Tesfaye Desalegne (PhD)
Former Ethiopian Diplomat
There is no dearer term than the word “sovereignty” to Ethiopians, who have fought tooth and nail against all external aggressions and spilt their blood. They endured massacres of the fascist Italy on conventional battles and unconventional ones. It is not without reason that the country remained the only independent nation on the African soil. Perhaps no singular country has carried the burden of internal and external conflicts more than Ethiopians, to the credit of which, the country’s past and present war heroes are countless.
Across the Mediterranean, when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in Europe in 1648, Ethiopia was a sovereign nation, perhaps with larger size than today. Even by the provisions of the Westphalia Treaty, the two concepts that were flying high on the streets of Europe as sovereignty and noninterference, Ethiopian statesmen long embraced them, perhaps to the point of remaining an isolated land from the rest of the world.
Today, even if the world is governed by the dictum of sovereignty and noninterference, the practice has rather been flawed and twisted by the same people who engraved them. Although the Westphalian paradigm leaves a fundamental footprint on international relations, anchoring on the two concepts, the basic essence of the Treaty has lost its relevance over time.
As argued by many, the Treaty’s prominence has wrinkled due to two major factors. First and foremost, is due to the fact that large disparities in wealth and power have made international relations hierarchical. It became all too obvious that the structure of power, norms of behavior, and patterns of alignment and enmity influence if not define the foreign policy of states.
Secondly, in the contemporary international relations, an important development is related to role of nonstate actors. Today we see a vast number of non-government organizations, international media, so called human rights organizations, vocal researchers, activists who know no boundaries to advance their values on poor countries.
Nonetheless, unsupported by any logical reasoning, the erosion of the basic concepts of sovereignty and noninterference are happening in an unprecedented fashion. The West’s conduct of foreign relations is full of hypocrisy and double standards, under the guise of an obscure national interest that are antithetical to their “strategic” interest and “desire” for long term partnership.
Traditionally, the West’s basket of national interest included sustainable energy supply, containing socialism, addressing terrorism, ramifications on Arab-Israel relations, expansion of markets and securing raw materials for their industries, etc. but not related to unwitty undermining of inviolability of strong governments of other nations.
But why is the West’s foreign policy marred by time inconsistency problems, double standards and suffering from schizophrenia? Why do aid conditionalities contravene with the rule of law, genuine exercising of sovereignty in the recipient world? Do the developing countries surrender their sovereignty for the sake of securing aid? What is the moral standard in the West’s prescription of certain policy measures? Several questions remain unanswered with the current day international order, all the more so, for nations like Ethiopia who are grappling with evils of all kind.
What happened in current day Ethiopia and the reaction of the West give ample illustration of the more-common foreign policy anomaly and double standard in the wake of its challenges to maintain law and order within the nation and enforcing the constitution of the land.
The Law Enforcement and the West’s Deaf Ears
Much has been said about the genesis of the Tigray conflict, but if there is any culprit in the making, it is singularly the TPLF leadership, which the West would not admit. By 2018, TPLF was on its death bed and was outcast both on the grounds of the popular uprising and outvoted by the one-month long decisions of the defunct EPRDF council.
TPLF’s rejection of its defeat was clear from day one, rippling down to its hardcore circles for fear of its expose of 27 years of gross violation of human rights, massive embezzlement and corruption, and crimes of high scale. As investigative reports of all kind came out, the offense from TPLF came all too obvious on PM Abiy, with discordant narrative, vengeance, and undermining the rule of law. More importantly, the TPLF leadership, hiding at its regional capital, was masterminding and sponsoring mass killing operations, ethnic clashes, sabotages, dissemination of false information to disparage the incumbent government. During all of these, the West was silent.
Essentially, the TPLF leaders launched an all-out war on the Federal government in overt and covert ways, with lust for power. While the patience of the PM was lauded by some, others put a blame on him that the three-year time of inaction by the federal government effectively prepared the TPLF for a military offensive.
However, November 4 of 2020 was no ordinary day in the already embroiled relations. As admitted by the top TPLF leaders, the group launched a preemptive attack on the national defense forces stationed in Tigray on the night of November 4, calling subsequent self-defense by the federal government.
The villainous attack on the national forces was based along ethnic lines of the army, making it the most brutal in the country’s history. Tradition has it that Ethiopians don’t attack a seated enemy let along a sleeping comrade. Of course, TPLF was never bound by culture or ethical values when it comes to power.
The well-planned war was waged on two fronts, mobilizing innocent youth populace on the ground and employing the digital army as well as agents of international media. As soon as the Ethiopian government started to take its offensive on the TPLF, justified by all logical reasoning, the outpour of “concerns” and condemnations were popping up from the Western governments.
In coherence with the two war fronts, reports of the war waged on Tigray population were on air, while Tigray was on complete blackout and no one was able to verify information. One would be certain about premeditated propaganda war and the fake news of the TPLF leadership.
What is very absurd was the fact that there were little denunciations echoed as hundreds of innocent people were previously and parallelly massacred throughout the country, sponsored by the TPLF operatives in the course of PM Abiy’s administration. One wonders if the lives of the TPLF are dearer than any other Ethiopians who were under a 27-year oppression.
The West’s love for TPLF can only be understood within the context of the internal as well as external posture of the party’s self-aggrandizement.
Internally, TPLF did Everything to Remain on Power
Clearly, during the 27 years of the TPLF regime, it had gotten fat by all measures. Politically, it produced a membership of 15 million people, with an oppression ring system of 1 to 5. The state’s coercion was beyond compare, as rules of game were nothing but violence, using the most powerful state apparatus. Economy wise, the TPLF was in control of mega corporations that had assets worth of billions of dollars, virtually into all sectors, from high tech military establishment to retail business. Militarily, the regime has built a most robust defense capability and well-trained personnel.
As time went by, this bloated self-image was problematic to accept failure and see any power brokerage to include any one but the oligarchs. Sustenance of this might blinded the small group of people who run the party in the name of being vanguards of peoples’ interest. As TPLF was nearing its paralysis, one would anticipate that large portion of communities within the country and in the diaspora were eagerly waiting for its demise. The anxiety was disproportionately high, as well as the fierce resistance from the networks of the corrupt oligarchs.
A political system that was opposed to any power concession was forced down in April of 2018. Ethiopians spoke loud and clear that this flawed system of tribal experimentation took them to a dead end as they scrapped it once and for all, paying a heavy price. The West was sitting on its fence, while the Ethiopian youth were broiling in the fight against tyranny, waiting for an outcome of their choice.
TPLF’s Ascendancy as Darling of the West: Raisons d’etre
In terms of foreign relations, the TPLF regime got legitimacy from all corners of the world, from the liberal camps to the communist bloc. TPLF was like a smart child, crying but getting his candy at the same time, threatening its Western governments, to walk away, if pressured (examples of such were with the UK, Norway, Sweden, the US, the IMF, and World Bank). Clearly, this tactic has worked, out of the West’s apprehension not to lose its foothold in East Africa’s largest power center.
From the outset, the coming to power of the TPLF in Ethiopia’s central government meant victory for the West over the previous communist system. Therefore, the West received the guerilla fighters (albeit their Albanian style of socialism) with warm reception.
The TPLF’s top foreign policy maker was Meles Zenawi, with his persuasive arguments and perspectives the West wanted to hear, unlike from many other African peers. The way he argued about his ethnic federalism, (tribalism by its true name), issues of self determination, and development were music to the ears of the West. Indeed, Meles was able to attract the attention of prominent international figures like Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffry Sachs, Francis Fukuyama, Tony Blair, Susan Rice, Jendayi Frazer, Thabo Mbeki, and Paul Kagame, and many others who have remained to be steadfast promoters of his profile and bulwarks of TPLF’s developmental state paradigm.
Meles’ position against the neoliberal paradigm and advocacy towards developmental state was spectacularly getting plenty of attention, both in the North and the South. Timely issues like the climate change were the bonus for his profile. He became member of an echelon of leaders representing the African continent on several occasions.
Another chunk of explanation is sheer coincidence of events. Clearly, disintegration of Somalia and the embroiling Sudan conflict made TPLF a key player in one of the most unstable regions. Then came Eritrea in the equation, calling for TPLF to rise as a reliable anchor in the Horn of Africa. TPLF’s partnership in the fight against Al Shabab and terrorism earned it a strategic status, at the headquarters of European and US intelligence offices.
In other circumstances, the positions taken by the West’s foreign offices are based on a less serious, and unscrupulous recommendations. When it comes to decisions of these public servants, African countries are still at the fringe of their national interest and they make decisions on the basis of expediency, convenience or indifference. We all know how governments react to the terrorist attacks on Paris or London, at almost speed of light, condemning the attacks. To expect that kind of treatment is fooling oneself, being on the map of Africa.
A clear recent illustration of this anomaly is the radical swing of the US state department’s position with less than four months on the conflict in Tigray. In November of 2020, the department acknowledged that the primary responsibility of the war was the TPLF and affirmed unequivocally that there was no moral equivalence between the Federal government and the TPLF. However, about four months later, the same department shifted its position to saying the federal government should, among others, withdraw its Amhara forces from the Tigray region and the two sides need to resolve their conflict with dialogue.
During the TPLF’s reign of power, Ethiopia’s stature was rising with flying colors as foreign aid was pouring both from bilateral and multilateral donors, earning its profile as a potential to reach the most touted Millennium Development Goals, and as a show case of achieving middle income level sooner rather than later. No less resources were flowing from the East camp, China being at the center of all. Mega projects were constructed, either through grants or loans, with the rush to put the country on the map of fast growth trajectory. Foreign direct investment flew exponentially, via the government’s conventional and unconventional methods.
These all combined and as a result of a well-crafted diplomatic tactics (for example by walking between fine lines of the West and the East), the TPLF became the face of a regional power center in Africa.
TPLF’s Digital War on the Soils of Europe and US
TPLF’s oligarchs are no easy adversaries, having learned from their mistakes of the 2005 election fiasco, in the defense of the perennial gross human rights reports, during the handling of the pockets of conflicts or the fighting with Eritrea. All along, the international media were totally against the administration, calling the regime’s utmost policy actions in the defense. TPLF learned a lot of tricks in its haggle against the hostile media.
Nevertheless, in due course of time, the TPLF regime learned the tricks of networking with major media, known opinion makers, Tink thanks, and academia, who are fighting along its remnants to this day. To this date, millions of dollars are being spent on buying agents of the international media as well as sponsoring a digital army that would fight day and night on social media with disinformation and false narratives.
As soon as the law enforcement operation was launched in Tigray region, the sirens of war were ringing all over Europe and North America, as agents of TPLF were getting instructions from Mekele. Hundreds, if not thousands of twits, blogs as well as social media campaigns were circulating with photoshoped images, and graphic videos. The use of words like genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, hunger as a weapon of war, etc. became widespread in a manner that was consistent with the TPLF propaganda. These reports made no mention of the TPLF’s preemptive strike on the defense forces nor the MaiKadra massacre perpetrated by the TPLF special forces.
Indeed, the Ethiopian situation has demonstrated that the international media’s modus operandi is deeply flawed and based on a ball game that is hard to predict. Networking with the reporters, kickbacks, and personal relationships, rather than principles matter the most. In this war against the rogue TPLF regime, the regard for neither the vast majority of Ethiopians nor for their 27 years of suffering was given any weight.
The negative and uncorroborated news produced were disseminated on the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, Reuters, The Guardian, CNN, Al Jazeera, apart from the twits and op-ed articles published on other outlets.
At the center of the fake analyses and disinformation are so called Ethiopian analysts, like Alex De Waal, a long-time friend of TPLF oligarchs and who remained a bulwark of the regime’s image and its promoter. Alex De Waal is a highly decorated fellow from early days of the TPLF’s top leadership, and who wrote a great eulogy of the late Seyoum Mesfin as a revered public servant, who deserved a state funeral.
Kjetil Tronvoll of Norway is another self-acclaimed researcher, election observer, commentator, and activist whose bond with TPLF dates back to decades of its administration. Today, he has become a top enemy of Ethiopia’s unity by twitting and misinforming the international community via his ad nauseum genocidal calls, ethnic cleansing, and atrocities of all kind committed on Tigray.
Others like William Davidson of the International Crisis Group, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, Tom Gardner of the Guardian, Martin Plaut of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and independent bloggers like Robert Rorberg have campaigned a war of defamation on the law enforcement in Ethiopia and have vehemently opposed to any attack on the TPLF leadership.
These are the people whose preposterous claims to be specialists of Ethiopian politics know no boundaries to making unashamed recommendations, even if it meant disintegration of the country. These people are whose analyses are incongruous with any academic or journalist principles, are no doubt and given perpetuated by incentives to echo the voices of the rogue TPLF leadership. These are the kind of conflict specialists who even advocated insurgency as TPLF was losing on the battle ground. It is up to the Ethiopian government to deal with these militant “analysts” who have toxic views on the law enforcement operations in Ethiopia.
Apart from these die-hard supporters of TPLF, personalities like Herman Cohen, continue to make their interest on making Ethiopia as guinea pig of tribal experimentation. Herman Cohen’s damage to Ethiopia will remain hugely enigmatic, with no remorse he has shown from the outcome of his mediation of the London Summit, where he not only brokered a power deal by crowning TPLF single handedly but also making Ethiopia without ports. To this day, Cohen remains an ardent sponsor of Ethiopia’s disintegration, whose rationale can never be understood.
Drawing Conclusions from the Tigray Conflict
Numerous conclusions can be made from the law enforcement operations in Tigray for several stakeholders. It is crucial that Ethiopians, the government of Ethiopia, fellow Africans as well as the West governments draw several lessons from this unfortunate war in Ethiopia.
To Fellow Ethiopians
Ethiopia’s adversaries are never new. Our ancestors received grand injustice in times of their need, in their call against the Italian invasion at the League of Nations. In its contemporary history, Ethiopians were treated with a slap on the face at the time of their transition from the imperial time to the Dergue administration, and during the conflicts with Somalia or Eritrea.
It is this generation’s turn to see a continuum of policy anomalies from the West’s handling of the Tigray conflict or in their dream of building the great renaissance dam. As history amply demonstrated, the only instrument Ethiopians have is to remain united in the fight against all evils.
More importantly, fellow Ethiopians need to learn from the mistakes of recent past administrations who have voluntarily surrendered their sovereignty to the West, by begging them to mediate their home differences. A typical case in point was involvement of the EU’s mission in Addis Ababa mediating between the ruling party and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) during the 2005 election disputes. Today, embassies of the most powerful nations in Addis Ababa are invited to meddle in all kinds of conflicts in the nation, consuming most classified information that they would use against Ethiopia.
Ethiopians of this generation need to acknowledge that the prices paid by their ancestors to keep their sovereignty and territorial integrity is exorbitantly higher. They should neither trade them in against any benefit nor discount them. More importantly, they should air their voices over the West’s treatment of their internal affairs, by exposing, twitting, campaigning with the truth.
To the Ethiopian Government
It is not enough that one has a genuine cause in conflicts. Even with glaring war monger and heinous TPLF, truth can be twisted. It goes without saying, a just war should be synchronized with the war on the international media. Learning from the TPLF operatives can be beneficial, not copying their sinister motives.
Clearly, the lack in capability of the relevant organizations has its toll in the entire picture. Addressing this capability by all means a timely call.
It is up to the Ethiopian government to evaluate the different scenarios of the conflict. But to say that the West would ignore Ethiopia and gets disinterested is simply unrealistic. Ethiopia is too big, even if it poor, to ignore. Therefore, panicking over the West’s neglect and succumbing to all preconditions of the West should never dictate the mind set of our policy makers.
As most countries follow a realist foreign policy rather than based on idealism, the foreign relations of Ethiopia need to be pragmatic, balancing between the dovish and hawkish views.
To Fellow Africans
Fellow Africans should not stay at bay on the Ethiopia conflict. They should know that the West is taking an irrational stance, or a short circuit, at best, when it comes to African conflicts. Besides, they have defied the two principles of sovereignty and noninterference.
It is up to African states to stand in unison in resolving their own conflicts, with home grown conflict resolution methods.
It is also imperative that parties to conflict in Africa should not run to get Eurocentric solutions and solicit mediation, to trade their sovereignty at will.
African states should realize that foreign aid comes at the will of the rich countries and it can stop any time the donors find it “unjustified”. It is therefore timely to think on Africa’s own resources that is at its disposal.
To the Western Patrons
The rich and the mighty nations need to know the foundations of Ethiopia, which value sovereignty and noninterference as their life principles. Ethiopia is an old proud nation, that has embraced Christianity, Islam and Judaism, even before many Europeans. For Ethiopians, being independent and poor is by far better than being rich but subjugated.
To the governments of EU and the US, whose “development” policies claim to forge “partnership” with developing nations, partnership is not to twist the arms of the poor nations, in times of adversities. The West needs to revisit its hypocrisy over how it defines partnership with the developing world, by showing its solidarity, and act with principles and high moral standard.
The West should take tribalism as evils of society and should be fought as they did with socialism. Tribalism is a national security threat to the developing world, like terrorism is for the US. Our analysts from the West should understand that tribalism leads to segregation and is oppressive. It is convenient for political gains, disintegration of society and nations of the poor. In present day Ethiopia, the fight is between the tribalist camp and the nationalists who want to maintain peace and prosperity. After all, a strong and united Ethiopia can be a better partner than disintegrated pieces of land.
It is high time that the West’s double standard and hypocrisy be dealt with, in their conduct of foreign policy. Ignoring the atrocities committed by the TPLF in its 27 years of administration and becoming a bulwark of this rogue group is a huge dishonesty. When and if the West is voicing its assessments on the ground, making their utmost effort to represent the truth is very fundamental, rather than echoing the agents of the criminal groups who hire PR companies, reporters and fake analysts.
The West’s assertion that the conflict in Tigray is against the people, is preposterous and intentional misinformation. These kinds of labeling are the results of highly networked lobby groups and so-called analysts like Alex De Waal, who are paid agents of the criminal group. The law enforcement is operational on the leaders of the TPLF who are never the same with the people. To say that ethnic cleansing and genocide is taking place is a false alarm. Like any war, and more particularly with the TPLF fighters hiding in villages, who continue ambushing federal forces, the casualties can regrettably be high.
If the West is siding with the treasonous, tribalist and criminal TPLF, they should know that they will be on the wrong side of history. The ramification of being the agency of TPLF is thwarting this old but poor nation from its peaceful and prosperous future. Neither coercive action, nor sanction will force Ethiopians to kneel, particularly when it comes to sovereignty and noninterference.