Ethiopia: Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Africa's volatile Horn

Roy Love


Terrorism and insurgency may come from opposition within a country or external forces. In response, states are often faced with treading a fine line between the enforcement of counterterrorism measures and infringements of civil liberties, with some deliberately swinging the balance in favour of the former, at the expense of the latter, for self-serving political ends. Until early 2018 the Ethiopian government regularly faced accusations of this kind, principally through its use of anti-terrorism and state of emergency legislation to repress opposition, and which, by declaring an opposition group, such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a terrorist organisation, gave power to the authorities to detain indefinitely a wide range of suspected sympathisers. In 2018, however, following a period of increasing civil discontent, a radical change of leadership in the ruling alliance, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), introduced a more inclusive, conciliatory approach to opposition. The primary change was the appointment in April 2018 of a new Prime Minister, Abiye Ahmed, from the Oromo party of the coalition, thus marking a radical change from the past. Early actions then included the release of all political prisoners, unbanning of previously proscribed opposition parties, rapprochement and restoration of diplomatic relations with neighbouring Eritrea, creation of new opportunities tor incoming foreign investment, and the formation ot a new Cabinet with women comprising 50% of its membership.

At the same time, however, some inter-ethnic conflicts across the country have either persisted or emerged. These include the deep-rooted existing conflict on the border between Oromia and Somali federal regions, displacing, by mid-1918, over a million people; more recent clashes at the Benishangul-Gumuz border region with Oromia, displacing a further 70,000; and Sidama speakers fleeing from Bale in Oromia. In mid-1918 there have also been ethnically driven clashes in Addis Ababa, an attempted grenade attack on Abiye Ahmed as he addressed a large public gathering in the city, and the police discovery of a cache of weapons in a track entering the city.

While, therefore, the positive nature of the changes has introduced a period of general, if cautious, optimism about the future, several significant threats remain. These include a potential spread of these regional ethnically based conflicts; a reaction from disaffected members of the former government or their allies in the armed forces; civil disorder during the run-up to the planned 2020 national elections; and, relatedly, open divisions appearing within the ruling EPRDF. Externally, the potential terrorist threat from al Shabaab in Somalia remains high, bordering as it does with the Somali region of Ethiopia. At the same time, the absence of any regime change in Eritrea leaves considerable uncertainty on how the new relationship will evolve under open borders. In the meantime, existing counterterrorism and other controlling legislation remain in place, although discussions to amend the Anti-terrorism Act have taken place (Ethiopian News Agency 2018), and the risks that events may unfold in such a way as to bring them into play once again are high. The country’s record in this respect in recent years has been widely criticised by international human rights observers as having been harshly and indiscriminately implemented in such a way to crush all significant opposition. This raises the more general question of how far the state may infringe on civil and human rights in a context of terrorism and counterterrorism, mostly when the authorities regard opposition within the country as a security threat.

This chapter, therefore, begins with a conceptual note on the degree to which state counterterrorism activities may be allowed to infringe on legitimate political freedoms, as a prelude to a brief historical overview of key elements of the legacy of history in the Ethiopian case. There then follows a summary of post-1991 externally sourced terrorist incidents in the country before moving on to sections on opposition within Ethiopia, regional and Ethiopian counterterrorism response, and the effectiveness of counterterrorism in Ethiopia. The chapter concludes with a look at the continuing challenges of counterterrorism in Ethiopia, ranging from the domestic risks attached to the radical changes introduced in 2018 by the latest Prime Minister, Abiye Ahmed, to the continuing threat from the Islamist group, al Shabaab in Somalia, and from conflict in Yemen and the increasing presence of Arabian, Western, Turkish and Chinese bases spread along the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf coastlines of the Horn.

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