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Ethiopian PM’s aim to control the Horn of Africa scares his neighbours and the US
The Nobel peace prize committee has made some strange decisions over the years but no one really complained when the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed picked up the gong in 2019. He had, after all, ended a dusty 20-year struggle between his country and Eritrea, a war that had brought in its train massive displacement of people, starvation and misery. There was more: a promise of strong, nimble leadership, a lower dependency on foreign aid, a new accountability to young citizens.
Now though, Abiy is turning out to be a ruthless warrior ruler, not the modernising democrat that the Nobel jury had so confidently talent-spotted. For the past year he has been waging a military campaign against the Tigrayans in the north, branding them as war criminals, terrorists and putschists. He has tightly restricted the incoming food and medical aid route to the Tigrayan region; he has cut off telecommunications and banking in the province in the far north of Ethiopia. There have been accusations, and counter-accusations, of atrocities on all sides. Abiy’s gloss has gone.
When the Tigrayans broke Abiy’s siege, he called them a spreading cancer and mobilised his followers by swearing: “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones”. In the capital, Addis Ababa, police have been given carte blanche to snatch young male Tigrayans off the street and lock them in warehouses, presumably to provide a human shield should the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and their allies try to bombard or seize the city.
The dehumanising language has forced even Facebook into action; it has deleted a post by the prime minister because it violated the company’s policies against inciting violence. The move has just fed into an increasingly frenzied anti-Americanism in Ethiopia. Many young people have become convinced that the Biden administration wants to topple Abiy. A seemingly shrewd and very confident prime minister has turned into a highly strung rabble rouser, striking messianic poses, encouraging the scepticism about the US president and calling on his people to fight on the barricades when the time comes.
Plainly, Abiy should find a way of addressing the Tigray question. His election victory in 2018 levered out the Tigrayan establishment that had ruled for two decades. Abiy, who is of mixed Oromo-Amharan parentage, could have found ways of co-opting Tigrayans into government to serve a broadly inclusive nation state. But he favoured the clean sweep and in so doing trapped himself in an ethnic stand-off. The Tigrayans say they are facing genocide and are calling for help.
That’s why Abiy’s use of language matters. As does the discipline of his forces, and those of the Eritreans who are fighting alongside the Ethiopians. Hate speech relayed through radio stations helped stoke the 1990s genocidal conflict in Rwanda. That has remained one of the touchstones for western decision-makers in whether to launch an intervention in Africa or the Middle East. The West, to its lasting shame, looked away in Rwanda. So when Muammar Gaddafi spoke of hunting down rats in Libya in 2011, the case for a limited aerial attack was already made as far as David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were concerned. And now the Horn?
Little wonder that the Biden administration has woken up on Ethiopia. No one in the US administration wants an intervention forced on it. The Horn of Africa — Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti — is a strategic tinderbox. It’s the source of the Nile, a gate to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Horn adjoins the choke-points of the world’s major sea lanes and trading routes, it’s close to the oil-rich Arab peninsula. Djibouti has become a garrison state — it’s where the US has a major drone base and a special forces staging post; China is there because it is on the Bab al-Mandab strait leading to the Suez canal. The Saudis and Emiratis are there, too. It’s one of the world’s great spy centres.
So you don’t want a big expanding war on this corner of an already restless continent. But that’s exactly what’s happening. Kenya, which already has some of the biggest refugee camps on the planet, is looking nervously at what is happening in Ethiopia. As is Sudan. Perhaps the most anxious country in the wider region is Egypt. It draws 97 per cent of its water from a single trans-boundary source: the Nile, whose source is in Ethiopia. The dispute predates the election of Abiy but he has been pushing harder and harder for a huge dam that will boost the Ethiopian economy at the expense of the Egyptians and the Sudanese.
Various mediation attempts have foundered because of the resistance of Addis Ababa. The fact is, weak regional bodies like the African Union cannot muster a consensus to counter strident risk-taking nationalists like Abiy. Egypt has said that reducing the Nile to a trickle would be an “existential” issue for Cairo. That too sounds awfully like a war waiting to happen.
Abiy’s ambition is to turn Ethiopia into the undisputed master of the Horn, a fast growing powerhouse at the crossroads of the global trading system. But he hasn’t mastered the necessary statecraft. His singular skill has been to make enemies. And his trump card is to threaten that without international backing his state will implode, lawlessness will reign and Islamists will plant their black flags all across the Horn and not just in Somalia.
Back me, or we will blow up in your faces — that’s the credo of a great disruptor, not the father of a new successful nation state.