“Ethiopia cannot negotiate but defeat terrorists and chart better political dispensation through national dialogue and advance to democratization and development,” writes Metta-Alem Sinishaw
By Metta-Alem Sinishaw
President Trump’s “America First” agenda, vulgar mischaracterization of Africa as “shithole” countries, and disparaging comment against Nelson Mandela marked the low strategic priority the US attached to Africa. Diminishing US presence offered other powers an opportunity to expand influence. Distraught by the US-Iran deal, Gulf countries intensified partnership with the Horn to deprive Iran of proximity to Yemen. When the US policy shifted from counterterrorism to great powers competition, new geopolitical reconfiguration has already transformed Horn countries. Ethiopia and Sudan saw regime changes and forged partnership with new actors. This paper attempts to review the dilemma Ethiopia is facing, highlight the domestic causes of the conflict, assess how the “Responsibility to Protect” exacerbates the conflict, and offer modest contributions for national dialogue.
The pedigree of Ethiopia’s political predicament can be traced, at least partly, to its geostrategic location and relations with great powers. The League of Nations failed to protect Ethiopia from colonial aggression in the 1930s. The imperial and socialist governments’ exclusive reliance on US and Soviet Union bilateral relations, respectively, accelerated their demise. The Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) partnered with the US on counterterrorism and maintained economic and political affinity with China until it was dislodged by a domestic discontented group.
When Abiy Ahmed took the Premiership, he sought to rescue Ethiopia from disintegration and moral bankruptcy caused by TPLF designed illiberal ethnolinguistic arrangement. He resuscitated supra-ethnic nationalism that some perceived as hindrance to the global order. Inspired by his idea of “Medemer”- (synergy), Abiy began political and economic liberalization with Western assistance while maintaining strong ties with China. He renewed relations with Russia and forged new partnerships with Gulf countries. He reconciled with Eritrea to neutralize mutual threat from TPLF and collaborated with Somalia to mitigate the transactional tendency of new actors and strengthen regional cooperation.
Worried by instability, humanitarian crisis and rapprochement with Eritrea, interventionists are pressurizing Abiy to abandon his position. Despite TPLF’s designation as a terrorist group, they demand for an end to the conflict or negotiation between Abiy and TPLF. Regional disagreement over GERD and ethnic strife at home continue undermining his promised reform. The central question remains how quickly will Abiy end the war, introduce constitutional reform, and curb the simmering economic quagmire. The speed with which he translates his success in mobilizing Ethiopians into political harmony will determine Ethiopia’s future.
The causes of internal contradictions and lingering instability:
Ethnic rivalry and competition for resources are the root causes of Ethiopia’s elite conflicts. Antagonism between national and subnational (center-periphery) forces remains detrimental due to the TPLF imposed ethnic federal system. After rebuffing the call to join the Prosperity party (PP), TPLF became hostile to the reform and engaged in destabilization. The constitutional deadlock that followed the postponement of the 2020 election exacerbated its relations with PP. In defiance to the federal resolution, TPLF conducted a standalone regional election, claimed victory, and questioned Abiy’s legitimacy. When the federal government suspended the budget, TPLF attacked on the Northern Command that ignited the devastating war.
TPLF’s “double-face” characteristic exacerbates the conflict. TPLF is idolized as an angel of liberation among Tigrayans but recognized as an evil oppressor by others. Besides repression and corruption, TPLF is blamed for making Ethiopia landlocked and dividing along primordial identity. Secessionist tendency, exploitative behavior, and lack of national interest are additional reasons for public resentment.
TPLF’s commitment to dismantle the Ethiopian state led to the emergence of a national front composed of special forces from all regions. The convergence blows TPLF’s ideological backbone and sends strong political shockwaves to the ethnocentric camp. As TPLF intensified ties with Egypt/Sudan, Ethiopians of various backgrounds convened to curb the looming national threat. TPLF’s alliance with the outlawed Oromo rebels and other radicals’ group is more of a political façade than a military partnership. Increased foreign support for TPLF only raised public resentment and intensified mobilization in defense of national unity.
How Responsibility to Protect (R2P) exacerbates the conflict
Although R2P is not legally binding, it is a customary international doctrine that seeks to prevent war crime, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity, collectively known as crimes of atrocity. Since Abiy took office, Ethiopia has seen massive internal displacements and atrocities targeted mainly at ethnic Amhara and Christian religious groups. However, as the war in Tigray intensified, the international community (IC) shifted its concern for Human rights from “deeply concerned” to a full-fledged mobilization under the humanitarian agenda.
During the early months of the war, Ethiopia supplied most of the humanitarian relief in Tigray. It cooperated in facilitating aid delivery and access to journalists and brought suspected soldiers to justice. It expresses genuine interest in collaborating with the United Nations (UN) to conduct an independent investigation on any human rights violation allegation. The interventionist not only failed to recognize Ethiopia’s good gesture but pressed for negotiation using false equivalence between the government and TPLF, an erstwhile ruling party recently proscribed as terrorists.
The interventionist could not yet achieve a truce due to the impartiality. They use population size as an exclusive criterion for protecting Tigrayan minority groups and fail to recognize the political, military, and economic monopoly of power TPLF wielded and the human suffering it inflicted during its reign. The premise is oblivious of the genesis of ethnic conflict and falls short of acknowledging the plight of TPLF’ victims. Sustained support for TPLF is tantamount to condoning its destruction and desire to return to its lost hegemony.
International pressure on the government resulted in a unilateral ceasefire that appeased those that have genuine humanitarian concern. Others that exploit the Tigray conflict as a pretext under humanitarian banner continued interference. Initial amelioration of aid delivery was reversed when TPLF invaded neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.
TPLF’s sexual assault, loot, and atrocities on Eritrean refugees, federal government employees of ethnic Tigray origin, and the displaced Afar community use of child soldiers received a blind eye. Neither the UN nor its specialized agencies condemned when TPLF endangered millions of needy citizens. US imposed visa restriction, EU suspended budget support, and France cancelled a military deal. The US persistently contemplates an adverse resolution against Ethiopia under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However, China, Russia, India, and others reject the interventionist call for meddling. They insist that the African Union (AU) should lead the mediation over GERD and the Tigray conflict must remain an exclusively internal affair of sovereign Ethiopia.
A group of “55 African intellectuals” are pushing the interventionist agenda of pressurizing the Ethiopian government to sit for negotiation with TPLF under AU or Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD) mediation. It is fascinating to note that a group under the name of “African Intellectuals” do not even recognize TPLF’s ethnic supremacist agenda that profoundly contradicts the 1974 Cairo’s agreement of the OAU. African forefathers rightly foresaw the dangers of ethnic politics that will engulf Africa into perpetual instability. The group does not seem knowledgeable about TPLF’s outright rejection of AU’s mediation. TPLF’s rigid ideological position has impeded reconciliation as it believes differences are antagonistic and resolution should come through confrontation where only victors dictate a zero-sum-game outcome.
Hoping to trigger even more intervention, TPLF accelerated its offensive that led to the reversal of the ceasefire. Relentless diplomatic backing and media coverage encouraged TPLF for a more aggressive military campaign. As international pressure mounts on the government, TPLF expands the conflict in anticipation of more intervention against which Ethiopians are more than ever mobilized to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Continued support to TPLF and unbalanced condemnation against the government could only lead to protracted conflict with spillover effects to the region.
Some considerations for national dialogue:
Despite the consensus that political disagreements will not be resolved by military confrontation, protagonists are likely to continue confrontation and exacerbate human suffering. While national dialogue is overdue, serious attempts should examine ideological intransigence, intergenerational divide, the quest for autonomy, and foreign meddling.
1. The ideological intransigence that isolated TPLF from PP remains a major impediment. As communist group, TPLF believes that political differences are antagonistic and should be resolved through armed confrontation. The onerousness of its pre-conditions, even with declining capability and leadership loss, shows its inflexibility and jeopardizes the prospects of reconciliation.
2. Ethiopia’s political landscape has been dominated by socialist oriented older generation. They are mostly ethno-nationalists, pursue antagonistic narratives, and demand self-determination up to session based on primordial affinity. The liberal leaning Youth favors home-grown ideology and aspires to shifting allegiance from cultural groups to the state. They vision a prosperous future based on common past and shared interest. Divergence on imported ideology has historically hindered reconciliation among successive generations of social, economic, and political elites. Reconciliation requires deciphering why Ethiopians remain unwilling and unable to negotiate for a better vision for a more perfect union.
3. Autonomy is the most revered political demand of ethnonationalists. Unlike the claim, Tigray has always been ruled by Tigrayans but TPLF exploits self-rule as pretext to dominate national politics. Whether TPLF should remain a legitimate force should be left for Tigrayans who bear the onus of charting a new vision. Insistence on a supremacist agenda will only prolong human suffering until the threat from TPLF is irreversibly defused. Tigrayans should recognize TPLF’s waning significance and public resentment and mend the schism it caused against other cultural groups. Federal authorities should facilitate safe exit for TPLF’s core leadership and offer amnesty for non-hardliners to isolate Tigrayan concern from hostile foreign agents sheltered behind TPLF.
4. Ethiopia’s natural location has geostrategic advantages and drawbacks to its foreign policies. Rivalry for dominance over the Red Sea has made Horn counties pawn. Strategic imperative made the US skeptical of the current administration due to the convergence among Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, and proximity to China and Russia. Yet, it has not imposed severe sanctions which signals its continued desire to partner with Ethiopia. Ethiopia ought not to negotiate its sovereignty nor its political independence but explore persistently opportunities to improve relations and diversify its partners. Turkey’s commitment to Ethiopia’s peace and integrity couldn’t have come at any better time. Ethiopia must not forget the historical bondage and contribution of US technical/financial assistance and technological transfer for its development. It must lobby for improved outcomes and take advantage of the nascent Ethiopian American community to mend relations. The spectacular disaster in Afghanistan and the “we now regret” experience from Iraq and Libya could offer lessons for the interventionist and led to a change of heart in the Biden administration.
The key in the short term is however, to reverse TPLF’s expansion which, if implemented, will dwindle the intensity of international pressure. Recent military advance has transformed the initial demand from negotiation between “Government and TPLF” to a recent call for national dialogue under Ethiopia’s leadership. UN specialized agencies began acknowledging the lack and quality of evidence for the serious accusation of human right violations. Media slowly started scrutinizing all belligerents and exposing wrongdoing. Ethiopia cannot negotiate, but defeat terrorists and chart better political dispensation through national dialogue and advance to democratization and development.
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