Ethiopia’s Unnoticed Soft Power: How Ethiopia is using Higher education as a tool to influence Somalia’s future generations.

By Asad Cabdullahi Mataan
Somali people are very sensitive and suspicios about all activities of Ethiopia. They see Ethiopia as the number one enemy of Somali people and country. The animosity towards Ethiopia did not result from previous wars only but it is the consequence of Ethiopia’s constant aggression, invasion and political interferences in Somalia. Somali people feel that their country is occupied by land-locked Ethiopia and the aim of this occupation is to takeover Somalia’s territory to gain access to their sea. Every step that Ethiopia takes, no matter how good it seems, is looked with suspicious eyes and branded as ill-intended conspiracy.
However, a very small number of Somali people noticed the soft power that Ethiopia has been exercising to influence Somali policies, culture and even the feeling of Somali people feeling towards it. In this short article, I will highlight one of the soft powers that Ethiopia uses as an instrument to change our views towards it and the possible outcome: Higher education.
Soft power is the opposite of hard power which is using military power or coercion to change the behavior of a state. The term soft power was coined by the political theorist and Harvard University professor Joseph Nye in 1990. He defined soft power as “to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion or payments”. According to this theory, it is within the ability of a state to influence other states to behave in ways that fit well with its interests without using force. In line with this, many governments turned this strategy and use education, among other things, as an instrument to reach their foreign policy agendas and Ethiopia has become of them.

In recent years Ethiopia has been offering a large number of scholarships to Somali students. In 2018, for instance, Ethiopia 
offered 306 scholarships to students from Somaliland. Of these 200 are pursuing undergraduate, 100 will continue post-graduate while six will study doctoral programs. Similar number departed from Mogadishu to Addis Ababa for the same reasons which mean nearly 700 Somali students have been awarded scholarships in Ethiopia this year only. Although these scholarship awards are not new, they have increased since 2014 and most likely will continue to rise as the so-called East Africa integration process continues.

Sponsorships for individuals for higher education are costly as governments spend tens of thousands of dollars per sponsored student. For example, 
China announced in this year (2018) that it allocated US$469 million for foreign student scholarships. This sum encompasses tuition fee, monthly stipend and monthly allowance for travel and materials. However, the benefits to the sponsor outweigh the cost as students provide a valuable cohort of alumni who are believed to be asset to the sponsoring country.

Governments have several aims for offering scholarships to foreign students including attracting talented students who will contribute to the development of the sponsoring country after graduation as well as the internationalization of their education systems. But the most important aim and common denominator that all sponsoring governments share, is to promote their global image and build a lasting and close relationship with the intended countries. For this reason, many of the emerging and developing countries such as China, Brazil and Turkey paid a significant attention in the internationalization of their education systems through scholarships in recent years. Turkey, for instance, adopted this strategy and invested heavily in sponsoring foreign students and succeeded in its primary goals.
Bulent Aras & Zulkarnain Mohammed (2018) who examined the success of Turkish scholarship programs write “Educational exchange plays a significant role in diffusing the state’s cultural values and developing a pool of intellectuals who the state can, to some extent, rely on as it moves to build and strengthen relationships with governments across the globe.” They further asserted that the majority of the students reported that they were satisfied with the Turkish education system thus recommending others to study in Turkey.

Some scholarship programs are designed for training future leaders of other countries by recruiting only those who have already shown high quality of professionalism and outstanding leadership talents. For example, the aim of 
Chevening scholarship programs which are run by UK’s foreign office is, in their words, “to support foreign policy priorities and achieve FCO objectives by creating lasting positive relationships with future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers.” Other Western countries run similar programs which they are reaping its fruits today. In 2018, 155 of the serving presidents, prime ministers and monarchs in the world were educated in the USA, (58), UK (57) and France (40). Furthermore, over 95% of the awards are in the fields of humanity such as history, philosophy and anthropology. These subjects are prepared in the light of the sponsoring government’s aims. In addition to the language, students are familiarized with the culture of the sponsoring country thus, developing loyalty and profound love in that country. In some cases, students are exposed to certain ideologies or they may even be deliberately indoctrinated. For example, young Somalis who were sent to Eastern or Western countries with either capitalist or socialist ideologies embraced these conflicting ideologies. Similarly, those who had an opportunity to further their studies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the 1970s embraced two opposing Islamic creeds and schools of thought.

Therefore, when they return home with the acquired knowledge and personal relations, they started transmitting the language and the cultures of the countries they had studied. They built groups and sub-subgroups of alumni based on commonalties for example. With the help of the countries they studied, each group promoted their newly embraced ideology and sometimes resorted to using force to reach their aims as happened to those indoctrinated in the Arab countries whose effects are still lingering.

Nothing wrong with studying in foreign countries. Students, in addition to the acquired knowledge, gain social capital which they bring back and add valuable contribution to the development of the country when they study in other countries. Also, it is not a bad thing for countries to use soft power to seek closer cooperation and lasting relationship with others. In deed that is what our world needs today and possibly it would make our world a safer place to live. However, there are hidden and dangerous elements coupled with these free scholarships. Governments, in addition to the indoctrination mentioned above, instill spy agents in universities to recruit foreign students who study in their countries. This practice is old and well known among the universities, academics and secret services. Secret agents mostly target young one who have no previous experiences and developing their views. “People are most pliable in their late teens and early twenties, when they’re young and inexperienced. It’s easy for someone trained in the art of manipulation to steer them in a direction they’re already inclined, or help convince them it’s what they intended all along.” says Chris Simmons, a former counterintelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. He adds “Most if not all spy services view universities as a prime recruiting ground.”

There is no question that Ethiopia will attempt to recruit some of these students as spy agents. It may even support them to get jobs in the defense, finance or other important government institutions to gain access to Somalia’s main institutions and influence its policies and relations with other countries. The view that some Ethiopian paid agents work in Somali government institutions is common among the Somalis and many high-ranking government officials are accused of being Ethiopia’s pay role. Although unproven, these are visible people whose relationships with Ethiopia were known before they joined the government. It would be different when a thousand young graduates who all studied in Ethiopia and speak Amharic return home and start working in our institutions every year. Imagine if a thousand Ethiopian educated Somali youth come to the country every year over the next two decades! What culture will they bring back? What their views towards Ethiopia will be. At best they unknowingly transmit Ethiopian culture and language to the younger generation thus passing positive image of Ethiopia to them and eventually produce a generation who are Somalis in blood and appearance but Ethiopian in test, opinion and intellect. This will eliminate the fear and the suspicion that Somalis have against foreigners in general and Ethiopia, in particular, which have allowed them to protect their borders against Ethiopia’s invasion and fulfil its expansionistic strategy. At worst, some will be recruited as agents and work for Ethiopia’s interest and undermine Somalia’s efforts to achieve its development goals.

My aim is not to advocate stopping Somali students going to Ethiopia for higher education. Somalia desperately needs skilled and educated workforce. There is a huge skill gap in every sector and the country has no capacity to educate and train the people it needs. Therefore, any support from any country should be appreciated. However, government and those in positions of offering jobs in sensitive areas should be aware of the dangers posed by foreign countries educated students. In addition, the public should understand that their perceived enemy employs different strategies to win their hearts and minds. Hence Ethiopia’s scholarships should be seen as another strategy that Ethiopia is using to dominate Somalia and achieve its expansionistic ambitions.

W/Q: Ibrahim Aden Shire