November 26, 2020
- A confluence of local, regional, and international forces created a unique opportunity for peace and fraternity in this conflict-ridden region.
- The leaders of the respective countries capitalized on this opportunity with a popular peace initiative. Even Goulet of Djibouti was brought into the fold dragging his feet.
- The popular movement for peace and harmony in the Horn of Africa unleashed a struggle to overthrow thirty years of authoritarian rule in the respective states.
- Once the initiative moved from the public streets into the corridors of the power elites,however, it stalled and is now in danger of being subverted.
- One force that was overthrown by the popular uprising in Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), is actively subverting peace in the region.
- In spite of this setback, the dawn of a new era of peace in the Horn Of Africa is only arrested, not derailed.
What a difference two years make in the turbulent Horn of Africa (HOA). A Confluence of local, regional, and international forces created a unique opportunity for peace and fraternity in this conflict-ridden region. It was acclaimed by many pundits, including myself, as the dawn of a new era in the Horn of Africa. The peace movement was an essential part of the spontaneous popular uprising that swept authoritarian regimes that dominated the states in HOA for thirty years. The Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated EPRDF was overthrown in Ethiopia by a mass uprising of Ethiopian youth (Kero, Fano, etc.). Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s group, which was part of the Oromo faction of the EPRDF, ascended to power promising democratic changes. In Sudan, President Bashir’s military regime was overthrown by a secular democratic uprising of trade unions, professional organizations, and progressive political parties. A tense power-sharing government representing the grass-root movement and remnants of the military junta is in power. In Eritrea, the struggle for democracy and economic progress has been subsumed under the Eritrean and Ethiopian conflict.
Dr. Abiy Ahemd’s peace initiative to resolve the festering conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was accepted by Isaias Afewerki, president of Eritrea. The people of both states hailed the initiative with great jubilation and fanfair. In a dramatic move, the border between the two countries was opened, air and land transportation was resumed, and telephone service was connected. Long separated families and friends were reunited, crying and dancing in the streets and on the airport tarmacs as if to demonstrate to the world their bitter predicament and longing for peace had ended with normalization of relations.
The outpouring of support of the people for peace motivated the leaders of the respective countries to capitalize on the popular initiative. Abiy and Isais became buddies with back to back state visits, Mohamed Abdullahe Fermaajo, president of Somalia, joined the party. Even Omar al-Beshir of Sudan–before his overthrow–jumped on the bandwagon. Goulet of Djibouti dragged his feet but was brought into the fold. Saudi Arabia and the UAE anointed themselves as peace facilitators. Even President Trump unabashedly insinuated that he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Dr. Abiy for bringing peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
But once the popular peace movement moved from the public streets into the corridors of the power elites, it stalled. The subversion mirrored the predicament of the internal struggle for change in the respective states. The fierce power struggle between the different elite groups hijacked the agenda for peace. For generations war has ravaged this region. It has shaped the psyche of the elites.
Trying to resolve differences through violence has become the main strategy of the elites, whether in power or opposition. Shoot first negotiate later has become the axiom in this region. Peace, for which the people yearn, has often been trampled under the boots of warriors. That is why some fear that this two year old peace in the HOA would just be a lull before another tempest.
The Ethiopian Front. Ethiopia is the anchor state of the Horn of Africa. With its 110 million population it is the 500-pound gorilla in the region. Moreover, all of the states in HOA share borders, long histories, ethnicities, and deep political and economic interests with it. As Ethiopia goes, the whole of HOA goes. And Ethiopia is a very fragile state with layers of antithetical currents and forces.
Two years ago when the mass uprising of Ethiopian youth unseated the TPLF from power, a loud carillon for peace rang in Ethiopia, and it reverberated throughout the HOA. Dr. Abiy took a bold measure to create peace with Eritrea by accepting unconditionally the Paris Peace Accord. He normalized the tense relations with Somalia and Sudan. His efforts were criticized by political analysts as foolhardy and by his opponents as misguided. However, his actions gained him huge political support, not only among the people of Ethiopia but throughout the Horn of Africa as well. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort.
The Tigray people’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF is the main force trying to derail the current drive to peace in the HOA. The TPLF initiated every step in the escalation of the conflict. The party’s declaration, its spokesmen’s statements, filled with bravado and epithets, followed by its actions have made its oversize role in the subversion unequivocally clear.
The ascendance of Abiy Ahmed to power, on the back of the youth uprising, was the demise of the TPLF dictatorship. The TPLF ruled and plundered Ethiopia for three decades. It viewed peace with Eritrea, its archenemy, as an alliance directed against itself. So it decided to derail it.
For 27 years the TPLF ruled Ethiopia under a sham Ethnic Federation. It was a sham Federation because in practice it was neither federal nor democratic. It was an absolute dictatorship of a kleptocrat clique from one ethnic minority. Tigray’s constitute less than 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Yet, they were able to maintain their unsustainable rule by actively fanning inter-ethnic division rivalry and conflicts among the rest of Ethiopia’s groups and between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well.
Whereas in many African countries dictators trigger inter-ethnic conflicts by default, the TPLF created inter-ethnic conflicts by design. It promulgated inter-ethnic division and rivalries into its constitution as a buffer against inter-ethnic alliances that might challenge its dictatorship. The country was divided into arbitrary ethnic enclaves; only ethnic-based political organizations were tolerated, and all kinds of ethnic grievances were fanned by the media and educational institutions. After three decades of their kleptocratic rule, the people of Ethiopia had enough. Their shenanigans and repressions could not stop the wave of the popular uprising from unseating them. When Abiy’s government came to power, the TPLF mobilized their vast resources and networks which they had built over three decades to destabilize him and regain power. That game failed miserably.
Then the TPLF leaders retreated to Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region. From there they tried to create the conditions for triggering their “plan B,” which is to create an independent Tigray state. The right for secession, “article 39,” was enshrined in the constitution by none other than themselves. They started acting as rulers of a de facto independent Tigray state. They countered every one of Abiy’s measures and bypassed him to make direct contact with foreign states and international organizations.
When the federal parliament postponed the national election due to the coronavirus epidemic, the TPLF, in defiance, held a unilateral election in the Tigray region where it claimed to have won 98% of the vote. With this election, the TPLF hoped to gain legitimacy and leverage its dealings with international entities as representatives of an independent state. It was to no avail. The federal government declared the election “null and void.”
When their sham election and their posturings as an independent state failed to get any international attention, the TPLF kleptocrats were ready to escalate the conflict to a dangerous level. By provoking an all-out war with the fFederal government and drawing Eritrea into the war, they aimed to create a humanitarian and political crisis of such magnitude that it would force international intervention. The TPLF leadership had not devised such a dastardly plan by accident. It had been preparing for this occasion for a long time. It had amassed a well-trained and well-armed military and militia forces (by its own statement over 250,000 strong). Furthermore, it had built networks within the federal army and many regions to carry out a coordinated act of sabotage.
On November 4th, the Tigray Regional Security Forces launched a surprise attack on the headquarters of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) stationed in Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital. TheTPLF claimed this act as a ‘“pre-emptive strike’” in ‘“self-defense”. As confirmed by information from multiple sources, the TPLF has inflicted heavy casualties in this most important division of the federal army. On 5 November 2020, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, Chairman of the TPLF and acting president of Tigray region, claimed that members of the Ethiopian Military’s Northern Command had joined and some were forced to surrender to the Tigrayan forces with their large-scale heavy armaments.
This is a typical tactic that the TPLF has used time and again against contending forces such as the Tigray Liberation Force (TLF) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in the late 70s, and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1998: pretend to pursue peaceful negotiations and, when the enemy is not suspecting, unleash a blitzkrieg.
This act of the TPLF is not a mere escalation of the crisis; it has launched it to a level where a peacefully negotiated resolution becomes rather impossible. Abiy characterized the attack as a “Treason that will never be forgotten.” Subsequently, he declared a military offensive to restore “the rule of law and central government authority” and bring the perpetrators to justice. A state of emergency in the region was declared for six months following this attack. Electricity, telephone, and internet services in Tigray were shut down by the federal authorities. The Tigray Regional Administration swore to retaliate against civil and military infrastructure in any part of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
November 5th, the Ethiopian Air Force started bombing areas near Mekelle to destroy arm depots, missiles, and anti-aircraft radars that had fallen into the hands of the TPLF. It started a multi-pronged counter-offensive to dislodge the TPLF. November 10th, the Ethiopian Defense Force liberated the strategic Humora area and its airport, cutting the TPLF’s only access to the outside world. From the North, Zlambesa and Shiraro have been retaken by the ENDF. From the South, the Raya region and the strategic town of Alamata, which is less than 160klm South of Mekelle, has fallen into the hands of federal forces. Tens of thousands of refugees are flocking to Sudan. Gruesome massacres of civilians in the Tigray region have been committed by the retreating TPLF forces. The incident of the massacre at Mai Kadra was confirmed by Amnesty International.
November 13th, the TPLF shot a score of missiles at Baherdar and Gondar in the Amhara region inflicting minor damages to one of the airports. It also launched three missiles to Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. The latter is a serious escalation on the part of the TPLF, a sinister act of provocation aimed at drawing Eritrea into the conflict. So far their sinister objective has not been realized. Eritrea hasn’t taken the bait. Country after country, including the US–its erstwhile supporter–have condemned the TPLF’S provocation unequivocally. The Sudan government has closed its border adjoining Tigray.
On November 20th, the Ethiopian military and civilian spokesmen announced that they have taken Aksum, Adwa, and Adigrat–important strategic towns in Tigray. Dr Debretsion has confirmed this fact with a spin. According to him, letting these towns fall is merely a tactical maneuver on their part. However, it is wise never to underestimate the TPLF.
The opportunity for a peaceful negotiated resolution of the conflict has become dim if not impossible. The TPLF is trying to escalate the conflict to a regional level, hoping for international intervention. On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed has ruled out any international intervention, claiming that this conflict is an “internal law enforcement issue” and that the perpetrators have to be brought to justice. The outcome of this conflict will be determined on the battlefield. Does Abiy Ahmed have the consolidated military force to knock out TPLF at least out of Mekelle and degrade its military capacity significantly in the shortest possible time? Or can the TPLF drag the war for a long time, escalating its effort to draw Eritrea into active involvement. In either case, serious damage to the stability of Ethiopia and the hapless HOA has been inflicted. The question is when is it going to end and at what cost?
The Eritrean Front. Eritrea is an unfortunate state.It has suffered from the curse of its strategic location. It is a revolving door of colonialist, imperialist, and annexationists. Over the centuries, Egyptians,Turks, Italians, British, Ethiopians, the US, and the Soviets have left their imprint not only on the topography of the country but also on the psyche of the people as well. Eritreans fought for thirty years in a bitter and devastating war to gain their independence. In 1998-2000 they fought a savage border war with Ethiopia. Inter alia, the war was triggered by a power struggle within the TPLF leadership. They suffered for two decades under UN-imposed unjust sanctions and isolation, masterminded by the TPLF, and sponsored by the US. So far, their dream to one day create a vibrant democracy and flourishing economy has been out of reach.
The most intractable conflict, which has destabilized the whole of HOA for two decades, was the conflict between the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ/EPLF), the ruling party in Eritrea, and the TPLF. The TPLF invested most of its political resources to isolate Eritrea. It fostered any Eritrean opposition force that knocked at its door to wage a proxy war against Eritrea. Their avowed goal was to bring down Isais Afewreki’s government.
Likewise, Eritrea supported and harbored scores of Ethiopian forces waging armed struggles against the TPLF. The PFDJ maneuvered and solicited the aid of regional forces to break out of the chokehold imposed by Ethiopia and the US. Abiy Ahmed, soon after he came to power, April 2nd, 1918, unilaterally abrogated the TPLF imposed “‘no peace no war policy.” The peace initiative was embraced by President Isaias and hailed by the people of Eritrea.
The TPLF regarded this development not as progress to peace and harmony in the region but rather as an unholy alliance between their arch enemies to marginalize them. Once the TPLF leadership retreated to Mekele and consolidated their hold on the Tigray region, they engaged in a multi-pronged effort to sabotage the peace progress. The TPLF leadership was divided regarding its tactics and strategies against Eritrea. One group led by Generals Gebretsadekan and Abbebe T. Haimanote, veteran leaders of the 1998/2000 war, pushed openly for outright invasion of Eritrea on the assumption that Eritrea is weak and too isolated to defend itself. The other tactic, pushed by the old guard of the party, preferred sabotaging the process procedurally. In particular, blocking the border demarcation, which is a key aspect of the peace agreement, was central. Since Tigray state borders Eritrea and since they are the de factorulers of Tigray, they claimed that the negotiation should be between the TPLF and the PFDJ representing Tigray and Eritrea respectively. They actively got engaged with the Eritrean opposition in an attempt to destabilize the PFDJ. The Eritrean opposition became very active after the Ethiopia-Eritrea border was opened. After opening the border with big fanfare and expectations, Eritrea closed it abruptly.
The restraint Eritrea has shown not to be drawn into the current conflict–even after being attacked by missiles launched by the TPLF from Tigray–has garnered applause from the International Community. Even the US, which used to harbor a hostile attitude
against Eritrea for not kowtowing to its HOA policy, had a strong statement of praise for Eritrea’s government stance.
For the last two years, the Asmara Peace Accord, signed by President Isaias and Prime minister Dr Abiy, has been effectively blocked by the TPLF from implementation. Isaias and Abiy showed fortitude and foresight. They kept the peace effort from being derailed by intensifying the diplomatic and political relationship between their two states. An amazing testimony to the degree of confidence and trust developed between these two states happened when the TPLF opened a surprise attack on the Northern Command of Ethiopian forces. The Command–which was caught unprepared by the attack–chose to fight its way out, and a good portion retreated with its heavy armaments to Eritrea rather than surrender to the TPLF.
The Sudan Front.The coalition government in power is based on tenuous power-sharing between the Islamist military brass on one hand and the secular democratic mass organizations and progressive political parties on the other. The generals lean toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the United States to alleviate Sudan’s dire economic situation. Lifting the designation of state sponsors of terrorism and the economic sanctions imposed by the United States is their key objective. Meanwhile, the opposition forces are for a Sudan free of external hegemony and maintaining a strong alliance within HOA states. That it was Abiy Ahmed and not Al-Sisi who chaired negotiations between the Generals and the opposition to form a power-sharing government in Sudan speaks volumes. Sudan’s wavering between Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s position regarding the Renaissance Dam is a reflection of the internal dynamic of power between the generals vs the United Front. The intense diplomatic shuttle and rapprochement between Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Eritrea shows that the arch of the alliance is shifting towards HOA.
The Somalia Front.Somalia is beset by internal divisions and conflicts. Notwithstanding years of International economic and military support, the internationally recognized Somali government has not been able to stand on its own feet. Somaliland, in spite of decades of stable independent existence, it has failed to gain official recognition.
Somalia’s internal problems have often overflowed into the rest of the HOA states. The revanchist Greater Somalia Movement, which had threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, has dissipated. The threat of Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamic movement, by and large, has been contained inside Somalia.
In the past, Ethiopia was entangled in a couple of interstate wars and proxy wars with Somalia. Now it has developed a peaceful and friendly relationship. Ethiopia is involved in a peacekeeping mission fighting against Al-Shabaab alongside Somali forces. Dr. Abiy Ahmed is actively working to mediate the differences between the Somali and the Somaliland governments. A vibrant diplomatic relationship between Abiy Ahmed, Isaais and Muhamed Abdulah Farmajo is manifested not only by the frequent working visits of high officials but the frequent meeting of the leaders as well.
The dawn of a new era in Horn Of Africa is arrested but not derailed. The struggle for peace is part and parcel of the people’s struggle for their freedom, for their empowerment and their economic well-being in each state and the HOA region in general. Less than half a decade ago, the HOA was the most conflict-ridden region in the world.The aspirations and struggles of the people have often been hijacked by the incessant power struggle of the elites. In particular, the ruling elites’ penchant to settle every political issue through violent repression and the opposition elites’ propensity to raise every political issue to the level of violent uprisings and protracted wars have been great obstacles for peace and progress.
This is nowhere more evident than In Ethiopia, a state which should be the anchor of peace, harmony and progress in the HOA. The uncompromising, violent and incessant struggle between the power elites has become its existential threat. The role of the TPLF as a ruling party and now as an opposition force is abominable. Their role as spoilers to peace and coexistence in the HOA is unparalleled by any other force in the region. Their hubris and avarice led to their demise. But the impact of their action on the poor peoples of Tigray, Ethiopia and the HOA is horrific. The sooner and more decisively the TPLF is defeated in this war they started, the better the chances for peace and cooperation in the HOA.
The proof that dawn of peace and harmony in the HOA is still bright is reflected in the utter failure of the TPLF’s tactics and strategies. During the TPLF reign over Ethiopia, the linchpin of its foreign policy was to isolate Eritrea. It went an unimaginable distance to create a rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea. As desperados, holed in Tigray for the last two years, they tried to drive the wedge between Eritrea and Ethiopia deeper. In this they have failed miserably. When the TPLF militia and special forces encircled the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Defence force, the Division chose to desperately fight its way to retreat to Eritrea rather than join the TPLF forces.
The TPLF counted on using Sudan as its outlet to the outside world but, while the Sudanese government opened its border to Tigray refugees fleeing the war, it closed the border to the TPLF forces. It was Isaias and the PFDJ which were successfully engaged in active diplomacy with the Sudan coalition government to contain the war from escalating into a regional conflict.
Ethiopia is in an existential struggle for its existence, but it has met these challenges in the past and successfully pulled itself from the brink. What is needed is the vision and wisdom, not to be carried by the euphoria of victory to arrogance nor be drowned by defeat into nihilism.
It is a long way for peace and harmony to reign fully in the Horn Of Africa. But it is rising over the horizon. Any band of fools can start wars but it requires the effort of millions of people and a few generations to establish peace. Winning wars is easy but winning peace requires great effort.
https://web.archive.org/web/20201119083406/https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/new s/2020/11/ethiopia-investigation-reveals-evidence-that-scores-of-civilians-were-ki lled-in-massacre-in-tigray-state/.
Tariku Debretsion is an independent writer and activist for peace and fraternity of Horn of Africa living in Austin Texas firstname.lastname@example.org