Horn of Africa: Amb. Jeffrey Feltman should seek a Strategic Goal with Ethiopia

24 mins read

Moges Kelklie
May 10, 2021

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The fate of both Egypt and Ethiopia, two proud nations linked by one mighty river, the Nile, would be better served if each country’s vital interests are taken into account.

Like the larger Horn of Africa (HOA) region, Ethiopia is grappling with serious challenges unseen since the early 1990s–notably the insurrection in Tigray, hostility to Ethiopia’s determination to complete the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the outbreak of ethnic strife throughout the country, and Ethiopia’s border conflict with Sudan. Against this back-drop, on April 23, 2021, the United States of America (US) appointed Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman as its Horn of Africa envoy, to guide its interests as well as those of its allies in the region. Judging by the Ambassador’s recent pronouncements on the current situation in the Horn, it is safe to deduce that he is convinced that, because Ethiopia is a nation buffeted by myriad challenges, it is vulnerable enough to comply with any demand, however humiliating it might be. On the face of it, it is tempting to be lured by the misapprehension that current setbacks render Ethiopia responsive to coercive tactics; however, a more cautious examination of the facts behooves us to be wary of misreading the real state of affairs. The real causes of the challenges mentioned above are not readily apparent, and this article argues that Ambassador Feltman’s recitation of Ethiopia’s current challenges are a narrowly-focused and tactically-oriented approach which will not address US and Ethiopia’s long-term interests, even if the enumerated challenges are addressed to the Ambassador’s satisfaction.

The Conflict in the Tigray Region and Ethnic Massacres Targeting Amharas

In 2016, the Ethiopian people staged massive demonstrations, often risking their lives, to voice their deep discontent with the ruling EPRDF, then dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The demonstrations were driven by the quest for a lasting solution to massive youth unemployment, the glaring economic disparities among citizens, and the rapidly escalating ethnic tensions. At the forefront of these demonstrations were the youth—primarily in the Amhara and Oromia regions–whose heroic efforts culminated, in 2018, in the replacement of Prime Minister (PM) Hailemariam Desalegn by PM Abiy Ahmed as the head of the EPRDF. The people enthusiastically awaited the reform which the new leader promised, and PM Abiy did not disappoint initially: His first action was to widen the political arena, by unconditionally allowing opposition parties to come back home and promote their causes without fear of harassment of any sort, releasing all political prisoners, lifting the ban on the media, and guaranteeing freedom of expression. Going even further, PM Abiy unconditionally accepted the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission’s 2002 ruling, thereby normalizing Ethiopia’s long-strained relations with Eritrea.


Sadly, this seemingly smooth transfer of power did not last more than a year. Not long after relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea were restored, a series of incidents portended some dark clouds looming in the political horizon. These ominous events included the assassination attempt on PM Abiy Ahmed himself, the abduction of university students by a renegade group, and the brutal massacres of innocent civilians in various parts of Ethiopia. Chief among these unwelcome developments has been the targeting of ethnic Amharas–living in the Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz regions—perpetrated by an assortment of terrorist groups who capitalized on Ethiopia’s short-term challenges and used terror as a vehicle for recruiting supporters.

As if the situation were not bad enough, on the night of November 3rd, 2020–the very same night the whole of America was glued to television sets as the tumultuous US presidential election-results trickled in–PM Abiy Ahmed addressed the Ethiopian people to break the sad news that a combination of Tigrayan forces had staged a brutal and unprovoked attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in Tigray. While outside observers may have been caught by surprise by this turn of events, the major actors on both sides knew that this outbreak of open conflict was a long time coming–akin to watching a train-wreck in slow motion. For nearly two years, concerned Ethiopians had watched with an increasing sense of helplessness as one concerted mediation effort after another, by respected community elders, revered religious leaders, and prominent public figures, such as Athlete Haile Gebreselassie, foundered because TPLF’s leadership, blinded by dreams of a quick victory, refused to listen to reason. Instead, it intensified the construction of ‘impregnable’ fortresses, and the digging of elaborate, miles-long trenches, while the federal government had little choice but to watch the ominous development with impotent fury, since it was constrained from doing anything about it by the constitution!


Inevitably, in the dead of night in early November 2020, the war in Tigray commenced, with a display of shock and awe by the TPLF forces, but within three weeks, the conventional portion of the fighting would be declared over, with the early successes of the insurrectionists reversed. This unexpected turn of events quickly compelled TPLF to switch from conventional warfare to its tried-and-true guerilla-style hit-and-run tactics. Meanwhile inside Tigray itself, hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced, close to sixty thousand people fled to neighboring countries, and an unknown number of people, mostly defenseless civilians, perished! The incursion of the Eritrean army into the theater of war in Tigray, though initially justified, complicated the situation. While the conventional portion of this conflict was executed with astounding skill, and completed at warp-speed, sadly, the conflict has dragged on, stretching the resources, and testing the endurance of, the ENDF in the north, and emboldening the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) to perpetrate unspeakable butchery upon defenseless civilians in the south.

The root of this unfortunate conflict, as well as all the problems that have imperiled the stability of the country, is the 25-year-old constitution imposed on the Ethiopian by TPLF. The problem with this document began even before it was fully drafted, because a hand-picked clique assigned to draft it deliberately excluded a major ethnic group (the Amharas) from the political dialog which would shape the country’s destiny for decades. When this constitution, which was not ratified by a democratically convened referendum, became the law of the land in 1995, it was clear that two types of citizens living in the same nation had been created–one privileged, and the other relegated to perpetual exclusion–although members of the latter group had played a critical role, and paid a heavy price, to keep Ethiopia intact over the centuries. In short, what this document enshrined was nothing short of ethnic-apartheid–no less odious than its race-based version in South Africa! Furthermore, in the name of introducing a federal system of government, this document replaced the former provinces with ethno-linguistic Bantustans!

On paper, while the 1995 constitution set out to introduce a federal framework, it merely eliminated the center and created mutually exclusive ethnic enclaves. The irony in all this is the fact that Ethiopia was not a newcomer to federalism, since it had been governed in a decentralized federal structure long before the modern notion of a federal structure was envisaged. In those days, although the center was highly diverse, there was a palpable sense of cohesiveness among the diverse constituents, while the periphery kept its homogeneous identity intact. In contrast, by pointedly excluding ethnic Amharas–the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, numbering in the tens of millions–from all aspects of drafting the constitution, and by establishing a system which did not recognize the rights of millions of Ethiopians with mixed ethnicities, the constitution created a regime which could only be maintained by brute force, which is exactly what the TPLF did during its 27 years of harsh rule over Ethiopia.

The driving force of this ‘constitution’ was a shop-worn, toxic narrative, which deliberately labeled Amharas colonizers, when, in reality, Ethiopia was traditionally ruled by a feudal structure, largely based on political marriages which helped cement alliances among diverse ethnic and religious groups. Thanks to the wise leadership of King Menelik II–who, in the 1890s, had reclaimed territories lost in the bloody 16th-century war between the Christian highlanders and the Muslim lowlanders–Ethiopia had already become a cohesive, unitary polity, while the rest of the African continent was exposed to the ravages of the Scramble for Africa. The unification which Menelik’s reign brought about involved the coming together of many ethnic groups and was not unique to the Oromos, contrary to the false claims of Oromo political elites, who are untiring in their vilification campaign against Menelik’s nation-building efforts.

What is often obscured by such elites is the fact that Oromos were both the ruled and rulers, and they were an integral part of various Abyssinian regimes who ruled Ethiopia at different times—long before unification. If one were to take the example of the heartland of Oromo resistance, Arusi, both King Amda Seyon, a storied 14th-century Ethiopian ruler, and King Menelik II, the 19th Century architect of Ethiopia’s entry into the modern era, faced their enemies at this same location. What is worth noting here is that, although the two rulers fought in the same theater of war–separated by a span of 500 years–the adversaries they faced came from different ethnic backgrounds: The Oromo adversaries that Menelik II encountered were not the inhabitants of the area when King Amda Seyon fought there 500 years earlier which was attributed to a Dewaro people. Thus, although Oromo elites relish labelling Menelik as a bloodthirsty colonizer who displaced the Oromos from Arusi, all that Emperor Menelik did was reclaim territory once ruled by his ancestor, King Amda Seyon, rendering any comparison of Menelik to European colonizers preposterous.

The conflict in Tigray, the targeting of Amharas for political gain, and the inter-ethnic strife currently raging in the country all have their roots in the constitution, which labels one group of people settlers, and the others natives, when, in reality, Ethiopians have intermingled across ethnic lines for several centuries. Unfortunately, the constitution gave license to the extremist elements within the ‘native’ groups to imperil the lives of millions who suddenly found themselves being hounded like wild animals, as soon as the ENDF soldiers who had guaranteed the peaceful co-existence of diverse ethnic groups for decades were called away to quell the insurrection in Tigray. Therefore, if Ambassador Feltman is, indeed, sincere in his quest for ushering in lasting stability in Ethiopia, he should push for the replacement of the current constitution, which vests all power in ethnic identity, with a radically amended version, which guarantees individual-rights as its core tenet. Rather than succumbing to moral relativism, the US should lend its expertise in helping establish independent institutions and instituting a ‘checks-and-balances’ structure, with different branches of government guaranteed equal powers. In this system, there would be no ethnic group which is above, or below, the law of the land, and individual rights would be respected, irrespective of any individual’s ethnic background.

The Nile, the GERD, and the Great Powers’ Competition for Geopolitical Influence

The negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have more to do with the lust for Nile waters than with the operationalizing of an almost completed project. The Nile is an international river which crosses eleven countries, and satisfies the needs of more than 257 million people, before it empties itself into the Mediterranean Sea. Eighty-six percent (86%) of the Nile comes from tributaries of the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia and goes by its local name of Abay (አባይ), a name which this article will use hereafter. For millennia, Ethiopia had been relegated to the status of a borderline trespasser on issues involving Abay, despite the river’s vast potential to meet its needs—such as when some of Ethiopia’s citizens starved to death in the 1980s due to drought-induced famine. Thousands of these victims could have been saved had Ethiopia been allowed to pump water from the Nile in times of drought.

Suddenly, Abay has become a point of contention, simply because Ethiopia finally started building a non-water-conserving structure–not when Ethiopia was ravaged by famine or when the downstream countries exploited its potential in all kinds of ways. In light of the recent outcry over the filling of the GERD, perhaps, in retrospect, Ethiopia should have raised strategic objections over the transfer of ownership of the Suez Canal in the 1950s, and the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Ethiopia, a close ally of the United States–with six decades of uninterrupted partnership at the time–did not ldge such an objection when the two consequential events took place. Yet, armed with a geostrategic choke point like the Suez Canal, and a massive water source like the Nile, Egypt is sparing no effort in putting Ethiopia’s future in jeopardy. The US should help correct this historic injustice under its watch, and it should not repeat the same mistake, by pressuring Ethiopia to go along with unreasonable terms.

The balance of power vis-à-vis Egypt and Ethiopia, and Egypt’s strangle-hold over the Nile changed with the construction of the GERD, a project which had been planned several decades earlier. Under the leadership of the late PM Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia started the construction of the Dam in 2011. This is a project which has no material impact on downstream countries; if anything, it provides flood-control and cheap electricity for Sudan! Yet, Ethiopia’s erection of one dam upstream is threatening to open it to unwanted competition for hegemony, if the US focuses only on the short-term tactical calculus. Instead, the US should examine Ethiopia’s strategic importance in maintaining stability in the Horn and beyond, and it should not allow this strategic partner to be coerced into signing an agreement which compromises the vital interests of future generations.

If the present bellicose posturing is allowed to continue, the GERD could usher in a new proxy war for regional influence, which would serve the interests of neither Ethiopia nor of its neighbors. Having had its share of suffering, brought on by the rivalry between global powers—such as in the war between the Derg and TPLF/Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) from the 1970s to the 1990–Ethiopia abhors proxy wars. (The war started as an internal matter, but it quickly morphed into a proxy war between two major players, a war which was sustained by unlimited supplies of armaments to both sides in the conflict. Despite the atrocities the Derg committed, its downfall came not because of its worst atrocity, the Red Terror campaign, but because its then patron, the Soviet Union, crumbled). Thus, Ethiopia is concerned that another unhealthy rivalry of this sort will turn the region into a testing ground for the latest armaments from rival powers.

From a political standpoint, it can be asserted that the GERD project connects the Horn of Africa with the Middle East: Egypt, a regional leader in the Arab world, and Ethiopia, a regional leader in the Horn of Africa, are directly linked by the Nile. Thus, even though the GERD is a development project for Ethiopia, it is a regional security matter which connects the two clusters of regions, each with complex security structures. We urge Ambassador Jeffery Feltman to weigh the justice in Ethiopia’s quest for increasing electric power generation with the help of the GERD on Abay, without unduly impacting the vital interests of the riparian countries.


Ethiopia as the Linchpin of the Horn of Africa’s Stability

The Horn of Africa is undergoing a seismic, once-in-a-generation, kind of change, with many countries facing daunting challenges: In the post-Omar Bahir era, Sudan is forging a new future with a hybrid civilian-military leadership; Somalia has yet to conduct a democratic election; Isaias Afewerki’s successor continues to be a baffling mystery; South Sudan’s government is still in its infancy and dealing with the usual teething problems, while Somaliland is casting about for its sovereignty to be broadly recognized. Meanwhile, China’s pivot to Africa–which has been gathering steam over the last few decades, and is primarily driven by mega projects–is unfolding in direct competition with other actors, primarily the European Union (EU) and Turkey, which have historical connections to the continent and the Horn of Africa. The EU and other Western countries’ approach is based on development- and budget-assistance, renewed periodically, while Turkey’s is much broader, integrating economic, cultural, and security interests. The point being made here is that, in the absence of a comprehensive strategy which matches/counters China’s ambitious ‘Belt-and-Road Initiative,’ the US will have little leverage over shifts in the allegiances of the different regional players.

It is this article’s position that the US would do well to pursue a strategic engagement with Ethiopia, an engagement which balances its interests, the interests of its regional allies, as well as Ethiopia’s legitimate aspiration for industrial development. The article further posits it is in everyone’s interest for the US to recognize Ethiopia as a consequential regional player in this new equation. The fate of both Egypt and Ethiopia, two proud nations linked by one mighty river, the Nile, would be better served if each country’s vital interests are taken into account. The corollary to this is that, any undue pressure targeted at Ethiopia, and blatantly favoring Egypt, could force the former to seek an alternative ally. Such a move could be detrimental for both the US and Ethiopia, and if the current trajectory continues to be pursued, it could lead to nightmarish humanitarian and security crises which could adversely impact even the US’ vital interests in the Horn of Africa.

Moges Kelklie is a technology executive and a founding member of Horn Africa Insight Inc., a non-profit that studies and publishes on Horn of Africa’s socio-economic and political problems.