Martin Plaut

“The Fate of Ethiopia is Tied to the Fate of the Horn of Africa.”

Martin Plaut is not new to the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa, having amassed more than three decades of experience in the region, starting as a journalist with the BBC World Service in 1984. He has reported from most of East Africa, as well as some parts of West Africa, and but his specialty lies in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa. He later served as the Africa Editor for the BBC World Service News and published extensively on African affairs. Currently, he is working as an adviser to the United States Department of State and Senior Researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.Plaut has also advised the government of the United Kingdom in matters of the Horn of Africa. His research interests are African politics and economics, colonies and colonization as well as emigration and immigration. He is the author of “Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s most repressive state (2016), “Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa”, and recently he authored “Robert Mugabe” with Sue Onslow.

However,“Understanding Eritrea” is his most famous book. In the book, Plaut, a veteran observer of Eritrean affairs, produced valuable reading for all those interested in better understanding Eritrea and provides an all-encompassing coverage of history. His latest book, which he authored with Onslow in 2018, is a biography of Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe. The book describes Mugabe’s formative experiences as a child and young man; his role as an admired Afro-nationalist leader in the struggle against white settler rule; and his evolution into a political manipulator and survivalist.

All of his works, including those related to the Horn, were initiated because of his engagement in the region for over three decades, and his relationship with known figures in these countries and of course partly due to his academic interest. Even after retiring from the BBC, Plaut is still active in the politics of the Horn of Africa; a region which he believes has assets beyond its strategic location. He has observed the increase in influence of global and regional powers in the Horn of Africa, which he believes was driven by diverse factors. Despite the increase in the influence, Plaut still believes that most nations in the Horn are keen to preserve their autonomy. He shared his opinions and concerns in an exclusive interview with EBR’s Samson Berhane.

EBR: What are the driving factors for the increasing engagement of Gulf nations and super powers in Horn of Africa geopolitics?
Plaut: I think they are diverse. On the one hand the USA, the Saudis and the UAE all wanted to end the stalemate in the Horn which left Ethiopia and Eritrea incapable of moving forward. The primary concern of all these nations has been the fight against terrorism. Of course, the Saudis and UAE have their own agenda: heading off the Iranians. Ending the stalemate gave them potential allies in this cause, which could possibly draw Eritrea and (but less likely) Ethiopia into this conflict.

So, can we say the Horn of Africa has been an easy playground for these countries?
I would not agree. Most nations in the Horn are keen to preserve their autonomy. Djibouti is different, being so small and hence so vulnerable. It has few assets beyond its strategic location. Somalia, not having had an effective government since the overthrow of its former head, Siad Barre, is also at risk. But Eritrea and Ethiopia have both shown that they are able to look after themselves among most situations.

But do you think countries in the easternmost part of Africa are in a position to promote their own interests under the existing situation in the Gulf nations?
Up to a point – yes. But all the states in the Horn are relatively poor, which does mean they are open to financial inducements (overt and covert).

Recently the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia signed an agreement in Saudi Arabia. While the African Union’s role didn’t extend beyond observation, the Gulf nations played a huge role in the normalization of relations between the two countries. This seems to be a shift from the peace and security of the Horn being grounded in African institutions, to being grounded in Middle Eastern principles and processes.
I think we can say that both African and Middle Eastern institutions have a degree of influence in Ethiopia and Eritrea. But if one looks carefully, it is clear that this has been the case for many years. The changes have been subtle and have come over many years, but Ethiopia, for one, is still clearly firmly tied to its African roots.

The late Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi’s biggest fear was the combination of the Egyptian agenda and the Gulf money, which he thought would undermine the autonomy of Ethiopia. Do you think that is happening, considering the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and UAE in Horn of Africa politics?
Yes, but frankly the sovereignty of all nations (except, perhaps the giants, like China and the United States) are only limited. Consider, for a moment, the difficulty Britain is experiencing in attempting to leave the European Union – and Britain is the fifth richest country in the world!

There is, however, a fear that the UAE might control ports located in the Horn. In fact, UAE already has a big foothold in Assab and Berbera ports. Do you think that will weak Ethiopia’s position?
Not really. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was clever enough to move rapidly after assuming office. He has made many ties and has many alternatives – including Kenya, Somalia and Eritrea. This will assist in maintaining Ethiopia’s autonomy.

Is it possible for Ethiopia to renew its policy towards Egypt with the recent developments in the Horn?
Possibly, but the situation is too complex and fluid for any clear predictions.

The Ethiopian government claims that its relations with Gulf nations are based on mutual benefits and understanding. Is this possible while the Gulf nations have the upper hand in resources?
Like all international relationships it depends on how this develops. There can be no clear answer. Take a different example: Britain used its relationship with Mauritius to remove the Chagos archipelago or Chagos Islands located in the Indian Ocean about 500 kilometers south of the Maldives three years ahead of independence. This was a clear abuse of Britain’s status as a colonial power, which is still being fought. At the same time Britain has – from time to time – defended the rights of the smaller members of the Commonwealth via its position as a member of the United States Security Council. We will have to wait and see.

What about the influence of super powers in the region. Is the influence of the United States and western countries increasing? If so, do you think that will undermine the sovereignty of nation in the Horn?
Up to a point, yes. But consider the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union down the years: both have thrown vast sums of money and military supplies into the Horn, with only limited success, when it comes to increasing their influence.

After decades of departure, Russia is renewing its interest in the Horn by signing an agreement with the government of Eritrea in order to set up a logistics center on the Red Sea. What is your reflection on this?
Russia is playing catch-up. It is way behind the curve and has a long way to go before it can rival the influence of the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE or even China.

Why do you think economic integration seems impossible in the Horn, despite the presence of institution such as The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)?
It is because of the interests of individual nations. Being a member of a regional organization requires pooling sovereignty, which can be difficult. It means allowing some of your rights as a nation state to be decided in conjunction with others. United States President Donald Trump attacked the United Nations recently exactly for similar reason. But NEPAD and IGAD have managed to facilitate good co-operation on a whole range of issues – from the Law of the Sea to regulations governing the non-military use of outer space. Over time there is no reason why the Horn should not develop a common economic zone, like the European Union: it just requires political will.

In your perception, what should be the role of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa affairs, including economic integration?
Ethiopia should be a proud member of the region: it has an extraordinary history and rightly is the home to the African Union. At the same time if it can resolve its internal difficulties (which are not inconsiderable) it could be able to lead the region’s economic development and peaceful integration. In the end the fate of Ethiopia is tied to the fate of the region. Ethiopia has been sucked into the conflict in Somalia. If Eritrea descends into chaos and conflict (for example) it will be hard for Ethiopia to remain uninvolved.

Ethiopia has signed agreements with Somaliland, a de facto state to buy 19Pct stake in Berbera Port. Is it legally right, according to international laws, for Ethiopia to sign agreements with countries unrecognized by the United Nations?
I am not an international lawyer, but Somaliland is close to being officially recognized as an independent nation. In the end this should be decided through a referendum in which its people decide their fate – possibly overseen by the African Union and the United Nations. There is no point in attempting to maintain a fictitious unity with Somalia if its people truly resist this.

7th Year • Oct.16 – Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67

Samson Berhane


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