Foreign agendas at play in Ethiopian conflict

Ethiopian soldiers ride on a truck near the town of Adigrat, Tigray region, Ethiopia. File picture: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Ethiopian soldiers ride on a truck near the town of Adigrat, Tigray region, Ethiopia. File picture: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Published Nov 20, 2021


By: Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor

The hidden hand of foreign powers in the conflict in Ethiopia is just another example of the US and its allies seeking regime change in a country where the government is perceived to be too independent and not subservient to foreign interests.

In the case of Ethiopia, it is all about safeguarding the interests of Egypt, which is livid that Ethiopia has succeeded in filling the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) without having signed binding guarantees that it would provide a guaranteed amount of water to Egypt even in drought periods.

The US has a vested interest in siding with Egypt, given its role as a US ally and interlocutor in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The US under Trump tried to broker a tripartite deal between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in line with the demands of Egypt, but Ethiopia was having none of it. Ethiopia maintained that it could not give such guarantees as it could not control climate conditions. Trump’s reaction to the Ethiopian government’s stance was to say that Egypt may have to bomb the dam.

Neither the US nor the western financial institutions would fund any part of the GERD dam project and were taken aback when Ethiopia managed to fund it from its own resources.

Israel also had a direct interest in the outcome of the GERD negotiations benefiting Egypt, which had enabled the transfer of Nile water across the Sinai to the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Water has become a top priority in terms of Israel’s national security interests.

One of the strategies employed by the alliance supporting Egypt is to put pressure on the AU, and its new, Chair President Felix Tshisekedi of the DRC, to ensure equitable water distribution under new talks on the GERD. Tshisekedi was invited to Israel last month to forge stronger ties, and water security and the GERD was likely to have been high on the agenda.

With the government of Abiy Ahmed taking a nationalistic position on the dam and unilaterally deciding to fill it, thereby angering Egypt and Sudan, the US has shifted its perception of Ethiopia, from one of staunch US ally to a national security risk.

For a quarter of a century, the US and Western powers had backed the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), which had overthrown the Derg regime with the help of former US Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen in 1991.

The TPLF ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist and became an authoritarian police state, jailing journalists, dissents, opposition leaders, engaging in ethnic killings and Balkanisation, carrying out extra-judicial killings, and firing live ammunition on demonstrators. Despite the brutal rule of the TPLF, the US never imposed sanctions on its leaders or froze their assets – quite the opposite. It hailed the TPLF as a reliable ally and rewarded it with aid and financing for doing the US’s bidding in the region.

But in 2018, the young firebrand Abiy Ahmed rose to power in a landmark democratic election, unseating the TPLF, much to their chagrin and that of their Western allies. Despair in Ethiopia gave way to hope as Abiy reconciled Ethiopia and Eritrea, sought to reconcile ethnic groups in Ethiopia, and focused his government on fighting poverty.

What did not sit well with the Americans and other powers was his pan-Africanism and determination to make Ethiopia and Africa less dependent on foreign aid and more self-reliant. These were the same sentiments that Patrice Lumumba had espoused in the Congo following independence, which led to his assassination.

Abiy’s independent policies, his determination to provide his people with electricity through the hydroelectric power of the GERD dam despite the protests of Egypt and Sudan, and his openness to close relations with China made him an unpalatable leader.There are strong suspicions that the US and its allies have been backing the TPLF rebels in their moves against the legitimate federal government, which has in the process destabilised Ethiopia. The country is already a tinder box, given the deeply entrenched ethnic divisions and competition for resources.

The West has never been hesitant to destabilise countries whose leaders don’t serve their narrow interests, and in the case of Ethiopia, it is a dangerous game that could have dire consequences for the stability of the whole east African region.

The American narrative on the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia has characterised the Ethiopian armed forces as having committed grave abuses of human rights, largely seizing on the propaganda of the TPLF and calling on a legitimate government to make a peace deal on equal terms with a rogue actor.

What is not mentioned is that it was the TPLF that launched an unprovoked attack on Ethiopian forces based in the north of the country as they slept in their barracks on November 4 last year, and days later, massacred hundreds of women and children. The TPLF has admitted that it was a pre-emptive strike and has since waged a fierce battle against federal forces, going as far as to enlist child soldiers.

There is no question that grave war crimes have been committed by both sides in the ongoing conflict, but the western narrative seems to have been intentionally skewed against the Ethiopian government, which is fighting to put down an insurrection and keep the country together.

Those financing and arming the TPLF rebels in their pursuit of retaking power may end up plunging Ethiopia into a civil war that will end in massive bloodshed and starvation.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor

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