“A myopic intervention that exclusively focuses on the consequences of the war entails the risk of institutionalizing terrorism as a political tool to further a political agenda .”
Yonas Biru, PhD
“Message for Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: Do not be reluctant to take bold steps toward democratic reform. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF’s) politico-economic monopolists have been revealed as frauds and will not be able to restrain you. International community is with you” (April 2018).
~ Ambassador Herman Cohen, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
“We strongly condemn the attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) against Eritrea and the attempt to internationalize the conflict.” (April 2020).
~ Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State
“It is important to remember here there is not equivalency. You have a sovereign government on the one hand Ethiopia, and on the other you have a region of Ethiopia the leadership of which basically started a conflict against the government. They wanted to use the opportunity basically to overthrow the prime minister and return to the type of privilege that they had enjoyed within the Ethiopian state for the last 27 years” (December 2020).
~ Ambassador Tibor Nagy, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
The purpose of this article is to provide the historical contingency and political exigency of TPLF that led it to this reckless war that has been condemned by the US government. The article shows a misguided and dangerous international intervention that, if implemented, will allow TPLF to benefit from its criminal action. A viable way forward is proposed that aims to end the ongoing humanitarian crisis and begin the healing process without rewarding TPLF with a power-sharing arrangement that it hopes for.
For the most part, the international media’s presentation of Ethiopia’s law enforcement campaign or war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) lacks historical content and political context. The causes and consequences of the war need to be addressed and dealt with simultaneously or in parallel to build a new path to lasting peace and security. Historical contingency and political exigency matter without which the cure may end up being worse than the disease.
Obviously, where war crimes and crimes against humanity are reported, as is the case in Ethiopia, the international community has moral obligations to intervene with a sense of supreme urgency and intensity. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government’s refusal to provide unfettered access to international observers early on left the international community in the dark, fostering a climate of angst and conjecture that fell victim to TPLF’s propaganda.
The international community is not without fault. Its intervention was confined to a jurisdictional silo of the consequences of the war without considering its cause that meets UN’s and FBI’s definition of a terrorist act. Both define terrorism as criminal acts committed to extort political concession, invoking ideological, racial, ethnic, religious causes to justify them.
A myopic intervention that exclusively focuses on the consequences of the war entails the risk of institutionalizing terrorism as a political tool to further a political agenda. It distorts the characteristics of political calculus. Rogue parties will see any attempt to grab power through war as a win-win enterprise. If they win, they will take power. If they lose, they will leverage international intervention to win a negotiated power-sharing settlement. If TPLF is allowed to benefit from its war, it will have perilous long-term consequences to Ethiopia’s budding experiment with democracy. Even worse, it will create a dangerous precedent that will destroy Africa.
The international community must follow a two-pronged intervention: 1) old TPLF accountable for starting the war and for any war crimes and crimes against humanity it may have committed and 2) demand full accountability from the Ethiopian government for any war crimes and crime against humanity its forces or Eritrean forces may have perpetrated.
Historical Content and Political Context
Ethiopia’s history of recent past is replete with political brutality and economic poverty heightened to unprecedented mass murder and famine. Between 1974 and 1991, the Military Dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam gunned down an untold number of Ethiopians during the red terror campaign “to terrify the population and eliminate dissent.” The number of ruthlessly massacred ranged from “several thousand” (Amnesty International) to “in excess of 10,000” (Human Rights Watch).
Moreover, as many as a million people perished during the famine of 1984-1985 after the Mengistu regime and armed insurgents led by TPLF committed “starvation crimes,” weaponizing the famine as a political tool. At the time, TPLF was listed as a terrorist organization in a US database.
In 1991, TPLF took over the helm of the nation’s political power after the US facilitated Mengistu’s escape to a safe haven in Zimbabwe. If poverty and unprecedented brutality defined the Mengistu’s era, armed looting and unparalleled ethnic-based political repression served as the bedrock of TPLF’s regime. TPLF that represented the Tigray ethnic region, which accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s population, established Tigrayan supremacy over 95 percent of the non-Tigrayan population with tight grips on the political, economic and military/security levers of power.
The unprecedented tribal armed looting under TPLF was systemic with a two-pronged stratagem: (1) development funds were siphoned off from the other ethnic regions to benefit the Tigray ethnic region, as presented by the World Bank, the BBC and the Case Western International Law Journal; and (2) an unprecedented level of financial capitals was illicitly transferred to foreign personal accounts of TPLF leaders, as documented in independent articles published by the Forbes Magazine and the Brookings Institution.
The systemic looting phenomena were enforced through intimidation and political repression. The Human Rights Watch characterized Ethiopia under the TPLF as “one of the most inhospitable places in the world, bearing the hallmark of crimes against humanity.” Political prisoners were “frequently subjected to torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman punishment.” This included using lions, tigers and hyenas to “torture and intimidate political prisoners in secret jails.”
The Emergence of a Popular Agent of Change
In April 2018, TPLF was forced to relinquish the levers of power by a popular uprising. Dr. Abiy Ahmed of ethnic Oromo construct was elevated to Prime Minister (PM). He inherited a nation engulfed with ethnic strife that had displaced over a million people out of their home regions. The nation was gripped with political anxiety and mired in economic despair heightened by ethnically charged and restive unemployed youth.
The newly minted Prime Minister introduced ambitious policy changes, beginning with suspending the state of emergency, releasing all political prisoners, freeing the media, and expanding the political space. Cascades of rapid economic and political reforms followed. He won the hearts and minds of the populace across tribal lines. “Abiy-Mania” captivated Ethiopians and those of Ethiopian origin at home and abroad. They hang their hopes and dreams of prosperity and peace on his success. As CNN rightly noted, “He is the leader the country has been waiting for.”
His peaceful transition and reform agenda won accolades internationally and earned him praise for “saving the country from civil war.” A renowned Oxford economic development professor suggested Ethiopia’s path for prosperity can “ignite economic change” across Africa “through emulation equivalent to South Korea’s influence on Asia in the 1970s.” Others echo the same sentiment that Ethiopia “will have a chance not only to reinvent itself but also to bring a wave of reform and perhaps even democratization to the wider region.” 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 Genesis of Conflict Between the Agent of Change and the Old Guard
France 24, a French state-owned international news television network, had it right when it stated the rapid reforms were “too much too fast for the political old guard.” Losing its grip of power after a widespread upheaval did not encourage TPLF to soul search. Nor did it lead it to be a part of the national transformation process. Instead, it continued to push its rejected agenda, opposing the Prime Minister’s reforms in the economic, political, and social spheres.
TPLF’s objection started with the Prime Minister’s decision to release some 30,000 political prisoners and included the Prime Minister’s economic liberalization policy that opened competition in areas that were monopolized by TPLF owned business conglomerates. The epicenter of contention was the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), the nation’s largest conglomerate through which “TPLF diverted large quantities of government resources and international aid to Tigray.”
Sources and Nature of the Constitutional Conflict
Though TPLF waged the war “to overthrow the Prime Minister and return to the type of privilege they had enjoyed within the Ethiopian State for the last 27 years,” it coached and narrated its position as an obligation to protect the constitution. “We will not negotiate on the constitutional order we brought,” its leader claimed. In truth, the constitutional conflicts reside elsewhere.
The constitutional conflict was between two groups. On one side are TPLF and an Oromo faction led by Jawar Mohammed, championing the current ethnic federalist Constitution. On the other side of the conflict are the Prosperity Party led by the Prime Minister and other Pan Ethiopianist parties, advocating to usher in a constitutional reform that embodies a significant departure from the current Constitution.
The contention resides in Section 1 of article 8 of the Constitution. The Article promulgates “sovereignty resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.” Section two adds “This Constitution is an expression of their sovereignty.” There are no sovereign rights of individual citizens or of Ethiopia as a nation. By the “peoples of Ethiopia”, the Constitution refers to rights it bestowed upon different “nations” classified into eight distinct tribal groups.
The problem with Ethiopia’s federalism can be explained using the US’s and India’s experiences. The US as a nation is “indivisible”. In India, the union is “indestructible”, but the states therein are “destructible.” The Indian government is empowered to divide an existing state into two or combine two or three states into one. The opposite is true in Ethiopia. Article 39 of the Constitution renders the nation destructible. As a country, Ethiopia neither possesses a sovereign right nor a constitutional means to reign in tribal nations who want to break her apart.
For example, the Oromo tribal land can end the existence of Ethiopia. The Constitution is an expression of this sovereign right. How so? Assume the Oromo homeland (colored in blue in the captioned picture) decides to declare independence from the rest of Ethiopia, exercising its sovereign right enshrined in Article 39. This will geographically separate Gambela and the Southern Peoples tribal homelands from the rest of Ethiopia.
If Oromo tribalists decide to break away from Ethiopia, they can hold Gambela and the Southern Peoples tribal homelands as circumstantial hostages. Neither is economically viable to live on its own and its geographic separation from its motherland (Ethiopia) leaves it with no option but to seek a federation or confederation arrangement with the Oromo tribal land.
If the all too familiar adage that one person’s (group’s) constitutional right ends where the constitutional right of another person (group) begins is valid, then the occupants of Oromo tribal land should not have a constitutional right to infringe upon the rights of Ethiopians of Gambella and Southern Peoples heritage. Unfortunately, this argument has no basis in our constitution because Ethiopia as a country does not have a sovereign existence. Nor do Ethiopians as its citizens.
The free-range constitutional right is not lost on leaders of the eight ethnic “nations and nationalities.” For example, Article 2 of the Benishangul-Gumuz Constitution promulgates the region’s rightful owners are ethnic Berta, Gumuz, Shenasha, Mao and Komo. Ethiopians of other ethnic groups living in the region are recognized but do not have citizenship rights. At best, the supposed non-native residents accounting for 40% of the population are treated as unwelcomed settlers without ethnic political representation. At worst, they are regarded as invaders and subjected to forced displacement and atrocious mass murders.
The following international headlines tell the tale. “Twelve killed in latest attack” in Benishangul-Gumuz (News24); “Dozens killed in ‘gruesome’ bus attack” in Benishangul-Gumuz (Aljazeera); “Benishangul-Gumuz Massacre: Attackers Kill More Than 100” (India, News 7); “80+ People killed in Massacre in Benishangul-Gumuz” (GlobalR2P). All these ethnic cleansing atrocities were committed in just three months (October 13, 2020 to January 12, 2021).
Benishangul’s experience is not unique. According to the Human Rights Watch in Oromia ethnic region, ethnic Guji targeted hundreds of thousands of ethnic Gedeo people as invaders and forced them to flee their homes. A pro Jawar Mohamed mob hanged an innocent individual upside down on a utility pole and beat him to death. Amnesty International documented: “At least 1.5 million people have been internally displaced due to ethnic conflicts along the Oromia-Somali region, and Gedeo and Guji Oromo.” Over 100,000 Ethiopians of Tigrayan origin were forced to flee their homes, mostly from Oromo and Amhara regions.
TPLF’s Effort to Reclaim Undue Political Power
TPLF’s claim that it was fighting for equality across tribes in Ethiopia is utter nonsense. There was no tribal equality during TPLF’s 27-year reign. For example, Somali, Benishangul and Gambella have 1.6 million people more than Tigray. However, they are allocated 35 seats in the Parliament, 3 less than Tigray’s 38. Furthermore, Ethiopians from Somali, Benishangul, Afar and Gambella were not allowed to hold the Prime Minister position. The reason provided by the late Prime Minister Meles was that they were not ready for prime time.
The year 2020 was a referendum year to determine the fate of the current constitution. Parliamentary elections were to be held in August that would give the people an opportunity to choose between those who wish to maintain the existing ethnic federalism and those who call for a reform that will give every citizen equal rights. In March, the Ethiopian National Election Board (ENEB) suspended the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that it will schedule a new timeline once the pandemic has subsided.
Postponing elections because of COVID was not unique to Ethiopia. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), from February 21, 2020 until March 2021, at least 78 countries and territories across the globe have postponed their elections. In Europe, 33.3 percent of national and sub-national elections were postponed. The corresponding figures for Africa and Asia are 23.2% and 21.8%.
The federal government and eight of the nine regional governments complied with ENEB’s decision. Tigray took exception. It challenged the constitutionality of the postponement of the elections. The Council of Federation that is charged by the Constitution to settle constitutional disputes ruled ENEB’s decision did not violate the Constitution.
TPLF ignored the decisions of two constitutionally sanctioned authorities – the Council of Federation and ENBE – and argued the only way out is through political negotiation and power sharing. The Constitution does not provide any mechanism other than the Council of Federation to resolve constitutional conflicts between the Federal government and regional ethnic states.
TPLF leadership upped the ante by issuing a warning that if the federal government complied with the ENEB and the Council of Federation, it would amount to a violation of the Constitution and the federal government would become illegitimate after its term expired on September 25, 2020.
Going for the Nuclear Option: TPLF’s War
For 27 years, TPLF ruled Ethiopia under the ethnic federalist system it constitutionalized. After it lost power by popular uprising, it refused to be governed by the very Constitution it enacted, rejecting the constitutionally granted authorities of the ENEB and the Council of Federation.
As the Time magazine noted, “TPLF has been demanding greater local autonomy” after its national political dominance waned. René Lefort, an expert in Ethiopian politics, noted TPLF’s demand is “to govern Tigray with as little external interference as possible [with] a true confederalism.” This is a blatant contravention to the Constitution that is federalist not confederalist. When it was unable to achieve its goal through the nation’s democratic process, it resorted to launching a war as a political tool to extort concessions.
On November 3, 2020, TPLF launched a surprise attack against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) that was stationed in Tigray. The former US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo confirmed this, stating: “The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front carried out attacks on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on November 3. We are saddened by the tragic loss of life.” TPLF’s motive, 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”.
The Ethiopia government is guided by two governing principles: 1) The rule of law is a cardinal principle of democracy and economic development, and 2) peaceful reconciliation within the tenets of the Constitution is a central pillar for building a foundation for long lasting peace and stability.
Any effort to reconcile a budding democracy with kleptocracy – whose legitimacy drives from instruments of violence – is tantamount to opening up a Pandora’s box with dangerous consequences of letting the country spiral into Hobbesian lawlessness.
Heinous crimes that can possibly rise to crimes against humanity have been committed during and after the war by both sides of the warring forces. The international community has a moral obligation to ensure those who are accountable face the wrath of justice. Any effort to allow TPLF to eke out political concessions will create a dangerous precedent that will destroy many nations in Africa.
The Way Forward
On March 26, Herman Cohen, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, tweeted the following proposing “that TPLF leaders be offered safe passage to exile in return for [a] ceasefire and end of mass civilian killings.”
I believe this is a viable option that the Abiy Administration and TPLF should consider mitigating the suffering of the people in the war-torn region. The terms will be thorny, but if the initiative is aimed to rise above party differences and focused on ending the conflict and rebuilding the region, a common ground can be established with the help of reputable elders.
If the war is going to drag, TPLF strategy will be creating an environment that will worsen the humanitarian crisis. This will have two dividends for TPLF. First, its support from the people of Tigray will grow, seeing the Ethiopian government responsible for the humanitarian crisis. Second, TPLF will use the crisis as a gold mine for an international PR campaign. Continued intervention and global condemnation will serve TPLF both as a fodder and oxygen. The Ethiopian government will get nothing of substance by pursuing old, washed up and diminished ghosts of former TPLF leaders on their last legs. The government has achieved its law enforcement goal. The proposed peaceful resolution should be seen as an aftermath management.
The likely question is what are the key concessions that TPLF’s leaders will offer: Calling on remnants of TPLF to put down their arms and return to their families? Let us assume the US is giving Team Debretsion a safe haven, will they agree, for example, not to leave the US for 5 years and during that time they will not engage in any anti-Ethiopia activity?
What will Ethiopia offer in return? Would it grant blanket amnesty to the rest of the TPLF officials who were not involved in crime against humanity and war crime? Would it agree to reconstitute the TPLF bureaucracy? How about allowing non-political Tigrayan elders led by someone like Ras Mengesha Seyoum to pick a transition government for Tigray?
Both parties need to show maximum flexibility to give peace a chance. The international community can play a vital role to facilitate the implementation of such an agreement in terms of ensuring safe passage to a safe heaven. It is in Ethiopia to give defeated adversaries an escape route – የጎበዝ በር.
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