By Benjamin Ujumadu
THE immediate and unmistakable consequence of the collapse of Libya in 2011 following the military intervention of the Western military alliance, NATO, was chaos in the country.
With the destabilisation of Libya, arms and weapons from its unsecured armoury flowed across to the Sahel region and Nigeria, triggering brutal insurgencies, banditries and assorted criminalities that still bedevil the sub-region up to this day.
Following the flow of weapons, the then, low level insurgency in North-Eastern Nigeria spiked and assumed a more serious intensity. In the present time, the proliferation of light weapons has spawned an audacious criminal militancy in Nigeria, including insurgencies, banditry and kidnapping.
In the Sahel, including Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, the fallouts from the destabilisation of Libya have created hotbeds from where extremist Islamic militancy which has even linked up to the deadly ISIS in the middle East grown.
Without the NATO intervention, the Libyan internal conflict would have reached a negotiated and peaceful settlement and spared both the country, Sahel region and Nigeria, the brutal consequences it currently endures. Libya with its population of nearly seven million pales into insignificance when compared with Ethiopia’s 110 million people with even far more significance to Africa.
Apart from being un-colonised by any European power, Ethiopia actually defeated Italy in 1896 at the battle of Adwa. And this effectively thwarted the campaign of the Kingdom of Italy to expand its colonial empire in the horn of Africa.
Ethiopia is symbolically the capital of Africa, being host to the secretariat and headquarters of the African Union. While all African countries have equal importance and should be supported to resolve their conflicts, without the option of collapse, Ethiopia stands out and must never be allowed to collapse or disintegrate.
The conflict in its Tigray region is an internal problem for which Africa should show concern and encourage amicable and negotiated settlement. External posturing and meddling in the conflict holds no prospect of amicable resolution and Africa’s initiative to mediate in the conflict with total regard to the sovereignty holds far better prospect. Since November 4, 2020, a devastating armed conflict has been raging in northern Ethiopia.
Developments in this war, which started with a well-prepared nightly assault of the then-ruling Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, TPLF, on federal army bases in Tigray Regional State, are going fast. The war was expanded by the TPLF into areas outside Tigray, where major abuses on local inhabitants were perpetrated.
No end is yet in sight to the fighting, which had expanded deeper into the Amhara Region to the important cities of Dessie and Kombolcha by early November 2021. Although this conflict is primarily a domestic problem within an African state, there are ramifications towards neighbouring countries, such as Sudan, Somalia and Egypt.
As Walt (1996) has argued, revolutions or domestic turmoil in a country can have a disruptive impact on international relations. Sudan has been maneouvering at the Ethiopian border and Ethiopia’s withdrawal of troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, force in Somalia has led to more terror activities by the Al Shabaab movement.
But in turn, international relations can also have an impact on such a national crisis. The Ethiopia conflict has evoked a specific response pattern by the international community, primarily the United States of America, USA, the European Union, EU, and the United Nations, UN: they address, or rather ‘target’, the Ethiopian government and not the insurgent TPLF which has caused most of the killing and destruction.
A subsidiary role is played here by global media discourse toward this conflict, reporting haphazardly on a succession of events, but unconnected to historical lines and context of the state in question. Such reporting – in dominant news producing media like Reuters, AFP and AP as well as global newspapers – often uncritically supported the insurgent TPLF, despite its appalling human rights record and its devastating campaigns against civilian populations.
This again had an effect on international policymaking towards Ethiopia. Indeed, the omissions and failures of the global media and the (Western) international community which tend to blame the Ethiopian federal government for the armed conflict and the events since its outbreak, have an impact on the Ethiopian state and reveal a misplaced normative streak in international relations thinking among these actors.
Especially remarkable in this case is the lack of commitment to the ideal of ‘democracy in international relations, nominally proclaimed by the USA and EU. This ideal was easily side-lined in their policy approaches to Ethiopia, as they de facto preferred the deeply undemocratic TPLF above the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the agenda of democratisation that he implemented since in April 2018.
The Western ‘donor country’ policymakers and the UN were selective and incomplete in their appraisal of the conflict and in diplomatic actions towards it, despite their alleged ‘concern’ for civilians as victims of violence and food scarcity in the first phase of the conflict.
Especially the Ethiopian federal government, led since April 2018 by the reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed, initially widely acclaimed as a leader and reconfirmed incredible elections in June 2021, has been blamed for the conflict by international parties, notably the USA, the EU and the global media.
It is indeed worrying how the global news media, like CNN, AP, the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, Le Monde, and others have often played an obfuscating and biased role in reporting on this year-long conflict, e.g. by routinely accusing primarily the federal government of excesses. Numerous items in these media have distorted or misrepresented events in an incomplete and tendentious manner, akin to sensationalist and attention-grabbing not backed up by the facts or by proper investigation.
These reports, in addition to the cyber ‘warfare, and the repeated lecturing by Western countries of Ethiopia as the ‘bad guy’ taking on a smaller region (Tigray), reveal a measure of ignorance and misplaced ‘victim bias’, and evoke a host of questions not only on the interests of the global media but also (again) on the role of social media propaganda and on the workings of the international system and the UN.
Most of those tabling resolutions, doing news items or writing press articles do not know much either – or perhaps do not care – about the history and complexity of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region (Hibist 2021). One major example is the neglect of the first mass killing that occurred in this conflict on November 9, 2020: an ‘ethnic cleansing’ operation in the town of Mai Kadra perpetrated by TPLF-affiliated militia on Amhara-speaking inhabitants (non-Tigrayans). An estimated 1500 non-combatants were killed, causing a shock effect throughout Ethiopia because of its exceptional nature.
But this defining event and its implications are hardly discussed in the global media or in policy circles. Regarding this aspect of what often seems Western lecturing and selective outrage, recent controversial talking points are: a) US President Biden’s ‘Executive Order’ of September 17, 2021 announcing sanctions; b) the EU Parliament’s resolution of October 8, 2021 on ‘Tigray’, Ethiopia (RC9-0484/2021), and c) the expulsion of seven UN officials from Ethiopia on September 30, 2021, and d) recent USA sanctions.
The EU resolution is an embarrassing document that does not take into account a whole range of facts on the ground regarding the war. It primarily shows a wish of EU parliamentarians (from left, right, and center) to score ‘moral points’: wanting to be seen as concerned about the civilian population in Tigray suffering for food scarcity.
That is of course legitimate. But they stopped there and did not consider the equal if not much worse suffering from both mass displacement, food scarcity and gross violence that was seen in Afar and Amhara.
Regions. Those watching the debate in the EU Parliament on this resolution saw a level of ignorance hard to swallow, reflecting indeed a lingering neo-colonial mindset of Europeans towards an independent African country that ‘does not listen to the good-willing Europeans’.
On the third point, an inquiry into the facts behind this decision of expelling UN personnel makes it clear that it was justified: several UN officials were transgressing the mandate of their function (e.g., in their assisting the TPLF insurgent leaders with several kinds of services, allegedly including in getting them advanced radar communications equipment). They flouted the neutrality and professionalism that their job prescribes. The reactions from UN Secretary-General A. Guterres, the EU, and of course the ever-angry USA, were predictable.
The USA gave an unconsidered response on the same day that the expulsion was announced, contesting the legitimacy. But the USA, have been expelling diplomats and UN staff left and right over the years.
It is also to be noted that in 1998 when the TPLF-EPRDF government expelled 30 UN officials, there was protest from the UN but no sound from the US or other foreign powers. The same in 2020 when Burundi expelled four UN functionaries.
The indignation is also unproductive because Ethiopia or any other nation has the right to expel such officials under Article 9 of the ‘Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations’, the UN resolution 46/182 of 1991 (‘Strengthening the coordination of humanitarian emergency assistance’; annex, articles 2 and 3), and the additional Memorandum of Understanding signed between the federal government and the UN. In any case, UN staff has no mandate under any law in any country to undermine the government, as these people have done.
So, in general, the responses of the ‘international community’, notably the ‘donor countries’ of the EU and the USA in the current conflict in Ethiopia have been a problem and have even prolonged the conflict.
Although the war started with that surreptitious attack by the TPLF (and collaborating Tigray soldiers) on sleeping soldiers of the federal army and the theft of numerous heavy weaponries, the TPLF was labeled as the ‘underdog’. There is still a peculiar ‘positive bias’ towards the TPLF and the Tigray Region, related to the alleged and real abuses in the first phase of the war and perceptions of the so-called ‘humanitarian aid blockage’ – which is a TPLF propaganda point disproved by the recent joint report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. However, the war and the gross human rights abuses are no longer there in Tigray – apart from serious food shortages and TPLF repression – but to the south, due to the TPLF expanding its campaigns there.
When a unilateral ceasefire was offered by the Ethiopian federal government on 28 June 2021, followed by its troop withdrawal, the TPLF refused and mocked it. They took the opportunity to glorify their alleged military victory in Tigray and to extend the armed conflict into the Afar and northern Amhara regions outside Tigray – an unacceptable move endangering humanitarian aid routes and stabilization.
This conflict is often labeled in global media as a ‘civil war’, but it is not: a civil war would be an all-out protracted fight between big parts of the country’s population against each other. But here we have an elitist, authoritarian movement – TPLF – that fights to retain its elite material interests and impunity against an elected federal government that contested its armed insurrection.
Meanwhile, the devastation in Afar and northern Amhara has continued and led to ongoing gross abuse of the local population in campaigns that the TPLF knew would not yield them durable military success. The fighting was hardly against federal troops because these were not stationed there in the initial weeks.
The TPLF campaigns seemed intended to inflict maximum damage on local society, infrastructure, public facilities and village communities, including religious and cultural institutions. They were allegedly motivated by TPLF wanting to ‘break the humanitarian blockade of Tigray’ and ‘stop Tigray genocide’. But these are memes that do not have a real basis in fact, although the food scarcity in Tigray is serious.
Many civilians in Amhara and Afar were arbitrarily killed by retreating TPLF units, churches and monasteries were attacked and looted, schools and clinics leveled, and all things of value taken by the TPLF troops and/or transported to Tigray. This is not the kind and scale of violence that happened in Tigray in the first phase of the war: indeed, there we saw transgressions and harsh suffering inflicted on the population but not purposeful destruction of communities and wanton mass killing of civilians.
Serious incidents did occur in Tigray since the onset of the conflict – with people killed in the crossfire, abuse and gender-based violence, and food scarcity sharply increasing. But the federal government’s attorney general’s office undertook prosecution of soldiers’ transgressions, and the government let in food aid to Tigray.
The federal army also left huge supplies (including seeds for planting crops) when they left Meqele, the capital of Tigray. The army had neither pursued the scorched-earth tactics of destruction or massacres of civilians that we have seen perpetrated by TPLF in northern Amhara and Afar regions since 28 June 2021.
Ethiopia’s federal government should be nudged to accommodation and reconciliation with its Tigray region while the TPLF who led the federal government coalition for more two decades should be persuaded to return to democratic politics and eschew militarism and stop been accessory to the open conduit of Ethiopia’s dismemberment and disintegration.
Dr. Ujumadu, an international affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja