Political Observation - The Conflict in Ethiopia

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Political Observation - The Conflict in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian armed forces announced on 28 November 2020 that they had seized control of the city of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Region, following the fierce battles which erupted on 4 November between the central government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in the Tigray Region. In order to perceive the reality of the war in Ethiopia and the causes lying behind it, it would be imperative to discern the nature of the forces jostling for the centre of power.

The centre of power in Ethiopia has always been in the hands of the Amhara ethnic group who founded the modern Ethiopian state which consists of several ethnicities and various nationalities. By the end of the 19th century, Abyssinian king Menelik II annexed the predominantly Muslim Oromo Region, and with the help of Britain, he succeeded in gaining the region of Bani Shankoul which was part of Sudan; and at the end of the Second World War and after the defeat of Italy, Britain handed the Region of Ogaden over to Ethiopia although it was part of Somalia’s lands.

The current state of Ethiopia has in fact been artificially founded due to British colonialism; this is because her geographic position, namely Abyssinia, is located around the Amhara regions and parts of Tigray where its capital, the city of Aksum, is located, and where the ruling palaces of Abyssinian kings were located, as well as the tomb of al-Najashi on whom the Messenger of Allah ﷺ offered the janaza prayer in absentia.

Power remained in the hands of the Amhara kings of Abyssinia until 1974 when the Provisional Military Administrative Council ousted their last emperor Haile Selassie, abolished the monarchy and established a communist state. From 1980, America started sponsoring several liberation movements in Ethiopia, especially in Tigray, Eritrea, Ogaden and Oromo.

In 1991, the last Marxist ruler in Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was deposed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was a group comprising several fronts, the most important of which was the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, which eventually dominated the government and the state’s institutions. In parallel to this and under US auspices, i.e. following the London conference coordinated by Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) headed by Isaias Afwerki seized power in Eritrea in the same year and declared independence in 1993 following a mock referendum. Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, continued in power until he died in 2012. He was succeeded by his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, who, like his predecessor, was an orthodox but from the southern provinces. However, it seems that the ethnicities representing the deep state in Ethiopia, especially Amhara and the Tigray, were averse to his tenure and several protests and demonstrations against him took place which finally forced him to tender his resignation. A consensus was then concluded, and Abiy Ahmed Ali took office in March 2018 with the backing of America which was reflected in offering him the Nobel Peace Prize after he had visited the al-Buraq Wall.

Although many individuals attribute Abiy Ahmed to the Oromo ethnicity representing 35% of Ethiopia’s population because of his Muslim father, he however represents the interests of the Amhara ethnic group, i.e. 25% of the population, because of his links to his Christian mother. The Amhara used to represent the weight of the deep state in Ethiopia since the days of the Abyssinian kingdom. Moreover, Abiy Ahmed is a Protestant, and this is why America has been backing him politically although the Orthodox represent the majority of the Ethiopian Christian sects. He has also been supported by the Muslim Oromo ethnic group, exactly as was the case with his predecessor Meles Zenawi when he seized power in 1991.

Abiy Ahmed is the first official from the Oromo ethnic group to be chosen by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for the post of prime minister after 27 years of being the ruling party. Abiy Ahmed took office following the protests that erupted in the province of Oromia in early 2018 due to the deteriorating political and economic conditions; the reins of power were smoothly passed on to him following a host of understandings with the EPRDF in April 2018. However, he turned on his allies within the front and set about purging the government of the old guard he had known very well since his days as head of the intelligence services.

Historically, the US has deepened her hegemony over the Horn of Africa region and marginalised France whose Djibouti military base is the largest in Africa, and since 2002, the US has given Germany a role at the expense of the French. Ethiopia for her part is a vital state for America in terms of controlling the region. America backed her in striking the military pockets in Eritrea and then participated in ending the rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Moreover, the rulers of the UAE were instructed to contribute to America’s endeavour to deepen her influence in Africa. America managed to corroborate her influence in the Horn of Africa through Djibouti, which is deemed as the focal state in terms of energy and maritime security in the Red Sea.

Although the domestic struggle may lead to fragmenting Ethiopia, and it may also expand beyond her borders, the unity of Ethiopia within a federal framework would continue to represent an interest to the US due to the intricate ethnic composition in the Horn of Africa and its surrounding regions, which if it were to flare up, would change the geopolitical situation in the entire region which America has worked assiduously to maintain stability and remove all rifts between its countries.

By pursuing the struggle taking place since the protests of Oromia which erupted in July 2020 following the killing of a famous popular singer, in addition to the armed struggle that broke out last month, we conclude that it started as a result of president Abiy Ahmed’s undertakings and his rifts with the deep state represented by the political parties, senior military officers and the leaders of the provinces who backed him to assume power.

The struggle erupted on 5 November following a clash between the president and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which is part of the former ruling coalition, namely the EPRDF that ruled Ethiopia for three decades. According to successive reports, there are several deep rifts between the president and the EPRDF, dating back to the president’s decision to turn on the front, dissolve it, oppress its leaders and turn it into a party under the name of “Prosperity”. This was viewed by the leaders of the front as a treason. Even the tribe of the president, the Oromo, believe that he has failed to fulfil his promises in respect of restoring an equilibrium between them and other ethnicities. This led to the rebellion of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) who refused to hand the leaders of the EPRDF to Abiy Ahmed and organised the elections of the province in isolation from the federal government, especially after the president had postponed the presidential elections under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy Ahmed rejected the TPLF’s undertaking and suspended financial aid to the province last October. This means that the circumstances in which the clashes erupted are domestic and fraught with complications in respect of the Ethiopian ethnic makeup, and personal, partisan and regional interests, exactly like the domestic struggle of southern Sudan. There is nothing to link the Ethiopian tussles to any regional or international issues in terms of any objective reason for their eruption. It seems that the strong links and interests America has had with president Abiy Ahmed since he headed the Ethiopian intelligence services explain why she has turned a blind eye to the campaign against his opponents who became a spent force after she had exploited them in the regional struggles with Eritrea and whose expulsion from the scene has become a necessity dictated by the US interests in the province as a whole, an agenda which Abiy Ahmed has been implementing and which has led to the political rifts and armed struggle.

It is clear that the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is well versed with US interests and is attempting to sow dissension in the hope of widening the crisis to Eritrea, knowing that it was averse to signing the peace treaty in 2018 as its policy, in its quality as a part of the coalition government since the end of the war in 2002, had been based on isolating and marginalising Eritrea and its president, Afwerki, who was deliberately reluctant to achieve any progress in the negotiations with Hailemariam. Moreover, the TPLF was infuriated by the peace treaty that led to bringing Afwerki and Eritrea out of isolation and to Ethiopia surrendering the legal rights of the Tigrayans’ historical claims for the Eritrean lands inhabited by ethnic tribes linked to Tigray.

What confirms Tigray’s attempt to widen the struggle is the statement of the Tigray province’s president, Debretsion Gebremichael, in which he said that “Eritrea has dispatched soldiers and tanks to support Ethiopia.” Hence, this struggle is set to have a major impact and huge fallouts on Eritrea because any revolution in Tigray will extend to Eritrea due to the Tigray ethnicity living there; this is what US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned against in a telephone call to Abiy Ahmed, according to Reuters which quoted State Department spokesman, Cale Brown, as saying that Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ grave concern regarding ongoing hostilities and the risks the conflict poses”, i.e. the risks of the crisis spreading to neighbouring countries. African newspapers such as Ghana’s Daily Graphic reported on 30 November that missiles that were fired by the TPLF on Eritrea in mid-November has turned a domestic struggle into a transborder one. The purport of what the US State Department has published denotes America’s desire to contain the crisis and generate a domestic solution. And what Abiy Ahmed has carried out, purges within the government and what they entailed in terms of armed conflict, forms part of the agenda he has been appointed to execute.

17 Rabi’ al -Awwal 1442h
2 December 2020

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