Ethiopia has been in the forefront of leading and aiding anti-colonial struggles from Algeria’s War of Independence to South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle emanating from its historic Adwa victory in 1896 that guaranteed its independence in face of growing European colonial expansionism in Africa. Throughout the years, Ethiopia became a beacon of anti-colonialism and the bedrock of pan-Africanism inspiring numerous movements and peoples in Africa and beyond.
Italy’s brief occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s underscored the importance of technological superiority and state-led economic development, which convinced the late Emperor Haile Selassie I of the need for Ethiopia to accelerate its ‘modernization’ efforts and economic development. Central to these modernization efforts was the misconstrued understanding that ‘western’ education especially higher education is fundamental to Ethiopia’s quest for prosperity and modernity. This ensued a deliberate educational policy that entailed the establishment of higher educational institutions emulating a western model and curriculum, and the subsequent availing of thousands of students of the opportunity to study abroad. While these investments in education did bear fruit expanding schooling opportunities to many people and helping Ethiopia establish gradually key sectors of the economy, the return of Ethiopia’s ‘educated’ elite to the country unavoidably led to a clash of ideas and worldviews especially with Ethiopia’s more traditional ruling elites. This heralded a revolution on the very essence and identity of the Ethiopian body politic, a revolution that largely remains unfinished today.
It is against this background that the emergence of ethno-nationalist movements in Ethiopia within the broader cold-war context and the current conflict in Tigray should be understood. In the perceived absence of a system and ideology of governance to supplant the Imperial regime following the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, misguided and self-serving political elites increasingly relied on the importation of communist and ethno-nationalist ideals to meet genuine popular grievances. The formation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1975 is a prime example. The TPLF was founded against a background of rising inequalities, pervasive poverty and an absolutist monarchy that became increasingly more isolated and detached from the Ethiopian people. Inspired by Hoxha’s Communist Albania model, the TPLF narrowly sought self-determination for Tigrayans as a panacea for the challenges faced by the people of Tigray at the time. This principle of self-determination was reluctantly later expanded in the late 1980s to include all Ethiopian peoples and groups when the TPLF understood the need to capture the Ethiopian state in its entirety with the increased recognition that economically an independent Tigray was not sustainable and geo-politically a unitarian Ethiopian state was essential. The outcome was an ill-advised and poorly designed and executed ethnic federal system under the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime inspired by so-called ‘revolutionary democracy’, and enshrined in Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution that deepened political fissures and divisions within the Ethiopian polity and undermined Ethiopia’s social and national fabric. While different ideological factions did exist within the TPLF as noted by Aregawi Berhe one of the founders of the TPLF from its inception with some calling for a more pan-Ethiopian national struggle against autocracy, others pushing for a more parochial and exclusive ethnic politics gained the upper hand leading to an increasingly centralized and dictatorial ruling party and regime.
The continued failure of Ethiopia’s political elites post-1974 to forge an all-inclusive and popularly owned national vision fed the disillusionment of millions of Ethiopians especially the younger generation whose yearning for freedom and liberty was stymied by the TPLF’s dictatorial policies and gross human rights violations that only aggravated with time with historic opportunities such as the 2005 elections for the TPLF to correct-course brazenly missed. The TPLF, bankrolled by the west continued uncompromisingly on a destructive path under the watchful eye of the international community and local donors and international organizations. Ultimately, massive waves of dissenting protests that broke out in Oromia and Amhara regions starting from 2014 and gradually expanded to other parts of the country led to the unexpected resignation of then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018, and subsequently to the bloodless coup that resulted in the election of Abiy Ahmed by the EPRDF’s Executive Committee members as chairman of the EPRDF in March 2018 and later as Prime Minister.
Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system and the constitutionally enshrined right of self-determination was a mere representation of an intellectually bankrupt experiment lacking political imagination and more dangerously a precedent in Africa that undermined national and social cohesion and the civic-political identity that colonial and post-colonial African elites tried to establish. The tension between the civic and primordial publics according to Peter Ekeh in post-colonial Africa is inextricably linked to social constructs such as tribalism that elites exploit in their quests to expand their influence and control of state resources. The sad tragedy in the case of Ethiopia is that politicized ethnicism was self-prescribed and self-inflicted. When fast-forwarding to the immediate antecedents of the November 2020 conflict, it would be misleading to reduce the main trigger of the conflict to a simmering tension between a unitarian and a secessionist camp. Rather far from an ideological divide, it is quite clear that the main issue at hand is political influence and state resources both of which the TPLF sorely lost access to since the rise of Abiy to power in 2018. As such framing the conflict in ideological or even ethnic terms makes the solution more elusive and complicated as do preposterous inflammatory allegations by TPLF sympathizers and stooges sensationalized by an accomplice western media relating to ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’. Tigrayans remain well represented in Ethiopia’s political, business and military elites. Arkebe Oqubay, advisor to the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Ethiopia’s and the AU’s sole candidate to the post of Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) at the level of UN Under Secretary General is an ethnic Tigrayan. While it was a bid he ultimately failed in, it is rather perplexing how a ‘genocidal regime’ as perceived in the eyes of some of its detractors could nominate a Tigrayan to such a high-profiled position.
While still a fashionable cliché to characterize intractable conflicts or situations in general as ‘complex’, there is little doubt that the political reality of present-day Ethiopia is rather complicated and historically rooted but not unresolvable. While the November 2020 conflict erupted following the immediate TPLF assault on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) according to the public admission of Sekoture Getachew, a TPLF spokesperson shortly after the conflict broke out, it would be naïve to assume that the federal government was not prepared to a warlike scenario following months of an acrimonious relationship and measures between the federal government and the TPLF culminating with the latter’s unilateral undertaking of regional parliamentary elections in September 2020.
The conflict, initiated on the basis of gross miscalculations by both parties with Abiy hoping for a quick and decisive victory, and the TPLF for a wider civil war that would engulf Ethiopia and weaken the Ethiopian federal state, has so far resulted in thousands killed, displaced and thousands more facing hunger-like conditions and malnutrition with women, girls and the elderly bearing the brunt of the conflict. Sadly, the international community has proven itself as a key spoiler in the conflict propagating with the support of social media platforms the TPLF’s narrative with international and western media overwhelmingly undermining the Ethiopian government with undue and harsh critique perceived rightly by many Ethiopians as an affront to the sovereignty of Ethiopia and the constitutionally and popularly elected government of Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia’s freest and most independent elections to date though imperfect. The role of humanitarian agencies is quite conspicuous not only in sensationalizing the conflict itself laying the blame squarely on the feet of the government for the suffering of Tigrayan civilians but purposefully disregarding and belittling the suffering and causalities in the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. The biased and unwarranted critique of the Ethiopian government and political and logistical support to the TPLF by western countries and humanitarian organizations reminiscent only of the Biafran War in the late 1960s that undoubtedly prolonged the war and suffering unnecessarily, is extremely dangerous and counter-productive. It is motivated by wider geo-political interests partly aimed to stymie a growing Chinese influence in Ethiopia and Africa at large and partly revolving around the politics of the Nile and the Renaissance Dam. Equally important to note is the fact that back in the 1990s with the rise of the TPLF-dominated EPRDF regime, Ethiopia was dubbed as a diplomatic success story brokered by the US under the auspices of Herman Cohen, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the time, with the newly appointed president at the time Meles Zenawi who from 1995 till his death in 2012 became Ethiopia’s longest serving prime minister, seen as representing a new generation of African leaders.
This emerging consensus around Ethiopia in the early 1990s triggered by a desperate quest for an ‘African success story’ in the post-cold war era with many African countries sliding towards civil war and ethnic strife has cultivated a new generation of politicians, academicians and analysts whose very careers and reputations are sustained and intricately linked with the EPRDF’s Ethiopia endurance and survival. Almost three decades later, it is not difficult to understand the reticence of many western observers some undoubtedly having reduced themselves to no more than TPLF stooges to admit to the failure of the TPLF-conceived Ethiopian ethnic federalist experiment.
Hence, once properly framed and understood within a broader historical and geo-political context, some steps towards resolving the current conflict could be proposed and put forward under the auspices of the AU and AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa;
- The House of People’s Representatives should be persuaded to reverse the designation of the TPLF as a terrorist group. In return, the TPLF should recognize the legitimacy of the federal government following the June elections, and agree unconditionally to withdraw all its fighters back to the Tigray region.
- Humanitarian aid should be delivered without any hindrance to all affected Ethiopian civilians both by land and also through Ethiopian-controlled air corridors.
- The near conclusion of the current electoral process excluding Tigray while an embarrassing and unfortunate pitfall presents also an opportunity. The federal government should together with a broad range of Tigrayan political and civic leaders including the TPLF plan for fresh elections in Tigray. The TPLF should be allowed to contest those elections provided all parties including opposition parties are allowed to partake and contest the elections in a fair and free manner that is independently verifiable.
- An all-inclusive and Ethiopian-led national dialogue should be held without any further delay facilitated by the office of the President of the Republic and religious leaders.
- A truth and reconciliation commission should be established to probe all crimes and violations committed during the conflict by all sides and amnesty provided by the office of the President in all possible cases.
- National programs and campaigns to strengthen national and civic Ethiopian identity should be launched through the formal and informal educational systems, and innovative solutions to Ethiopia’s language diversity should be proposed for example mandating the learning of two Ethiopian languages for every Ethiopian citizen to foster communication and mutual understanding.
- Capacity development programs for law enforcement and security organs should be introduced to entrench rights-based approaches and combat sexual abuse and exploitation, and integrate regional militias and forces within federally constituted law enforcement and security organs such as the ENDF.
While the above analysis gives merely a bird’s eye view of the historical circumstances that led us to the current stalemate, it is crucial in any further engagements that a more balanced and measured approach is followed especially by the International Community and the United Nations. For the UN in particular, the lack of independent capabilities for intelligence gathering and political analysis puts the UN usually at a great disadvantage and at the mercy of powerful states that have openly adopted a more partisan approach to the conflict. The influence of those same states extends at times to some of the internal UN organs and agencies and even personnel reducing them at times to a mere mouthpiece for the foreign policies and agendas of these states.
Ultimately, we should all recognize that Ethiopia historically, symbolically and geo-politically is simply too big to fail. As a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations, Ethiopia has always stood firm for the rights of the marginalized and colonized people everywhere. Ethiopia’s commitment to multilateralism never faltered even when its appeals for the intervention and support of the international community in face of the ruthless Italian fascist invasion, as delivered by the late Emperor Haile Selassie in June 1936 fell on deaf ears. When calculating the costs of failure; millions of refugees heading towards Europe, large-scale political instability in the Horn and Africa at large, reconstitution of terror networks, and the loss of a continental and global political heavyweight, the costs are unfathomable. This is why it is quite tragic, perplexing and disappointing to see the support a declared secessionist, dictatorial and politically corrupt group like the TPLF that failed to address and resolve Ethiopia’s multi-layered challenges for the last three decades it’s been in power is receiving.
Ethiopia has always been a powerful idea, an idea we all tried to shape and reshape to suit our narrower interests and agendas, but if history teaches us anything is that Ethiopia endures, Ethiopia Shall Rise, Ethiopia Must Rise, and we have the historic responsibility to ensure it does!
I would like to end with the poetic words of one of Africa’s visionary sons and leaders Kwame Nkrumah in his speech in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963 during the inaugural establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU):
Ethiopia shall rise
Ethiopia, Africa’s bright gem
Set high among the verdant hills
That gave birth to the unfailing
Waters of the Nile
Ethiopia shall rise
Ethiopia, land of the wise;
Ethiopia, bold cradle of Africa’s ancient rule
And fertile school
Of our African culture;
Ethiopia, the wise
And remould with us the full figure Of Africa’s hopes
Kwame Nkrumah, 1963
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