TRUTH IS EASILY THE FIRST VICTIM in war as in politics. In Ethiopia right now, both war and politics have been dangerously enmeshed and these are driving the country down a precarious precipice, unless someone at the helm comes back to his senses and changes tactics. A year has passed since the war in Ethiopia started. That is now contrary to what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dismissively referred to as a “law-enforcement operation,” which – he initially boasted – was going to last a few days, by which time he expected the Tigray People Liberation Forces (TPLF) to have surrendered. His deadline for the surrender has since become irrelevant and a mere joke.
It is difficult to know how and where Abiy Ahmed draws his ideas or inspiration from. His approach to dealing with the Tigray fighters has not only failed so woefully, it has claimed thousands of innocent lives, displaced many other thousands from their homes and has created serious humanitarian challenges for the country. Since last November, Ethiopia has been in the throes of economic doom and political turmoil as internecine conflicts were afoot. He clearly had a warped understanding of the strength of the Tigray fighters. He under-estimated the enormity and profundity of the crisis, while operating under the illusion that he was firmly in control as he urged the international community to desist from “unwelcome and unlawful acts of interference” in the affairs of Ethiopia.
His level of understanding of what makes Ethiopia special in Africa has become apparent. One year after the beginning of the offensive against Tigray forces, Addis Ababa is now on edge as the Tigray forces move nearer, capturing no fewer than two major towns on the way. Although Ahmed’s officials dismissed the claim about Tigray forces’ advancement towards the capital as publicity stunt, the failure of federal troops to subdue Tigray’s operational headquarters, Mekelle and their eventual withdrawal from there in June this year speak volume about the weakness of the federal troops. After the humiliating defeat of the federal forces in June, they withdrew from Mekele, the Tigray regional capital. But propaganda seems to be the only ammunition at Ahmed’s disposal now as the capital seems threatened.
Ahmed seems unaware that Addis Ababa is the potpourri of people of diverse nationalities across the globe and the political headquarters of Africa. His obstinacy, intolerance and dictatorial tendencies were on full display recently as he expelled seven United Nations diplomats on the accusation of “meddling” in internal affairs of Ethiopia. Hitherto, he has stoutly refused or restricted access to humanitarian actors and UN officials willing to visit the conflict zones to provide basic needs for civilian populations that became victims of the war. Since last year, the United Nations Security Council has met 11 times on Ethiopia’s escalating war. Yet Ahmed remains defiant. He appears determined to grind the country to a halt as he has sounded tough against the US diplomatic corps and has accused the US of supporting the TPLF.
The implication of his attitude and directive may not be immediately obvious to him until Addis begins to see the exodus of professionals and officials from the international community. The UN officials may vacate just as AU officials will. In addition to the AU continental headquarters in Addis, the various UN agency officials will have no choice but to seek safety and security outside the territory of Ethiopia – a country that currently risks implosion. Their offices may temporarily relocate. It is feared Ahmed may take Ethiopia back to the mid-1980s’ experience, particularly as it has hardly overcome the economic and food crisis resulting from the protracted COVID-19 lockdown when the war broke out, making even more people poor, vulnerable and dependent on aid. Ahmed appears to be gradually isolating himself from the global community. His men have reportedly dismissed the alliance meeting against him, held in Washington DC last Friday, by a blended group of nine Ethiopian political and armed opposition members, who jointly signed agreements, accused Ahmed of genocide and ethnic cleansing, calling for a transitional government and an end to Ahmed’s rule.
Ahmed has been hostile to neighbouring countries and tough on countrymen in what looks like a dictatorial approach to governance. Recently, he has been at loggerheads with Sudan and Egypt on account of the Blue Nile and the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) built on it. While sounding though against Egypt and Sudan, he has refused to enter into compromise on the filling of the dam. Ahmed has shown the same recalcitrance towards various organisations that attempted to broker peace and agreement between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on the grandiose project. The US could not persuade Ahmed; the AU also could not. It is doubtful if Sudan and Egypt will realistically support Ahmed’s government and Ethiopia under his draconian rule and present diplomatic disposition.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee must have rued their decision to award such a prestigious award to Ahmed too early. The prize, which ought to have spurred him to peace making within the country and between Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries appeared to have failed to achieve that. Rather, Ahmed may have spurned the symbolism of the prize. Just when Ethiopia was becoming synonymous with consistent growth of economy in Africa, the Ahmed factor crept in. Sadly, his handling of Tigray forces may well prove attractive to some other sit-tight political leaders in Africa. The response of Tigray may also become a role model to many regional agitators for self-determination in Africa. It should not be surprising to hear that a group seeking self-determination springs out in Mali. Ambazonia group in Cameroon may also escalate their agitation for self-determination more stridently.
The successes of TPLF could spur the likes of Nigerian Biafra into full scale confrontation with the central government. That could destabilise the country, especially if the government at the centre refuses to let Biafra be and chooses to return confrontation in kind. Events following hostile engagement between Tigray forces and Ahmed’s forces are having negative impacts on Ethiopia. The same is to be expected elsewhere in cases where central government responds with high-handedness to self-determination bid by any part of its larger national territory. Warfare in this information age is quite unlike decades earlier, and so central governments don’t necessarily have superior access to information, particularly at wartime. The plurality and greater speed in modern day information sharing could give any ragtag militant group an edge in a war. And, from the TPLF exploits so far, it is a matter of time: they may soon seize Addis Ababa.
But then, what happens next would be very important, and that is why African leaders must lead aright. A protracted war in and around Addis Ababa will destabilise the works of the international community and will threaten their safety. They therefore have to move out early. Nigeria would have been the next likely place for the UN officials because of the UN building that is next in size to that of Ethiopia. Whether they would like Nigeria or not? This is another issue altogether. So far, the TPLF has succeeded in testing the strength of Abiy Ahmed’s government and has found how weak. This will embolden many other similar agitators in other African countries. The very action threatens sovereignty of many countries in the future. The iron hand approach by the federal government is wrongheaded, like the approach used by the federal government in Nigeria. It has the potential of hardening the relationship and testing the resolve of the self-determination agitators. If Abiy Ahmed persists in his standpoint and TPLF overruns Addis Ababa, chances of full civil war outbreak are high. In the end, there may cease to be a country known as Ethiopia.
Political solution, though time consuming and energy sapping, appears better than military option in resolving existential challenges relating to coexistence. Just as terrorism in Nigeria presently scares foreigners and constrains a lot of social and economic activities, armed conflict in any country of Africa could paralyse their economies.. Although South Africa could be another viable alternative to Ethiopia in case the need for mass evacuation of diplomats, foreigners and expatriates arises, South Africa is also beset with its own peculiar socio-economic crises, which may make that rather unlikely. It is best to prevent Ethiopia’s disintegration, just as a stitch in time saves nine. Pulling Ethiopia back from the brink could also send positive messages to the rest of Africa and stave off a multiplier effect of crises of one country on others. Ethiopia should be a role model for good.
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