Obasanjo and his search for the Ethiopian twins
If the November 2, 2022 peace deal in Ethiopia holds, it would be the biggest prize ever won by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo since he retired from the Presidency in 2007.
For the past 15 years, Obasanjo has become Africa’s most dedicated troubleshooter, dashing from one trouble spot to another in the frequent African bushfire wars. But Ethiopia has a bigger stake. It is one of the most important African countries, sharing the Alpha Grade with Nigeria, South Africa, Congo DRC and Egypt.
Perhaps, it has seen more wars than most African countries. Hitherto, it is the most successful African experiment in state formation. It is unravelling would be a great tragedy. We need to salute all those who are involved in this peace deal.
Both the Ethiopian government and the rebel forces have shown open commitment to making the Obasanjo deal work. In almost three years of conflict, more than 500 people are dead and millions have been sent into involuntary exile or are living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps across the country.
Lives have been shattered by the sound of artillery and bullets. In the end, both parties would realise that no war is worth the lives and bloods and tears. Negotiations may be protracted and frustrating, but it is worth it. The eloquence of words is better than the eloquence of violence.
One of the most lionised leaders of the almost 100 years of Yoruba Civil Wars of the 19th Century was Kurunmi, the mighty marshal and lord of Ijaye, an ancient Owu town. After Oyo was deserted following pressure from the Ilorin forces, Kurunmi was one of the military leaders that ensured that Atiba, one of the sons of Alaafin Abiodun, installed the new Alaafin.
The seat of the new Alaafin was Ago Oja from where the new ruler was supposed to organise a military expedition to retake his old capital. This was never to happen and Atiba, after a successful reign, died in Ago Oja, which was now renamed Ago D’Oyo and later Oyo till the present day.
Oyo Kingmakers, the Oyo Mesi (Oyo knows the answer) nominated Adelu, the Aremo (crown prince), as the new Alaafin. Kurunmi would not agree. He said that by the old constitution, the Aremo, who reigned with his father, must commit ritual suicide at the death of the old king.
The Oyo Mesi and the new Alaafin would not agree. Kurunmi was adamant and the new king tried to appease him with expensive gifts. Kurunmi would not budge. In the end, the issue was decided by war and Kurumi was vanquished on the field of battle by Ibadan forces, which had taken sides with Oyo and the new Alaafin. Today, Ijaiye is still a small town near Ibadan which has grown to become the largest indigenous African city.
Compare this to the scenario that happened between the Emir of Gwandu and the Caliph at Sokoto in the same 19th Century. Shehu Usmanu Dan Fodio had died, and two claimants; Abdullahi, his brother and Emir of Gwandu and Mohammed Bello, his son, lay claim to the Shehu’s throne.
The new empire was divided and each side was preparing its armies to decide the issue on the battlefield. Then Mohammed Bello decided to travel to Gwandu and meet his uncle to talk about peace instead of war. Abdullahi was surprised about this olive branch and he realised it was a noble gesture to save the empire.
Till today, Sultan (as the Caliph was later called) is number one and the Emir of Gwandu is number two among the princes of the Sokoto Caliphate. They have realised that peace is more profitable than war.
That is the message Obasanjo must have taken to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The country is the only one in Africa that did not suffer colonial conquest in the 19th Century. The Italians made an attempt to colonise Ethiopia in the late 19th Century but they were decisively defeated at the battle of Adowa.
The man who led Ethiopia to the modern world was Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled the country as a benevolent patriarch for 50 years until he was toppled in a communist-inspired “creeping coup” in 1975. Selassie nemesis, Colonel Megistu Haile Mariam, was to plunge his country into a civil war, which led to the death of millions of Ethiopians.
At the end of the war, Ethiopia emerged as a saner federation creating a new Federal Constitution in 1995. The Constitution has survived till today. Eritrea, one of its old provinces, became an independent country. The coalition that won the war formed the government. That coalition, dominated by the Tigrayan was to remain in power for many years.
Few years ago, a new coalition came to power that displaced the Tigrayan from the power loop. They retreated to their region and in the aftermath of a regional referendum in 2020, which the central government described as illegal, proclaimed their independence. That drive to independence may now be on hold and Obasanjo and his team may try to insist on better accommodation for the Tigrayan within the Ethiopian federation.
The encouraging truth is that Africans have been able to manage multi-ethnic states better than any other part of the world. Both the First and the Second World Wars were actually outcomes of European tribal wars.
The current Putin War in Ukraine is the tribal war between the Ukrainians and the Russians, a rivalry that has its roots in centuries of mutual enmity. In Africa, there are very few countries dominated by single ethnic groups; notably Swaziland and Somalia. Many of our countries have done better than the Europeans in managing inter-ethnic tension.
In this wise, some countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan have paid heavily for inter-ethnic conflicts. Ethiopia had been wrecked in the past on this also. It is lucky that Obasanjo is available to help treat its sores.
Ethiopia is a beautiful country scarred by years of conflicts and needless elite rivalries.
I was invited to Addis Ababa in 1997 to deliver the 50th-anniversary lecture of the Ethiopian Journalists Association, to a distinguished audience at the African Hall. It was at the zenith of the Sani Abacha dictatorship and I had to travel through the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) route to Accra, Ghana, to board an Ethiopian Airline to Addis.
The American Embassy, in Lagos, made the trip, easy through our friend, Mrs. Joke Omotunde, and the American and Ethiopian embassies in Accra. The Ethiopian trip afforded me the opportunity to enjoy the lavish hospitality of my friend, Ambassador Ademola Oladele, who was then the First Secretary at the Nigerian Embassy in Addis. What I would never forget was the warning I received from my host in the Ethiopian Journalists Association.
“We know you Nigerians love to give gifts,” he said solemnly. “Please don’t give any gift or tip to any soldier or policeman in Ethiopia. He would regard it as an attempt to bribe him. In Ethiopia, bribery is regarded as a grave insult. Please don’t try it. Here that is a serious offence!”
With 2000 years of uninterrupted history, Ethiopians have been able to acquire an inbred moral fibre that promotes discipline, integrity and courage. It requires a lot of courage for leaders to agree to a peace pact and still the drums of war.
Obasanjo may have brought to bear on this peace mission, his vast experience in peace and war. It is a good thing that our leaders are learning the eternal lesson that a peace conference can never be too long no matter how long it takes. Let the Ethiopians learn this lesson.
Obasanjo should not leave them alone until peace and justice fully return to Ethiopia. He also needs to continuously impress it on other African leaders, including those in Nigeria, that peace and justice are Siamese twins that cannot be separated.