The announcement of the Biden administration to send troops to Somalia as well as discussion with Somaliland regarding their offer of air and sea base facilities to the United States is the latest development in the scramble to exert influence over the Red Sea. No doubt the Red Sea is of vital interest to the United States. The ongoing instability in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, and now Ukraine has strategists and diplomats focusing more greatly on this area as vital to American interests.
Ethiopia’s move from being unaligned to that of having military treaties with the Russian state and its denial of Russian immorality in attacking Ukraine expressed in the United Nations cast doubt on what it may offer Russia in terms of offering military bases on its territory to Russia or China which could threaten Red Sea security to Western powers. The massive war debt Ethiopia has incurred now approaching $66 billion renders it easily manipulated by China or Russia. Under Abiy Ahmed Ethiopia has gone from being a major force against radical Islamic terrorism in the Horn of Africa to being embroiled in increasing domestic instability with unresolved conflicts with Oromo and Tigray opposition. The tripartite alliance of leadership between Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia has begun to be dismantled by the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as President of Somalia. Still Al Shabab continues to survive creating havoc.
When I was a college student at Texas A&M studying military history in the 1970s and later as young Army officer we studied the strategic importance of the Red Sea mostly stressing the Suez canal which allows movement from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Historically about ten percent of world trade went through this vital pathway. However today the importance of the Red Sea has been multiplied greatly by growing competition of the major powers, growing influence of the Arab states, Iranian expansion interests, and a late awakening of African states of the concept of naval power to protect their interests.
Analysts such as Alex de Waal in the The Africa Report and editorials for the SomiTribune have noted that the growing instability in the Horn of Africa in Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia has progressed due to the weakness of the African Union, United Nations, and ineffectual influence of the Arab states.
The apathy of the world and Africa to the human suffering in Tigray shamefully represents abandonment of principles of human dignity and equality in Christian and Muslim faith. Why is the current threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine, a country of half the size and half of the population of Ethiopia without the current humanitarian crisis, receiving so much diplomatic and media attention while the Tigray Ethiopia conflict is not? There is no doubt that a massive armed conflict in Ukraine could cost hundreds of thousands of human lives but at the same time several hundred thousand have already died and millions more are at risk in the largest conflict and humanitarian crisis currently on this planet in Tigray. Resistance to the government of Ethiopia by other minorities including the Oromo is propagating daily. Although one might quickly argue that the Western democracies care more about white Europe then black Africa it is not that simple. We have to look at human nature and to reflect on Christ’s message to mankind to find solution. The issue of external international concern and internal domestic concern both involve idolatry to tribalism rather then acting in obedience to Christian and Muslim beliefs of brotherhood.
Since the beginning of history there is a human trend which seems natural to place family and those with the most in common with ourselves before strangers. In every generation bloody conflict develops when one group of humans identifies another group as not only different but also a threat. Today in the world of ubiquitous social media small sparks of hate can easily become raging firestorms with little rational basis. Yet this tendency to form tribes is a part of our “animal nature”. Even from a biological evolutionary point of view this has been explained as done to favor the reproduction of our genes over other competing genes. The concept of becoming a pious Christian or Muslim involves specifically that man must escape his beastly nature and evolve to a divine nature of love of God and his fellow man.
Yet the birth of Jesus Christ brought in a new era. As Christians we are taught to recognize that we are creations of God who have been created by a divine nature which negates and overrules our beastly nature. In recognizing that all humans are God’s creation and our equal brethren potentially worthy of salvation and only ultimately to be judged by God we are governed by new commandments. Love your neighbor and love your enemy are inescapable tenets of Christian faith. Christ and his apostles tell us that tribalism exists but that we must create our relationships with others through God as equals in both Ukraine and Ethiopia. Muslims have similarly been taught to see themselves equally before God.
Western democracies have tended to look at Africa as incapable of stable democracy and meaningful contribution to world affairs. At the same time African political leadership while voicing support for democratic ideals always tends to favor existing political leaders even if they have strayed far democratic principles to become repressive authoritarian states. African autonomy of a dictator is considered appropriate if it avoids the perception of colonialism. Tribalism reigns throughout the world. It seems both Western democracies and Africans have to decide whether they are going to live by the principles they claim as Christians and Muslims.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are taught we must intervene when a fellow human being presents before us in need. We cannot walk away and ignore the situation.
The ongoing Tigray genocide seems to be following a parallel course to the Rwanda genocide of 1994 against the Tutsi by the Huti government with many of the same features including African Union apathy, United Nations paralysis, and lack of decisive action by the Western democracies so that an end to the killing only occurred when Tutsi rebels grew strong enough to stop the killing. The calls one hears today from Abiy Ahmed supporters denying genocide and denying visits from outside recognized international aid as well as the silence of the African Union about the Tigray conflict with Ethiopia are looking like an eerie repetition of the same situation that happened to Rwanda where the world did nothing except that the loss of life in Tigray is going to be much greater then Rwanda.
In 1994 the Tutsi ethnic group made up about 14% of Rwanda but had a history of privilege and power. A Huti came to power, President Habyarimana, who along with others began a campaign of hate blaming the Tutsi for the countries increasing economic and social problems as well as accusing them of causing political division. They became targeted scape goat encouraged by government propaganda. Through out the country mobs formed which destroyed personal property, displaced hundreds of thousands, violated many women, and killed over 800,000 people in just a few weeks.
Just like what has happened in the Ethiopia Tigray conflict, Huti elements attacked UN mediators and humanitarians in Rwanda causing international authorities to leave. They blocked reporters and international organizations from the country. Other African countries were hesitant to criticize what was happening in Rwanda and voiced similar cries to let Africa solve its problem but did nothing. Other African countries denied there was a genocide. Lack of on site reporting and objective international organizations clouded any information leaving the country. International members of the security council and Western democracies “refused to declare that a government guilty of exterminating its citizens would never receive international assistance”.
The killing, deprivation, violation, and starvation went on for many months with no action by African or the UN until finally Tutsi rebels who trained outside the country where able to overthrow the government and replace the president with Paul Kagame.
One has to ask why would Esaias Afwerki give back Western Tigray to Amhara if the TDF is defeated? Now that his armed forces have taken over Western Tigray while Amhara militia and ENDF forces are moving closer to Gondar in case of possible attack what is stop Isaias from annexing Western Tigray? Could the Dictator of Eritrea now decide to claim Western Tigray for his own? Described as having a split personality with bout of charisma, no doubt to which Abiy Ahmed succumbed, but also mixed with a brutal and cruel tendency to have no limits in attaining power. Some analysts have labeled him as being “addicted” to creating havoc.
Amhara and Ethiopian National Defense Forces have been increasingly replaced by Eritrean troops in Humera and Western Tigray. The cloud cover which obscured much of the views of the ground in Ethiopia, Tigray, and Eritrea are starting to clear some allowing the viewer of satellite images to get a better view of happenings on the ground as the rainy season comes to an end. We can see that some planting is being done in Western Tigray that is new. Yet we know that Tigrayan farmers have been blocked from planting and many are killed. Stories are beginning to come out that some “settlers” from Eritrea have been seen in the area of Humera. Hundreds of trucks are coming into Humera and the surrounding area daily caring more then just military personal.
A well written analysis of the Esaias Afwerki -Abiy Ahmed relationship written in March 2020 when the Tigray Ethiopia war looked all wrapped up had some interesting insights into these allies of convenience. Esaias has always wanted to be the predominate ruler of the Horn of Africa. The young and inexperienced Abiy Ahmed in his naivete offered him the chance of a lifetime to get rid of his archenemy the TPLF and too to dominate a new Ethiopian empire that he has dreamed about since his days as a rebel fighter against the Derg. In statement made on his own Eritrea news channel Esaias has previously state he would never sit by and watch Ethiopian affairs develop without his input again. Greater Ethiopia should be his to rule and now destiny may have finally arrived.
Over almost a century the Tegaru people and their Tigray state has been at war three times with neighboring factions which always put them in a siege state. Long distance dependence for food, fuel, transportation hubs, and administrative government centers have adversely affected their ability to prepare and respond successfully to war time threats to their survival. Currently the Tigray Regional National State is in a fight for its existence with the Ethiopian national government and its allies while being held to a near complete siege.
Whether Tigray will be in a position to have self determination is not clear. The war continues without a clear victory at this point. But lets assume for the moment that either an outright military victory or a negotiated settlement happens. There are some belated lessons learned from the history of the Tigray state from the Derg war, the Eritrean war, and finally the situation of the Tigray state in the last years of Meles Zenawi as Prime Minister of Ethiopia which can no longer be ignored if the Tegaru people and the Tigray state want to stop the cycle of recurrent threats to survival.
Lessons from previous war experience that create siege risk for Tigray
The Ethiopian government under Meles Zenawi leadership made a big mistake not taking down the Esaias regime of Eritrea. This allowed Esaias to be like a snake in the grass whose venom became more poisonous waiting for the right day to strike. Additionally not incorporating Eritrea into Tigray would have give Tigray a seaport. Instead Ethiopia was left landlocked and Tigray access to a seaport was not under Tigray regional control.
Mekelle the capital of Tigray did not share in the grand development of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Mekelle University and the other smaller universities where smartly developed as centers for intellectual and professional development outside the Amharic elite environment which contributed to a continued strong sense of Tegaru identity and potential. However, the one Ethiopian airline was based in Addis Ababa and even though the Alula Abanega airport in Mekelle was well designed with capacity for large jets it was totally dependent of functions in Addis Ababa. There was no cargo or passenger service based in Mekelle, no maintenance or repair, and no aircraft inventory Mekelle based.
Although the Tekezé dam and Ashegoda windfarm turbines have the capacity to serve millions of homes and industry they were under national control from Addis Ababa without any local control or service functions.
Internet and phone service were mostly based on equipment and service from Addis Ababa.
The banking system was centrally controlled by Addis Ababa who could shut down its function literally remotely by controlling the computerized banking functions.
The Tigray Regional Health Bureau like the other regional states are very weak entities. Decisions regarding purchasing, development, personal management and development are centrally based to Addis Ababa
Similarly the University system was centrally controlled in terms of budget approval, staffing planning, program development. Thus customization to meet Tigray regional state needs and control were in Addis Ababa.
Even if the Tigray state rejoins the Ethiopian confederation it must continue to reserve the right to train and have its own defense force including the military academies in Mekelle. There should be ground forces, air forces, and significant equipment to provide a reasonable defensive capability. Additionally a strong mandatory military service of young men and women in their youth to maintain a well trained reserve that can be called in time of threat must be instituted.
Thus whether Tigray remains in an Ethiopian confederation or becomes an independent state it is absolutely essential that the new Tigray state must address the above mentioned issues or it will be once again vulnerable to be choked and starved once again by an enemy intent to dealing it a deathblow.
An intercepted phone call between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and a woman evangelical Christian commonly referred to as Prophet Birtukan where he is basically dictated to by her about what his policy should be to Tigray is creating much controversy.
In the recording Abiy just gives slight affirmation and listen for several minutes as the “Prophet” tells him he should show no mercy to Tigray, be strong and unyielding, trust no one including his own wife, and remember that others who he trusted before have betrayed him. He has been chosen by God to defeat the Tigray and make Ethiopia great.
There have been many back channel reports that some of Abiy Ahmed’s advisors and military generals have suggested he open up negotiations but he has always refused. It now becomes evident that the rumors of him believing he has some twisted Christian manifest destiny to crush opposition in his quest for territory and power allows any evil deed necessary even if violates accepted Christian morality.
The rapidly cooling relations between Sudan and Ethiopia has implications to the Tigray Ethiopia conflict. There have been growing tensions between the Ethiopian government of Abiy Ahmed and Sudan for several reasons. Tigray leadership has discussed the need to open a western land route for supply which means through Sudan. Could Sudanese Tigray relations be warming up? Logic would suggest Sudan will move to at least neutral if not passively supportive of the Tigray cause.
Sudan Prime Minister recalls ambassador to Ethiopia
The recall of the Sudanese ambassador from Addis Ababa occurred after an internationally supported plan for Sudan to mediate negotiations between the Tigray National State and Ethiopia was flatly rejected. The Ethiopian spokesperson added to their usual statement that they do talk to “terrorists” that they have “trust” issues with Sudan. This was a diplomatic slap in the face to Sudan.
Territorial Dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan
There is a very productive agricultural area the Sudanese call al-Fashaga and the Ethiopian’s call Mazega. Previously the TPLF leader Meles Zenawi had worked out a joint sharing agreement for its use. When Abiy Ahmed came to power the influence of the Amhara elites who claimed this area as theirs become vocal that it belongs to Amhara.
There are frequent skirmishes between Sudan and Ethiopian forces along the disputed farmland with Ethiopia currently holding a captured Sudanese officer. Skirmishes including military movements and exchange of fire have happened when Eritrean and Ethiopian National Defense Force invaded Sudanese territory to capture escaping refugees or search for elements of the Tigray Defense Force.
Dispute over Grand Renaissance Dam
Recently Sudan signed a joint defense treaty with Egypt regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Both parties feel that Ethiopia is not cooperating with their rights to the Nile flow. They have wanted the dam to be slowly filled over many years rather than rushed filling the Ethiopian government has done. I have had discussions with some quite familiar with current Egyptian policy makers who tell me that Egyptian Sudanese cooperation of the GERD plan of action have decided to avoid aggressive action because they expect that if there is a Tigray takeover negotiation will be easier to reach a compromise.
Dispute over Refugees from Ethiopia
Tens of thousands of refugees have fled from Tigray and recently more from Amhara, the Qemant in numbers of at least 3000, because of the Amhara aggression to non-Amhara. Sudan is complaining to the UN that they do not have the resources to care for them. Local Sudanese authorities have exhibited shock at the growing number of bodies of tortured Tigrayans found floating in the Tekeze river bordering Sudan and Western Tigray currently occupied by Eritrea and the Ethiopian National Defense Force.
Sudan is hosting opposition to Eritrea
The Sudanese are also hosting the organization of a shadow opposition government against Abiy Ahmed ally, Eritrea, and may be allowing organization of opposition military forces. This is occurring even though the ruler of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, visited Sudan just a few months ago where they reportedly agree to more mutual cooperation. So one must assume the relationship has taken a turn for the worst.
Growing dissension between Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Amhara militia of the defense of Northern Amhara. The FANO militia group is attacking ENDF soldiers and even civilians for retreating from Tigray Defense Force movements to capture Amhara cities.
As of today August 5, 2021 the cities of Lalibela and Woldiya have been captured by the Tigray Defense Force. We know from multiple sources that several occurrences have happened this week to indicate a weakening of the resolve of the Ethiopian National Defense Force in the face of a string of defeats as well as increasing friction with the Amhara militia.
When the regular ENDF forces tried to withdrawal from W0ldiya their movement out of the city was opposed by the Amhara militia group, FANO, who actually shot the Oromia commander and blockaded the street with large objects including trees. Anonymous sources have also revealed that the commanders of Lalibela had expressed their displeasure of the tenure of the war because the tactics used in Tigray had inflamed such a passion in the TDF forces attacking them. Similar to W0ldya we are hearing reports that there were sometimes violent clashes between FANO and the regular ENDF before the TDF captured the city today. It was reported that FANO robbed and killed civilians as they left the city to avoid fighting TDF. Then a few hours later placed Woldiya under an artillery bombardment that have injured and killed civilians.
The President of the Amhara, Agegnehu Teshager, region has consistently for the past two weeks complained to the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that he is not receiving enough support from Addis Ababa in terms of reinforcement. Now he is called for all adults to join the fight in the face of the TDF advances.
As the TDF advances northwest into Amhara it has now come to light that official communication released today from the Amhara Prosperity Party have become even more genocidal and bizarre. They are spinning that the ENDF and Amhara militia are doing a strategic withdrawal to lead TDF into the mountains of Northern Amhara where a “trap” will be sprung. Great sacrifice of the Amhara will be necessary they say to defeat the TDF however for the TDF they say “Our farmer is determined to fight the herd, to strip the barn, to rape his wife, to kidnap his son, to kill the young”
Failure to timely resolve the Tigray Ethiopian conflict will kill the hope of Ethiopia emerging into a middle income country. The resurgence of the Tigray Defense Force and the refusal of the Ethiopian government to negotiate with Tigray’s leaders predicts a prolonged conflict triggering decline into a state of increasing poverty and dependency .
Most of the members of the United Nations clearly see that there is humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia reminiscent of the previous famines. The clear obstruction of international aid and even communication to the region is perceived as mostly the fault of the Ethiopian government. The presence of the headquarters of the African Union as well the continental headquarters of the United Nations in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa along with its frequent role as an intermediary in solving African conflicts stands in stark contrast to the “no negotiation” stand of the Ethiopian government.
The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front leaders have stated they wish to negotiate a peace on the following conditions: that restoration of its pre-war condition of semi-autonomy as called for in the Ethiopian constitution. All invading forces of Eritrea, Amhara, and the Ethiopian National Defense Force must leave Tigray. Blockage of power, fuel, food, travel, banking, and communication would be ceased. The 1991 borders of Tigray would remain unchanged. A decision on whether to stay a part of Ethiopia or become independent would be decided by referendum. Those who committed war crimes must be brought to trial.
The increasing isolation of the Ethiopian government from the international community has implications for the welfare of its people and economic growth. The highly touted visit of Samantha Power, recognized genocide expert and now head of the USAID, was basically shunned by the Ethiopian Prime Minister and his ministers. She accused Ethiopia of “brutal treatment of Tigray.. that personal issue were favored over national issues”.
During her brief one day stay she found 58,000 metric tons of international aid stored in a warehouse in Addis Ababa which apparently the Ethiopian government had no plans to distribute.
The United States, Britain, and the European Union have called for withdrawal of Tigray forces from outside its traditional borders present prior to the this conflict as well as withdrawal of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces out of Tigray. Much of what the Western democracies are calling for is similar to the Tigray conditions. All parties must cooperate with the flow of aid to Tigray and the restoration of power and communication.
The reality is that the crisis of Ethiopia is not just in Tigray. At this point the Ethiopian birr is trading at 75 birr per US dollar which is a historic high. Inflation is over 40% for this year alone. Huge multibillion dollar deficits exist between Western countries and China with Ethiopia. The economic output from the country does not meet its import needs of food, fuel, and basic materials for industrial and agricultural development. According to the World Bank Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world with a real per capital income of only $850 pear year. Although its annual rate of growth has been positive this is a false indicator because the denominator is so low. Before the Tigray conflict 1 in 4 Ethiopians was requiring international food aid to survive. The continuous waves of COVID-19 in a country with minimal hospital resources and vaccination have further impeded its attempt improve the lot of its people.
Rebellion against the Ethiopian government is not just in Tigray. The attempt to consolidate power into a single political party, the Prosperity Party, coinciding with a movement towards a national Ethiopian identity has incited opposition in almost every region. As I previously wrote about this identity is more accepted by the Amhara ethnic group and others who are educated in Addis Ababa. Much of the opposition not just in Tigray is a really a revolt to oppression of the national identity felt by the regional states.
When you combine the effect of ongoing poverty, war, pandemic, and political struggle for identity it is hard to see a bright economic future. In the current global environment of cautious economic growth where the only major gains have come upon a greater reliance of internet transactions it seems likely that Ethiopia will have a difficult time participating. Ethiopia has very poor communications. Only 40% of Ethiopians have a cell phone or any phone and 20% have any connection to the internet. The internet present in Ethiopia is very slow and very expensive.
Millions of people from Tigray, Amhara, Afar, and the Southern regions of Ethiopia are now displaced by ethnic conflict. The locust swarms of the past year caused by an usual wet season added to a severe reduction in harvests that feed the population and sustain farming families who make up 90% of the economic output of Ethiopia. Even before the Tigray Ethiopia conflict the need for food aid was rising.
Prime Minister’s bold claims that Ethiopia will emerge as a superpower rivaling China and the United States by 2060 and the dominant force of Africa in this decade are obvious fantasies. Instead it seems likely that failure to resolve the war will add to the general decline of Ethiopia into a state of stagnation, increasing dependency, and misery. The author hopes the Tigray leaders and the Ethiopian Prime Minister will cooperate with finding a solution for the benefit of all parties.