How War in Ethiopia Impacts Red Sea and Horn of Africa Power Politics: The Battle in Tigray and Beyond

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Terrorism Monitor | Michael Horton

Ethiopia is a key prize in the scramble for influence and power in the Horn of Africa and broader Red Sea region. With its natural resources, population of 110 million, and well-equipped military, Ethiopia has become an African power. The nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, moreover, hosts the African Union headquarters, and the country is one of the few African nations never to be colonized. [1] Ethiopia has accordingly long played an outsized role in African and sub-regional politics.

For much of the last decade, successive Ethiopian governments have navigated treacherous regional and global politics by maintaining relations with diverse geopolitical actors. On the global level, Ethiopia has been—and remains—an important U.S. ally, while China accounts for the largest volume of foreign direct investment into Ethiopia. [2] At the regional level, Ethiopia has avoided becoming entangled in the Gulf’s acrimonious power politics between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their two main adversaries, Qatar and Turkey. All four of those countries nevertheless provide Ethiopia with financial aid and private investment across multiple areas, especially its important agricultural sector. Turkey and the UAE, despite being regional rivals, also both maintain high-level military-to-military relations with Ethiopia.

The ongoing war in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region will test Ethiopia’s strategy of balancing the interests of outside powers with its own need for domestic investment. At the same time, the war, which began on November 4, will present these same outside powers with new opportunities to enhance their relationship with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (East African, November 7). However, those and other outside powers will also have ample opportunity to create instability in Ethiopia if they so choose.

Ethiopian Foreign Policy from Balancing to Entanglement

The war in Tigray pits the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) against the Ethiopian government. The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for much of the last three decades, is a formidable political and military power in its own right. While the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has made quick progress in capturing major cities in the Tigray region, this was likely due to strategic withdrawals by the TPLF (Nazret, November 19). Such a strategy aligns with the TPLF’s long history of guerrilla warfare.

Barring some negotiated settlement between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government, the war in Tigray will likely evolve into an insurgency that will spill beyond the borders of Tigray. At the same time, the war in Tigray, even if it is contained to TPLF redoubts in the mountains, will attract the interest of outside powers. This is already the case with Eritrea, which has deployed troops within Ethiopia’s borders to help the ENDF bottle up the TPLF. In addition to its three decade-long battle for independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought over disputed border towns from 1998-2000. Eritrea, which was once allied with the TPLF, is now supporting Abiy Ahmed, who signed a peace agreement with Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki in 2018 that ended the two countries’ longstanding border conflict (Addis Fortune, September 22, 2018).

The involvement of Eritrean forces in Ethiopia’s war in Tigray could be a harbinger of things to come. The UAE, which maintains military bases in Eritrea, may also be aiding Abiy Ahmed’s government. Conflicting and unconfirmed reports, for example, indicate the possible deployment of UAE-operated drones from the UAE base in Assab, Eritrea to Tigray. [3] The UAE, which is locked in a cold war with Qatar and Turkey, could try to enhance its relationship with Ethiopia by supporting its fight against the TPLF at the cost of Ethiopia’s relationship with Qatar and Turkey.

Turkey, however, like the UAE, enjoys excellent military-to-military relations with Ethiopia. Due to Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia, with which it shares a long and largely unguarded border, Turkey works closely with the Ethiopian military and intelligence services. Turkey also regards Somalia, where it maintains its largest overseas military base, as the lynchpin in its strategy to preserve and grow its influence in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region (Terrorism Monitor, November 20). In mid-November, Ethiopia withdrew large numbers of troops it had deployed in its ethnically Somali Ogaden region and Somalia itself to redeploy them to Tigray (Somali Affairs, November 3). Somalia-based al-Shabaab, therefore, will benefit from gaps left by the Ethiopian forces, and the relationship between Ethiopia and Turkey may deepen as Ankara seizes on opportunities to help Addis Ababa bolster security along its border with Somalia. Turkey also has greater ability than either the UAE or Saudi Arabia to offer the Ethiopian military what it lacks and most desires: drone technology and the expertise to use it (Terrorism Monitor, October 13).

Further afield, China, which has invested billions of dollars in almost every economic sector in Ethiopia, will act to protect those investments. China will make every effort to support stability in Ethiopia. Given China’s pragmatic foreign policy in Africa and in Ethiopia in particular, this support will be cost-effective and possibly covert. There is little doubt that China will aid Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to contain and defeat the TPLF. However, such aid will, as is customary with Chinese foreign policy, come with strings attached. [4]

Water Wars and Instability

On the other side of the equation, Ethiopia’s regional rivals will view limited instability in Ethiopia as a benefit. Ethiopia has completed its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and, as of July 2020, began filling the dam’s immense reservoir (Nazret, July 16). Egypt views the dam, which impedes the flow of water into the Nile’s primary tributary, the Blue Nile, as an existential threat. [5] Thus far, the two governments have failed to reach an agreement over how they will share the Nile’s water resources.

Over this summer, Egypt reportedly proposed to build a base in the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland (The East African, July 28). It is unlikely the government of Somaliland will accept the proposal. However, it reflects Egypt’s interest in enhancing its relations with other nations in the Horn of Africa and expanding its military’s regional reach as a way of checking what it sees as growing Ethiopian power.

For its part, Sudan, which will benefit from cheap electricity and flood control provided by the GERD, has been more willing to negotiate with Ethiopia on the dam. However, Egypt wields considerable influence in Sudan. The war in Tigray, especially if it is prolonged, may undermine the Ethiopian government’s ability to press forward with what Egypt views as an uncompromising agreement on GERD and hinder Sudan’s possible accommodation with Ethiopia on the dam.

Ethiopia’s Outlook

Ethiopia’s successful foreign policy, which is based on balancing the interests of rival countries in its natural resources and strategic position in exchange for access and investment, could be compromised by sustained war in Tigray. The TPLF is a sophisticated political and military organization that possesses the knowledge and institutional memory that will allow it to engage rival internal and outside powers. Abiy Ahmed’s government will find it requires more and new types of aid to deal with the challenges posed by the TPLF. Receipt of this aid, be it military or financial, will constrain Ethiopia’s nimble and independent foreign policy.


[1] Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians from 1936-1941. See Jeff Pearce, Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014).

[2] In 2019, China accounted for the largest volume of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Ethiopia, followed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

[3] There are conflicting and unconfirmed reports in Western media on the possible deployment of UAE-operated drones from the UAE’s base in Assab, Eritrea to Tigray. See, for example:;; and While deployment of UAE-operated and Chinese-manufactured Wing Loong II drones would be consistent with the UAE’s deployment of drones over Yemen and Libya, it is unlikely at this stage. What is more likely is that the UAE is using surveillance drones within Eritrean territory to monitor incursions into Eritrean territory by TPLF forces.

[4] This is not to say that other countries providing aid, like the United States, do not also expect some kind benefit in return. However, China is particularly adept at incorporating countries into its financial and political web at relatively minimal expense to the Chinese treasury. See Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarch, Corporations, Smuggler, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth (Public Affairs, 2016).

[5] For an overview of the complexity surrounding GERD and downstream riparian environments, see:

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