Ethiopia: Isaias Afewerki and Abiy Ahmed through the prism of the Ukraine conflict

Getachew Reda
By Getachew Reda

Executive committee member and spokesperson for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Posted on Tuesday, 15 March 2022 09:33

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed arrive for an inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Russia’s premeditated aggression against Ukraine has justifiably provoked global outrage. Russia’s relentless assault on Ukraine violates the cardinal organising principle of the international system: state sovereignty. In launching brutal, multi-pronged assaults on Ukraine, Russia has also violated one of the core tenets of the United Nations (UN) charter: the prohibition on the use of force for something other than legitimate self-defense (Article 2(4)) or in service of collective security (Article 51).

The international community’s reaction to the invasion has been swift. The international community has condemned Russia’s aggression, reaffirmed the principle of non-interference and the prohibition on the use of offensive force, imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia and provided Ukraine with military support. A UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia for its aggression passed with the support of 141 countries.

Five countries voted against the resolution, officially sanctioning Russia’s norm-shattering invasion that undermines the rules-based liberal international order. One of the five countries that blessed Russia’s aggression is Eritrea, led by the long-time dictator Isaias Afewerki.

Isaias is contemptuous of the rules-based global order

Eritrea’s vote supporting Russia’s aggression is neither shocking nor surprising. Eritrea has a long track-record of launching unprovoked attacks against its neighbours. Since its independence three decades ago, Eritrea has been involved in international conflicts with the Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen and Ethiopia.

The idea of peaceful coexistence with neighbouring countries does not strike the authoritarian Isaias as a meaningful maxim worth living by. Even when it is not a direct participant in a conflict, Eritrea provides material, diplomatic and political support to various groups engaged in some form of armed resistance against its adversaries. For this rogue state, coming up with new ways to destabilise the region is what passes for statecraft.

For its repeated belligerence, Eritrea has been on the receiving end of numerous sanctions. The international community, with United States leadership, has by and large ostracised Eritrea. A predilection for aggression and coercive diplomacy are baked into the Eritrean dictator’s political DNA.

In fact, since November 2020, Eritrea has been a direct participant in the Abiy regime’s genocidal war on Tigray, inflicting unimaginable atrocities on the people of Tigray. The Eritrean military as an institution has plundered private and public wealth, massacred civilians, used sexual violence as a tool of war, deliberately destroyed socioeconomic institutions and used hunger as a tool of war.

Although Isaias has suffered widespread international opprobrium for his genocidal role in Tigray, the international community has not imposed sufficiently robust sanctions to compel him to alter course. Now, Isaias has publicly supported a war of aggression against a UN member state. Standing up for the victims of aggression would run counter to his basic nature as a political gambler and perennial troublemaker.

Furthermore, the international community has amassed a large body of incontrovertible evidence establishing Isaias’s destructive role in prolonging and intensifying the Tigray conflict. As a result, for Isaias to support Ukrainians in the face of wanton aggression by Russia would serve to bring into sharp focus his own role in the genocidal assault on the people of Tigray.

As the chief architects of the genocidal war on Tigray, Isaias and Abiy have repeatedly violated the core tenets of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The international community’s failure to impose robust punitive sanctions on this authoritarian duo has undoubtedly undermined the basic architecture of global governance, creating a norm-shattering precedent that it is okay for powerful countries to gang up against supposedly nettlesome, weaker nations.

By not standing up to these local bullies whose chief preoccupation at the moment is coming up with creative ways to exterminate the people of Tigray, the international community has been complicit in the incremental erosion of the basic rules and norms governing the conduct of states within their domestic jurisdictions as well as in their international relations If tyrants are allowed to violate the basic rules of the international order, the system begins to fall apart at the seams.

Different paths

In large part as a result of the cumulative erosion of these rules and norms, a military behemoth – Russia – is seeking to strip a sovereign country –Ukraine – of its independence simply because its people decided to take a different path from that which Russia chose for them.

Next time the international community has difficulty making up its mind about who precisely Isaias is, it should bear in mind that he officially and unabashedly supported Russia’s naked aggression against a sovereign country that has done nothing but chart its own peaceful path. Isaias, through his various mouthpieces, has sought to justify his support for Russian aggression in Orwellian terms, arguing that his vote against a resolution condemning aggression was in fact a vote for peace, to borrow a phrase from a US diplomat, out-Orwelling Orwell in the process.

Isaias’s cynical rhetoric is intelligible in the context of the grudge he has been nursing against the Western world, exemplified by the United States, for his country’s ostracism and sanctions. Given this resentment, supporting Russian aggression is his way of avenging perceived or real wrongs he supposedly suffered at the hands of the West.

That the West might be opposed to Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine might have to do with principles is of no consequence to Isaias. What is more, that his grudge match with the West should not come at the expense of the victims of aggression is neither here nor there to Isaias.

Appealing ideas

Furthermore, the West, as the proponent of liberal-democratic ideals has little appeal to the authoritarian Isaias. Isaias has always expressed contempt for democratic self-governance, in which power resides in the people, which they exercise via their representative legislatures.

He has ruled Eritrea for three decades without so much as holding even deeply flawed elections that are the mark of electoral authoritarian regimes around the world or even a constitution. In this regard, Vladimir Putin’s disdain for democracy, deep hostility towards the liberal-democratic West and imperial ambitions fits perfectly with Isaias’s deeply-held authoritarian worldview.

Finally, Isaias is adept at political brinksmanship. He stands eyeball to eyeball with his adversaries and waits for them to blink first. During the first few months of the war on Tigray, the Eritrean army committed some of the most brutal crimes against Tigrayans imaginable.

And yet, while the international community repeatedly threatened some unannounced adverse action against his government, Isaias’s military pressed ahead with its vicious rampage in Tigray. Eritrea’s brutality in Tigray appears to have risen in direct proportion to the international community’s rhetorical condemnation of its actions. Unfortunately, words mean nothing in the face of a determined enemy committed to exterminating the people of Tigray through violence and starvation.

In large part due to the failure to penalise Isaias for his destructive role in Tigray, there is no end in sight to Isaias’s commitment to destroying Tigray, as he has intensified his de facto alliance with the expansionist Amhara elites against Tigray. His military has helped train tens of thousands of Amhara paramilitary troops in Western Tigray, which the Amhara regional government has illegally annexed. The presence of the Eritrean army in Western Tigray also continues to underwrite the annexation of a constitutionally established Tigrayan territory.

Abiy Ahmed’s principles

While Isaias came out swinging in support of a brutal aggression, Abiy took a different path. Abiy issued a statement counselling restraint on both sides, extolling the virtues of peace and highlighting the costs of war. It is, of course, ironic that a man who has singlehandedly brought Ethiopia to the brink of catastrophic breakup by viciously prosecuting a genocidal war on Tigray in collaboration Isaias and the expansionist Amhara elite called on warring parties for restraint.

Abiy’s rhetoric is often at odds with his actions. A principled leader would, of course, condemn Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and reaffirm the latter’s legal and legitimate right of self-defence. To make a perfunctory call for restraint on both sides is tantamount to blaming the victim and letting the aggressor off the hook.

Abiy’s statement came out following his regime’s curious decision not to cast a vote on the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Abiy’s government did not even abstain, for that would actually imply a degree of contemplation and ambiguity about what was at stake. Instead, his representatives went AWOL at the time of the vote, choosing the path of least resistance.

Unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s invasion by voting for the resolution would have raised thorny questions about his own role in commencing a genocidal war that has pushed Ethiopia to the brink of collapse. He has persistently rejected calls for a peaceful way out of the current conflict, which makes his cynical calls for restraint by the aggressor and the victim and rhapsodising about the virtues of peace all the more remarkable.

Their colours

Condemnation would also have highlighted his unconscionable decision to have invited a foreign government to violate Ethiopia’s sovereignty by fielding the bulk of its army in the war against Tigray and brutalise the people of Tigray, who have stood up for their freedom and self-determination rights.

What is more, condemning the aggression would also have precipitated a fallout with Russia, one of Abiy’s powerful protectors on various international forums, including in the UN Security Council. By the same token, voting against the resolution and approving Russia’s illegal invasion would also have brought him into conflict with the liberal-democratic United States and the EU, whose leadership so far has galvanised unprecedented outpouring of support for Ukraine.

Abiy, as a buddying protégé of Isaias, is all about self-preservation. Isaias has become an expert at perpetuating his power by navigating treacherous diplomatic terrain. Abiy has taken a page out of Isaias’s playbook, though he is too insecure to choose a clear side à la Isaias.

Since Abiy does not subscribe to a set of discernible principles that guide his behaviour and make it easy for outsiders to make sense of his policy positions, he chose the path of least resistance. In avoiding voting on a straightforward issue of aggression, Abiy has effectively blessed Russia’s aggression, even though the facts surrounding Russia’s acts are not remotely contested.

In short, Abiy and Isaias have shown their true colours. They have quite self-consciously rejected an overwhelming balancing coalition against a powerful aggressor bent on revising the liberal international system and challenging the basic settlement undergirding peace in post-Cold War Europe. As the late US poet Maya Angelou put it: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Abiy and Isaias have shown the world who they are on multiple occasions. Yet, the international community has had considerable difficulty taking these authoritarian leaders at their words.

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