[Republished with permission from Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 18, 2021. www.StrategicStudies.org]
By Gregory R. Copley,
GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs editor, and staff in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is at a strategic tipping point, with significant consequences for the stability of the lower Red Sea maritime route (and much more).
However, it may be premature to assume that it would soon break up as a federation in the manner of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, or that it may go into a full-scale war with Egypt and Sudan.
And yet both of these outcomes are being postulated and seemingly pursued by the US Biden Administration and the Government of Egypt.
It was true, however, that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was by mid-August 2021 fighting to save his Government, the unity of Ethiopia, and his life against a linked set of threats from Egypt, the US, the Sudanese military, and — most immediately — two major separatist groups of rebels within the country.
The situation in the region was evolving daily during August 2021, possibly moving toward some form of dénouement even by early September 2021. Even on August 17, 2021, Prime Minister Abiy was in Eritrea, coordinating with Pres. Isayas Afewerke on moves which could profoundly transform the situation. From Asmara, Eritrea, Dr Abiy left for Turkey, apparently for talks with Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Before getting in to the evolving narrative of what is now a major, multi-faceted kinetic and non-kinetic war or related set of wars, it is necessary to look at some underlying realities, including:
- Egypt’s ostensible claim against Ethiopia is over the flow of water down the Blue Nile from the Ethiopian Amhara highlands, and the fact that Ethiopia has built the (as-yet incomplete) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), allegedly restricting water flow. However, as the Sudanese Government has admitted, the hydro-electricity-generating dam is not, in fact, restricting flow, and war with Ethiopia and even the destruction of the GERD would not magically provide more water flooding downstream to Sudan and Egypt. It is not physically possible;
- Egypt does have a water problem, but it is caused largely by the demand of its growing population, and the failure of Egypt’s water policies after it constructed its own Aswan High Dam, with Soviet assistance (1958-70).1 Nonetheless, Egyptian Pres. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, does have a water problem which cannot be quickly solved, and has succumbed to the need for a scapegoat. This is made easier by the fact that the Ethiopian Government has proven unable to understand how to negotiate with Cairo;
- All major powers — the US, UK, France, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — have come down mostly on the side of Egypt in the dispute, because Egypt (a) controls the Suez Canal, and (b) is influential in the Arab and Muslim worlds, whereas Ethiopia presently lacks commensurate strategic leverage. This has led to absolute bias in Egypt’s favor when major powers have offered arbitration in the “Nile dispute”. That includes Russia, which has been at least slightly more evenhanded in attempting to mediate. But Ethiopia was rightly shocked when its chosen ally, the US, patently favored Egypt in talks during the US Trump Administration, and now has blatantly committed to the break-up of Ethiopia during the US Biden Administration;
- The two major strands of the violent (and specifically genocidal) separatist insurgency in Ethiopia continue to remain viable solely because of international support;
- Ethiopia, whether as a unified state or as a rump of the original empire, retains the ability to ensure disruption to maritime traffic in the lower Red Sea, regardless of how “secure” the Suez Canal was to be under Egyptian control. So any attempt to change this reality would necessitate a fairly protracted conflict which would see a disruption to Red Sea-Suez traffic for a period of some years with commensurate cost and impact to the global economy;
- The US Biden Administration playbook against Ethiopia is based on the history of senior Biden officials during their service with the 1990s’ US Clinton Administration and its desire to break up Yugoslavia. There is a history of personal animus in the decisions regarding Yugoslavia and today regarding Ethiopia, and this does not lead to sound strategic thinking in the long-term US interest. Neither does the unrealistic expectation in Washington or London that Egypt would allow the present Nile situation to enable the US, or UK (or any other power) to re-gain dominant influence over Egypt;
- Powers other than the US — namely, Russia, the PRC, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others — are actively seeking engagement and advantage in the area, and this has ramifications for the security of both the Red Sea and for the Horn of Africa (including Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia and down to Kenya). All of these engagements hold long-term negatives for Egypt and the US. The question of the stability of the north-western Indian Ocean region, then, is affected. It is further impacted by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in ways which impact major power relations with India.
The solution, then, for Egypt does not realistically appear to be actual war with Ethiopia, because war holds the prospect of an even worse situation for Pres. Sisi than is currently the case. However, the threat of war, and actual kinetic proxy war promoting in the break-up of Ethiopia, does offer some prospect of an amelioration for (or distraction from) Egypt’s short-term political unrest. But it still could not result in the Blue Nile somehow magically producing more water.
And absent more water, what good is such a result for Egypt in the longer-term?
The Washington, DC-based International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) on October 30, 2015, at a conference on the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, specifically proposed an over-arching solution which would have leap-frogged the present dilemma, and this was then documented in the study, Rise of the RedMed: How the Mediterranean-Red Sea Nexus is Resuming its Strategic Centrality [full text here for GIS subscribers], published in 2016.2
That approach is discussed later in this report, but it was apparent that both major governments (Egypt and Ethiopia) needed options which would offer meaningful economic respite for their populations while giving a face-saving way of moving beyond the so-called water dispute. The solution could also address water issues, but in such a way that it promoted the concept of a win-win situation.
Thus, the denouement which could be reached in the complex of wars could be the realization that only a grand bargain between Pres. al-Sisi and Prime Minister Abiy, to create a super-solution on a “Sadat to Jerusalem” scale, could enable a solution to the otherwise intractable situation.
The Current Situation
The most immediate threat to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali stemmed from the full-scale civil war being waged against the Government — and against even the concept of Ethiopian unity or the notion of Ethiopia — by two marxist extremist groups, the Tigré (Tigray) People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, in its many formats).
Neither group represented the majority of either the Tigrean or Oromo peoples. Indeed, the TPLF had been content with the concept of a greater Ethiopian state when it was literally handed control of the national government in July 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet-backed Dergue upon the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. From July 1991 until the collapse of the TPLF control of government in 2018, the TPLF did not oppose Ethiopian unity.
The TPLF and the OLF are not indigenously self-sustaining forces against the national Government, however. Both have support from the Government of Egypt and (in the case of the TPLF) the US, and some other foreign entities, because the wider war is not merely the insurgency within Ethiopia. It relates to the historical demands by Egypt — over centuries — that it be allowed to control the flow of waters of the Blue Nile, which has its origins in Lake Tana, in the Amhara Highlands of Ethiopia.
This goes against international law which gives upstream riparian states clear rights over the flow of rivers to downstream riparian states.
Nonetheless, by mid-August 2021, the broader weave of the tapestry of conflicts and interests was coming together in a way which seemed likely to determine whether or not Ethiopia would survive as a national entity.
In particular, the fluid military situation on the ground in Ethiopia seemed to indicate that there could be a major watershed by the end of August 2021, with some reports indicating that rebel TPLF forces were working to link with rebel Oromo Liberation Front-Shene (OLF-Shene) forces to march on the capital Addis Ababa. That may have been arrested by changing military realities which began to become evident in mid-August 2021.
At that point, Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Amhara Region militia groups had begun to re-group to defend both Ethiopia and the particularly embattled Amhara population. The Amhara were being assaulted by the TPLF and OLF in a consistent and enduring campaign, explicitly genocidal in nature, because the Amhara were seen to be the core, or glue, which defined the concept of Ethiopianness.
But it should be stressed that the targets of the TPLF and the OLF (and particularly its Shene group) also included Tigreans and Oromos and all other Ethiopians if they identified themselves as “Ethiopian” or as Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Significantly, the TPLF and OLF also targeted the predominantly Muslim Afar people, who had consistently regarded themselves as Ethiopians as well as priding themselves in their distinct Afar identity.
The Ethiopian Government of Prime Minister Abiy, along with the Amhara people (who had long been prevented from forming a meaningful militia to rival the TPLF and Oromo militias), had been slow to act in their own defense. Nonetheless, by mid-August 2021, the ENDF and Amhara militia were preparing to cut off TPLF forces which had over-extended themselves with their assaults deep into the Amhara and Afar regions. The Afar population had reacted strenuously against the mass assaults from TPLF militia forces — including many child soldiers abducted into the TPLF — and had savagely driven the TPLF out of Afar Region by mid-August 2021.
Meanwhile, the OLF forces (specifically, the Oromo Liberation Army: OLA) were poised to interdict one of the main supply highways linking Ethiopia and Kenya through Ethiopia’s Gujji and neighboring Borena zone on the Kenyan border. [It is disingenuous to believe that the OLF has meaningfully distanced itself from the OLA, the Shene forces, etc.]
In the Amhara region itself, TPLF forces had moved in early August 2021 deeply into North Wollo, one of the 10 zones in the Amhara region, as well as into the Afar region. Amhara’s North Wollo abuts the Southern Zone of Tigré, as does the Fanti Rasu zone of Afar Region. TPLF troops — now calling themselves the “Tigray Defense Force” to distance themselves from the growing evidence of TPLF genocide and other atrocities — in the Amhara Region had, by August 16, 2021, been cut off from their Tigrean counterparts because the ENDF had seized the Korem-Maichew highway corridor which connects northern Wollo with Tigré. This meant that all the TPLF fighters in Alamata, Kobo, Woldiya, Mersa, Lalibela (in North Wollo) and those in Gayint (South Gondar, which abuts North Wollo to its east) could be surrounded. They could now either fight and die or give themselves up to the Amhara special forces or the Ethiopian military (ENDF).
Significantly, TPLF military tactics are primitive, relying on uncoordinated mass attacks, with only basic or no logistical support, and a policy of “living off the land” as they advance. This inevitably has led to a systematic campaign of looting and atrocities against civilians as they move forward (or suffer reverses). There have been many reports of TPLF fighters killing Amharas’ cattle and goats for food and the burning of crops in the Amhara region.
The TPLF drive into the Amhara and Afar regions had displaced hundreds of thousands of people by early August 2021: at least 70,000 in the Afar region, and about 500,000 in the Amhara region.
Without, at that time, ENDF or Amhara militia defenses effectively in place, the TPLF used its tube and rocket artillery to indiscriminately shell cities like Woldiya, the capital of Semien Wollo Zone in Amhara region, destroying houses and other buildings, and causing widespread civilian deaths. Rampant pillaging and assaults on civilians has followed, with goods often being sent back to Tigré.
By August 12, 2021, however, the TPLF had lost several battles in Nefas Mewucha, Gayint, Woldiya (where TPLF forces were reportedly ejected), and Sekota. The ENDF 21st Division had by then become fully engaged and had significant tactical advantage over the TPLF forces. Indeed, the TPLF may not have fully controlled Woldiya after its initial artillery bombardments and attacks into the city. In Sekota, the capital of Wag Hemra zone of Amhara (north of North Wollo, and also abutting Tigré’s Southern and Central zones), the TPLF faced what was called a “devastating defeat” in fairly short order once professional troops were brought to bear on them.
Prime Minister Abiy (who turned 45 on August 15, 2021) seemed by mid-August 2021 to have finally embraced the need to fully support “the unity of the Ethiopian people” to defeat the TPLF. Although he is half-Oromo (and half-Amhara), he is seen as the leader of an Oromo political faction, so had been widely viewed by non-Oromo as favoring Oromo interests and being soft on the OLF. This may have been over-emphasized, given that he led Parliament on May 6, 2021, to declare both the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA: ostensibly the military wing of the OLF) as terrorist groups.
But Dr Abiy finally moved in August 2021 to counter the pro-TPLF international media/human rights groups and diplomatic biases. There is little doubt that he had worked to avoid having Federal troops attack, or respond to attacks by, Tigreans and Oromo extremists to demonstrate that it was not the Federal Government which was the aggressor. In this regard, he mirrored the late Emperor Haile Selassie I who, in the 1930s, pulled back from attacking the invading Italian forces, trusting (until too late) that the League of Nations would force Italy to withdraw. So it is now clear that Dr Abiy had, by mid-August 2021, begun to cease appeasement approaches, which had patently not helped. He was now on a war footing, especially given the uncompromising nature of the TPLF and OLF-Shene violence against civilians. And the ENDF were once again receiving greater supplies of ordnance and platforms for use in the war, as a result of deals done with the Russian and Belarus governments.
Dr Abiy’s next major problem — and the most difficult for him to handle given his Oromo political base —was to find a way to separate the various Oromo Liberation Front affiliates from the mainstream Oromo population, so that he could deal with the OLF groups as strongly as he would deal with the TPLF militants. Only by demonstrating that impartiality would he regain the trust of non-Oromo Ethiopians. But he cannot risk losing his moderate Oromo base, especially given that the Oromo population is now the demographic element of Ethiopian society.
It is significant that the information warfare campaign being waged against the Abiy Government by the TPLF and OLF from their very well-funded international offices has, to a degree, peaked or is being now balanced because international scrutiny of the internal conflict in Ethiopia has revealed a more complex narrative.
It is also significant that the pressure campaign from the US, which escalated dramatically during the first six months of the Biden Administration’s tenure in 2021, has now reached the point where Prime Minister Abiy has reluctantly realized that the US was not his ally. As a result, he has begun to act in defiance of US pressure. This has been helped by the fact that the Russian and Turkish governments, among others, have been supporting and revitalizing the Ethiopian military capability to the point where it can act decisively against domestic insurgency (if not decisively against Egyptian threats).
Firstly, the Ethiopian Government has no option other than to directly and effectively suppress the TPLF and OLF insurgencies, and to build on the proposals to re-build confederal ties with Eritrea and Djibouti. Prime Minister Abiy, to do this effectively, would need to deliver on his promise to replace or overhaul the 1994 communist Constitution of Ethiopia and put in place a true market economy which would include the privatization of property.
This would provide the essential strength and preconditions for a possible “grand bargain” with Egypt, which could, nonetheless, be reached in advance of the structural changes in Ethiopia and the greater Ethiopic framework.
So what would a “grand bargain” look like between Egypt and Ethiopia?
Approaches to this were outlined specifically in the October 30, 2015, conference in Washington, DC, both by the President of the Crown Council of Ethiopia (Emperor Haile Selassie’s grandson, Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie) and by this writer in his capacity as President of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA). It was recommended that a “Track III” process begin to share ideas between governments of the region. This has only sporadically been taken up, although Prince Ermias has begun to build a coalition of international religious leaders pushing for inter-faith support for peaceful solutions to the Nile challenges. This would help calm the waters to achieve political and infrastructural goals. Prince Ermias is not alone in attempting to mediate unity within the Ethiopian peoples or harmony between Ethiopia and its neighbors.
However, he has unique credentials to bring the sides together.
He met in May 2021, for example, with Pope Francis I, in Rome, and other head-of-church level meetings are being planned. Indeed, the historical depth of the Ethiopian Solomonic Crown — which has its origins 3,500 years into Judeo-Christian society — is itself a potent symbol which can raise the strategic solution above the political level.
Clearly, though, a “grand bargain” would entail something which equally strengthened the statesmanlike image of Gen. Sisi and Dr Abiy, and which would completely overshadow (and appear to deal with) disagreements about water management. It would need to offer and delivery prosperity to the region.
The 2015 proposals were embraced in the creation of a regional trading bloc built primarily around Egypt and Ethiopia, and (of geographic necessity) including Sudan. This would and could go well beyond the African Continental Free Trade Area, which came into effect on January 1, 2021, but has yet to become meaningful.
A potential Ethiopia-Egypt “grand bargain” treaty could extend well into social, security, water, and other areas, and create a region-wide electrical system, among other things. It could indeed agree on water management issues of a greater breadth than defined by international law on riparian state rights, because it could, for example, envisage a regional approach embracing the delivery of new water resources.
These could include multi-national projects to invest in the diversion of some upstream Congo River waters to the White Nile — a project envisaged and, in fact, begun over recent decades — to increase the flow into South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt. As this Service reported on October 16, 2013, in “A Revived Congo-Nile Canal Project Could Transform Egyptian Water Needs, End Potential Conflict Over the Ethiopian Dam, and Provide an African North-South Hook-Up”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis:
[T]he rapid growth Egypt’s population and decline in economic performance and food production would almost certainly necessitate an increase in the quantities of water at the very same time that the quantities of water could be reduced because of GERD. Not inclined to go to war with Ethiopia — as if such war could now reverse the construction of the GERD, and without economic and technological capabilities to embark on a seawater desalination programs of the necessary magnitude — Cairo must seek alternate solutions, even if dramatic and currently perceived to be unrealistic.
Hence, the Congo-Nile Canal designs are being undusted as perhaps the only viable solution to Egypt’s impending plight. By conservative calculations, the Canal could provide Egypt with 95-billion cubic meters of water annually, almost doubling the current share of 55.5-billion cubic meters. While such a diversion of water would be dramatic for Egypt, it would represent a minuscule quantity for the Congo River because about 1,000-billion cubic meters of Congo waters pour into the Atlantic Ocean every year.
Most intriguing is the study, conducted by Professor Gamal al-Kalyouby of the American University of Cairo, completed in September 2013. Although Professor Kalyouby insists that his study is a pure academic endeavor, senior Egyptian defense officials suggest otherwise. Indeed, the Government’s Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority conducted the comprehensive geological, geographic, and hydrological studies which provided the data used by Professor Kalyouby in his study. Formally, however, senior officials, including Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Muhammad Abdel Matlab, distance Cairo from the project on the basis of a myriad of legal and financial reasons. But numerous experts concur that these excuses are quite irrelevant if not factually wrong.
According to Professor Kalyouby’s study, the best solution for delivering water from the Congo River to the Nile River is a 600km canal which would feed into the White Nile to the south of Juba, South Sudan. The water would then converge into the Nile Basin to northern Sudan and then to Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan High Dam. The Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority’s data focuses on the 600km route because there is an altitude differential of only 200 meters between the Congo and the White Nile. The technical challenge of lifting the huge quantities of water could be implemented via four consecutive water-pumping stations. Moreover, the downstream flow of the added White Nile water could be harnessed to generate 300-trillion watts of electricity per hour: the equivalent of the entire lighting needs of Africa.
The Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority’s data also points out that the road and rail infrastructure which would have to be built to facilitate and support the Congo-Nile Canal would effectively fill the gap which currently exists between the transportation infrastructure of northern Africa and that of southern Africa. Consequently, there would emerge a unified road and railway network connecting the entire Africa from Alexandria to Cape Town.
That was almost a decade ago.
The “grand bargain” could entail joint security arrangements for the security of the entire span of the Red Sea-Suez sea lane, with integrated reporting systems for shipping. Rather than diminishing Egyptian control over the Red Sea-Suez, it could add to Egyptian security, especially if there were multinational security arrangements in place for the entire region.
The penalty for failing to find some kind of “grand bargain” would, at best, be merely the continued decline in per capita wealth in Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, leading to increased instability and governance challenges. At worst, weakness would lead to short-term political opportunism and the need for distracting adventures in an exaggerated format of what we are now seeing in the region.
The RedMed Forum for Track II and Track III diplomacy proposed at the ISSA conference in 2015 remains available to be utilized to help structure options, and to provide the facility to “translate” the meanings of each of the parties into a common understanding.
Are the parties so confident of the success of their current approach that they can afford to ignore any avenue for a better solution?
It is worth referring to the recent evolution of the Nile and Ethiopian situations, and for background to the issues, discussed in GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs reports over the past three years:
August 6, 2021: Cold War Redux: The West Loses Africa’s Horn
July 2, 2021: War Preparations Now Advanced by Egypt and Sudan on Ethiopian Border
June 30, 2020: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Caves to US Pressure on Tigré, Opening the Region to Major Instability
June 22, 2021: Ethiopia: Anti-Climax in a Crisis
June 14, 2021: NATO and the US Prepare for Military Intervention in Ethiopia
June 7. 2021: Ethiopia Revives as a Red Sea Power
May 3, 2021: Moving Inexorably Toward the Avoidable War in the Horn of Africa?
March 31, 2021: Seeing Reality in the Red Sea Wars
February 15, 2021: Is Egypt Pushing Sudan Into a New Military Government?
January 25, 2021: Ethiopia’s Emerging Year of Decisions
November 23, 2020: No Rapid Solution Likely in Ethiopia’s Wars, But Vital Global Trade Interests at Stake
November 13, 2020: Ethiopia’s Decisive War
August 10, 2020: Genocide is Alive and Well in Africa
July 22, 2020: War as a (Fatal) Diversion From Reality
November 14, 2019: Beijing Reaps the African Whirlwind
June 25, 2019: A “Coup Attempt” in Ethiopia May Be Something Different
January 23, 2019: Ethiopia’s Naval Revival Has Global Ramifications
August 3, 2018: The Red Sea Emerging as a Key Global Strategic Dynamic Thanks to a Revolution Begun in Ethiopia
June 21, 2018: Ethiopia Moves to Re-Establish Itself as a Red Sea Power as it, and Other African States, Put Relations with the PRC in a New Light
June 6, 2018: Massive, Rapid Change in Ethiopia Causes Push-Back and a Coup Attempt Against the New Abiy Government
March 28, 2018: Ethiopia Achieves a Profound Change, But Complexities Abound
1. The Aswan High Dam began construction with a Soviet design and with Soviet aid in 1958, and was completed in 1970. That Moscow’s offer to build the dam prevailed in competition with offers by the US marked the turning point of the Egyptian revolutionary Government of Gamal Abdul Nasser toward the USSR and away from the US. Although the US design for the proposed dam would have created fewer ecological problems than the Soviet design, the fact that the US Director of Central Intelligence at the time, Allen Dulles, attempted to bribe Nasser with $1-million in cash so offended Nasser that it was understood to have been decisive in turning him toward the Soviet offer, with its downstream implications leading to several Arab-Israeli wars, and so on. There was more to the complex US-Egyptian relations than that, particularly with the introduction during this period of the Eisenhower Doctrine, but, at its essence, the Eisenhower Administration failed to heed the advice of, for example, its own Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer in the region, Miles Copeland.
2. Copley, Gregory; Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie, Ermias; Mohammed, Aliyu; et al: Rise of the RedMed: How the Mediterranean-Red Sea Nexus is Resuming its Strategic Centrality. Alexandria, Virginia, 2016: The International Strategic Studies Association and the Gusau Institute. See: www.StrategicStudies.org. ISBN: 978-1-892998-24-8.
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