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Strategic Musical Chairs

By Gérard Prunier

During the years of civil war in Sudan, both the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) considered the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), then closely allied to the communist Derg, to be an enemy.

After Mengistu’s regime had been overthrown, both the EPLF and the EPRDF guerrilla movements, which had ascended to power with Khartoum’s help, realized that their Sudanese ally was not so friendly. Yet there was a modicum of difference in their experience with Khartoum’s hostility: in the case of Eritrea it was plain and open, Khartoum supported the Eritrea Jihad armed movement and Eritrea’s President, Issayas Afeworki quickly invited the SPLA into Eritrea to retaliate against Sudan.

In the case of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, although duly suspicious of Khartoum’s policies, he nevertheless tried to keep a more or less neutral stance towards the Sudan’s Muslim Brothers’regime. Zenawi fought against Sudanese military encroachments when they took place – mostly through helping the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels. He even launched Operation Black Fox deep into Sudan in 1994, but later expelled the SPLA from Ethiopia in 1999. Why? Because by then the relationship between Asmara, Eritrea and Khartoum had turned 180° due to the Ethio-Eritrean War of 1998-2000.

With the war, Issayas stopped supporting the SPLA and decided to woo Khartoum. As a result, Meles let the former guerrillas come back to Addis-Ababa after they “regularized” their diplomatic status by signing the so-called “Consolidated Peace Agreement” (CPA) with the northern government in January 2005. Yet Meles kept an even balance between politeness to the North and friendship with the South. Not so in the course followed by Asmara, which progressed deeper and deeper with Khartoum as its own quarrel with the US grew. Things became worse with the support given by the Eritreans to the radical Islamist Shebab then fighting the Ethiopian Army in Somalia.

This game of strategic musical chairs took on a new turn when President Omar el-Bashir recently visited Asmara. Bashir was, of course, invited in open defiance of the March 4th ICC indictment, both to score a point against the international community (read “the US”) and to cement Issayas’ ever growing involvement with the Muslim and Arab world. This confirmed and accelerated Addis-Ababa’s rapprochement with Southern Sudan. Already in February, Ethiopia announced that it had contracted a Chinese company to build a $25m highway between Gambela, Ethiopia and Akobo. What it had not announced was that it was also giving the Juba government discreet but growing military support. The relationship has now gone even deeper since the Ethiopian Prime Minister became an international advocate for the SPLA.

On March 31stthe Presidential Affairs Minister of the Southern Sudan government (GoSS), Luka Biong Deng, asked Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to raise the issue of South Sudan’s fiscal crisis at the G20 Summitin London the following Thursday. Due to a drop in world oil prices, the GoSS, which gets 99% of its income from the oil money payments transferred by Khartoum, has practically gone bankrupt. So now in a new twist of fate Meles finds himself being an advocate for the SPLA he had once banned from Ethiopian territory, while Issayas Afeworqi embraces President Bashir against whom he used to support that selfsame SPLA.

Of course, the first underlying layer of logic remains, as ever, the Ethio-Eritrean mutual hostility. Forty-eight years after the beginning of the Eritrean war of independence, the knives are still drawn. And Sudan remains the third angle of the triangle, now cozying up to one of the players and then trying to stab him.

Among students of the Horn’s regional history, the prize money goes to those who can explain the underlying logic of the continuities buttressing these apparent contradictions. Any takers?

Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophefocuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.

Recent Comments

  1. Simon

    Good analysis Mr. prunier.
    Unfortunately the strategic musical chairs will continue as long as western (UNSC permanent member) countries abuse their powers and are more interested in Realpolitik rather than international rule of law and justice.
    In the case of Eritrea, it goes back to the end of second world war when John Foster Dulles openly said
    “From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] be linked with our ally, Ethiopia.”
    and sealed Eritrea’s fate, till independence in 1993.
    knowing this, Eritrea made a lot of effort to be in the good books including offering its ports and airports.
    For a while Eritrea were praised by Clinton, and during the Bush admin by the likes of Donald Rumsfield


    This did not last, when the border war erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the old Realpolitik reared its ugly head, the state department chose its horse.
    Unfortunately this has lead to blatant disregard of many international rule of laws and used the UN as seal of convenience to hide behind.

    This includes:
    The manipulation of the yet to be implemented final and binding border demarcation that UN itself came up with. The then US ambassador to UN John Bolton let it slip about the fiasco on his memoir.


    Blatant American funding for Ethiopia to purchase arms from North Korea breaking a list of international laws and UN sanctions, yet UN remained quite.


    Diplomatic cover for the invasion of Somalia and atrocities in Ogaden in spite of most of the atrocities being corroborated by HRW, Amnesty, Red Cross etc.

    And much much more…. but you get the idea.

    The sad thing is, when countries and people are refused to win fairly and squarely by using international rule of law, it is inevitable they resort to playing with “strategic musical chairs”.

  2. Simon

    Mr. prunier.
    I have sent a comment with few links that has flagged it and is waiting for your approval. Thanks.

  3. Sam

    Eritrea reconciled with Khartum only after 2006. When war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, Addis Ababa cut off relation with SPLA and got closer to Khartum while Eritrea got very much involved in helping the SPLA and other oppositions to the Khartum regime. From 1998 to 2006 Addis Ababa, khartum and Yemen were trying to circle Asmara. Eritrea started reconcilation with khartum only after the Naivasha agreement between the South and khartum. Ethiopia kicked out SPLA in 1999 , reconciled with Khartum and has been attacking SPLA from 1999 to 2007. Eritrea’s help to the SPLA was critical in forcing khartum to sign the CPA in 2005.

  4. Mengesha

    Meles is the almighty, he will not only to continue rule Ethiopia but also Africa. He is the most intelegience person on earth that is why the west are with him they can not afford to be without him. Well done Meles!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Dave

    It seems Meles Zenaw has outsmarted both Eritrea and Sudan and took full control of international policy on the region. Anyway, the fact that all their countries are fighting proxy wars is very sad. This is the source of the crisis in the Horn of Africa.

  6. sami

    Hahahaha….Mengesha ….are you kidding? Africa by meles…..meles is Agame… so how could u expect to lead africa….may be africa will be in better if isseyas might be the leader….coz he is brave and he is honest…

  7. Simon

    It is nothing to do with Meles being smart, but Realpolitik, population size, possible huge future market and business interests.

  8. Abrehet

    This shows that all the three leaders of these countries do whatever it takes to manupulate and outdo the other, and stay in power. They do not care about the welfare of their peoples, the cost to their respective countries’ economies. They are the typical ignorant, and savage african dictators. All three have been in power for 20 or more years, and they just want to continue governing at any cost.

  9. Brhane

    Mr. Prunier,

    I think you should do your homework before writing a lazy article that doesn’t reflect reality. Your article would be a good rumor fodder for the diplomatic and NGO corps in Addis Ababa in one of their gatherings.

    If you did your homework you would have seen the fundamental difference between the Eritrean government and the other governments around Eritrea. The Melles regime is simply a puppet of the western powers, specially the US and does what he is told by his masters, including invading a sovereign nation like he did with Somalia in December 2006.

    Eritrea’s support for the Sudanese opposition movements was and still is based on principle of equal participation in national governance, unfortunately most of the political entities (including the opposition) concentrated more on their short term tactical advantages instead of the strategic view of their country, that is why now the SPLM is being used by Melles as a tool for the benefit of US foreign policy, sooner or later the SPLM will figure out that temporary alliance with Melles is like a kiss of death. The SPLM after the harsh principled criticism it got from President Isayas has started to see the light and is asking for renewed consultations.

    This is but a short synapsis of what I would like to share with you, one can fill pages and pages of articles to properly explain the nature of relationships between governments in the Horn of Africa, short and snazzy articles don’t do justice to the people who bearing the brunt of the results of super power policies.

  10. Solomon Dagnew

    This article reveals an accurate historical account of the Horn Africa regional politics. However, the article fails to explain the support Meles gets from the Western powers that has tipped the balance teb:one against Eritrea. Despite all the media, political and monetary support by the Western powers to Meles, sometimes in the form of food aid to the victims of hunger in order to make Meles the regional leader of some sort, it fails to materialize. Eritrea with no more than 5 million and Ethiopia with fifteen times larger population magnitude with constant injection of cash to keep Ethiopia’s economy afloat the country is no closer to supporting its citizens today than it was twenty years ago. Some argue, Ethiopia faired better back twenty years ago than today.

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