Abiy Ahmed’s missteps may unravel the Horn of Africa
After months of embarrassing equivocation and bold-faced denials, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last week gave in to western pressure and acknowledged the involvement of Eritrean troops in the Tigray war. Speaking to parliamentarians, Abiy stated that Eritrean troops entered Tigray citing national security concerns after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fired rockets into Asmara. He also suggested that Ethiopian forces and their Eritrean allies have engaged in possible war crimes, including looting and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Within days, he was off to Asmara to consult with his mentor, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, on the next phase of their joint mission to annihilate the TPLF. And, from Asmara, he announced that Eritrean forces would leave Tigray, effective immediately. The sudden about-face has raised a lot of questions. Tigrayans allege that truckloads of Eritrean troops are being massed into Tigray.
The conflict between Addis Ababa and leaders of the Tigray state has been festering since Abiy was appointed prime minister in 2018. The principal issues of contention are political, and they should have been resolved through dialogue. But the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), the new rulers who replaced the TPLF as kingmakers, appeared unprepared for a peaceful political settlement from the start. For more than 27 years, the TPLF used trickery, intimidation, and sheer force to cripple political opponents. Its protégé, the OPDO, which morphed into PP, is continuing that tradition—intolerance toward autonomous parties, intimidation, or outright repression of opposition and critics.
Strangely, PP has gone one step further than its former masters and enlisted foreign forces to squash the TPLF, unnecessarily internationalizing a domestic political difference. As a result, the people of Tigray are enduring displacement, exile, looting, harassment, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings, including by the occupying Eritrean army. It is one thing to hold TPLF accountable for wrongdoings during its time in power, but it is unacceptable to punish the people of Tigray for the TPLF leaders’ misconduct or excesses.
Abiy’s collusion with external forces against an internal political opponent is not something many saw coming. However, this is not entirely new in the politics of northern Ethiopia. Kassa Mercha, later Emperor Yohannes IV, helped the Napier expedition against Tewodros in 1868. He was handsomely rewarded with armament and training for his troubles, which he used to snatch away the title of king of kings or emperor from his competitors. To Yohannes’s aggravation, Menelik II cosseted with Italians to amass large amounts of armament, which he used to subdue Yohannes’s heirs and competitors for the title of king of kings after the former’s death in Metema. Ironically, it is partly the same weapons that he used to clinch victory against Italians at Adwa.
Abiy Ahmed’s reckless internationalization of a domestic political dispute is likely to cause a regionwide conflagration and further complicate tensions ahead of forthcoming parliamentary elections in Ethiopia.
Missteps with Sudan
Ethiopia and Sudan have for ages nursed a niggling border problem and intermittent low-level clashes. But through times bad and good, the two countries managed to avoid an open confrontation. That changed in November 2020 when Sudanese forces moved into disputed territories previously held by Ethiopia. The Sudanese occupation stems from Abiy’s overzealous effort to encircle TPLF forces completely. As he finalized war preparation in October, Abiy asked the Sudanese to seal the two countries’ border. Khartoum may have liberally interpreted Abiy’s invitation to lend a hand in defeating the TPLF. Or they may have simply used the opportunity to occupy disputed areas while the bulk of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigrayan forces cut at each other’s throats.
There is indeed no practical difference between the two scenarios. Sudanese forces have taken the disputed territory and are unwilling to withdraw. Ethiopia says it will not negotiate until Sudanese troops vacate the contested areas. Hence, there is a real potential for a full-blown border war with Sudan, a scenario so far delayed only because Ethiopia is incapable of engaging in another theatre of war.
Furthermore, both Ethiopia and Sudan have serious internal troubles that limit or even encourage diverting scarce resources to an unnecessary and avoidable conflict. If wisdom prevails, the two governments will seek a peaceful resolution through negotiation. Failing that, they could resort to mediation, including a neutral international tribunal for a final settlement of the border dispute.
A host of actors, including the African Union, the United Nations, and the UAE, have offered meditation to avert the specter of war. But since autocracies can thrive on internal friction and external conflicts, there is no guarantee that one or the other government might decide to use the apparent hostility for political purposes and trigger bloody clashes. Observers have warned of a dangerous risk of miscalculation on both sides.
In the short run, left unaddressed, the Ethio-Sudan border troubles may exacerbate insecurity in Tigray and other regions of Ethiopia. It is also possible that the two countries return to a history of proxy wars. For instance, Sudan may decide to allow TPLF forces to smuggle food and weapons, as it has done in the 70s and 80s. Since Afwerki is reportedly itching for action on the Ethio-Sudan border, Sudan may also see gains in bolstering Eritrean and Ethiopian armed oppositions. Egypt might also be tempted to bless such efforts hoping that it yields a favorable outcome in their GERD dispute. Ethiopia (and Afwerki) can, of course, easily return the favor by shoring up Sudan’s disparate opposition.
Indeed the spark Abiy let loose may lead to a conflagration engulfing the whole region. And, any step that worsens the situation is bound to stretch the ENDF further. The Amhara militia and special forces alone cannot match the Sudanese military and all other opposition against the PP regime.
The deployment of the Amhara forces in Tigray enabled the Sudanese military to overrun the contested border. Ironically, even as a foreign army makes advances deep into the country, the Amhara ruling party is busy annexing parts of western and southern Tigray amid concerns of ethnic cleansing and demographic engineering. This is likely to worsen tensions in the run-up to and during elections. It is not yet clear if the electoral board will okay holding elections in the annexed areas.
Somalia’s fumbled role
After three decades of formidable challenges, with the help of the international community, Somalia is currently taking sometimes hesitant but steady steps to re-establish a semblance of normality and democratic governance at the regional and federal levels. President Abdullahi Mohammed Farmajo, whose term ended on 8 February 2021 and facing another selection process, has been seen cavorting along with Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders. In and of itself, this is no sin. It is part of his job as Somalia’s head of state.
However, reports suggest that Somali trainees in Eritrea took part in the war in Tigray. So far, there is no independent confirmation of this, but relatives and others in Mogadishu have raised questions about the whereabouts of missing trainees. Farmajo has been a keen participant in the tripartite alliance between Afwerki and Abiy. Their agreement, including efforts to form a new bloc dubbed “Horn of Africa Cooperation,” is held in secret, and the personalized alliance has been characterized as a “league of autocrats.”
Abiy, Afwerki, and Farmajo are also united around their shared disdain for federalism, belief in a strong central state, and fear of decentralized governance. Abiy went to war in Tigray because the TPLF insisted on greater regional autonomy and held local elections. Afwerki ruled the tiny Red Sea state via executive fiat since 1993. Farmajo has been exhibiting similar irritation with powerful regional opponents in Jubaland and Puntland. Already, Farmajo’s wishes to cling to power are frustrating efforts to reach a widely accepted compromise in selecting the next president.
It won’t be surprising if Farmajo deliberately sent troops or agreed for trainees in Eritrea to join the war against TPLF. If confirmed, he should be held accountable for that decision. However, if Afwerki deployed the Somali troops without Farmajo’s consent, the latter shoulders responsibility for all consequences.
Whether Farmajo consented or Eritrean authorities acted arbitrarily, the deployment of Somali troops in Tigray exposes a high degree of delinquency on the part of Ethiopia’s governing elites. It creates a highly alarming precedent for a region beset by endless instability and proxy wars. It should be a cause for worry for all the countries of the region. Civil society and all freedom-loving forces must take note and unite to build preemptive mechanisms before matters worsen.
In this respect, with all the apparent confusion, Somalia seems the best hope to nip the rising regional autocracy in the bud. Since Somalia benefits from discreet international stewardship, Farmajo is more amenable to global concerns than Afwerki and Ahmed would ever be. Besides, since the people of Somalia know that autocracy was a big part of what speeded up the country’s collapse in the 90s, they would likely stand firm against applying for the same ruinous medicine by a politician, however patriotic he may sound.
The Eritrean factor
Among all the foreign involvements in the Tigray war, the Eritrean adventure is likely to have far-reaching effects on the Ethiopian elections and the two countries’ future relations.
It is worth recalling that Ethiopia, under TPLF, declined to implement the 2000 Algiers Agreement and settle the issues that gave rise to the war peacefully. As soon as he came to power, Abiy promised to implement that agreement in its entirety. His decision triggered a blooming political romance with Afwerki. And, many naively thought Abiy and Afwerki would soon normalize relations between the two countries. It was hoped that normalization would include burying the ghosts of war by implementing the Agreement as a priority.
However, since authorities kept the pact between Abiy and Afwerki secret, there is no way to tell if they even discussed the implementation of the Algiers Agreement. One can now surmise that eliminating TPLF must have been among the top agenda items in the highly personalized secret deal between the two leaders. Since the agreement remains underhand, possible other aspects remain to be a legitimate cause for worry.
We must draw lessons from a previous informal deal between Afwerki and TPLF leaders in Finfinne, which tragically led to the disastrous 1998-2000 war in which more than 100,000 lives perished on both sides. The deal gave Asmara an economic and political power base in Ethiopia. Eritrea, a non-coffee-producing nation, even became a coffee exporter. That meant a loss of crucial foreign currency earnings for Ethiopia. When TPLF leaders finally scrapped the deal, Afwerki was unamused, and the result was horrible mayhem and decades of hostility.
Given that tragic experience and the Eritrean troops’ alleged commission of atrocities against civilians in Tigray, there are ample reasons to fear the worst once again. Things could turn awry due to miscalculation or misunderstanding between the leaders and members of their respective regimes, feelings of betrayal and outrage, sudden friction, and, God forbid, even another war. The prospects are alarming.
There are also now concerns that Abiy and Afwerki may replicate the rotten treatment meted out to civilians in Tigray elsewhere in Ethiopia. Even before the onset of the Tigray war, anonymous sources reported how the Eritrean army and security squads were deployed in the capital Finfinne and other cities. Perhaps only a handful in Abiy’s inner circle knows their precise number and mission. And, given Afwerki’s outspoken aversion for federalism, presumably, the deployment of his forces in Oromia and elsewhere could be to secure an outcome that ensures the dismantling of the multinational federation.
The Ethiopian government is ultimately responsible for the safety and security of its citizens. Wherever crimes are committed, justice needs to be done based on neutral findings by an impartial body. The victims deserve justice. Perpetrators must be held accountable both in the formal courts and the court of public opinion. Abiy and Afwerki are already receiving their dues in the international public opinion for the extraordinary cruelty they have jointly unleashed against the people of Tigray.
There should also be an orderly demarcation of the two states’ borders. Both Addis and Asmara need to follow legal procedures per the Algiers Agreement and subsequent findings. Sadly, in what appears to be panic-driven haste to raise an overwhelming force against the TPLF, Abiy now admits that he allowed Eritrean forces to occupy the disputed areas at will. It is abundantly clear that the Eritrean troops have occupied even undisputed bits of Tigray and are busy committing sexual violence, looting, and vandalizing public and private properties.
The issue of unmarked border concerns territories over which 100,000 people lost their lives in a deadly war. Since more than a piece of land is involved, sorting out the issue requires a prudent approach. Accordingly, a just and final solution to the border dispute compels a considered input from legitimate Tigrayan authorities. With elections indefinitely postponed in Tigray and TPLF on the run, Tigrayans currently do not have any meaningful representation, let alone a legitimate one.
Behind targeted violence
Despite early optimism, Abiy’s tenure saw a spike in identity-based killings of Amhara and others in Benishangul, Oromia, and elsewhere. The peculiar timing and actions of security forces were largely suspect in some of the violence. There is a strong suspicion that groups that wish to discredit federalism and subvert elections might be behind the targeted killings for their narrow political gains. A former top intelligence official in the Oromia region exposed in 2019 how agents of the ruling party robbed banks in western Oromia and blamed it on the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). In Gulliso, Horro Guduru, and Babo Gambel, ethnic Amharas were killed reportedly after security forces abruptly withdrew from the area.
On 29 March 2021, the OLA commander in western Oromia, Kumsa Diriba (Jaal Marro), told Aljazeera that OLA is fighting for the fundamental rights of all oppressed peoples and condemned the targeting of civilians of any background. OLA blames agents of the PP regime for targeting and killing ethnic Amhara civilians to implicate OLA.
In its December 26, 2020 edition, Yeneta Tube, a YouTube-based outlet with alleged links to intelligence officials, made a clear case on how right-wing Amhara nationalists embedded in regional and federal institutions are behind the killing of Amhara civilians, which they blame on others. Hence, it is plausible that forces opposed to federalism and other democratic principles such as elections are likely to carry out atrocities, directly or indirectly, and blame it on “ethnic federalism” or federalist forces that they wish to eliminate from the political process.
Adherents of the old governing class’s right-wing policies habitually blame federalism and the constitutionally guaranteed local self-rule as the cause of the unnecessary loss of life in different parts of the country. As unitarists, they have a vested interest in vilifying the constitution and all it stands for. The war of words between the PP branches of the Oromia and Amhara regions shows that anti-federalist and anti-democratic forces are entrenched among PP. Some of these groups may also be acting as couriers for Afwerki’s aims in Ethiopia. In the past, some politicians, including Andargachew Tsege, the current head of ESAT TV and a close associate of Abiy, openly boasted of fostering the links with Afwerki’s regime. Hence, these actors have access to enormous local and external resources to undermine the federal arrangement and push federalist forces out of the electoral exercise.
Afwerki has repeatedly vowed that he would not sit idly by about events in Ethiopia in pursuit of Eritrea’s national interest. He has lived up to that by helping Abiy take out the TPLF, which he dreaded, hated, and despised in equal measure.
Afwerki is no believer in the periodic election of leaders to manage public affairs. Ideas of human rights, freedom of expression, and self-rule are not part of his repertoire. He is, of course, entitled to his ideas and beliefs, but he ought to realize, he is not the one to decide for the peoples of Ethiopia the system of government they wish to live under. On those previous occasions when he indulged himself in internal Ethiopian matters, only the TPLF and some Oromia-based opposition parties protested his interference in the domestic affairs of Ethiopia. He has so far made the TPLF pay for its audacious stance, and the world awaits what he has in store for his other critics.
A lousy election made worse
The June 2021 elections are a non-starter as popular parties such as the OLF and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) are pushed out through systemic repression. With ENDF and other regional forces already stretched thin, Abiy may enlist Asmara’s support to secure the sham election. The presence of Eritrean troops is likely to make a bad situation worse.
Wherever they may be stationed, the Eritrean expeditionary force would overtly be on the PP side, but its primary mission would always be to maximize Eritrea’s national interest. Toward that end, they could engage in covert activities and may collude with all sorts of unsavory elements as they see fit.
Crucially, the operations of Eritrean forces remain masked in a mystery hidden inside informal and secret deals between the two leaders, which is extremely disturbing. Meantime, resistance against foreign occupation anywhere they may be is a foregone conclusion. The consequences will, of course, be dire for the entire region and beyond. For Ethiopia, the best way out of this messy quagmire is the expulsion of foreign forces and a negotiated settlement for all outstanding issues among concerned parties.
Finally, the disruption of the planned election will indeed be a loss for the Oromo and other peoples of Ethiopia and prospects of democratic transition. It is also quite likely that the Abiy-Afwerki alliance will go awry, as with previous lopsided secret dealings between unelected and unaccountable leaders. In that case, the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia will have to pay a heavy price once again.
The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea and the international community should do everything possible to prevent such a disaster from taking place.