Editorial: Walking Ethiopia off the Ledge

The war in Ethiopia speaks to the weakness of the Pan-African spirit across the continent.

It is unfortunate that African governments have largely ignored the conflict that started almost a year ago in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, a war that shows no signs of abating yet. While both the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional government have expressed their willingness to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, there seems to be no common understanding around the meaning of peace and what it would entail as far as Ethiopia’s political future is concerned. However, there are incontrovertible facts that, if acknowledged by all warring parties, are compelling enough to pull them off the ledge and steer them towards a common ground and perhaps offer reprieve to the traumatised populations.

The conflict has origins in mutual suspicions that failed to yield reassurance. On the part of the Abiy government, the suspicion was that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was not entirely committed to giving up control of Ethiopia. It is also suspected that the TPLF leaders have always plotted to reassert themselves after the political conditions in Ethiopia between 2014 and 2018 made their hold on power untenable.

On their part, TPLF leaders believed that the Abiy government was not satisfied with them giving up power and retreating to Mekelle. They accuse the Abiy government of choosing, for the sake of political expediency, to scapegoat the TPLF for the shortcomings of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and marginalise them at the incitement of the Amhara elite. The TPLF is convinced that Prime Minister Abiy is riding Amhara vengeance and resentment.

Ironically, both sides believe that the other seeks to return the country to either the TPLF era or the Amhara era. These beliefs form the subtext of their conflicting visions for the society: a unitary or decentralised system of governance. However, war has weakened the argument on both sides and, as a result, neither party has made their vision for the future of Ethiopia attractive to the other. In decentralisation, the federal government now views the local communities as people either prepared to defy its authority (or to engage in a standoff with each other) while the communities see a stronger central government as an intimidating force of imposition and, if need be, annihilation.

For both, war became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evidence shows that both sides had begun to prepare for war long before the showdown in November 2020, as a consequence of this perception of mutual hostility and the failure to find adequate reassurance in the other. This context laid the groundwork for (violent) confrontation to the extent that discussions about who was first to go on the offensive have become moot. The practical and meaningful question for Ethiopians now is how the two can end a war that should never have started in the first place.

First, as of today, it is gradually becoming clear that there is no military solution to the conflict that would preserve Ethiopia as an indivisible and peaceful entity in the foreseeable future. For one thing, the war has revealed that the people of Tigray perceive any attempts to uproot the TPLF as a threat to their interests and existence as a community, a fact grounded in the TPLF victory in the September 2020 regional elections. The human rights violations – the scale of which we are yet to fully grasp – that marked what was termed a “law enforcement operation” by the federal government, as well as the current blockade on basic services and humanitarian aid, have only reinforced that perception. In the current configuration, therefore, there cannot be a military victory against the TPLF that doesn’t entail the collective punishment of Tigrayans and, ultimately, their destruction as a people, a prospect which no responsible government should entertain.

For another, despite the recent military gains made by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), there is no denying that a significant part of the Ethiopian population is fiercely opposed to any prospect of the TPLF making further advances in a bid to overthrow a government they overwhelmingly elected in July 2021. Obviously, the very reasons that propelled Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power and led to the subsequent dismemberment of the EPRDF should compel TPLF leaders to refrain from making any moves suggesting that they seek to regain political dominance. In such circumstances and considering the fact that the repeated calls to the federal government to re-establish basic services in the northern region are an indication that Tigray is not a viable independent entity on its own, diplomacy – not military prowess – is the safest option that prevents a total disintegration of Ethiopia, a country that not too long ago was among Africa’s rising stars worthy of emulating.

Second, beyond the unfolding humanitarian disaster, Ethiopia’s sovereignty, more precisely its ability to dictate the terms of its political and economic choices, has been eroded. As the war takes its toll on the economy, increasing the country’s need for external assistance and attracting further political interference, projects funded by the people of Ethiopia, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, are now in grave danger, especially if Egypt and Sudan opt for military actions to resolve the dispute around the dam. It should be obvious that a country at war with itself will be unable to defend such projects that Ethiopians, including Tigrayans, have sweated blood to build over the years and in which they all take great pride.

Moreover, there is no better way to attract external interference than destroying internal cohesion and projecting vulnerability regionally and internationally. Similarly, there is no better way to limit external interference than building internal cohesion and projecting power in the region and globally. Notwithstanding all its ills, and there are many, the EPDRF government had succeeded to a great extent in insulating Ethiopia from interference – even from western powers – in its internal affairs. They achieved this by positioning the country as a guarantor of regional stability and by building a solid, albeit imperfect, federal system that largely catered for the basic needs of Ethiopians. However, the war is eating away both shields, pitting brothers and sisters against one another while weakening Ethiopia’s standing in the region and beyond. Meanwhile, the fact that the regional and continental bodies have so far been denied the opportunity to mediate in the conflict undermines calls for African solidarity in the face of western interference. In this regard, the conspicuous silence of Africans is a shot in the arm for the enemies who wish to see a  reversal of Ethiopia’s gains. On the contrary, Africans should be keeping the enemies at bay by projecting the moral force of the entire continent to overcome the narrow interests of the warring parties in Ethiopia, urging them against destroying their country, which, at once, is ours too.

Third, neighbouring countries risk losing the continent’s support by appearing to be fuelling or even taking advantage of the conflict. For instance, while historic and long-standing border disputes and security interests justified Eritrea’s desire to see its foe, the TPLF-led regional government, dismantled, Tigray’s popular resistance to such a reengineering of their political organisation should compel that country’s leaders to consider limiting their engagement in Ethiopia to securing their legitimate claims on Badme. Their current actions risk vindicating former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s claim that Eritrea has always sought to weaken, destabilise, and ultimately control Ethiopia, which he advanced as a justification for his refusal to implement the delimitation decision of the Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission.

It is similarly unfortunate that Sudan has taken advantage of the conflict to forcibly reinstate its authority on the contested territory of Al-Fashaga, taking the risk of internationalising an already dire conflict.

Ultimately, however, the war in Ethiopia speaks to the weakness of the Pan-African spirit across the continent: Ethiopia’s internal problems should be the concerns of all, prompting urgent actions from a diversity of African stakeholders and moral centers of gravity to put out the fire and pull the country from the ledge. Ironically, hopes that such a spirit, now extinguished, was finally moving mountains had been revived by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s effective mediation in the Sudan transitional process as well as his historic peace overtures with Eritrea.

But here we are, back to square one, with Africans preying on each other while more dangerous predators are lurking. Perhaps, it is not too late to save Ethiopia, but it behoves Ethiopians to find the courage to put aside their pride, tone down their legendary fighting spirit, and show compassion to the millions of innocents whose lives are being destroyed by an unnecessary war.

After all, regardless of the outcome of the military contest, there will be no victor since it’s Ethiopians killing Ethiopians – Africans at each other’s throats. Only further destruction awaits. But it’s never too late to avoid its worst form.

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