The Zenawi Doctrine: Deter, Contain, Isolate - Part I

By Seyoum Tesfaye

The death of a national leader has, intended and unintended, implications for the internal and external policies of a given country. The implications might unfold in a paced protracted process or by way of an abruptly drastic shift. The particularities of each country’s political makeup and cumulative experience will determine the nature and magnitude of the policy reaffirmation or recalibration. The caliber, integrity and the level of professionalization in key national institutions will have a significant role in mitigating unforeseen negative factors that could frustrate and even sabotage the need for a structured smooth transition. A certain level of adjustment is inevitable –how drastic or how marginal will depend on all sorts of factors. In exceptional cases, the key national policies will not only outlive the leader, author and nurturer but also garner a strong second wind that generates intensity and wider currency reaffirming the policies of the deceased leader had received a genuine deep support within the population.

Whether or not post-Meles Ethiopia will follow the latter trajectory has yet to be seen. But if the intense and massive outpouring of national grief and the overriding thematic articulation and reaffirmation to continue the path of the Prim-Minister’s vision is indicative of what will follow it is unlikely that the general direction of Ethiopia’s political and economic transformation grand vision will be scaled down or abandoned. The domestic policy under the present ruling party most likely will stay the course and register double digit economical development and accelerate the modernization of Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s pivotal role in the Horn Region will be reinforced and further elevated. This is not only good for Ethiopia but will have a strategic importance and significance for the region.

The central focus of this article is to make a cursory assessment of Ethiopia’s Post-Badme War foreign policy towards Eritrea under the leadership of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi by the way of trying to answer few critical questions: What was the overall outline of the Zenawi Doctrin Vis a Vis Eritrea and the Eritrean government after 1998? How was the doctrine structured and executed? Will there be any policy “adjustment” towards Eritrea i.e. will the Meles Doctrine towards the Eritrean government be modified under the new leader?  Could the doctrine be expanded to include the idea of replacing or removing the regime in Asmara? Will that help or hinder the Eritrean oppositions’ struggle? How does the ruling party working relationship with the Eritrean opposition fit into the framework of the doctrine? How will the relationship between the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean opposition evolve in the absence of Prime-Minister Meles’ strategic role? What, by the way of policy adjustments, are needed to develop a more robust and synergetic relationship between the Eritrean opposition and Ethiopia’s ruling party under the new leader that could help nurture a more favorable impetus to the emergence of a democratic Eritrea as a good neighbor? Etc

As the leading architect of Ethiopian foreign policy towards Eritrea’s Sultanistic government, Prime Minster Meles Zenawi had framed and shepherded a comprehensive doctrine that can be encapsulated in a dynamically interrelated and integrated three political concepts; “Deterrence, Containment and Isolation”. The intelligently articulated triangulating doctrine has evolved into a coherent overarching foreign policy guiding principle post 1998 Ethio-Eritrea war. At the core of the dynamic doctrine is the strategy of doing everything possible, short of another full-blown war, to contain, influence and transform Isaias regime’s outlandish policies and actions (direct and proxy) towards Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa and to a certain extent towards its own people.  Whether this strategy would have evolved into an active effort to depose the government in Asmara had the Prime Minster not been taken away by a sudden death from the people of Ethiopia is one of the vexing question the writing will try to address.

The Zenawi Doctrine was anchored on seven interrelated policies that have become the bedrock of Ethiopia’s foreign policy towards the State of Eritrea and the government of Eritrea in the post Badme period:

  1. Prime Minster Zenawi tirelessly affirmed and reiterated that Eritrea’s sovereignty was irrevocable
  2. He reaffirmed, in many official and unofficial occasions, that Assab was an integral part of Eritrea’s sovereign territory.
  3. He made it clear that there was no fundamental conflict between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Whatever the difference it was and is between the two states and governments.
  4. He constantly rebuffed the Neo-Andent elements that surfaced inside the ruling party (mostly inside TPLF) by exposing their opportunist plan to use the Badme war as an excuse to remove the Eritrean government and annex Assab.
  5. Admitted the gross mistakes done by the Ethiopian government in deporting Eritreans during the heated days of the Badme War and formulate and advanced policies to rectify the mistake.
  6. Aggressively worked to rebuild the trust between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea by openly welcoming Eritrean refugees and offering the youth to continue their education etc.
  7. Assist the Eritrean opposition in various ways.


By the end of the Ethio- Eritrea war and the Algiers Agreement, signed on December 12, 2000, the structural foundation for Ethiopia’s military preeminence and preponderance in the Horn of Africa was established. Despite Isaias’ bombastic verbal warfare to conceal the bitter defeat and unwillingness to entertain the implementation of the Algiers Agreement with minor modification, as of 2000 the balance of force, both in a real sense and perception wise, has pronouncedly shifted in favor of Ethiopia. The possibility of the Eritrean regime waging another full-fledged war against Ethiopia was laid to rest due to the overwhelming Ethiopian military superiority and institutionalized leadership. The predisposition of Isaiais to utilize force as a way of influencing neighboring states was dealt a decisive blow setting a clear deterrence against contemplating another adventurous incursion into Ethiopia.

The key component of the Zenawi Doctrine -deterrence – commenced first by reversing Isaias’ unprovoked military aggression decisively and creating favorable conditions for containing and isolating the Asmara government within the region. Isaias’ militarized mind and his well engrained excessive tendency to use force as a way of changing the reality on the ground directly lead to the rearming and rebuilding of the Ethiopian Armed forces with formidable deterrence capability. The key point is that the formulation of the doctrine was in reaction to the unprovoked aggression by Isaias’ government.

Gordan A Craig the co-author of Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time (published in 1995) defines deterrence as:   
"deterrence consisting essentially of an effort by one actor to persuade an opponent not to take action of some kind against his interests by convincing the opponent that the costs and risks of doing so will outweigh what he hopes to gain thereby". (Page 179)

It is obvious that The Eritrean government’s decision to avoid direct military confrontation with Ethiopia and opt for waging multi-faceted proxy war was a result of the tacit recognition of the overwhelming deterrence capacity of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.  Eritrea government’s cost benefit analysis had to have factored the devastating potential result that will ensue with another direct war.  Leaving the boisterous rhetoric and media posture of the Eritrean government aside and analyzing the real behavior of the regime, for the last 12 years, it is clear it has tacitly come to terms with the overwhelming deterrence capability of the Ethiopian State.

On November 25, 2004 in a speech to Members of the House of Peoples Representative on the Ethiopia –Eritrea Border Issue Prime Minster Meles Zenawi presented the Five Point Peace Plan. In his speech he made the following point:

“The Ethiopian people and Government have made it clear that while, on the one hand, we will always remain vigilant to defend the country and enhance its defensive capability for that purpose, we on the other, demonstrated our unwillingness to go to war with Eritrea or with any other country. On the contrary, given all desire to avoid all situations that would detract us from our major goal of fighting poverty, our approach has focused on resolving all issues by exercising patience, through give and take and through principled dialogue and negotiation. We have also reaffirmed, through a variety of ways, to continue pursuing the ongoing effort for peace.”

While declaring the Ethiopian government’s unwillingness to go to war, the Prime Minister underscored a linkage between interference with the number one “goal of fighting poverty” and the implied threshold for Ethiopia jettisoning this strategic posture if the Eritrea regime’s interference and obstructionist policy directly endangers its transformative developmental agenda. The door for resolving the Ethio-Eritrea conflict in peaceful way was encapsulated in the statement; “Our approach has focused on resolving all issues by exercising patience, through give and take and through principled dialogue and negotiation”.

The Deterrence was articulated in a diplomatically nuanced articulation, never the less, it was made public. The linkage, in diplomatic terms, conveys an implied forewarning to the government in Asmara: if and when Ethiopia comes to the conclusion that the government in Asmara has become a clear and present danger capable of torpedoing its “major goal of fighting poverty” Ethiopia’s patience would run out. What will ensue if and when Ethiopia’s patience runs out is shrouded in deliberate ambiguity expanding the repertoire of possible punitive measures. This was Ethiopia’s declared posture eight years back. Since 2004 Ethiopia’s deterrence capacity has been honed and augmented with regional experiences and leadership posture.

The military capability of the Ethiopian State, post-Badme War, has been strategically transformed elevating The State of Ethiopia into a bona fide regional power with tremendous deterrence capital.

  • It has shifted from an armed forces basically composed of the anti-Derge fighters that crushed Derge’s military machine to a  national army composed of members from all nationalities, with one caveat: the top leadership still more eschewed in favor of the liberation struggle organizations.
  • It has established higher institutions that will guarantee highly educated modern military leadership that is imbued with loyalty to the constitution and national flag and a sense of commitment to the central national agenda of economic transformation. Institutionalizing the process of National Army building in the context of federal set up was taking shape.
  • It has acquired a significant military experience through its ventures into Somalia in 2007( putting the political evaluation of the incursions aside) the Ethiopia’s armed forces have managed to project a formidable regional capability and acquired practical experience in modernized deployment. Regional leaders (except the Eritrean leadership) and critical global actors have taken notice of this qualitative development.
  • The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) has been recognized as one of the most experienced and reliable regional force capable of serving as a Blue Hat (UN Peace Force) and member of the Joint African Union force.  It has been deployed in Cote d’lvoir, Burundi, Rwanda Liberia, Darfur, between North and South Sudan. This experience further enriched the learning curve of the Armed forces and garnered more international recognition (build international political capital).
  • It has redeveloped and rebuilt its strategic relationship with the USA (that was once ruptured by Derg) on the basis of a wider agenda including but not exclusively focused on the joint anti- terrorist agenda.  This, of course, implies a very close intelligence sharing cooperation with the Western Powers and the establishment of a highly trained anti-terrorist elite mobile force. This strategic shift became more pronounced after the infamous Badme War- a mere 14 years.
  • The signing of the Ethio-Sudan and the Ethio-Kenya Joint Security/Military Cooperation Agreements adds another dimension to Ethiopia’s proactive strategic prepositioning through bilateral agreements that will assure its security and contribution to regional stability.
  • The Strategic Partnership Agreement (pact) signed between Ethiopia and Rwanda has a clearly expressed clause dealing with “defense and security affairs”.

The cornerstone of the Zenawi Doctrine is anchored on this kind of dynamically evolving deterrence capability with an accelerated learning curve. According to Global the ENDF has one of the largest army in Africa “about 200,000 personnel as of November 2011” and by contrast “during the 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, the ENDF mobilized strength reached approximately 350,000”. Scaled down in size but qualitatively transformed in line with the country’s central agenda; national development of defeating poverty and backwardness.  According to GFP –Global Firepower.Com’s 7/5/2011 report on global military power ranking Ethiopia is ranked 44 out of the top 55 countries (only other three African countries ranked are Egypt 16, South Africa 31 and Algeria 38) with a total of 703 aircraft, 61 serviceable airports, a defense budget of $450, 000,000(US dollar) and active military of 182,500.  When examined in a regional context these indicators register a magnified importance pointing to Ethiopia’s robust deterrence capability.

Building on its ever expanding military capability, the doctrine expands to incorporate the second tier of the cohesive strategy of containing the Eritrean regime. In laymen terms containment is about confining destructive element to its own premises. It is equivalent to quarantining a person with contagious disease. In the diplomatic world it is an overarching strategic concept deployed to deal with a dangerous states and reckless regimes internationally and regionally.

In the words of the George F Kennan, the coiner of the word and concept of Containment:

“In these circumstances it is clear the main element of any United States policy towards the Soviet Union must be that of a long –term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note however that such a policy has nothing to do with outside histrionics: with threat or blustering or superfluous gesture of outward “toughness”. ___ For these reason it is sine qua non of successful dealing Russia the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and its demands on Russian policy should be put in such a manner as to leave a way open for compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.” (The Source of the Soviet Conduct By X- From Foreign Affairs 1947)

Under the leadership of Isaias the State of Eritrea has gone to war with all neighboring states since its independence. Ethiopia’s posture before the 1998 Ethio- Eritrea military conflagration towards the Eritrea government was one of benign tolerance and accommodation to organized illegal activities of the Eritrean government inside Ethiopia. Whether the ruling front (EPRDF) had drawn the correct conclusion about the possibility of Isaias attacking Ethiopia, as it has done its other neighbors, is doubtful. Whether it was blind trust or misguided naiveté one cannot postulate without access to the minutes of top leadership internal conversation at that time. But post-Badme the regional matrix has been drastically transformed due to policy adjustment made by EPRDF’s top leadership with Prime Minister Melese Zenawi at the head.

The genesis of the Zenawi Doctrine is directly related with the Ethio- Eritrea war but moving forward it was enriched and developed to have regional dimension befitting an emerging regional power.  The doctrine has evolved to full maturation in a matter of a decade. The flip side of the rebuilding of the military capability of Ethiopian State is the construction and implementation of a containment policy. It will not be exaggeration if one was to assume that Prime Minster Zenawi had correctly absorbed the essence of Kennan’s principle of containment and applied it to the specifics of the Horn of Africa reality with surgical precision to the determent of the inflexible and un-transformed and un-institutionalized Eritrean leadership.

After the signing of the Algiers Agreement the Eritrean leadership shifted its focus towards waging a multi-faceted destructive proxy war against the Ethiopian state and its primary nemesis- TPLF. It went as far as scrapping the implementation of the finalized constitution. It liquidated the process to institution building and became full-fledged authoritarian regime without any accountability. Isaias and his handpicked kitchen cabinet conducted mass arrest and suspended any semblance legal structure in Eritrea. In order to wage an extensive and expansive  protracted proxy war against the Zenawi administration the government in Asmara had to crush any sense of demand or even basic enquiry  about why the Ethio- Eritrea war started, who made the decision to go to war and how the war was conducted and why Eritrea lost the war. While Ethiopia embarked on a massive effort to nation building and modernization the government in Asmara started wagering all national mind, resource and manpower into its number one agenda: bringing regime change in Addis Ababa through proxy war.

The Zenawi doctrine’s counter strategy was to blunt Asmara’s proxy war with well thought-out containment plan. The political underpinning of this counter strategy was the official declaration to accept the decision of the Arbitration Committee on the border issue with a caveat that demands direct dialogue to implement the arbitration’s decision and to address the root cause that lead to 1998 War.  The “No war- No peace” status quo, between Ethiopia and Eritrea is the political battlefield where these two contradictory strategies- proxy war and containment – has been unfolding. The Eritrean leadership failed to creatively come up with a counter proposal to Ethiopia’s Five Point proposal. Transfixed in demanding, ad nauseam, that the border be demarcated without any dialogue, the Eritrean government cornered itself in a no-win situation. It does not have the military, political or diplomatic leverage to force the Ethiopian government to unconditionally implement the border demarcation. The first pillar of the Zenawi Doctrine: deterrence has delivered the intended result. The Eritrean government was rendered impotent in the face a well designed doctrine with military, political, diplomatic and social components managed by a cohesive national leadership.

Eritrea’s ability to militarily change the balance of force in its favor had evaporated. The hot war (direct war) was now replaced by a more complicated indirect war where the battle needs institutionalized leadership, diplomatic skill and the ability to forge regional coalitions. This is the turf where the second and the third components of the Doctrine: containment and isolation have been deployed.  Prime Minister Zenawi excelled in choreographing and orchestrating these diplomatic operas like a maestro by exhibiting exceptional statesman’s leadership rarely seen in African politics. By contrast the Eritrean leadership failed to evolve into a non-ideological learning institution. It became a nostalgic football “team” with only one player playing goal keeper, offense and defense to the exclusion of other Eritrean mind. The more it could not force Ethiopia to finalize the border demarcation the more the sultanistic government became contrarian, strident and irrational. The difference in strategy has produced two vivid outcomes: An internationally recognized global player Ethiopia and a contained and isolated State of Eritrea.

Disclaimer: the effort to frame the overall cohesive policy shepherded by the late Ethiopian Prime Minster towards addressing the direct and indirect aggressive policy of the Isaias’ government towards Ethiopia and the ruling party – EPDRF represents my independent perspective. In part two and three I will try to review how the potent Doctrine contained and isolated the Asmara government and created the favorable conditions for a possible “Hard Containment”.                 

{jcomments off}