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  Horn of Africa Disaster Politics and Its Geopolitical Implications

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD    July 25, 2020


The Horn of Africa comprises Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti, and all but Djibouti are in turmoil, terror, and trepidation. Of these Horn of Africa countries, Ethiopia was by far the most stable, peaceful, and more hopeful nation during the entire period of EPRDF rule from 1991-2018, but now the country has become one of the most unstable countries beset by disorder, internal displacements, and political assassinations, not to mention the messy local politics in some regional states that, in turn, effectively undermined the socioeconomic progress that Ethiopia was making. 

The chaotic atmosphere that is now hovering over Ethiopia under the watchful eyes of the present regime apparently is the legacy of the Abiy-led government that operates outside the constitutional order and tramples over the rule of law. Paradoxically, the regime seems to emulate the failed states of Somalia, South Sudan, and Eritrea, and more so the regime prefers to imitate the latter; and instead of continuing the socioeconomic gains that Ethiopia has scored over the twenty-seven years rule of the EPRDF, it chose to discontinue major projects initiated by the previous regimes.  

Somalia has destroyed itself via its meaningless civil war and al Shabab military confrontations; the country has been in a comma for the last three decades and there is no light at the end of the tunnel that promises the resuscitation of this Horn of Africa nation. The current regime, presided over by Mohmmed Abdullahi Farmajo, could hardly perform outside Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, and cannot claim a state in the strict sense of what makes modern nation-states.

South Sudan declared its self-determination on July 2011 and was recognized as a nation by Sudan, the African Union, and the United Nations, but soon after the country has been enmeshed in constant civil wars at two levels: 1) at violent confrontations level between the ruling party Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and various opposition groupings; 2) at intercommunal strife level, in which ethnic warfare effectively destroyed the socioeconomic fabric of the country. Both political confrontations have now irreparably damaged the new nation, naturally endowed with petroleum but ironically a black gold that has become a curse to the South Sudanese people; and since the civil war erupted in this unviable country, close to half a million people have been killed and some two and half million people have become refugees and/or internally displaced.

Eritrea is a small country in the Horn of Africa that has gained its independence in 1991-93 after protracted wars with the Ethiopian governments of Haile Selassie and the Derg military regime. At the eve of independence, a significant number of Eritreans were ambitious enough to create a prosperous nation by the Red Sea, and had they seized a moment or were given a chance they could have established a model country at least in what economists and development theorists label ‘middle-income’ countries. But their dreams were shattered by the regime of Isaias Afewerki that is interested in militarization of the larger Eritrean society rather than evolving a development agenda for the welfare of the Eritrean people; the government distracted the Eritrean potential of being economically viable by its war policies with its neighbors; it provoked and conducted wars against Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, and as a result the country was unable to witness meaningful development projects. It looks that Eritrea has chosen arrested development on purpose, because in the last three decades global observers could not testify any foundational economy that could have uplifted Eritreans from poverty. Incidentally, Eritrea is now governed without a constitution, without a parliament, and without legally registered political parties.

Djibouti, by all measure, is a tiny nation that solely depends for its survival on its port and on Ethiopian food resources, including water. But, this nation located on the confluence of the Gulf of Eden and Bab El Mandeb is strategically located where the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean meet, and most importantly it is the most stable and peaceful country in the Horn.

The nascent instability of the Horn is not a novice phenomenon; disorder politics has confronted this region since antiquity, the Jihad wars of the 16th century and the 19th century Ethiopia-Egypt (Ottoman) wars; the late 19th century Italo-Ethiopian wars of 1885, 1887, and 1896; and again the last Ethiopian-Italian war from 1936-41. These successive wars between Ethiopia and Italy resulted in immeasurable damages and sacrifices.

On top of the above wars, throughout the second half of the 20th century and beyond, the Horn was disturbed by guerrilla insurgency in Eritrea against the status quo in Ethiopia; the SPLA-led guerrilla warfare against the northern Sudanese government; the civil war in Somalia; and the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000.

From the above objective analysis of the Horn of Africa, it is abundantly clear that peace has been a rare commodity in this region, and given this reality, thus, we can now safely assess the geopolitical implications of the disaster politics of the Horn.

On the onset, however, the Horn of Africa crisis is instigated by domestic and International actors; a lot of Horn observers wrongly dichotomized the Horn disaster as if it was initiated or influenced by endogenous actors or separately by exogenous forces, and they were unable to see the duality of the disaster politics in which the twin forces of both local and global actors forged alliances. The latter two forces, in fact, have worked in tandem in many instances and operated hand-in-glove in matters that could promote their interests, but in some cases both forces miscalculate and create havoc not only to their interests but also the larger societies that for the most part define them as workshops or experiment laboratory outposts.  Perhaps it is wrong to use the word ‘miscalculate’ on my part; on the part of the actors it is actually done on purpose but it could have gone out of hand in all the terrible man-made crisis and it could turn out into offensive politics that adversely affects citizens.

At any rate, the old revolutionary guards in the Horn of Africa struggles for change and/or liberation are gone for good and are replaced by ‘running dogs’ that managed to capture state power. These new leaders are the ones who would collaborate with regional and global forces to promote the interests of the latter and not the interests of their respective states. These leaders, after all, are interested in power and pecuniary gains as opposed to national development and the welfare of the ordinary citizens.

Examples of this idiosyncratic Horn phenomenon are abound, but suffice to mention some: After the former leader of SPLA, John Garang died on a helicopter crash in 2005, he was succeeded by Salva Kiir Mayardit, the current president of South Sudan; Salva Kiir is not as charismatic as John Garang, nor is he endowed with intellectual prowess like his predecessor; Garang was a revolutionary and a developmental economist by profession; moreover, he was a fiercely independent man; Salva Kiir, on the other hand, operates at the behest of exogenous interventionist forces; and above all, he is intolerant to ideas coming from the opposition and even any thought coming from his colleagues like the former vice president Rick Machar. So many brilliant South Sudan intellectuals and professionals were attacked by the security forces; some of the victims were forced to seek asylum in neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, and one of these political preys is Peter Biar Ajak, a known critic of Kiir’s government and founder of the Sudan Youth Leaders Forum, who claims that he was about to be killed or abducted during his stay in Kenya; Ajak has now sought asylum in the United States.

The trend of suffocating politics, eliminating opposition forces, hunting down revolutionary intellectuals is almost the same and uniform across the board in the Horn of Africa. In Eritrea, for instance, critics were systematically alienated or eliminated; Isaias Afewerki incarcerated so many of his own colleagues like Petros Solomon, Haile Woldetenssae (Du’rue), Mohammed Sherifo etc. and he banished others to exile. Isaias incidentally posed as a revolutionary representing the progressive Eritrean forces when he ejected himself out of the old Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and founded Selfi Natsnet Ertra or Eritrean Liberation Movement that later was renamed Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) or Shaebia when the Sabe group joined it in 1971. I recall the EPLF manifesto that was distributed in Addis Ababa, particularly in student circles of Addis Ababa University; the title of the manifesto was Neh’nan Ela’ma’nan (Our Objective and Us); I translated the salient features of the document for the non-Tigrigna speaking Ethiopian students in campus, and not only did we like it, but we were impressed by its progressive ideas and revolutionary mottos. Now, we know it is not the case.  

By the same token, when Abiy Ahmed ascended to the level of prime minister following a smooth transfer of power from Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to him, he impressed Ethiopians and the world by his rhetoric of democracy, peace, love, and unity of Ethiopians; he even took bold measures at reforming the state apparatus by establishing a cabinet of minister with 50% women ministers, but soon his reform was increasingly drifted to emasculating the fledgling Ethiopian democracy, dismantling democratic institutions, muzzling opposition voices, and ultimately assassinating key government officials, professionals, and even artists; good examples of the latter are the killing of Engineer Simegnew Bekele, who was the chief engineer of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); the Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen and his friend Major General Gezae Abera; and Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen, who was governor of the Amhara Regional State at the time he was assassinated. The last victim in these series of assassination plots is the popular Oromo Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundesa, who was shot and killed in a broad day light on June 29, 2020. The blood of Hachalu has now become a rallying cry all over the world.     

Why is the Abiy regime promoting chaos, crisis, and disaster politics instead of leading great and historic Ethiopia to what some middle-income countries like the Tigers and Brazil have attained the capacity of manufacturing industry? What is the purpose of having industrial parks, major infrastructure, and the GERD if the government wittingly or unwittingly sabotage these foundational economies? What is this current government of Ethiopia up to? Is its agenda to replace the federal system by a unitary state as many Ethiopians suspect, or is it to lead Ethiopia on purpose toward a complete failed state, or even let historic Ethiopia implode and dismember into its constituent parts, on purpose. One could create several scenarios and anything is possible in the context of the disaster politics in the Horn.

The domestic actors, the architects of disaster politics, mentioned above, are not alone of course. Other foreign forces, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and some Western nations apparently are acting as caretaker hegemonies and their main power is the dollar (more specifically petrodollar) that finance the security apparatus of the various Horn of Africa regimes; the latter local governments are poor in both economic and ideological contexts and they can be bought off easily, and to be sure the leaders of these governments have no integrity, and to them surrendering the sovereignty of their respective nations is tantamount to selling a commodity in the market place, and they don’t seem to realize that they could be charged with treason when the dust settles down and a relatively patriotic government assumes state power; now blindfolded, they are easy prey to the grand exogenous predators, although they themselves are predators against their own people.

Of all the Horn of Africa actors, however, the chief actors are Abiy and Isaias and they have established a very unique but incredibly mysterious shuttle diplomacy, mostly via air instead of employing the main roads that connect Eritrea and Ethiopia, but since the roads from Eritrea to Tigray and from central Ethiopia to Tigray are closed, the Horn actors cannot use these roads for obvious reasons. It is crystal clear that these two actors have now a common enemy known as the TPLF and by extension Tigray; if they can, they want to encircle Tigray and starve the people of Tigray by their devious economic embargo or declare war on Tigray and quench their appetite of pogrom and massacre; the massacre and wanton destruction of villages has already been conducted against the Oromia area of Wellega and vicinity, and it is highly probable that they want to try it on Tigray as well. But it is also highly probable that Abiy’s chance to conduct war against Tigray could be squandered given the objective conditions in Ethiopia that ironically and unexpectedly turned out to be in favor of Tigray and it is for the following reasons: 1) the myopic and visionless Amhara regional state leaders miscalculated by attacking Tigrayan residents in their state and indirectly rendered unforeseen bonus to the TPLF, and soon after thousands of Tigrayan people returned to Tigray; the Amhara region disturbed itself by killing its own leaders and furthermore by entering into lawlessness and disorder, and, in turn, created havoc to the routine livelihood of the innocent Amhara people; 2) Ethiopia as a whole is now in a state of nature-type chaos, thanks in large measure to the disaster politics promoted by the government itself, and now it is so obvious that Abiy has lost his grassroots support and the trust of Ethiopians as a whole.

If we superficially analyze the Ethiopian reality on the ground, we could very well surmise that Ethiopia is on the verge of disaster and this would not be surprising, because the cloud of disaster politics is hovering over it anyway. However, it is also highly probable that the present regional states of Ethiopia that have enjoyed self-determination and internal administrative autonomy would fight to the end to safeguard the hard won right. It is true that Abiy successfully recruited and coopted some leaders from Somalia, Afar, Benishangul Gumuz, but the people of these regions would not simply yield to the future unitary state that could erode their self-determination rights; in point of fact, Mustafa Muhammad Omer, the current president of the Somali Regional State, the right hand man of Abiy, is not liked by the Somali Ethiopians, nor does he enjoy support from his own party, the Somali Democratic Party (SDP), a party that rejected its own dissolution and being incorporated into the Prosperity Party of Abiy Ahmed. The Somali Ethiopians, like the Afar, Harar, Debub, Gambella, and Benishangul-Gumuz, not to mention Tigray, would like to jealously guard their newly gained autonomy in the federal structure of Ethiopia that enabled them to flourish their cultures and languages, as well as dignity and relative equality that they have obtained in the Ethiopian federal system  

So, in the end, the Ethiopian federalist forces might gather momentum despite the current terror and in spite of their present weak position in Ethiopian politics, and could get support from the relatively strong Tigray Regional State; defeat the unitarian elements along with the former Derg fascistic remnants, and rescue Ethiopia from total collapse. That will be the day!  

But, if the unitarian forces, the Derg elements, and chauvinistic groupings of yesteryear politics prevail and successfully dismantle all that is left of the federal system, the constitution, and the agenda of the developmental state, they could forge alliance with their financiers and come up with a new map of the Horn of Africa that could accommodate new beggar states and weak lackey governments. This could be the prime agenda of the twin actors; the latter also could completely wipe out the developmental state in the name of democracy and neo-liberal economy; they could tell their new constituents that their objective is to find a viable capitalist economy, which by the way is a system that has historically proved to have brought significant socioeconomic changes for the better. This historic victory of capitalism that has completely transformed Western nations, however, cannot be implemented in the Horn of Africa, simply because the Horn nations, the rest of Africa, and for that matter the significant countries in the southern half of our planet, don’t have the wherewithal, the technology, and knowledge-based economy, and by merely depending on their financiers, they could hardly realize a viable independent economy; they are locked up and they have no way out from their disaster politics, but they could realize a dependent economy presided over by autocratic and a despicable dictatorship.

Given the above scenario thus, the geopolitics implications of the disaster politics of the Horn of Africa is immense and its negative impact on the Horn people will outweigh its positive contributions; furthermore, if the geopolitics of the Horn changes in accordance to the twin forces political program, the Arab League and some Western nations could install security and defense bases in the heart of Africa, as already speculated by some observers.

On the other hand, when the twin forces attempt to implement their disaster-infested politics, they could inadvertently provoke other non-Western and non-Arab nations that have invested in Africa. China in particular has invested heavily in all Africa and the Chinese have told the world that “Ethiopia is the gate to China’s investment in Africa”, and for this reason alone, China is not going to be a bystander and simply watch when its dear investments are being dismantled. Moreover, China, Turkey, and Russia could strengthen their political-cum-military capacities and Putin could expedite the Eurasia camp of countries, and a new global order could be forged. This, in turn, might create a new bipolar or multipolar world; or a new cold war; or even a third world war. That will be the day.  

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions of the authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect ethioobserver position. ethioobserver  does not exercise any editorial control over the information therein. ethioobserver cannot accept any responsibility or liability for any actions taken (or not taken) as a result of reading the material displayed.