The visit to Ankara of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 18 August was significant. The signing of bilateral agreements between Turkey and Ethiopia introduces another world power into Horn of Africa politics. Turkey's bilateral agreements with Ethiopia are likely to tilt the balance of power in the ongoing negotiations about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the conflict in Tigray region.
According to News Business Ethiopia, Turkish and Ethiopian officials signed a military cooperation agreement in the presence of the leaders of the two countries. They also signed an agreement on skill sharing and the financing of resources for water management. According to the prime minister's office in Addis Ababa, a number of memorandums of understanding were also signed, covering military cooperation, finance and water resources.
The MoU covering the latter is significant as it strengthens the legitimacy of the GERD on the River Nile amidst opposition from the downstream governments in Sudan and Egypt. It also sends a clear signal about Turkey's position on the issue. Moreover, it lets Turkey's "new African friends" know about its support for Ethiopia's right to utilise its own natural water resources from the Nile. Egypt and Sudan are thus likely to be isolated as they continue to oppose the dam. The Turkey-Ethiopia agreement is also is likely to embolden other Nile riparian nations to go ahead with their plans to construct dams for similar purposes.
Turkey's decision to support Ethiopia is informed by its own ambition to push its influence in Africa. Over the past 15 years, it has gradually intensified its political and economic ties with African countries. Its involvement has become more visible in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in East Africa.
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The military agreement signed during Ahmed's visit to Ankara visit involves cooperation in what has been viewed as Turkey's tacit support for the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and its efforts against insurgents in Tigray. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which has dominated Ethiopia's politics and economy over the years, has been defying the federal government in Addis Ababa since September last year. The government called for the postponement of the Tigray regional elections scheduled for that month due to Covid-19. The TPLF went ahead regardless, and the results were duly rejected by Addis Ababa, which declared them to be null and void.
In November, TPLF insurgents attacked the regional ENDF positions. It was that attack which triggered the current conflict in Tigray. Having said that, many believe that the insurgency was premeditated. When Abiy Ahmad came to power in 2018, his government promised to root out corruption and deal with those who were accused of human rights violations in the past. Fearing reprisals, senior members of the TPLF retreated to Tigray's regional capital Mekelle, where plans to start an insurgency resumed in earnest. Many TPLF officials who had influential roles in the previous government and the military stand accused of rights abuses and corruption charges, and are thus threatened by the federal prime minister's anti-corruption drive.
Efforts to bring stability to Tigray continue and the government has declared a unilateral ceasefire to allow desperately needed aid to be delivered. At the same time, Ethiopia has pressed on to finish the GERD. Egypt and Sudan oppose the construction of the dam, arguing that it will have an impact on the flow of Nile water and consequently their citizens and economy. Ethiopia and other African countries argue for their right to use the Nile in order to augment their energy requirements.
African countries have been angered by Egypt's insistence on taking the dispute to the UN instead of giving African diplomacy a chance. The current situation has emboldened Ethiopia and could further isolate Egypt. The signing of bilateral agreements between Ethiopia and Turkey will influence the politics of both the dam and Tigray. With regard to the former, Turkey's involvement is likely to weaken Egyptian pressure on Ethiopia regionally and at the UN.
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Although Turkey has been the last of the major powers to expand formal relations with Africa, Turkish NGOs have been pushing cultural exposure across the continent. The new bilateral agreements with Ethiopia are certainly part of the effort to improve those relations. Ethiopia is a strategically-important country, with the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa. Importantly, without Ethiopia it will difficult to maintain stability in the Horn of Africa, as it has the strongest armed forces in the region, an essential factor for regional security and the protection of maritime traffic passing from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.