By Amanuel Biedemariam,
AFTER the breakup of the Soviet Union, for over two decades the US and allies controlled and managed the affairs and agendas of the countries in the Horn of African (HoA) and the region. Ethiopia is used as the hub and, alliances with the heads of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen were instrumental in furthering US agendas in the region. US’s design provided strategic advantages from the northern tip of the Suez Canal to the southern end of the Red Sea to Baab-Al-Mandab as part of long standing US strategy that aimed to dominate a strategic global waterway.
“Whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene.” (US Navy Geostrategist Rear Admiral Alfred Thayus Mahan (1840-1914)
However, recent developments in Yemen have thrown a monkey’s wrench to US agendas in the region. As a result, the once seemingly invincible strategy that aimed to dominate the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean is no more certain with many actors attempting to assert or reassert their presence in the region.
In September of 2014, Houthi rebels took control of the capital of Yemen, Sana. After failing to reach an agreement with the rebels, Yemen’s president Abdel-Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to resign in January. This power vacuum is now a major concern for the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
For the US the stakes are high and the challenges are multifaceted. These include the war on terrorism, military, geo-strategic, economic, political and maritime. According to Professor Michelle Chossdovsky,
“Among Washington’s strategic objectives is the militarization of major sea ways. This strategic waterway links the Mediterranean to South Asia and the Far East, through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is a major transit route for oil tankers. A large share of China’s industrial exports to Western Europe transits through this strategic waterway. Maritime trade from East and Southern Africa to Western Europe also transits within proximity of Socotra (Suqutra), through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. A military base in Socotra could be used to oversee the movement of vessels including war ships in an out of the Gulf of Aden.”
Hence, these developments have spurred flurries of activities in the region and beyond with potential to change the geopolitical dynamics of the region for years to come. Amongst some of the events worthy of attention are the following:
Saudi Arabia has a lot at stake in Yemen. Long standing border dispute with Yemen that could potentially push the instability into Saudi Arabia (SA); uninterrupted flow of oil through the Baab Al Mandab and, fear of Iran’s influence in Yemen.
The long border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is not demarcated. For decades Saudi Arabia gave aid to various actors in Yemen in order to maintain peace and control these factions. The strategy worked for decades. However, four years ago Saudi Arabia and Yemen fought along the borders and, after the Houthi takeover Saudi Arabia stopped all assistance.
To ensure security along the borders Saudi Arabia is erecting fences across the entire border. The Saudi’s are also conducting major diplomatic campaign to apply pressure on the Houthis. They are calling for a regional conference and summoned Secretary Ban Ki-Moon of the UN to the kingdom and after talks with Saudi officials, on Feb 8th, Secretary Moon said,
“The situation is very, very seriously deteriorating. With the Houthis taking power and making this government vacuum, there must be restoration of legitimacy of President Hadi.” Ban Ki-moon said.”
Israel’s concerns are similar. Easy unimpeded access to the Red Sea and, fear of Iranian influenced power in Yemen that could pose national security challenges and reverse Israel’s dominance of the region.
This has also become source of contention for US and Israel. For US’s national interests, selling fear of nuclear Iran is no longer viable, beneficial or sustainable. Reaching mutually beneficial agreement with Iran has become a reality. This is a tough pill to swallow for hawkish Israelis such as Benjamin Natanyahu who desperately created a line in the sand by addressing US congress without consulting the White House. For the first time in the history of US-Israel relations American Jews could be forced to choose sides.
It is worth noting that Israel and Russia maintain good bilateral relations. There is sizeable Orthodox Jews community that lives in Russia; many Russian Jews live in Israel; Israel and Russia have strong economic and defense ties.
Over 50,000 vessels including 5,500 oil tankers pass through the Red Sea annually. And over 14,000 of these ships pass through the Suez Canal. For Egypt, the Suez Canal is a lifeline and major source of income. It is a strategic waterway, a lifeline for Israel, oil pipeline and tankers of Saudi Arabia passes through the canal.
Hence, and considering Egypt’s strong economic and strategic ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US, it is interesting Egypt is strengthening ties with Russia in a manner that could potentially counter US interests. According to Forbes 2/13/2015, “Russia-Egypt Nuclear Power Plant Deal: Why Ignoring Egypt’s Needs Is Bad For The U.S.”
“Russian-Egyptian relations began improving after the July 2013 military ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, when U.S.-Egyptian relations began to decline. Cairo grew increasingly concerned with what it perceived to be U.S. engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood, and felt abandoned in its fight against terrorists, particularly in the restless Sinai-a hotbed of radicalism and instability going back to President Hosni Mubarak’s time. Washington also delayed weapons deliveries to Egypt, withheld military aid, and later halted the nascent bilateral strategic dialogue. The decline of U.S.-Egyptian relations created an opportunity for Putin to step in and assert his national interests in Egypt.”
In 1963, the-then Soviet Union and Egypt were instrumental in Yemen’s change of leadership. An estimated 28,000 Egyptian troops were engaged in Yemen. Over half a century later, and days before Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to arrive in Cairo for state visit; Egypt threatened to return to Yemen. According to The Cairo Post Feb 5, 2015, Lieutenant General Mohab Mamish said,
“Egypt will not accept closure of the waterway which directly affects the Suez Canal and national security. Events in Yemen are under constant review and that the military is ready to intervene if the strait is blocked.”
These developments raise many questions. The key being, what is the status of US Egypt relations and how can these developments affect the geopolitical dynamics of the region.
After decades of strained relations, it appears that Sudan maybe at the verge of renewing its relations with the US. The US promised to lift sanctions if Sudan cooperated with South Sudan during the referendum and Sudan cooperated. In addition, during the invasion of Libya, Sudan cooperated with the US by giving NATO access. Yet, the sanctions remained.
However, current developments in the region seem to be changing US’s views and there is a renewed hope for Sudan to ultimately see the lifting of sanctions. Recent diplomatic activities could signal US warming to Sudan. On February 5th, Mr. Ibrahim Ghandour, a top advisor to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, has been invited by the State Department to visit the United States and the White House.
US – Sudan policy has been designed to weaken the government and deal blow to China’s presence in Sudan and the region. However, Russia’s renewed interest and China’s strong presence is forcing the US to do-away with the stick and use the carrot approach. It is strategic juxtaposition to mitigate Chinese and Russian influences in the region.
On February 07/2015 Ethiopia and Djibouti signed agreements to boost trade, mining, industry, transport, as well as peace, security and, released a joint statement that accused Eritrea of “Sabotaging regional stability. “
On June 2010, Djibouti and Eritrea agreed to refer their dispute to Qatar for mediation. Since, there has not been major incident to warrant the joint statement. However, it appears that Djibouti is kowtowing to the pressures of Ethiopian government. Ethiopia is trying to divert attention from the upcoming election and to pressure the UN to keep Eritrean sanctions.
Of late, the Ethiopian government is touting the idea of the unification of Djibouti and Ethiopia. This claim is designed to appease Ethiopians that accuse the regime for rendering Ethiopia landlocked, to pressure, demonize and accuse Eritrea as a non-cooperative party. After signing the agreement President Ismail Omar Guelleh said,
“We have taken a decision to be example for integration in the region and then in Africa for the political integration of our countries. We are trying to show that we can integrate, we can work together, we share the resources we have in common and scientific researches.”
The reality however, Djibouti could no longer be considered a country. It is a military base for foreign powers and is incapable to decide its destiny.
On February 9, 2015, Peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the ONLF resumed in Nairobi. According to the head of foreign of affairs of the ONLF Mr. Abdirahman Mahdi,
“The objective of their talk with the Ethiopian government is to end the conflict of the region and to get the Ogaden Somalis for their right of Self-determination.”
This raises many questions. Why now and why negotiate when the stated objective of the ONLF is self-determination? Why negotiate before a major national election? Is this a move towards some bilateral relation with the ONLF if agreement is reached? A ploy to stall, or is to confuse the Ethiopian people?
However, the biggest and most significant development took place in Tigray. On February 18, 2015, the 40th anniversary of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) was held in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Regional State. According to Ethiopian News Agency (ena),
“The celebrations were attended by President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia, Prime Minister Kamil Abdelkadir Mohamed of Djibouti, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda of Uganda, and Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission. Prime Minister Hailemariam and, senior government officials earlier laid wreaths at the cemetery at the Martyrs Monument to honor those who died in the seventeen year struggle against the former military dictatorship.”
The minority apartheid regime monopolizes all aspects of the nation’s governance and has long-denied the opposition political space. After the 2005 rigged elections, the people of Ethiopia have given-up on peaceful democratic transition. As a result, there are many opposition groups waging armed struggle. In the North, Tigray Peoples Democratic Movement (TPDM), on the South the Oromo Liberation Front OLF, in the East the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), in central Ethiopia Arbegnoch – Ginbot7 for Unity and Democracy Movement (AGUDM) to mention some.
The people of Ethiopia have long accused the TPLF of trying to create an independent Tigray state. According to Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution that the TPLF wrote and instated,
“Every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination including the right to secession.”
This means, based on the constitution when the regime chooses it can declare independence. Ethiopians have long accused that the TPLF accords disparate advantage to Tigray. They accuse the regime of creating a de-facto nation within a nation. They accuse it for diverting major resources into Tigray.
The minority regime has been building roads, international airport, stadium (capacity 60,000) and rail way systems that link Tigray to the world independent from the rest of Ethiopia. In the capital city of Tigray region Mekele, they built a diplomatic row to house future diplomats and facilitate diplomatic activities. Key aspects of Ethiopian military and air force is firmly established in Tigray.
In Africa it is not customary; in fact it is unheard-of to see leaders of states honor a revolution that is specific to one region inside a nation. In this case a country that is home of the African Union, Ethiopia.
The agenda of the TPLF is the independence of Tigray (Abay Tigray). The leaders of Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda know the regional, ethnic and religious diversity Ethiopia offers. They also understand issues associated with it and have firsthand experience on how these regional and ethnic differences can tear-apart a nation as in Rwanda and South Sudan. Hence, it makes one wonder of the thought process and the reasoning for accepting such an invitation and the participation at the presidential level.
By inviting the leaders to celebrate the 40th year anniversary of “Tigray People’s Liberation Front” in Tigray, the TPLF conducted a de-facto diplomatic relation with these countries. The question, is this a last move towards the independence of Tigray?
The TPLF used the 40th anniversary of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front to introduce the idea of independent Tigray guised as “Tigray Regional State.” This dangerous move has no chance to succeed. It will also increase the tension in Ethiopia and throughout the region.
The TPLF agenda works against US interests in Ethiopia and the region. Destabilized Ethiopia could potentially become breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. If the US fails to act, the TPLF agenda will destabilize Ethiopia and turn it into a failed state.
February 09, 2015, Shabait, Ministry of Information website reported,
“A delegation of the People’s Republic of China Communist Party, headed by Mr. Zhong Weiyun, head of African Affairs at the party’s International Affairs, held talks with Mr. Yemane Gebreab, Head of Political affairs at the PFDJ, focusing on cooperation of partnership.”
Few days prior 1/27/2015, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming of China visited Eritrea, met and held talks with Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed, Head of Political Affairs at the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) Yemane Gebreab and, Head of Economic Affairs at the PFDJ Hagos Gebrehiwet of Eritrea and jointly signed a visa exemption agreement for diplomatic and service passport holders.
These developments took place during commemoration of the Silver Jubilee of Operation Fenkil in the port city of Massawa. The week-long celebrations included colorful exhibitions, music and sports activities.
After four years of unrest, Yemen is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Peaceful Yemen could mean a prosperous and peaceful region. Absent of peace, the Saudis can erect all the walls but that will not protect them. Instability in Yemen will influence the region negatively. On the other hand, if handled correctly, Yemen presents unique opportunities. That means the people of Yemen must be given the opportunity and room necessary to determine their destiny.
However, that appears unlikely because major powers are jockeying for control. Russia, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, USA and Egypt are vying to influence Yemen. Unfortunately, this will take the region back to the Cold-War rea and place-it in a state of constant tension.
Yemen demonstrates that the world-order is on transition from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world. This transition is due to the rise of new powers It also demonstrates US and Western support cannot save any regime.
That means nations that depended on US and Western support and funding will feel the impact. Long periods of oppression, heavy dependence on aid, simmering ethnic, regional and religious issues could tear apart countries like Ethiopia. This could lead to more pockets of instability in the region.
To prevent irreversible disasters the countries in the region and the international community must cooperate to cultivate understanding based on respect of sovereignty and for mutual benefit.
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