A confluence of global, regional, and local forces have come together to torpedo the nascent popular initiative towards peace in the Horn of Africa (HOA) region and democratic changes in the constituent States.
The pursuit of global, regional, and local forces in quest of their parochial interests–without regard for the well-being and stability of the region–will have monumental consequences that will reverberate through the rest of the African states, the Middle East, and Europe.
Mitigating this impending catastrophe requires the goodwill of all stakeholders to look beyond their contending and conflicting interests and resolve their differences through understanding and collaboration rather than intimidation, marginalization, and force. Above all, they must engage the peoples of the region to be direct participants in determining their future.
HOA is the most conflict-ridden region in the world because it is the focal point of opposing global and regional interests. Colonialism and imperialism have arbitrarily set the structure and relationship of the states in the HOA. The people of the Horn of Africa have struggled under these arbitrary structures and been relegated into economically and politically unviable balkanized states. Local elites have jockeyed for political power by being subservient to the superpowers’ interests. As a result, the peoples’ aspirations for development, social justice, and good governance have been trampled.
Three years ago, popular mass movements in Ethiopia and Sudan toppled corrupt, repressive, and incompetent regimes that had ruled these states for nearly thirty years. These democratic popular uprisings that ousted the military dictator Al-Beshir in Sudan and the kleptocratic TPLF/EPRDF regime in Ethiopia included a vision for the Horn of Africa. In Addis, Asmara, and Khartoum, masses of people spontaneously came out to demonstrate for peace and unity in the region. The Same spirit reverberated in Somalia. For the first time in decades, proxy wars were muzzled, and Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia signed a formal agreement of cooperation. Dr. Abiy Ahmed presided over the power-sharing agreement between the popular Democratic forces for change and the military juntas of Sudan. Regional powers Saudi Arabia and UAE signed onto the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea as sponsors. The Nobel Prize was awarded to Dr. Abiy for bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In my article hailing the peace initiative between Eritrea and Ethiopia as the Dawn of the New Era in the Horn of Africa, I affirmed that the main forces behind the peace initiative were the peoples’ direct participation in shaping their future. Now as a corollary, I would assert that the impediment to the peace initiative came from global and regional forces.1
In Sudan, the Democratic Revolution has been stalemated. The state is sliding into disintegration with internecine fights within the military junta, the persistent struggle of the people for change, and the economic meltdown.
As I write this article the military junta led by General Burhan has staged a coup d’etat and taken the civilian administration under Prime Minister Hamdok into custody.
Sudanese demonstrating in the streets of Khartoum
The popular democratic forces for change, in a massive months-long campaign of demonstrations and civil disobedience, brought the Al-Beshir machine to a standstill. The military brass ousted Al-Beshir and came into a tactical power-sharing with the insurrectionary popular forces. The two groups represented diametrically opposite interests and sections of the Sudanese society. The popular forces are democratic and secular, representing Sudanese diversity and aiming for integration in the Horn of Africa while the junta includes the remnants of Al-Beshir’s regime.
The junta sought to continue the policies of Al-Beshir–Islamic and Arab Centric dictatorship. When the military dictators could not crush the popular movement, they agreed to form a two-year transitional government made of the Coalition of the Democratic Forces and the military junta. At the end of the two-year transition in 2023, the people of Sudan are supposed to vote freely in a democratic election to choose the type of government they want.
The military junta is preemptively trying to subvert this democratic, peaceful transition by acting as de facto rulers. In this role, they have allied with Egypt and started a border conflict with Ethiopia. Sudan’s army belligerently annexed the disputed border area and displaced the Ethiopian farmers. Its aim is to fan nationalist fervor and distract from calls for democracy by instigating a state of war. All of these actions have favored the military versus the civilians. The popular forces, not fooled, have reacted by intensifying civil disorder.
Egypt’s interest in Sudan is clearly subversive. Egypt always treated Sudan as its dominion served by the Arabized elite and resented by the mass of the Sudanese people. Sudanese democratic forces are keenly against the hegemonistic role Egypt has played throughout Sudan’s history. At the present time, Egypt needs Sudan as its main ally to subvert Ethiopia’s effort to complete the Renaissance Dam. As a military dictatorship, the Al-Sisi regime in Egypt feels threatened by the democratic movement in Sudan.
The US has shifted its policy towards Sudan. The Trump Administration took Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Biden Administration is pursuing strong engagement with Sudan to counterbalance the incipient influence of Russia and China. But the million-dollar question is will the US side with the junta or the democratic forces? Will US policy abate or encourage Sudan’s belligerence towards Ethiopia? And to what end? US silence regarding the Sudans’ forceful annexation of the contested territory is very disturbing.
Ethiopia is in the throes of an existential crisis mainly due to the subversive Acts of the TPLF; zero-sum games by the power elites; aggressive opportunist takeover of disputed border area by Sudan; initiation of new proxy war by Sudan and Egypt; and a tectonic shift in the policy of the United States towards Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has been at such a historical juncture time and again. It has prevailed, and the present moment will not be different.
Ethiopian nationalism flourishes at times of external threat. In the present heightened external threat, Ethiopians are standing united together in spite of their internal differences.
Abiy Ahmed, despite ferocious external pressure, has proven to be a resilient national leader. So far US intervention and threats of sanctions have garnered Dr. Abiy more popular support rather than undermining him. Ethiopia was able to carry a peaceful and credible election in this time of crisis. Notwithstanding the flurry of diplomatic offensives by Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia has been able to complete the second phase of the Renaissance Dam successfully.
An offshoot of Democracy in real life in Ethiopia. Pride, decency, and peaceful self-determination of the people of Ethiopia.3
Descent of TPLF from the ruling party of Ethiopia into a terrorist band.
The TPLF ruled Ethiopia for 27 years as an ethnic federation in name, but in reality, it was a throwback to the old colonial policy of divide and rule. It partitioned Ethiopia into ethnic regions, put puppet administrators in place, and fostered rivalries and animosity between the ethnicities. While the local elites scrambled for crumbs, the TPLF plundered the federal state unchallenged for three decades. Dictators in Africa create ethnic divisions de facto, but the TPLF created ethnic divisions in Ethiopia by design to facilitate its unsustainable minority hegemony over Ethiopia. As a result, ethnic divisions and conflicts spread like cancer throughout Ethiopia. Its heinous policy didn’t save the TPLF from being overthrown, but it made rebuilding a harmonious Ethiopian state a nightmare.
The Tigray region has become a theater of war and devastation. The hapless Tigrayan masses are subjected to famine, rape, and displacement life in refugee camps. They are being used as cannon fodder in a savage war. The main architect and driving force of this destructive conflict is the TPLF.
Well before it consolidated power at the helm of Ethiopia, the TPLF leadership clique formulated a fallback position that if it ever lost its preeminent position in Ethiopia, it would create an independent Tigray state. To this end, they surgically incorporated economically and strategically essential areas from the Amhara and Afar regions. This scheme included annexing the Eritrean highlands and its ports into the Grand Tigray state. Three years ago, when the TPLF was overthrown by the united youth movement of Ethiopia, it embarked on this grand illusion of declaring an independent Tigray state.
When the TPLF was ousted from power, its leader retreated to Mekele. They conducted a unilateral election where they claimed that they won 99 percent of the vote. After that, they started acting as a de facto independent state. By their own claim, they raised and trained a militia force of 250,000 strong. On November 3 2020, to gain modern military armaments, the Tigray militias under TPLF command raided the highly armed Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces(ENDF) stationed in Tigray. This preemptive military attack on the unsuspecting army division was so devastatingly brutal that the remaining battered forces chose to retreat to Eritrea rather than surrender to the TPLF. As the Fort Sumter attack was the opening salvo of the American Civil War, so the infamous raid on the Northern Army Command in Tigray ignited the current devastating civil war in Ethiopia. The audacious raid concentrated
60 to 80% of Ethiopia’s military sophisticated and modern armaments, including long-range missiles, in the hands of the TPLF and intoxicated them with a sense of invincibility. With these weapons, they lobbed scores of missiles into the cities of Gonder and Bherdar in the Amhara region. With the aim of escalating the conflict into a regional war, they also fired scores of missiles at Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
With the help of the Eritrean army and the Amhara militia, the reorganized and reinforced ENDF rolled back into the TPLF offensive. In four weeks, the TPLF was ousted from all the cities in Tigray including Mekele. Terming it a strategic shift to guerrilla warfare, the TPLF destroyed its own airports, bridges, and power sources and plundered its own people’s medical facilities, food stores, and fuel depots, and retreated to its old mountain gorges. In addition, it let loose over twelve thousand criminals from its prisons, issuing some of them guns and ammunition as well as Eritrean and Ethiopian army uniforms so they could blame their atrocities on the Eritrean and Ethiopian armies for propaganda purposes.
Paradoxically the TPLF gained from the aftermath of its military defeat. First, It framed the Ethiopian response as an offensive against the people of Tigray. This helped it to rally, at least temporarily, sections of the Tigray people. Second, it used its debacle to rally international sentiment by claiming ethnic genocide and ethnic cleansing. In this distortion of the facts, it was aided by an intentionally lopsided western media campaign. The United States and its Western allies put tremendous pressure on Dr. Abiy and Isais to withdraw their armies from Tigray, which they did.
The Ethiopian government, as a result of international pressure and the Tigray people’s resistance to its administration, declared a unilateral cease-fire and ordered the ENDF to withdraw from the Tigray region. Instead of using this opportunity to give the Tigrayan population a respite to rebuild their shattered livelihoods, claimed the Ethiopian government’s declaration of ceasefire and withdrawal from Tigray as proof of their military superiority. Their spokesperson, Getachew Reda, told Reuters by satellite phone, “Our forces are still in hot pursuit to the south, east. Our primary focus is to degrade enemy fighting capabilities … So if going to Amhara is what it takes, we will do it. If going to Eritrea is what it takes, we’ll do it.” They unleashed a deadly offensive in multiple prongs into the Amhara and Afar regions in a delusion of an easy victory.
TPLF’s offensive into Afar and Amhara region has been rebuffed by the determined resistance of the Afar nomads and Amhara peasants. The TPLF is now bogged down and responding with mass killing, pillaging, and destruction. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people in the Afar and Wollo region are dislocated, and millions are exposed to famine.
The TPLF leaders already should have been brought to justice for their plundering, mass killings, and incarceration and tortures of tens of thousands of Ethiopians under their thirty years of dictatorship. However, those crimes are nothing compared to the vicious genocide and scorched earth offensive they are conducting in the Afar and Amhara regions now.
Western Media has scantily reported these atrocities of the TPLF on innocent people. Paid pundits still spin the TPLF as an underdog fighting for the rights of the Tigray people. This is far from the truth. For thirty years while they plundered Ethiopia, the condition of the average Tigrayan in Tigray was no better than the fate of other peasants in the rest of Ethiopia, and in some circumstances, worse. More than a quarter of Tigryans lived on food aid handouts. Moreover, the TPLF ruled Tigray as their exclusive fiefdom, harshly suppressing dissent and preempting the rise of any alternative Tigrayan political force or class.
Compare and contrast this to the situation In 1991. Then, as the TPLF marched in victory to Addis Ababa, they led a tattered peasant army fighting for its rights as well as the rights of the Ethiopian people. The peoples of Wollo, Begemder, and Gojjam, Afar, and Oromo facilitated their march to Addis Ababa to oust the fascist Derg. Now the present TPLF has descended on the same Amhara and Afar regions as invaders… The TPLF is acting as a marauding army burning villages and towns, slaughtering cattle, destroying farms, and looting grain depots, factories, banks, medical facilities, and even schools. Their advance has been met by stiff resistance of the people every mile of the way.
Many writers use cancer analogies to describe the TPLF. The reason behind this analogy, as offensive as it may sound, is that as a result of their unfettered rule of Ethiopia for twenty-seven years, their evil influence has metastasized throughout Ethiopia’s military and civilian institutions as well as its political and civil organizations. Their shenanigans have shaped the mindset of the Ethiopian elite and the masses at large into a polarized web. In place of goodwill, trust, and tolerance, nihilism, rivalry, conspiracy, and greed have become the main engagement mode. The absence of a democratic platform made violent uprising the main choice.
A satellite image of a farming community near Agamsa town in Ethiopia’s Amhara region prior to and after it was systematically burned down by the TPLF forces. Courtesy of DX Open Network, a UK-based research and analysis organization.
The TPLF is no Boko Haram or Al-Shabab ragtag, semi-illiterate, xenophobic, armed band. Neither is the TPLF an organization of underdogs standing for the rights of the Tigrayan people. This is an organization of kleptocrats and merciless dictators who plundered the second largest country in Africa for thirty years.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that no political order in Ethiopia’s long history has been able to penetrate its stubbornly diverse societies the way the TPLF did. Their influence transcends Ethiopia. The billions of dollars they plundered and parked in foreign safe havens worldwide gives them leverage to buy lobbyists and influence public media. Their ties reach deep into the Biden administration. Susan Rice and Antony Blinken’s clique in the Biden administration have histories intertwined with the TPLF top leadership that disqualifies them from being fair architects of the US’s policy toward present-day Ethiopia.
Despite all of these advantages, the TPLF is a dying organization. Its slow death prolongs the suffering of all Ethiopians, including Tigryans. More than eighty percent of the top TPLF leadership has been killed, died of natural causes, or is in prison. The TPLF rally is floundering. Rank-and-file Tigrayans are questioning the objectives and costs of this uncertain war. The division between military and party and between party and different sectors of the Tigrayan public are being laundered openly in their social media.4
Above all, the reality of an “independent Tigray state” has proven to be an unrealistic pipe dream when its self-proclaimed leaders are pleading for food aid and services from the same Ethiopian forces it is claiming to be destroying.
TPLF is going to crumble. The economic calamity presented in Dr. Debretsion’s broadcast describes how the foundation is collapsing under the Tigrayan state.5 Its offensive into the Amhara and Afar territories is an act of desperation that cost Tigrayans many of their youth and their future. The demise of the TPLF is likely to come from within Tigray.
TPLF children recruits6
The Abiy government’s tactical withdrawal from the Tigray region rather than being bogged in endless devastating pacification by force has exposed the true nature of the TPLF. Even though this decision has given the TPLF chance to resurge, It has muzzled those orchestrated allegations of massacres, genocides, plunder, and rape lobbed against the ENDF and ENF. The TPLF army is inflicting these atrocities in broad daylight on innocent Amharas and Afaris. Why aren’t those champions of human rights not exposing these acts against humanity?
UN food aid trucks hijacked to transport TPLF fighters7
Eritrea, the little country that could.
The aspiration for political-economic reform in Eritrea has been subsumed again by conflict in Ethiopia. For the two decades it was in power in Ethiopia, the TPLF, with the aid of the US, used all its resources to try to choke Eritrea out of existence. This time Eritrea has been drawn into the Ethiopian conflict on the side of the legitimate government because the TPLF, in its death march, wants to take Eritrea with it to its grave.
If TPLF had succeeded in breaking the back of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces(ENDF), as it had hoped to do with its preemptive attack on the well-armed Northern Division, its next target was Eritrea. That the heavily battered Ethiopian force decided to retreat fighting into Eritrea rather than surrender to the TPLF is a historical landmark in the realignment of forces in the region.
The TPLF provocation of shooting missiles into Eritrea aimed to turn the Ethiopian civil war into a regional war to draw international intervention. Eritrea has no other choice than to stand with the Ethiopian government. Eritrea’s military intervention against the TPLF is not an invasion of Ethiopia, as some disingenuously want to spin it, but rather a legitimate act of self-defense. It is an alliance with the legitimate Ethiopian government against a subversive non-state force.
Eritrea’s military intervention was decisive in changing the course of the region’s history. The lengthy detailed interview given about the conduct of the war by the top TPLF general Gebretsadkan, an avowed anti-Eritrea zealot, is a testimony to the decisive role the Eritrean Defense forces played in turning the tide of the war.
This tiny country, which world powers considered unfit to exist, proved to be a pivotal force that changed the political vector of the region.
US Ethiopian relations
The descent of US-Ethiopia relations from strategic allies to adversaries is a major destabilizing factor not only for Ethiopia but also for the whole region. It is the force that can push the region, already teetering at the edge of the cliff, down into the inferno.
What are the US policies that are egregiously anti-Ethiopia:
- Relations started growing tense when the Trump administration tried to play a mediator role between Ethiopia and Egypt over their long-running dispute over the Renaissance Dam. Instead of being a fair arbiter, the Trump administration took the side of Egypt and tried to force Ethiopia to sign a deal that was antithetical to its national interest. When Ethiopia refused to go along, the Trump administration directed the World Bank to suspend the $130 million aid package already earmarked for Ethiopia. This heavy-handed act was insensitive to Ethiopian national pride.
- The Biden Administration continued with anti-Ethiopia policies and actions.
- From the outset, it put the legitimate Ethiopian government of Dr. Abiy on equal footing with the TPLF, a non-state, armed, insurrectionist organization.
- It alleged that the Ethiopian government was the main perpetrator of the war even though it was clearly known that the TPLF initiated the conflict.
- It parroted TPLF propaganda accusing the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces of genocide and rape and of using famine as weapons without objective verification on the ground.
- It put immense unilateral pressure on Dr. Abiy’s government to agree to a ceasefire. When Dr. Abiy declared not only a unilateral ceasefire but also withdrew its forces from the Tigray region, the Biden administration failed to give acknowledgment and continued with threats of sanction and isolation. These actions emboldened the TPLF.
- US President Joe Biden’s administration in May 2021 imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Ethiopia over the Tigray violence and urged the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other multilateral lenders to halt their engagement with Ethiopia.8
- When Abiy’s government went ahead with the election, which had been postponed due to covid, the Biden administration publicly opposed it, alleging that lack of peace would make it impossible to conduct a peaceful and credible election. This Biden administration stance was an unprecedented direct intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state. Moreover, the view that an election should not be conducted under a civil war would make Abraham Lincoln turn in his grave. Yet, when the election was conducted peacefully and more cre dibly than any in the country’s history–and Dr. Abiy and his party won a landslide victory– the Biden administration failed to give acknowledgement.
- The Biden Administration recruited Sudan and Kenya to put pressure on Ethiopia. However, when Sudan annexed disputed borderlands and drove out Ethiopian farmers who had been farming the area for decades, it failed to take a stand.
- The Biden administration took Ethiopia to the UN Security Council nine times, requesting sanctions and censure to no avail.
- It unleashed a highly orchestrated media campaign using uncorroborated allegations to turn public opinion against Ethiopia and Eritrea in a way that is reminiscent of US propaganda against Sadam and Gadafi before its military interventions.
- The Biden administration made it clear that more damaging punitive sanctions are underway and even threatened revocation of Ethiopia’s access to the US market through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)
The Ethiopia and US alliance is over a century old. Particularly since the second world war, the US has been the main architect of Ethiopia’s bureaucracy, military, and modern education system. So the change in US and Ethiopian relations from friends to enemies has been perplexing. Many pundits have searched for reasons to explain this perplexing development. Some attribute it to:
- Using humanitarian intervention as a political tool
- Changes in the US global strategy
- The US destabilizing Ethiopia as a proxy war against China ascendance
- US preempting the rise of a united Horn of African confederation independent of US hegemony.
- Deep ties of Biden administration foreign policy officials with TPLF leaders.
- Policy blunder.
I believe the answer is all of the above. These factors are overlapping and intertwined.
What has been the nature of the relationship of the US to Ethiopia? A strategic alliance is a diplomatic euphemism to disguise the hegemony of a superpower and a weak and dependent client regime. The reliance on military and economic aid makes the client state do the bidding of the superpower.
Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime was very dependent on economic and military aid from the US, while the US used the Emperor to rally the newly independent African states into its anti-communist camp. Strategically the US gained the important Kagnew military station in Eritrea for deep surveillance of Soviet communications. This relationship was symbiotic, but the US dictated the agenda. The US needed a weak vulnerable regime, and the emperor needed a willing and able patron. This dependence hindered the country from making reforms and progress to stand on its own feet. Moreover, the US unflinching support in the 60s and 70s to the Emperor alienated most of the country’s educated youth.
In 1974 the popular uprising led to a takeover by the military. This regime, the Derg, shifted its allegiance to the Soviet Union after the Carter administration withheld military aid to sanction the Derg’s atrocities. This Carter administration stance revived the positive attitude of most of Ethiopia’s elites towards the US; notwithstanding the US shifted its support to Said Barre military dictator who was waging an annexationist war against Ethiopia.
In 1991 the US facilitated the ascendance of the TPLF to power. The alliance between the self-proclaimed Marxist/Leninist/Enver Hoxha clique and the anti-communist US was based on the standard symbiotic consideration. The US needed a weak, dependent regime that would do its bidding. The TPLF needed a master to pave the way to power. Particularly after 9/11, the US declared fundamental Islam as its main global enemy. Hence the status of the TPLF regime was raised to a strategic ally.
The US’s generous military aid, which helped the TPLF build one of the largest military forces in Africa, was considered payment for fighting America’s war against radical Islam while ignoring the fact that the same resources were being used to brutally suppress its own people. In the words of Alex de Waal, who was Meles’s confidant, the TPLF regime, was basically a “counter-terrorism rent-seeking state”9 As a vital US ally, the TPLF gained its ability to wield hard and soft power in the region. In particular, it effectively used this opportunity to choke its regional rival, the EPLF.
During the Trump presidency, the US shifted its global strategy. “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in a January speech outlining the 2018 National Defense Strategy. “We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other.”10
The EPRDF leadership failed to read the signal of the imminent US policy shifts,” says Mehari Taddele Maru, a Horn specialist. As a result, Mehari says, the EPRDF failed to prepare itself for the consequences. “For one thing, Ethiopia continued to accept enormous Chinese investments in infrastructure and to forge economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries – and hence became the unintended target of [the] US policy shift from war on terror to economic confrontation with China.11
Furthermore, the TPLF fell from grace in the US, as the mass youth uprising, spearheaded by Kero and Fano started in 2015, surged beyond its control. So the US started seeing the TPLF as a liability rather than an asset. In February 2018 the figurehead prime minister Hailemariam Desslegn resigned because of an internal power struggle, leading to the regime’s paralysis.
Initially, the rise of Dr. Abiy Ahmed, a Pentecostal, neoliberal, and avowedly anti-communist populist star to power, was very enticing to the US. A week after the April 2, 2018 swearing-in of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, the US House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution known as HR 128 that was unusually outspoken for US public policy in its criticism of the TPLF government, calling it out for human rights violations:
Ethiopian elections in 2005 included violence, manipulation, and the detention of opposition members and were deemed neither free nor fair in 2010. Additionally, Ethiopian government forces used violence against minority ethnic group protests in 2015, and the government has imposed a state of emergency that restricts freedom of assembly, association, and expression, including blocking Internet access.
Why would the Biden administration give a lifeline to the terminally ill TPLF, a force which the U.S. Congress unanimously condemned for its conduct as the ruling party of Ethiopia?
H-128 virtually pulled the rug out from under the TPLF. Is it because the TPLF has suddenly reformed itself? On the contrary, the atrocities it has unleashed in the Amhara and Afar regions are a manifestation of its reckless and inhuman nature. The TPLF’s avowed goal is to dismantle Ethiopia just because they have no path to regaining control. Does the US share this objective, or is it merely seeking leverage against Abiy? If so, is that leverage worth the dangers of the collapse of the Ethiopian state?
Humanitarian intervention used as a political tool.
The US has a moral obligation to stand against human rights abuse in any corner of the world. However, the UN charter limits its power to unilaterally and arbitrarily intervene in another sovereign state’s affairs. The international community judges the ground for its intervention whether it is to protect its geopolitical interest or protect human rights. In many instances, the US intervention is motivated by its self-interests rather than stopping humanitarian abuse. In such circumstances, to align domestic and international opinion to its action, it has developed what is known as a humanitarian intervention strategy. According to Geopolitics Press, the US and EU have formed an operation called the Command and Control Fusion Center (C2FC).12
Because the C2FC is clandestine, verifying its existence or ascertaining its goals is difficult. One apparent product of the C2FC is the well orchestrated media campaign that has been disparaging Abiy’s government. Purported Horn of Africa experts and NGO media personalities have diligently created a negative picture of the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea. They have been pushing certain solutions that foster external forces’ interest at the cost of the interest of the two countries. Some solutions are meant to make the countries more unstable so that they will be perpetually weak and dependent. These solutions are fostered in the guise of scholarly research papers, books, and conferences.
Proxy war against China.
Ethiopia, with $13.5 billion in debt, is the second most indebted country in Africa to China. Though Ethiopia is heavily dependent on the US for armaments, it is more dependent on China for its economic development. When Abiy went to China for debt restructuring, the Trump administration was unhappy. Ever since Ethiopia has been at the center of the US-China power struggle in Africa.
The US is preempting the rise of a Horn of African union that would be independent of its hegemony. US policy is manifestly anti-independent nationalist leaders. Isaias Afeworki is an autocratic but deeply independent and nationalist figure. He is not anti-America per se, rather he is unwilling to kowtow to US policy in the region. The US felt rebuffed by this tiny state, in an otherwise strategic region, when Isaias opposed its policy on Somalia. President Isaias has been a target of ridicule by Western media. Eritrea has suffered stifling sanctions which crippled the country’s dream of creating a vibrant local economy. These sanctions have subjected the population to massive hardships and forced its youth into treacherous migration.
The sanctions were founded on a bogus allegation of Eritrea aiding Islamic terrorists in Somalia. This charge has been proven false. In 2006 the Islamic Courts routed the treacherous Somali warlords, which the US and the international community were fighting. For the first time in 16 years, law and order were within reach of the Somali people. However, the US opted for military intervention to oust the Islamic Courts, claiming they would pave the way to Islamic radicalism. It prodded the TPLF regime to invade Somalia. Meles was euphoric. But Isaias opposed the US/TPLF intervention on the grounds that the Somali people should decide their future and that the intervention would lead to a protracted war. Developments on the ground in Somalia have vindicated Isais. The US/TPLF intervention destabilized Somalia even more and paved the way for the more radicalized Al-Shabaab.
US policy on Eritrea was set on regime change not because Isaias was any more authoritarian than president Meles but rather because he was more nationalist. The hapless Eritrean people paid a high cost under US-imposed sanctions for president Isaias’ transgression of opposing US policy in Somalia.
Eritrea slipped out of the chokehold of sanctions and isolation and became a trendsetter in the region. Isais’s and Abiy’s alliance paved the way for this resurrection that frustrated US hegemony in the region. This historic rapprochement between the two states created a strong regional alliance. Somalia joined the alliance with Djibouti and Sudan hesitantly following. This coalition was perceived by subsequent US administrations as a threat to America’s interests in the region. In particular, the rising influence of China and Russia as well as increased activities of regional powers Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf States, engendered a knee-jerk interventionist reaction in the Biden administration.
The Biden administration’s present actions appear to follow Suzan Rice’s moves against Eritrea when she was the US ambassador to the UN in the Obama administration: make bogus allegations of human rights abuses, orchestrate a smear campaign, and impose sanctions. The US was successful in isolating Eritrea from its neighbors and creating a debilitating economic crisis, but these outcomes failed to achieve the desired regime change because the people persevered against all odds.
The Biden administration’s policy on Ethiopia has so far failed to get traction. The US has not been able to isolate Ethiopia from the rest of the African countries. The US has brought Ethiopia before the United Nations Security Council nine times for censure and sanctions yet has failed to get their desired resolution. It doesn’t have the full backing of even the EU. More importantly, its policy has offended Ethiopians from all walks of life. It has even brought Ethiopians and Eritreans at home and in the diaspora together in a way previously unimaginable.
Like many Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora who have adopted the US as their new home, I feel deeply saddened and perturbed because I find that the Biden administration policy is neither in the self-interest of the US nor that of the people of the region. The core architects of the Biden administration to the Horn of Africa–Susan Rice, Anthony Blinken, and Samantha Power–are acting more myopic and jingoistic than the neocons led By Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bolton. Worse, they have failed to take lessons from disastrous US interventions in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
Regarding the Libya experience, an article published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School concluded:
The Intervention Backfired. NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors. If Libya was a “model intervention,” then it was a model of failure.13
Ethiopia is an anchor state in the Horn of Africa, and at the same time, it is the focal point of the regional crisis. As Ethiopia goes so goes the HOA. The newly appointed special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, characterized the situation thusly: “Ethiopia has 110 million people. If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”14 As brutally correct as his assessment is, the million-dollar question remains, is United States policy in the region ameliorating or exacerbating this imminent danger?
The United States of America and the European Union, not Yugoslavia, should be the model for conflict-ridden Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa at large. In the present global economy, the struggle towards a larger union is the only goal worth the sacrifice.
Citing the Yugoslavia example, some pundits speculate dismantling Ethiopia may be the only way to achieve peace, but this kind of dismemberment of Ethiopia is neither feasible nor desirable. In Yugoslavia’s case, the component states were economically developed enough to stand as independent states, albeit as satellites of the EU. None of the fragments of Ethiopia has the infrastructure or economic resources to stand separately as a viable state. The fragmentation of Ethiopia could only lead to the unfortunate Somalia paradigm where Ethiopia and the whole HOA becomes a theater of warlords incessantly fighting for turf at a great human cost, where every able body would either end up being cannon fodder or choose exodus.
America’s bloody Civil War, where the forces of the Union triumphed over the Secessionists, created today’s superpower.
Americans were able to resolve their internal situation fundamentally because there was no external intervention. In the present age, internal conflicts are elevated into an existential crisis because global and regional powers try to a superimposed solution without involving the people affected and with disregard to their fundamental interests. Two decades of international efforts, worth of billions of dollars and thousands of lives, to reconstruct the Somali State is a monumental failure.
The thesis and antithesis of the present-day conflict in the HOA are between the masses of the people of the region yearning for peace, unity, and cooperation to fight their main enemies– poverty and the lack of basic necessities on the one hand, and on the other, the myopic local power-hungry elites who foment civil wars and ethnic conflicts in the hope of gaining or hanging on to power.
There is no inherent conflict of interest between the different ethnic groups who have cohabitated in the region for millennia. Throughout this time, there were no conflicts of interest that they have not been able to resolve. Now, however, the power elites’ rivalries have made these conflicts perpetual and intrinsically more bloody and destructive.
Moreover, the myopic local power-hungry elites have prepared the stage for intervention of regional and global forces. Unfortunately, due to the weakness and underdevelopment of local forces, the global and regional forces have the upper hand in determining the outcome of these conflicts. However, the global and regional forces should be aware that their choice has a serious consequence to the region and the global order.
The popular support Dr. Abiy and Isaias enjoy is a mandate for regional peace, cooperation, and integration. All external forces should use their influence to empower and strengthen these movements. In particular, the US, with its economic and military power and legacy of goodwill in the region, should not feel threatened by this movement. On the contrary, it should nourish it because the fruits of peaceful cooperation and harmony between peoples will benefit humanity.
With goodwill to all and malice to none!
9. De Waal, Alex, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power 1st Edition(The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power 1st Edition, Polity, October 12, 2015.
13. “A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign.” https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/lessons-libya-how-not-interven14. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/26/u-s-africa-envoy-ethiopia-crisis-tigray-jeffrey-feltman-biden-diplomacy-horn-of-africa/