Ethiopia’s Road to Regional Integration

By Yousif Yahya

On June 28, Ethiopia was elected to one of the 10 non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. Although Ethiopia is one of Africa’s rising stars with a rapidly growing economy, the recent election is contentious since the country’s location has kept it in the middle of geopolitical conflicts—some of which have been frozen for decades, draining the resources of the countries involved. In order for Ethiopia to be perceived as a credible regional and global power, it should seize this opportunity to resolve its conflicts, integrate the region's economy, and address issues of common interest. 

In the U.N.’s history, Ethiopia has represented the African bloc three times. Due to the African Group's established mechanism of rotation among five sub-regions, elections for the African seats tend to be uncontested, as was the case with Ethiopia for the position of Eastern African representative. Even though it secured overwhelming support from 185 of the 193 U.N. member states, five countries, including Eritrea and Egypt, voted against it. 

Ethiopia has been in conflict with neighboring Eritrea since 1998 because of a territorial disagreement. After the war between the two countries ended in 2000, the U.N.-established Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruled that Badme, the pivotal town in the border dispute, belonged to Eritrea. Ethiopia, however, has yet to comply with the ruling. Because of this unresolved issue, relations between the two countries have remained tense, with each spending tremendous amounts of money to stay on high alert and stifling the flow of goods and services across their shared border. Additionally, they have been accused of fighting a proxy war in Somalia by providing arms to opposing sides. Today, the Eritrea-Ethiopia dispute is one of the main reasons for the region’s instability and laggard development. Governments have focused on defense spending in response to this volatility, ignoring vital infrastructure and education programs, and thus causing capital and resources to flee the region. 

Egypt is another neighboring country that Ethiopia must improve its relations with. In 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan signed the Khartoum document that outlined the terms of moving forward with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The agreement was not a final resolution for the problematic venture, and the Egyptian government has since withdrawn its support. Currently, Egypt is speaking about “internationalizing” the issue and submitting a complaint to the U.N. Ethiopia has every right to build the dam, but it needs to resolve the issue with Egypt before starting its term on the Security Council. If it doesn’t, Ethiopia will soon find itself in a position where its national interest is in conflict with its new position as a regional representative.

Other regional bodies are supportive of Ethiopia’s election to the Security Council seat. Ambassador Mahboub Maalim, the secretary general of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the trade bloc for the Horn of Africa, said on behalf of the organization that it recognizes Ethiopia's election to the Security Council position as a well-deserved achievement, given its historic contributions to Africa’s stability and its political and socioeconomic aspirations. He saluted Ethiopia for making the regional bloc proud and expressed confidence in its ability to represent the African continent.

Although Ethiopia is landlocked in the Horn of Africa and engaged in conflict, it has made tremendous strides in developing its economy. The government privatized a number of state-owned enterprises, which allowed foreign capital to flow into the country, and opened the door for more to follow. However, its growth is accompanied by corruption and a weak rule of law; like in other frontier economies, this hinders Ethiopia’s ability to reach its full potential. But its growth is not hindered by just internal challenges: Ethiopia’s leaders need to understand that the country can only continue to develop if the region is not destabilized by war, poverty, and disease. The Ethiopian government should lead by example and match its words with action when it comes to regional cooperation and integration. Four of the eight members of IGAD are suffering from internal conflict. If these conflicts are brought to an end, countries in the region can develop infrastructure projects linking to one another. This integration would make it easier for goods and services to travel across borders, and less attractive for people to migrate to Europe. 

Critics call the Security Council undemocratic and argue that it needs to be reformed to reflect the reality of the 21st century—one that is drastically different from that of the 20th century. If this happens, Ethiopia could only ever hope to secure a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council if it implements its outstanding U.N. resolutions and holds true to the prime minister’s mission for his country’s current term. 

But for today, Ethiopia can ensure that it rises as a regional power by tying up loose ends. If it does, Ethiopia will be met with support by the countries that voted against it—the kind of support it needs to stabilize the region and alleviate poverty.



Yousif Yahya is a research assistant at the World Policy institute from Sudan, with interests in development and investment in East Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Yahya_Unchained.

[Photo courtesy of UNIDO]

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