By Fayesa Assefa
President Biden’s Executive order establishing a new sanctions regime on Ethiopia, although unfortunate, was not unexpected given the ongoing conflict in Tigray, the coordinated and intense media campaign to portray Ethiopia as the more belligerent of the two protagonists, and Ethiopia’s abject failure at countering this sinister campaign through appropriate media and diplomatic channels. There is a great sense of disappointment by the Ethiopian Government and many citizens at what they perceive to be a completely lopsided and unfair Western policy toward Ethiopia, given who instigated the war, repotted TPLF atrocities against innocent noncombatants, rape, intentional destruction of infrastructure, and the many crimes it committed against the nation while in power for almost three decades. The TPLF, with the help and guidance of its supporters near and afar, has been conducting successful misinformation and disinformation campaigns against the Ethiopian government, especially after the start of the war.
Ethiopia’s current relations with the West is fraught with tension and mistrust. But it is not impossible to improve these relations based on mutual respect, understanding, and interests. As lamentable as the West’s position vis-a-vis Ethiopia’s rights to manage its own internal affairs is, the Ethiopian government should still work hard on demonstrating to the West that there is a better and sustainable way to protecting and advancing its interests rather than relying on a totally discredited and criminal group like the TPLF with its attendant risks for the greater Horn of Africa region.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reformist government is not perfect but is the best thing that has happened to Ethiopia in recent memory. It stands for a more promising vision of building a democratic and tolerant political system fit for the diverse nation as opposed to the tribal-based system of the TPLF that caused so much strife, turmoil, and harm to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country. As strategic allies and trading partners, there is a lot the two sides share to ignite genuine discussions, and repair and transform their relations to a higher and more productive level. Such an outcome is in the long-term interests of both sides and the region.
Abiy’s government needs to develop and implement a foreign policy aimed at promoting its uplifting vision for the future of the county and repairing its damaged relations with the West. It needs to put in place committed, capable, experienced, and empowered professionals under a competent leadership at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that can help accomplish this. The prime minister needs to surround himself with experienced and proven advisors on domestic and international affairs. Ethiopia needs to draw lessons from its long and rich history of successful diplomacy that spans over a century, including its contributions in defeating colonialism and fostering freedom and liberty in Africa, the Caribbean and other regions. These achievements were the results of visionary foreign policy executed by effective leaders supported by a cadre of competent professionals who were allowed to do their jobs despite the undemocratic nature of the successive governments that they were serving.
The West should give the government credit for releasing thousands of TPLF’s political prisoners, reforming and transforming key institutions, and organizing and conducting a largely credible, peaceful, and successful national elections. It should also get the node for its ongoing efforts at liberalizing the economy. But the same cannot be stated, especially when it comes to the performance of its foreign relations, countering the coordinated malicious propaganda campaign by the TPLF and its supporters, and fighting ethnic-based extremism within the country.
The effects of the coordinated propaganda campaign is evident in the pressure the country is facing from the West to negotiate with an entity its parliament designated as a terrorist group with a long and disturbing history of gross human rights violations and grand corruption. According to CNN’s reporting following the issuance of President Biden’s executive order, the final push for action came from US congressional members who were galvanized by the outlet’s questionable reporting on bodies of alleged Tigraian victims recovered floating in the Tekeze River in the Sudan. The government is not free of blame here. It never adequately responded to this explosive story. Unchallenged, the TPLF and its supporters used it to persuade sympathetic Congressional members (who were already upset by similar reporting in the past) to push Biden to action. Increasing the pressure on the protagonists, the executive order includes language that future policy statements on the Tigray conflict could include language about possible genocide and related high crimes.
The Ethiopian Government be warned that unless it forcefully, methodically, and adequately challenges the veracity of several unsubstantiated but disturbing media stories of atrocities, key Ethiopian government officers could soon end up accused of committing these high crimes and subjected to ostracism and sanctions. At minimum, the government should use facts in its hands to not only refute any allegations but also to unmask the TPLF’s many disturbing crimes largely ignored by the international media but widely reported by local outlets. The TPLF is accused by the government, opposition parties, and local media of committing systemic atrocities against non-combatant civilians, rape, use of child solders, targeted destructions of public institutions and infrastructure, stealing humanitarian aid, looting substance farmers their meager resources, etc. The aim of unmasking the TPLF’s crimes should be both to hold it accountable and make it difficult for Western sympathy on false grounds.
The unsubstantiated often one-sided media stories, unless challenged immediately and systematically, will synthesize into a chain of persuasive narrative against the government. There is ample recent and distant history of governments that unravelled because of undue external pressure founded on questionable allegations of crimes of this or that sort. Such unwise pressure founded on flimsy grounds has pushed a number of countries further into turmoil and instability. The West should refrain from taking similar misguided measures that could lead to undesirable outcomes in strategically, politically, and economically important Ethiopia. Such an outcome is not in the interest of anyone except the TPLF.
The government of Ethiopia needs to take appropriate measures to address concerns around the war while pursuing its legitimate right to hold the TPLF leaders accountable for their crimes. The West should never underestimate the people’s almost universal rejection of the TPLF and their determination to see it held accountable. The sizable and growing Ethiopian diaspora in the West is outraged at what they perceive unjustified and unfair policy toward Ethiopia. They are demanding for a more balanced approach. They overwhelmingly supported the party in power in the latest U.S. elections. Left unheard, they could easily be persuaded to vote for the party out of power in future contests in closely contested states.
What makes reconciliation with TPLF difficult is not only the serious and numerous crimes it committed, but the diametrically opposite vision the two contending parties have for the country. Ethiopians struggled for 27 years and sacrificed a great deal to dislodge the TPLF from power because they had enough of its backward and tribal policy that divided the county along ethnic lines and purposely pitted one ethnic group against another. As a direct result of this backward and abhorrent TPLF policy, many perished, languished in prisons, and were displaced. Abiy’s Prosperity Party, which splintered from the former ruling coalition led by the TPLF, wants to take the country in a different direction – – to a more equitable and modern system that fuses diversity with unity along strong minority rights protections. This great beginning needs to be encouraged as it offers a more practical and sustainable governing model for a highly diverse and traumatized country such as Ethiopia.
Given the TPLF’s thirty years of failure to reform itself, its numerous and serious crimes, and its almost universal rejection, it is very difficult to see any viable role for the organization at the national level. Since coming to power in Tigray more than thirty years ago, the TPLF has not allowed any other serious alternative party to operate freely in the region. For all practical purposes, the TPLF has in effect instituted a one-party state in Tigray. It has held the people of Tigray hostage in its hegemonic ambitions to rule over the majority of Ethiopians. The TPLF is actively working to destabilize the large country of 115 million people. It has aligned itself with other extremist groups such as OLF Shene, which is accused of a number of terrorist acts in the country.
Supporting the unreformed TPLF with such nefarious background is not only contrary to the West’s own moral values but is also inimical to its long term interest in seeing a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Horn of Africa region. Doing so also brings with it great reputational risks. Furthermore, it sends the wrong message that popularly dislodged dictatorial groups can claw back to power through force and political chicanery.
PM Abiy Ahmed’s well-written but lengthy open letter response to President Biden seems aimed more at his domestic and diaspora audiences rather than at the president of the United States. Otherwise, it should have been transmitted through appropriate diplomatic channels or published as an op- ed piece in a major international newspaper. Be that as it may, every challenge brings an opportunity. The one facing Ethiopia now is no different. If managed carefully and properly, it could trigger appropriate diplomatic engagements and usher a new chapter in Ethiopia’s relations with the United States and other Western powers.
Here are a few suggestions to consider. The PM needs to:
• Engage the international media (including CNN) and articulate his overall political and economic vision, strategies for addressing current challenges, and desire for improved relations with countries near and afar. Present his evidence as to the genesis of the war and the current and past crimes that the TPLF committed against the nation for the last 30 years. Discuss his vision for bringing peace to Tigray and other parts of the country. Address all allegations of crime against his government around the conflict in Tigray directly and openly. After all, he is the chief executive of the country.
• Take all needed additional steps to ensure all people in conflict affected areas in Afar, Amhara, Tigray, and other regions have access to humanitarian aid and assistance.
• Engage the West and cultivate cordial relations with leaders of political, academic, think tank, media and international organizations. Invite the same to visit Ethiopia to see things on the ground for themselves and make their own informed opinions.
• Attend global forums and add his voice as a leader of an important country: on climate change, development challenges, peacekeeping and conflict resolution, global pandemic, economic disparity, etc. Remember how Meles Zenaw, despite his gross human rights violations and kleptocracy, was coached and groomed by his supporters to do exactly that for about two decades. The dividends of that engagement are still serving the remnants of the TPLF very well.
• Capitalize on the formation his new government to appoint an energetic, skilled, experienced, thoughtful, and credible foreign minister whose full- time job is to manage and lead the country’s foreign relations, unlike the current Deputy PM who doubles as the minister of foreign affairs. The current Somali Region President Mustafe Agjar comes to mind. I’m sure there are other capable leaders as well to consider. Staff key positions within his office and at the ministry of foreign affairs with diverse and seasoned advisors that have demonstrated experience, integrity, and credibility.
• Work with diaspora groups to advance the government’s legitimate foreign policy and domestic goals. The diaspora are important bridges for enhanced understanding and relations between their adopted country and their native Ethiopia. They should not however be blind supporters but constructive critics to nudge the government to develop and pursue positive policies both at home and abroad.
As stated earlier, PM Abiy’s government currently enjoys almost universal public support in its just war against the TPLF. But this support would likely be lost unless it makes incremental progress in bringing peace to the country and addressing other pressing political, security, and economic challenges. For example, the government should take unequivocal and immediate action against repeated and targeted ethnic-based attacks in Afar, Amhara, Oromia, and other parts of the country. Without such determined and legitimate steps to combat extremism, the government would have failed at its most basic and fundamental duty of guarantying the security and safety of all of its people. Besides such dereliction of duty puts a big question mark on the government’s credibility in combating the TPLF. Let’s hope reasonable and sober minds will come together to transition Ethiopia from its current challenges into a more stable, democratic, and prosperous country for all its citizens and a reliable partner for its partners.
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