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And Now, Africa’s Oldest State Groans In Pains Of Self-Destruction, By Dennis Onakinor

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In consonance with the aphorism that “hindsight is always wise,” critics now conveniently assert that the Norwegian Nobel Committee should not have awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy who, they say, is not a man of peace, but a war-monger spewing blood-curdling rhetoric. And indeed, as his federal government’s war with Tigray regional rebels enters its second year, the Prime Minister has threatened to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones.” While maintaining that “this is a time when leading a country with martyrdom is needed,” he has vowed to personally lead his government’s troops “from the battlefront.”

It is most-ironical that within two years of bagging the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019, Prime Minister Abiy has metamorphosed into a belligerent character baying for violence and blood. His inordinate desire to break the political dominance of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), coupled with his audacious bid to foist his own Prosperity Party (PP) on the entire country, had ineluctably plunged Ethiopia into a fratricidal civil war in which torture, rape, massacres, ethnic cleansing, economic blockade, starvation, etc., have become instruments of war.

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Certainly, the Nobel Committee did not err in handing Prime Minister Abiy the 2019 Peace Prize, since the annual award is usually given to a nominee who, in the preceding year, is adjudged to have done the “most or the best work” for the promotion of global peace. And truly, in 2018, the prime minister initiated a negotiated settlement of the lingering Ethiopian-Eritrea border conflict, and on the basis of the negotiations he handed over the disputed border town of Badme to his country’s former adversary. It was a rare peace-building gesture in an international system characterized by banal nationalism and self-aggrandizing patriotism. 

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However, as the civil war situation in Ethiopia continues to deteriorate, the vociferous calls for a revocation of Prime Minister Abiy’s Nobel laureateship also grows louder, although this is highly improbable, since the Nobel Foundation does not have a revocation process in place. Otherwise, the 1991 Peace Prize awarded Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi would certainly have been revoked for her inaction in the face of armed persecution of her country’s Rohingya Muslim population. Nevertheless, some people opine that like Aung San Suu Kyi who was militarily overthrown in February 2021, nemesis may soon catch up with the Ethiopian prime minister. 

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In any case, when viewed against the background of the ongoing Tigray War, which broke out in November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy’s 2019 Nobel laureateship was a harbinger of the ugly war to come in Africa’s oldest Independent state. And, as events have shown, the prime minister is nothing but a wolf posturing as a sheep. Stripped of his pacifist garb, his true character has been revealed: a blood-thirsty war-monger.  

With a population estimated at 110 million, Ethiopia is Africa’s second most-populous country, after Nigeria. The country operates a federal political system structured into ten regions on ethno-linguistic basis. Its most-prominent regions are Oromia, Amhara, Somali, and Tigray. Each region is headed by a “President.” Since 1991, the country’s politics has been dominated by ethno-regional political parties, and a coalition of four parties has ruled the country under the umbrella of the Ethiopian people’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). 

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In reality, the EPRDF’s 30-year rule was dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) based in Tigray Region. The TPLF was once a militant group that successfully seized power in the aftermath of its overthrow of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist-oriented military regime (the Derg) in 1991. It formed the four-party ruling EPRDF coalition, which included Prime Minister Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party (ODP).

Abiy Ahmed was born to an ethnic Oromo Muslim father and a Christian mother on August 15, 1976. He was recruited into the Ethiopian military in 1991, and by 2010 when he exited the military to become a politician, he had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He began his political career by winning a parliamentary seat election in 2010. He subsequently held other political positions, including that of Deputy President of Oromia Region. In March 2018, he became the Chairman of the ruling EPRDF coalition, and was elected Prime Minister on April 2, 2018.

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Upon assuming the reins of power, Prime Minister Abiy struck a populist note. He released thousands of political prisoners from detention. Separatist elements, like members of the Oromo Liberation Front who had been convicted of acts of terrorism, were pardoned and released from jail. The press was liberalized, and foreign media organizations earlier barred from the country were permitted to return. In June 2018, he invited President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea to enter into peace negotiations aimed at resolving their countries’ long-running border dispute. Following a bilateral peace summit held in July 2018, he handed over the disputed border town of Badme to Eritrea, thus bringing the border conflict to a close. 

As it turned out, the 2018 Ethiopian-Eritrea peace accord, which earned Prime Minister Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, did not go down well with the hardliners of the EPRDF coalition, especially those of the dominant TPLF. To them, the prime minister’s liberalism and compromising attitude signified weakness. Therefore, they intensified their opposition to his government, thus setting the stage for an intra-party showdown.

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Buoyed by his Nobel Peace Prize and the attendant international acclaim, Prime Minister Abiy decided to tackle the TPLF-based opposition, headlong. On December 1, 2019, he announced the formation of a new party coalition – the Prosperity Party (PP). As a matter of fact, the PP was neither a new party coalition nor was there anything prosperous about it. Abiy had simply reconstituted the EPRDF coalition to exclude the dominant TPLF, with his ODP now leading the new ruling PP coalition.  Expectedly, the TPLF refused to acquiesce to the prime minister’s political gambit, thereby setting the stage for a national conflagration. 

In the ensuing confrontation, Prime Minister Abiy made the first move. Citing the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse, he postponed the national elections scheduled for August 2020 to mid-2021, but the TPLF rejected the postponement as unconstitutional, and proceeded with the elections in its base – Tigray Region. The prime minister then responded by blocking federal funds due to the regional government. The tit-for-tat actions continued as federal troops massed on the borders of the recalcitrant region in preparedness for an assault. 

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On the night of November 3, 2020, armed TPLF loyalists (now Tigray Defense Force) launched a preemptive attack on Ethiopian military headquarters and bases in Tigray, seizing weapons and inflicting heavy casualties on the federal forces in the process. The next day, Prime Minister Abiy declared war on the TPLF and the Tigray regional government. The Tigray War had commenced.

Backed by Eritrean forces, federal troops swept into Tigray in a combined ground and air assault, and by November 28, 2020 the regional capital of Mekelle had fallen. A euphoric Prime Minister Abiy termed the blistering “victory” a police action. But, by tactically retreating into the mountainous terrains of their besieged region, the rebels survived to fight another day. 

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Adopting guerilla warfare tactics, the rebels’ counter-attacks devastated the occupying federal forces, and by June 28, 2021, they had recaptured Mekelle. They soon advanced into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. Forging an alliance with the separatist Oromo Liberation Army, they threatened to advance on the country’s capital of Addis Ababa, prompting Prime Minister Abiy to declare a six-month state of emergency on November 2, 2021. 

Amidst mounting war casualties on both sides, a humanitarian crisis is presently unfolding in the war-ravaged Northern parts of the country, especially in Tigray Region, where a punitive federal blockade has prevented food and medical supplies from reaching starving and ailing war victims, including women, children, and the elderly.  Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, has described the dire situation as “a stain on our conscience.” 

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In light of the man-made misery, death, and destruction presently plaguing Ethiopia, the usual questions arise: Why does the world always wait till a crisis develops into a violent conflict before attempting to mediate a solution? Why is it expedient to humanize a war, as required by the Geneva Convention of 1949, instead of preventing its occurrence at all costs?

Amongst the agencies of the African Union headquartered in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa is the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS). The CEWS is tasked with collaborating with the UN to collect and analyze data relating to potential conflicts and threats to peace and security in Africa; and to recommend the best courses of action. Publicly, it may never be known whether the agency actually carried out its task in respect of the Tigray crisis, although it can be safely assumed that its recommendations may have been ignored by the feuding parties. 

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In an African continent replete with man-made catastrophes and natural disasters, Ethiopia has had its fair share of military coups and counter-coups, civil and international wars, drought and famine, hunger and starvation, etc. In the early 1970s, it suffered one of the worst drought-induced famines ever recorded in human history as related images of walking human skeletons shocked the world. That famine, which largely accounted for the military overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the abolition of the country’s monarchical political system in 1974, occurred amidst the 30-year Ethiopian-Eritrea War that culminated in Eritrea’s Independence in April 1993. 

Be that as it may, the latest carnage is totally unwarranted. Hence, as global arms dealers and mercenaries continue to eye the potential financial benefits of a total war situation in the landlocked country of about 110 million inhabitants, there is an overriding need for Africa’s statesmen to quickly join hands in working towards a quick resolution of the conflict. For, the entire African continent would be swamped if the simmering Ethiopian cauldron of blood and gore boils over. A stich in time saves nine. 

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  • Dennis Onakinor, a public and international affairs analyst, lives in Lagos, Nigeria. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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