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New War in Ethiopia

9 November 2020

Americans should congratulate themselves. Their election system is definitely better than Ethiopia’s. In fact, it works so well that there’s unlikely to be another American civil war.

The United States, a federal country with a complex and decrepit voting system, has nevertheless just held a national election despite about a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths. President Donald Trump is finding it hard to process his defeat, but the system itself worked fine despite the pandemic.

Ethiopia, another federal country with one-third of America’s population but less than one-hundredth of the US Covid death rate, should have held its scheduled election this autumn too, but Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed it “because of Covid”. That was a very serious mistake.

The government of the Tigray region of Ethiopia accused Abiy of needless delay, and when he refused to change his mind they went ahead and held the election in Tigray anyway.

Abiy said the newly elected government of Tigray (same as the old government) was illegal because he had postponed the elections, Tigray said the federal government was illegal because it had unilaterally extended its mandate instead of holding the elections, and they went to war. In only a week they’ve worked their way up from local clashes to air strikes.

This is so stupid and reckless that it makes American politics look positively demure by comparison. To be fair, though, Ethiopia has only recently emerged from 45 years of revolution, white and red terror, renewed tyranny, more revolution, and practically non-stop civil and international war. Ethiopia is a really hard place to govern.

When Abiy Ahmed was appointed prime minister two years ago by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), he was the first Oromo ever to govern the country, even though the Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups (a third of the population). They have been unhappy for a long time, so that was a plus.

So was the fact that he was the son of a Christian-Muslim marriage, useful in a country that is two-thirds Christian, one-third Muslim. And Abiy’s intentions were good: he immediately set about to dismantle the stranglehold on power of the various ethnic militias that had fought and won the long war against the Derg, the previous Communist dictatorship.

The most powerful of those militias is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Tigray, the country’s northernmost province, has only 6 million people, a mere 5% of Ethiopia’s population, but Tigrayan soldiers and politicians have dominated the EPRDF coalition and government for most of the last thirty years because of their historic role in the war against the Derg.

The Tigrayan political elite’s privilege was widely resented, and it was time for it to end. Last year Abiy tried to do that by merging all the ethnic militia-based parties into a single Prosperity Party, but the TPLF leadership wouldn’t play. They had always lived in the castle, and nobody was going to make them go and live with the commoners.

It is, alas, as simple as that, and perhaps a more accomplished civilian politician could have finessed it: cabinet posts, ambassadorships and/or fat lifetime pensions for the more flexible Tigrayan leaders, discreet but massive bribes for the greedier ones, and a couple of fatal ‘accidents’ for the hardest nuts.

Abiy Ahmed, despite a background in intelligence work that should have given him good political skills, is inflexible and confrontational. The cascade of threats, counter-threats and ultimatums between him and the TPLF leadership is now culminating in what amounts to a Tigrayan war of secession.

It could be a long war, because Tigrayans are over-represented in the armed forces and much of the army’s heavy weapons and equipment, which were based in Tigray because of the border war with Eritrea, has fallen into the TPLF’s hands. The TPLF has no air force, but it can match the federal army in everything up to and including mechanised divisions.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second-biggest country, very poor but with a fast-growing economy. The very last thing it needs is yet another civil war, which in current circumstances could also lead to other regions trying to secede. Even if the TPLF was trying to provoke a war (which looks quite likely), Abiy Ahmed’s first duty was to avoid it at all costs.

They gave Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize last year for bringing Ethiopia’s 22-year border war with Eritrea to a formal end, but that award has been going downhill ever since Henry Kissinger got one. They even gave one to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who now goes around condoning genocide.

Maybe we also need a Nobel Booby Prize.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 11. (“Americans…war”; and “It is…nuts”)

River of the Dammed

When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed got the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending his country’s 20-year military confrontation with neighbouring Eritrea, Donald Trump got quite cross. He should have got the prize, Trump said, because it was he who had prevented a war.

“I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said: ‘What, did I have something to do with it?’ Yeah, but you know, that’s the way it is,” said Trump, philosophical as ever. Real super-heroes know that saving countries is a thankless task, but they do it anyway.

Part of the problem in this case, however, is that Trump was talking about the wrong country. War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but Trump missed all of his generation’s lessons (heel spurs). Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, what’s the difference? They’re all in Africa, and they all start with ‘E’.

The conference where Trump allegedly saved a country was about preventing a war between Ethiopia and Egypt, not between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Nobel Prize Committee can’t give him a prize for his walk-on role in those talks because Egypt-Ethiopia is not a war-that-didn’t-happen (here’s your Prize), just a war-that-hasn’t-happened-yet (no prizes).

Three months later that war still hasn’t happened, but it might. In fact, the deadline for an agreement in months-long direct talks between the main parties in the dispute, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, passed yesterday (Wednesday). Now the dispute goes to the three heads of government to agree on a mediator – and if they can’t agree, maybe we’ll see our first real ‘water war’.

Various think tanks have been touting the idea of water wars for decades. (Never ask the barber if you need a haircut, never ask a think tank if there’s a risk of war.) But this time they might hit the jackpot: a war between Egypt and Ethiopia, each with 100 million people, and Sudan as piggy-in-the-middle.

It would be hard to arrange, since Egypt and Ethiopia don’t share a border, but they do share a river: the Nile. Ethiopia is building a huge dam – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – on the Nile, and Egypt is very unhappy about it. So unhappy, in fact, that it would be no surprise if there were Ethiopian anti-aircraft missiles hidden in the hills around the damsite.

Egypt depends on the Nile for almost all of its water – it’s basically a big river flowing through a desert – so it’s very sensitive about people tampering with the source of that water. The branch flowing out of the Ethiopian highlands, the Blue Nile, accounts for 85% of that flow, so Cairo is bound to get twitchy when Ethiopia starts building a dam on it.

On the other hand, the GERD is strictly a hydroelectric dam, meant to double Ethiopia’s supply of electricity. They’re not taking any water out for irrigation, so all the water should just flow through, spin the turbines, and carry on down to Sudan and Egypt. The only water lost would be the relatively small amount that evaporated in the reservoir.

That’s the theory, but in practice there are two problems. One is just filling the dam’s immense reservoir. That’s 74 cubic kilometres of water that will never flow down the Nile: a full year’s flow if you took it all at once. But then everybody in Egypt would starve, so the dam must be filled over a period of years. The dispute is about how many: Ethiopia wants 4 to 7 years, Egypt is talking about 12 to 21 years.

That’s even before they get into the details, like what happens if there is a succession of drought years? Does Ethiopia go on filling the reservoir anyway, or does it stop, maybe at the expense of enduring big power cuts because the dam is still not producing its planned electrical output?

With good will it could all be sorted out, but good will is notable by its absence.

Egypt is a brutal military dictatorship; Ethiopia is a democracy. Egypt is the traditional great power of the region; Ethiopia is the rapidly rising rival. And the Egyptians, naturally enough, are paranoid about the Nile: even without the dam, their rising population means they will face grave water shortages within five years.

Back in 2013, at a conference to discuss the dam, senior Egyptian politicians discussed ways of destroying it with then-president Mohammed Morsi. (They didn’t realise the meeting was being televised live.) The preferred method seemed to be backing Ethiopian anti-government rebels, but as Morsi said, “All options are open.”

The man who overthrew Morsi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is certainly no stranger to violence – and Ethiopia will start filling the reservoir this summer.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Various…middle”; and “That’s…output”)

Ethiopia’s New Saviour

Nobody outside the ruling party really knows much about Abiy Ahmed beyond his official Party biography, but Ethiopia’s new prime minister looks a lot like Magic Man at the moment. Three years of mounting protests have suddenly stopped, the state of emergency has been lifted, and with a single dramatic announcement he has ended twenty years of hot and cold war with neighbouring Eritrea.

He did that on Tuesday by declaring (as only the leader of a tough authoritarian regime can) that Ethiopia now accepts the 2002 ruling of an international border commission and will pull its troops out of Badme, the market town at the centre of the quarrel with Eritrea.

At least eighty thousand soldiers and civilians were killed in the hot war with Eritrea (1998-2000), and several million soldiers wasted years of their lives on the border during the long cold war that followed (which briefly went hot again as recently as 2016). But Abiy Ahmed has ended all that with a wave of his hand.

That should have been done long ago, but Ethiopia found it hard to accept the border commission’s ruling for two reasons. One was that Eritrea started the war by seizing Badme. That was incredibly stupid, since Ethiopia has twenty times as many people, but stupid things happen. The Georgians faced even longer odds in 2008, but they attacked Russia anyway. (Both the Eritreans and the Georgians lost.)

The other reason for the long cold war was that the territory around Badme used to be in Ethiopia’s Tigre state, the home of the Tigrinya-speaking ethnic group who then dominated the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They only make up 5% of Ethiopia’s population, but they simply refused to hand Badme over – for sixteen years.

So something has clearly changed in Ethiopia, and Abiy Ahmed himself is a new phenomenon. He belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, the biggest in the country, but he is the first Oromo in all of Ethiopia’s history to lead the government.

The growing protests of the past three years were strongest in Oromia, because the people there felt marginalised politically, culturally and economically. Hundreds of people have been killed in the demonstrations and the situation was getting out of hand, so the ruling party’s solution was to put an Oromo in charge – but one has spent his whole adult life serving the EPRDF.

Abiy is such a man. He joined the army straight out of school, worked his way up to colonel’s rank, then shifted to a senior position in the intelligence and security apparatus of what is, after all, a police state, and finally moved into politics.

He has been given power to deal with some of the biggest grievances of the population precisely because he is trusted not to let power slip away from the EPRDF. Maybe his appointment as prime minister` will calm things down, but don’t mistake it for the start of a ‘democratic transition’.

Ethiopia is the only one of sub-Saharan Africa’s three economic giants that is not democratic. Unlike South Africa and Nigeria, it has a single ruling party that dominates everything.
The EPRDF is a permanent coalition of four parties representing the four biggest ethnic groups (Oromo, Amhara, Tigrinya and Somali), but all are part of a highly disciplined whole that has an almost Soviet ruling style. It is not encumbered by specifically Communist or even socialist ideological obsessions, but elections are no more meaningful than the old Soviet ones were.

Over the past decade, this hard-line approach has delivered an annual average of 10% economic growth in Ethiopia, far higher than in South Africa or Nigeria. And while there is clearly serious friction between the various Ethiopian ethnic groups that make up the EPRDF, it is not significantly worse than the ethnic rivalries that plague the politics of the two big democracies.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that some people have been wondering aloud whether Ethiopia’s model is better for African countries. People do end up in jail or in exile for opposing the regime, or simply disappear, but not all that many, and the system is delivering the goods economically. Maybe it’s worth a try.

Maybe, but don’t count on it. In the short run, authoritarian politics often produces better results than democracy. Orders are given and obeyed, and things get done. But over the long run the opposition builds up, and there is no democratic safety valve to let off the steam.
When the dam finally bursts, you can lose a lot.

Consider the quarter-century of lost growth in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The EPRDF will not last forever, because no system of that sort ever does, and when it goes it could be with an almighty crash. That may not happen for quite a long time, but Abiy Ahmed is probably not Magic Man.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“That…years”)

Sudan: Peace Through Changing Borders

11 February 2011

Sudan: Peace Through Changing Borders

by Gwynne Dyer

“The people of South Sudan, for the first time since 1898, are going to determine their own future,” declared Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin, southern Sudan’s information minister, before last month’s referendum on the region’s independence. “In fact, it will be the last-born state on this continent of Africa.” If he meant that no more African countries will split up, however, he was probably wrong.

The referendum was a resounding success from the southern point of view. It’s natural to be suspicious of referendums that produce “yes” votes of almost 99 percent, but in this case it was a genuine expression of southern opinion. The new state will become independent on 9 July, and so far it looks like the erstwhile government of undivided Sudan, based in Khartoum, will accept the outcome peacefully.

Early last month, speaking in the southern capital Juba, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir said: “I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides.” After decades of war between the Muslim, Arabic-speaking north and the very different south, where most people speak local languages and are Christian, division makes sense. But it also creates a precedent.

That font of wisdom on geopolitical affairs, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafy, warned a meeting of African and Arab leaders last October that southern Sudan’s independence would spread like a “disease…to all of Africa…With this precedent, investors will be frightened to invest in Africa.” But the African Union has blessed the split, while emphasising that this is a special situation and very much an exception.

It is a very special situation. About two million people have been killed in Sudan’s 43 years of civil war, the great majority of them southerners. As a result of the endless fighting, southern Sudan is one of the least developed regions in the world: the same size as France, it only has 60 km. (40 miles) of paved road. The southerners deserve their independence – but the implications are vast.

The old Organisation of African Unity, the African Union’s predecessor, had a rule that no border inherited from the colonial era could be changed. To allow frontiers to change in order to regroup people according to their ethnic, linguistic or religious identities would just open the door to endless war. For a long time, it didn’t happen.

The first partial break from the policy was the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, after many years of civil war, but that exception was explained on the grounds that Eritrea had been ruled as a separate country by the Italians. This time, however, is different.

The African Union cannot justify the division of Sudan on the grounds that the south was separate under British colonial rule; it wasn’t. This is just a pragmatic decision to divide a country because the cost in blood and treasure of keeping it united has grown too high.

If it’s okay to split up Sudan, what’s to stop other secessionist groups from launching wars of independence, knowing that if enough people are killed they will probably get their way in the end? How about Nigeria? The oil-rich southeastern region (Biafra) has tried that once already. The Congo? There was once a vicious war, backed by Western mining interests, for the independence of the province of Katanga.

The rot has already spread beyond Africa. The decision in 2008 by the NATO countries and some others to recognise the independence of Kosovo, which was still legally a province of Serbia, created a similar precedent in Europe. In fact, it is an even more sweeping precedent, because the Serbian government, unlike the Sudanese, did not assent to the separation.

If Kosovo’s independence can be recognised without Serbia’s agreement, why can’t Turkish-majority northern Cyprus become legally independent without the permission of the Greek Cypriot-dominated government in Nicosia? Why can’t the breakaway bits of Georgia be recognised as independent states? Why can’t there be an independent Kurdish state?

Why not hold the long-promised, long-denied plebiscite in divided Kashmir, and let the local people decide, district by district, whether they want to be part of Pakistan, or part of India, or independent? Why can’t the western half of New Guinea separate peacefully from Indonesia? For that matter, why can’t Tibet and Xinjiang (Sinkiang) hold referendums on independence from China?

Good questions. Most of these situations have involved bloodshed in the past, and much of it continues in the present. The sum of human happiness would probably be increased if these ethnically distinct areas got to choose their own futures, and it is not necessarily true that changing the borders would be a bloodier business than keeping them frozen in place.

Conflict is still possible between Sudan and South Sudan, especially over the sharing of the oil revenue. Most of the oil is in the south, but the pipelines take it out through the north. So far, however, both sides are behaving in a very grown-up way, and together they are an advertisement for the virtues of letting borders change.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The old…high”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.