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Ethiopia: Flood of Instability in the Horn of Africa

By Joshua Stanley

Even with international events increasingly dominating the U.S. news cycle again, Ethiopia’s struggles have been gaining special attention as of late. Formerly broadcast as a beacon of hope in the restive horn of Africa with its astounding annual GDP growth and its Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year for mending relations with Eritrea, it is now garnering headlines as a cause for serious concern. The country is threatening not only the lives of Ethiopians, but also threatening vital water access for others in the region, and exacerbating the United States’ War on Terror.

Ongoing human rights violations in Ethiopia are drawing international ire, as Prime Minister Ahmed has conducted a slew of extrajudicial arrests, cracked down on media outlets critical of the government, and postponed this year’s national elections under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. After experiencing considerable political marginalization in the past, those in the northwestern Tigray region had enough—the region defiantly conducted elections, in direct violation of the government’s moratorium, to which Prime Minister Ahmed responded with military force. As casualties increasingly mount on both sides, missile and small arms fire has now spilled into neighboring Eritrea, while tens of thousands of Ethiopians pour into nearby Sudan to escape the conflict.

Refugees are not Sudan’s only Ethiopian concern; Ethiopia is also constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River, imposing great environmental risk to Sudan. The hydroelectric power project could cut Sudan’s water access to unacceptable levels. Egypt shares this deep-rooted concern, and the two have now become strange bedfellows in an effort to contain Ethiopia’s control over the Nile. Egypt and Sudan have called repeatedly for Ethiopia to end the project, but the country has refused based upon the economic development and stimulus stemming from the construction of the dam. The two countries have also petitioned the African Union, United Nations, and the United States to pressure Ethiopia to stop construction on the project, claiming the dam violates international law. The countries base their claim upon the Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses of 1997 Though neither Egypt nor Ethiopia are parties, the Convention’s principles are widely considered to be an accurate representation of binding international law. Egypt, Sudan, and other riparian states could rely on Article 5, which requires equitable and reasonable utilization of a shared watercourse, and Article 7, which prohibits states from causing significant harm to others sharing said watercourse, in their international petitions for remedy. Plausible as this claim may be, time is running short as the dam nears completion. The need for water will only grow for restive Sudanese and Egyptian populations surviving the pandemic, which could result in civil unrest.  This unrest was already predicted by Egyptian and Sudanese forces, who have been conducting joint military exercises in preparation for potential conflict.

Ethiopia’s actions run counter to the United States’ interest: in addition to its civil unrest and human rights violations, Ethiopia is also a key ally in the fight against al-Shabaab in troubled Somalia. Its ongoing presence in Somalia will be all the more vital for fighting the group and holding Somalia’s unwieldy factions together as the Trump administration seeks to withdraw U.S. troops. However, Ethiopia’s bandwidth may be stretched too thinly; it is not only fighting al-Shabaab, but its own in the Tigrayan forces and quite possibly Sudanese and Egyptian forces in the future.

As for how to respond, Congress has previously passed acts criticizing Ethiopia’s conduct in 2007 and again in 2018, but it could go one step further and use the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction human rights violators. However, while the Global Magnitsky Act has been implemented under both the Obama and the Trump administrations, its use has demonstrated its feebleness—it targets specific violators as opposed to the sweeping cut in aid the latter administration has recently employed. In the alternative, the President-Elect could also seek to broker a new round of negotiations between the antagonistic parties and reassure them by maintaining a limited troop presence. However, such talks may be even more difficult than their preceding failures, and leaving a larger presence would antagonize Americans enthused with the prospect of pulling out of “forever wars.”

Regardless of how the United States responds, none of the dilemmas plaguing Ethiopia will enjoy a simple, speedy resolution, leaving the Horn of Africa little choice but to brace itself for a flood of instability.


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