Addis Ababa Meeting: Expectations And Complexes

The participants of the Addis Ababa meeting did raise the issue of Ethiopian military intervention in Eritrea. Some raised it as a worrying issue should Ethiopia take such an action. Some asked if Ethiopiahas such a plan at all. Some called for Ethiopiato take such an action and remove the regime in Eritreaas soon as possible. The response from the Ethiopian side was that a direct military intervention will not happen.  Now, in such a situation, how do we know what exactly will happen? Can we say what Ethiopian officials told the participants of the mentioned meeting is a genuine commitment and nothing will happen from behind the scene? If yes why? If no why not?

These two controversial questions are very crucial for anyone on the side of the Eritrean opposition or otherwise to analyse. They are straight forward and simple questions; but they are not that easy to answer. Any way, let me try it this way. First, for Ethiopiato intervene military and remove the regime in Eritrea, there should be an intention to do so. Here, one may ask, what would ‘intention’ be in this context? Let me take an interpretation, which defines an intention as ‘a course of action that one intends to follow; an aim that guides action; an objective and a concept arising from directing the attention toward an object’.[1] From this definition, it is clear that the person, group, government, or alliance forces have motives which push them – by reinforcing their intention/s – in order to accomplish a certain purpose or goal. As the focus of our analysis is the concern of Ethiopian government intervention inEritrea, we are referring to government intention.

Such kind of government intention has multiple natures, which could be overt as well as covert ones. The overt intention is something that exists and that we can see or it can be something we cannot see. Meaning: it can be visible or invisible. The covert intention is something that we cannot see (invisible); yet it may exist or may not. Now, from the perspective of theAddis Ababameeting, there is no overt intention of Ethiopia intervening militarily inEritrea. Meaning: from the viewpoints – that was disseminated through different media outlets – of most participants indicate that there is no overt intention of military intervention and such an intention does not exist. However, there is an overt intention of wanting to see the regime in Eritrea removed through supporting Eritrean opposition groups. Therefore, what would be the motive behind such an intention of wanting to provide support to opposition groups in order to remove the regime inEritrea?

Motives vary. For example, a motive behind a government’s intention (perhaps reflected on a policy or plan) to take a certain action can be analysed through assessing government structures and how these structures function. Within these structures, one can identify powerful influence of a group or individuals on the government’s intentions. Therefore, a motive behind government’s intention can be manifestation of a motive of an influential element within the government’s structures. Be it as it may, in such a complicated phenomena, one can identify two broad or major motives behind a government’s intention to intervene through a direct military intervention or through supporting opposition groups. These two major motives are political and economic.

In political motive, one can, for example, mention power struggle. Power struggle is a crucial factor, which can be seen as complex game of survival. Structural or not; institutionalised or otherwise. Who benefits and/ or who loses; local, regional or international. Therefore, in assessing the political motive behind Ethiopian intention of intervention in Eritreashould also include the motive of all Eritrean opposition groups – those who favour getting support from Ethiopiaor opposed to it – including the motive of the influential elements within the structures of these groups. Then there is of course the source of the motive. What factors would motivate one to have a certain intention through which one attempts to achieve a certain goal?

So, complex as is, I prefer to look into political motive as a motive behind a grand intention, which in this case is removing the tyrannical regime inEritrea. This is the grand intention because it brings together all Eritrean opposition groups and the government ofEthiopia. Here, political includes also decision making and controlling of the process of removing the regime in Eritrea. Yet, it is not only about participating in the process but also about who defines the process and who influences the outcome. Then comes the second motive, which is economic. Economic motive is also part of the complex game of survival. It is interlinked with the political motive. If political entails decision making, controlling, participation, defining, and influencing; economic implies gains and/or lose.

What would be the Ethiopian government political and economic motives in having an intention to support Eritrean opposition groups? Would it be to install a friendly regime in Eritrea like the overthrow of Idi Amin in Ugandain 1979 and that of Mobutu Sese Seko in former Zairein 1997? Would it be getting the closest and the cheapest access to Sea ports? What about Ethiopia’s military invasion of Somaliain late 2006? I wrote an article[2] few months before the Ethiopian military invasion of Somalia in which I harshly criticised the implications of the intervention. There are several factors one needs to put into consideration when assessing Ethiopian intervention in Somalia. These factors may be irrelevant when it comes to Eritrean context; may be not. According to theAddis Ababa meeting, what is clear is an overt intention to support Eritrean opposition and not military intervention; whatever motives behind it, should not be viewed through a lens of uncertain fear of the future.

Therefore, for the sake of narrowing my analysis into one angle, I will now focus on Ethiopian intervention in Eritrea through supporting Eritrean opposition groups. Supporting the opposition of your rival government is not a new phenomenon. The horn ofAfricain particular has long historical records of such wars by representation or proxy wars.   

We can take as an example the Cold War era ‘support’ provided by both governments of Sudan and Ethiopiato the opposition/ resistance movements in the region. Successive governments in both countries were involved in ‘supporting’ opposition movements against one another, which I call political reciprocity. This could mean a simple quid pro quo aimed at diverting internal power dynamics. The Sudanese governments supported the Eritrean liberation forces during the 1960s and 1970s as reciprocity to how the successive Ethiopian governments would handle the case of the south Sudanese rebel movement. Whenever Ethiopia increased its ‘support’ to rebel groups in southSudan, the Sudanese governments would also provide Eritrean liberation forces and Ethiopian opposition armed groups with some support. This negative political reciprocity would be reversed when the two governments had agreed to improve their relationship.

For example, in October 1963 the government of Ibrahim Aboud of Sudanextradited thirteen Eritrean liberation fighters to Haile-Selassie’s government in Addis Ababaand they were barbarously killed by hanging.[3] This was done as an indication of willingness to improve Khartoum’s relationship with Ethiopia’s Haile-Selassie. In February 1972, the government of Ja’afar al-Nimeyri of Sudan and Haile-Selassie of Ethiopia signed a treaty ‘recognizing each other’s territorial integrity’. This agreement was followed by a peace agreement, signed in Addis Ababa, between the Sudan government and south Sudan Anyanaya opposition armed group.[4]

During the post-Cold War period, parallel to supporting opposition groups, alliances of governments were formed to tackle a perceived foe government including through a direct military engagement. These have been manifested in the regional rivalry and military alliances. While the regional rivalry changed constantly – once friends turned enemies on later stage, Eritrea and Ethiopia relationship is a good example -, some alliances had also been witnessed. The major military alliance was formed against the government of the National Islamic Front (NIF) inSudan.Eritrea,Ethiopia, andUgandaby the blessing o theU.S.formed a military alliance to directly confront the NIF government inSudan. This military alliance meant to militarily tackle the NIF government’s extensive military adventure in supporting various armed opposition groups in the region. Although the relations between Sudanand Ethiopiaas well as between Uganda and Sudan improved later, the one between Eritrea and Sudan remained severed until 2005.   

In Oct. 14, 2002 three countries – Sudan, Yemen, and Ethiopia– held a tripartite meeting in Sanaa, Yemen and formed an alliance called Sanaa Forum. The Alliance was formed as a response to the Eritrean government’s aggression launched in different years – between 1994 and 2000 – against the three mentioned countries. In order to facilitate the Alliance’s agenda of tackling the regime in Asmara, a fund was established to support the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA). Yemenand Sudan each provided USD one million; and Ethiopia USD 200, 000 annually.[5] However, it seems that that pledge of financial support to the EDA did not go long or little has been materialised.

As the government of Sudan opened its diplomatic doors to the regime in Eritrea, it has become very difficult, if not impossible, for Eritrean opposition groups to carry out their political activities from Sudan. With an improvement of relations between governments in Sudan and Eritrea, the government o fSudancracked down the activities of Eritrean opposition inSudan. In Nov. 2006, Sudan closed a one-year-old Eritrean opposition groups’ radio al-Sharq which was broadcasting from Khartoum and Khashm al-Girba, eastern Sudan. This was followed by the ban of Eritrean opposition political activities and closure of their offices in Sudan. Worse, Yemen has entered into a deep crisis and politics in Sudan has changed dramatically. Therefore, the only member of the Sanaa Alliance which is willing to support the Eritrean opposition is the government ofEthiopia.  

Yet, according to expectations from various Eritrean political corners, Ethiopian support to the Eritrean opposition groups is, so far, small. Perhaps it could be fitting to mention an Arabic saying, which was quoted by one of the opposition leaders during their meeting few weeks before the one held between 5 and 10 Sept. The saying can be translated something like this: a mountain was expected to give birth and people surrounding it thought that the offspring/child would be as big as an elephant. Unfortunately, what came out of the mountain was a mouse/ rat.

Nevertheless, Ethiopian government has opened its door for all Eritrean opposition and non-opposition alike. There could be several factorsEthiopiamight put into consideration when providing support to Eritrean opposition. An overt intention of wanting to remove the regime in Eritrea cannot be equated to an exaggerated expectation of Ethiopia providing the Eritrean opposition groups with all support they are looking for. For the Eritrean opposition, therefore,  it is how to extract big out of small and strike your target as soon as possible.

Otherwise, the complex game of survival at local, regional and international levels will be there to stay for longer than we may expect. The question is, how do we draw the line between different political and economic motives of all sides sharing the grand intension of removing the regime inEritrea? In simple analysis, the answer is: ‘damn to drawing lines! What is needed is bringing democracy, peace and stability inEritreaand the horn of Africa’. Well, this kind of answer is not only naïve, but also wrong.


[1]  Mykhaylenko V.V.  (Chernivtsi) On Mapping the Intention Concept and Its Verbalizing. Accessed online at:

[3] See Haggai Erlich (1983) The Struggle Over Eritrea, 1962 – 1978.California:Hoover Institution Press. P. 65

[4] See Francis M. Deng (March 2007) Sudan at the Crossroads. Center for International Studies.Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. P. 2  

[5] See John Young (2007) Armed Groups along Sudan’s Frontier: An Overview and Analysis; Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International Studies,Geneva


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