Taming al Shabaab: Lessons from Ethiopia

As Kenya reels from yet another terror attack in which non-locals were targeted in Wajir, Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alem says vigilance and collective responsibility on security are key to tackling the scourge

In Summary

• Though Ethiopia has a strong military presence in Somalia, it has had fewer terror attacks than Kenya

• Under Amisom peacekeeping mission, Ethiopia has between 9,000 and 15,000 troops manning sector 3, which comprises Bay, Bakool and Gedo

Ethiopia's Ambassador Meles Alem
Ethiopia's Ambassador Meles Alem

Before terrorism had been declared a global challenge, Ethiopia was already grappling with it in the early 90s and 2000s. However, it has managed to deal with the problem due to vigilance from the public.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Star, Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alem explained how comes his country now suffers fewer attacks than Kenya, despite also neighbouring Somalia and having a strong military presence there.

He also discussed the border conflicts with Kenya, the dam row with Egypt, Kenya's bid for the UN Security Council and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's award-winning leadership that has ruffled some feathers.


Under the Amisom peacekeeping mission, Ethiopia has between 9,000 and 15,000 troops manning sector 3, which comprises Bay, Bakool and Gedo. Kenya, on the other hand, has about 2,400 troops manning sector 2.

Global terrorism database compiled by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (better known as Start) classifies the risk of terrorism in Ethiopia over the past years as low, compared to other countries.

Security should not be the preserve of security agencies. It should be an all-collective effort aimed at weeding out terror elements.
Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alem

Both Kenya and Ethiopia battle with the militia group al Shabaab, but Kenya has proved more vulnerable.

Start said over the past five years, 46 terrorist incidents have been reported in Ethiopia, in which 361 people have been killed and 160 injured. In the same period between 2013 and 2017, Kenya has suffered 373 terror attacks, leaving 929 people dead, 1,149 injured and 666 taken hostage.

 “Ours is a success story from the members of the public. Our vibrant Nyumba Kumi model has played a key role in the detection and prevention of these attacks,” Alem said.

“Security should not be the preserve of security agencies. It should be an all-collective effort aimed at weeding out terror elements.”

 “An Ethiopian knows not only who is living next door but also who else is living in the neighbourhood. This awareness isn’t security-oriented. Rather, it is the product of a social fabric that is based on good neighbourliness,” he said.




Amb Alem said corruption is a serious threat to the economy of the two countries and called for proactive mechanisms to tackle it.

“Corruption is blatant theft in broad daylight, and it should be just be called by its name. It has become not only a security issue but smoothing oil for transitional crimes,” the ambassador said.

He said major areas of kleptocracy in rent-seeking and state capture are tax-related, land administration, government contracts and bidding.

“Weak institutions is also an area that both countries need to work on. They must improve capacity and public awareness and serious prosecution,” he said.

Alem said only such stringent anti-corruption laws can tame people who are hell-bent on misusing public resources.

The ambassador said Ethiopia is well aware of Kenya’s bid to have a seat in the UN Security Council. He said his country has always taken principled decisions, and the African Union’s position on the matter remains Ethiopia’s position.

Amb Alem acknowledged that though Kenya and Ethiopia have never been at serious conflict, lack of resources, water and pasture along the border have resulted in some conflicts between the communities.

He said it is unfortunate that in the modern society, politics has been brought into the equation, hindering efforts to secure lasting peace.

“The border communities are families. A solution to lasting peace and stability is not a prescription by the media but sustainable development that will see these communities coexist,” he said.

The ambassador dismissed claims that Prime Minister Abiy’s leadership will likely result in war between the Somali and Afar communities. As a matter of fact, he said, the two communities are families and whatever is happening is nothing but just a family conflict.

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile Ethiopia with Eritrea and won international acclaim for his domestic reforms, but questions linger over the long-term impact.

“PM Abiy’s leadership is as clear as the sun,” Alem said. “He has taken bold and courageous steps to end the stalemate with Eritrea, which lasted for over 20 years. He played a key role in the pacification of Sudan, which was vital in preventing Sudan from falling.”

Former Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie receives a gift from KANU women when he visited Kenya
Former Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie receives a gift from KANU women when he visited Kenya

Alem said since Abiy took the reins, he has transformed Ethiopia, which was sliding into the abyss. This has created ample opportunity and fairness.

“Ethiopia for the past two years was characterised by violence and problematic situations, but the PM has made unparalleled economic and social reforms that led to the release of political prisoners, widening political space across the country,” he said.


Alem said Ethiopia as a country has the ultimate right to develop. This, he said, is affirmed by Abiy Ahmed’s resolve over the construction of the Renaissance Dam, largely opposed by Egypt.

Abiy has warned the project could lead to war, but that only consultation can resolve the current deadlock. However, Alem said the proposed dam, titled ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd)’, should remain an instrument for cooperation and not confrontation. The dam was formerly known as the Millennium Dam. 

Alem said Gerd should work to ensure that through their instruments, lives are changed in the region.

“It is unfair that 86 per cent of River Nile originates from Ethiopia, yet its usage is zero. We have over 65 million people in Ethiopia who are living in darkness, and this project seeks to turn around their lives,” Alem said.

The 6,650km Nile River runs from Lake Victoria, cuts through Uganda, flowing north through South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

The river has two main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. It is said the Blue Nile, which originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, contributes over 80 per cent of the water in the River Nile during the rainy season.

Alem said Ethiopia has the responsibility to develop its resources to bridge the gaps in additional energy. This project will not in any way tamper with the water flow as Egypt alleges, he said.

Instead, it will play a key role in preventing siltation in Sudan and Egypt, which has been a major contributor of annual floods. Alem said Ethiopia had consulted a panel of international experts, who advised on the viability of the project.

“No country has gone to war because of water and Ethiopia will not in any way go to war with its neighbours because of the same,” Alem said.

He said the forthcoming inauguration of the first birth of the Lapsset project will open more investments that will eventually facilitate the economic zone. The major worry remains the porous borders between the two countries that have allowed smuggling of illegal firearms.

“It is common knowledge that we share long, porous borders and each and every point cannot be controlled at the same time. This is the major contributor of illegal acts like human trafficking and contraband trade,” Alem said.


Alem said Ethiopia has had strong ties with China for years. These have resulted in strong partnership in infrastructure development.

While dismissing claims that China and Russia have joined the club of the Scramble for Africa, Alem said Kenya and Ethiopia are sovereign and independent states that have the right to choose whom they can partner with.

Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes remain a unifying factor at home, and that is the beauty of major competition in the global scenes. Alem said these athletes have served as ambassadors to the two countries.

However, sports diplomacy between the two countries remains the least explored, he said.

President Uhuru Kenyatta when he visited Ethiopia
President Uhuru Kenyatta when he visited Ethiopia

“Sports diplomacy needs to be worked on. We face same challenges. We are even seeing a trend where some disciplines that are mostly dominated by our sportsmen and women are being erased,” he said.

He said sporting in Ethiopia is big and thriving in the hospitality and transport sectors, and the two countries have room to learn from what the other is doing.

“There is Iten training centre, which is a state-of-the-art facility. Why can’t we have our athletes train here? We have seen Europeans and other people train there, why not incorporate us?” he asked.

The major challenge, the ambassador said, is cultural barriers. He said whereas there has been a tremendous improvement in people-to-people interactions, culture still limits in certain areas.

“We cannot confine Ethiopia to Addis Ababa and Kenya to Nairobi. We need to move out and create avenues to allow integration,” Meles said.

He said this can be achieved through twinning of institutions like learning and research centres.

Edited by Tom Jalio