Op-ed: Beyond National Dialogue: Ending Ethiopia’s civil war needs international engagement

Members of the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission. Picture: Prosperity Party (PP)

By Ezekiel Gebissa @egebissa

Addis Abeba – On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. The core message of his speech was the need to preserve two great American ideals: self-rule and human liberty. At the same time, he warned that nations crumble because of one of two dangers. The first is external aggression, which he declared was inconceivable since the United States was protected by two great oceans. The second, which Lincoln insisted the country should fear, is corrosion from within – the internal decay, viciousness, the lassitude, the ignorance – exemplified by the rise of an ambitious leader who is unfettered by conscience, precedent, or basic human decency.

The two great ideals that Lincoln emphasized must be preserved are currently endangered and the two factors he identified as threats have converged on Ethiopia. In just four years, the country moved from a hopeful moment of democratic transition to the precipice of a violent dissolution. The leadership derailed the political transition, mismanaged the political space, engendered conflicts, and launched a devastating war. The combined effect of failed leadership has left the government drifting and the country teetering, shocked by foreign invasion and internal anarchy typified by a collapsing economy, a hollowed-out military, and escalating incendiary political rhetoric.

Ethiopia’s neighbors are taking advantage of the internal turmoil and freely meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Isaias Afeworki has made himself supreme in Ethiopia.

In this article, I argue that the specter of dissolution that now haunts Ethiopia resulted from the choices that Abiy Ahmed made among the real alternatives that were available to him. I contend that Ethiopia’s chance of democratization was scuttled and a devastating civil war was set in motion when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) selected him as its leader. In conclusion, I posit that the solution to Ethiopia’s current predicament cannot come from within. The international community must work out a negotiated settlement to avert more bloodshed.

External aggression

Ethiopia’s neighbors are taking advantage of the internal turmoil and freely meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Isaias Afeworki has made himself supreme in Ethiopia. He publicly pontificates that he will assist Ethiopia in annihilating the authors of the 1995 constitution, multinational federalism, and electoral democracy. His forces have conducted a campaign of extermination, expulsion, rape, destruction, and starvation against the people of Tigray. He is on a rampage of revenge. The anomaly is that the Ethiopian leader praises Eritrea’s atrocity crimes as a goodwill gesture to save Ethiopia from its enemies.

Even Somalia which is reconstructing itself after decades of civil war has begun incursions and intervention in Ethiopia’s affairs. Historically, Ethiopia often intervened in Somalia to fend off the latter’s efforts to recover the territories Britain ceded to Ethiopia in 1954. In the last few decades, Ethiopia has intervened on the side of one warlord or another, culminating in Ethiopian troops officially entering Somalia in 2006. Nowadays, the direction of incursion and intervention has reversed. In 2020, more than 3,000 Somali troops were deployed in Tigray, where they massacred hundreds of civilians in villages. After a lull of several years, Al-Shabab forces attacked and killed five Ethiopians in AMISOM bases. On July 20,2022, Al-Shabab forces crossed into Ethiopian territory and killed several Ethiopian soldiers. That the direction of incursions was reversed for the first time in four decades indicates that Ethiopia is not in a position to secure its territory along the Ethio-Somalia borderlands.

In the last two years, it has become clear that Ethiopia cannot defend its territory along the Sudanese border. On November 1, 2020, three days before the start of the Tigray war, Abiy Ahmed requested the Sudanese leader to close the border to deny an escape route to Tigray fighters fleeing the war Ethiopia was preparing to launch. The Sudanese leader welcomed the invitation as an opportunity to recover his country’s disputed land. Accordingly, Sudanese forces seized the land known as the Fashaga Triangle and drove out Ethiopian farmers from the land.

Because both the federal military and Amhara regional forces were busy ethnically cleansing Tigrayans in Western Tigray, as evidenced in the June 16, 2022 joint Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report, the Ethiopian farmers in the Fashaga Triangle were left to fend for themselves. In the subsequent months, Sudanese forces seized more land and dislodged many more Ethiopians. Unable to respond to the violation of the country’s territorial integrity and displacement of its citizens, Abiy was left with no choice but to accept Sudan’s action as a fait accompli. Though Ethiopia came out from the Sudan saga looking impotent, it did not matter to the prime minister who reckoned that the internal threat to his power was more ominous than the welfare of citizens and the borders of the country.

To conceal the failure, the government blamed third-party involvement, insinuating that Egypt incited Sudan into launching a conflict with Ethiopia. Despite the provocation, Egyptians remained silent over the Tigray war or occasionally expressed their support for stability at the source of the Nile river. This does not mean Egypt did not want to take advantage of Ethiopia’s internal turmoil to protect its vital and strategic interests. In moments of candor, President al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Shukri have stated that Egypt “will not tolerate” any development upstream that will affect the Nile water flow. Their first move came with a cyber-attack on more than a dozen Ethiopian government websites in which the hackers warned that Egypt would attack if the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) caused water levels to drop in Egypt.

Egyptian officials also launched a diplomatic juggernaut to counteract the shift in the regional geopolitical balance that controlling the flow of the Nile River would give Ethiopia, making it a dominant player in the Red Sea basin. The Ethiopian leader was unprepared to play the high-stakes diplomatic game. His gaffes (Walahi, I won’t harm Egypt), missteps (the Sochi debacle) and misplaced priorities (Tigray War) gave an opening to Egypt, which they used to great effect with superior diplomatic adroitness.

First, Egyptian President Al-Sisi signed joint military, intelligence-sharing, and economic agreements with nearly all of the riparian countries, including Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. Second, Cairo signed a military cooperation agreement with Sudan and subsequently conducted air and military exercises, purposely named “Guardians of the Nile.” Third, Egypt signed an agreement on defense cooperation with Kenya, staging a diplomatic coup d’etat given Kenya’s geostrategic weight in the region.

Finally, Egypt forged a partnership with Djibouti. With Ethiopia and Eritrea in alignment, Djibouti, feeling marginalized and vulnerable, was looking for an alliance. President al-Sisi paid a highly publicized visit and reached several agreements on the GERD dispute and Red Sea security issues. Given that Djibouti was the gateway for landlocked Ethiopia, its partnership with Egypt was a severe coup de grâce to Ethiopia’s deteriorating standing in the region.

Civil war, grave humanitarian crisis, allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, public insecurity, displacement, administrative paralysis, and malfeasance of politicians now characterize the country’s body politic

Encircled, Ethiopia ceded to Egypt the diplomatic powerhouse reputation it enjoyed only a few years ago. Today, Egypt is the more influential player in the entire region, thanks to the gift of the Tigray war that Abiy Ahmed granted them. Because of the meaningless Tigray war, Ethiopia is currently an isolated international pariah whose only friend is Isaias Afeworki, the vilest dictator of the Red Sea basin. It lost its military to war, land to Sudan, the capacity to defend its citizens, and credibility on the international stage. That is a high price to pay to satisfy an ambitious leader’s urge for power.

The corrosion within

When he assumed office, Abiy Ahmed was entrusted with two mandates: manage the delivery of routine government services and prepare the country for free, fair, and competitive elections. In effect, he was a leader of a transitional government. He made a conscious, albeit ill-advised, choice to reorient the country’s direction and transform state institutions to suit his vision for the country. This decision, in effect, betrayed the popular protest’s cause of democratization of politics, genuine federalization of governance, economic justice, and cultural autonomy.

Reform to restoration

No sooner had Abiy Ahmed assumed office than he and his political allies mounted an incendiary campaign against the Ethiopian constitution of 1995 and the multinational federal system. Their goal was to restore a unitary state ruled by an all-powerful autocrat. To begin the process, the ideology of Medemer, a euphemism for unity without diversity, was launched as an indigenous ideology that would supersede Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, rendering EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy irrelevant, and supplanting the imported “politics of national self-determination.” Abiy promised that his unifying ideology of Medemer would obviate the danger of conflict and set Ethiopia on a course to prosperity.

Then Abiy dismantled the EPRDF and replaced it with a superficially unified Prosperity Party. He did so to avoid EPRDF’s periodic gimgema (evaluation), which could have resulted in his removal as party leader. A unitary party was meant to ensure that the prime minister would wield supreme power and remain in office indefinitely. More importantly, the destruction of the EPRDF presaged Abiy’s ultimate goal of undermining the federal division of power, political pluralism, and respect for the right of nations and nationalities. The party’s constitutive documents made it clear that the party envisions the restoration of the pre-1991 unitary system.

After securing his position within the party, Abiy embarked on removing what he considered obstacles to his restorationist vision. His regime imprisoned ethnonationalist opponents, refused to obey a court order to release them, and closed down independent media outlets. Next, he declared war on the multinational forces, commencing with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in western and southern Oromia. In Sidama, security forces massacred more than 150 people demanding a referendum for statehood. The Konso, Wolayta, Benshangul Gumuz, Kimant, and the Agaw were subjected to unspeakable violence for demanding to exercise their constitutional right to self-rule. Finally, total war was declared on Tigray because the region conducted regional elections.

The cost of realizing Abiy’s vision is high. Civil war, grave humanitarian crisis, allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, public insecurity, displacement, administrative paralysis, and malfeasance of politicians now characterize the country’s body politic. Pivotal national institutions are dismantled and the country is isolated regionally and internationally. The specter of dissolution is a real possibility today than at any time in the past.

Democracy to autocracy

The 2021 election was supposed to be the final act of the democratic transition and the first step to a more open, participatory, and accountable politics. As such, the election was expected to be free, fair, and competitive. With the Prosperity Party controlling nearly all media outlets, no independent media was left for dissenting voices to make their voices heard. The election was not free.

What happened in June was not a democratic election but a coronation. In the end, the election failed to resolve the existing political issues.”

The government regularly spied on the activities of its opponents or used myriad levers to coerce voters to cast their vote in its favor. The party commands an inexhaustible source of finance to fund its campaign. It uses law enforcement to prosecute and imprison its political opponents. Even the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) was not an autonomous and independent electoral institution. The elections were not fair.

The elections were held after the Prosperity Party had suppressed all legitimate voices, cleared the electoral arena of serious competitors, and exacerbated existing political contradictions. The elections were not competitive. What happened in June was not a democratic election but a coronation. In the end, the election failed to resolve the existing political issues.

– Coming together to drifting apart

Until recently, Ethiopian officials were adamant that their government would not enter into negotiations with the Tigray government unless the TPLF disarms, demobilizes, and hands over those responsible for crimes. The ENDF, accused of conducting a campaign of extermination, expulsion, rape, and starvation against the people of Tigray cannot be accepted as the guarantor of security for the people of Tigray, Tigray cannot and will not disarm while Abiy Ahmed and his trusted lieutenants publicly refer to the TPLF as a “cancer” in Ethiopian society and as “weeds” and vowing to use any means to remove the “cancer” and uproot the “weed.”.

The atrocities committed against Tigray conjures up dark memories in the Somali regional state. For a long time, the Somali region endured the same kinds of atrocity crimes that were meted out on Tigray. Under the emperor, Ogaden was synonymous with military camps. The Derg mowed down Ethiopian Somali youth indiscriminately accusing them of being sergogeb (infiltrators) and qitrenyoch (mercenaries) of Somalia. During EPRDF’s rule, Abdi Illey made the Somali region a killing field. Fear that Mustafa Oumar’s flirtation with and unsolicited praise for Amhara officials would, once again, turn the Somali region into a killing field has stunned all Somalis. The Somali region will not submit to a unitary state ruled by an autocrat.

The Oromia region has endured the depredations of command post rule and economic stagnation. The Oromia Prosperity Party has inflicted indescribable atrocities against Oromo youth alleging collusion with the OLA. The political sentiment among Oromo is that they have been betrayed at every moment of political change, in 1974, in 1991 and most recently in 2018. The failure of democratization and reversal of the multinational federation has solidified the belief that an empire cannot be democratized even under Oromo leadership. Oromos will not abandon their quest for self-rule.

The federal government has lost control over the Amhara region. The regional government is rearming, reorganizing, and preparing for a military operation. The regional police, the special forces, and militia units are graduating periodically. The Fano militia has been graduating recruits in every town and city in the Amhara region, with assistance from the state and Eritrea. Credible reports suggest that nearly three hundred thousand young people have completed their battle readiness and are ready for deployment. Their commanders publicly state that they are ready to defend the Amhara region and the Amhara throughout Ethiopia, including annexing territories from other regions such as Benishangul Gumuz and Oromia that they claim to belong to the Amhara.

At this stage, the goal of the international community should not be how to save Ethiopia from destroying itself

No Ethiopia-led solution

With such rhetoric heating up, a massive number of recruits preparing, and the government overwhelmed by multifarious problems, Ethiopia is on the brink of escalating civil war that could ultimately cause state collapse. In this context, it is hard to imagine a national dialogue can craft a solution that would pull the country out of its political quagmire. Revising the constitution, restructuring the multinational federation, and tinkering with the design of the national flag cannot stop the civil war.

What the international community should fear about Ethiopia is not whether it is Yugoslavia redux. That has already happened. At this stage, the goal of the international community should not be how to save Ethiopia from destroying itself. The current administration has done a very good job of severing the cultural and religious bonds that have historically tied Ethiopians together. There is no Ethiopia-led effort that could obviate Rwandization.

What Ethiopia needs, as Alex Rondos and Mark Medishi proposed six months ago, is a “concerted international action to prevent further drift and to focus diplomacy on a comprehensive settlement for this nation of more than 110 million. Nothing less than a Dayton-style peace process with visible, American- and neighbor-led daily engagement will pull Ethiopia back from the brink.” Ethiopia needs a Richard Holbrook, the architect of the Dayton Accords, to force the regime to come to an all-inclusive negotiating table. Only a Dayton Accords type settlement can end violence, rebuild society and forge a path toward a peaceful future. AS


Editor’s Note: Ezekiel Gebissa is Professor of History and African Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He can be reached at: egebissa@kettering.edu

This op-ed was first published in the May print edition of Addis Standard magazine.

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