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Emirati Meddling and Abiy’s Reckless Ambition: A Recipe for Chaos in the Horn

April 8, 2024
12 mins read

By Alex de Waal and Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe
April 8, 2024

Ethiopia’s wars have depended on largesse from the UAE. E
Ethiopia’s wars have depended on largesse from the UAE. E

The Ethiopian civil war, also known as the Tigray war, stands out as one of the most devastating conflicts of the twenty-first century. With a death toll surpassing 500,000 soldiers and potentially 360,000 civilians, it ranks among the deadliest conflicts since the Cold War. The war not only resulted in widespread atrocities and sexual violence but also caused significant destruction to the Tigray region and severely impacted Ethiopia’s previously stable and rapidly developing economy.

However, the crisis currently faced by Ethiopia is equally devastating. In November 2022, a cease-fire was declared between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, but true peace has not been restored. The government now confronts a new rebellion in the Amhara region, involving some of the same groups that previously supported them in Tigray, leading to a state of ungovernability. Additionally, there is an ongoing insurgency in Oromia, the largest and most populous region of the country. Numerous local armed groups are also engaged in conflict with the government, resulting in large areas of the country becoming inaccessible. Furthermore, the northern regions, including Tigray, are experiencing a severe famine. The United Nations reports that approximately 30 million people, equivalent to a quarter of the population, require urgent food assistance. Without significant humanitarian aid, many individuals are at risk of starvation in the upcoming months.

In recent months, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has not only been dealing with domestic issues within the country but has also found himself entangled in various conflicts with neighboring countries. This includes stirring tensions with Somalia, becoming involved in Sudan’s civil war, and even making threatening gestures towards Eritrea, which was previously an ally during the Tigrayan war. Adding to the complexity of the situation, foreign powers such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been providing arms and financial support to different factions within the region, potentially escalating the conflicts into a proxy war.

Ethiopia’s multifaceted crisis presents a challenging situation with no easy solution. However, it is crucial for the international community to actively engage with Ethiopia and provide assistance. The United States, in particular, should swiftly increase its humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and exert pressure on its Middle Eastern partners, especially the UAE, to put an end to their damaging rivalry in the Horn of Africa. Without immediate action, the country could face mass starvation, which would further destabilize an already fragile political order. Additionally, Washington must demonstrate its support for an inclusive national dialogue in Ethiopia, where Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party should participate as a key player, but without having veto power over other participants or the overall agenda. The objective of such a dialogue should be to prevent the country from descending into further violent fragmentation.

EMPERORS AND INSURGENTS

One of the paradoxes of Ethiopia’s growing fragmentation is that Ethiopians, in the abstract, tend to revere the idea of their country. They celebrate its near unbroken history as an independent state—the brief exception being a five-year occupation by fascist Italy—and typically respect their ruler. But there is another side to Ethiopian history: the country is made up of a patchwork of different ethnic groups, and in various eras when national authority has been weak, rival fiefdoms have jostled for control. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, known to Ethiopians as “the Age of the Princes,” there was no central authority.

Modern Ethiopia only began to take shape in the 1860s, when a capable military entrepreneur defeated or intimidated his rivals and centralized power. He crowned himself Emperor Teodros. His successor, Menelik II, then built a formidable army that defeated the Italians and greatly expanded the imperial territory, and after World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie further consolidated central power, during a decades-long reign.

In the late twentieth century, however, Ethiopia again teetered at the edge of disintegration. In 1974, following a popular revolt, the army overthrew the aging Haile Selassie. Over the next 17 years, a military junta headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam fought insurgencies in every corner of the country and played a game of mutual destabilization with Somalia and Sudan. The extraordinary Soviet support Mengistu received allowed him to build the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa. But all he could do was prolong the warfare with multiple armed groups, which had themselves struck up tactical alliances with foreign powers. The result was devastation and famine in Ethiopia and neighboring countries, culminating in the destruction of Somalia and a protracted crisis in Sudan. It took the collapse of Mengistu’s Soviet patron to bring this era to an end, by which point Ethiopia itself was fracturing. Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia by force of arms in 1991, formalized in a referendum two years later.

By contrast, the era from the 1990s to the late 2010s, when Ethiopia was led by a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, was a time of relative stability and growth. There are many possible criticisms of EPRDF’s 27-year rule: despite its name, it was anything but democratic. The conflict with Eritrea was not resolved, although the EPRDF maintained a no-war no-peace situation. Nevertheless, drawing on an authoritarian development approach modeled on South Korea and Taiwan, the EPRDF shook off Ethiopia’s reputation as a land of hunger and conflict. Instead, it became the increasingly prosperous anchor state of the Horn of Africa, a bulwark against extremism and instability, and a major international partner in a new peace and security architecture involving the UN and the African Union. Much of that progress, however, has been completely reversed in the six years since Abiy became prime minister in 2018.

THE ABIY ILLUSION

Initially, Abiy’s rise to power seemed to hold great promise. The new leader, who came from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, immediately embarked on a dizzying program of highly touted reforms. He was widely embraced, both by Ethiopians who had resented the EPRDF’s authoritarian ways and by foreigners who eyed the commercial opportunities that would follow the privatization of state-owned telecommunications companies and banking. Internationally, he also won accolades—including, extravagantly, a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—for a security pact that formally ended the war with neighboring Eritrea. But it soon became clear that those who lauded him mistook the icing for the cake.

Under the previous regime, Ethiopia’s various regions had been held together by a federal formula that aimed to maintain the country’s complicated ethnic mosaic under a strong government in Addis Ababa. Designed jointly by the EPRDF, the coalition of opposition forces that had defeated Mengistu, and the Oromo Liberation Front, which represented the largest of the country’s numerous ethnic groups—or “nations and nationalities,” as Ethiopians call them—this federal system undergirded a quarter century of stability.

But the approach had always been strained. As Ethiopia transitioned from an agrarian peasant society to a fast-developing capitalist economy in the new millennium, ethnic boundaries sometimes clashed with the growth of cities grew and with the movements of a mobile workforce. New intergroup tensions emerged. At first, Abiy promised to transcend those divisions, but then he switched to a divide-and-rule strategy that deepened them.

Despite his own Oromo background, Abiy’s first war was with the Oromo, whose youth movement had brought down his hapless predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Because none of the leaders of the Oromo movement were members of parliament, they were ineligible to become prime minister when the position suddenly became vacant. Determined to consolidate his power, Abiy turned against those leaders, marginalizing some, detaining others, and using military repression against the guerrillas of the Oromo Liberation Front. As a result, although many among the Oromo elite are Abiy’s most powerful backers today, fighting continues to ravage many parts of Oromia.

But it was Abiy’s second war that caused true devastation. Egged on by his new ally, the dictator of neighboring Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, Abiy confronted the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had formerly been the dominant party in the EPRDF. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, for its part, upped the ante by holding regional elections and denying the legitimacy of Abiy’s government, but it was woefully underprepared for the joint military assault—which Addis Ababa euphemistically called a “law enforcement operation”—by federal and Eritrean forces in November 2020. Amid massacre, pillage, and starvation, Tigrayans formed a broad-based defense force that pushed out the occupying armies and then marched south, even threatening the capital. By the middle of the war, in July 2021, the international Famine Review Committee found that without a cease-fire and immediate large-scale aid, Tigray would descend into famine. The government’s response, however, was simply to deny the hunger crisis and divert food aid to other purposes.

FROM CONFLICT TO CHAOS

Although the November 2022 cease-fire agreement formally ended the Tigray war, few of its provisions have been honored. It has failed to restore civilian governance and economic stability in the region. Contrary to the agreement, many parts of the region are still under the control of Amhara militias and Eritrean troops, both of which supported the government in the war, and more than a million Tigrayans are in camps for the internally displaced. Most Tigrayan fighters remain in camps, awaiting promised demobilization packages. Meanwhile, some 2.4 million Tigrayans are on the brink of famine.

On the government side, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces suffered immense losses. Its generals have said that it suffered 393,000 fatalities over the two-year war. Such losses reduced most of the professional army to conscripts in uniforms. Other forces—the Tigrayans, the Eritreans, the Amhara militia—also suffered tens of thousands of deaths. As the national army was pummeled, each region’s own special police forces were expanded, provided with heavy weapons, and turned into de facto ethnic armies. They fought alongside the national army in Tigray but ultimately answered to their ethno-regional state governments. The newly formed elite Republican Guard also has a separate command directly answerable to the prime minister.

No sooner had the Tigray war ended than a new insurgency in the Amhara region erupted. Abiy had deployed Amhara militia, known as the Fano, to fight in Tigray, with promises of land, loot, and positions of power. But the Fano were not represented in the cease-fire talks. Its members felt betrayed, and when Abiy declared that all regional militia and special forces would come under central control or be demobilized, they rebelled. Having set the hounds loose, Abiy now faced their snarling jaws.

 

Abiy’s response to the Amhara rebellion has been self-defeating. In April 2023, he announced a new “law enforcement operation” in the region, sending in federal troops that have used indiscriminate violence, including drone attacks, that have outraged local communities and stiffened their resolve. Helped by defecting army officers, the Fano have increasingly turned the Amhara countryside into no-go areas and are threatening major cities on the main highways leading to the capital.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s economy has been ravaged by rampant inflation, foreign exchange shortages, and widespread food insecurity. Much of this turmoil is due to the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price spikes, but vast military spending and continued fighting and security breakdown in many parts of the country have helped undo Ethiopia’s hard-won reputation for growth and stability. In 2023, Abiy trumpeted that Ethiopia had become a wheat exporter for the first time. But the credibility of his claims were undermined when USAID officials in Ethiopia uncovered what diplomats called the biggest ever theft of food aid, involving government officials diverting unknown quantities of American-provided wheat to flour mills for resale.

EMIRATI ENABLERS

Improbably, amid Ethiopia’s proliferating troubles, the capital city, Addis Ababa, has maintained a semblance of normality. Despite the economic crisis, Abiy has been investing lavishly in prestige projects, including a new national palace estimated to cost $10 billion. When pressed by parliamentarians about this spending, the prime minister has insisted that he raised the funds privately. In fact, the likely source of the funds is the outside power that has done more than any other to buttress Abiy’s rule: the United Arab Emirates.

Since Abiy came to power, the UAE has heavily backed his government to serve its own geopolitical interests. Abu Dhabi is seeking to become the dominant power in the Red Sea arena—the strategic and volatile domain between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean that includes the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has used its financial muscle to win the support of military factions in Libya, Sudan, and southern Yemen, as well as governments such as Chad and South Sudan. As a new member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) club, the UAE is also positioning itself as a broker of global dealings in oil and gold and has a fierce rivalry with its neighbor Saudi Arabia to become the leading power in the Red Sea. Alongside Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia has become a major prize in this contest.

By turning Abiy’s Ethiopia into a client state, however, the UAE has helped feed the prime minister’s worst instincts. The Emiratis’ deep pockets and their predilection for moving fast with little heed for the consequences have encouraged Abiy’s recklessness and ambition. Central to the prime minister’s dreams of restoring Ethiopia’s greatness is regaining access to the sea, which the country lost with the independence of Eritrea 30 years ago. The EPRDF’s strategy was to invest in transport infrastructure that would join Ethiopia to its neighbors and facilitate trade. For Abiy, however, the prestige factor looms larger, and he wants to build a navy. The cease-fire in the Tigray war had barely been agreed to when Abiy began issuing new threats against Eritrea, his erstwhile ally in that war.

On January 1, 2024, Abiy upended decades of security policy toward Somalia by declaring a unilateral deal with the breakaway Republic of Somaliland. Abiy promised to formally recognize Somaliland’s independence from Somalia in return for an Ethiopian naval base on the Gulf of Aden. This was a direct provocation to the Somali leadership in Mogadishu and ratcheted up tensions between Somalia and Somaliland. In response to Abiy’s aggressive moves, Somalia and Eritrea have begun to create an informal alliance, backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to encircle Ethiopia. The coalition may bring in Djibouti, too.

 

Abiy’s alliance with the UAE has ushered in a dangerous era of proxy war across the Horn.

Now, there is a risk that recurring clashes over a disputed border between Somaliland and the neighboring Somali region of Puntland could escalate further. In a new twist, in early April, the Puntland regional government angrily rejected a constitutional amendment pushed by Somalia’s federal president, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed. Ethiopia immediately reached out to Puntland, and Somalia responded by expelling the Ethiopian ambassador to Mogadishu.

And then there is Sudan’s civil war. Three years ago, a long-quiescent border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia erupted into active hostilities. Abiy’s predecessors took a live-and-let-live approach, wanting to keep Sudan as an ally in light of the more strategic issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Originally budgeted at $6 billion, it is now 95 percent complete, despite opposition from Egypt. But Abiy has not only reversed his predecessors’ circumspect Sudan policy but also sided with Sudan’s paramilitary insurgency, the Rapid Support Forces, providing them with bases in their fight against the Sudanese Armed Forces. Notably, the RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemedti” is also backed by the UAE. In turn, the SAF leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has turned to Egypt and Turkey for support and has allied with Eritrea.

Thus, Abiy’s ambitions and his alliance with the UAE have ushered in a dangerous new era of proxy war and destabilization across the Horn of Africa. Over recent months, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey have been pouring arms into the region to undermine Emirati influence. Now, the standoff between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu threatens to develop into a larger conflagration. Already, it has imperiled Somalia’s security arrangements, which include Ethiopian contingents serving under an African Union flag. If Ethiopian forces withdraw, or are expelled, from those AU deployments, the Somalian militant group al Shabab will be the beneficiary and could threaten Mogadishu.

Meanwhile, numerous flashpoints in and around Ethiopia could explode at any moment. Tigrayan leaders have not taken a position in the unfolding rivalries among the encircling powers, but if Tigray’s humanitarian crisis descends into famine, they will come under pressure to use their military assets to break their region’s isolation by throwing their lot in with one side or the other. Abiy’s support for Sudan’s RSF could spark fighting with the Sudanese Armed Forces near the Ethiopian dam project. The insurgency in Amhara could escalate and pose a real threat to Abiy’s control over Addis Ababa. In the coming year, Ethiopia could also face food riots, mass hunger-induced migration, and a broader social and security breakdown.

WHERE IS WASHINGTON?

Although Ethiopia’s internal and external crises have been multiplying, the United States and other Western powers, distracted by the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, have so far largely ignored them. To begin with, Washington and other aid donors have not addressed the food emergency with anything close to the scale and urgency needed. Newly introduced external monitoring systems should allay concerns over aid theft and waste, and any concerns about aid mismanagement must now be overridden by the humanitarian imperative to save millions of threatened lives and livelihoods. Alongside the United States, the Gulf states should put some of their billions to humanitarian use by stopping Ethiopia’s slide into mass starvation.

The Biden administration also needs to lean on its Middle Eastern allies—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and, above all, the UAE—to stop funneling arms into the Horn of Africa. By now, most regional power brokers, including Saudi Arabia, have recognized the hazard that Abiy will pose if he is allowed to pursue his expansionist dreams, unmoored by concerns for regional stability. The UAE is the outlier: it must be persuaded to restrain Abiy and stop indulging him.

Ethiopia needs responsible leadership if it is to survive as a functioning state. Getting the country back on course will require the political elite to set aside their differences and recognize that their country may soon collapse. But here, too, the United States and its partners could help by encouraging the different political groups to take part in an inclusive and candid national dialogue based on the federal constitution. Once today’s spiraling crisis is arrested, Ethiopians can begin to talk their way toward a new political settlement. Abiy can have a voice in this process, but it cannot be louder than others’.

Fomenting instability in the Red Sea arena is in no one’s interest. The United States should be working with all its Middle Eastern allies—and with partners in Asia and Europe, as well as the African Union—on a formula for collective security on both shores of the Red Sea. Part of this formula must be an Ethiopian government that plays by the rules and is not offered powerful incentives to break them.

 

5 Comments

  1. Alex De Waal,
    Deja vu. One of the white TPLF’s. He likes always bandas.
    Known for his anti Ethiopia works, and as he himself said, he has been paid also by TPLF.
    Take your hands off from Ethiopia amd Afrika. We have enough from you.
    Ethiopianism is against Bandanet.

    • The guy is the hired gun of the TPLF and has no qualm at all though posing as an expert. The fascist leaders of the TPLF expended millions Tigray lives for their insatiable appetite for power and wealth. They will sacrifice more as long as the people in Tigray offer themselves as expendable items

  2. I thought Ol’ Cap’n Cotchibee and his Gitlow house boys had decided to go into retirement already. Boy, you never tell!!!

  3. Hello, this is White Citizens Council calling from Medford! My preoccupation is to see that country I hate so much, Ethiopia, go belly up and shatter into unrecognizable pile of dirt. I am so fortunate to have a couple of house niggers to spruce up my chicken scratch. You should see the other Gitlow I got. You think Hamas has built intricate tunnels but this nigger of mine had built a tunnel from his prison that stretched for 250 miles all the way to the Kenyan border with his bare hands to escape Mengistu’s prison. Unfortunately he was caught and spent 10 more years in prison. In prison he finished all 4 high school grades in just 9 months and was sent to one of Mengistu’s favorite foreign countries on scholarship. Now he works at my plantation. Like me he hates that country called Ethiopia with a passion. So I advise you not say even the word Ethiopia around him. He can’t even think without me around that I made him the deputy for the colored here at my plantation in Medford.

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