Ethiopia has risked diplomatically antagonizing a major ally after local media reported that its forces had crossed into Kenyan territory.
Kenya’s largest-circulating newspaper the Daily Nation Tuesday reported that about 50 armed Ethiopian soldiers and policemen had briefly taken over a Kenyan police station to the country’s remote north.
Kenyan police told the that Ethiopian forces armed with AK47 rifles arrived and took strategic positions around the Illeret police station in the North Horr region.
The Ethiopians are said to have assessed and photographed the area, which is estimated to be be less than 20 kilometres inside Kenya. They allegedly admitted that the Kenyan government was not aware of their presence, but said they would return.
Surveyors have in recent weeks reportedly been demarcating the Kenya-Ethiopia border, but this is unclear why given their joint border was agreed by treaty in 1970, having been mapped out 20 years before.
According to a police officer quoted by the paper, this is the third time Ethiopian forces have crossed into Kenya during the year, and called for reinforcements for the station.
A Kenya army spokesman said the military was not aware of the incident, terming Ethiopia a “traditional” friend and that he did not think they would “do anything bad.” Kenya has a defense pact with Ethiopia, dating back to the days of Emperor Haile Selassie and Kenya’s independence leader Jomo Kenyatta.
The two countries were so closely allied strategically, Kenyatta gave Selassie a generous piece of land close to State House Nairobi for Ethiopia to build its mission.
Kenyans have however reacted strongly, largely viewing the incident as a show of foreign policy weakness. The country has in the past also been involved in a border dispute with Uganda over the small but resource-rich island of Migingo.
Kenya is perceived to have come out with the more bloodied nose from that encounter, with Uganda forces still sighted on the island.
The country regained some national pride with the 2011 invasion of Somalia to flush out Al-Shabaab militants, but it has in turn had to endure deadly retaliatory attacks on home soil, piling more pressure on its security architecture.
The latest incursion by Ethiopia would thus present an unwanted headache for a country that already has its hands full of diplomatic headaches including Burundi and the threat of the Somalia militant group Al-Shabab, and which is struggling to project its influence regionally, despite being the biggest economy in East Africa.
Scholars of geopolitics have argued that the lack of a credible committed defence more often than not invites other nations to test borders and diplomatic boundaries.
In April, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s jet was embarrassingly turned back while reportedly in Ethiopian airspace in a diplomatic riddle that is yet to be solved publicly.
The plane was initially thought to have been pushed back while over Eritrean territory, but Asmara denied the aircraft had even reached its territory.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have deeply strained relations and have had no diplomatic ties since 1998, but Nairobi and Addis Ababa have solid ties, with moves underway to strengthen economic relations.
Ethiopia has an active border dispute with Eritrea, with which it fought in 1998-2000, leaving tens of thousands dead.
That war was over the disputed territory of Badme, which the UN has ruled belongs to Eritrea. Asmara sought to retake it by force, but because the territory lay in the homeland of the ruling Ethiopian class, ran into major conflict with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia still controls Badme, leading to a tense northern frontier and a closed border.
But with Ethiopia set to vote next week, nationalistic sentiment may again be running high among its elite, leading to a flexing of strength in a bid to rally the frontier communities.
The UK has an active travel alert against all travel to Ethiopian borders with Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia, and which was updated last week with a focus on the elections.
Ethiopia has also had a troublesome border with Somalia, into which it has crossed a number of times, for decades, including a simmering separatist movement.
The country could thus be looking to batten down the hatches ahead of an election where, though the ruling party faces no real threat, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who took over the job after the larger-than-life Meles Zenawi died in 2012, needs to project strength in a country where it plays well to its history of not having been definitely conquered by a European coloniser.
But given its robust ties with Nairobi, it would be against its interests to antagonise its southern neighbour.
News sources, added that the Kenya’s security agencies were put on high alert after around fifty heavily armed Ethiopian soldiers crossed the border and seized control of a police station.
The soldiers moved 16km into Kenyan territory, inspecting the area and taking photos.
“Their intention is not clear”, local police chief Tom Odero said, adding however that they admitted to inspecting the border area and that the Kenyan government was not aware of their presence.