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
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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.
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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.
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s51The Irish Times: Ethiopian PM tries to mediate Sudan’s political crisis after bloodshed. The Irish Times, 7 June 2019.
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This Article was first published in Issue 4 of Review of Military Science Journal Volume 15 (2022)