The people of the HOA seek peaceful coexistence, while the superpowers stoke violent conflict

Month: February 2019

Why Ethiopia and Eritrea Should Hail Dr. Abiy’s Peace Initiative

Ethiopia Eritrea Relation: from Where? To Where?

The euphoric jubilation in the streets of Asmara and Addis Ababa that we have witnessed in the last few weeks is the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples’ affirmation and celebration of the peace overtures made by Dr Abiy. The stoic Ethiopian and Eritrean people, young and old, men and women, dancing and singing unabashedly in the streets and public spaces are expressing their strong longing for peaceful and fraternal relations—a longing which they have not been able to express in public for the last 20 years. It is a genuine endorsement of the commitment of the two leaders—Abiy, an articulate, visionary vanguard of the new generation, and Isaias, a defiant old revolutionary—to lead them out of the quagmire. Abiy rose up from the mass upheaval of the Ethiopian youth struggle against TPLF/EPRDF dominated corruption, political machinations, disintegration and hopelessness to lead a peaceful yet fundamental revolution. Isaias represents the indomitable spirit of the Eritrean struggle for liberation, still standing against all odds.

Within a few weeks, in a miraculous shift, despair and pessimism have given way to hope. This hope found articulation in a rising young political maverick, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. His message of peace and unity, medemer, has swept Ethiopian and Eritrean communities at home and in diaspora. The swift actions taken by both sides to normalize relations after two decades of the no war no peace regime has created an emotional human drama: the celebrations welcoming Abiy to Asmara and Isaias to Addis, long separated family members dancing in tears on the tarmacs of airports, and even people calling random numbers across the border to express love and good will. The scene has mesmerized even the international media and international public at large which is used to seeing frequent atrocities in this region. What just a few weeks ago seemed like an insurmountable wall of hate and acrimony between Eritrea and Ethiopia has dissipated as if it had been a mirage.

Yet despite the overflow of joy we should not forget the bitter cost paid during the twenty long years it took us to get here. Nor should we forget that this is only the beginning of a long hard journey. To see through the fog into brighter future we must reexamine our path through our dark history with contrition. As Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

The Horn of Africa is one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world. The Ethio-Eritrea conflict that has continued unabated for three quarter of a century, bleeds directly or indirectly into all the violent intrastate and interstate conflicts raging across the Horn of Africa. The thirty-year devastating war for independence [1960 – 1991], the 1998 -2000 border war and the eighteen years of “no war no peace” that has succeeded it have been the inexhaustible fuel that has been feeding the inferno consuming this region. The cost of this conflict is mind numbing. Hundreds of thousands have died. Millions have been forced into abject refugee life. Villages have been razed to the ground, fragile ecosystem scorched, farm lands strewn by land mines rendered uncultivable, infrastructures deliberately destroyed. Billions of dollars have been spent in military endeavors while the people die en masse from famine and suffer from lack of basic human necessities. Pulled by this conflict into an abyss, both states are at the bottom of the ladder in social, political and economic development scales.

TPLF is the main architect of the sinister “no war no peace” regime.

Meles and his compadres were skillful tacticians but unfortunately poor strategists. This is not due to lack of intelligence but rather to their tenuous hold on state power in Ethiopia. A political faction which hailed from a marginalized ethnic minority, which had been playing second fiddle to EPLF for most part of its existence, was suddenly catapulted to a dominant position in the Ethiopian state. They consolidated their chokehold on the Ethiopian state with the departure of Eritrea and the EPLF. TPLF inherited the bounty of the Ethiopian empire, while EPLF had to deal with a war-torn weary state. The former comrades in arms turned into deadly rivals. The US cast the deciding vote when it picked TPLF as its strategic ally in the Horn of Africa.

Once EPLF departed, the interparty rivalry turned into an intraparty duel between the Meles Zenawi faction and the Seye Abraha and Gebru Assrat faction. Seye and Gebru’s faction hoped to catapult themselves into dominance by waving the banner of defending Ethiopia’s sovereignty against alleged Eritrean domination and rallying the “Greater Ethiopia nationalists” who were deeply saddened by Eritrea’s succession and the loss of Massawa and Assab ports. Gebru in his book dubiously titled “Sovereignty and Democracy” (Signature Book Printing Press 2014) self-flagellated for supposedly being misled and indoctrinated into denying the “true history of Ethiopia and Eritrea.” This is not withstanding that he had been one of the founders of TPLF and a senior member of the central committee and had fought side by side with the ELF in support of Eritrea’s independence. Gebru’s numerous speeches and writings epitomize the deep-rooted legacy of political deception of TPLF and the essence of its divide and rule policy in both provoking the war and playing the victim.

EPLF arrogantly took the bait when it responded by sending its armed forces to the conflict zone to confront the TPLF militias. The wounded Ethiopian national pride roared to life. Gebru and Seye reached the apex of political power while the lives of a million poor Ethiopians and Eritreans was turned upside down. A journalist characterized the war as “two bold men fighting over a comb.” The Amharic saying “kit gelbo ras tkenanbo’” (“Bearing your ass to cover your head”) expresses even better the idiocy of two states who could not feed their people recklessly expend so much on a war to defend national pride.

When dreams of easy military victory dissipated and the realization of unsustainable losses on both sides set in, the war crept into a stalemate. The two states were cajoled by the international community into resolving their violent conflict through binding arbitration. On December 12, 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Algiers Peace Agreement. The Agreement mandated an Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) to delimit and demarcate the border “based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902, and 1908) and applicable international law.” On April 13, 2002, The Eritrea – Ethiopia Boundary Commission in a 135-page unanimous ruling, rendered its final and binding delimitation decision. Within hours, Ethiopia accepted the ruling, declaring it “fair and appropriate,” hoping Eritrea would not accept and hence stand out as intransigent. But Eritrea fully accepted the Ruling and demanded its implementation. A month later the TPLF regime reversed its position and reneged on its obligation. If Ethiopia had accepted and implemented this ruling at that time, today instead of talking about boundary demarcation, we would have been talking about more fundamental political and economic integrations between the two states.

If military victory had been attainable, Gebru and Seye, the main drivers of the war, would have remained at the helm and Meles would have been in exile or worse eliminated. The Stalemate in the savagely fought war enabled Melese zenawe to bounce back into power while Tseye and Gebru faction was purged from TPLF. Melese Instead of taking the Algiers’s accord to peacefully resolve this abominable war chose to continue it under the “no war no peace” regime. The underpinning of Meles’ “no war no peace” regime was based on the calculation that, since military victory is unattainable, he would ignore the agreement and continue with a tense military standoff without direct engagement. Ethiopia, with a hundred million population and larger resources, would be able to withstand the cost of indefinite military mobilization, while Eritrea, with a five million population and war-torn economy, would crumble. To that end he reneged on the ruling by setting conditions which would practically annul the Algiers Agreement, hence, the “no peace no war” regime came into de-facto existence. Meles’s calculations failed to take into consideration the two most important factors: the determination of the Eritrean people to persevere hardship to preserve their hard-fought independence and the burden of underdevelopment, poverty and political vulnerabilities protracted military mobilization would create on Ethiopia.

Though the UN, AU and the US were guarantors to the Algiers Agreement, they were either unwilling or unable to put pressure on Ethiopia to honor the legal and binding ruling. To make matters worse, the US and Eritrea become at a loggerhead because Eritrea would not bend to US policy in the region. Meles scored a tactical victory over Isaias. Ethiopia gained military and economic advantages as the US’s strategical ally, while Eritrea suffered isolation, sanctions and economic hardships. However, both sides lost because the “no war no peace” policy made the rift between these fraternal peoples much wider and deeper and it arrested social economic and political development the people on both sides direly needed.

Rise of amazing consensus in support of the peace overture.

TPLF’s choke hold on the Ethiopian state’s apparatus has been shattered by the popular mass uprising that has swept the country in the last three years. TEAM Abiy/Lema of OPDO became the dominant group in the EPRDF coalition. As a result, one of the main pillars of the TPLF’s policies–“no war no peace”–is being replaced by a new initiative for peace. On June 13, 2018, EPRDF Executive Committee under Dr Abiy voted 27 to 0 to accept the Algiers Peace Accord and implement the EEBC ruling without preconditions–16 years after the adjudication. Dr Abiy’s passionate speeches extolling peace, love and reconciliation has fired the long-subdued spirit of the people on both sides of the border.

Two weeks later, President Isaias came out in strong support of Dr. Abiy’s initiative. Amazingly he declared that he would send a peace delegation to Addis Ababa. For the two regimes, world renowned for their stubbornness and belligerence, to be willing to deal directly with each other without intermediary is a sea change. Both regimes have come to realize that their future existence as states depends on resolving their intractable conflicts peacefully and legally. Abiy’s initiative and Isaias’s unprecedented response resonates with the will and aspiration of both Eritrean and Ethiopian people to live side by side peacefully and fraternally.

Meanwhile, TPLF is hopelessly replaying its old tired game of political deception and divide to rule. Instead of endorsing this peace initiative and being part of the reconciliation, it is trying to derail it. In its hastily assembled central committee meeting of the TPLF held in Mekele a few days after the EPRDF EC declaration, it came out with a dubious statement[1]. On the one hand, it declared supports for the EPRDF EC decision, while on the other hand it condemned it for being hasty and lacking consultation. This despite the fact that TPLF is fully represented in the EPRDF EC and its representatives voted for the resolution. This is the usual two-faced political maneuver that TPLF pulls whenever it is in crisis.

The Ethiopian oppositions groups have wholeheartedly endorsed Abiy’s call. The only exception are some diehard nationalists who are pushing to reclaim Assab by force or/and political pressure. They reject the peace overture because they fear accepting the Algiers Agreement legitimizes the existing boundary[2]. For many of these individuals, even after twenty-seven years, accepting Eritrea as an independent state is hard to swallow. Proponents of this line used to be a dominant faction of the opposition, particularly in diaspora, however, its ranks have withered away. Most people realize that it is not lack of ports, rather it is the lack of peace and good governance which is the existential treat to Ethiopia. The Ethiopia and Eritrea border has been resolved according to international law. Assab and Massawa should no longer be a cause for endless devastating conflict. Instead they should be economic focal points that bring together the two countries in a prosperous and enduring economic alliance.

On the Eritrean side, supporters and opponents of the regime alike, the support for the peace overture is unanimous. However, ambiguity prevails on the side of highly fractured opposition because some fear that peace would strengthen Isais’s dictatorship[3]. This is a rather circular argument because it was the state of war which have been used as grounds to curtail civil liberty in Eritrea. The Eritrean people have persevered through economic hardship and tolerated deferment of their emancipation to preserve their hard-won independence. It is one of the main reasons why the opposition organizations failed to gain a meaningful following in the country. The Eritrean opposition, which is obsessed about splitting into factions on major and minor issues, should humble itself and learn the lesson that striving for unity, medemer, peace and reconciliation is a potent force for change. Peace is not going to solve all the mindboggling problems that beset Eritrean and Ethiopian societies but it is a fundamental requisite.

Missed opportunities to peacefully and holistically resolve the Ethio-Eritrea conflict

    • 1952-1962 Federation presented Ethiopia with great opportunity: outlets to the sea, Eritrea’s modern infrastructure and Eritrean skilled labor. For the fractured and contentious Eritrean elites, between dismemberment or outright annexation, the Federation was a palatable choice. Instead of transforming Ethiopia into a constitutional monarchy by using the Eritrean liberal democratic constitution as inspiration, Haile Selassie made the arrogant and short-sighted decision to revoke the federation and reduce Eritrea into a province in his feudal empire. This unleashed a strong Eritrean nationalist rebellion and consequently an armed struggle. His response, backed with US military largesse, was mass incarceration of Eritrean youth, torture, exile and elimination of the nascent Eritrean intelligentsia. When the rebellion progressed to full-fledged armed struggle, he responded with a scorched earth policy. The cost for Ethiopia and Eritrea in term of lost opportunities in economic, political and social development is staggering. The cost Emperor Haile Selassie had to pay for his hubris was an ignominious death in the uprising of which the Eritrean struggle was a very important factor.
    • 1974 Ethiopian uprising for economic democratic revolution was subverted by the derge’s coup. The response of the fascistic derge to the Eritrean struggle was dumb, arrogant, inhumane and utterly devastating. Backed with an unprecedent degree of military aid and direct involvement of the defunct Soviet Union, it aspired to annihilate the Eritrean resistance once and for all. However, the end result was its own demise at the hands of EPLF and TPLF. Again, the economic devastation, political degeneration and institutional disintegration of a protracted war led to famine, human misery and suffering of biblical magnitude.
    • 1993 Eritreans in a United Nation sponsored referendum voted for their independence and Ethiopia magnanimously accepted. Eritrea became a full-fledged member state of AU and UN. It was a glorious moment. The wounds of Africa’s longest armed conflict were healing fast. Peace dividends flourished. The prestige of the two counties and their leaders sky rocketed. The economic advantages of the people’s mobility between the two states reached a high mark. But the fast pace of change and economic growth engendered a petty rivalry between the ascending power elites. The bright hope and promise of the reconstructing economies was sadly dashed when rivalry between the groups escalated to a savage senseless interstate war.
    • 1998 – 2000 border war. Although it lasted only two years, the psychological and economic devastation was greater than what had proceeded it. 100,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian youths were sacrificed, over two million people on both sides were dislocated, and infrastructure and farms and industries were deliberately destroyed.
    • 2000 – 2018 No peace no war regime. The last 18 years could be characterized as a period of paralysis, stagnation and disintegration of both states albeit to a different degree and consequence. The political and economic isolation of Eritrea spearheaded by the TPLF, with the aid of the US, was aimed at bringing down the EPLF regime. Until a few months ago, blog sites were filled with self-fulfilling prophesies about the eminent collapse of Eritrea and the triumph of Ethiopia. The reality proved to the contrary. It is the PFDJ which is standing while TPLF’s power base has collapsed dramatically.
    • 2018 Will Abye’s peace overtures be another missed opportunity? Neither the two countries nor the region can afford another failure. Failure would be devastating. We count on the genuine mass support expressed unequivocally by the Ethiopians and Eritreans people in the last few weeks to be the guarantor for its success. In my long period of political involvement in this region, I have witnessed only a few periods of popular euphoria and unanimity of such magnitude.

Tigray is a bridge not a wedge between Ethiopia and Eritrea

The People of Tigray are the major victims of TPLF’s divide and rule policy. It has put them at loggerheads with Eritreans to the north, the Amhara to the west and south and the Afar to the east. It is a deliberate policy, sometimes dubbed as “plan B,” to make Tigray a perpetual bastion of TPLF. The objective goal of this tactic is to make the Tigray people feel vulnerable, hence, the servile support base for TPLF. The Tigrayan intelligentsia should have been able to see through these shenanigans and exposed them long time ago. Yet sadly, particularly many in the diaspora, they are being manipulated to kowtow to this abominable policy in the name of Tigray nationalism and pride.

Who has suffered more from this long drawn out conflict than the poor Tigrayans and Eritreans? Which ethnicity or region has paid more in human sacrifice, suffered more dislocation than these hapless cousins? Whose fragile farmland has been ruined by tanks and infested with mines like theirs? Whose economic potential has been more arrested? Who lived for decades under the threat of calamitous war as they have? Shouldn’t the border towns of Tigray and Eritrea be centers of thriving trade rather than sad military outposts? Who is to blame? What is to be gained? Why weren’t the people of Tigray in the forefront petitioning their leaders to end the “no war no peace” regime? Even now TPLF is trying to mischaracterize this malaise as defending Tigrayan interests.

The current love fest between Ethiopia and Eritrea is the death knell to TPLF hegemony. It is a total rejection and repudiation of their divide and rule legacy. Their posturing as defenders of Ethiopia’s sovereignty against hapless Eritrea and peacekeeper between the feuding ethnic groups of Ethiopia has been swept away by the popular tsunami that that has engulfed Ethiopia. The Ethio-Eritrea love train is the shining beacon of hope. TPLF leadershi,p instead of hopping on this love train of reconciliation and peace, are plotting to derail it. Their plans and tactics are a replay of the maneuvers that led to the 1998 border war–pretend to accept the peace process while throwing a monkey wrench into it. This time very few are duped.

The chameleon role being played by Dr. Debretsion, TPLF’s party chairman, epitomizes this stance. In his June 22nd interview, he outlined the game plan which can be summarized as: 1. We accept the EPRDF executive committee stand to unconditionally accept and implement the Algiers resolution, yet we condemn it because it is done without consultation, 2. We call for an “extended” EPRDF meeting to discuss the matter with hope of torpedoing the resolution by bringing more allies, 3. Bademe is Tigray’s issue not a national issue, TPLF, as representative of the people of Tigray, should be the leading negotiator. 4. It is a border issue; no it is sovereignty issue, 5. TPLF accepts unconditionally the Algiers’s Agreement, no we stand by the repudiated ‘five points for renegotiation’. Dr. Debretsion even went so far as saying that the Algiers Agreement is null and void. As for the party, TPLF started organizing demonstrations against the peace overtures and then made a 180-degree turn by organizing a big rally at Mekele Stadium allegedly, inter alia, to express support for peace with Eritrea. This flipflopping simply reflects the pathetic situation the one-time master of deception TPLF finds itself in today.

For TPLF peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is not about border issue or defending the interest of the people of Tigray, rather, it is about desperately hanging to power and convincing its shocked supporters that it is still relevant. Yet it is doing it the negative way. Instead of absolving itself from its predatory role in a true substantive way, it has chosen to replay its failed tricks which doesn’t even impress its ardent supporters. TPLF leadership is down but not out. They cannot ever dominate Ethiopia’s politics the way they did before, but they can surely play a disruptive role. Anyone who underestimates TPLF leadership does so at his own peril.

The main force that could effectively deal with TPLF is the people of Tigray. People of Tigray, the TPLF’s leadership policy of divide and rule is your liability. They have gained like bandits, which they are, but you are left with the liability. Their gain has come at a great lose to you today and your offspring tomorrow. It is time to see the reality with wide open eyes and take your place on the side of those who stand for lasting peace, justice and fraternity and work for common good. Choose among your bright and honorable youth to represent you in this crucial juncture of history.

Likewise, the wholesale castigation by some Eritrean and Ethiopian elites of the Tigray population for the evils perpetrated by TPLF leadership policies and actions is wrong headed as it creates an obstacle to unite all the stakeholders for peace.

Conclusion: The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea are the sole guarantors of lasting peace

I am seventy years old. I was born into Eritrean nationalism and matured in the Ethiopian struggle for social justice. I was born, grew, struggled and exiled in this tangled web of conflict. It has affected the whole of my life and most importantly my psyche. I am not an exception. My generation on both sides of the border is similarly affected. In a paper I presented to 5th Annual Ethiopian & Eritrean Friendship Forum Conference Presented by UCLA’s Habesha Student Association April 17th, 2013, I wrote. “The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia is mainly rooted in the common psyche of the power elites rather than the existence of objective irreconcilable differences. The elites of Ethiopia and Eritrea share a common psyche because they share a common culture and tradition. The common psychic traits of the two power elite groups are hurt pride, beleaguered nationalism and zero-sum mentality. Eritreans and Ethiopians are one people. Sadly, and paradoxically, their common history, culture and psyche, instead of being the foundation of their unity, have become an artificial barrier between them. Particularly Eritreans and Ethiopians in their late 50s and 60s, who are the main actors in this sad drama, are deeply scarred and traumatized by the development of this conflict. Like two chess players who follow the same strategy, they have cornered themselves into a stalemate.”

We are hypnotized by the allure of intrigue, brinkmanship and elusive victory. It is hard to find many examples in human history of people who have fought so ferociously and paid so dearly in life and social development for so little like Ethiopians and Eritreans. We have lost so much in war when we could have gained abundantly in peace.

I was resigned to dying without seeing the bright days of peace and harmony between these fraternal people. That is why I feel elated when I hear a call for peace from a much younger generation reverberate in these hapless conflict-ridden communities. It is humbling to witness such unanimity in our communities on such fundamental issues. The people have spoken loudly, clearly and unequivocally that they want to coexist in peace and fraternity, to strive and surmount all difficulties and obstacles together. They have rejected the divide and rule message of TPLF.

The first stage of demolition is finished. The second stage of constructive engagement are the big challenges ahead: demarcating the border, setting policies and laws to facilitate cooperation and sharing of resources. These matters have always been the domain of the intelligentsia and power elites, played out in boardrooms out of public sight. Would the power elites proscribe their parochial interest over the interests of the people? Would they obsess over their hidden agendas and dubious ideologies or follow the will and spirit of the people? There is a strong alignment of interests and aspirations between the people and their leaders at this moment as manifested in the streets and public meetings. It should be consolidated by widening the democratic platform, by cultivating transparency, by empowering people and making their interests and well-being paramount.

It is a rare historical opportunity when rival social and political forces align to foster peace and harmony, particularly in our region. The US has also shifted its wrong-headed policy, regional forces like Saudi Arabia and UEA are amazingly helping build bridges, leaders of both countries share kinetic energy to overhaul the reign of debilitating conflict and the people are impatient for the dawn of a new era. We should all unite, “endemere,” to augment this rare historical opportunity.

It is a universal fact that though political leaders initiate change, it takes a social force to make it real. We all must engage to make this spirit of love, peace and good will endure and flourish. We should stand to those forces who try to pull us back into the quagmire of the past. Particularly my message to my generation–the conflict generation—is this: we need to introspect and to meditate to bury the legacy of schizophrenia and xenophobia and support the new generation as it embarks on a brighter future. I hope the last years of my life will be spent writing about the flourishing of peace, the unfolding of fraternity, the strong embrace of harmony and above all, writing about the triumph over poverty and human misery.

Peace and Fraternity to Ethiopian and Eritrean people!


The Dawn of a New Era in the Horn of Africa

Within a few months of signing a peace and cooperation agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in Asmara on July 7, 2018, things are changing at a staggering speed. Telecommunication between the two countries have quickly resumed. Ethiopians and Eritreans at the border jumped at the opportunity to visit and trade with each other without even waiting for formal structures to be put in place. The soldiers of the two states climbed out of their trenches to celebrate the New Year by dancing together, with the jubilant local people and the heads of the two states joining them. Ethiopia’s commercial ships have docked in Massawa after twenty years of absence and been loaded with zinc from Eritrean mines to be transported to China. The heads of states of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia visiting each other’s state capitals were greeted with genuine public euphoria. Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti signed agreements for regional peace and cooperation. Ethiopia and Somalia appealed to the UN to lift its infamous sanctions on Eritrea. On November 14, 2018, The UN lifted the unjust sanctions which had reduced Eritreans to lives of agony and desperation.

For the first time in many centuries, local forces and local interests became the driving forces, as opposed to the dictates of superpowers and regional hegemons. This is why the process has been amazingly fast, more substantive and hopefully more enduring. The crucial initiative was undertaken by the young, dynamic prime minister of Ethiopia, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who had the courage and foresight to dismantle the ”no war no peace” policy of the TPLF regime. The change was sealed when Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, accepted Abiy’s peace overture. In particular, Isaias’s decision to directly engage Ethiopia without any need for intermediary was a novel diplomatic move which sped up the peace process. Abiy demonstrated his diplomatic acumen by bringing together the presidents of Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea to sign onto the regional peace and cooperation agreement.

Many pundits and political analysts ascribe the dynamics of this change to global forces: changes in US policy, the rise of China’s influence in the region, the resurgence of Russia or competition between the Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the UAE vs Turkey, Qatar and Iran. But these are concomitant factors rather than the leading causes. The main factor has been a nascent surge for peace and cooperation which has been the desperate yearning of the hapless people of the region for ages, but which has now found articulation and design in the actions of their leaders.

Colonialism carved the Horn of Africa (HOA) region into fragmented states. In the post-colonial era, the efforts of these fragmented states to sort out their mutilated existence and define their relationships often devolved into incessant violent conflicts. Many forms of competing national ideologies were hailed that then faded. Scores of devastating intra-state wars were fought. Proxy wars were fanned by superpowers, by regional powers and by local states. The net results: Somalia a failed state, Ethiopia on the edge, Eritrea in paralysis and Sudan in fragmentation. And the whole region of HOA became one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world. This in turn paved the way for world powers to dictate the political future of the region without leaving room for input from the people of the region. Imagine, if you can, the rise of Emperor Haile Selassie into an absolute monarch without the military largesse of the US, or Siad Barre’s brutal dictatorship or Mingustu Hailemariam’s atrocities, without the Soviet’s massive military support and logistics. Even the TPLF’s domination was facilitated by US military and economic support. De Wall, Prime minister Meles’s confidant. characterized the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime, basically as a “counter-Terrorism rent-seeking state”[i]. The US’s generous military aid, which helped the TPLF/EPRDF to build one of the largest military forces in Africa, was considered payment for fighting America’s war against radical Islam—ignoring the fact that the same resources were used to brutally suppress its own people.

The nascent transformation currently unfolding is an antithesis of these phenomena. The elites of the region have come to the realization that divided they become peons of global and regional hegemons and united they stand strong to shape their destiny. Nationalist ideologies, focused on pushing one state’s parochial interests at the cost of a neighboring state, have not benefited their states in meaningful ways. It has only made them a dumping ground of obsolete military wares.

Even when external forces intervene with good intentions but without giving the leading role to local people and local forces, their actions end up leading to quagmires. The global effort to reconstitute the failed Somali state the fragmentation of the Sudan and South Sudan, the failed mediation between Eritrea and Ethiopia speak volumes.

The Abiy Factor

The landmark in the current political scenario of the Horn of Africa happened on April 2nd, 2018, when the EPRDF elected Dr. Abiy to be the prime minister of Ethiopia. His rise, which represented the ascendance of the Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO currently ODP) from junior partner in the TPLF-dominated EPRDF into the dominant party in the fragile alliance, is dubbed by some as a “silent coup d’ete.” But it represents more significant and fundamental changes in the political orientation and alliances locally and regionally. It came as a result of three years of resistance and protest by the Ethiopian youth, which paralyzed the TPLF-dominated EPRDF.

For the last twenty years, the perpetuation of a ”no war no peace” policy between Ethiopia and Eritrea was the cornerstone of the TPLF’s foreign policy. It was aimed at isolating Eritrea economically and politically with the intention of bringing down Isaias Afewerki’ s government through external pressure. With the aid of the US, it effected immense economic and political hardship on Eritrea. This policy came also at a major cost to Ethiopia. The TPLF, instead of marshaling its economic and political resources to solve Ethiopia’s daunting underdevelopment and poverty, was fixated on bringing down Isaias’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). It made itself totally dependent on Djibouti ports for its exports and imports. Djibouti leveraged its opportunity to extort Ethiopia of its direly needed hard currency. The proxy war it initiated was countered by Eritrea’s quid pro quo. Due to complex political problems, Ethiopia was vulnerable. This misguided policy of the TPLF, along with its misgoverning and corruption, triggered its downfall. The first domino piece to fall was its infamous no war no peace policy. This in turn triggered a cascade of changes.Read Aloud:   The Smart Way for Ethiopians (By Muluken Gebeyew)

The TPLF as well as some political analysts—even some noted one—characterized Abiy’s rapprochement with Eritrea as a hasty act. On the contrary, this was a thoroughly calculated move on the part of Dr Abiy. He manifested his deep understanding of the geopolitical dynamics of the region in a long and thoughtful interview ten months before he became prime minister[ii].

To briefly summarize: He described how the Horn of Africa (HOA) is a conglomerate of major religions and ethnicities which are fighting for resources, power and influence; how these have made HOA states the instruments of proxy wars by global and regional powers; how interstate and intrastate conflicts are intractable problems; how the monopolar power of the US is shifting into a multipolar world with the rise of China competing for economic and political influence; how regional powers, Saudi Arabia, UE and Egypt on the one hand and Turkey Qatar and Iran on the other hand are competing to carve spheres of influence in the region; how Ethiopia’s size and central location makes it the locus of influence; and how peace and cooperation between the states is essential not only for economic development but also to protect the region’s interests in the global political and economic sphere.

That was why soon after Dr. Abiy took power, he embarked on a shuttle diplomacy to Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. His critics characterized this shuttle diplomacy as foolhardy or fear of facing major domestic issues. On the contrary, these well-orchestrated strategic moves have netted him international stature, as well as unmatched popularity in the hearts of the people of the region. This stature and popularity translated into big political capital to push his reform agenda at home. Particularly his move to normalize Ethiopia’s relation with Eritrea had a flare of a genius. By directly appealing to the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea, expressing their sentiment for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the languages they cherish, he unleashed a ground swell of popular euphoria, ”a love fest.”

These grand historical steps go beyond raising the spirit and optimism of the people. They represent concrete measures to untangle the intractable problems that have beset the region.

What did Ethiopia gain from peace with Eritrea? It gained access to Assab and Massawa, which will reduce its overall dependence on Djibouti and which will better serve the needs of northern and central Ethiopia. It will eliminate the massive expenditure of human and capital resources on an unnecessary military standoff.  Peace with Eritrea facilitated peace within Ethiopia. Eritrea became a bridge for peace between Abiy’s government and half a dozen armed organizations which had been for decades engaged in violent struggles against the previous Ethiopian regimes. Furthermore, fanning broader Horn of Africa consciousness has the effect of countering the dive into narrower and narrower parochial ethnic and clan alliances of both the political elites and the masses. It boosted immensely the country’s stature in the global arena. Foreign aid and investment are gushing forth.

The Isaias Factor

President Isaias is a controversial figure. For some Eritreans he is a hero who led the Eritrean struggle to independence and still guides it to stand against forces which are trying to roll it back. For some Eritreans he is a ruthless dictator who has subverted their aspirations for democracy. For some Ethiopians Isais is the enemy who is responsible for the secession of Eritrea.  According to them, he is an enemy who wants Ethiopia to disintegrate. On the opposite side, some Ethiopians see in him an ally against the TPLF and an ally in the struggle for democratic changes and unity of the country. Distinguished opposition leaders, such as professor Mesfin Woldemarion[iii] and Major Dawit have publicly affirmed this point of view[iv]. As a leader of a protracted and violent conflict that spanned nearly half a century, he is an amalgam of all the above elements. Someone’s hero is another’s villain. Yet he is an indispensable ally to lead the region from the quagmire of conflicts.

Ethiopia, Eritrea, as well as the whole HOA region, could hope for no better leader in the aftermath of the bloody divorce. He has a strong awareness of the historical, political, economic, cultural and strategical interdependence of Eritrea and Ethiopia. He has ad-infinitum reiterated his strong vision of two independent states with a strong economic, political and strategic alliance. He accepted the UN sponsored referendum as a peace bridge with Ethiopia. After Eritrea’s independence, he was actively working towards a strong economic and political relationship with Ethiopia and the rest of the HOA states. He has spoken at length against the ethnic-based federalism constructed by the TPLF. Because Eritrea has a similar ethnic and religious composition as Ethiopia, ethnic-based federalism is not only a menace to Ethiopia, but also a detriment to Eritrea too. His unequivocal endorsement of Abiy’s peace overture created a dynamic synergy between them. This dynamic synergy between the two leaders epitomizes the spirit of the two fraternal peoples. The hero’s welcome accorded to president Isaias by the Ethiopian people is a personal vindication and a tribute to his principled stands during the low and high moments in the two states’ history.

Eritrea won its independence after thirty years of war with a very little moral or material support from the international community. Eritrea’s independence was mainly a result of a devastating armed struggle and bitter sacrifices. When it gained its independence, it was greeted by its neighbors as a bellicose newcomer. Two decades of economic and political isolation, orchestrated by the TPLF and the US, dimmed Eritrea’s bright hopes. This created among Eritreans a feeling of a beleaguered state. Eritreans, defiantly but with a sense of resignation, persevered the UN sanctions and isolation, the economic hardships and the deferment of their hopes for a vibrant democratic state. Others braved arduous journeys, through forbidding deserts and across treacherous seas, to seek a better life in another place. The Eritrean reality is shrouded by the sadness of its enormous sacrifices and graced by its indomitable spirit to stand for its rights as a nation.

Isaias didn’t create the beleaguered state. He turned it into an impregnable fortress. A target of regime change policy, by the might of the US and cunning diplomacy of TPLF, he had no other choice but to fight on to break loose from this deadly chokehold. He gave this David vs Goliath fight his brand and flare. What he lacked in diplomatic tact, he made up for with his resilience. In the end he won, and Eritrea triumphed against external impositions.Read Aloud:   Foreign Policy Diary – Arab Coalition Expands Into The Horn Of Africa – Good Reporting!

What did Eritrea gain from peace with Ethiopia? It will reduce the heavy toll the Eritrean people have had to bear to defend their country. The economic engagement is highly beneficial to both countries. The freeze in economic relations between the two countries was imposed on Eritrea by the TPLF regime. With Dr. Abiy as the prime minister of Ethiopia, it has overcome its isolation. Instead of being treated like a pariah state, it has become a hub of top-level diplomatic traffic. It gained a reprieve from the well-orchestrated campaign of defamation and the endless self-fulfilling prophesies of its imminent demise in the international media. Tourism from Ethiopia and from all corners of the globe is rising. The PFDJ would be advised to take a lesson from Abyi’s administration about how to use this peace as a selling factor to woo international aid and investment.

Now that peace is flourishing in HOA, will the fortress Eritrean state be transformed into a flourishing democratic state? Will president Isais use the tremendous political capital he has gained to lead the democratic transformation? Will he take his triumph as vindication and take measures to heal Eritrea’s internal rifts?

If genuine change is initiated from within the ruling circle, change can come peacefully with less sacrifices. If President Isais and the PFDJ fail to take the initiative, then change will come from outside, from dissidents inside and outside country by force. That would be a destructive step into the abyss. Yet change is inevitable one way or the other.

The TPLF factor

TPLF’s policy towards Eritrea and towards the rest of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia are two sides of the same divide and rule policy. It was the political foundation of a narrow clique’s domination. The TPLF intentionally fostered and manipulated ethnic conflicts to prolong its tenuous hold on power. It wove historical conflicts into its foreign and internal policies. It fomented ethnic conflicts in its political propaganda. It amalgamated ethnic fissures into its institutional and organizational structures, and it even enshrined it in its constitution.

The Ethiopian people, particularly the youth fed-up with TPLF’s shenanigans, revolted. Through mass demonstrations and civil disobedience that lasted for three years, they paralyzed the EPRDF rule. Finally, the TPLF lost its dominant position in the EPRDF. Abiy and team Lemma ascended to power. One of the first bold actions they took was to dismantle the no war no peace policy with Eritrea, which they did by accepting unconditionally the Algiers peace accord which had been frozen by the TPLF for 18 years. This act heralded peace not only between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but also in the whole HOA region.

The TPLF’s institutional hold has been dramatically dismantled. They are no longer in a position to dictate policy in Ethiopia. Their only means of hindering the progress is sabotage.

The party and Tigray people are severely divided. The old guard, who are in their 60’s and 70s, who have amassed wealth by plundering Ethiopia and now have nowhere to turn, have retreated to Tigray kellile. The young party leaders are full of fury and bewilderment, and their tactics are frantic adaptations to day-to-day changing circumstances. The Tigray peasantry, which has paid dearly to bring changes in Ethiopia, which had been ignored and neglected when things were going well for the TPLF leadership, is now asked to be the TPLF’s fallback. The educated urban Tigrayans feel beleaguered and their cosmopolitan life style threatened.

The old guard, which feels especially threatened by the peaceful rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, try to impede the progress by spreading fear and xenophobia and by inciting acts of sabotage. In early January 2019, they incited youngsters, women and children to roadblock Ethiopian armed forces who were withdrawing from the border with Eritrea per the two countries peace agreement. [v]

Chief of Staff Let. Gen. Berhanu Jula characterized the incidence and the military’s response as f0llows:

There is an entity that has been employing fear and concern as a strategy. There is a force that is using the people as a cover to bring about instability. They are not many, and I am sure they will be exposed. Until then, we will not do anything that will bring us to a collision course with the people. We better feel bad rather than making the people feel bad.

The people of Tigray are closely tied, historically, culturally and linguistically, with Eritrea. They are close cousins with Tigrinya, the major ethnic in Eritrea. Many Tigrayan elites have supported and fought alongside Eritreans. They were inspired to organize and fight for their rights too. EPLF and TPLF had a united front for seventeen years. Despite frequent internal frictions, it was the longest lasting and most successful united front in Ethiopian as well as Eritrean history. Their united struggle was the paramount force that shattered the derge’s regime. Sadly, as a result of subsequent power struggles, they ended up unleashing the devastating 1998-2000 border war and two decades of mischief to undermine each other. Yet, despite the past devastating wars, the deportations and the economic hardships they have both lived under, the peoples’ affinity to each other–particularly, their desire to live in peace with each other, mend their broken lives and make up for lost time–has been unequivocally demonstrated. This peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a product of their enduring yearning for peace and fraternity.

Ethiopian and Eritrean elites should beware not to fall into the TPLF old guard trap by lumping the TPLF with the Tigray people. Other Ethiopians and Eritreans should sincerely understand and sympathize with the fact that the people of Tigray are the victims not the perpetrators of evil. Dr Debretsion[N1]  in his recent televised speech admonished the hot-headed Tigrayan for trying to block the federal force’s movements and the taunting of Ato Gedu Adnargachew, president of Amhara killele. He further gave information about lengthy rapprochements and dialogs between the Eritrean and Tigray killele officials at different levels in his effort to quell the preposterous propaganda fomented by the TPLF’s old guard, that the peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is in an alliance to attack Tigray. This sharp contradictory political line within the TPLF is a manifestation of a deep-seated division. [vi]Read Aloud:   Zehabesha Breaking News February 11, 2018

All those Tigrayans, who support the changes, which, by the way, are the vast majority, should be encouraged to be part of the peace movement.  Bringing all positive forces under the big tent will make the movement strong and enduring. On the other hand, trying to score ephemeral victories or futile vendettas will be counterproductive.

In the same manner that Eritrea facilitated the rapprochement between Ginbot7, ONG, ONLF and the EPRDF, it should try to bring into the fold all peace-loving factions in Tigray. Opening the border wide open, not imposing new restrictions, is the path forward.

Conclusion: All factors in balance

Yet, even though a fresh invigorating wind of change is lifting our spirits, there are shuddering cold counter developments consciously working to subvert the movement while others, in pursuit of their own parochial interests, are inadvertently playing a negative role. The situation calls for vigilance.

In Ethiopia this great democratic transition is progressing on a fragile landscape. There was already one assassination attempt on Dr Abiy and one failed coup attempt so far. A couple of million people are internally displaced as a result of fratricidal conflicts. Armed bands are staking their claims and uprooting members of other ethnic groups that have lived in harmony for several generations. They are burning houses, looting businesses, robbing banks and blocking roads. Some are using the mass media to incite vulnerable youth by fabricating and spreading rumors. All of these actions are pushing Ethiopia to the edge. If Ethiopia implodes, it will be the end of the peace movement. As Ethiopia goes, so will the whole region.

However, these ominous treats cannot dim the epochal revolutionary changes the country is undergoing. The depth and breadth of the political and social discussions and the civility of the public participating in the discourse represents the soul searching of a nation. The freedom of the media and the tolerance of those in authority makes those dark times under the previous regimes feel ages away. The Abiy/Lemma team is guiding Ethiopia, so far successfully, with patience, restraint and appeal to the peoples’ commonsense. Some with good intentions have urged Dr Abiy to take draconian measures to assert authority, but authoritarianism is not the answer. It is exactly why the people of Ethiopia have rebelled against three despotic and corrupt authoritarian regimes.

The Eritrean community support for peace with Ethiopia is unequivocally strong. Their hope is not only for peaceful and fraternal existence with their neighbors but, very importantly, for the emancipation of their own society too. That is the unfinished chapter of their long arduous struggle. Now that peace has flourished in the neighborhood, the ‘fortress state’ must be transformed into a flourishing democratic state where people as individuals, as communities and as a nation could take control of their destiny.

In Eritrea, some of the opposition groups and individuals have become frantic. Standing against any initiative taken by the government, positive or negative, is the primordial and instinctive response of the diehard oppositions. Their media is filled with articles and analysis which try to cast doubts on the whole movement. That is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. The peace movement is not about President Isais or PFDJ rule; it is much larger. It raises existential questions about the survival and the future of the Eritrean state. It is about creating the essential environment to bring the kind of changes all segments of Eritrean society can accept. The peace movement requires the united support of all political factions, both the elites in power as well as in opposition. Acts such as the assassination attempt last December on General Sebhat Eframe, a top government official, are counterproductive[vii]. And equally, any measure by the authorities to tighten their hold will be futile. It would only increase the pressure rather than defusing it.

There is some legitimate unease about the peace process among common Eritreans, even among diehard government supporters. Its source is lack of transparency on the part of the Eritrean government. Eritreans depend for information about the details of the agreements and deals between the two states on second-hand and third-hand sources of information, i.e., on Ethiopian and international media rather than on their own government. The extent and degree of the public discussions and participation in this matter in the Ethiopian political arena, as compared to the Eritrea arena, is day and night. Lack of open discussions and participation by the general public has the effect of reducing the people of Eritrea into distant onlookers on matters so dear and close to their lives.

President Isaias and PFDJ should take this opportunity to loosen their iron grip and encourage the people’s participation through open forum discussions and open media. The people should be encouraged to express freely their support and even their opposition, if they have any. People in authority should be accessible to clarify all questions directly and in a timely fashion. There is no discernable explanation why such wildly popular public developments should be shrouded in secrecy. The Eritrean government should facilitate local and regional conferences of the people. It should welcome Eritreans in diaspora to participate, regardless of their political affiliations.

Since last June tremendous progress has been achieved. Hope has flourished. The driving force is the peoples’ yearning for peaceful coexistence and fraternal cooperation.

It is the product of their struggle to define their destiny.

It is a deep ground swell of democratic movement.

It is intertwined with their struggles to create just, sustainable societies and states.

It is a movement that arches from the local to the regional.

It is a counter-movement from the parochial divisive mindset to a global and inclusive consciousness.

Peace and fraternity to the people of Horn of Africa region!

This is Part I. Part II will deal with Somalia, Djibouti and the Sudan and South Sudan and Part III will deal with the role of global and regional powers.

[i][i] The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power 1st Edition

by Alex de Waal