with Africa are vastly different, both in the nature and magnitude of their engagements.

The US and Africa have a long and tumultuous history; since the second half of the 20th century, the relations between the US and Africa have gone through at least three major phases each with different features: during the Cold War, during the transitional period between 1990 to 1998, and after 1998. On August 2022, the United States adopted a new strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa. Articulating a new vision for a 21st Century U.S.-African Partnership, the strategy aims to pursue four main objectives in sub-Saharan Africa:

foster openness and open societies; deliver democratic and security dividends; advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and support conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition.

China’s activities in Africa date back to the continent’s pre-independence period, when ideologically driven Beijing supported liberation movements fighting colonial powers. Nowadays, China is Africa’s largest trading partner, hitting $254 billion in 2021, exceeding by a factor of four US-Africa trade. China has become a preferred investment partner, a source of accessible loans for African countries across the board. Chinese funds back a wide range of projects from transportation to energy and minerals, medicine, agriculture, and telecommunications. However, these engagements are not without certain drawbacks.

For Africa, both the US and China have come up with their own comparative advantages/benefits. These factors would also benefit African countries and are the main reasons why African countries should favor closer ties with the United States than with China. What follows is a brief discussion of the US’s comparative advantages to the African continent at large.

Demographic factors

There is a large number of African descent living in the USA. This has a long history tracing back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries. It is indicated that 12% of the USA population, around 43 million, are of African descent.

It is estimated that over 28.3 million sub-Saharan Africans reside outside their countries of origin. Of these, while about 17.8 million (63%) lived elsewhere within the region, the United States is the top destination for sub-Saharan Africans outside the region. There are approximately 2.1 million sub-Saharan African immigrants who resided in the United States in 2019. 53 % of these immigrants came from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, or Somalia. On the other hand, there are 381,000 immigrants in the United States from North African countries mainly Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan. In comparison, the number of Africans in the USA is by far greater than an estimated 500,000 African migrants that live in China, many of which are merchants. This led the USA to have an advantage over China in its engagement in Africa.

African’s positive perception of the US is slightly greater than China

According to a survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 2019 and 2020 in 18 African countries, China and the United States are placed in roughly equivalent positions as external influencers. Asked about their perceptions of the economic and political influence of the two powers, 59% of African respondents viewed China somewhat, or very, positively and 15 percent viewed China somewhat or very negatively. The comparable numbers for the United States were similar: 58% in positive and 13% in negative view. The same study reported that, when respondents were asked to name the best national model for development, 32% cited the United States, and 23% named China. Moreover, many scholars anticipate that Africans’ positive perceptions of the United States may continue to increase during the presidency of Joe Biden. This positive perception that Africans have towards the United States, somehow greater than China, will be an advantage to be utilized while engaging in Africa.

The spread of democracy, human rights, and civil societies

The US is best known for safeguarding liberal principles and institutions. The promotion of democracy, human rights, and civil societies has been an integral part of the US’s domestic and foreign policies. This in turn contributes to the spread of these values and institutions across Africa. This has enabled to empower the people so that they can exercise their power to elect and scrutinize their governments. It makes it somewhat more difficult for African governments to get away with blatant and excessive abuses of power in due course of governing. As many of the public services in Africa are not only provided by the government, the emergence of local/national/international civil societies in African countries, which is the by-product of the US’s engagement, will fill this vacuum.

On the other hand, Chinese engagement in Africa is often criticized for lack of transparency as many business practices are claimed to be fraudulent, abusive, and corrupt. Similarly, China is also accused of undermining the strengthening of democratic institutions and governance in Africa as it continues to invest in countries with governance challenges such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Conflict resolution and security diplomacy

The US usually assumes a larger diplomatic role in the overall efforts to resolve African conflicts. Despite its ever growing influence and increasing commercial engagement, China’s diplomacy has traditionally kept a non-partisan stance concerning inter and intra-state conflicts, and their resolution attempts, in Africa.

It is stated that although Beijing did appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa earlier in 2022, it has not been active in diplomacy surrounding the war in Northern Ethiopia as might be expected given its heavy investment in the country. While the African Union has taken the diplomatic lead, the United States was playing both a public and behind-the-scenes role in Ethiopia.

China has traditionally adopted a “non-interference” policy in African and global conflicts. However, this policy seems to have evolved with its new Belt Road Initiative (BRI) over the past 10 years. In February 2023, Beijing launched its Global Security Initiative, with the aim of “peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation”.

The US has a strong military and security presence in Africa. According to the US African Command, there are a total of 29 US military bases located in 15 different countries in Africa in 2019. These bases are categorized as an “enduring footprint” (a permanent base) and those with a “non-enduring footprint” or” (semi-permanent or contingency base). On the other hand, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. In general, the US has more leverage in terms of conflict resolution and security diplomacy than China which is known for its emphasis on economic diplomacy. This will enable to maintain military and security ties between Africa and the US.

Strong humanitarian engagement

The US has been more strongly engaged in humanitarian sectors, than Chinese, in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. gave out $97.67 billion between 2000 and 2018 in Official Development Assistance to sub-Saharan Africa, with infrastructure projects (48 percent of total aid) and humanitarian aid (26 percent) being the top priorities. The health sector was given $6 billion, the agriculture sector received $4.2 billion, and $3.5 billion was committed to education. In Fiscal Year 2021, USAID and the U.S. Department of State provided $8.5 billion of assistance to 47 countries and 8 regional programs in sub-Saharan Africa. China’s global foreign aid expenditure has reached $3.18 billion in 2021. Between 2013 and 2018, 45% of China’s around $26 billion foreign aid went to Africa, much of this aid went to transportation, energy, and communication sectors. Unlike the Chinese development priorities in Africa, United States development efforts place greater emphasis on health, education, and other humanitarian sectors.

Diaspora Remittances

There is a large number of African diaspora in the USA. According to Migration Policy Institute (2022), the number of sub-Saharan African diaspora in the United States is more than 4.5 million. The figure is expected to increase considering the number of Diasporas in the USA from North African states. The African diaspora living in the US, Europe, and elsewhere send back significant amounts in remittances to the continent. World Bank figures show that there is a total of $95.6 billion in remittance flows to Africa in 2021, of which $46.6 billion went to North Africa and $49 billion to sub-Saharan Africa. The extent of remittance is more favorable than the official development assistance to Africa of $35bn and foreign direct investment to sub-Saharan Africa of $88bn in 2021.

Chinese debt trap policy

Acknowledging this role, the African Diaspora has been among the priority issues in the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit which was undertaken in Washington DC on December 2022. It is also pronounced that the Biden administration will provide targeted support to small- and medium-sized businesses “with a specific focus on the African diaspora and their businesses and investors across the United States”. Therefore, the African diaspora, their business, and remittances will serve as an entry point for US’s comparative advantage over China related to Africa.

China is undoubtedly Africa’s largest bilateral creditor and a crucial partner in pioneering infrastructure development projects. Chinese loans have resulted in a significant debt held by African states. It is stated that overall external debt held by governments in the continent has doubled in two years, from a 5.8 percent average of government revenue in 2015 to 11.8 percent in 2017. Some African nations do have extensive Chinese loans and are suffering from out-of-control debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, high-interest rates, and other factors. While maintaining its image as a friend of developing nations, the extensive Chinese loans made to African countries will create the possibility of forced repayments, another headache to the continent’s development.

Some Pitfalls of Chinese Engagement in Africa

China is often criticized for an unfair and lack of a long-term strategy when engaging Africa. Compared with the US, the quality and standard of Chinese businesses in Africa is questionable. Its strategy is more about exploiting African natural resources than spurring the continent’s development, which also raises questions about sustainability for future generations in the continent and environmental concerns as well. In this regard, former President of the USA, Barack Obama, once said:

We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources. We recognize Africa for its greatest resource which is its people and its talents and its potential. We don’t simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth. We want to build partnerships that create jobs and opportunities for all our peoples that unleash the next era of African growth […]

While it is common to assume that China has been deeply engaged in Africa even surpassing the US, there is a repertoire of comparative advantages that the US offers to Africa. These stem from the US’ own strengths, as well as the pitfalls of Chinese engagement in the continent. These include factors related to demography, African perception, democracy, diaspora remittances, and strong engagement of the US in conflict resolution, security, and humanitarian-led diplomacy, on the other hand, China’s debt trap strategies and its trade practices in Africa present the United States as a better-suited ally.

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A Humanitarian Lifeline for Sudan’s Population: A Possible Ethiopian Role

In PublicationsApril 26, 20234 Minutes

The Sudan Conflict: a stakeholder Map

Staff Writer

A Humanitarian Lifeline for Sudan’s Population: A Possible Ethiopian Role

With a full-scale war being fought in urban centers, foreign states swiftly evacuating their nationals, depletion of food and basic necessities in conflict zones, and no apparent pathways for a return to peaceful political resolution, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan is progressively worsening with each passing day. A multitude of factors further heightens the complexity of this conflict: the multiplicity of external actors and interests, the direct involvement of neighbors like Eritrea and Egypt- and others in the Gulf Region- and the internationalization of the conflict among global actors like the US and Russia. These factors further weaken the role and position of regional actors and mechanisms like Ethiopia, the AU, and IGAD to spearhead diplomatic options for the political resolution of the conflict as they have in the past.

However, Ethiopia is the best-suited country in the region to play a decisive role if not in the political de-escalation between the military factions, and the amelioration of human conditions, particularly in mitigating the human toll as a result of the conflict. Tens of thousands of refugees have already fled the conflict via Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia; the latter via Port Sudan. Neighboring countries and humanitarian organizations are struggling to match the pace and urgency of the mounting humanitarian needs.

The route from Khartoum to Metemma is arguably the safest and most direct route to safety from the capital – given that the majority of this route is under the control of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) -particularly the route stretching from Gedaref to Metemma.

As a nation with a past mediatory role and close acquaintance with both parties to the conflict: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemmeti), Ethiopia is best positioned to be an interlocutor to facilitate humanitarian assistance. It is therefore essential for Ethiopia to consider forwarding itself as a principal country of asylum for Sudanese civilians fleeing the conflict and consider convening international partners to formulate a coordination mechanism to facilitate refugee reception and welfare measures.

This option might include:

    • Establishment of a temporary reception center at Metemma with accommodation and essential care and services for arrivals;
    • Application of expedited entry procedures for genuine asylum seekers;
    • Coordination with the ICRC, UN, and both the SAF and the RSF leaderships to facilitate the movement of humanitarian convoys traveling between Khartoum and Mettema, and Metemma and Gedaref;
    • Possible coordination with SAF to ensure security along the Gedaref-Metemma route.

Ethiopia is undoubtedly one of the countries to be directly and indirectly affected by the conflict; as it maintains the convening power within IGAD and the AU, Addis Ababa is therefore well positioned to promote, facilitate, and host multilateral diplomatic initiatives with the principal aim of aiding the Sudanese people and preventing a humanitarian calamity from unfolding.


From Security Provider to a Security Vaccum? The Hasty Withdrawal of Ethiopia’s Decade-Long Peacekeeping Mission in UNISFA

In PublicationsApril 26, 202342 Minutes

From Security Provider to a Security Vaccum?  The Hasty Withdrawal of Ethiopia’s Decade-Long Peacekeeping Mission in  UNISFA

By: Kaleab Tadesse Sigatu1


Ethiopia has been participating actively in UN peacekeeping missions since the 1950s up to now. The reasons were based on the sending regime’s intention, the nature of the armed forces, and the focus area of the deployment. The Imperial Ethiopian Government under Emperor Haile Selassie I (1930–1974) sent peacekeeping troops to Korea, Congo, and to the contested region of Jammu and Kashmir of India and Pakistan. The socialist military regime (1974–1991) did not participate in any peacekeeping missions at all. The post-1991 Ethiopian Government mostly focused on peacekeeping missions in Africa and contributed peacekeepers to Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and also in Haiti, and Yemen. Lastly, the new reformist government, which came to power in 2018, has made no policy change from the aforementioned regime toward participating in peacekeeping missions.

The Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) therefore acquired a paramount peacekeeping capability with the regional standard in training and experience gained through previous international peacekeeping deployments. This resulted in Ethiopia playing an important role in regional stability as the prevalent contributor to UN and AU peacekeeping missions, especially in Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.2 Even though Ethiopia’s military (peacekeeping) and peace mediating role is not without criticisms it became “a formidable force for peace, security, and stability in the Horn of Africa, and in Africa in general”.3 This is especially true concerning Ethiopia’s interventionist role in Somalia.4 Ethiopia’s first unilateral action in Somalia was in 1995 to remove the Islamic insurgent, Al-Ittihad Al-Islamiya (AIAI). In 1998 Ethiopia launched a second military intervention at the time of the Ethiopia–Eritrea war, following Eritrea’s effort – in collaboration with a Baidoa-based Somali warlord Hussein Aideed and involving the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) to open a second front.5 Ethiopia’s third intervention was in 2006, against the threat from the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and supporting the Somali Transitional Federal Government. Lastly, Ethiopia joined AMISOM in 2014, simultaneously deploying troops outside the AMISOM command to support its troops under AMISOM.

Likewise, Ethiopia has been a part of the peacekeeping missions in Sudan and South Sudan for more than a decade. Ethiopia contributed police personnel for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) from 2005 until the independence of South Sudan in 2011. It is also a part of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), which is still optional since 2011. Since joining in 2014 Ethiopia has contributed around 2,000 troops to UNMISS making it one of the top five largest contributors.6 It also contributed around 20,000 mainly continent troops, in different rotations for the African Union–United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), (2007–2020) in Sudan.7 Moreover, Ethiopia contributed the entire contingent troops to the United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA), at the disputed border region between South Sudan and Sudan, which is the focus of this paper and discussed below. All missions make Ethiopia a ‘security provider’ in most of the conflict regions in the African continent, which is compounded by intra-regional and international intervention.8

South Sudan and Sudan and the conflict over Abyei

The north–south conflict in Sudan was between the mostly desert, largely Muslim and culturally Arabic North Sudan and the tropical, largely Christian or animist and culturally sub-Saharan Southern Sudan. The first Sudanese civil war happened between 1955 and 1972; it begins before the independence of Sudan from the Anglo– Egyptian colony and ended at the signing of the Addis Ababa Accord, an agreement that gave Southern Sudan autonomy, signed in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. However, in 1983, the government enforced Shari’a law on the south when President Nimeiry declared all of Sudan as an Islamic state, terminating the autonomous status of Southern Sudan, which triggered the second Sudanese civil war.9 It was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 that ended the civil war.

The CPA was signed between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/SPLA) after having continuous negotiations since 2002 under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development(IGAD) and the government of Kenya.10 The CPA established a six-year interim period during which the southern Sudanese will have the right to govern affairs in their region; one of the major agreements of the CPA was the fact that Southern Sudan will have the right to vote for the referendum. The other CPA agreement was the resolution of the contested border region of Abyei, which gave Abyei special administrative status during the interim period. At the end of the six-year interim period, Abyei residents will vote in a referendum either to maintain special administrative status in the north or to become part of the south. The government of Sudan and SPLM/SPLA also agreed to share oil revenues from Abyei, to be split between the north and south with small percentages of revenues allocated to other states and ethnic groups.11

Consequently, South Sudan separated from northern Sudan and became an independent state after six years as per the agreement of the CPA on 9 July 2011. However, the demarcation of the border of the oil-rich Abyei region between South Sudan and Sudan became contentious because both states claimed it as their own territory.12 In addition, the South Sudanese referendum did not take place in Abyei because both sides failed to put it into practice, as they could not agree on who was eligible to vote.13

Political scientists argue that there is a likelihood of conflict between the secessionist or newly established and the former ‘mother’ state or rump on the territorial issue.14 This is true in the Horn of Africa in the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea and Somaliland and Puntland/Somalia. When a territory of a state breaks away and becomes an independent entity, the new land boundaries that emerge are often violently contested.

Jaroslav Tir in his study on interstate relations especially territorial disagreement between rump and secessionist states after a separation, put his argument as follows: Through the secession, the rump state has lost some of the territories it previously controlled to the secessionist state and may want a portion or all of it back. Conversely, the secessionist state may not be satisfied with how much land it has received and may desire even more of the rump state’s land. Finally, the secessionist state may set its sights on another secessionist state’s territory.

Land’s strategic value arises from its characteristics and/or location. Losing a high ground or an impenetrable swamp or desert may make the country easier to invade and thus undermine its defensive ability. Losing a piece of land containing resources such as ore deposits, ports, and so on undermines the rump state’s economic, and, by extension, military, capability. The desire of countries to pursue power is one of the cornerstones of the realist school of thought, and at least some realists view the role of territorial control as crucial to a state’s power.15

On the other hand, resource-related conflicts rose because of the geographical location of the resource. Anderson and Browne argue that the vast majority of the most significant oil fields so far identified in the Horn of Africa lie in troubled border areas and disputed territories. In addition to the case of this study, Abyei, the Ilemi Triangle and northern Kenya, the Lake Albert basin, the Ogaden, and the Sool region between Somaliland and Puntland are unresolved international disputes.16

In the case of Abyei, the indigenous population is the Ngok Dinka who supported the South Sudanese rebels during the civil war (1983–2005). However, every year Northern Misseriya pastoralists, who are aligned with Khartoum, migrate to Abyei in search of pasture. This migration and sharing of land and pasture created conflict between the two communities over scarce resources.17 The root causes of the Abyei conflict go back to the early 1900s when the people of Ngok Dinka were transferred in 1905 by British colonial authorities from Bahr el Ghazal to Kordofan (a northern province) for administrative reasons.18 During the first civil war that erupted in Southern Sudan in 1955, the people of the Abyei area joined the Southern resistance movement known as “Anya-Nya” with the aim of returning the administration of Abyei back to Southern Sudan.19 Later, the governments of both Sudan and South Sudan became heavily involved in the Abyei conflict, fighting to control oil fields in the area.

Figure 1: South Sudan, Sudan and the contested area of Abyei
Source: Sudan Tribune (2022b): op. cit.

The Abyei region is referred to by some as “an area which had been a symbol of peaceful coexistence and cooperation has become a point of confrontation and conflict that is both identity-based and resource-driven”.20 Others say Abyei is “Sudan’s ‘Kashmir’”,21 and “a breaking point of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement”.22 The Chief of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei, Deng Majok said “the thread that stitches the north and south of Sudan together through Abyei”.23

United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA) and the Ethiopian Deployment

The Security Council passed a Resolution on 27 June 2011, based on the agreement between the government of Sudan and the SPLM on temporary arrangements for the administration and security of the Abyei Area reached on 20 June 2011 in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The 2011 resolution established UNISFA with the strength of 4,200 military personnel, 50 police personnel, and appropriate civilian support.24 The resolution also pointed out that both the government of Sudan and the SPLM requested the assistance of the Ethiopian Government, which resulted in the exclusive responsibility of Ethiopian troops to monitor the area by contributing the leadership with both the head of mission and force commander for UNISFA.25

The reason was that Sudan would not accept non-African troops and South Sudan had thus asked IGAD for additional mediation support, and the need for a third party to monitor the flashpoint border, troops from Ethiopia.26 This can be considered a diplomatic success for Ethiopia to have smooth relations with both states and both accept Ethiopia’s singular mono-nation mission to deploy its contingent.

The resolution decided the demilitarisation of the Abyei area except for forces other than UNISFA and the Abyei Police Service. At the beginning of the mission, as of August 2011, Ethiopia contributed a total of 1,707 personnel, 1,634 contingents, and 73 experts to the mission. At the beginning of the mission, the total amount of personnel was 1,814; including Ethiopia only four countries contributed contingents: Egypt 11 officers, India 36 officers, and Zambia 12 officers. This means Ethiopia contributed 97% of the total contingent.27

UNISFA’s deployment was on 22 July 2011, after one month of the authorization of the mission. The UNSC Resolution 1990 also came out swiftly, three days after the conclusion of the Addis Agreement. Under normal circumstances, the deployment of peacekeeping missions takes a long time, as it requires convincing troop-contributing countries, mobilizing resources required, and deploying them on the ground.28 However, in the case of UNISFA, Ethiopia’s contribution came swiftly. Osterrieder et al. describe the deployment as follows:

The deployment of troops for UNISFA took place significantly more quickly than is usually the case (with UN peacekeeping operations). Only one month after its authorization, almost 500 troops had been deployed to the Abyei region. Operations started on 8 August 2011, while patrols began at the end of August 2011. The fact that UNISFA troops were drawn from one country, Ethiopia, helps to explain this prompt deployment. Indeed, the Ethiopian troops were ready to be deployed even before the UN Security Council authorized the mission. The land route from Ethiopia to Abyei was used to transfer troops within a week. Some existing UNMIS facilities were also used for UNISFA. The Ethiopian troops did not require the living standards normally necessary for UN missions. Temporary housing in tents was an efficient way to ensure the timely deployment of troops. Only a few months after its authorization, the UN Secretary-General declared that the mission was “in a position to secure the Abyei area,” and thus able to fulfill its mandate.29

At the time, Ethiopian ongoing peacekeeping mission participation in both Sudan (Darfur) and South Sudan made the deployment prompt. In May 2013, the Security Council, by its resolution 2104, increased UNISFA’s military strength up to 5,326 peacekeepers, as requested by Sudan and South Sudan.30 By the end of the year, 4,102 military personnel were deployed, 17 individual police, 129 experts on mission, and 3,956 contingents. Ethiopia deployed 7 individual police, 78 experts on mission, and 3,930 contingent troops. This means 99% of the contingents are from Ethiopia. Even though 20 countries contributed contingent troops, no state contributed more than two personnel.

In May 2018 Security Council Adopts Resolution 2416 (2018), extending the mandate of UNISFA in Abyei. It also decided to reduce UNISFA’s authorized troop ceiling to 4,500 until 15 November 2018, and that as of 15 October 2018, that ceiling would decrease further to 3,959 unless the aforementioned mandate modifications were extended.31 However, the mission continued without the decline in size. As of December 2018, 100% of the contingent troops were from Ethiopia.

One of the main reasons Ethiopia took the initiative to deploy its troops to the disputed region right away, aside from the fact that Ethiopia has a long history of taking part in peacekeeping missions, was the fact that the negative effects of a full-fledged war between Sudan and South Sudan will not only be felt by the two countries but also by the entire region, including Ethiopia. At the time, the Peace and Security Council of the AU acknowledged the Ethiopian Government for its effort in its communiqué in November 2011, as follows:

The Council also expresses its deep appreciation to the Government of Ethiopia, particularly Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Chair of IGAD, for its commitment and sustained efforts towards the promotion of peace and the resolution of the post secession issues, including the speedy deployment of troops within the framework of the UNISFA.32

Some experts argue that such peacekeeping involvement of a neighboring state runs counter to a longstanding, although unwritten, principle that UN peacekeeping missions should seek to avoid deployment of troops or police from ‘neighbors’ in order to mitigate the risks associated with these countries’ national interests in the host countries.33 Moreover, in 1958, Hammarskjold warned about the dangers of deploying peacekeepers from states with direct interests in the conflict.

In order to limit the scope of possible differences of opinion, the United Nations in recent operations has followed two principles: not to include units from any of the permanent members of the Security Council; and not to include units from any country which, because of its geographical position or for other reasons, might be considered as possibly having a special interest in the situation which has called for the operation.34

However, UNISFA was able to manage effectively to keep the area of Abyei free from armed infiltration by Ngok Dinka activists, Misseriya cattle herders, or security forces from Sudan or South Sudan.35 According to Osterrieder et al., the fact that Ethiopian troops understand the culture, local situation, and the conflict helped them to accomplish the peacekeeping well. Moreover, it is simpler to coordinate missions with a single nation’s military than it is to coordinate missions with numerous states that contribute forces.36 Nevertheless, there has been much progress made on political mechanisms to determine the final status of Abyei, demilitarise, and demarcate the border.37

Ethiopia’s involvement in Abyei also emanates from its foreign policy. Ethiopia has a strong strategic interest in the peaceful coexistence of Sudan and South Sudan and in upholding its good relationship with both countries. Instability in Sudan and South Sudan and the possibility of renewed conflict between the two states pose a threat to Ethiopia’s national security. Ethiopia also has economic interests in natural resources in Sudan and South Sudan. Ethiopia has been trying hard not to be involved in the internal affairs of the two counties. After the passing of the Meles Zenawi in 2012, the then-acting prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, confirmed Ethiopia would “maintain its neutral and principled support to the two brotherly countries’ effort towards resolving their dispute.”38

The Ethiopian Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy states Ethiopia’s policy and strategy towards the Horn of African states as “…these countries have long-standing links with Ethiopia in such areas as language, culture, history, natural resources, and so on. Changes in Ethiopia affect them directly, and what happens to them has an impact on us”.39 Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver also confirm that conflict between and within the two Sudans could have both a direct and indirect spillover effect on Ethiopia, thus Ethiopia can be seen to have a genuine interest in peace in and between the two countries.40

The Ethiopian relations with South Sudan

Ethiopia’s relations with South Sudan began in pre-independence days when both the previous governments of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Colonel Mengistu supported the southern Sudanese secessionist movements most importantly SPLM. Ethiopia played a very important role in the independence of South Sudan. After its independence, Ethiopia has been actively involved in peace processes with Sudan in the case of Abyei and after the 2013 civil war broke out. Besides the spillover effect of the conflict to Ethiopia’s Gambella region, Ethiopia has a great advantage in a stable South Sudan in using South Sudan’s oil and market.

Ethiopia deployed more than 40,000 peacekeeping troops in both UNMISS, UNISFA, and CTSAMM in different rotations. Moreover, Ethiopia was actively involved in the efforts of IGAD to bring peace in South Sudan by appointing its former foreign minister the late Seyoum Mesfin, to lead an international mediation process. In 2015, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan met rebel leader Riek Machar in Addis Ababa for the first time to start a peace talk. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also hosted both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in Addis Ababa to initiate the talk in 2018. During the meeting, the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff said, “…faced with the continued suffering in South Sudan, Ethiopia simply can’t stand by”.41

The Ethiopian Relations with Sudan

The relationship between Sudan and Ethiopia has been both harmonious and hostile. Though there is a long history of relations starting from the time of Axum and Merowe, in the modern history of Ethiopia, the relations go back to the Islamist Mahdist state (1885–1898)42 and the Christian kingdom Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia (reigned from 1872–1889). Because of the Hewett Treaty in 1883, in which Ethiopia assisted Egyptian troops in Sudan during the Mahdist resistance movement against the Ottoman–Egyptian administration, the Mahdists made a revenge attack against Ethiopia in 1889; burned churches, and shattered the old capital of Gondar. The emperor marched to Sudan with his army to fight back the Mahdists but died in the Battle of Metemma in 1989.

During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian Government covertly gave aid to the Anya-Nya movement, a southern separatist rebel army formed from 1955 up to 1972.43 On the other hand, in 1972 the emperor negotiated the Addis Ababa Agreement between the Sudanese Government and the Anya-Nya. Ethiopia was the sole active black African actor to intervene in the Sudanese war, during the 1980s and early 1990s.44 The Ethiopian Derg Government (1974–1991) backed the SPLM/SPLA, hoping to retaliate against Sudan which served as a sanctuary, rear bases, and channels for the transmittal of military, food, and medical supplies for Eritrean secessionist rebel forces fighting the government.45 Besides having several safe houses in Addis Ababa for the SPLA leadership, military training was given to SPLA fighters at military camps in Ethiopia in addition to logistic support. The overthrow of Derg by the Eritrean and Tigrayian rebel groups in 1991 was a fortunate development for Sudan. The post-1991 Ethiopian Government led by the EPRDF had also an important part in the various mediation efforts through its role in the IGAD.46

However, with the arrival of Islamists in power in 1989, General Omar Hassan al-Bashir, backed by Hassan al-Turabi, and the 1995 assassination attempt of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on a visit to Addis Ababa, which was backed by the Sudanese Government, damaged the relationship. Sudan’s involvement in Ethiopia to impose its Islamic ideology with the interest of creating its dominance in Ethiopia was another factor in the deterioration of the relationship.47 Later, the relationship between the two states improved after the visit of Omar Hassan Al-Beshir to Addis Ababa in 1999 “to normalize the relations between Ethiopia and the Sudan after passing through a period of difficulty in their diplomatic relationship”.48 This was followed by the visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to Khartoum in 2002. In the same year Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen initiated trilateral cooperation, the Sana’a Forum for Cooperation. By 2003, Ethiopia began importing oil from Sudan, and by 2009, Sudan supplied 80% of Ethiopia’s oil demand.49 More importantly, President Omar al-Bashir said in March 2012, his country supports the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which both the downstream states Sudan and Egypt opposed when its construction was launched in 2011, claiming it will affect their water shares.50 In recent years, Ethiopia played an active role in Sudan’s political crisis after the military ousted Omar Al-Beshir in April 2019. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed mediated between Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and the civilian opposition.51

The rift between Ethiopia and Sudan

According to John Young, the biggest present-day threat to peaceful relations between the two states is internal instability, which has three components.52 First, the new governments in both nations are without a history of cooperation and are uncertain of each other; second, a lack of full control by both countries over their shared border areas; and third, doubts regarding the unity of the governments in both Khartoum and Addis Ababa.53 Moreover, historically Sudan’s closest relations have been with Egypt because the Nile encouraged similar forms of economy and trade, as well as the spread of the Arabic language and Islam; and noting Egypt nominally ruled Sudan in the Anglo–Egyptian Condominium.54

Most recently, the Nile River hydro politics and the border dispute in Al-Fashaga have played a major role, which led to Ethiopia’s untrustworthiness in the eyes of the new Sudanese Government in its peacekeeping operation in Abyei. These crises had a significant impact on Ethiopian peacekeeping operations and the reputation of the ENDF, as the Sudanese Government demanded that Ethiopian peacekeeping troops withdraw from UNISFA in Abyei. It was in April 2021 that Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi declared that because of Ethiopia’s ‘unacceptable intransigence’ in the talks over the GERD and its decision to proceed with the second phase of the filling of its dam; and since the Ethiopian troops are massing on the eastern borders of Sudan, it is not conceivable for Ethiopian forces to be deployed in the strategic depth of Sudan.55

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Nile hydro politics

The 2002 Ethiopian Foreign Affairs, National Security Policy, and Strategy document indicates that the issue of the Nile’s water poses an unsurpassable obstacle to establishing strong ties between Ethiopia and Sudan. The document states: “One of the causes for the deterioration of relations with the Sudan concerns the use of the waters of the Nile. In this regard, the agreement the Sudan signed with Egypt in 1959 excluded Ethiopia from the use of the river…”56 This is a clear indication that the Nile hydro politics has been a perpetual hiccup on Ethio–Sudan relations.

1Ph.D. student, University of Public Service, Doctoral School of Military Sciences
2 Christopher Clapham: The Horn of Africa. State Formation and Decay. London, Hurst & Company, 2017. 179.
3 Tekeda Alemu: The Conundrum of Present Ethiopian Foreign Policy. In Search of a Roadmap for Ethiopia’s Foreign and National Security Policy and Strategy. CDRC, January 2019.
4 Debora V. Malito: The Persistence of State Disintegration in Somalia Between Regional and Global Intervention. Doctoral Thesis. Università degli studi di Milano, 2013.
5 Abdeta D. Beyene – Seyoum Mesfin: The Practicalities of Living with Failed States. Dædalus, 147, no. 1 (2018). 129.
6 United Nations: UNMISS Factsheet. United Nations, 10 June 2022.
7Kaleab T. Sigatu: Military Power as Foreign Policy Instrument: Post-1991 Ethiopian Peace Support Operations in the Horn of Africa. Ph.D. Dissertation in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Military Sciences. Budapest, University of Public Service, Doctoral School of Military Sciences, 2021.
8Redie Bereketeab: Introduction. In Redie Bereketeab (ed.): The Horn of Africa. Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. London, Pluto Press, 2013. 3.
9John R. Crook: Introductory Note to the Government of Sudan and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army Abyei Arbitration Award. International Legal Materials, 48, no. 6 (2009). 1254.
10 Marina Ottaway – Amr Hamzawy: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 04 January 2011.
11 Crook (2009): op. cit. 1257.
12Crook (2009): op. cit. 1257.
13Nadia Sarwar: Post-Independence South Sudan: An Era of Hope and Challenges. Strategic Studies, 32, nos. 2–3 (2012). 177.
14Sophia L. R. Dawkins – Bart L. Smit Duijzentkunst: Stable and Final? Arbitration of Land Boundary Disputes in Cases of State Secession. Proceedings of the ASIL Annual Meeting, 106 (2012). 143–146
15Jaroslav Tir: Keeping the Peace after Secession: Territorial Conflicts between Rump and Secessionist States. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49, no. 5 (2005). 717.
16David M. Anderson – Adrian J. Browne: The Politics of Oil in Eastern Africa. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5, no. 2 (2011). 395.
17Amira A. Osman: Conflict over Scarce Resources and Identity: The case of Abyei, Sudan. In Ulf Johansson Dahre (ed.): Resources, Peace and Conflict in the Horn of Africa. AReport on the 12th Horn of Africa Conference. Lund, Sweden, 23–25 Au gust 2013. 250.
18 Luka B. Deng: Justice in Sudan: Will the Award of the International Abyei Arbitration Tribunal Be Honoured? Journal of Eastern African Studies, 4, no. 2 (2010). 299.
19Deng (2010): op. cit. 299.
20John Prendergast – Brian Adeba: Abyei: Sudan and South Sudan’s New Chance to Solve Old Disputes. African Arguments, 21 October 2019.
21Roger Winter – John Prendergast: Abeyi: Sudan’s ‘Kashmir’. American Progress, 29 January 2008.
22 Douglas H. Johnson: Why Abyei Matters. The Breaking Point of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement? African Affairs, 107, no. 426 (2008). 1–19.
23Francis Deng: The Man Called Deng Majok: A Biography of power, polygyny, and change. New Jersey, Yale University Press, 1986. 229.
24 Security Council: Resolution 1990 (2011). United Nations, 27 June 2011.
25 Sigatu (2021): op. cit.
26Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on the Effort and Activities of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan (AU doc. PSC/PR/CCCI, 30 November 2011).
27 United Nations: Troop and Police Contributors. United Nations, December 2018.
28Mehari Taddele M.: Keeping Peace in Abyei: The Role and Contributions of Ethiopia. ISS Africa, 28 October 2011.
29Holger Osterrieder et al.: United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). In Joachim A. Koops et al. (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017. 821.
30UN Security Council: Resolution 2104 (2013). United Nations, 29 May 2013.
31UN Security Council: Resolution 2416 (2018). United Nations, 15 May 2018.
32African Union: Peace and Security Council 301st Meeting: Communiqué. AU Peace and Security Council, 30 November 2011.
33Paul D. Williams – Thong Nguyen: Neighborhood Dynamics in UN Peacekeeping Operations, 1990–2017. International Peace Institute, 11 April 2018.
34UN General Assembly: Summary Study of the Experience Derived from the Establishment and Operation of the United Nations Emergency Force. Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/3943, October 9, 1958, para. 60.
35 Osterrieder et al. (2015): op. cit. 826.
36 Osterrieder et al. (2015): op. cit. 826.
37 Amani Africa: Briefing on the Situation in Abyei. Amani Africa, 29 September 2022.
38Sudan Tribune: Ethiopia maintains “neutral position” toward Sudan – South Sudan dispute. Sudan Tribune, 19 September 2012.
39Ministry of Information – Press and Audiovisual Department: The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy. Addis Ababa, November 2002.
40Barry Buzan – Ole Wæver: Regions and Powers. The Structure of International Security. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. 229.
41Al Jazeera: South Sudan rebel chief meets President Kiir in Ethiopia. Al Jazeera, 20 June 2018.
42The Mahdists, religious and political movement, which overthrew the Ottoman–Egyptian administration (1821–1885) and ruled Sudan from 1885 until 1898 when they were removed from power by Anglo–Egyptian forces who ruled Sudan until 1956.
43Lovise Aalen: Ethiopian State Support to Insurgency in Southern Sudan from 1962 to 1983: Local, Regional and Global Connections. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8, no. 4 (2014). 631.
44 Yehudit Ronen: Ethiopia’s Involvement in the Sudanese Civil War: Was It as Significant as Khartoum Claimed? Northeast African Studies, 9, no. 1 (2002). 103–104.
45 Aalen (2014): op. cit. 631.
46Kinfe Abraham: The Horn of Africa: Conflicts and Conflict Mediation in the Greater Horn of Africa. Addis Ababa, EIIPD and HADAD, 2006. 158–159.
47Molla Mengistu: Ethio–Sudanese Relations: 1991–2001. A Thesis submitted to the School of Graduate Studies of Addis Ababa University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in International Relations, Addis Ababa University, 2002.
48University of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center: Ethiopia–Sudan: Joint Communiqué. University of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, 19 November 1999.
49David H. Shinn: Government and Politics. In LaVerle Berry (ed.): Sudan. A Country Study. Washington, D.C., Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 2015. 281.
50Tesfa-Alem Tekle: Sudan’s Bashir Supports Ethiopia’s Nile Dam Project. Sudan Tribune, 5 April 2012.
s51The Irish Times: Ethiopian PM tries to mediate Sudan’s political crisis after bloodshed. The Irish Times, 7 June 2019.
52John Young: Conflict and Cooperation: Transitions in Modern Ethiopian–Sudanese Relations. HSBA Briefing Paper, May 2020.
53Young (2020): op. cit.
54Young (2020): op. cit.
55Arab News: Sudan demands expulsion of Ethiopians from Abyei UN peacekeeping forces. Arab News, 07 April 2021. 56 Ministry of Information – Press and Audiovisual Department (2002): op. cit.

This Article was first published in Issue 4 of Review of Military Science Journal Volume 15 (2022)


Cyber defense: yet another frontline in Ethiopia’s developmental landscape?

In PublicationsApril 11, 202324 Minutes

Cyber defense: yet another frontline in Ethiopia’s developmental landscape?

Briefing with INSA’s Cyber-Emergency Response Division (Ethio CERT)

In today’s day and age, cyber capacity has increasingly become a necessary precondition for any country’s global competitiveness; in trade and commerce, technological advancement, intellectual property, and political and social well-being. As such, cyberspace has quickly become one of the top three global security threats in our current highly globalized world. Africa, expecting a population boom in the coming decades is expected to become a target of this security threat by cyber thieves, terrorists, and countries. With the increasing digitization of banking and financial systems, election systems, education, and healthcare systems, multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, as well as security and intelligence systems- global financial loss and damages make this sector the third largest economy in the world.

In February of this year, INSA reported that more than 2145 cyberattacks were launched at Ethiopia- primarily targeting Ethiopian financial institutions, educational institutions, security and intelligence institutions, medical institution, media establishments, as well as government offices. However, the report does not detail the countries [geographical locations]/ groups/ or entities launching these attacks. Are there identified entities/ groups/ countries responsible for the attacks? Could you name and rank them?

Normally in Cyberspace, every attack has a source from which it originates. One of the raw measures for our assessment is the IP (internet protocol) address to which it can often be traced. Although the originating country may not necessarily be an indicator of the exact source of the attack, due to the use of VPN or other ways of concealing IP addresses, we are able to identify the origin nonetheless. In INSA’s February report, we disclosed that there were over 2,145 attacks launched on Ethiopia’s various sectors, organizations, and public institutions; the recurring IP addresses include countries one would consider superpowers in today’s international arena. There are less oft-considered nations like the Netherlands and the Korean Republic (DPRK) that also make a list. Given that an IP identification does not necessarily implicate a country, a great solution would be to cultivate cooperation- diplomatically or otherwise- with other nations in identifying the attacks (and attackers) from each other’s cyberspace. This is what we have come to call “cyber-diplomacy”; given the lack of physical boundaries for this problem and its global prevalence, mutual cooperation between countries is vital. In this context, if a country is unwilling to cooperate in this matter, that might also be an answer in itself.

Beyond the identification of countries and geographic locations, determining groups/ entities responsible for cyberattacks requires more advanced methods of attribution; here we look beyond the IP address to identify and attribute the attack to a specific threat actor such as an individual, a group, or a state itself. For example, if malware1 was sent, there are routine ways to analyze and reverse-engineer the origin that would reveal details like the timezone or language of the source of the attack. Although much can be done to further analyze such threats, Ethio-Cert as a division, primarily focuses on identifying and monitoring critical assets, and containing threats to these assets.
Going into further attribution might have its own limitations as it requires technological, financial, systems, and manpower capacities.

Entities like the Cyber Horus group, an Egypt-affiliated known entity/ group operating in the open. Helpfully enough, the group announces its own attacks and identifies itself in attacks- or better- announces the attacks it plans to launch. This helps us scout the geo-political and security landscape better. Previously, domestic organizations and institutions were under the impression that INSA is the sole line of defense against cyberattacks, however, it is now clear – for domestic actors- that cyberdefense requires a collective-level effort.

Given that this particular sector is undisclosed, would you say Ethiopian infrastructure projects are also a target of such cyberattacks?

Cyberattacks, or threats thereof, are attempted periodically and in tandem with the reservoir filling period. These could be direct or indirect attacks. Direct attacks are launched at the project (GERD) itself; this might look like disruptions to source/ input factories directly feeding the project. This could also look like attacks on SACDA2 systems: factories, and grids, given that we digitally operate.

A real-world example of this would be the Iranian Natanz Nuclear plant that was attacked, an attack that destroyed the electricity grid of the site, among other disruptions, delaying the project by several years. This is also to say that even the most isolated systems are rarely hidden from cyberattacks. It is also worth noting that the more resourceful an entity, a state- for example, the higher the capacity to use cyber means to its ends. Silently gathering data and information to one’s own end and publicly disclosing the information is another form of this attack.

There was a past instance of cutting electricity supply to entire cities by attacking control systems to power grids- and INSA has responded with the appropriate measures. Though our duty is to proactively defend against cyberattacks, once they do occur, we ensure that the damage is minimized- without such diligence in cyberspace defense- we can certainly say that there is a will to inflict more damage to cause hurdles in the competition of GERD. It is important to note that once the Dam is fully connected and operational, the risk of a cyberattack is exponential. Security is not something to ensure later, at completion, but a crucial concern at this stage. Alongside the construction of the structure and electrical work of the GERD, building a cyberdefense against the project is a crucial aspect that is often neglected.

It is important to note that once the Dam is fully connected and operational, the risk of a cyberattack is exponential. Security is not something to ensure later, at completion, but a crucial concern at this stage.

Indirect attacks on the GERD might look like, attacking websites and government pages; hacking into public websites and defacing them by injecting malicious codes to display the attacker’s messages is yet another trick. We have a past experience where the message stock widespread fear or panic. At the individual level, high-level authorities (influential people) might be victims of phishing ploys- malware or ransomware that might compromise their work. The indirect attacks are often intended to impose a psychological effect. On our end, we have proactive measures in place for addressing these threats. The first SOC: security operations center. We have 24/7 monitoring and proactive defense operations on systems and networks of national assets; like key infrastructure, services and customers, financial institutions, and others. Our real-time proactive defense includes scanning and detecting vulnerabilities. What kinds of gaps exist? Our team checks if the network traffic is healthy, monitors malicious threats from known databases, and builds situational awareness so as to create effective countermeasures.

In June 2020, associated with the first filling of the GERD reservoir, the Cyber Horus group launched a cyberattack on government institutions’ websites within a five-day span. This creates a psychological impact on the population on a highly anticipated national milestone event. Secondly, in a similar timeframe in June of 2021, there was a similar attack on 37,000 computers associated with the second round of filling by the same group. Additionally, in October 2022, we observed similar activity targeting websites of government institutions, for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Ethio Cert, as a rapid response team, does not move further into determining the extent and severity of these attacks as our focus is detection, containment, and mitigation.

We also receive requests, tips, and reports from sectoral CERT units of national organizations and institutions that enable us to devise a nationwide early warning system. This loops back to the earlier point on building a collective defense system in cyberspace. Although reactive in our response, small businesses, and enterprises also reach out when they are subject to malware and ransomware attacks where we attempt to mitigate the damages and restore lost files.

Given the manifold threats being made against the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) primarily from Egypt, has the Administration aggregated information on the amount and frequency of such cyberattacks on this infrastructure from Egypt?

It is rare for an attacker/actor to overtly launch attacks from a geographic space and make it easy to attribute. However, the easiest way to identify threats originating from Egypt is their own disclosure through official means like their national mainstream media. Though such threats are not acceptable in diplomatic correspondence, the same is true in cyberspace, where Egypt- affiliated groups identify themselves and their activities; like the Cyber Horus group mentioned earlier.

Describe, for a non-technical audience, what constitutes an attack. And relate it to the broader context of the GERD project.

These groups would first conduct a reconnaissance of our systems to craft the payload, i.e. what they will send. They will then “deliver” the attack on a service operator or website. They will then escalate the attack by attempting to get admin access, which, among other actions would allow the exfiltration of data from internal systems and files; though the damage might not be maximal, this data is what would be used for malicious ends like propaganda use.

In general, building a robust cyberdefense encompasses three aspects, which also constitute the key threats: Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability. Ensuring confidentiality of protected and privileged information and data by mending vulnerabilities; is a key component of our work as the damages from a breach in confidentiality could, at worst, create crises of national proportions.

Integrity has to do with modifications or changes to existing data; for example in the finance sector – if one change’s the name of a bank account holder, or adds zeros to a sum of money- this constitutes a breach of the integrity of data- and results in financial damages and loss of trust. Lastly, availability means a continuous, and uninterrupted, stream of service; As a familiar example, power outages and network loss or degradations (operation at suboptimal levels) mean that availability is compromised. This aspect, availability, should be of utmost concern once the GERD is online and operational. Especially for a country that wishes not only to utilize hydroelectric power from the project but aspires to sell electricity to neighbors in the region; providing uninterrupted service to buyers, availability is of critical importance. We also need to update knowledge and public awareness of these threats that may arise.

In the unfortunate incident that Egypt launches a successful cyberattack against Ethiopian major infrastructure or public institutions, what is INSA’s level of preparedness to fend against an attack, and/or take counteroffensive measures?

The mandate of our particular unit is to reduce the probability of a successful attack and foil a possible attack at the reconnaissance level. Although we do not take offensive measures, our work and mandate is to ensure that a successful attack does not happen.

Our early prevention work includes securing ports, which serve as gateways or doors, to systems of operation, and routinely monitoring threat scans. In the instance of DDos3, malware, and ransomware (attempt to exfiltrate, overload, or crash systems) we take the appropriate action depending on the threat level. Though we prepare for cyberdefense measures in advance, let’s say that a bank has been targeted; the rapid response team is deployed to then identify the threat- then we monitor the threat before responding. If the threat is on a network, systems, or other SCADA- we respond with the appropriate course of action. We then eradicate the threat, much like cleaning an infection. We then attempt to recover lost files and mend damages after which we compile ‘lessons learned’ which help as input to better build our defense for future attack attempts. This might look like adding this new threat to our database to prevent the same breach. This cycles us back to our initial work: preventative defense. In addition to National CERT, there are also sectoral CERT units that perform this work in the finance sector, in national institutions and assets, and in key national infrastructure. INSA is the agency that ensures this level of coordination.

In addition, setting privacy and security standards, and pushing for a legislative framework to protect citizen data is also a priority. Ensuring compliance with data protection protocols is another aspect of the institution’s work. For example, if any bank is to issue VISA cards to customers, they will not only need to comply with PCI DDS4, the industry standard, but also fulfill their obligations to INSAs audit requirements

To follow up on the point about individual-level effort, what safeguards would you recommend to everyday citizens to protect their digital identity?

There are 3 components to cybersecurity: People, Processes, and Technology (PPT). This question relates to the people component of cyberdefense and an aspect that narrows or widens the chances of an information breach. People, be it unknowingly or out of negligence become targets of data theft or breach. This is why public awareness campaigns are crucial. For example, in phishing attacks, people receive email links saying “You’ve won a lottery” or “XYZ has sent you a message on Facebook”; with a prompt click here to open! These messages are often crafted to entice the user based on their internet history. If the email is about a Facebook message, there would be a replicate Facebook page with subtle changes to the URL link; for example zeros in the place of Os to a subtle change that would often be overlooked. When the user attempts to log into the fake URL, the phishers would then steal the login credentials and reroute the user to the original Facebook URL. The user might be surprised to later find that they have been locked out of their account, and discover suspicious activity.

Before logging into any website, especially for URLs shared over email and other mediums, users must always check the link before entering their credentials. The same goes for online banking platforms, users must pay close attention to the URL of their bank’s website before entering their username and pin codes. If one is to receive an email or text that they have received a sum of money, they might immediately click the attached link and hastily enter their user and passcodes, a minor mistake that could jeopardize their finances. To avoid this problem, users must set up multifactor authentication systems on their devices to increase security.

Another safeguard is to always download apps and software from the original source, or a trusted provider. This could be the AppStore for iOs users or the Google Play Store for Android users. In Ethiopia, people often ask their music/ multimedia stores to download music or movies for them- with no knowledge of the source. The same is true for computer applications, like MsOffice and Windows applications, where users will obtain ‘cracked’ software to avoid paying for them. This is yet another common negligent practice that leaves internet users susceptible to the theft of their data. These gaps in awareness can be addressed by public awareness efforts and education.

At the organizational level, companies need the utmost due diligence in their procurement process as they might be vulnerable to supply chain threats for purchasing, en masse, the cheapest possible products (anti-virus software, for example) with no knowledge of the source.

What recommendations does the Administration forward to public sector employees, and regular people, to safeguard the security and privacy of their information?

Although there is much to be done in the protection of private data for individuals, through legislative means and public awareness; state institutions like ours primarily prioritize issues of national security. Due diligence, at the individual level, is important and also requires national-level awareness campaigns on private data protection. INSA does some public awareness activities on our social media channels and websites, through mainstream media channels, TV, and radio. In addition, we host a national cybersecurity awareness month, a month dedicated to building public awareness of cyberspace, and the threats, furnished with various activities for all sectors. Exhibitions, such as the one held this year at the National Science Museum, have an exponential benefit to the field and we hope to continue such engagements with the public in the coming years.

How would Ethio-CERT encourage young scholars to pursue the cybersecurity field?

First, youngsters need to identify their interests and talents. They need to know their hobbies and leanings. If they take a keen interest in coding and programming, there are various open-source learning opportunities online. Family support is also crucial in nurturing and connecting youngsters to the necessary resources to develop their talents. INSA also hosts various events for youngsters and young professionals with knowledge and interest in networking, windows/Linux, and operating systems. In the Capture the Flag (CTF) hacking marathon we hosted in this year’s Cyber Awareness month, we identified over 45 talented youngsters, as young as twelve years old, with a natural talent in the various assessments we offered. INSA has a host of initiatives, like the Ethio-cyber Talent Center (https://www.insa.gov.et/), designed to encourage young minds with an inclination in the field of cybersecurity.

1 Malware or malicious software, is any program or file that is intentionally disruptive or harmful to a computer, network, or server.
2 SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) is a category of software applications for controlling industrial processes, which is the gathering of data in real-time from remote locations in order to control equipment and conditions.
3 Distributed Network Attacks (DDoS) attack takes advantage of the specific capacity limits that apply to any network resources and attempt to overwhelm/ crash systems.
4 The PCI DSS is the global data security standard that any business of any size must adhere to in order to accept payment cards.


The Hydro-Politics of the Nile River: Is Ethiopia Truly the Region's "water tower"?

In PublicationsMarch 29, 202319 Minutes

The Hydro-Politics of the Nile River: Is Ethiopia Truly the Region's "water tower"?

By Silabat Manaye

The Blue Nile, the Nile basin’s principal source of water has a direct impact on life in Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, which have a combined population of more than 260 million people (World Bank, 2021). This figure does not include residents of the White Nile region of South Sudan, as well as the Central and East African Great Lakes republics. According to Worldometer’s predictions for 2025, with the exception of the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, the population of eastern African countries will account for about half of Africa’s total. Consumption of water, food, energy, and other basic commodities is predicted to rise as the population grows. Population increase, agricultural and industrial development, climate change, and river pollution are all putting strain on transboundary river basins. Water shortage is on the rise as the demand for water exceeds availability.

The Nile Water Agreements and upstream-downstream polemics make it evident that the downstream parties are steadfast in their attitudes and political-military maneuvers that the upstream nations should avoid any serious use of water resources (Yacob, 2007: 198). Scholars such as Yakob and Nowrath (1920: 32-41) make bold assertions about Egypt’s age-long and unabated attempt to control the source of the Nile. And they intended to accomplish this through war. The Egyptian leader Khedive Ismail Pasha had an extremist vision of unifying the Nile Valley countries under his leadership.

According to Yakob (2007) and Kinfe (2004), the relations among the countries of the Nile Basin have been unequal, which has been exacerbated by the actions of Britain since the late 19th century. For such reasons, an equitable share of Nile waters could not be acceptable to Egypt.

Ethiopia, which supplies 86% of the Nile’s water, has expressed interest in utilizing the Nile’s water since the 1930s (Kinfe, 2004). The Ethiopian government considered the potential of undertaking a physical assessment on the Blue Nile River with the American diplomatic mission in the late 1920s. Following the agreement, the US government dispatched a company called White Engineering to do a feasibility assessment. Yet, Ethiopia did not start to undertake projects on the Blue Nile River for many years following this assessment.

Water Resources and Access to Electricity: Comparison of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt Comparison of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (1) (Aklog et al.,2020)

Description Ethiopia Sudan Egypt
1959 21,661,996 7,328,718 25,913,230
Population 2020 114,963,588 43,849,260 102,335,000
2050 171,800,000 81,192,821 166,500,000
GNI per capita (PPP, 2028) $2,010 $4,420 $12,100
HDI (Rank) 0.470(173) 0.507 (168) 0.700(116)
Alternative annual source of income $2 Billion (Port fee) $2-3 billion (oil revenue $5.8 billion (Suez canal revenue)
Access to electricity (%, 2017) 44.3 56.5 100
Access to potable water (%, 202) 41 60 99
Irrigated land (2012, Km2) 2,900 18,900 36,500

Comparison of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (2) (Aklog et al.,2020)

Description Ethiopia Sudan Egypt
Annual freshwater consumption (2000 est.) 5.56BCM, 72CM/capital 37.5BCM, 807CM/Capital 68.3BCM, 923/capita
Alternative water resource (other than the Nile) Some rivers, but they only account for 30% White Nile, huge groundwater reserve White Nile, huge groundwater reserve
Contribution to the Nile 86% 0 0

Egypt and Sudan have substantial groundwater in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS). Instead of defending their historical rights to the Nile, they should learn from Libya’s vast man-made river. The NSAS is estimated to hold 150,000 BCM; Libya currently consumes 2.4 BCM (70% of total consumption). If Egypt uses 10% of the reserve, it will have sufficient water for 220 years.

Majot Nile water development projects in Egypt, Sudan & Ethiopia

In Egypt In Sudan In Ethiopia
Aswan Dam in the Nile in Egypt (1898-1902) Sennar Dam on Blue Nile in Sudan (1937) Fincha Dam on Abbay/ Blue Nile tributary in Ethiopia (1970)
High Aswan Dam (also known as Nassir Dam) on the Nile in Egypt (1960-1970/76) Jabal Awliya Dam on White Nile in Sudan (1937) Abobo Dam on Baro-Akobo/ Sobat in Ethiopia (1980s)
El Salam diversion to Sinai Khsham El Girba Dam on Atbara in Sudan (1964) Tekeze Dam on Tekeze in Ethiopia (2009)
Toshqa to Western Valley Rossaries Dam on Blue Nile in Sudan (1966, 2013) Tana-Beles Diversion (2010)
Hamam Canal diversion Marowe Dam on Blue Nile (2009) Chara-Chara in 1990s
Komombo Canal diversion in upper Egypt GERD on Abbay/ Blue Nile (Under Construction 2011-)
33 projects anticipated (1958 – 64)

Water Resource Development in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan (Yakob et al. (Yakob
et al., 2022)

Egypt’s Irrational Arguments and Colonial Era Nile River Agreements

Italy and Britain signed the Treaty of Rome on April 15, 1891. On the basis of such a protocol, Italy agreed not to carry out irrigation operations on the Tekeze River. By signing this treaty, Italy consented to sign an article referring to the river, in response to British demands. The Italians had already established themselves in Eritrea but not in Ethiopia at the time of this
deal. According to Tesfaye (2001), the ambiguous phrase “sensibly modify” limits neither river utilization nor the fair sharing of Nile waters.

The treaties should have ceased to have any relevance after the end of the British and Italian colonial rules in the region. The Treaty, however, exemplified the British motive in safeguarding their colonial subjects, the Egyptians, as early as this period.
During Emperor Menelik’s reign in Ethiopia, Britain and Ethiopia signed the 1902 pact. It was essentially an agreement stating the importance of British consultation on any water projects Ethiopia wishes to undertake, particularly on Lake Tana. The aforementioned agreement was enacted as part of a grandiose British scheme to gain complete control of the Nile waters. To accomplish this, Anglo-Egyptian armies first captured Sudan in 1898, and then struck a treaty with independent Ethiopia.

According to a September 1997 Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, the deal, which is believed to contain an Amharic version that differs from the original English text, has yet to be ratified by both the Ethiopian and British parliaments. The contentious wording is “not to arrest the flow of Nile water.” This was always brought up by the Egyptian negotiators at the
GERD negotiation table. On the ground, however, the true meaning of the contentious term in that treaty is that Ethiopia cannot stop the river from flowing downstream to riparian nations.

The tripartite treaty of 1906 was signed by the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. This pact acknowledges Ethiopian territory in the Nile basin in exchange for establishing the French and Italian spheres of influence within the Ethiopian boundary (Knife, 2004; 85).
The 1929 agreement was struck by the United Kingdom and its former colony Egypt. Egypt has been granted the right to take all of the water, manage the river basin, and have the British recognize its “historical” and “natural” right to the Nile’s water under this arrangement. The pact went even further, granting Egypt the authority to veto any Nile project that would threaten its interests. However, this agreement could not have any binding effect on Ethiopia for two reasons: it was a bilateral agreement that did not involve Ethiopia, and it was negotiated by a colonial power, making it null and void as stipulated in the1 Nyerere Doctrine of 1961

In a statement sent to Britain, Egypt, and Sudan on 4th July 1962, after discussing the importance of Lake Victoria and its catchment to the needs and interests of the people of Tanganyika, the Government of Tanganyika (Tanzania) declared that: “… the Government of Tanganyika has reached the conclusion that the provisions of the 1929 Agreement purporting to apply to the countries under British Administration are not binding on Tanganyika…” In line with

this, Tanzania further noted that ‘recognizing the importance of the waters of the Nile to all riparian states the government of Tanganyika is willing to enter in to discussions.’ The very idea of the note identically sent to the governments of the three countries is that Tanzania will not bind by the colonially signed treaty and the waters of the Nile is important to all riparian states. Hence, its utilization should be conducted in “a manner that is just and equitable to all riparian states and to the greatest benefit of all their peoples.”)

Sudan and Egypt consented to full utilization of the Nile’s waters in the 1959 agreement.
Based on the yearly runoff of the water, which is 84 BCM, they allotted 55 BCM for Egypt, 18.5 BCM for Sudan, and the remaining 10 BCM for evaporation losses (Nebiyu, 2013: 3-4). The 1959 Agreement marked a milestone in the Nile Valley’s hydrologic and environmental history by revitalizing Egypt and Sudan’s monopoly on Nile waters. By disregarding Ethiopia’s natural and legal rights to the bounty of the Nile’s water resources, the agreement has effectively created a zero-sum game in the Nile Basin. Ethiopia was never a party to the agreement and is therefore immune from legal repercussions.

Is Ethiopia the “Water Tower” of the Region?

It is a water-stressed country with a per capita renewable freshwater resource of about 1200 m3 per year. Annual rainfall in Ethiopia is estimated at 848 mm (936 BCM). But because of its high spatial and temporal variability, accessible freshwater is only about 13% (124 BCM). There are 12 major lakes in Ethiopia, which collectively store about 87 BCM of water. This sum is little higher than what the GERD will retain (74 BCM). The national groundwater potential is estimated to be between 12 and 30 BCM. Nonetheless, additional research is required!

Groundwater is mainly used for domestic and industrial purposes. Egypt claims that Ethiopia is rich in rivers and water supplies and thus should not have access to the Nile. This argument falls apart for the following reasons: To begin with, it is not the business of any country, including Egypt, to enlist the natural resources that Ethiopia possesses within its own territory, as doing so would violate national territorial integrity. Ethiopia may have sufficient water supply in some areas of the country.

Yet, if the notion that Ethiopia is rich in rivers and water supplies is correct, Ethiopia should not have been afflicted by repeated and severe droughts and should not be one of the drought-affected Horn of Africa states. But, in reality, Ethiopia has been striving for decades to break away from the cycle of drought, poverty, and underdevelopment.
This is why Ethiopia, and other riparian countries for that matter, are determined to exploit their natural resources, including the Nile, in order to produce adequate food for their growing populations, to light millions of their households in both urban and rural areas, to power their emerging factories and industries, and, in general, to boost their economies and improve the livelihoods of their poor people.

The Significance of Dam Construction in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt

Many scholars wrote about the value and importance of dams in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. In 1945, a British hydro-geologist in the service of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, Harold Hurst, published “The Future Conservation of the Nile,” proposing dams at the outlets of the great lakes and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, which would provide reservoirs with minimal evaporation year after year, or “Century Storage.” (Erlich, 2009, The Cross and the River, pp. 2–3). In 1958, H.A. Morrice and W.N. Allen, British experts representing the government of Sudan, proposed dams and hydroelectric stations on the Blue Nile and the Baro in their “Report on the Nile Valley Plan.”

“Land and Water Resources of the Blue Nile Basin: Ethiopia,” published by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964, envisioned twenty-six projects in Ethiopia, including four dams designed to turn Lake Tana and the Abbaye gorge into the primary all-Nile reservoir, supplying electricity and irrigation to Ethiopia while significantly enlarging and regulating the amount of water flowing to Sudan and Egypt. Founded on all the above suggestions of scholars, Haggai Erlich commented, “But for such all-Nile solutions to materialize, a unified action was needed.”

Such unity and collaboration have been achieved in other parts of the world, around other transboundary rivers. But the mysterious Nile has never seen such human cooperation since time immemorial. Egypt’s adherence to historic rights and colonial period agreements is at the root of the failure to negotiate an equitably shared use of the Nile River. But, there is no such thing as historical right, only historical facts.

Unmasking Intentions Behind Egypt’s Water Security Policy

Egypt’s “water security” strategy is built on a fixation with the Nile River, with the goal of obstructing all avenues that could lead to an equitable distribution of the Nile’s waters. When any basin country lays out a strategy to utilize Nile water on its own territory, the Egyptians frequently respond with war threats and conflict-laden remarks. When requested to renegotiate the distribution of water in the basin, they set conditions by stating that colonial and postcolonial treaties are non-negotiable and that we can discuss anything else.

We believe that other riparian countries, like Egypt, have genuine ambitions to utilize the Nile’s waters. Ethiopia has already done so by launching and building the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The contemporary geopolitical realities in the Nile Basin do not allow for the continuation of colonial-period agreements. Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile
River Basin has been stuck in time.

Silabat Manaye is international relations professional based in Addis Ababa. His research interests include water politics, geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, and War Journalism. He authored two books on Nile geopolitics.


Nile water development

1 The doctrine was named after the first president of Tanzania Julius Kambarage Nyerere-who was among Africa’s liberators and intellectuals. Following the independence of his country Tanganyika which later unified with Zanzibar and named Tanzania Muwalimu Julius Nyerere made his country’s position on the Nile very clear and unambiguous, particularly regarding the 1929 Agreement which Britain signed on behalf of its East African ‘colonies’.



The Media Black Hole or White Hole? A Fight over Agenda Setting and Implications for the Ethiopian National Dialogue

In PublicationsDecember 31, 202228 Minutes

The State of Customary Conflict Resolutions at Local Level: the case of Ethiopia’s Somali Region

Yirga Abebe

Yirga Abebe is currently a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of AddisAbaba University. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science and International Relations from Dire Dawa University in 2010 G.C and Master of Arts Degree in Peace andSecurity Studies from Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University in 2014 G.C. Yirga has more than 10 years of professional experience in education and research at universities in Ethiopia. He was a Lecturer at Wollo University, Department of Peace and Development Studies, from September 2018-January 2021 and Jigjiga University, Department of Political Science and International Relations, from September 2010-August 2018. In addition to teaching, Yirga has been engaged in conducting research on various themes at local, national and regional levels. These themes conflict management, conflict-induced displacement, women & election, parliament and conflict management, peacebuilding, conflict trends, and geopolitical dynamics. Besides, Yirga has presented his research works in various national conferences in Ethiopia and also deliver trainings in his professional domain.


Conflict is an inherent nature to man, despite common misconceptions- not all conflicts are destructive and violent, but a reality of all human societies. Conflict is a process that is characterized by “stages of initiation, escalation, controlled maintenance, de-escalation and some kind of termination including settlement and resolution” (Sandole, 2008:42-43). Accordingly, as Peter Wallensteen (2002:13) argued, conflicts are solvable and there are many and varied experiences of such solutions.

Conflict resolution has been the day-to-day practice throughout the history of society although its inclusion into academic discipline is a 20th-century phenomenon. Societies have established different conflict resolution mechanisms to “address the causes of conflict and to build new and lasting relationships between hostile parties; moves conflicting parties from the destructive patterns of zero-sum conflict to positive-sum constructive outcomes” (Cited in Omeje, 2008:70).

Every society has its own customary conflict resolution mechanisms which are practiced for centuries and are deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the society. These mechanisms are “time tested and effective to handle conflicts, less complex, save time, and give a chance to parties in conflict to actively participate in solving their problems and in handling their affairs in a relatively more acceptable way to them” (Assefa, 2001:27). Unlike the modern mechanisms through court systems, the customary conflict resolution mechanism focuses on reconciling feuding parties rather than punishments.

The literature and research in conflict resolution and peacebuilding were dominated by liberal paradigms since the 1990s. However, it is now in a profound crisis. As a result, an alternative approach to conflict resolution and peacebuilding that pays attention to local context and dimensions of peace, so called the ‘local turn’, emerged in the last decade. It is argued that the local-turn approach focuses on “the agency of local actors, the dynamics of every day in conflict-affected contexts, and the durability of domestic social and cultural traditions for peacebuilding, thereby it sought to temper top-down, externally driven international peacebuilding narratives and practices” (McCandless and Donais, 2020:133).

The contemporary conflict resolution practices in Africa have been done in two forms: through the modern (state) system and traditional (customary) manner. Omeje (2008:88) argued that “various African societies have had their own traditional and customary approaches and methods of conflict resolution” which are practiced frequently and even after passing through the procedures and penalties in the formal criminal court.

In Ethiopia, with the existence of more than 80 ethnic groups with various cultures, histories, languages, and other identity markers, there are different customary conflict resolution mechanisms inherent to each ethnic group. Especially in the remote and peripheral areas, these customary dispute-resolution mechanisms are more influential and applicable than the formal criminal justice system, which is considered alien to traditional societies (Cited in Endalew, 2014:126). In this regard, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) constitution recognized, under article 34 (5), customary laws and practices as they are allowed to prevail over personal and marital disputes depending on the consent of the parties (FDRE, 1995:18).

The Somali society has established and practiced customary conflict resolution systems for long periods, evidenced by various examples in the local contexts. The system includes a wide range of actors with different roles and it has its general processes, approaches, and decisions. The Somali Regional State constitution, under Article 34(5), authorizes the customary laws and practices to judge personal and marital disputes depending on the consent of the parties, whereas, article 66(1) of the constitution called for the establishment as well as recognition of religious and customary courts/councils (Ethiopian Somali Regional State, 1994:27).

In general, while there has been abundant literature and research in the field about conflict resolution, there is limited research about the role of customary mechanisms in resolving conflicts at the local level. This, and the next, edition of Horn Review attempts to examine the state of customary conflict resolutions in the Somali region of Ethiopia including its type, actor, the nature of conflicts it governed, its fundamental principles and decisions as well as its challenges. To do so, the study is conducted through qualitative approaches by using an exploratory research design and case study method. Relevant data has been collected from primary and secondary sources through interviews, focus group discussions, and document analysis techniques. This edition of the Horn review is organised into five sub-sections. The first part provides a general background about customary conflict resolution in the Somali region. The second part presents the nature of customary conflict resolutions in the study area. The third part is about the actors involved in customary conflict resolution in the Somali region. The fourth part discusses the types and general laws of the customary conflict resolution process in the Somali region whereas the fifth part identifies the type of conflicts that are governed by the customary mechanisms. Finally, the paper presents a concluding remark on the issue.

Customary Conflict Resolution Ethiopia’s Somali Region

The Somali Regional State is one of the regional states of Ethiopia located in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country. The region is bordered by Kenya in the south, Somalia in the south and southeast, Djibouti in the north, the Afar region in the northwest, and the Oromia region in the west. The region is the second-largest regional state covering a total geographic area of 350,000 km2. The Somali Region has both arid and semi-arid agroecological climatic zones. The predominant population of the region is ethnically Somali.

The Somali society is structured based on a clan system. The clan system forms the basis for most of the core social institutions and norms of traditional Somali society, including personal identity, rights of access to local resources, customary law (xeer), blood payment groups (diya), and support systems (Cited in CHF International, 2006:12). There are different clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub-clans in the region which determines the political, socio-cultural, economic and legal affairs of the Somali population.

The Somali society has established and used customary conflict resolution mechanisms for centuries to address different conflicts within the society in line with the traditions of the society and is being transferred from generation to generation. It has been stated that “the Somali communities had structures for conflict resolution through councils of elders, traditional courts and peer or age-group supervision, where each individual or group had to meet certain social expectations……. in accordance with Somali custom, elders are the key actors in ending hostilities and negotiating agreements between disputing parties” (Cited in Seid, 2013:152).

Actors in Customary Conflict Resolution

In due course of resolving conflicts through customary methods, different actors undertake various roles and contribute to achieving the ultimate goal of the resolution process. These actors are community elders (oddey belat), religious leaders, clan leaders (sultan/ugas), sub-clan leaders (aqil) as well as those who are knowledgeable and experienced. Moreover, there are institutions that are involved directly or indirectly in customary methods of conflict resolution. These are Kebele/Woreda administration office, Kebele/Woreda Police office, woreda court and prosecution office, social courts, and shari’a courts.

The above-mentioned institutional and personal actors have different roles in the resolution of conflicts by the customary method. The clan leaders, being the most powerful person in Somali society, undertake a meeting with clan members and community elders to discuss the conflict, represents the interests of the clan member in negotiation with other clans, and implements the decisions of elders or other neutral persons on the conflict issue. In addition, the clan leaders collect compensation from the members of the clan except for women and unmarried persons. The religious leaders (Sheikhs) provide religious education to the community and engage in the implementation of shari’a laws on conflicting issues. Particularly, when two persons are conflicting and one of them suffers physical injury, then the sheiks will decide on the issue by referring to religious books (kitab). The community elders, who are mostly neutral to the conflicting parties, directly participate in the customary processes of resolving conflict. They are reputable, experienced, and knowledgeable about the customs and the Xeer system of Somali society. They look at the cases in detail and brought a decision on the conflicting issue and its compensation based upon the Xeer system. The role of government institutions especially the court and police officers is limited to only facilitating the resolution processes by clan leaders, community elders, and religious leaders. However, unlike the government institutions, the social and shari’a court, which includes selected community elders and religious leaders, provides their judgment on the conflicting issue, and its compensation, of the Somali people.

4. Types and Laws of Customary Conflict Resolution

Depending on the type and extent of the conflicts, there are different forms of customary conflict resolution mechanisms in Somali society. According to a respondent, there are three main forms of customary conflict resolution mechanisms practiced by Somali society. These are:

  1. Conflict resolution by shari’a/Islamic courts as the Somali society are Muslims
  2. Conflict resolution by social courts where elders play a predominant role
  3. Conflict resolution mechanism by reconciliation process among conflicting parties which are guided either by persons that are neutral to the conflict or individuals selected equally from both conflicting parties.

On the other hand, according to one of the key informants, there are three types of customary methods for the resolution of conflicts which can easily be identified mainly through the participants in the resolution process. They are:

    • Those in which religious leaders and elites are active participants in the resolution of conflict (ergo)
    • Those mechanisms that are undertaken through a council of elders that are selected from neutral groups depending on the nature of the conflict (Guurti)
    • Those mechanisms in which certain committees from the conflicting parties handle the overall process of resolution (Gurso).

The customary methods that are applied in resolving conflicts are governed by customary laws of the Somali people called Xeer. It is an elaborate and meticulous provision and provides guidelines for the amount of compensation or fine to be paid in conflict (Seid, 2013:154). According to my respondent, the Xeer is a customary law that is based on the traditions of the society and previous decisions of the elders or clan leaders. Although it varies from clan to clan, the Xeer system calls for continuity of decisions irrespective of the change in time. The decision about a specific issue that was made 50 years ago is similar to decisions for similar cases right now. The Xeer system that is applied in the customary conflict resolution process is led by community elders who are reputable, experienced, and knowledgeable about the local customs and decisions of similar cases that happened previously. The following excerpt explains the different aspects of Xeer which are applied in customary conflict resolution mechanisms in the Somali society;

“The elaborate customary law of the Somalis, known as xeer, is categorized as Xeer Donimo and Xeer Dulnimo. Xeer Donimo regulates the rights and responsibilities of particularized subsets, such as clans of the Somali people, governs relationships within the clan, and regulates quasi-contractual relationships between neighboring clans on such matters as allocation of shared natural resources. ……. Xeer Dulnimo, on the other hand, consists of the rules that apply to the whole Somali people. Thus, the rules applicable to homicide (dil), moral injury (dalliil) and bodily injury (qoon) are to be found in Xeer Dulnimo. And the corresponding compensations or blood money payments, respectively, are mag (or the Arabic loan word “diya”), qoomaal and haal. The compensation scheme, which is the sentencing for the crime, is not compensation paid to the victim per se but to the whole of the group on the side of the victim, which includes a kinship network far greater than the nuclear family”. (Murado & Gebreyesus, 2009:153)

In general, Somali society has an age-old tradition of practicing customary methods for the resolution of conflicts. Even with the expansion of modern court systems for the administration of justice and addressing conflicts through the establishment of social courts in different woredas of the region, especially after 2004 E.C, the customary methods have a pivotal role to resolve conflicts in Somali society. The social courts are mainly based on the traditions of the society, and it integrates both customary practices and shari’a laws with statutory laws. The social courts are not similar to the formal court systems and it includes community elders and religious leaders who play a prominent role in the customary resolution of conflicts in Somali society.

Types of Conflicts Governed by Customary Mechanisms

There are various forms of conflict in every society. Depending on its nature, while some of these conflicts are resolved through modern court systems, others are under the mandates of customary methods of society. With regard to the types of conflicts under the rules of customary methods of resolution, Article 34 (5) of the 1995 FDRE constitution identified personal and family conflicts to be governed by customary methods as understood from the following excerpt;

“The constitution shall not preclude the adjudication of disputes relating to personal and family laws in accordance with religious or customary laws, with the consent of the parties to the dispute”.

The practice in the Somali region reveals that different forms of conflicts, which are even beyond personal and family issues, are resolved through customary methods. For example, in Kebribeyah woreda, the conflicts that are addressed through customary include clan-based conflicts, killings, resource-based conflicts between pastoralists and agro-pastoralists (such as conflicts over water, grazing land, farming land), theft (mostly cattle riding), and interpersonal conflicts. Moreover, customary methods are undertaken to resolve family conflicts such as marriage disputes, inheritance/succession, and those conflicts with a minor injury.

The customary methods are also applied to marriage-related conflicts especially when the husband dies and after that the wife is married to a person who is outside of the family/clan of the late husband. This circumstance is the cause for inter-clan conflicts and, based on the Xeer system, these conflicts are resolved which includes compensation of 15-30 camels for the dead husband clans.

In Harshin woreda, the types of conflicts that are resolved through customary methods are conflicts over land, rape, marriage with women who already are married and escaping to another place, killings, livestock riding especially camel, personal conflicts, and clan conflicts. The customary methods are also applied in order to resolve conflicts that arise because of insulting and disagreement between husband and wife.

Correspondingly, the customary methods are practiced in Awbarre woredas of the Fafan zone for addressing conflicts such as group-based conflicts among teenagers, land-based conflicts (conflicts over farming land, grazing land, and residential area), water, and killings. The customary methods are also used to address conflicts related to family and succession. According to the respondent, the customary methods especially the shari’a system are applied to conflicts that emerge out of the dispute between husband and wife over household expenses, succession, divorce, family disputes, property ownership, and distribution.

The above three cases indicate that the trend of using customary methods for resolving conflicts is quite common across the Somali region. In general, the customary method resolves various forms of conflicts within Somali society including;

  • Killing
  • Resource-based conflicts (such as conflicts over land, and water)
  • Intra-and inter-clan conflicts
  • Livestock riding, especially camels
  • Raping of women
  • Inter-personal conflicts including conflicts among teenagers and families
  • Insulting
  • Marriage disputes
  • Conflicts related to succession, property distribution

In conclusion…

Customary conflict resolution mechanisms have been practiced by Somali society for a long period. Unlike modern court systems, these methods are easily accessible, effective, time-saving, and inexpensive. The customary methods of resolution processes are undertaken in various forms. Depending on the type of conflict, customary mechanisms are carried out through community elders, religious leaders, social courts, shari’a courts, and clan leaders. The customary methods of conflict resolution in Somali society are governed by Xeer. Although the federal and regional constitution limits its scope for personal and family disputes, the customary mechanism of conflict resolution is applied in conflicts beyond these limits. It is even used to resolve criminal matters within society. It has been utilised to address issues related to killings, resource-based conflicts, intra-and inter-clan conflicts, livestock riding, raping of women, interpersonal conflicts, insulting, marriage disputes, and conflicts related to succession and property distribution. Therefore, it can be concluded that the customary methods are applicable to resolve every type of conflict in Somali society. With regard to the actors, there are both individual and institutional actors that are involved in customary methods of conflict resolution. The community elders, clan leaders, religious leaders (Sheikh’s), and those who are experienced and knowledgeable of the traditions are the primary actors in the customary resolution process. Beyond these, different institutions including the Kebele/Woreda administration office, Kebele/Woreda Police office, woreda court and prosecution office, and social courts have their supportive role in customary methods of conflict resolution in the study area. However, the practice of customary conflict resolution is not without principles and challenges. Accordingly, the next edition of Horn Review will present the fundamental principles and decisions of customary conflict resolution in the Somali region, the challenges they face, and possible recommendations to address these challenges of customary conflict resolution in the Somali region and Ethiopia at large.


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The Media Black Hole or White Hole? A Fight over Agenda Setting and Implications for the Ethiopian National Dialogue

In PublicationsDecember 31, 20229 Minutes

The Media Black Hole or White Hole? A Fight over Agenda Setting and Implications for the Ethiopian National Dialogue

Samson Mekonnen, Ph.D.

Addis Ababa University. Department of Public Relations and Strategic  Communications

Dr. Samson Mekonnen, is an Assistant Professor and Postgraduate Program and Research Coordinator at Addis Ababa University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He earned a BA degree in Journalism and Communication. He received his postgraduate degree from Addis Ababa University in two areas of specialization: Master of Arts in English Literature and Master of Arts in Marketing Management. Furthermore, in November 2020, graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Communication Science from the University of South Africa. He has over eight research articles published in internationally renowned academic journals in the fields of media, communication, nation branding, and integrated marketing communications. Aside from academics, he works as a consultant for a variety of local and international non-governmental organizations, including Share-Net International, HANZ Consulting, and CORHA and an international postdoc fellow at BathSpa University, United Kingdom.


The study of media and communication science as seen through the prism of quantum physics provides an interesting lesson. The concepts of the black hole and white hole in quantum physics offer some critical insights into the strife over agenda setting, particularly in Ethiopia’s upcoming National Dialogue. A black hole is a spot in the cosmos with a gravitational pull so powerful that even light, cannot escape it. A white hole, on the other hand, is a peculiar cosmic object that is incredibly luminous; and contrary to a black hole, matter gushes out of it rather than vanishes. The prevailing understanding is that, particularly in the context of Ethiopian national dialogue, the media landscape closely resembles these cosmic objects. The media, either through mainstream broadcast or print pulls so strongly that even the public agenda is immersed in such a way that it cannot get out for public discussion – the media black hole. The flip side of it is that the media sets an agenda whereby the public agenda gushes out from the media itself for public deliberation in some cases.

It is clear that national dialogue processes must be able to give the public an opportunity to set agenda. Ethiopia’s National Dialogue, per its proclamation document, is outlined to be a people-centered process, unlike what many fear would instead be a bargaining of elites. Agenda setting tends to take place in a multi-step approach; setting out key themes for discussion, often codified in the mandating document; elaborating these further into a comprehensive agenda; developing a working method, including sequencing and timing. It is possible for the agenda to emerge out of highly participatory processes of consultation within stakeholder groups, and in the wider public. The national dialogue commission often gathers all agenda points derived from earlier agreements and consultations with the crucial stakeholders and puts them forward for discussion at the National Dialogue. The ultimate agenda items are decided by the participants of the process.


The agenda-setting behavior of the media poses a serious problem in the process of national dialogue. The media’s agenda-setting function shapes the processes that result in the perceived biggest issues and solutions to public problems. Any democratic system must have the ability to determine the issues that the public should discuss and take action on. According to the conventional agenda-setting theory, the media shape public opinion by drawing attention to and emphasizing particular concerns. However, in the context of national discussion, this is clearly inappropriate. The media’s capacity to formulate agendas is problematic inasmuch as it prevents even the most basic public agenda from being brought up for public deliberation.

There is a black hole in the Ethiopian media landscape due to various factors. One major problem is the issue of professionalism in reporting national dialogue. A Survey of Ethiopian universities shows that there is a curriculum gap in reporting on national dialogues/ conversations while specialty-reporting courses are evident including conflict reporting, courtroom reporting, business reporting, war journalism, and peace journalism. The lack of a context-based national dialogue media and communication guideline document further broadens the media gap in professionalism. It is important to note that the ‘ethnicized’ media houses in the country serving, a narrow base of interest groups pose a headache to the commission. The second indicator of a black hole is the editorial policy of these media houses tends to absorb the agenda of the public – a media black hole, while exponentiation of its own agenda – a media white hole.

National Dialogues have recently generated interest among and support from actors in the international community (i.e. foreign ministries, donors, the UN, international NGOs, media houses, etc.).External actors in a dialogue process are “actors without direct participation in the dialogue or a direct stake in the outcomes of the process. Having no direct stake, however, does not mean having no interests. The extent of foreign interest and their powerful media to intervene in the process of national dialogue challenges the agenda-setting privilege of the public. The black hole is not in the local media houses but is further visible in the landscape of international media entities, as observed through the CNN Effect, Manufacturing Consent, and other such methods of narrative framing.

Prior to the agenda identification process, it is crucial to create a comprehensive set of rules, a code of conduct, or protocols that involved parties and media practitioners must abide by regarding the agenda-setting process and the media’s involvement. The national dialogue commission in the preparation phase of the dialogue perhaps with more professional consultation frequently creates these. Such an approach facilitates adherence to a strategy and offers procedural direction.

Excision of the public agenda from the media agenda while setting the agenda for national dialogue demands a critical eye for diagnosis. The agenda-setting process is unique and complex; requiring considerable preparation. Designing an effective process is thus an essential and delicate step and requires technical and professional insights.

The lesson learned through the national dialogue experience is that the societal impact of even highly successful dialogue processes will be limited if few people are aware that it has taken place and if the media and other entities hijack the public agenda. Broadening media participation, and enhancing freedom of media in a manner enabling them to play their part in making the National Dialogue a success.To this end, the media black hole, or the white hole, must be critically assessed and a scientific communication strategy must be devised.


Ethiopia’s Grand Peace Project: a Conversation with Commissioner Ambaye Ogato

In PublicationsDecember 31, 202219 Minutes

Ethiopia’s Grand Peace Project: a Conversation with Commissioner Ambaye Ogato

Commissioner Ambaye Ogato

Commissioner Ambaye, thank you for sitting down with Horn Review to discuss some of the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission’s preliminary work in one of the most ambitious endeavors in Ethiopia’s socio-political history.

Question: Commissioner Ambaye, again, thank you for taking the time with us. What has the process of establishing the commission been like?
A: Given the novelty of this project, its scope, and its grand ambition, establishing an office- that matches the mission is undoubtedly taxing. There has not been such a prior organization tasked with conducting national dialogue, with the relevant structure, experience, and lessons. Given the complexity and multi-faceted nature of our problems, and the sheer size of the country, it is important to draw from the experience of various peace organizations throughout the nation.

There are many aspects of establishing a smooth-running office with our mission being often time-bound and objective centered. Admittedly, establishing a smooth functioning institution is no small, or easy, task; by that I mean the physical presence of the institution. This also requires employing a substantial number of employees: from subject matter experts to administrative and logistics personnel. As I previously mentioned, this office does not have a preceding organization; so, in terms of the required human resources, we are starting from scratch- in the true sense of the word. I consider obtaining the relevant manpower as one of the big tests facing the commission, and I can say that we are on track with our timeline. There is quite a need for high-caliber and dynamic minds, you don’t get those easily.

So we have to reach out to some partners and also offer incentives to sort of get the professionals. So that’s also part of establishing an office. For example, there is often a need for competent and experienced public relations firms, but those services and professionals may not be attainable on the existing public salary scale. This service alone requires its own modality. We do our best to offer an incentive package that requires negotiations with various professionals. Luckily we have come to an understanding with partners, like the UNDP, in mobilizing for and securing the funds to onboard top experts and professionals.

Question: why is the establishment of the office a top priority for the commission? Please elaborate on its importance for our readers.
A: The lion’s share of our engagement so far has been institutionalizing the commission in accordance with the proclamation mandating it. This is primarily to lay the groundwork for a national-level process for which the people can take full ownership. Developing the various protocols, working manuals, and other such materials, is also critical to the smooth functioning, efficiency, and accountability of the commission.

Question: So how do you find the posture of the office now?
A: I would say that it is ever-maturing. I wouldn’t say everything is finished, but we are yet to reach the plateau. I say we are maturing for the previous reasons I have mentioned. There are lessons we are learning as we progress, from our own learning curve.

Question: What has been the engagement of the commission with civil society organizations, NGOs, and local institutions? How have you attempted to involve them in reaching the public about token points?
A: Given the scope of this task, we are engaging government institutions, political parties, and civil society organizations which are some of the main stakeholders of this process. Though we plan to work more closely with them in the latter stages, we were able to ‘lightly’ engage them in our work by familiarizing them with our work and establishing working relationships with them, so far and their willingness to cooperate has been encouraging. Our priority, as a new institution, has been establishing the various offices and functions of the commission.

Before the establishment of the Commission itself, I was part of the national Our engagement with civil society organizations (CSOs) has been part of our broader engagement efforts with different stakeholders. As you may know, there are over 3,700 registered CSOs in Ethiopia and it is impossible to individually engage them all; a more targeted approach proves necessary. In our general approach, we classify civil society organizations into two groups: international CSOs and locally owned CSOs. We have subsequently identified those civil society organizations who have, for the past couple of years, been working on issues relating to peace, dialogue, and reconciliation.

In addition to engaging them as valuable partners in the process, we thought it important to learn from their expertise and experience throughout their peace-related efforts in the country. For example, we were able to engage the MIND-Ethiopia (Multi-stakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue) team. They were one of the principal actors conducting various dialogue efforts for the last 18 months.

Question: Do you find the aforementioned CSOs to be receptive and welcoming of the commission’s work?
A Yes! They are not only willing and receptive, but they are also very enthusiastic about the commission’s role.

However, given the multitude of adjacent tasks for the commission, we may not be going at the pace they anticipate; understandably so for the reasons I previously stated. It is my understanding that they show a genuine interest in meaningfully engaging with us. To continue with the earlier example of Destiny Ethiopia, the precursor to MIND-Ethiopia, they were key in initiating the idea of national-level dialogue to work toward lasting peace. In addition, Justice for All, EID – Ethiopian inclusive dialogue, – Initiative for Change, Ministry of Peace, joint political parties, and other such stakeholders, are involved.

So “mind” was established and the ones I listed above was a few of the actors in this process for 18 months. We felt like it was important to talk to them and get some lessons from the mind. We were able to talk to them and we have been in constant touch with them. We have been getting quite insightful advice from them – that’s one level of engagement we have with them. We also have an engagement with the Ethiopian Civil Societies Council, It is a newly established council that oversees the various existing civil societies. I know it’s quite new but they seem to have a good handle on coordinating civil societies; as they are newly operating, they cannot yet provide substantive support, as we speak. The coordination aspect is very important. We have had contact and quite an encouraging engagement with them. I hope our engagements will prompt more partnerships and materialize into a working agreement, of some sort. CRDA, as one of the major actors in civil societies in Ethiopia, is also present.

Unlike typical elite bargaining, this is meant to be the people’s dialogue; in this regard, how is the commission involving ordinary Ethiopians? University students, and religious establishments, to name a few. Relatedly, are there platforms where Ethiopians can provide questions, feedback, or forward their grievances?

A: Indeed. The Proclamation to establish the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission (Proclamation No. 1265/2021) is clear from the outset. That this endeavor is unlike the typical elite bargaining project in that it aims to involve every gamut of society. However, this is not to say that the project entirely excludes the country’s elites. The process can be considered a hybrid approach, particularly looking at other similar international dialogue experiences. The process engages the public at large, found at every level, and, concurrently, the elites. So these processes go in parallel. So for us, we believe that this process will take both the elites as well as the ordinary citizens, whatever it means would use the same credibility and weight to these actors. So as I said, we are at a crucial preparatory phase where different modalities need to be devised. This will certainly enable us to bring on board the various voices that Ethiopians have. So one website, we are developing a website.

So one thing we’re doing is developing a website. When it comes to the agenda collection phase, we have in mind and in our plan different modalities of agenda collection going to different villages or localities and holding different meetings generating agenda to discuss – that’s one modality. There are emails as well, we’re open to that because within that there are quite a substantial diaspora communities who are not able to directly engage in the dialogue process. So we think one possibility could be virtual engagements of these diaspora communities in the process. Also in a post on collecting agenda, we use every means possible. We have identified this as a major means and finally, if you read a proclamation that gives a mandate to the council, the commission has to identify fundamental national issues. So we have this very simple order, first, we collect all the agendas. Then, finally, the 11 commissions of the council will decide on the national issues that should come to the national plenary. So, in order to do this we are open to and the proclamation also gives place to research done by different actors. So we look into research and see if they would fit in the agenda items.

We aim to use different modalities of engaging the public. As I said this is something still in progress. Institutional websites and different platforms have been identified. We are progressing on that front and diversifying platforms that can capture the different voices of the citizenry.

Question: How realistic is this form of outreach in a country where much of the public lacks access to the internet?

A: You are right. It is hard to reach in a country where internet access is less than 5%. But it gives it some sort of legitimacy to have everything out in the open.

The platforms we are primarily preparing for are organized at the constituency and wereda levels: women’s groups, youth groups, the framers, marginalized groups, the different associations, interest groups, professional associations, and also unorganized groups. So this method tries to capture all gamuts of society, and ensure no voice goes unheard. We often hear One of the questions we get repeatedly is that “wouldn’t it be unmanageable?” There is good running. It looks a little bit ambitious but I hope through this process different discordant voices would be captured and I guess that would somehow give collective healing to the nation.

The more you explain the more the task there is. The whole population is rooting for the success of this initiative.

So, what would you recommend the media do?
A: Quite a number of things. The media should, at the very least, hold us accountable. We, honestly, have that audacity at the commission. But, with that, a legitimate concern because if they understand the sheer importance of their task. I would say that this process is also their own, and with that- they are not mere spectators- but integral parties to the success of the process. They are there to protect the integrity of the process.

Do you believe that national-level media training is relevant to the success of the Commission’s work?
A: Absolutely. In the field of Journalism, there is a specific specialization called “peace journalism”. There are targeted trainings for reporting on sensitive issues, and in contexts where there is a risk of conflict or pockets of violence. The way media entities angle themselves on controversial issues needs thorough deliberation. One must ask, “are we over-emphasizing a few negative items, and minimizing the good?”- as has been the case in many instances. The few moments where the Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian heads of state shook hands, having achieved a promising agreement, have had a positive effect on the overall narrative of animosity. Although the process has been arduous and long, capitalizing on the goodwill of the leadership has done more to encourage hope among ordinary citizens of these nations. The focus of the media on positive achievements, as well as a sober analysis of the issues, has a lasting effect- hence why it is so important.

Knowing and understanding what exactly is at stake, a sensitive national-level endeavor is crucial for all involved, especially media entities. One might ask “what sort of media training is important at this time?”

In my professional and academic experience, I am yet to see a country attempt a national dialogue at this level; a population size of one hundred and twenty million, with its complexities and varying narratives, is novel. The interest of foreign entities in this process, be it positively or otherwise, makes this dialogue highly consequential to the broader Horn region.

This is to say: the national dialogue is as much an experiment for the commission, as it is for media entities and other such stakeholders. It requires a careful and methodical approach. Yemen and Kenya have attempted a similar endeavor; though they set out to conduct a comprehensive national-level conversation, they only had a handful of items on the agenda for discussion. Understandably, dialogue experiments have their own peculiarities inherent to the conditions and challenges of the countries, but these experiences are unlike that of Ethiopia. The primary challenge for our country is the multiplicity, and complexity of our issues; added to the intensity of identity-based questions and the risk of triggering-question.

For anyone giving this nationwide endeavor a serious thought, it can be intimidating but I am hopeful that this process would birth a new Ethiopia, that is the hope that keeps me positive and energized, as it should.
(Note: this interview took place in October of 2022. A follow-up on the up-to-date activities of the mission will be shared in subsequent issues)