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    Security Issues That Call Immediate Attention 

     Girmay Berhe


Any observer of the current situation in Ethiopia can see that, in addition to the obviously worrying COVID-19 pandemic, there are three security issues that call for our immediate attention, namely, the standoff between Egypt and Ethiopia with respect to filling the Nile Dam, the dispute between the Abiy’s government and opposition forces in Ethiopia, particularly federalist organizations such as the OLF, OFC, ONLF and other nationalists, and the row between Tigray and the Abiy government about the legality of holding elections in Tigray.

A lot is being said about the row between Ethiopia and Egypt over filing the Nile Dam. Egypt has taken the case to the UN Security Council with the hope that the latter will somehow pressure Ethiopia to stop starting to fill the Nile Dam. Egypt is hoping that the UN Security Council will use its enforcement power under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to force Ethiopia to stop filling the dam. However, such action is unlikely as any UN Security Council’s resolution has to be in accordance with international law. International law, particularly customary international law, clearly entitles upper riparian states like Ethiopia to use a river that crosses international boundaries equitably in such a way that it does not significantly harm the interests of lower riparian states such as Egypt and Sudan. There is consensus that the Ethiopian Dam does not pose any significant harm to lower riparian states. As a matter of fact, in the long run, both Egypt and Sudan will eventually benefit from the successful completion of the dam. Egypt is mainly concerned about the timeline for filling the dam, which everybody would agree requires good faith negotiations. But that is not the route Egypt is taking. Egypt is using all the tools in its diplomatic toolbox to dictate Ethiopia to accept its position. 

The Ethiopian government has rightly taken the position that Egypt cannot dictate its terms upon Ethiopia. The question, therefore, is what will happen if Ethiopia continues to stick to its position, notwithstanding any pressure from the UN Security Council or other states? Egypt has always been threatening to use military force if need be. However, such unprovoked attack on a sovereign state will surely be a violation of Article II of the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force except under limited circumstances, including in self-defense. I doubt very much that the UN Security Council will back Egypt in this dispute. But it is prudent to always assume that it is a possibility that Egypt may consider to use force if Ethiopia’s intransigence continues. What should the response of the various opposition political parties be in the event that Egypt decides to use force in order to impose its will? This is a no-brainer: all parties should be united in opposing Egypt despite political differences with the Abiy government. It saddens me to hear some pundits theorize that the TPLF and OLF may side with Egypt in the conflict escalates despite the fact that both have, on many occasions, made it clear that they will never side with a foreign enemy. Therefore, it is a pity that Abiy went on national TV to insinuate that these organizations are traitors. Speaking of treason, let us not forget that nobody, including the Ethiopian Parliament, knows what Isayas and Abiy have agreed to do.

On the domestic front, the tug of war is between the Abiy government, who is determined to remain in office beyond his government’s mandate, due to expire at the end of September, and opposition parties that have made it clear that Abiy’s government does not have the authority to stay in power beyond the end of the current term of the legislative body. As we know, the Abiy government believes that the Constitution allows it to stay in power beyond September on the grounds that elections cannot be conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic. In its effort to get legal cover, Abiy’s government has referred the matter to the House of Federation. Meaza Ashenafi, the President of the Supreme Court and the Chair of the Constitutional Inquiry Commission, has reportedly started the interpretation process. We are told that the Commission’s deliberations will be televised and that amices briefs will be submitted and “Constitutional Law Experts” will be invited. This looks a very good arrangement except that there is nothing to interpret. The Constitution is clear that elections must be held every five years. Therefore, this drama of “interpreting” the Constitution is a waste of tax payers’ money. Any constitutional lawyer in his/her right mind knows that this effort is a sham aimed at crowing Abiy for an indefinite period of time.

 On the part of most of the opposition, there is a general agreement that Abiy’s mandate expires at the end of September, but some differences remain as to what to do next. Some are calling for the formation of a transitional government while others are calling for a care taker government. The TPLF has opted for going forward with elections in Tigray as scheduled. Despite such tactical differences, however, there is a general agreement that Abiy’s government will be an illegitimate government after the end of September. It is a foregone conclusion that the Constitution will be “interpreted” in such a way that Abiy’s government has the authority under the Constitution to stay in power. So, it is clear for any reasonable man to see that the process of “interpretation’’ of the Constitution is a façade. We know what will happen, considering that the Prosperity Party dominates the House of Federation. In any case, it will be interesting to see opportunist constitutional lawyers provide “legal” justification for an illegitimate power grab. But – who knows - some lawyers with integrity may also surprise us by stating that there is no provision in the Constitution that needs to be interpreted for the purpose of prolonging Abiy’s mandate to govern.

Meanwhile, Abiy himself and his lackeys have openly declared war on anybody who would not agree with them. They have threatened Tigray that all necessary measures, including military force, will be used if elections are held as scheduled. It remains to be seen whether Abiy is seriously considering to attack Tigray. The situation in other parts of Ethiopia is a cause for concern as well. Although it is underreported, there are armed conflicts in some parts of Oromia. There are also reports of arbitrary arrests in the Sidama region. Let us also not forget that most of the regions are under ‘Military Command,” which means that human rights abuses are inevitable and reports of abuses are hard to come by. In addition, the economic condition in the country is very awful. It is in these circumstances that Abiy thinks that he can remain in power at any cost. That is not going to happen because people will justifiably challenge his illegitimate rule.

Abiy is multitasking in that he is using every trick in the book to stay in power. In addition to the “interpretation of the constitution” bad joke, he is appealing to Ethiopian patriotism to show that he is the only out there to defend Ethiopia from Egypt while others (the opposition) will definitely side with Egypt. He should know better. No opposition force will betray the national interest.

Going forward, the ball is in Abiy’s court. Nobody can predict what will happen unless Abiy respects the will of the people to step aside once his government’s mandate is over. His threat of attacking Tigray is counter-productive on many levels. Incidentally, does Isayas Afeworki’s visit have anything to do with such threats? Most people justifiably believe so as it is no coincidence that Abiy’s threat came immediately after Isayas’ visit to Ethiopia. Remember also Isayas’ “Game Over” remark and his statement that Ethiopia does need a federal system? Attempting to accuse any opponent as a traitor is not going help at all.

We will see what happens next.

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