Most of the Ethiopian analysts, or so-called experts in the Horn of Africa, are currently busy preaching the need for full national dialogue. They also demand an immediate cessation of hostilities in the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
These seemingly harmless calls appear noble and well-meaning at first glance. The call for negotiated peace has finally become the textbook suggestion for resolving conflicts wherever they arise. I firmly believe that most of the people who recommend this approach are well-intentioned outsiders who are simply repeating conventional wisdom on how to resolve conflicts in Africa.
The problem is that such blanket suggestions often don’t work. Indeed, Ethiopia’s neighbor, South Sudan, is a case in point. It is the archetypal example of how such situations are seen and handled by the international community. When armed conflict broke out within the ruling party of South Sudan after independence, the ensuing peace dialogue resulted solely in an agreement on the sharing of power, neglecting proper accountability for the mass murders.
The main problem with the international community’s initial approach to South Sudan – and now to Ethiopia, which I led as Prime Minister from 2012 to 2018 – is the assumption of moral equivalence that leads foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism to take. Facts and details about the true nature of conflicts and the forces that ignite and fuel them are often lost in international efforts to broker peace agreements, which often collapse once they are signed.
I confess a TPLF-dominated coalition has ruled Ethiopia wisely for 27 years. After the TPLF leadership was forced to give up the reins of power due to popular protests against our economic and political mismanagement, in which I was involved, they devised a strategy aimed at capitalizing on the international community’s propensity to fall his standard mode of bothsidesism and calls for a negotiated solution. The leaders of the TPLF are savvy operators who understand how vulnerable the international community is to such manipulation.
A key component of this formula was to unleash an armed confrontation with the federal government so that the current leaders of the TPLF could secure immunity from their past and present misdeeds and a system of power-sharing through an internationally brokered agreement. Such an agreement would allow the TPLF leadership to exert influence beyond the limited support it enjoys in a country of 110 million people. This strategy depends on three premises.
The first premise is the tendency of the international community to ignore complex political and moral realities and to encourage shallow dialogues that invariably lead to power-sharing agreements that reward rogue actors for inciting violence.
The second requirement for this strategy is the belief within the TPLF leadership, very often reinforced by the opinion of external analysts and so-called experts, that it is an invincible force that the Ethiopian National Defense Force like others can withstand or even defeat Ethiopians could be inferior to their members. The fact is, all Ethiopians are battle-hardened, not just those in the TPLF. The usual wisdom is that the TPLF leadership could ensure that any military confrontation with the federal government will be a long, drawn-out, and drawn-out affair. The TPLF leadership and its army are actually locked in on all sides and will have limited capacity to withstand the national army. This borderline-mythical feeling that the TPLF leadership is invincible only reinforces their brinkmanship and deadly provocations.
The third factor behind the arrogance of the TPLF leadership is their belief that they could easily prevail in an armed confrontation against the federal government because of the discord and division they have sown within Ethiopian politics and the army for decades. Because of this miscalculation, the party has now triggered an armed confrontation with the federal government.
The TPLF leadership’s illusions of their invincibility and military capabilities are now being dispelled fairly quickly. The group’s despicable acts against the Northern Command – attacking their bases and seizing military equipment while allegedly ethnically profiling non-Tigrayan members of the national army and committing heinous acts against them – have strengthened the determination of the federal government and many Ethiopians to target criminal elements to bring to court within the TPLF.
The only thing that goes according to plan for the TPLF leadership seems to be the chorus of international personalities and actors who are calling for a dialogue between the federal government and the TPLF leaders. As well-meaning as many of the voices calling for negotiations are, they also seem to ignore the Machiavellian and deadly machinations of the remnants of the old TPLF regime and shy away from blaming them for the destabilization of the country.
If the TPLF leadership is guaranteed the impunity they desire through an internationally brokered deal, the cause of justice and sustainable peace will be badly damaged. Most importantly, it sets a precedent for other groups within the Ethiopian Federation to learn the wrong lesson: violence pays off.
The federal government’s military operations should be completed as quickly as possible and in a manner that minimizes the humanitarian costs of the campaign and brings the leaders of the TPLF to justice while protecting the civilian population. In the meantime, those who advocate dialogue with the TPLF leadership should carefully weigh the full implications of their demands, as they will open a Pandora’s box for other ethnic groups to emulate. Those calling for discussion should understand that the prospect of negotiating with the current leadership of the TPLF is a mistake, both out of principle and out of caution.
In the past few days the true nature of the TPLF leadership has become clear. A senior spokesman has publicly admitted that the leadership planned and carried out an attack on the Northern Command that massacred those members of the army who resisted in what he termed “proactive self-defense”. The alleged heinous crimes the TPLF leadership has committed against civilians in places like Mai-Kadra – which were reported by Amnesty International and should be independently verified – would, if confirmed, demonstrate their genocidal desperation.
The missile attack on the Eritrean capital Asmara, carried out in a final attempt to internationalize the conflict, also shows that the TPLF leadership poses a threat to peace and security throughout the region.
The Ethiopians should not be expected to accept such a sinister and dangerous party under the guise of so-called all-inclusive dialogue. The TPLF leadership in its current form is nothing more than a criminal enterprise that should not be included in a dialogue that is to determine the future of Ethiopia. Peace loving members of the TPLF party and people across the Tigray region, along with other Ethiopians, are the true owners of a democratic Ethiopia.
For its part, the federal government must try to avoid civilian casualties and to protect all civilians affected by the current conflict. Access to humanitarian aid must be granted in Tigray. There are also allegations of ethnic profiling of Tigrayans in some corners of government agencies and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration should investigate these allegations as soon as possible. If verified, it is a dangerous development and should no doubt be convicted and the perpetrators should be brought to justice.
Ethiopia should be a place where the Constitution and the rule of law prevail so that democratization can proceed instead of letting our beloved country get into chaos.