Here’s an easy five-point plan for the leadership of a country which has emerged from civil war and dire poverty over recent decades and now wants to destroy itself.
First, pick a fight with a corner of your territory run by a previously powerful minority ethnic group. Cut off their resources. Provoke them into a response. Send in the army. Invite a neighbouring army in to rape and kill civilians and destroy their crops, businesses, schools, and clinics. Persuade the victims they are about to be subject to a genocide and promote hate speech about them among the rest of the population.
Second, divert resources from other parts of your country with a history of ethnic tensions. That will stir up things there too.
Third, tank the economy. Print money, order weapons you can’t afford from abroad, aggravate inflation and, especially if you are landlocked and dependent on imports, incite attacks on your supply lines.
Fourth, alienate your most important international supporters, particularly those you rely on for finance. Public attacks on their leaders work quite well for this, as does whipping up antipathy towards them among your own population. Buying weapons from their enemies is good too.
Fifth, antagonise a few of your immediate neighbours. Inflaming arguments over disputed land is one option; giving them reason to think you plan a grab on shared water resources is another.
I don’t think Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other leaders in Ethiopia actually want to destroy their country. But an intelligent observer from outer space with an insight into the human condition might, having watched what has happened in the last 12 months, easily conclude that they do. Let’s run through the list to see how the five-point plan has been executed.
It was foolish to send Ethiopian Federal troops to Tigray last November in an attempt to resolve what was essentially a political argument. It was beyond reckless to invite the Eritrean army in to help. And it was criminal to abet and incite the campaign of mass rape, killings, and destruction of property that followed. It was also counterproductive: the population of Tigray concluded they faced a genocide and reacted to defend and protect themselves accordingly.
Ethnic tensions have been high across much of Ethiopia in recent years. It is said that years ago, Nelson Mandela tried to persuade then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that he should be trying to create a country in which people from the many tribes and groups that make up the country see themselves as Ethiopians first, and members of their ethnic group a distant second. The examples of Tanzania under Nyerere and (more controversially) Rwanda under Kagame were cited. For whatever reason, it did not happen. This has proved Ethiopia’s Achilles heel. Meles was, with difficulty, able to keep the lid on. But things crumbled after his death in 2012. In early 2018 I met people from towns along the border between the Oromia and Somali regions in south-eastern Ethiopia who had just been displaced by fighting over resources and political power. In January 2019, in the south of the country, I met some of the nearly one million people forced to flee violence over access to land around Gedeo and West Guji. There are many other conflict areas, especially in the western half of the country. Federal forces deployed to maintain order have since been diverted to Tigray. Watching what is happening, groups elsewhere have armed their own militias ready to defend their interests. Hardliners have gained influence all over.
Notwithstanding the huge economic progress Ethiopia has made over the last 30 years, which I recalled in The Washington Post nearly a year ago, the macroeconomic position has always been a juggling act between maximising growth and avoiding over-heating. Inflation, foreign exchange, and fiscal risks, already growing because of the pandemic, are now acute.
Meanwhile, the reaction of the international community to events in Tigray has evolved from concern and alarm to threats and sanctions as the crisis has grown and Abiy has continued to throw fuel on the flames. Western countries are (whether they should be or not) proud of the contribution they have made to progress in Ethiopia in recent decades, especially what their development aid has helped achieve. Using the national propaganda machine to whip up popular feeling against them, as the authorities in Addis Ababa have done in recent months, is a provocation. If the calculation is that others, like China, will compensate for lost resources from western countries and international institutions, it is quickly going to be proved wrong. The World Bank alone has been giving Ethiopia more than a billion dollars a year in grants and very cheap loans in recent years, most of it financed by taxpayers in North America and Europe. No-one will replace that if it dries up. Even worse, widely circulating rumours that Abiy has bought attack drones from Iran make it look like western money is subsidising the Iranian defence industry.
And closer to home, Abiy’s need for support from the Amhara population complicates the scope for de-escalating the border dispute with Sudan over Al-Fashaga, an area covering 600,000 acres of fertile land and river systems. Most of the Ethiopians living there – on contested land - are Amhara. Likewise, the completion and full operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, one of the world’s great current infrastructure projects, which I visited in 2016, is now at risk. The project, to which many Ethiopians have contributed their own money from the little they have, is a national totem. It is designed to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and the sixth largest in the world, relieving the country’s acute energy shortage. Regulating the flow of the Nile more consistently through the year, as the dam could do, would help both Sudan and Egypt. But concern over the rate at which it is filled and fear that water might be diverted for agriculture in Ethiopia have put the Egyptians on red alert. A previously unknown armed group has become active in the local area. This should all be soluble. But the febrile atmosphere has heightened tensions.
All this threatens the stability of the whole country, but the immediate priority must be averting imminent catastrophe in Tigray. In June, in my last few days working for the UN, I made clear I believed there was then famine in northern Ethiopia. I said a re-run of 1984, when a million Ethiopians died in what may have been the world’s worst famine of the last 50 years and the regime responsible for it was subsequently deposed, was not fanciful. A cessation of hostilities and access for humanitarian agencies could prevent that. But time was running out.
African sentiment has recently swung against Abiy. In a carefully crafted statement in late August on behalf of all the African countries on the UN Security Council, the Kenyans, who had been among those previously biting their tongues, called on him to accept offers of mediation. They urged the government to scale back ethnic attacks and remove barriers to a political dialogue. They warned of an uncontrollable spread of violence and bloodshed. They urged that Tigrayan forces, which had surprised many by their success in defending themselves, pull back too. They called for unfettered humanitarian access and a resumption of basic services to the people of Tigray. They urged the west to provide humanitarian assistance and, once a mediation effort was properly underway, offer economic support too. And, importantly, they explicitly rebuffed those in Ethiopia calling for war to be given a chance.
But the penny hasn’t dropped. The screws on Tigray have been turned further in recent weeks. Fresh recruits to the Ethiopian military, summoned by mass mobilisation campaigns preying on their patriotism, have been deployed in human wave attacks against Tigrayan defensive lines. This has so far failed: the main result is tragic piles of corpses of young men and boys. But the Tigrayan population of 6 million face mass starvation now. Their farms, businesses, and schools were destroyed, and their access to banks, electricity, water, and health services cut off, in the early months of the crisis. The government claims to be willing to let aid in, but its flunkies harass aid workers crossing lines and intimidate truck drivers in UN convoys, so many are now too terrified to show up for work. Barely ten per cent of the food needed is getting through. Recent eyewitness reports from aid workers describe people eating nothing but green leaves for days, exponential increases in starvation in both rural and urban areas, and even the children of the staff of the main hospital in Mekelle, the regional capital, showing signs of malnutrition. Humanitarian workers managing to get seats on the rare flights to the region have, as the Associated Press recently reported, been told they cannot bring dental floss, multi-vitamins, personal medicines or things, like flash drives, that could have a use in documenting what is going on.
All this reveals – or confirms – that Abiy has two objectives in Tigray. The first is to starve the population either into subjugation or out of existence. The second is to do that without attracting the global opprobrium that would still, even in today’s fractured geopolitical environment, arise from deliberately causing a massive famine taking millions of lives. It is also clear that the second objective is less important than the first. That is the message to be taken from the threatened expulsion last week of UN humanitarian leaders from Ethiopia. Abiy would rather take the criticism for that than allow them to see what he is trying to do.
The irony, well-informed experts privately say, is that Abiy’s game plan cannot work. If he tries and fails to destroy Tigray, he will be destroyed himself. If he succeeds, he will never survive the backlash that will follow. His only out is to take up the African Union’s call for dialogue. But does he see that?
Scenario planners in leading countries and institutions now think Ethiopia may disintegrate. They assess the consequences to be very bad. For everyone. Not just in Ethiopia, but further afield too. Is it still possible to pull back from the brink?
This blog has been updated since publication to reflect the contestation of Al-Fashaga between Sudan and Ethiopia.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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