Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Ethiopia Should Trust the West

As the war against Tigrayan rebels spreads, anti-Americanism is increasing—but mediation by Western powers is the country’s last best hope.

By , a professor of global studies at Doshisha University.
People walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia, on Dec. 11, 2020.
People walk next to an abandoned tank belonging to Tigrayan forces south of the town of Mehoni, Ethiopia, on Dec. 11, 2020. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

The war in Tigray between Ethiopia’s government and Tigrayan rebels, which has unleashed untold suffering and brutality since it began a year ago, is now threatening to turn into a war of all against all, on a larger scale, because leaders on both sides have decided to double down in pursuing war in the name of ending it. This will likely bring about an irreversible state collapse, which would also have regionwide consequences. It appears that Ethiopia is reaching a stage where it cannot save itself.

If Ethiopia cannot save itself, someone else will have to. Ideally, it would be saved by East Africans, as West African nations attempted during the war in Liberia in the 1990s. But that seems unlikely right now.

The African Union (AU) has tried—so far unsuccessfully—to mediate. In theory, the AU can threaten to suspend Ethiopia’s membership if there is no effort to resolve the conflict, but it is headquartered in Addis Ababa and is unlikely to upset its host. This leaves the international community. Historically, however, the international community has been reluctant to intervene in Africa before a crisis turned into a catastrophe, as was the case in Rwanda, Somalia, and the Darfur conflict in Sudan.

The war in Tigray between Ethiopia’s government and Tigrayan rebels, which has unleashed untold suffering and brutality since it began a year ago, is now threatening to turn into a war of all against all, on a larger scale, because leaders on both sides have decided to double down in pursuing war in the name of ending it. This will likely bring about an irreversible state collapse, which would also have regionwide consequences. It appears that Ethiopia is reaching a stage where it cannot save itself.

If Ethiopia cannot save itself, someone else will have to. Ideally, it would be saved by East Africans, as West African nations attempted during the war in Liberia in the 1990s. But that seems unlikely right now.

The African Union (AU) has tried—so far unsuccessfully—to mediate. In theory, the AU can threaten to suspend Ethiopia’s membership if there is no effort to resolve the conflict, but it is headquartered in Addis Ababa and is unlikely to upset its host. This leaves the international community. Historically, however, the international community has been reluctant to intervene in Africa before a crisis turned into a catastrophe, as was the case in Rwanda, Somalia, and the Darfur conflict in Sudan.

The fact remains that only the West has the willingness and capacity to rescue the Ethiopian state from devouring its own citizens—and eventually itself.

That said, the West cannot rescue Ethiopia without the cooperation of Ethiopia’s rulers—who at the moment are becoming increasingly angry at Western powers, particularly the United States. A new form of anti-Americanism seems to be rising in Ethiopia—one that uses state sovereignty as a shield. The government of Ethiopia wants its sovereignty to be respected; the United States wants Ethiopia’s government to stop killing its own people.

The source of anti-Americanism in Ethiopia is not ideological and is, therefore, a short-term phenomenon. It is connected with what the United States is perceived to be doing rather than what the United States is. At such a perilous moment, it is important for ordinary Ethiopians to understand why they should trust the West.

Likewise, to increase the chances of success in its peacemaking efforts, the West needs to appreciate both why Ethiopia’s rulers seem reluctant to compromise and the zero-sum and strongly emotional terms in which the issue has been framed. It is equally important for Ethiopians to understand why the West is concerned about averting the prospect of state collapse in Ethiopia.

The interests of one ethnic group, regardless of its size, and Ethiopia’s interests are not always the same.

The underlying frame of reference of the conflict in Tigray is the contrasting visions of two groups—the Amhara and Tigrayan elites—about the future direction of Ethiopia. The Tigrayan elites want to keep ethnic federalism, an administrative structure introduced by Meles Zenawi, who from 1991 to 2012 was the last Tigrayan ruler of Ethiopia (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front remained the dominant party in government until 2018). The formula has enabled virtually all major ethnic groups, large and small, including the Amhara (27 percent of Ethiopia’s population), the Oromo (34 percent), and the Tigrayans (6 percent), to enjoy a measure of self-rule and cultural autonomy.

But the Tigrayan elites’ 27-year rule was widely regarded as repressive, and the rulers were driven out of power in 2018, largely by the Oromo youth known as Qeerroo. Subsequently, Abiy Ahmed—an Oromo—assumed power.

Amhara elites now want ethnic federalism to be abolished, because, to them, it undermines Ethiopia’s unity. But many Tigrayans, Oromos, and others view the government’s apparent distaste for ethnic federalism with suspicion, as an attempt to restore or consolidate Amharization—the cultural homogenization of Ethiopia in the image of the Amhara—and, with it, the Amhara privilege that Meles’s idea of ethnic federalism presumably disrupted in the 1990s.

The Amhara elites have seemingly never forgiven Meles for this. But the Tigrayan elites (as well as Oromo nationalists) are adamant that they want more regional autonomy and representation at the center, not less. It is particularly ironic, therefore, that an Oromo prime minister, Abiy, should lead the Amhara side in the battle against the Tigrayan elites. At any rate, a segment of the Oromo, with their outspoken defenders behind bars, seems to have long given up on him.

Surely, there are no easy solutions to the civil war in Ethiopia. But the effort must perhaps begin from the recognition by Ethiopians—all Ethiopians—that it is time for a paradigm shift. The interests of one ethnic group, regardless of its size, and Ethiopia’s interests are not always the same. Indeed, they can sometimes be antithetical. The revival and continuity of Ethiopia as a functioning state may hinge on the acceptance of these simple facts.

And Ethiopia’s Western friends can help the country as it tries to heal itself. Admittedly, the relationship between the West and Ethiopia’s government is now at a low point. The attitude of a segment of Ethiopia’s urban population toward the West is also negative. This was largely the reaction, in my view often unjustified, to the West’s position on the conflict in Tigray. Still, Ethiopians must ask themselves: Is anti-Americanism in Ethiopia’s interest?

Since the war broke out in Tigray, there have been debates about the West among at least three groups of Ethiopians. The first views the West’s motive in engaging with Ethiopia as neocolonial or conspiratorial. Decidedly anti-Western in their orientation and loud and vocal in their support of the Abiy government, most of the members of this group prefer to call themselves Ethiopians (although the vast majority of them are actually Amhara) and are heavily influenced by their own perceived ethnic self-interest.

The second group believes that the main goal of the West is to support Ethiopia to overcome the challenges it is currently facing. This is mainly composed of members of such groups as the Somali, and they liken the relationship between the West and Ethiopia to one between a benefactor and beneficiary.

According to the third group, the bilateral relationship is transactional, from which both sides benefit, albeit unequally. This group recognizes that the West’s policy is often driven by its values as well as realpolitik. Multiethnic in composition, this group is ready to live with any type of political arrangement in Ethiopia, ethnic federalism or a unitary structure—so long as it is what the majority wants. It does not buy into the idea of a Western conspiracy against Ethiopia.

Another question Ethiopians should ask themselves and answer as a matter of urgency pertains to how to gauge whether the West is a genuine friend and supporter of Ethiopia.

If Abiy wants to keep Ethiopia together, he will be better off embracing Western efforts rather than shunning them.

The West is a friend of Ethiopia when its policies help to empower Ethiopians as a whole, not a particular ethnic group. At a minimum this means, under present circumstances, that the following three conditions must be met: the West is responsive to Ethiopia’s humanitarian needs in case of natural or human-caused emergency, the West shows the determination to hold accountable those who have violated internationally recognized human rights, and the West invests its resources in facilitating the resolution of conflicts. It is fair to assume that Ethiopians will eventually (preferably sooner rather than later) realize that the West is their ally, despite restrictions in the free flow of information.

The fact that the West is a friend of Ethiopia by the above objective measures should please Ethiopians. That Ethiopia is receiving so much sustained attention from the West should make Ethiopians feel flattered, not insulted, and understand that the West wants Ethiopia to succeed and become an exemplar for the rest of Africa.

If Abiy wants to keep Ethiopia, a multiethnic country of more than 100 million people, together, he will be better off embracing Western efforts rather than shunning them. Ethiopia cannot simply afford to alienate the wider Western world, particularly at this time. Ethiopia’s leaders can take the initiative to end the bloodshed and warmly welcome Western mediators, thereby also forging the foundation for a relationship of partnership in development and trade in the future. Doing so, ultimately, is in the interest of Ethiopia’s government, and, above all, it is in the interest of Ethiopians as a whole.

Ethiopia still has a chance of healing. But it doesn’t have a lot of time to avert a bloody breakdown and Balkanization, followed by regionwide catastrophe.

Seifudein Adem is a professor of global studies at Doshisha University. Twitter: @SeifudeinAdem

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