Open letter to Jeffrey Feltman, the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa.
First of all, congratulations on your appointment as US special envoy to the Horn!
I don’t think anyone will envy your foray into one of the most violent, but little understood, conflicts in the region: the Tigray war—a war which was precipitated by the attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian army by Tigray regional forces loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
While the US is focused on this conflict, there are ongoing ethnic conflicts in other parts of the country such as Oromia, Amhara, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions with enormous consequences for the stability of the country. Add to this the upcoming national election, the border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia, and the stalled GERD negotiation, and you would see that you need a magic wand to handle the gathering storm.
As the region is close to the volatile Middle East, United States’ deep concern for its interest is understandable. Perhaps its involvement is unavoidable. But, Ethiopians recall with horror the arbitrary and capricious involvement of the Trump Administration through the Secretary of the Treasury last year. The former president’s claim that his “favorite dictator’’ might ‘’end up blowing the dam’’, very much in character with his bravado, is forever etched in our mind.
No one will deny that US’s influence in the region can help facilitate the resolution of these complicated issues involving Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. However, given the track record of US interventions in Syria and Libya, Ethiopians are legitimately concerned it would compound the problem and make it more intractable.
The concern is not about US’s intentions, but its diplomatic even-handedness given the complexities of the issue and its sensitivity to the very survival of the Ethiopian state. A mishandling of this crisis spells disaster for US interests and Ethiopians.
The cause of the current conflict
In the face of sustained reporting of appalling human rights violations by CNN, BBC, Reuters, NYT, and so on, the context of the war has been lost. But, context matters. The attack on Ethiopian armed forces stationed in Tigray by the Tigray regional force, which was conducted with Tigrayan military officers who betrayed their comrades, was the trigger for this conflict.
TPLF admitted its pre-emptive and “lightning” strike to forestall the “impending invasion” of its territory by Ethiopian forces. Now, for those who don’t spend their days following the murky politics of Ethiopia, the concept of a country invading its own territory must be rather confusing. So, what actually happened?
Until three years ago, Ethiopia was ruled by the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). That state of affairs ended with a popular revolt in the Oromia and Amhara regions. In part, the rage was targeted at TPLF. Protesters felt that TPLF’s domination of the armed forces, national security apparatus, and many aspects of economic, civil and political life was intolerable.
The uprising led to the emergence of a new political alliance within the EPRDF ruling coalition. TPLF lost its dominance and was replaced by a new coalition led by Oromo politicians with Amharas as partners. Abiy, a consensus figure who hails from Oromia, emerged from within and instantly captured the hearts and minds of all strata of society, including the restive Oromos and Amharas.
With his soft words, democratic impulse, and sunny personality, Abiy emerged as the undisputed leader of the country. This enormous outpouring of support from the public made it impossible for the old guards from TPLF to undermine the new government.
The TPLF leadership then retreated to Tigray after they were removed from federal positions. Ensconced in Tigray, where its cadres dominate the society, TPLF started to challenge, undermine, and provoke Abiy’s government. For all practical purposes, there were two separate entities in Ethiopia at the time: TPLF’s government in Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia where Abiy’s government was struggling to establish a foothold.
This situation was untenable, but no one knew how to resolve it.
As time passed, the rhetoric from Tigray increasingly became bellicose and Abiy looked incapable of addressing the issue. The first test of the untenability of this situation came when the federal government wanted to apprehend Getachew Assefa, the former Ethiopian security chief, and the government in Tigray did not cooperate. The federal government continued to cooperate fully with the region, even though it was partly out of the control of the federal government. Everyone wondered what would happen next.
While the Abiy government was at a loss—trying to bring the TPLF leadership to its senses through public diplomacy and religious and social outreach—TPLF hardened its position. It would not cooperate with Abiy; instead, it would work to foster opposition to the government by mobilizing “federalist forces.”
Three important overlapping events must be included in this background.
The first was the formation of the Prosperity Party through a merger of parties in EPRDF and partner parties of the EPRDF that the old guards deemed too backward to be part of EPRDF. TPLF refused to join, although it had previously said that it was not opposed, in principle, to such a merger.
The second event was the postponement of the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The postponement was debated in the parliament. The government also consulted constitutional scholars to make sure it was done in the spirit and letter of the constitution.
While there was no consensus, many scholars accepted that a maximum one-year postponement would not be grievous to the constitution. Except for some opposition elements, others in the political sphere accepted the government’s explanation. Furthermore, even if there were disagreements, the decision of the House of Federation (HoF) that the postponement of elections and the extension of the government’s mandate was constitutional was binding, as HoF has the final say on such matters.
However, TPLF saw in this the casus belli and declared the government illegitimate, and, against the advice of the National Election Board, it went ahead and conducted its own election, once again showing that it was determined to forge ahead outside of the Ethiopian state order. Abiy seemed willing to tacitly acquiesce to these as long as further provocations were not taken.
It was against this backdrop that Tigrayan officers and Tigrayan forces decided to try and take over the Ethiopian army command stationed in the region. The government had no choice but to strike back by sending its troops and Amhara regional forces to Tigray. Eritrea provided critical military and logistical assistance to the Ethiopian government. The government’s response was the same that any other government would have taken.
Sadly, TPLF’s responsibility in the series of events culminating in its vicious attack on the country’s defense forces has been recently overlooked by the US and the West. TPLF initiated the conflict knowing that it would pose a threat to the state. But, it appears as though the West bought the TPLF’s narrative that the federal government is the culprit. And now, the fear is that the West will push the government to deal with an enemy that has jeopardized the peace and security of 110 million people.
I think this context is critical to address the situation in a fair manner. A rush to impose a solution that does not take this context and the interest of the Ethiopian state into account will unnecessarily prolong the crisis.
Ethiopia-US relations have historically been very good except during the time of the Derg. This relationship has grown stronger over the last 27 years. The US offered Ethiopia bilateral assistance which helped sustain economic growth. In turn, Ethiopia was a crucial ally in the war against terror. Ethiopians would very much like this relationship to continue.
As the Ethiopian government was pretty much dominated by TPLF top members who rebelled against the federal government, a diplomatic vacuum has been created in Ethiopia. In the meantime, US policies are being crafted by individuals whose understanding was shaped by TPLF members they knew during the days of the EPRDF. That is alarming to those of us who love America and want it to do good by Ethiopia.
Furthermore, as you proceed with your fact-finding mission to the region, it would be sensible to review the lessons of US humanitarian interventions in Libya. The Obama government haphazardly intervened in Libya after the State Department found it impossible to ignore the drumbeat of atrocities committed by the Gaddafi military pushed by the mainstream media. Many of us supported the intervention for this reason. It shows the powerful influence of the media—but, as it turned out, the media reporting was often exaggerated, sensational, and lacking in context and nuance. The same may be happening in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is no stranger to strife. Our history is full of it. However, we have never heard the kind of cruelty and mayhem leveled against innocent people as we hear now. While some of this has happened on all sides, the singling out of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces as the most responsible parties for the barbarism is unfair.
In fact, it appears that TPLF’s campaign of demonization of the Ethiopian government is designed to outrage the West into action. The US should not fall for this propaganda. It should do the painstaking work of verifying the claims using its capabilities. Should it fail to do so, but rage against the government, it will push the country to the brink. Ethiopia could solve its problems, as it has done in the past, but US heavy-handedness could make this far more complicated and embolden the country’s enemies.
Prime Minister Abiy is a leader who is open to working with the US. Senator Coons spent five hours discussing the current situation with the Prime Minister. If the US could work so successfully with Marxists who believed the US was an imperialist enemy (TPLF during its final days of the armed struggle), it should be able to keep working with Prime Minister Abiy who has shown a democratic impulse and appears to be pro-Western.
Abiy has a unique insight into the country’s conflicting narratives and history and wants to bring Ethiopian people together under his Medemer (synergy) philosophy. This philosophy may not be a scholarly treatise, but it is something the people can understand and relate to. If not as philosophy, it works as a guiding principle. It appeals to Ethiopian’s noblest impulse—to come together and form a political community.
Contrary to his opponent’s accusations, Abiy has shown his deference for the constitution and has not tried to undermine ethnic federalism. One can deduce that he wants the issue of reforming the constitution or dealing with the crisis generated by ethnic federalism to be dealt with via a democratic process once the election is conducted.
As you may know, there have been vague calls for national dialogue. National dialogue is the standard refrain of Abiy’s opposition but seems to have attracted Western think tanks, opinion makers, and diplomats. What national dialogue means and the process for achieving it has to be spelled out. If this is to supersede Abiy’s government, it is not acceptable to Ethiopia. There should be more dialogue with political parties after the election, but those that are attempting to force a political outcome using weapons are not welcome.
Furthermore, the US government’s policy has to make a distinction between Abiy and the opposition. Abiy has shown the fortitude to reduce regional tensions through Eritrean-Ethiopian rapprochement, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The previous regime failed on this score. Its policy of boxing Isaias diplomatically failed to ease tension.
The Abiy the world saw at the August Nobel ceremony is the Abiy that is now leading Ethiopia—humble, self-effacing, warm, and articulate, who hails from the two major ethnic groups: Oromo and Amhara.
Having seen what US policies have done in Libya and Syria, I hope you would be humble enough to proceed cautiously. I hope you don’t feel you understand it all, and feel that all that is needed is a muscular US policy to bend Abiy to your will. If, as you said, the problem in the region will make ‘’Syria a child’s play’’, it behooves you to take your time and understand all aspects of the problem.
GERD and border conflict
Everyone should appreciate the emotional attachment that Ethiopians have for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which was initiated by the TPLF and Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi. This is the one issue that unites the country: Ethiopians are willing to die for it.
When it comes to GERD, the Ethiopian people know about the diplomatic machinations that have gone on in the international arena to prevent the country from using its God-given resource to generate energy and improve the livelihood of its people.
They also know that Egypt has taken this resource for granted, scandalously mismanaging it, believing that it would forever be its and that Ethiopia will never be in a position to access its own resources. This is tantamount to saying that Ethiopia will forever be condemned to remain poor and dependent, unable to muster its resources while Egypt grows, prospers, and maintains its regional power status.
The GERD has changed all the prevailing assumptions and now Egypt has to come to the realization that it has to share the Nile water with Ethiopia.
The GERD negotiations have significantly narrowed the gap between the countries, but the remaining issues have not been hammered. Ethiopia wants the negotiation to continue under the auspices of the AU, but the US can suggest bridging proposals. The proposal has to be in support of GERD generating electricity while keeping the Nile water flowing to Egypt.
As Ethiopia is now heading to fill the dam for the second time, Egypt is doing everything in its power to undermine the Ethiopian government. In the interest of international law, the US should not let Egypt get away with this.
The border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia should be viewed in this context. Until recently, Ethiopia’s bilateral relations with Sudan were excellent. Ethiopia and Sudan viewed the GERD as beneficial to both countries. All of that changed last year. It coincided with efforts by the State Department to remove Sudan from “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list. Egypt influenced Trump’s administration to reach this decision.
The result was that Sudan now started to toe the Egyptian line in the GERD negotiation. The two countries’ positions are now indistinguishable, and for the purpose of international diplomatic consumption, Sudan has taken a more strident position against Ethiopia.
In addition, Sudan has invaded swaths of land, triggering a border conflict. The Ethiopian government understands this is not just a conflict about the border, but about the GERD and has called for the conflict to be resolved through diplomatic channels.
Even more alarming is that some Sudanese politicians are calling the area where the GERD is built on a “disputed territory.” This is more nefarious and has coincided with Egypt’s saber-rattling. Egypt has repeatedly undertaken joint military exercise with Sudanese armed forces in what appears to attempt to intimidate Ethiopia. Throughout, Ethiopia has remained calm and stuck to its legitimate position.
You should know that the Ethiopian and Sudanese people have long lived in friendship. A conflict would be detrimental to both Sudan and Ethiopia—both fragile states. Nor would Egypt benefit from such conflict in the long run.
I want to conclude my letter by requesting no policy pronouncement should be made while you are engaged in understanding the genesis of the conflict. US statements that are released before the completion of your fact-finding would jeopardize your effort. It would prejudice your mission.
There are now powerful forces arrayed against Ethiopia threatening its very foundation. Mismanaged, this could lead to a tragedy of biblical proportion for the people of the Horn. The United States should not be a party to this conflict against the Ethiopian state.
We wish you success in your diplomatic endeavor!
Query or correction? Email us
Follow Ethiopia Insight
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Jeffrey D. Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, 2021; U.N.
Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.