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Elusive Peace in the Horn of Africa

Elusive Peace in the Horn of Africa


Fessahaye Mebrahtu



The Horn of Africa located between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, is geopolitically strategic location, attracting multiple actors and world powers, elbowing each other. All these actors vying for their national self-interests at the expense of the local people. The Horn of Africa has been immersed in internal and intra-national conflicts for generations, mostly proxy-wars. One has to wonder if such war culture has hardwired the inhabitants. Yet it can be easily narrowed down to callous leaders, who continuously try to resolve their differences by the barrel of gun instead of dialogue and mediation. Conspiracy theories abound with destabilizing effects. These brutal tyrants in the region have been hand-picked or tolerated by outside powers for geostrategic interests. “The devil made me do it” excuse cannot absolve the perpetrators of violence in the region. Many have to be accountable for their ruthless actions. Such brutal conflicts primarily victimize the inhabitants of the Horn; condemning them to live in perpetual misery.


The Scramble of Africa altered Africa’s indigenous identity, forcing to adopt the culture and language of European colonial powers or Arabic culture through religious affinity. European colonizers drew arbitrary boundaries across communities by bringing hostile communities together and dividing homogenous societies apart. Creating a nation state with heterogeneous communities under the colonial model was a recipe for disaster. The colonial rule was built on divide and conquer mechanism, binding people with conflict interests together. The divide and rules schemes introduced to Africans very well served European powers. However, for African these were time bombs; still detonating more than 50 years after colonial powers long gone. They are manifested in brutal dictatorships, genocides, civil-wars, ethnic-cleansing, unbridled exploitation of natural resources, crushing debts, etc.


Historically, the geopolitical interest in the Horn of Africa is intimately connected with the opening of the Swiss Canal (Egypt) in 1869; a shortcut from Mediterranean Sea through the Red Sea to the Fareast. Therefore, European intervention in the Horn of Africa is well recorded for the last 150 years. Ever since, it is still negatively impacting the area. The Arab-Israeli antagonistic relationships add to the region’s political complexities and intractable conflicts. Internal conflicts were exploited by foreign actors to have a foothold in the Horn. This was constant from the scramble of Africa to the current conflict in the region. Furthermore, we observe the intervention of foreign actors in the internal affairs of Ethiopia remained predictable since 16th century. These historical patterns, “the end justifies the means” policy of Ethiopian leaders continued to put down internal conflicts with foreign help. The lack of lasting solution of internal conflicts through dialogue and reconciliation breeds generational resentments and ethnic cycle of violence. With such approach, building a cohesive nation state, embracing multi-ethnic and multi-lingual groups is an uphill battle.

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In Ethiopia, political hegemony of one group over the rest ethnic groups has been justified and legitimized for over 100 years. Unfortunately, myth and reality overlap in the Ethiopian empire, justifying the supremacy of one group over the rest. Political elites mix myth and reality to their advantage. Namely the Amhara seem to push for an elitist political agenda. The current policy of Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party is an attempt to turn the clock of history, sacrificing ethnic autonomies back to Amarazization, disguised as national unity. The ethnic based federal arrangement is being discredited as a ”divide and rule” scheme devised by the Woyane. Ethiopian ethnic groups were fighting to be recognized and treated as equal and full citizens in their own country, Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), had kept Ethiopia under ethnic federalism since 1991. In spite of shortcomings and imperfections significant economic and political progress was made. The abolition of EPRDF style federal arrangement will expedite the demise of Ethiopia as one nation.


The reality is that modern Ethiopia as combination of internal expansion and external confinements like the rest of African nation states, which are the outcome of the Scramble of Africa at Berlin Conference of 1885. The external confinement was determined by the European colonizers. For example, making Ethiopia a landlocked country was by design. The British invited Italy to confine Ethiopian ambition and French expansion in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s south and westward expansion more than doubled its territory, incorporating many ethnic groups into its Empire by brute force. The misappropriation ethnic lands, resettling Amhara or Amharized partners was at the core of Ethiopian 1974 revolution. Immortalized by “Land to the Tiller” slogan. The Ancien Regime could not withstand the ground swell of the landless masses and their allies, the students’ movement. Emperor Haile-Selassie was toppled in 1974 only to be replaced by the Dergue, Marxist Military regime, who hijacked the revolution of the masses.  


The resentment of the non-Amhara ethnic groups reaches back to 19th century, when Menelik II incorporated new ethnic groups into his expanding Empire. This expansion was similar to European colonization. The difference, the colonizer is African and the land contiguous to the old empire. Yet, these ethnic groups faced the same fate like those who fell under European colonialism.  Their ancestral land was taken, their native languages denigrated, and their traditional system of administration dismantled. The Amara and Amharized settlers were known as ነፍጠኛ-Neftenya, equivalent to the Gunslingers in the American West, who were displacing Native American and taking their ancestral lands by force. Therefore, without understanding the historical ethnic grievances, one cannot understand or appreciate the complexity of Ethiopian internal conflicts. In the same manner other Africans fought to get rid of their colonizers, it was only a matter of time for the ethnic groups under the Ethiopian Empire to demand for their rights. The ethnic based federalism was a compromise among various ethnic groups to keep Ethiopia as one nation. 


Historically, the incorporation of such multi-ethnic territories into the Ethiopian Empire was not without resistance. The resistance of these ethnic groups to Emperor Menelik II expansion was met with massacres and pillaging. Ethiopian Emperors were relatively better militarily equipped to prevail over the Oromo, Sidamo, Wolayta, etc. No African territory was colonized without resistance; however, swords and spears could not match guns and artillery. These traditionally marginalized ethnic groups in Ethiopia had their own legendary heroes and mythological figures, who resisted Emperor Menelik’s conquest. With such vivid memories of alienation and marginalization, the various uprising for ethnic rights by keeping federal system intact will not die easily because Abiy’s “እንደመር-Ennidemer – Let us be one” slogan. Therefore, resistance to the Prosperity Party’s re-Amarazization agenda has to be evaluated in such historical context.


Having painted such historical backdrop, Ethiopia’s dilemma is whether to be realistic and move forward or to continue hammering 3500 mythological history recited by the Amhara political elite. These people seem to repeat Trump’s slogan, “Make Ethiopia Great Again.” In all practical purposes the conflicts are inflamed with American style tabloid news media, who yearn for Emperor Haile-Selassie or the Megistu era as the golden age of Ethiopia. Ethnic Ethiopians have tasted federal autonomy. They are proudly claiming their ethnicity, language and customs. The centralized power of Prosperity Party’s agenda will not properly accommodate the politically aware and enlightened ethnic groups’ interests. In the dismantling of Ethiopia, the Amhara or Amharized elites will bear the brunt for destabilization and Balkanization of Ethiopia. Their vision is analogous to Trump’s “Making America Great Again,” exclusionary politics. 


The current situation in the Horn of Africa shares the same traits of the aforementioned fate of African communities. However, it also offers us unique insight into certain areas like Ethiopia, whose boundaries defined by colonial masters from outside and expanding from within, incorporating multiple ethnic groups into the Ethiopian empire. Central to this conflict is Ethiopia’s historical and political role in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has been always multi-ethnic and multilingual society, but the political hegemony hinged between Tigrinya and Amharic speakers. In the 15th century there was a fierce power struggle with the Amhara Emperor Zera-Yaqob (1399-1468) and Tigray. Finally, Emperor Zera-Yaqob had to make a compromise to save his kingdom from splitting. The current Abiy Ahmed vs. Tigray power struggle is no different from past history. These two ethnic groups feuded for centuries over political power. In spite of such historical power struggle, often compromises and coexistence were possible. Whenever one managed to be King of Kings, the vassal or regional kings recognized the King of Kings as the supreme power. However, they were free to administer their local people according to their local customs with minimal interference from the King of Kings so long they pay tribute and collect taxes.   


In Ethiopia’s long recorded history, there are repeated patterns, which the country has to learn from. The most glaring pattern is power struggle. Throughout the centuries, Ethiopian Empire was elastic that expanded and contracted, proportional to the power of the King of Kings. The scramble for Africa, however, offered unique challenges and opportunities to Ethiopia. For example, after several centuries of infights, Ras Kassa subdued the warlords and became Emperor Theodros II (Amhara of Gonder). After defeating his rival warlords, he started uniting the country with the ambition of extending his rule to the Red Sea. His ambition is evidenced in his correspondence letters with Queen Victoria. However, his cruel method of administration exposed him to internal power struggle with Ras Kahsai, giving the excuse for British intervention. The British fought him at Battle of Meqdela- መቅደላ, where he took his own life rather than surrendering to his enemies.


After the death of Emperor Theodros II (1855-1868), Ras Kahsai became Yohannes IV (Tigrayan, 1871-1889) ascending to power as King of Kings. Like his predecessor, Yohannes’ reign was plagued by internal power struggle with King Menelik (Amhara 1866-1889) Showa and external wars with the Egyptians and Italians. The Egyptians tried to assert themselves as inheritors of the waning Ottoman Empire in the Red Sea coasts, namely Sudan and Eritrea. Yohannes IV crushed Egyptians at the Battle of Gura. However, he lost to the Mahdists in in 1889 at the Battle of Metemma-መተማ, where he was killed and beheaded. The Mahdist revolt was a resistance to Anglo-Egyptian occupation of Sudan 1881-1899.  Currently, Metemma area has become a flashpoint of conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan. We hope this fresh conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia is contained as soon as possible before it goes out of control, affecting the region. 


Menelik II (1889-1913) became King of Kings following the demise of Yohannes IV. As the British helped Yohannes against Theodros II, the Italians did the same with Menelik to undermine Yohannes IV. Italian ambition was not limited to occupy only the coastal area of the Red Sea. Their eyes were always on Ethiopia. After the demise of Yohannes IV, the Italians ambition became manifest in 1896, turned against Menelik II, who was their ally against Yohannes. In their attempt to invade Ethiopia the Italians received a decisive blow at historic Battle of Adwa in Tigray. It took another 40 years for the Italians, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The short-lived Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941), a foreign enemy united the country, allowing Emperor Haile-Selassie I to consolidate power starting 1941 with help of the British.


Emperor Haile-Selassie I (1930-1974) ascendancy to the throne created a centralized power, a new system contrary to traditional practice. He got rid of the local or regional kings, who often represented their ethnic groups without direct intervention of the King of Kings. He drew a new map irrespective of ethnic boundaries, similar to the scramble of Africa, calling them provinces. Appointed governors accountable only to him administered these provinces. Most of these governors were family members by blood or marriage. Though there were no more kings, Haile-Selassie I called himself, King of Kings, a contradiction to centuries’ old tradition. Such arrangement alienated other ethnic groups as secondary and tertiary citizens while the Amhara felt that they were the real Ethiopians. To make matters worse, the Emperor expanded the archaic feudal system; appropriating lands from other ethnic groups, and started distributing to his cronies and relatives, mostly of Amhara or those Amharized, acquiescing their ethnic identity.  Emperor Haile-Selassie’s administration imposed Amharic language and culture in the provinces. Such policies created deep resentments against the central government of the Emperor. Southern ethnic groups, who converted to Orthodox Christianity, call their religion “Amara/Amhara.” This is a classic example of Amharization of other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. 


In classic rivalry between Tigray and Amhara, Emperor Haile-Selassie’s legitimacy was tested by Tigray in 1943. The Tigray rebellions called Woyane Movement, was quelled with the help of the British from its colony in Yemen. Consistent with Ethiopia inviting foreign entity to subdue internal conflicts. This rebellion is considered 1st Woyane, and 2nd Woyane was the TPLF movement that succeeded in overthrowing Dergue in 1991. The current conflict of Tigray with the PM Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian central government is considered as 3rd Woyane. The military government of Dergue invited several foreign countries, namely USSR, Cuba and East Germany to fight the Eritrean Liberation movements (ELF and EPLF) and Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front. Mengistu Hailemariam called this domestic conflict yet continued to engage foreign actors, especially the Soviet Union (USSR) until these movements ousted him. PM Abiy Ahmed’s invitation of foreign actors to help him with internal conflict is a continuation of the Ethiopian tradition. Like Mengistu, Abiy continues to seek foreign help while telling African mediators, “It is an internal conflict of a sovereign nation that should be solved internally.”


The 1950-1960s African anti-colonial movements might have served temporarily to fight a common enemy. Unity of convenience against a common enemy is not sustainable in nation building process for multiethnic and multilingual societies. Africa is no stranger to multiple identities, evidenced by the number of languages an African speaks as the norm. Africans are comfortable with multiple identities and coexistence of religious traditions, various lifestyles, such as agrarian, urban, nomadic, etc. If this has been the norm, then where are the intrinsic roots of African conflict? First, one has to look at the altered African identity due to colonial domination. Little conflicts exploited to maximize the divide and conquer objectives. Forced to abandon their traditional self-administration and conflict resolution, Western system of governance and imposed at will on indigenous people proved to be disastrous. Second, the creation of nation state, bringing together multiple ethnicities under a central government became unattainable using non-African method of governance. Such approach, perpetuated imbalance of power; one group dominating the rest, creating deep resentments leading to conflicts and civil wars, further under-developing the nation states.


The Darfur-Sudan conflict, which consumed thousands of lives, displacing hundreds of thousand people was considered Sudanese internal issue for far too long. The similarity between Ethiopian and Sudanese internal conflicts are very striking. The Sudanese government used the Janjaweed Militia to fight the Darfuris-Sudanese; similarly, the Ethiopian government is using the Amhara Militia known as Fanno-ፋኖ to fight Tigray. The current trajectory of the Ethiopian conflict has the potential of genocidal outcome. In a society where myth and history intersect, peace remains elusive unable to deal with the realities objectively. Ethiopian central government is employing a 19th century method to unify Ethiopia in the 21st century. Eritrean involvement, denied for weeks, is now confirmed. In its long historical pattern, Ethiopia is using a non-Ethiopian force to subdue its internal political rivals. It is critical to have such historical backdrop to understand the elusive peace in the Horn of Africa in general, Ethiopia in particular.


The current conflict between the State of Tigray and Ethiopian Federal government is the latest example of shortsightedness. Ethiopia involving foreign actors to solve internal conflicts is an age-old tradition. The perennial Amhara vs. Tigray power struggle has a new twist today, with dangerous and unprecedented consequences. The conflict could easily lead to the Rwandan type of genocide. We hope the world body will intervene before reaching the Rwandan genocide proportion. The African Union does not have any moral courage to be impartial because its membership is stocked with brutal dictators. African conflicts mirror the failure of African Union.


In this internal conflict the elephant in the room is Eritrea, under Dictator Isaias Afeworki. The involvement of Eritrea in Ethiopia’s internal conflict has been proven beyond doubt. Isaias contempt for rule of law and international norms are well known but he has not been accountable for his illegal actions and murderous prowls so far. Eritrea’s military involvement in internal affairs of Ethiopia, against the people of Tigray will change the power dynamics in the Horn of Africa. Isaias’ primary objective in such military adventure is to quench his vengeful urge; second, to pretend as hero, who saved Ethiopia from TPLF; and third, to become formidable leader, who controls the destiny of the Horn of Africa. In his moody politics, Isaias is on the record for his vision to dismantle Ethiopia. His military adventures are always for internal consumption, distracting Eritrean citizens from paying attention to his miserably failed leadership. His absolute power grip over Eritreans, Isaias has turned them into disposable goods. For the last 30 years, Isaias fingerprint are found in been every conflict in the Horn of Africa and beyond with no accountability. Even in 1998-2000, Ethio-Eritrea conflict, though he was the instigator, he has managed to play victim. Consequently, he managed to brainwash Eritreans, painting Woyane as the archenemy of Eritrea, by extension the people of Tigray.


The news that Eritrean soldiers are committing atrocities in Tigray is no more surprising. The soldiers do not reflect the traditional values of Eritrea. These are youth, who have been brainwashed from underage to fulfil the sadistic pleasure of Isaias. The Eritrean military commanders are spineless people, handpicked and groomed to fulfil his mission of destruction.  Many of them have been used as Isaias mercenaries, cash cows of PFDJ with no remuneration to their families or to them personally. The horror stories coming out of Tigray committed by Eritrean forces will be Isaias’ trap. His deafening silence or denial of involvement will soon come to the open. Isaias will be charged for multiple crimes against humanity by the World Criminal Court. This time the blood in his hands will stick as indelible ink.


Prime Minister Abiy’s political ambition is not only simplistic, also misguided. The buddy, buddy relationship with Isaias has sealed his fate. The Ethiopian PM, who comes from military ranks, is repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, namely Emperor Haile-Selassie and Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s military policies against their own people. Both leaders dealt with their own people the same way PM Ahmed, inviting foreign forces to subdue their internal conflicts. The consequence for PM Ahmed will be dire: first, his legacy will be a “Nobel Peace Prize” winner engaged in ethnic cleansing rampage with foreign support against own citizens; second, he will be responsible for dismantling Ethiopia. Abiy’s approach is not only affecting Tigray, violence is brewing in other ethnic federations of Ethiopia, who abhor Amharized central government.  


The Tigray conflict has ushered unpredictable dynamics. Ethiopia is lost forever from the hearts and minds of Tigray. Ethnic Tigrayans elsewhere targeted as enemies worsens the situation. The logical conclusion is no more in an abusive marriage. In the wake of Isaias’ demise, Eritrean political condition could be conducive for Tigray to secede and declare independence. If Ethio-Sudan conflict persists, Tigray might have an ally, providing an outlet. South Sudan setting precedence, the 1964 Cairo Conference, keeping colonial boundaries sacrosanct will be irrelevant. AU acquiescing to PM Abiy Ahmed hoodwinks, claiming ethnic targeted violence as sovereign Ethiopia’s internal conflict. AU is no longer neutral arbiter. Africa will enter a new phase of identity gestation, challenging old colonial boundaries. The Horn of Africa will be the bellwether for such trend, victimizing the area by geopolitical actors.

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