Since the eruption of the conflict, the Ethiopian government (with several Chinese advisors) has tried to maintain total narrative control and blacked out the internet, mobile phones and landlines.
Historical linkages between India and Ethiopia go back about 2,000 years. Trade between the two countries flourished during the ancient Axumite Empire (1st century AD), which is considered the origin of modern Ethiopia. Several Indian merchants and artisans settled down in Ethiopia in the latter part of the 19th century while Emperor Haile Selassie recruited thousands of Indian teachers. Addis Aba is the diplomatic and political capital of Africa as it hosts the headquarters of the African Union. Interestingly, Malik Ambar (15-16 C), a Siddi military leader and prime minister of the Ahmadnagar sultanate, was born in present-day Ethiopia, brought to India as a slave where he created a mercenary force. High level visits from both sides have taken place since 1956 when Emperor Haile Selassie visited India.
Ethiopia was known to most westerners as the only Christian country in the East (ruled by a fellow called Prester John) and then as the centre of a massive famine in the mid-1980s that killed well over one million people. According to Human Rights Watch, more than half its mortality could be attributed to “human rights abuses causing the famine to come earlier, strike harder and extend further than would otherwise have been the case”. Other areas of Ethiopia experienced famine for similar reasons, resulting in tens of thousands of additional deaths. The famine started a decade into the Ethiopian Civil War.
While Ethiopia remained independent during the colonial conquests of Africa, Italy colonized the region around Asmara in the 19th Century and called it Eritrea. After Italy’s defeat in the Second War, Britain occupied Eritrea, which was federated with Ethiopia in 1952 through a UN General Assembly Resolution, which ignored the independence desires of the Eritrean people. Eritreans began organising an armed rebellion from their base in Cairo. In 1962, Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering a civil war when the hated Soviet-backed Derg socialist government of Haile Mengistu Mariam took over Ethiopia in 1974.
Since 1988, insurrections against Derg rule intensified in the northern regions of Tigray (Ethiopia’s northern-most province) and Eritrea which sought independence, and in 1991 the Derg was booted out and replaced with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-led Transitional Government of Ethiopia. Eritrean demands for their own country intensified. At the 1993 referendum, the Eritrean people voted almost unanimously in favour of independence, but the conflict over borders continued till 2000.
A real shift in local, regional and ethnic power equations in Ethiopia took place with a youthful former military man, Abiy Ahmed, elected Prime Minister in 2018. In 2018, following anti-government protests, the young reformist Abiy Ahmed took over as Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, he promised transformative change. He freed political prisoners, unshackled the media, welcomed exiles home from abroad, and helped mediate conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia. He quickly kissed and made up with his Eritrean counterpart, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
The reformist agenda that Abiy initiated created a groundswell of expectations. It appeared that Ethiopia was on a roll. But the reforms and release of political prisoners saw large numbers of alternative formations emerging in Oromia and Amhara. These led to ethnic clashes. Soon the government clamped down, fearing a steady loss of support, arrested political opponents, curbed the internet and the press.
If the Chinese virus was not enough, Ethiopia created another major challenge for itself. At the most inopportune time, a civil war has reignited in a seemingly stable and rapidly growing country. Up until a few months ago, the main threat Ethiopia faced was over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), in which it was in conflict with Egypt over water flows and was facing pressure from the United States, including the threat of suspension of aid. Ethiopia’s neighbours, especially Sudan and Egypt, are extremely wary of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which, they believe, will limit their access to the life-giving waters of the Nile. Then Tigray happened.
I believe the Renaissance Dam is intrinsic to this conflict, with 11 riparian nations involved. Ethiopia had asked several countries from the West, and India, to fund the dam. They declined, China jumped in. Although conflict over the allocation of the waters of the Nile River has existed for many years, the dispute, especially that between Egypt and Ethiopia, significantly escalated when the latter commenced construction of the dam on the Blue Nile in 2011, ignoring the water sharing agreements of 1929 and 1959. Ethiopia, whose highlands supply more than 85% of the water that flows into the Nile River, has long argued that it has the right to utilize its natural resources to address widespread poverty and improve the living standards of its people. A regional framework for the management of the Nile already exists—the Nile Basin Initiative mentioned above—which is a partnership among the Nile riparian states that was launched in 1999. It can help the riparian states outline principles, rights, and obligations for cooperative management of the resources of the Nile. Although Ethiopia has argued that the hydroelectric GERD will not significantly affect the flow of water into the Nile, Egypt, which depends almost entirely on the Nile waters for household and commercial uses, sees the dam as a major threat to its water security.
In November 2020, an emboldened Abiy, revelling in his international stature, ordered an offensive against Tigray, accusing the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front of attacking a government military base and trying to steal artillery and other weapons, starting a conflict that has caused thousands of deaths and widespread destruction, displaced over 2 million people, and sent tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring Sudan. Abiy and his new BFF, Eritrea’s longtime authoritarian ruler Isaias Afwerki, joined forces against their common adversary. Since Eritrea had been co-opted, Abiy was intent on military suppression and would not seek mediation or conciliation till Tigray was subdued. Tigray leaders said the world would see how they resisted.
Since the eruption of the conflict, the Ethiopian government (with several Chinese advisors) has tried to maintain total narrative control and blacked out the internet, mobile phones and landlines. There are allegations of artillery attacks on populated areas, deliberate targeting and massacres of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread looting and rape, including by co-opted Eritrean soldiers. The fragile trust between Ethiopia’s different power groups and ethnicities is eroding. Some say that Ethiopia has been punching above its weight, sending troops to fight rebels in northern Kenya and Somalia and South Sudan, and is now confronting Africa’s reality.
The Arab countries, active in the region, have been reluctant to step in, as their engagement with a strongly Orthodox Christian Tigray will be uneven. The people of Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, make up perhaps 6% of the country’s 110 million people, but have enjoyed disproportionate power and influence for nearly three decades. Having been dislodged from the federal government in Addis Ababa, the Tigrayans are at war with Abiy’s administration. Ethnic distrust dies hard, and powerful Tigrayan politicians accuse Mr Abiy of trying to increase federal power at the expense of the federal democracy that allowed measured autonomy to Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. Tigrayans resented the roles of central bureaucrats in funding decisions, as provincial and national ministries were integrated.
Unhappiness generated violence—for the Tigrayans, the Addis Ababa regime led by Abiy Ahmed became the enemy. The turmoil is spilling over Ethiopia’s borders into Eritrea and Sudan in a manner that could undermine the entire Horn of Africa. Sudanese troops have got involved in the latest fighting, on the side of the Tigrayans. Sudan has not forgiven Ethiopia for hosting and training southern rebels during Sudan’s decades-long civil war that led to the emergence of an independent South Sudan in 2011. The weaponry floating around in north Africa is an unintended repercussion of the Libyan civil war which would have been avoided if certain countries had left Gaddafi alone.
France, the guardian of many African teenagers among nations, Britain, America (the last after their grisly experience in Somalia) are unwilling to fool around in the region. The tangle has spread to Nigeria and other countries. Religion has added a dangerous new ingredient to the incendiary cocktail. At least 40 countries in Africa have substantial insurgency problems from groups who claim to speak in the name of Islam. They get recruits. They get arms. Their activities have become more intensive, and they are a threat to development. In fact, development is a threat to them; they will do their best to prevent it.
Now, after so much of investment and efforts, why is it that north Africa is in such a muddle today even independent of the Covid? Have the development activities launched by most, including the Chinese, failed to address the issues of human welfare? Is a review of the tactics of development adequate when the entire superstructure is seriously wobbly?
With the Tigrayans in disarray, Abiy declared the conflict over in late November 2020, but fighting continued and increased ahead of national elections on 21 June 2021. In late June 2021, the regional forces in Tigray scored stunning victories, with credible suspicion of Egyptian and Turkish arms supplies and logistical support (Egypt wants the Grand Renaissance Dam to be scuttled). Abiy declared a ceasefire and described the withdrawal of his forces as a tactical manoeuvre. The Tigrayans dismissed the ceasefire as a joke and vowed to fight till every inch of their territory was liberated. As Tigrayan forces advance, Abiy has appealed to all Ethiopians to join the fight. The confused opera continues.
The US influence is low. The Chinese are the most influential but are unlikely to seek a political role to avoid jeopardising their economic hold.
Can India help? We are the largest private sector investors in Ethiopia. Indian investments in Ethiopia are estimated to be around $5 billion with more than 600 Indian companies present in the country. Ethiopia is also one of the first countries to join the International Solar Alliance (ISA), of which India is a founding member. Ethiopia, like many other countries, is trying to reduce its dependence on China (the 760 km Addis Djibouti China-funded rail link is unprofitable). Our vaccine is needed. Ethiopia has secured nine million doses of COVID-19 vaccines up until April 2021 and hopes to inoculate at least a fifth of its 110 million people by the end of the year, the health minister said. But the present imbroglio seems to defy solution. Ethiopia might be heading for another split. Abiy should return his Nobel Prize.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.