Just like I predicted over many weeks on this page, Ethiopia’s fresh-faced prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is now foolishly and needlessly putting the final touches to the dismantling of Africa’s oldest state. Through a series of missteps, childish errors and a rush of blood to the head, he has not only plunged Africa’s second most populous country and fastest-growing economy into a brutal, fratricidal, and unwinnable war, but most importantly, he has unsettled Ethiopia’s delicately balanced ethnic federation, destroying the basis of unity, peace and coexistence among the country’s disparate peoples.
After the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) brushed aside the Ethiopian army in June, obliterating up to ten (10) divisions, killing over 10, 000 and capturing about the same number, Abiy launched another major offensive at the end of October involving soldiers, drones, tanks and airstrikes”. That also ended disastrously. The TPLF not only beat back his army, but it had also made huge advances and is now within a close distance of Addis Ababa, the capital city.
After the Ethiopian army was dismantled, Abiy resorted to forced conscription to raise piles of human bodies to defend the capital from the TPLF. In November, he declared a state of emergency, ordering those with weapons “to hand them over to the government” and recalling retired officers back to duty. Crucially, the government has ordered all residents of Addis Ababa to prepare to defend their neighbourhoods when the TPLF enters the capital. As if that was not enough, there are reports that all citizens 18 years and above are being forcefully conscripted to join the army.
And to show Abiy has learnt nothing from the events of the past year (the profiling, arrests, detentions and killings of ethnic Tigrayans, which was the reason many Tigrayans joined the rebellion and resolved to fight to the death), he has again ordered house to house search, the rounding up of people of Tigrayan descent and detaining them in at least three detention facilities in Addis Ababa. In other places outside the capital, he simply set up other ethnic groups against Tigrayans with low key massacres and ethnic cleansing going on all over the country.
There is now understandably a stalemate. While the TPLF holds a clear military advantage, they have no political support beyond their region and the alliances with fringe rebel groups such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The Abiy government, on the other hand, has successfully mobilised most of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups against the TPLF and has clear political advantage, but has no trained, cohesive army to prosecute the war.
Of course, the economy, previously Africa’s largest growing at about 10 percent per annum, is collapsing. External debt is expected to rise from just above $35 billion to $60 billion this year (nearly 70 percent of GDP). The government is now asking the IMF for a bailout while also begging other creditors for debt forgiveness. Meanwhile, the government has kept borrowing at exorbitant rates to finance the war. Prices of goods and services have skyrocketed since the beginning of the war and the local currency has been losing value steadily.
While the world holds its breath and continues to pile pressure on the warring parties to agree to peace talks and negotiated settlement to end the war, history tells us this hope is misplaced and will yield no result. I am sure behind the public diplomatic niceties, those pushing for peace talks know the people of that region are renowned for their pig-headedness and propensity to press the self-destruct button.
In 1998, the world was shocked as Ethiopia and Eritrea – two brother countries – descended into a totally senseless and inexplicable war over “a stretch of relatively useless borderland”, which had no more than symbolic value and had never been an issue between the two sides prior to the war. Described by journalists and watchers of events as a crazy/foolish war of ‘brothers’, against the wrong enemy, the two main protagonists of the war – the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government and Eritrea – are one and the same people with the same language (Tigrinya), culture and heritage. Many of the soldiers in opposing trenches were directly related. In fact, then Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi and the Eritrean President, Isaias Afewerki, are first cousins. The two sides fought together and side-by-side against Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime and the Derg Communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, separated on brotherly terms, had a fused economy and Eritrea adopted and was using the Ethiopian currency – the Birr – as their currency.
Yet, the war raged on for two painful years and defied all diplomatic efforts – including that by the late Libyan strongman, Muammar Gaddafi and president Bill Clinton – to bring the warring sides to the discussion table. Both sides revel in their fierce pride and vowed never to back down, resulting in the “no-war-no-peace” situation that prevailed at the border even after the formal end of hostilities in 2000.
The Eritrean President, Isaias Afewerki even laughed-off a peace process initiated by Susan Rice, then assistant secretary of state for African affairs thus:
“[The Americans] believe in quick fixes and bulldozing and that does not work…It is not in our culture. . . We have our own values and traditions, prestige and pride.”
Yet the useless war “over nothing” devastated both countries, with over 100, 000 people killed, around two million displaced and over $1 billion spent on arms and ammunition while the larger population died of hunger and starvation. Isaias Afewerki used the opportunity to completely militarize the Eritrean society, instituted compulsory military service for all males 18 – 50 indefinitely and is reputed to be the most militarized and reclusive society in the world apart from North Korea.
Abiy has learnt nothing from his country’s history and is repeating almost verbatim the catastrophic errors of the past hoping to achieve a different outcome. Apparently the German Philosopher, Georg Hegel was right when he said “the only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”.