ONE MAJOR RECURRING COMPONENT in the risk analysis on Africa is leadership. Despite its centrality, it remains an unsolved problem for a number of reasons. Among them are the confounding variables that sometimes defy logic and common sense. Problems arising at lower levels of human activities are subjected to extensive analysis and a wide array of solutions, with laws, status, ordinances and policies handy. But those having to do with leaders and leadership are complex, sometimes intractable and far-reaching in their impacts. They cause poverty, diseases, wars, insecurity and low quality of lives for myriads of people who have little or nothing to do with the immediate or remote causes of the crises. African leaders are, for the most part, responsible for Africa’s crises.
While thought leaders in developed countries organise big events to host African leaders in conferences to discuss recognisable challenges and opportunities in Africa, such initiatives are not common within Africa. It is common for African leaders to be hosted in Beijing, Davos, Dubai, Geneva, London, Montreal, Moscow, Tokyo Vienna or Washington DC, to discuss Africa’s prospects and problems. But it is rare to gather in Gaborone, Lusaka, Libreville, Dakar, Nairobi, Casablanca or Lagos to discuss Africa’s opportunities and crises. Outsiders seem to see the continent better than African leaders. Statistics used for measuring progress in Africa are mostly from outside the continent – on trade, food and agriculture, health indices, economy, maritime, aviation, manufacturing, demographics or human capital. The continent depends more on the UN system, World Bank, IMF, OECD and many other foreign agencies for data while making national policies. Home-grown statistics are hardly reliable. And when things fail, the leaders still go back to seek help from outside the continent. This has been the trend for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed deficiencies in governance issues within the continent.
Just while the world is looking at Africa as the next frontier for development, problems are arising from within, caused mostly by those privileged to be in positions of authorities. A lot of times, these have to do with self-preservation, even if it means a disintegration of the state. Many wars that African countries have had to fight since the wave of independence some half a century ago have been mostly associated with the determination of single individuals aiming to seize power or to retain it. This found expression in military coups, some successful and some unsuccessful. A period of relative lull came and nations appeared to have begun, and stability seems to be setting in, prompting the inflow of foreign capital, investments, infrastructure, development support and upsurge of institution building. That seems to be slowing down in some cases and some have started going on the reverse in recent times. Examples are mounting.
Countries that have established constitutional term limits to positions of authorities are beginning to break the rules. Guinea and Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) are most recent examples. In the elections recently held in these two Francophone countries, the incumbent presidents have chosen to break the rules and circumvent the constitution by seeking to exceed the constitutional limits of two terms in office. Their brazen desires have paid off for them, but at the expense of peace and progress. They seemed to have crushed dissenting voices and quelled violent protests, but that is how far the argument can be made for now. Alpha Condé, president of Guinea, preferred to ignore opposition to his third term run, choosing rather to suppress protesters with brute force. Alassan Ouattara, the Ivory Coast incumbent who worked his way back to office for the third term was a witness to a civil war that was caused by his predecessor to peacefully hand over power. Lives were lost in the protest. While the country was up in flames, its economy was endangered.
A disturbing trend is being established in Africa. Countries that host critical institutions are going to avoidable wars. Cote d’Ivoire could have avoided war a decade ago, which led to temporary relocation of the African Development Bank (AfDB) to Tunis for a while. With luck, another war may be avoided this time. But Ethiopia may or may not be that lucky. The war brewing in Ethiopia has every sign of what would become a protracted and unwinnable war for the two major feuding sides – the Tigray forces and the federal forces. And this may create a huge loss for Ethiopia, which is a very important country in Africa for certain reasons. Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is third after New York in the US and Geneva in Switzerland in the order, size and number of global organisations and diplomatic offices it hosts. It is the headquarters of the African Union (AU). The global community, in trying to safeguard institutions, personnel, property and physical working tools and assets, may gradually – even if unofficially – pull their operations out of Addis to any other safe haven if they have to remain in Africa. This will be one of the unintended consequences of the Ethiopian war and will have significant negative impacts on Ethiopia.
The impact of the withdrawal of these diplomatic offices will be felt in many ways and many sectors, including hotels and hospitality industry, aviation, food, education and even security. It should not be surprising that Ethiopian airlines, an aviation company that has been regarded as a leading and best run airline in Africa, could take a hit. This could happen as many foreigners leave Ethiopia. To think that Tigray is too far from Addis to be affected by the war is a huge mistake. This war, the way it is going, will affect agriculture and food production; and Ethiopia has gone through a severe food crisis within the last quarter of a century. It did when it embarked upon a communist system, beginning from 1974, backed by Soviet communist regime. It was an unpleasant experiment. From 1977, life in Ethiopia became appalling under the authoritarian Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam which ushered in terror, economic decline and famine, culminating in the deaths of about half a million of young Ethiopian men in a space of about four years from 1976 to 1979. In particular, starvation killed about a million people between 1983 and 1985, while child mortality was about 20 per cent.
Ultimately, Tigray may push for secession, to become an independent country, just as Eritrea did. Pronouncements that preceded the current all-out war could provide an insight into this possibility. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which runs the regional government in Tigray does not seem to trust the central government under Abiy Ahmed as TPLF suspects Ahmed that, in trying to fuse the major political parties into one called National Prosperity Party, he was trying to replace the existing ethno-federalist arrangement with a unitary system. While the former gives the 10 regions – that are based on ethnic affiliations – the power over their own local government, intelligence and military, the latter would concentrate all of these at the centre. This would tilt the demographic and power equation permanently against the Tigray people which constitutes about six per cent of Ethiopia’s population but has hitherto disproportionately called the shots. TPLF was then a dominant military force. Historically, this was prominent under Meles Zenawi as prime minister. Zenawi was TPLF, with most of the intelligence and military chiefs and many of the ministers in government, including Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, current Director General of the World Health Organisation, a Tigrayan and TPLF.
The federal government in cutting off funding to Tigray or the TPLF has been interpreted as a declaration of war as the TPLF may be accusing Ahmed as scheming to remain in office for a long time while pursuing ethnic cleansing. Ahmed may be making a wrong demographic judgment, relying on the combined strength of Amhara and Oromo, the two tribes that made up his progenitors, having 27 and 34 per cent of Ethiopia respectively. The TPLF seems resolute as they provoked what has now become full-blown war on November 4, when the Tigray forces attacked a federal army base. The dislike for the Derg unitary system under the socialist government, based on their unpleasant consequences, does not seem to have gone away. They also regard Ethiopia’s new friendship with Eritrea as a betrayal. The TPLF shares border with Eritrea. More complications are added by Ahmed’s seeming tardiness to hold general elections under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions, a move which seems like a ploy to stay on in power.
The Tigrayan people have gone this road before and seem undaunted this time as they were at the forefront in an indirect insurrection along with other anti-Derg movements that led to the formation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolution Democratic Front, (EPRDF), a platform which gave the TPLF dominance as a faction. Ahmed may be unaware of the international sympathisers that Tigray people have got on their side before declaring war. It is possible that the TPLF was aware that the November 9 massacre of about 500 non-Tigrayans in a schoolyard in Tigray could easily escalate crisis and increase tensions and were prepared for the consequences. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and an end to the Soviet aid to Ethiopia, the EPRDF successfully overthrew Haile Mariam’s government. An opportunity came for the emergence of an independent Eritrea. This historical antecedent may continue to inspire the TPLF in pursuit of the war. But Ethiopia may not be able to manage the aftermath of this hostility as this may provide the right opportunity for its adversarial neighbours to weaken the country.
The Tigray war seems to have gone beyond a civil war and is already becoming an international crisis as violence spills over; there are reports that TPLF has fired rockets at Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, on November 14, on the accusation that the latter is supplying troops to Abiy Ahmed’s government. TPLF has also fired rockets at neighbouring Amhara within Ethiopia. Now, the human costs are becoming evident as Sudan now hosts over 30,000 refugees, but the figures may rise to over 200,000, according to the UN. Ethiopia may become engrossed in multi-faceted wars, from within and from without as things unfold. A man who got a Nobel Prize for Peace barely a year ago for ‘waging’ peace may now be immersed in ‘making’ war with his fellow countrymen and neighbouring countries. It is instructive to be aware that the mid-November joint military exercises by Egypt and Sudan could be in preparation for retaliatory actions against Ahmed’s Ethiopia about its posturing on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the appropriate time to put Ethiopia in a vulnerable position on the dam which has caused Egypt in particular – and Sudan, to a lesser extent – some reasons to worry. Their grouse over Ahmed’s posturing on the GERD is a potential cause for concern. This could lead Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea to banding together against Ethiopia, taking advantage of the TPLF hostilities. Whatever emboldened Abiy Ahmed and gave him confidence that he could subdue the Tigray people in what looks like an unwinnable war remains to be seen as the TPLF are used to guerrilla warfare and enjoy the support of their people, even though they claim to be open to negotiations. His approach in hurriedly mobilising federal troops against Tigray and his refusal to allow dialogue by external agents is deplorable. Ethiopia does not need Abiy Ahmed present adventure. It is wasteful and undesirable as the consequences may not be worth the efforts.