By Dr. Berhanu Bulcha and Dr. Tsega Solomo
In Africa, the cradle of humankind, interactions with foreign powers have historically only served to reduce freedom and independence. The late 19th century saw a movement towards attempting to revive territorial integrity in Africa through the spirit of pan-Africanism – the belief that all Africans share a common history and a common destiny, and that African unity is imperative for progress. By this time, Ethiopia was already recognized as an independent nation, having repelled an Italian invasion at the battle of Adwa, thereby cementing its position as a paragon of African independence. With its long history dating back to the Solomonic dynasties, from Emperor Menelik to Haile Selassie, Ethiopia remains a primary artery of pan-Africanism thanks to the current government of Prime Minister Abiy and his predilections towards the integration and liberalization of Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.
Abiy’s quest to revive the spirit of pan-Africanism has had far-reaching effects on economic integration, peace and development in Africa. However, he has faced external and internal resistance, compounded by foreign influence and sabotage from his predecessors, which raises questions as to why such an exemplary leader would be discussed within global communities not for his achievements but for atrocities in the ongoing Tigray crisis. The prime minister’s treatment necessitates a deliberate investigation of his particular brand of pan-Africanism, as well as the various events compounding his woes, not to mention the reasons for the constant pressure from the West to negotiate with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) insurgents, with apparently little regard for the potential implications of doing so.
Transforming Ethiopia into a more united nation meant that the economy would have to be open to everybody. To achieve this, Abiy dismantled the TPLF coalition in favor of a more inclusive party. His Prosperity Party was not well received by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF, a TPLF-led party, had controlled Ethiopia for 27 years and was made up of Tigrayans – an ethnic group that comprises only 6% of the total population. The formation of the Prosperity Party left TPLF proponents with a choice: support the new and inclusive government, or opt-out. They chose the latter, and their unwillingness to cooperate has been illustrated by their tireless work in instigating ethnic conflicts and threatening national security.
Following this tension, the TPLF ignored the postponement of the national and regional elections by Ethiopia’s Election Commission due to the COVID pandemic, and proceeded with the election of a regional government. This escalated tension exploded into civil war on November 4, 2020, when TPLF attacked a military base triggering Abiy’s government to send federal forces. Sustained provocation by the TPLF forced Ethiopia’s national government to destroy Tigray weaponry near the regional capital of Mekele, and a few days later, a full-scale civil war ensued. Since then, the death toll in the Tigray conflict has risen to at least 52,000, while the United Nations estimates that more than 61,000 Ethiopians have fled into Sudan.
To a large extent, this conflict stems from the TPLF’S refusal to recognize the national government, which is directly contrary to the spirit of pan-Africanism – as is their separatist
agitation and fomenting of ethnic conflict. Moreover, the TPLF has thwarted Abiy’s efforts to begin peace negotiations by rejecting the involvement of the African Union (AU) as negotiators, a slap in the face for Abiy’s instinct towards a pan-African spirit of unity and dialogue in solving African problems.
Abiy’s trajectory has followed the footstep of Haile Selassie in championing pan-Africanism through regional integration and advocacy for peace and unity among Ethiopians and the rest of Africa. Despite facing daunting challenges on domestic fronts, Abiy has been instrumental in fostering peace and security in the Horn of Africa. Upon his election, he stated his willingness to negotiate and compromise to bring about the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border crisis. Abiy also helped broker a peace deal between other neighboring countries, notably easing the standoff between South Sudanese vice president Reek Machar and President Salva Kiir and mediating between Kenya and Somalia in a protracted maritime dispute.
By believing that charity begins at home, Abiy has widely promoted peace, reconciliation and justice in Ethiopia. Even though he has had headwinds to navigate, he lifted the state of emergency that existed in the latter stages of TPLF rule, granted amnesty to political prisoners, increased media freedom, increased civil participation, promoted the role of women in political life and reviewed civil law to expand freedom of expression. Abiy can be seen as a liberal-minded person who believes in transparent and fair elections, clarifying why he was accorded a Peace and Reconciliation award by the Ethiopian Church in 2018. In addition to introducing political reforms to Ethiopia, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of unity and progress for all citizens revitalized the spirit of Ethiopians that had been long suppressed over the previous 50 years during the communist Derg and tyrannical TPLF regimes.
With its consistent emphasis on regional integration and economic cooperation with its neighbors, the Abiy government practices what it preaches when it comes to the spirit of pan Africanism. This is further illustrated by his recent move to kick-start a visa-on-arrival regime for all Africans to encourage economic participation all over the continent. He aims to unite Africa with a common goal, as witnessed in a speech at the African Union summit in 2018, when he stressed the need for leaders of the AU to stand together to survive changing global dynamics instead of remaining isolated. With his tweet, “Our continental organization, with a Pan-African spirit, is the right space to dialogue on issues that are of value to #Africa. The #GERD offers all stakeholders the opportunity for unprecedented economic growth and mutual development.” Abiy seems to encourage support for solving continental issues within the continent as well as regional integration for self-sufficient development. Notably, he has struck several bilateral agreements, such as the Djibouti port agreements, a 19% stake in Berbara port in the Republic of Somaliland, and a bilateral agreement with the Sudanese government for a partnership in the Port of Sudan. His Ethiopia-Djibouti agreement grants the Djiboutian government the option of taking stakes in state-owned Ethiopian firms in return for services from Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio-Telecom. Similarly, he negotiated a deal with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to allow the construction of an Ethiopian logistics facility at Lamu Port as part of the Lamu Port and Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) project.
Despite his tireless efforts to take bold steps forward within Ethiopia and neighboring regions, with a focus on the revival of the African spirit, Abiy has faced tremendous resistance to the point where his opponents launched a petition to revoke his Nobel Peace Prize. Retracting his award certainly would not resolve the current situation, and it is a worryingly revisionist attempt to tarnish outstanding achievements by an African politician. Such acts suggest that the West sees gaining political leverage as more valuable than stabilizing the region.
According to the Anadolu Agency, the EU and the US are threatening to sanction Ethiopia if it fails to engage in a dialogue with the already stiff-necked TPLF rebels. This counterproductive move is likely to further destabilize the nation. Andale Belay, a lecturer in the Ethiopian Civil Service University, warned that “the multipronged pressure has been defacing, confusing, intimidating and alienating Ethiopia from its neighbors and global partners to subdue it [Ethiopia] to their multifaceted hidden agendas” and that “the nonstarter position of the west can embolden the TPLF and other insurgents to continue with their subversive acts, weaken the federal government and derail the country’s reform and consequently destabilize Ethiopia”. Bringing the outlawed TPLF into the equation will increase civil disobedience since it will embolden other insurgent groups in the region. This kills the spirit of dialogue embraced by pan-Africanism and disrupts Ethiopian progress while the West continues to spread its tentacles in the region.
Ethiopia’s longstanding record in supporting the black identity movement and pan-Africanism should not fade away because of the current crisis. Even though the atrocities alleged against Abiy’s administration look absurd in the light of his broad pan-Africanism and passion for Ethiopia, it does not mean that Ethiopia should be used as a specimen for breeding outlawed insurgent groups or a card for political leverage by the West. If the West does not recognize Hamas, Taliban, Al Qaeda or Al-Shabaab, why would they require Abiy to enter dialogue with the TPLF? It’s high time that Ethiopians understood that Ethiopian problems can be solved in Ethiopia or with a spirit of pan-Africanism. Mutual consent and support for Abiy’s ideological moves will safeguard Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and reduce foreign interference. Increased Western control of the situation can only bring about worst-case scenarios, as we have already witnessed in Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan.
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