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Tigray: The AU failed Ethiopia, while US calls the shots

V P Selassie
By V P Selassie

African security analyst

Posted on Wednesday, 25 November 2020 16:04

Sudan Ethiopia
Tigray refugees who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia's Tigray walk to Hamdeyat Transition Center after arriving on the banks of the Tekeze River on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

It is almost three weeks since a large-scale war started in the Tigray region of Ethiopia involving a multitude of internal actors and external military players. That this is happening in a country where the African Union (AU) is rooted, with its overarching slogan ‘silencing the guns in Africa’, is puzzling, to say the least.

Who are the players? On the one hand, we have a broad coalition of the Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a myriad of armed groups from the Amhara region, smaller contributions of militias from the other regional states and more than 10 divisions of the Eritrean regular army supported by militarised drones supplied by the United Arab Emirates.

And on the other side are Tigray’s regional military units albeit relatively organised and experienced. There are also unconfirmed reports of the participation of two brigades from Southern Somalia, part of the units believed to have been trained in Eritrea, as part of the coalition against Tigray.

This is arguably, Africa’s hidden world war. The inventory of the warring forces points to the presence of profound ideological and security issues with regional and continental implications.

Defining the war in Ethiopia

The current war is essentially ideological both from the inside and the outside. The first is related to how the Ethiopian state, by extension the African state, has to be defined.

The war in Ethiopia is essentially between multinational federalist forces and those who espouse a unitary and centralised approach to governance and state building.

The latter is being supported by Eritrea partly because the force on the other side which is considered to be the most ideological and highly organised but also the last trench for multinational forces in Ethiopia, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) is viewed as a mortal enemy by Asmara.

READ MORE Will Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict spillover into Eritrea, Egypt and Sudan?

Beyond elements of score settling for what happened in the last war (of 1998-200), Eritrea’s President Issayas Aferwerki rightly assumes the TPLF is the major obstacle which stands in the way of his regional ambitions.

This explains the connection to Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia who desperately looks for support to neutralize a major protagonist on the domestic front.

UAE – US – China…

The UAE leaders with clear regional interests and preferences for coercive diplomacy in the Horn, and beyond, favour strong leaders and short-term stability imposed by strong security states. And with the US’s  transactional foreign policy under President Trump, any regime or a coalition of states, no matter how petty or monstrous, can find a protector.

READ MORE The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea

But the US has other clear political interests as well. The changing of the guard in Ethiopia in early 2018 was considered as an opening for disrupting Chinese advance in Africa.

The TPLF has been blamed for having strong political relations with Beijing and becoming a leading proponent of a new path for development, policy sovereignty and a developmental state paradigm in Africa’s economic and international relations.

Indeed, the successes of such a policy can be seen in the fast transformation of Ethiopia’s socio-economic context. The track records of the EPRDF-led government in Ethiopia shows a different kind of political economy reinforcing theories of anti-intervention, dependency theory, and world systems which provided critiques of the state in the developing world and its relations to the developed West.

READ MORE Abiy Ahmed and the struggle to keep Ethiopia together

It is more than mere happenstance that the ideological undercurrents are multi-pronged netting a mix of geopolitics and economics.

For Washington, it was a relief when the TPLF lost power and influence after protests but ultimately through internal party elections and parliamentary horse-trading.

It is no secret that US diplomats have been active in the events surrounding the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as a prime minister. Then there is Washington’s age old economic liberalisation syndrome.

…top diplomats of the current US Administration are busy shooting down every effort to end the war through mediation often claiming that they expect Abiy Ahmed to celebrate a military victory within days.

US policy makers have always been counting on Abiy Ahmed to initiate a privatization spree and they are not going to abandon him when he is in the midst of a major war.  The Americans claim, rightly so, to have embedded themselves in the current Ethiopian government’s policy processes. They have tried to do the same in Sudan and Somalia with different degrees of success.

READ MORE Ethiopia: 45% of telecoms company Ethio to be sold off, despite conflict in the north

This partly explains why top diplomats of the current US Administration are busy shooting down every effort to end the war through mediation often claiming that they expect Abiy Ahmed to celebrate a military victory within days.

After indirectly inviting such a large-scale destruction and the loss of human lives, the US diplomats suggest the conflict could bring the country back to normal.

What is happening in Ethiopia demonstrates, once again, that ideological and political problems are expected (at least on the part of the current US Administration and its allies in the Gulf and the region) to be changed by force and that this will be accepted internationally as a fait accompli.

That is where the danger lies. But we don’t know what is happening on the ground right now. We don’t know the combat readiness, fuel and ammunition supplies, communications, and morale of the Tigray forces.

READ MORE Ethiopia – Tigray: Government deadline to surrender looms

To the extent that electronic control centres are down and there is a total information blackout, the role of powerful regional and global actors cannot be ruled out as it helps to sustain plausible deniability to everything from the large scale involvement of neighboUring countries’ forces and violence against civilians.

‘The complete uselessness of Africa and the African Union’

The events unfolding in the Ethiopian Tigray conflict demand closer attention by the global community. The growing human suffering amid atrocities in which cities and residences are systematically destroyed by combined Ethiopian and Eritrean forces seem to go unnoticed.

The much graver matter is however the complete uselessness of Africa and the African Union.

Events in Tigray have shown that there is hardly any limit to the brutality that can be employed in the service of a geopolitical goal; indeed, that brutality against a civilian population is an effective instrument of national and regional policy.

The much graver matter is however the complete uselessness of Africa and the African Union.  The more so because the unspeakable brutality that we are witnessing in the Tigray conflict is not simply the byproduct of mindless revenge war; it has all the undercurrents of an existential war about the visions of the state in the Horn.

Tigray men who fled the conflict in the Ethiopia’s Tigray region, wait for UNHCR to distribute blankets at Hamdayet Transition Center, eastern Sudan, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

To the extent that it is an ideological war it cannot be totally delinked from the appurtenances of state-society relations elsewhere in Africa.

Unlike in the rest of the continent where the colonial geopolitical legacy was accepted as the lesser evil, it was widely rejected in the Horn, unleashing manifold struggles over territory, boundaries, identity and power that continue unresolved to this day.

Misguided nation-building undermined state formation

One had to do more than assume it is simply an accident, that alone in Africa, the TPLF led EPRDF explicitly rejected the European modelled nation-state.

There are historical and structural reasons for this. Suffice to argue that there are only three countries in such a situation: Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia where you have ethnic groups (even nations) which are not tribes. And nations always want to have states.

The fact that Ethiopia is unique in Africa doesn’t mean that the crisis will be limited within its borders. The regional distribution of power on the ground and entry of external actors means that the endgame will reverberate across the sub-region and beyond.

READ MORE Ethiopia: National pride, national shame

This is not the first time that Africa has failed to seize the chances to act and recognise the dangers that arose from the continuation of this war which could end up in the disintegration and violent reorganisation of states in the sub-region.

Still, there are a few other things that can be said after three weeks of this war: about its causes, its course, and even its consequences. But one thing is self-evident.

The AU is watching this almost from the sidelines, an evidence of its hopelessness in the face of external and non-African forces causing havoc even on its doorstep.

The acquiescence of the AU Commission to the Government of Ethiopia’s ultimatum on 11 November 2020, to sack, within 72 hours, an Ethiopian staff member who was deemed disloyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, confirmed in the minds of many Africans that the AU was fast losing its credibility as a neutral arbiter and a defender of very norms and values contained in its Constitutive Act.

What is more, Africans who fondly imagine and celebrate the AU as a normative actor are humiliated by the inability of the continental organization to prevent violence and ethnic profiling. They voice serious concerns on this crisis which has all the hallmarks of a prelude to genocide.

READ MORE African Union: Theft, intimidation, nepotism allegations against AU body

Many do not quite understand the gravity of the humanitarian implications of our failure to intercede decisively. If we did, we would have intervened long ago.

Of course, there is nothing new in this. It only shows all the more clearly that Africa has not succeeded in commanding the moral courage or establishing the structures and processes capable of upholding its founding documents, the rule of law, of protecting human rights and resolving conflicts peacefully.

Undeniably, these are large statements, but arguably, they are justified. What has happened to the AU over the last few weeks demonstrates, once again, that the regional organisation can be gagged into silence by coercive diplomacy from boisterous African and non-African governments.