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Why Ethiopia must not fall apart

By Benjamin Ujumadu
29 December 2021   |   3:02 am
The immediate and unmistakable consequence of the collapse of Libya in 2011 following the military intervention of the Western military alliance, NATO was chaos in the country

Ethiopian former long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie (C) has said he is determined to “sacrifice and stand for Ethiopia” (AFP/EDUARDO SOTERAS)

The immediate and unmistakable consequence of the collapse of Libya in 2011 following the military intervention of the Western military alliance, NATO was chaos in the country. With the destabilization of Libya, arms and weapons from its unsecured armoury flowed across to the Sahel region and Nigeria, triggering brutal insurgencies, banditries and assorted criminalities that still bedevil the sub-region up to this day.

Following the flow of weapons, the then, low-level insurgency in North-Eastern Nigeria spiked and assumed a more serious intensity.

In the present time, the proliferation of light weapons has spawned an audacious criminal militancy in Nigeria, including insurgencies, banditry and kidnapping. In the Sahel including Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, the fallouts from the destabilization of Libya have created hotbeds from where extremist Islamic militancy has even linked up to the deadly ISIS in the middle East grown.

Without the NATO intervention, the Libyan internal conflict would have reached a negotiated and peaceful settlement and spared both the country, Sahel region and Nigeria, the brutal consequences it currently endures. Libya with its population of nearly 7 million pales into insignificance when compared with Ethiopia’s 110 million people with even far more significance to Africa.

Apart from being un-colonized by any European power, Ethiopia actually defeated Italy in 1896 at the battle of Adwa. And this effectively thwarted the campaign of the Kingdom of Italy to expand its colonial empire in the horn of Africa. Ethiopia is symbolically the capital of Africa, being host to the secretariat and headquarters of the African Union.  While all African countries have equal importance and should be supported to resolve their conflicts, without the option of collapse, Ethiopia stands out and must never be allowed to collapse or disintegrate. The conflict in its Tigray region is an internal problem for which Africa should show concern and encourage amicably and negotiated settlement. External posturing and meddling in the conflict hold no prospect of amicable resolution and Africa’s initiative to mediate in the conflict with total regard to the sovereignty holds far better prospect. 

Since November 4, 2020, a devastating armed conflict has been raging in northern Ethiopia. Developments in this war, which started with a well-prepared nightly assault of the then-ruling Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF[1]) on federal army bases in Tigray Regional State, are going fast. The war was expanded by the TPLF into areas outside Tigray, where major abuses on local inhabitants were perpetrated. No end is yet in sight to the fighting, which had expanded deeper into the Amhara Region to the important cities of Dessie and Kombolcha by early November 2021.

Although this conflict is primarily a domestic problem within an African state, there are ramifications towards neighboring countries, such as Sudan, Somalia and Egypt. As Walt (1996) has argued, revolutions or domestic turmoil in a country can have a disruptive impact on international relations.

Sudan has been maneuvering at the Ethiopian border and Ethiopia’s withdrawal of troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force in Somalia has led to more terror activities by the Al Shabaab movement. But in turn, international relations can also have an impact on such a national crisis.

The Ethiopia conflict has evoked a specific response pattern by the ‘international community, primarily the United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN): they address, or rather ‘target’, the Ethiopian government and not the insurgent TPLF which has caused most of the killing and destruction.

A subsidiary role is played here by global media discourse toward this conflict, reporting haphazardly on a succession of events, but unconnected to historical lines and context of the state in question. Such reporting – in dominant news producing media like Reuters, AFP and AP  as well as global newspapers – often uncritically supported the insurgent TPLF, despite its appalling human rights record and its devastating campaigns against civilian populations. This again had an effect on international policymaking towards Ethiopia.

Indeed, the omissions and failures of the global media and the (Western) international community which tend to blame the Ethiopian Federal Government for the armed conflict and the events since its outbreak, have an impact on the Ethiopian state and reveal a misplaced normative streak in international relations thinking among these actors.

Especially remarkable in this case is the lack of commitment to the ideal of ‘democracy in international relations, nominally proclaimed by the USA and EU. This ideal was easily side-lined in their policy approaches to Ethiopia, as the de facto preferred the deeply undemocratic TPLF above the democratically elected government of Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed and the agenda of democratization that he implemented since April 2018.

The Western ‘donor country’ policymakers and the UN were selective and incomplete in their appraisal of the conflict and in diplomatic actions towards it, despite their alleged ‘concern’ for civilians as victims of violence and food scarcity in the first phase of the conflict. Especially, the Ethiopian federal government, led since April 2018 by the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, initially widely acclaimed as a leader and reconfirmed incredible elections in June 2021, has been blamed for the conflict by international parties, notably the USA, the EU and the global media. It is indeed worrying how the global news media, like CNN, AP, the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, Le Monde, and others have often played an obfuscating and biased role in reporting on this year-long conflict, e.g. by routinely accusing primarily the Federal Government of excesses. Numerous items in these media have distorted or misrepresented events in an incomplete and tendentious manner, akin to sensationalist and attention-grabbing not backed up by the facts or by proper investigation.

These reports, in addition to the cyber ‘warfare, and the repeated lecturing by Western countries of Ethiopia as the ‘bad guy’ taking on a smaller region (Tigray), reveal a measure of ignorance and misplaced ‘victim bias’, and evoke a host of questions not only on the interests of the global media but also (again) on the role of social media propaganda and on the workings of the international system and the UN.

Most of those tabling resolutions, doing news items or writing press articles do not know much either – or perhaps do not care – about the history and complexity of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region (Hibist 2021). One major example is the neglect of the first mass killing that occurred in this conflict on November 9, 2020: an ‘ethnic cleansing’ operation in the town of Mai Kadra perpetrated by TPLF-affiliated militia on Amhara-speaking inhabitants (non-Tigrayans).

An estimated 1500 non-combatants were killed, causing a shock effect throughout Ethiopia because of its exceptional nature. But this defining event and its implications are hardly discussed in the global media or in policy circles. Regarding this aspect of what often seems Western lecturing and selective outrage, recent controversial talking points are US President Biden’s ‘Executive Order’ of September 17, 2021, announcing sanctions; the EU Parliament’s resolution of October 8, 2021, on ‘Tigray’, Ethiopia (RC9-0484/2021); the expulsion of seven UN officials from Ethiopia on September 30, 2021, and recent USA sanctions. 

To be continued tomorrow
Dr. Ujumadu is international affairs analyst based in Abuja.