Ethiopia’s Conflict: A War Won to Preserve the Nation-State

Ethiopia’s Conflict: A War Won to Preserve the Nation-State

November 29, 2020

By Lawrence Freeman

Today, the Ethiopian government is reporting that the National Defense Forces have taken control of city of Mikelle, the capital city of Tigray, as well as the airport. This portends the effective defeat of the opposition forces that violently rebelled against the nation over three weeks ago, and the liberation of the Tigray region

Notwithstanding criticisms by some spectators, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was obligated to respond with force to safeguard the sovereignty of Ethiopia, in a similar manner to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s all-out war to preserve the Union.  The nation-state, which Prime Minister Abiy was defending, is not a coalition or association of separate states or semi-autonomous regions.  Rather it is a unique sovereign concept of self-governing that transcends various ethnic or religious beliefs. The nation-state is uniquely required to serve all its citizens and ensure the posterity of its people.  That is why throughout history, bloody wars have been fought to preserve the precious nation-state above all other considerations.  The military conflict was not a civil war, but more precisely, it was a war to preserve the integrity of the Ethiopian nation.

Prime Minister Abiy launched the now victorious military campaign against the leadership of the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), not against the people of Tigray. The immediate cause for the government’s offensive was in response  to an early morning attack by the TPLF on November 4, on the Northern Command post of Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) located in Mekelle. This assault, which murdered many soldiers and seized equipment and ammunition, was deemed by the Ethiopian government, as “crossing the red line.” The government was compelled to respond with full force to safe the nation. No nation could continue to exist if it allowed its armed forces to be slaughtered. A six month state of emergency for the Tigray region was declared by the Council of Ministers on November 6. The stated intent of the government is to arrest and bring to justice a small “TPLF criminal clique” that has been funding and mobilizing to destabilize the nation.” (1)

TPLF Rejects Abiy’s Reform

To understand the underlying origin for this conflict requires reviewing the modern history of Ethiopia. In 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of forces, overthrew the fascist-Marxist Derg regime and took over control of the government of Ethiopia. For the next twenty-seven years, the TPLF not only governed the northern Tigray region, but as well, exerted unparalleled influence over the central government and the other ethnic regions of the country.

A year after he was selected by the EPRDF to become the new prime minister in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy initiated a democratic-reform process that included replacing the countries narrowly focused ethno-national parties with a new nation-wide Prosperity Party.  Three regional parties that were part of the EPRDF coalition joined the new Prosperity Party as equals, in effect dissolving the EPRDF. However, the TPLF refused to accept losing its dominant political power. It voluntarily declined to join the new party, leaving the TPLF isolated with weakened political power.

 

Ethiopia’s constitution and its federation of a central government coexisting with regional ethnic states was formed as a compromise to various ethnic-nationalities that historically had been marginalized. This dubious arrangement indicates the ethnic pressures prevalent in Ethiopia, which must be overcome to unify the nation.  Consideration should be given to modifying the constitution following next year’s national elections. It is now imperative to reinforce a national Ethiopian identity that transcends ethnic-nationalism. This is what Prime Minister Abiy intended with his reforms and the creation of the non-ethnic Prosperity Party.  (Read: Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party: A Revolutionary Necessity). Confronted by open rebellion from the TPLF leadership, Prime Minister Abiy had no choice but to respond forcefully, otherwise the very existence of Ethiopia would be put in danger.

In harmony with his Medemer philosophy, Prime Minister Abiy proclaimed that all Ethiopians should accept responsibility for their past offenses, and all should be forgiven. He embraced the belief that the slate should be wiped clean of the past, in order for Ethiopian society to unite in a common pursuit of prosperity for all. (2)

Without concern for the future of Ethiopia, the TPLF rejected Prime Minister Abiy’s outlook and proceeded to commence an open rebellion against the Ethiopian nation.

Chair Persons of the eight parties who also represent eight Regions as governing parties worked under the umbrella of the EPRDF coalition signed a document for the establishment of Prosperity Party. Photo Credit OPM

Abiy Acted to Preserve Ethiopia 

Prior to attacking the soldiers of the ENDF in Mekelle, which the TPLF viewed as a foreign army, the TPLF disregarded national election law. After Ethiopia’s elected government-the House of People’s Representatives-postponed national elections in March of this year due to circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the TPLF conducted its own illegal elections in Tigray in September, violating the nation’s decree.

Prime Minister Abiy charged the TPLF leadership of trying to derail his transition, making the country ungovernable by instigating religious and ethnic conflicts, and inciting violence against the central government in Addis Ababa.

Although, Prime Minister Abiy is an Oromo, and is the first non-Tigrayan to become prime minister since 1991, he is acting in the interest of all Ethiopians, not simply or narrowly on behalf of his ethnic origin. If, Prime Minister Abiy were to allow the TPLF to defy federal law and initiate an armed attack on the defense forces of the federal government without responding as he has, this would encourage other ethno-separatist movements to flout the authority of the nation. Thus, contrary to what people may have wanted to believe, Prime Minister Abiy’s military campaign to subdue the reckless TPLF leadership, was the best way to prevent the conflict from becoming a civil war.

Bronwyn Bruton of the DC based, Atlantic Council Africa Center, argued that intuitive calls for negotiations endangered the future of Ethiopia. In her blog post Ethiopia: Calls for Negotiation Are Driving Ethiopia Deeper Into War, written before the defeat of the TPLF, she wrote:

“The most effective means of discouraging the continuation of this conflict is to finally put pressure on TPLF leaders…to stand down…in the interest of protecting the local population. Abiy urgently needs to be persuaded that he can rely on the international community–and not only his army–to ensure that the TPLF will be prevented from returning to power. Counterintuitively, the fastest way for the international community to do that is to stop calling for negotiations, and to start demanding accountability for the TPLF.

Calling for negotiations, as so many are advocating, will only encourage TPLF leaders to believe that violence will permit them to fight their way to a bigger chair at the table. That is not only a losing strategy in Ethiopia–it sets up an extraordinarily dangerous precedent for the next armed insurgency that wants to challenge central authority.”

Ethiopia, East Africa’s leader in economic development and a key nation providing stability to the Horn of Africa. There are confirmed reports that the TPLF fired missiles across the border into Eretria, and on the Bahir and Gondar airports in Amhara, Ethiopia. Thus, it is clear that the TPLF posed an immediate danger not only to Ethiopia, but to the entire region, and had to be defeated.

President Abraham Lincoln meeting with his generals at Antietam, Maryland. (courtesy history.com)

Lincoln Waged War to Save the Union

U.S. history records a troubled and dangerous time when the Army of the Federal Government came under attack.

Six weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States on November 6, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, and demanded the removal of all federal troops. On December 26, 1860, Major Robert Anderson of the U.S Army in South Carolina, moved his 68 troops into Fort Sumter, an island in the Charleston Harbor. Immediately following his inauguration on March 4, 1861, President Lincoln was confronted with the threat of the dissolution of the United States. South Carolina, one of seven states that formed the Southern Confederacy on February 8, 1861, insisted that the Federal Fort Sumter belonged to them, and commenced a siege around the beleaguered federal troops.  President Lincoln had to make the most momentous decision of his two week old presidency, which he knew would impact the very existence of the United States; whether to send supplies to the troops or relinquish the fort. In the words of author Doris Goodwin:

“He [Lincoln] must make the decision between a surrender that might compromise the honor of the North and tear it apart, or a reinforcement that might carry the country into civil war.” (3)

On April 6, President Lincoln told the governor of South Carolina he would send provisions to the troops-no arms or ammunition. In response, Jefferson Davis, provisional president of the Confederacy, ordered Major Anderson to surrender the fort, which he refused. The Civil War officially began at 4:30 in the morning of April 12, when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter. President Lincoln rightly considered Fort Sumter as an outpost of the Federal Government, and thus an attack on the fort was an attack on the United States. Within days President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to join the Union Army to defeat the Southern rebellion and secure the very existence of the nation.

In President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, he discussed the reason for the federal government’s war against the rebel South. He remarked that while he was seeking to save the Union without war “insurgents were seeking to destroy it…seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects by negotiation.” The South, he said, “would make war rather than let the nation survive” and the North “would accept war rather than let it perish.”

President Lincoln made clear in this address, and throughout his entire tenure as president, that he would spare no effort, including the tremendous loss of life, to preserve the Union. The Confederacy, supported by the British, intended to abolish the Union, had to be defeated, even at the dreadful price of 750,000 soldiers perishing in combat. Americans and all people of the world should give thanks that President Lincoln was victorious, and that the United States of America survived as a sovereign nation.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) with former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn

No Moral Equivalency

Throughout the entirety of the of the four year long war, President Lincoln would only describe the enemy of the Union as a “Southern Rebellion.” He never recognized the legitimacy of the Confederacy of Southern States, because, to President Lincoln there was only one government representing all of the United States.

Former Ethiopian Prime Minister from 2012-2018, Hailemariam Desalegn espoused a correlated judgement in regard to the TPLF in his argument: Ethiopia’s Government and the TPLF Leadership Are Not Morally Equivalent. On November 24, he admonished the international community’s view of the conflict:

“The key problem…is the assumption of moral equivalence, which leads foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism.” He continued: In the meantime, those who are advocating dialogue with the TPLF leadership should carefully consider the full implications of what they are calling for, as they will open a Pandora’s box that other ethnic-based groupings are ready to emulate. Those calling for talks should understand that the very prospect of negotiating with the TPLF’s current leadership is an error—as matter of both principle and prudence.”

While Prime Minister Abiy was not fighting a civil war, analogous to President Lincoln he was forced to make decisions that would determine the very existence of Ethiopia. Nations must be supported against separatist, ethnic or religious movements that attempt to tear apart the fabric of national sovereignty. All human beings, regardless of where we were born, are united by our universal innate potential of creativity. The power of our creative-soul is what makes us distinctively human, unique from all other species. It is our common heritage.  The nation-state exists to promote the creative potential of all its citizens from the past to the present and into the future.  Thus, its value to civilization is inimitable and must be safeguarded at all costs.

1 Updates on the unfolding developments of Ethiopia, Office of the Prime Minister, November 6, 2020

2 Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party: A Revolutionary Necessity

3 Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Shuster, New York, 2005

 Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for over 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com

 

Ethiopia’s Medemer Philosophy

 

February 25, 2020

I had the pleasure to attend a fascinating and enlightening discussion on what Medemer means and why Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has introduced this concept into Ethiopia today. The conversation was led by Ambassador Fitsum Arega, Ethiopian ambassador to the U. S. and included; Lencho Bati and Mamo Mihretu, both in the prime minister’s office in Addis Ababa, and Etana Dinka, Oberlin College.

Prime Minister Abiy has authored a book, Medemer, (Amharic) and simultaneously launched the new nationwide Prosperity Party, which is an application of his Medemer philosophy.

The panelists explained to the overflow audience at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) in Washington, that the Medemer philosophy should guide both Ethiopia’s domestic and foreign policy. Medemer embodies the concept of national unity and the need for all to work for the common good; for Ethiopia’s prosperity, and its elimination of poverty. Amb. Arega said that Ethiopia cannot change the past, but Ethiopia needs new ideas that go beyond its highly charged ethnic politics. He spoke of the need for forgiveness in Ethiopian society, with no finger pointing, in order for Ethiopia to move forward. The idea of a shared-common humanity, embodied in Medemer, is the underpinning for establishing sound relationships with other nations.

Ethiopia is entering a challenging period, economically, politically, and socially. The nation is attempting to create an appropriate economic policy that will enable millions of educated youth to be absorbed into its workforce. The nation is also coming to terms with the limitations of almost thirty years of a federation of ethnic states. With national elections scheduled for August, Prime Minister Abiy’s non-ethnic based Prosperity Party is provoking a healthy discourse about Ethiopia’s identity.

All of these issues are relevant to the concept of Medemer, that was richly elaborated in the two-hour dialogue at USIP.

Watch: A Changing Ethiopia: Understanding Medemer

Read: Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party: A Revolutionary Necessity

 

Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party: A Revolutionary Necessity

Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party: A Revolutionary Necessity

By Lawrence Freeman

January 8, 2020

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has embarked on a bold effort to transform the political terrain of Ethiopia while simultaneously launching new economic reforms. The creation of the new Ethiopian Prosperity Party (PP) replaces the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front-(EPRDF), founded in 1988. Dissolving the reigning EPRDF and fashioning a new national party, or what some refer to as a Pan-Ethiopian party, is a courageous and daring move, essential for Ethiopia’s future.  This emerging nation of over 105 million people, already a leader in economic development, is now embarking on a challenging path to create de novo a national party.

The EPRDF, which had governed Ethiopia since May 1991, was composed of four Regional States, plus the cities of Addis Ababa (the capital), and Dire Dawa. The four regional parties are: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-(TPLF); the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization-(OPDO) (renamed early this year as Oromo Democratic Party-(ODP); the Amhara National Democratic Movement-(ANDM), (renamed early this year as Amhara Democratic Party-(ADP); and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement-(SEPDM), (a coalition of the 56 ethnic groups).

The EPRDF was fashioned to address Ethiopia’s earlier history of dictatorial and monarchical rule. The designers of the governing party believed that acknowledging ethnic identity, which was not recognized for centuries, would solve the tensions of that time. Recent conflicts in Ethiopia have shown this arrangement to be ineffective.

Of the four parties that comprised the EPRDF, only the TPLF has refused to join the new PP.  Already the governing parties representing 5 regions, which were not members of the EPRDF, but were recognized as allies of the EPRDF have joined the PP in preparation for May 2020 elections. They are: 1) Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP); 2) Benishangul-Gumuz Democratic Party (BDP); 3) Somali Democratic Party (SDP); 4) Gambela People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM); and 5) Harari National League (HNL). The PP will be inclusive, intending to represent all communities, inviting Tigrayans, who live in and outside the region to join. The PP program will have Amharic as its working language as per the constitution. However, Afan Oromo, Tigrigna, Somali and Afar will also be the working languages of the new PP.

Prime Minister Abiy’s founding of the PP on December 1, just six months before Ethiopia’s national elections, is fraught with personal risks for the new Prime Minister. However, this endeavor is bursting with the potential to transform politics and social relations in Ethiopian society. Ethiopia has a splendid history thousands of years old, rich with a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds. The PP is intended to harmonize the diversity of the nation with a national non-ethnic based party.

Chair Persons of the eight parties who also represent eight Regions as governing parties worked under the umbrella of the EPRDF coalition signed a document for the establishment of Prosperity Party. Photo Credit OPM

Nationalism: Not Ethnic Nationalism

A sovereign nation-state is not a mosaic of diverse groups competing with each other for control of the government or pursuing administration posts to obtain economic and financial rewards. A sovereign nation should have a national identity and a mission orientation for its people; all its people, regardless of ethnic heritage. Contributing to the distinctive identity of Ethiopia was its military defeat of the Italian Empire in the battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. Consequently, this victory, uniquely allowed Ethiopia to remain free from colonialism. Although this triumph occurred over one century ago, it is part of the psychological composition of the identity of all Ethiopians; whether they are conscious of its effects or not. Ethiopia’s decades’ long determination to develop from a disadvantaged nation to an aspiring lower middle-income nation with nascent light manufacturing industry is another feature of Ethiopia’s national identity.

Professed ethnonationalism errs in that it attempts to substitute the demands, often for legitimate needs, of one particular group above the interests of all the citizens. A nation-state cannot survive in a Hobbesian war of all against each other to obtain the most goodies for “my people.” Dare we forget the horrors of the ethnically driven tragic Biafran war in Nigeria from 1967-1970, and how geographic-ethnic distinctions have determined every unhealthy aspect of political and social life in Nigeria today?

Recriminations from the past are no excuse for actions today. Decisions concerning the best strategy for securing the future of Ethiopia must be based on how that policy will benefit the well-being of all citizens.

Medemer and Synergy

In his acceptance speech for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prime Minister Abiy spoke of the philosophy of the Medemer.

He said: “Medemer, an Amharic word, signifies synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny. Medemer is a homegrown idea that is reflected in our political, social, and economic life. I’d like to think of ‘Medemer’ as a social compact for Ethiopians to build a just, egalitarian, democratic, and humane society by pulling together our resources for our collective survival and prosperity…At its core, Medemer is a covenant of peace that seeks unity in our common humanity.”  One could appropriately, add for the “common good” of humankind.

Our “common humanity” exists in all of us. We are all born in the image of the Creator. All human beings are universally related by our endowed powers of creative mentation, more commonly known as reason. What distinguishes all human beings from the animal species is our mental power to discover new scientific and cultural principles embedded in our universe. All of us homo sapiens, regardless of where we were born, or any physical characteristics, are substantially more alike than we are different.  Therefore, our needs, desires, and aspirations in life are similar. All human beings not only share a common interest to enhance our lives, but we also share a desire for a better future for our posterity. There is no class of superior people, who have more rights than others due to privileges of birth, religion, or skin color. Each of us are placed here on earth to contribute to the common good of our common humanity using our individual talents.

If we accept synergy to mean cooperation and collaboration to achieve an enhanced effect, then let us act synergistically to ensure a prosperous Ethiopia that provides for all its citizens.

The Constitution and Sidama

Inherent problems of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia are evident in the November 2019 referendum conferring autonomy to Sidama. Ethiopia’s constitution stipulates that with this lawful vote, the people of Sidama, the fifth largest ethnic group, will become the tenth ethnic regional state. Eight of the existing nine regional states are governed by the dominant ethnic group of that geographical region. However, the Sidama people reside in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region–(SNNPR), where many other small ethnic groups (around 56) also exist.

The Preamble of Ethiopia’s Constitution properly emphasizes the conception of a united nation with a common purpose and goal for all its people.   It deliberates on “advancing our economic and social development,” “common interest….and the emergence of a common outlook,” and “to live as one economic community.” Article 14 resonates with the US Constitution, stating: “Every person has the inviolable right to life the security of person and liberty.” The same principle is echoed in Article 43 of the Constitution: The Right to Development. “The basic aim of development activities shall be to enhance the capacity of citizens for development and to meet their basic needs.”

The drawback to the Constitution begins in Article 8:Sovereignty of the People, where sovereign powers are divided up between “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” This is an obvious compromise to ethnicity. In truth; there is only one Ethiopian people and only one Ethiopian nation. The divisions in Ethiopian society are made explicit in Article39: “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right of secession……the right to a full measure of self-government…” This separation of Ethiopians into multiple groups, outlined in the Constitution, is the seed for the tensions gripping Ethiopia today.

In the aftermath of the Sidama referendum, Ethiopia potentially faces a conundrum. Will other ethnic minorities now choose to follow the same path as Sidama in calling for autonomy as delineated in the Constitution? It appears so. In addition to Sidama Zone*, which is now claiming to be the 10th state, there are other Zones in the Southern Region that want to follow the same route to statehood. To quote William Shakespeare, “there’s the rub.” Clearly the Ethiopian Constitution, despite the best intentions, has proven to be unsuccessful in governing this multi-ethnic nation.

The Challenging Course Ahead

The emergence of a national party such as the PP can commence the process of uniting the nation by moving away from a society where ethnic interests are placed above the welfare of the nation. Ultimately the problematic features of the Ethiopian Constitution will have to be revisited. Not to address this thorny issue will allow instigators to use ethnicity to disrupt what is most necessary for Ethiopia to move forward; a healthy process of dialogue and debate on the future of Ethiopia.

This discourse should include a discussion by the Ethiopian people on changing the structure of ethnic-based parties. For example, Ghana’s Constitution stipulates that “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” That no political party shall be formed “(a) on ethnic, gender, religion regional, professional or other sectional divisions; or (b) which uses words, slogans or symbols which could arouse ethnic, gender, religious, regional professional or other sectional divisions.”

The lack of vibrant Ethiopian nationalism creates a fertile environment for those who want to manipulate misplaced ethnic passions. The danger presents itself during times of social or economic stress, when the population’s frustrations can be channeled along ethnic fault lines, manipulating Ethiopians to act against their true self-interest: progress for the nation of Ethiopia. Opportunistic ringleaders will attempt to misdirect the population against each other via competing ethnicities, instead of uniting society behind a national policy. A policy of economic growth that includes a strategy to generate employment opportunities for the millions of youth preparing to enter the workforce is in the vital interests of all citizens.

Of course, it will take time for people to shed their desire to control policy making through ethnic-based parties. It is an existential moment for Ethiopia, and a national grounded PP is a needed first step.  It should be understood, that a sovereign nation, whose national mission is to promote the general welfare of its people does not require the elimination of historical cultures. On the contrary, the uniqueness and beauty of each ethnic culture can be synergistically woven into an elevated national character that transcends ethnicity.

*Zone is the middle tire next to the regional state in the governing structure that is also formed under ethnic lines the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR).

Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com