In the Ethiopian War the West Sides with a Terrorist Group
As Noah Smith, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, took note, “the most-educated immigrant group in the U.S. isn’t East Asians. It’s Africans.” Ethiopians are among the African groups that are doing well. They occupy faculty positions in America’s flagship universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, among others. At some point there were four full professors as well as associate and assistant professors at Mayo Clinic, America’s number 1 ranked Medical School.
An Ethiopian immigrant, Joe Mamo, is building an iconic skyscraper in Tysons, Virginia, that will be “the tallest of any currently standing between Philadelphia and Charlotte” – 539 miles (867 km). And this is one of five high-rise buildings he has filed for permit to build, simultaneously. Yohannes Abraham, another Ethiopian American was the Executive Director of the Biden-Harris Transition, “overseeing preparation for the implementation of Biden-Harris policy and management priorities.”
Why, then, are Africans poor and often at war in their country, while peaceful and successful in the West? Simply put, the West’s intervention in African politics has distorted the political incentive structure and the constraint matrix, institutionalizing a power calculus in favor of terrorist political groups. The push from such a system explains the mass exodus of African elite more than the lure of economic opportunities in the west.
The problem emanates from a racist misconception that Africans cannot be held to high democratic standards. Having a stable system is good enough even if it does not meet democratic standards. Consequently, a stable system that is enforced through terror became the source of political legitimacy.
Here is how African politics is seduced with terrorism. Unscrupulous politicians use the barrel of the gun and the state’s security apparatus to take over or remain in power, invade the economic space to collect rent, and hold the people hostage for ransom as bargaining chips to milk financial aid from the West. Evidently, violence and poverty have become key elements of the political equation in the game theoretic sense. The calculus of political profiteering embedded within the geometry of the vicious cycle of violence and poverty is what brought the current war in Ethiopia, and, sadly, what is sustaining the aftermath.
The war at issue is between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that was running the Tigray regional state, and the Ethiopian Federal government. Understanding this war is understanding how the West’s intervention in African politics has distorted the political incentive structure and the constraint matrix, institutionalizing a power calculus that favors authoritarian leaders who use acts of terrorism to establish a predatory political and economic governance.
TPLF was established in 1975 by hardened communists who fancied themselves as followers and later heirs of Enver Hoxha, the supreme leader of Albanian Communism. Soon after TPLF was established, it was listed as a terrorist organization in a US-based global terrorist database, Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.
After 16 years of guerrilla warfare, the terrorist establishment took over the government, in 1991. Once in power, the US removed them from the global terrorist list. To remain off the terrorist list all they had to do was to pretend to run elections every five years with no intention of losing power or conceding seats – often winning 100% of all national and regional elections.
The 2005 general elections proved an anomaly in TPLF’s uncontested reign. The incident is the window through which Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University College, showed us a glimpse of TPLF’s sheer terror. He exposed TPLF’s threat of mass murder and sustained poverty that brought both the people of Ethiopia and Western nations to their knees.
In 2005, the unthinkable happened. The TPLF-led government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), lost the election. The government delayed the announcement of the results, triggering the people to take the streets in protest. As a result, “security forces and police killed at least 36 people….5,000 people were arrested and detained,” Tronvoll documented.
According to Reuters, the government refused to concede defeat and, in the aftermath, additional 200 civilians were killed, 800 wounded, and 30,000 arrested. As Tronvoll noted, in a unanimous disapproval of the government’s terrorist actions, “the donor group tried to play tough.” The group decided to withhold international aid until those who won the election were allowed to take their rightful seats in the Parliament and those who ordered the police to shoot to kill peaceful protesters were held accountable.
The then Prime Minster Meles shrugged them off and told them “pack up and go home if they were not interested in helping the country to develop.” As Tronvoll put it succinctly, in commiseration of the poor people whom TPLF holds as hostage, the donor community and decided to “stay quiescent on internal human rights violations and lack of democracy.”
In the next election cycle, the opposition pleaded with the donor nations to use their leverage to observe the elections. “Fourteen foreign embassies generally washed their hands of the whole exercise for fear of provoking the government” Tronvoll lamented.
The UN defines terrorism as: “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” This is how TPLF governed Ethiopia for 27 years.
It needs to be remembered, during its reign as the head of government, TPLF was not a rent-seeking force in the traditional sense of the term where politicians extort kickback from the business community. It was an armed looting enterprise. The Party was running business for profit, curving out all lucrative sectors for a near monopolistic control and enforcing its privileged position through terror.
Speaking of TPLF’s armed rent-seeking endeavor, Martin Plaut, BBC World Service Africa editor, flagged: “TPLF’s tight rein on political freedoms and human rights, while giving privileged access to resources to the prime minister’s core constituency in Tigray.”
There is no question that the Tigray region benefited during the TPLF’s era. This has been documented in
World Bank reports in 2017 and 2020. Another legacy of TPLF was illicit funds transfer out of the country. According to IMF data, as presented on the Brookings Institute website, “the top four emitters of illicit flows— South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria—emit over 50 percent of total illicit financial flows from sub-Saharan Africa.”
Two numbers tell TPLF’s looting enterprise, as described in the Forbes Magazine: “The amount of American financial aid received by Ethiopia’s government since it took power: $30 billion”; and “The amount stolen by Ethiopia’s leaders since it took power: $30 billion.”
TPLF’s motive in launching the current war, according to the US government, was “to overthrow the Prime Minister and return to the type of privilege they had enjoyed within the Ethiopian State for the last 27 years”.
Contexts and pretexts matter. Let us retreat a bit to 2018 and look at what transpired since TPLF lost its firm grip on the leavers of power, after a nationwide uprising. It left behind over a million forcefully displaced people, a nation gripped with political anxiety and tittering at the verge of a civil war fueled by ethnically charged and restive unemployed youths. To top it off, the nation was mired in economic despair.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed was selected as Prime Minister. At the time, his challenge was approximated by an unlucky pilot pushed into the cockpit of a crippled plane in flight occupied by unruly travelers and asked to land it safely.
Across the conservative-liberal spectrum, international observers cheered his stewardship. The conservative Fox News reported about “sweeping changes that seemed unthinkable just weeks ago have been announced almost daily.” Five months after Prime Minister Ahmed took office, the liberal leaning CNN praised him for “electrifying Ethiopia with a dizzying array of reforms credited by many with saving the country from civil war.”
Others also piled on accolades for the Prime Minister’s “path for prosperity” whose success “could ignite economic change through emulation equivalent to South Korea’s influence on Asia in the 1970s” In October 2019, at the age of 42, the Prime Minister won the Nobel Prize for Peace for, among others, ushering in “important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.” The US-based Freedom House flagged Ethiopia as one of the five “most encouraging examples of democratic progress over the past two years” in the world.
What the Ethiopian populace and the rest of the world hailed as a promissory note for Ethiopia’s peace, security and prosperity, TPLF saw as a declaration of proclamation to end its political dominance and economic rentseeking empire. It vehemently objected every aspect of the reform from releasing political prisoners to liberalizing the economy.
Yearning to regain its heydays of armed looting, TPLF leaders retreated to Mekele, the capital of Tigray, and began building a militia force that ultimately reached 250,000. Once in Mekele, they constantly objected the Prime Minister’s agenda, looking for a fight.
As the BBC reported, they declared the Prime Minister “an illegitimate leader, because his mandate ran out when he postponed elections due to coronavirus.” The fact is that it was the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE – a constitutionally empowered autonomous government agency) that decided to postpone the national and regional election because of Covid-19. The federal government and all regional states barring TPLF agreed to be governed by the decision of the NEBE.
On November 3, TPLF launched a surprise attack against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). The former US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo made this clear, stating: “The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front carried out attacks on ENDF bases in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on November 3. We are saddened by the tragic loss of life.”
What Mr. Pompeo did not disclose is that the ENDF was attacked from within by officers of Tigrayan origin, who slaughtered their fellow soldiers who hailed from other parts of the country in their sleep. Having invaded the ENDF in Tigray, next on TPLF to-do list was invading the neighboring Amhara regional state to take over two ENDF garrisons stationed there with the aim of strengthening their fire power, before marching to Addis Ababa to overthrow the Prime Minister’s administration.
After his futile plan failed, the head of TPLF called upon the US and European capitals to pressure Prime Minister Abiy to negotiate a power sharing settlement. The alternative, he said, will be bloodshed, hunger that will affect over 6 million people in the Tigray regional state and a destabilized Horn of Africa. As noted in the Washington Post, the US Secretary of State for Africa, Tibor Nagy, is on the record, stating TPLF is motivated by a desire “to internationalize the conflict in Tigray.”
TPLF’s terrorist actions worked well for its architects. It did not take long for Western governments to start exerting pressure on Prime Minister Ahmed to negotiate with the terrorist group. Ethiopia was confronted with two choices: Allowing TPLF to extort political concession to stop the reform through war or reject its reckless gambit and launch a law enforcement campaign. The government chose the latter.
A recent Washington Post editorial portrayed Ethiopia’s law enforcement campaign as “an invasion” against the Tigray regional state. It further characterized it as having “all the earmarks of Ethiopia’s previous dictators.” At best, this arrogance fueled by utter ignorance of the pretext of the war. At worse, it is a repulsive racist policy that uses a different standard for Africa.
It merits recalling that when the mob invaded the US Capitol Building, on January 6, the Washington Post was singing a different tune. It never questioned why 25,000 army forces were brought in rather than the police. It did not talk about mediating and reconciling with the insurgents. Rather its call was to hunt them down and bring them to justice.
TPLF is singularly responsible for the war. This does not mean the Ethiopian government gets a free hand in the way it conducted the law enforcement campaign. Its delay in allowing unfettered access to international agencies to investigate atrocities committed during the war played in the hands of TPLF heired American and European lobbyists.
And then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the Eritrean involvement in the war. Many including the US government have concluded Eritrea was involved. There are two issues. First is the intervention of Eritrean forces. I found it amusing that TPLF is complaining about it. It is to be remembered that TPLF took power in Addis Ababa in 1991 with Eritrean forces fighting alongside it.
Second, more recently TPLF tried all it could to get Eritrea on its side. Daniel Berhane, TPLF’s senior advisor posted on his Twitter handle: “To my Eritrean brothers and sisters. There is a war in Tigray. Make no mistake, it is a war on all of us. Whoever wants to kill Tigrayans would have you as his next target. We’d better stand together.”
The involvement of Eritrean army in the war is an issue that the Ethiopian government should be fully transparent. It can explain or even defend its decision to involve Eritrea. The second issue is the widely held accusations that atrocities including widespread rapes and mass murders are committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. This has to be investigated both by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and by international organizations. The investigation must include the Mai Kadra mass massacre and the November 3 war crime of murdering Ethiopian soldiers and generals in their sleep.
The government needs to understand TPLF’s survival strategy remains creating a risk for mass starvation and regional instability for political gains. Those who believe that TPLF cares for the people of Tigray should read Martin Plaut’s 2010 expose. During the 1984/85 famine that claimed over a million lives (most of them in Tigray) TPLF was selling sacks of grains mixed with sacks of sand to international NGOs who were buying grains for food aid.
Currently, TPLF is all but a totally destroyed entity. Its effort to resuscitate itself draws its energy from the oxygen it gets from international intervention. The international Community’s policy must be two pronged. First, it must reject TPLF’s futile effort to resuscitate itself with the help of the international community. Second, it must exert maximum pressure against the Ethiopian government to open and maintain unfettered access to international investigation and bring those who perpetrated war crimes and crime against humanity to justice, if the allegations are confirmed by credible and independent investigators. Anything more is a violation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Anything less is a dereliction of international moral obligation.
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