The Red Sea and Africa’s north-east move deeper into an era of great change, with global ramifications as energy acquisition patterns also transform, impacting the relative geopolitical centrality of the region.
Ethiopians gathered quietly, on July 23, 2012, in larger numbers than in recent years, and in more places around the world, as well as in Ethiopia, and remembered the birthday of the late Emperor, Haile Selassie I, born 120 years earlier.
The manner of their gatherings, and the growing and open remembrance of the “good times” of Ethiopian growth and prosperity in the Imperial period, were strategically significant. They reflected the reality that change has now begun in Ethiopia, and that there is less to fear from what had been the growing xenophobia of the Tigrean-born Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, against potential rivals and against the Amhara people from whom the late Emperor had risen.
Has the Age of Meles Ended?
The Emperor’s birthday anniversary — it was clear to those exchanging rumours in the Mercato in Addis Ababa that Meles Zenawi, 57, was either seriously ill, or perhaps even already dead. He had failed to participate in the African Union (AU) summit in Addis, and to meet a delegation from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Ethiopia’s most important investor/trading partner.
Meles’ situation — regardless of how serious his health problems might be at present — mirrors the problems of leadership elsewhere in the region: in neighbouring Somaliland; in Yemen; and particularly in Eritrea, where Pres. Isayas Afewerke is almost certainly in failing health, if not already dead or incapacitated. The pattern of governmental “transitions” and power vacuums and difficulties in these states, as well as in Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia, has profound implications for the stability and security of the Red Sea/Suez sea lanes, and for the region generally. As we discuss in this report, the “unravelling” of the situations in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt, in particular, was picking up pace by mid-2012.
By July 18, 2012, even Agence France Presse (AFP) had picked up reports from “diplomatic sources” that Meles was in a “critical condition” in a Brussels hospital, although one source confirmed that he was, at least, still alive. Earlier in the week, Government spokesmen were saying that reports that Meles was being treated at a Brussels hospital were “false and wrong”. By July 20, 2012, the Government Communications Office said that Meles was in good health and would be back at his post in a few days, but confirmed that he “recently had a health problem that needed professional attention”.
The speculation — and it was only that — was that he was suffering from a brain tumor; no official would confirm the nature of his illness. By July 18, 2012, as well, Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn confirmed at least that Meles was ill, explaining Meles’ absence from his scheduled chairmanship at a meeting in Addis of the New Partnership for African Development (DEPAD) on July 14, 2012, and his scheduled AU leaders’ summit on July 15, 2912.
The notably anti-Meles Ethiopian Review in early July 2012 commented: “Ethiopia’s khat-addicted dictator Meles Zenawi has been diagnosed with blood cancer and is receiving treatment at a Belgium hospital.”
His wife, Azeb Mesfin a member of Parliament and a key figure in the Tigré People’s Liberation Front: TPLF), visited Brussels for one day to see her husband in hospital. The former Foreign Minister (1991-2010) Seyoum Mesfin (currently Ethiopian Ambassador to the PRC, but still a key figure in the TPLF, which totally dominates the Government coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front: EPRDF) also visited him, before returning to Addis Ababa. Seyoum is a strong contender to replace Meles.
There seems little doubt that Azeb Mesfin has been positioning herself to succeed her husband, although possibly not — initially — with the title of Prime Minister. Talk is that the Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, would take over, at least for an interim period. But there is little doubt that Azeb Mesfin (although with some Amhara family heritage of her own) shares her husband’s anti- Amhara policies, or at least uses this as a badge of legitimacy in the TPLF, which is also her only power base. Clearly, her only lever in the power stakes would be to attempt to continue the Tigrean (read TPLF) domination of the EPRDF and of Ethiopian life.
Here is where evidence is emerging of broad opposition to that, both within the EPRDF’s non-Tigrean membership, and from within the broader Ethiopian community, which has, until this point, been heavily constrained from voicing any opposition to Meles’ policies.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Muslim community has been engaging in a growing fratricidal conflict, mainly between members of the moderate Ethiopian Islamic community and those converted by the large injections of Saudi funding to neo-salafist beliefs. These clashes grew to the point where riot police intervened in recent (July 2012) clashes in Addis Ababa just before and just after the AU summit in Addis. Foreign media reporting has indicated that these protests have been about the marginalization of the growing Muslim minority from governance. Deeper analysis how’s it is between the imported and domestic strands of Islam, and between neo-salafist and moderate strands, and the Meles Government has been supportive of the imported, moderate brand. Saudi Arabia has, for the past few decades funnelled billions of dollars worth of investment in Ethiopia, and also the source of funding for a massive campaign of mosque-building, to facilitate the proselytization of Saudi neo-salafist Wahhabism.
Ethiopian Muslims have protested against Government support for the Al Ahbash sect of Islam, which is ostensibly apolitical. Al Ahbash is also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, a Sufi movement, following the teachings of Ethiopian religious scholar Abdulla al-Harari. It is possible that the Government supported Al Ahbash to counterbalance the influence of imported Saudi Wahhabism.
But what is important is that the dissent by Ethiopian Muslims for or against imported strands of Islam, but in any event protesting against the Government, as well as the open support being shown for the memory of the late Emperor (and therefore, by definition, backing off from the hostility toward the Amhara ethnic group, and from the suppression of the Oromo peoples), are symptomatic of the reality that Meles and the TPLF have been unable to sustain the tightness of their grip on Ethiopia in recent months. Meles’ health condition — for some months a matter of speculation — may well have been at the root of the Administration’s declining ability to sustain its control.
There have been other, small, indicators, as well, such as the defection of the driver of Meles’ wife, Azeb Mesfin, who reportedly disappeared on about July 20, 2012, and apparently turned up in Rome. Why now? What spurred him to make the break? Was it the fact that he heard about the impending collapse of the Government, or the death or disability of Meles? And did Azeb prompt him to make the move?
Azeb Mesfin herself received an Italian visa on July 18, 2012, and was in Rome by July 19. It was reported on July 20, 2012, that Azeb had herself left Ethiopia to escape from Sebhat Nega, a key TPLF official whom she forced out of the party’s top leadership in 2009. She also had him removed from his chairmanship of the multi-billion-dollar Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigré (EFFORT) around the same time. Sebhat Nega began manoeuvring from about the first week in July 2012 to make a comeback as the TPLF power. It was Sebhat who engineered Meles’ rise to power and he was the second most powerful figure in the ruling party until he was humiliated and removed by Azeb. Nonetheless, even though Sebhat has significant support within the TPLF, he is not seen as a successor to Meles, but he appears to have retained his influence and the loyalty of his supporters. And Sebhat has been known to oppose Meles’ own choice of a successor, Berhane Gebrekiristos.
This was perhaps one of the most significant pointers to the reality that Meles Zenawi was no longer in power, or likely to recover (assuming he was still alive). Indeed, it is also significant that his wife, Azeb, left Addis the day before Meles reportedly returned to the capital (on July 20, 2012).
Meanwhile, Berhane Gebrekiristos and Teodros Adhanom, another close confidante of Meles, were reportedly — by July 10, 2012 — named as acting Prime Ministers of Ethiopia.
Clearly, then, the Age of Meles in Ethiopia has ended, or was ending by early July 2012. More important now, is to calculate what this could mean to Ethiopia and the region.
What has been significant, during this “interregnum”, however, has been the reality that Eritrea quietly occupied the contested border area which includes the city of Badme. Ethiopia and Eritrea had, in fact, agreed to the ceding of this area in the Algiers Accord of 2002, but Meles had — even up to May 2012 — refused to allow the transfer of the town to Eritrea. There were valid reasons for this, but what was significant was that Eritrea — which has its own leadership problems at present — had not challenged Ethiopia on the matter until June-July 2012, when it seemed clear to Asmara that Meles’ grip on power had loosened.
The Strategic Impact
Many factors on the regional and global stage have begun to coalesce. New and fundamental questions must now be raised about whether the geo-strategic importance of the core Middle East — the Arabian Peninsula and the seas to the north, east, and south of it — has also begun to be transformed.
The changing of the guard in Ethiopia is just one watershed event. Meles’ apparent incapacitation came at a time when Eritrea’s Isayas was also incapacitated (and, equally possibly, close to death), and at a time of political transitions in Egypt and Yemen, and internal preoccupation in Sudan (to the point of war with South Sudan). Indeed, it comes also at a time when the Saudi Arabian leadership itself is contemplating generational change.
At best, the end of the Meles and Isayas autocracies compounds the break of the status quo of the past few decades in the Red Sea/Suez sea lane of communication (SLOC), the broader Horn of Africa, and in Egypt itself. This has profound implications for East-West trade, which depends on the SLOC; transforming Egypt’s traditional hostility toward Ethiopia (which has utilized Eritrea as a staging horse to isolate Ethiopia, so as to minimize Ethiopian interference with the Blue Nile source waters); and opening up the prospects for Israel to once again more safely project naval power down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
At the same time, however, the centrality to the global market of the oil and gas exports from the region (and particularly the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf) has been declining. The question has to be asked as to whether the Red Sea/Suez SLOC is as strategically critical as it was, say, two decades ago? Certainly, in terms of ship movements and revenues to Egypt (Suez Canal), it may have risen in direct, statistical terms. But is it as critical in overall terms of strategic balance?
For the PRC and Japan, for example, while exports from the Persian Gulf remain critical, these can bypass the Red Sea/Suez SLOC, and, increasingly, the PRC is seeking overland oil and gas transfers from the Northern Tier (Iran and the Caspian Basin), rather than via sea lanes. To some degree, for Europe as well, pipelines are the dominant traffic lanes of the future, rather than sea lanes. On the other hand, oil and gas from the Horn of Africa itself — as well as from Yemen — is of growing importance, although oil from South Sudan is being postured to go via new pipelines through Kenya to the Indian Ocean, rather than allowing South Sudanese exports to continue to be subject to Sudanese control. [The original pipelines went from what is now South Sudan up to the Red Sea, through what is now Sudanese territory. The Kenyan route itself is not without problems, given the potential for instability and even secessionist activities taking place in Kenyan coastal regions.]
Japan itself, now highly conscious of the vulnerability of its oil and gas sea lanes through the Indian Ocean — as US influence declines (despite the US’ “Pacific pivot”), and because of increased PRC activities to control the chokepoints: the South China Sea sea-lanes, which link the Indian Ocean (and therefore the Red Sea) to the Pacific and on to Japan. As a result, Japan is seen as likely to increase its attempts to acquire Canadian oil and gas, largely from the Alberta fields, especially since the US Barack Obama Administration rejected (for the time being) plans for a pipeline from Alberta down through to the US markets. But the Canadians are also now more aware of, and ready to act on, the reality that an export market exists for their oil outside of the US. Significantly, as the global energy pattern changes, however, the US demand even for Canadian energy is seen as likely to decline.
Ultimately, an Alberta-Vancouver pipeline may make sound sense to Canada, to address the Asian markets, including Japan. And Japan might also find that it can find energy supplies from the US fields in Alaska, given the fact that the Alaska pipeline itself is under-utilized and facing real questions as to its viability if demand for Alaskan energy from “the lower 48” states declines further.
Such a move would instantly free Japan from the strategic uncertainty and massive cost of importing oil and gas from the north-western Indian Ocean (Persian Gulf), and give it short, secure sea-lines of communication with North America. This becomes increasingly important as Japan decides whether it can, politically, return to nuclear power generation or not.
Inherent in all this is the reality that US reliance on Middle Eastern energy is declining, and declining rapidly.
In other words, fear and uncertainty over the security of Middle Eastern sea lanes and choke points should be expected to be a driver in future energy procurement decisions and trade, pushing energy companies to invest in the recovery of oil and gas from less politically hostile regions. This could well spur the US — particularly after this term of the Barack Obama Administration — to redouble its efforts at recovering energy from its newly-confirmed oil and gas reserves. Egypt itself could also well turn its back on the Red Sea to some extent (although it will always be important to Cairo because of Suez Canal revenues), if Ethiopia can reassure it on the question of Blue Nile water flow, and if the offshore Mediterranean gas fields can provide a major energy income from European clients.
Even within Europe, the new availability of energy resources from the massive shale deposits, as well as the new Eastern Mediterranean gas fields and the growing network of supplies emerging from Russia and the Caspian Sea Basin, make the Middle East less critical as an energy resource. Clearly, the Red Sea/Suez retains its importance as a trade sea route, but even that, to an extent, is to be supplemented, if not challenged, over the coming decades by internal overland connections within the Eurasian landmass: the new Silk Route.
Has Arabia’s brief period in the geopolitical sun come, then, to its apogee?
All of this, then, could cause the PRC and India to become Ethiopia’s (and South Sudan’s) most interested clients for energy, just as they have become more important clients for energy from Iran, the Persian Gulf states, Sudan, and West Africa.
It is unsurprising that the present Turkish Government has begun to exert its renewed interest in the region, particularly by supporting Sudanese Pres. Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir and attempting to court the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. Turkey has reasserted its claim to have an historical interest in the control of the Red Sea, based primarily on its earlier Ottoman dominance of what is now Saudi Arabia. While this Turkish claim or posturing may appear to be unsustainable to regional states, or outside observers, today, it is nonetheless a factor in Turkish neo-Ottomanism, and is also linked to Turkey’s grand strategic sense of rivalry with Iran (which also seeks to assert an influence on the Red Sea and Horn of Africa).
Where does all of this leave Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Horn of Africa?
Significantly, one possibility could be — with the personality-driven autocracies of Meles and Isayas drifting astern — that Ethiopia and Eritrea resume their historical relationship, but in such a way that the various elements of the “old empire” are given their due attention. This could see a gradually coalescing confederation which would include Eritrea (historically, the Bar Negus: Kingdom of the North), and Ethiopia, with greater prominence given to the aspirations of its great regions, such as Oromo- land, and the Somali regions, Tigré, the Amhara Plateau, and so on.
Nostalgia for the golden days of Emperor Haile Selassie I means that there are elements of the historical interlinking cultures of the Ge’ez language based peoples which still have a commonality.
By. Gregory R. Copley