Ethiopia has pursued “legitimate” military action in its Tigray province
since early November, according
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union (AU) Commission. Maybe.
It does seem that the northern state’s regional forces – the Tigray People’s
Liberation Front (TPLF) – attacked federal military bases on November 4 and
may even have executed
some surrendering soldiers. Still, one suspects something a bit more complicated
afoot inside America’s “strategic
linchpin” partner on Africa’s Horn. In fact, that Ethiopia – particularly
its Western-favorite of a prime minister, Abiy Ahmed – is a U.S. partner at
all, is reason enough to smell a rat in the AU chairman’s a bit too confident,
yet also decidedly bland, judgment.
Consider the Source
Let’s start with the source – Mr. Faki himself. Because it doesn’t take too
much research at all for an authorial judge to question this witness’s
credibility. Faki is a former prime minister and longtime foreign minister of
Chad – the highly authoritarian and longtime corrupt
kleptocratic hub of Africa. He also just so happens to belongs to the same
Zaghawa ethnic group as Chad’s president-for-life (or at least since 1990), Idriss
Déby. And just who is the farcically titled “Marshal” Déby?
Well, he’s a previous chair of the esteemed African Union body – preceded by
that other human rights stalwart, deceased Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
– and was later AU president. In fact, he managed
to secure his 11-year veteran as foreign minister, Faki, the AU chairman position
on the same day that he handed over the rotating presidency of the organization.
Rather convenient, that.
Additionally, President Déby is an alumni of late Libyan strongman Muammar
Gaddafi’s World Revolutionary Center – which a 2011 Foreign Policy piece
cheekily labeled “Harvard for tyrants.” On those merits, Déby
has lived up to the school’s hype. He leads one
the world’s most authoritarian regimes, bans
demonstrations critical of his government, and has even been known to shut
down social media in Chad for years at a time.
Nonetheless, all that’s forgotten in the West – just as Gaddafi conveniently
brushed aside the fact that before Déby sought refuge in the country,
he’d fought against Libya’s troops. See Chad’s 30-year tenured president may
be a dictator in all but name, but he’s a useful dictator to America,
and more so, France – Chad’s ex-imperial masters! Déby the soldier spent
two tours training in France – in 1976 and 1985 – fought alongside the French
Army in the 1986 “Toyota
War” (named for prominent tactical use of the company’s Hilux model
pickup trucks) against Libya, and more recently (in 2014) sent 13,000 Chadian
troops to aid Paris’s own forever Operation
Serval in another of its ex-colonies: Mali.
That’s not all – in recent years, Chad has sent troops to support US and French
military interventions, or to do the West’s diplomatic bidding, in Libya, Mali,
South Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as throughout the Sahel
and Lake Chad regions. So helpful are such Chadian troops – their wildly
human rights record aside – that Liesl Louw-Vaudran of the Institute for Security
Studies (ISS) has said
that “Chad, is well known for seeing itself as a sort of champion of military
intervention.” No doubt officials in Washington, Paris, and Brussels appreciate
the effort – in 2017 the Trump administration dubbed
Chad an “important and valuable counterterrorism partner.”
Lest Chairman Faki’s 24 years deep inside a tyrant’s inner circle isn’t quite
enough to taint his judgment of Ethiopia’s civil war – Chad’s had four
of its own, by the way (1965, 1979, 1998, 2005) – there’s the minor matter of
his recent cronyist
corruption scandal atop the AU. To wit, Faki’s own staff alleged
that with him at the helm, the organization is run like a “mafia-style” cartel,
according to a leaked internal memo. The March 6 document was signed by Sabelo
Mbokazi, the president of the AU Staff Association. Concerns about Faki’s tenure
at the AU began as soon as he was elected – which required seven rounds of voting
– when Doki Warou Mahamat, a Chadian who coordinated the campaign against Faki’s
election, asserted – “Moussa Faki is on the payroll of a dictatorship.
All the same, Faki’s reputation and position seem safe since his ties to US
and French military operations on the continent run deeper still. Previously,
he was the chairman of the council of ministers of the G5Sahel, a military “anti-terror”
alliance between Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, that coordinates
closely with US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and various French forces. Furthermore,
France’s broader transnational mission in the Sahel region – Operation
Barkhane – is headquartered in Chad.
So maybe Ethiopia’s own oft-Western-hyped prime minister’s brutal ongoing campaign
in Tigray was, in fact, totally on the legal up-and-up. A big maybe, by the
way. Nevertheless, that the judgment was passed by the crony of a Chadian dictator
known to collude with US and French neo-imperialism – yea, that’s enough to
raise serious questions.
Peace Laureate at War
There’s something tragic-comic about euphemisms and contradictory concepts
– they’re almost as beautiful as they are abominable. So it is with the very
notion of Ethiopia’s own Nobel Peace Laureate waging war on a massive – and
mostly unquestioned – scale inside his own country. Prime Minister Abiy absurdly
Ethiopia’s federal forces have not killed a single civilian in Tigray, and his
they “don’t need a babysitter” of an independent probe into their
prosecution of the war.
Naturally there’s counter evidence galore. Like, why would the otherwise Abiy-amenable
European Union (EU) withhold nearly
$109 million in budget support payments to Addis Ababa because of unanswered
questions about Ethiopian federal troop behavior in the conflict? Actually the
EU was quite clear about their concerns. According
to a spokesman, they “need to see certain conditions fulfilled by the Government
of Ethiopia” – including full humanitarian access for relief workers, open
refugee access to neighboring countries, an end to ethnic-based targeting, and
restoring communications to the Tigray region.
Moreover, just what sort of routine “law enforcement operation” –
which is how Abiy describes a war that’s killed thousands and displaced about
a million Ethiopians – requires the intervention of thousands of traditionally
mortal enemy troops from neighboring Eritrea, according
to corroborated eyewitness accounts from aid workers and diplomats? Heck, even
the normally pro-Abiy US State Department admitted it was “aware of credible
reports of Eritrean military involvement in Tigray.” What’s more, a former
Eritrean defense minister turned opposition figure cited sources currently inside
its defense ministry claiming
the country deployed no less than four mechanized divisions, seven infantry
divisions, and a commando brigade, to open a second (northern) front for the
invasion of Tigray.
Peculiar too, that the country’s single available broadcast source – Eritrean
state television – hasn’t even mentioned the nearby Ethiopian conflict since
it began some 50 days ago. Plus, the normally bellicose Eritrean President Isaias
not uttered a public word in response to missiles the TPLF fired at
his capital of Asmara in November. Me thinks the lady doth protest too little.
Look, here in the real world, the Eritrean Army absolutely took part in this
war – and they apparently did more than offer their Ethiopian peacemaking partner
of a prime minister a selfless assist with his internal turmoil.
to one of the nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia – who’ve
previously fled state repression and indefinite military conscription across
the border – Eritrean soldiers accompanied by Ethiopian troops patrolled his
camp “searching name-by-name and home-to-home” for select individuals.
He said “their main target seems to be opposition members.” Sounds
like a win win for ever-authoritarian Asmara. If true – and there’s enough stored
Eritrean state motive to assume it is – this would amount to direct Ethiopian
complicity in a flagrant violation of international laws covering the protection
Back on November 28, the Ethiopian government declared
an end to military operations in Tigray – insisting federal forces were in “full
control” of the region – but the TPLF leadership hasn’t been captured and
claims, somewhat credibly, that their resistance continues. Could broad and
persistent internal insurgency break out – which proves to be an Ethiopian Vietnam?
Well, Addis Ababa’s troops have faced a short version of African ‘Nam before
– just over the border in Ethiopia’s longtime favorite intervention and manipulation
spot: Somalia. Most recently from 2006-09, when Washington green-lighted – then
assisted (with special forces teams and airpower) – an Ethiopian invasion
and occupation that quickly turned into a bloody morass. The ostensible – and
strictly achieved – purpose was a decapitating regime change of Somalia’s stabilizing,
moderate, Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
Only, as they do, this occupation proved complicated, indecisive, and ultimately
counterproductive. The ICU’s moderates were assuredly toppled, but this empowered
its more radical Al Shabaab youth wing – and lent legitimacy to a hard-liner
Somali resistance that not only remains undefeated, but has spread
its tentacles into another US partner state, Kenya. In fact, call me crazy but
I think far more Americans ought know that three US troops and contractors were
in Kenya this January – proof positive that global wars on terror sure
can go truly global if they continue for two decades.
It is hard to know if Tigrayan resistance will prove persistent, or rise to
Somali intervention levels – where, by the way, Ethiopia still maintains
troops. What’s certain is there’s plenty of foundational kindling for
an insurgency in the region, if not a countrywide ethnic civil war. Abiy’s victory
pronouncement is likely to be – historically speaking – absurdly premature.
According to last week’s European Council on Foreign Relations report,
there are “three dynamics” accounting for this.
First, the Tigray War has heightened ethnic tensions in a country with at least
80 such groups – many of which have long been at each other’s throats. In the
wake of the Abiy’s brutal suppression of the regional rebellion with ground,
armored, air, and Eritrean power, many average Tigrayans feel more alienated
than ever from the federal government. That’s not good.
Second, the war – and the prime minister’s prosecution of it – have tainted
perceptions of his broader national goals of modernization, infrastructure development,
and general Western-backed neoliberalism. For the many Ethiopians already skeptical
of Abiy’s corporatist “medemer”
(“synergy”) project, the raw and reflexive violence of the Tigray
campaign has exposed the prime minister’s goals as – just as they suspected
– ultimately motivated by power centralization.
Finally, by calling in Asmara’s soldierly dogs, Abiy turned the rebellion into
a regional conflict. This plays right into the hands of a TPLF narrative that
has long sought a Greater Tigray including ethnic brethren across the Eritrean
border. It may even motivate a desperate move by the TPLF to pursue a strategy
that expands any future insurgency into Tigray’s neighboring country. At that
point, it’s game on!
Right now, let’s focus on the first couple of insurgency-accelerants. For starters,
there’s been far too little media emphasis on one crucial and disturbing fact.
That is, Ethiopia’s federal army – and longtime foes cum friends in Ethiopia
– had two other allies in the Tigray fight: bordering Amhara State regional
forces and ethnic Amhara militias. This is wildly problematic for two reasons.
One, the Amhara – Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group – are widely resented
nationwide for their millennia’s worth of traditional
dominance of the country’s political and cultural institutions. Two,
the chauvinist ethnic militiamen – often youth-based – have tribalistic scores
to settle and are often unhinged murderers. By utilizing Amhara regional forces
in active border disputes with neighboring Tigray, and then deputizing bigoted
substate young ethnic militiamen – both with a vested interest in punishing
the Tigrayans – Prime Minister Abiy instantly poisoned the well of his internal
“law enforcement operation.”
The proof is in the proceeding pudding. Because, wouldn’t you know that after
the TPLF retreated in the face massive onslaught, Amhara state forces occupied
all the previously contested territories – nearly one-third of Tigray – and
then the Abiy government (can we say “regime” at this point?) appointed
Amhara administrators for these disputed areas. There have also been credible
of Amhara militiamen carrying out ethnic massacres of Tigrayan civilians in
these newly occupied zones.
Secondly, Ethiopia’s ten other regional states, and its other 79 odd ethno-linguistic
groups, are no doubt keeping a keen eye on what’s unfolding in the Tigray tumult.
There are rising, serious, and countless reports
of ethnic profiling, discrimination, retaliation, and even murder, in the war’s
wake – not just in Tigray, but nationwide. And the truth is, Abiy’s “reform”
agendas were always so many castles of sand – the prime minister long more popular
with global elites than many Ethiopian locals.
For those suspicious of his motives from the first, the overwhelming and oppressive
force applied in Tigray – in cahoots with their mortal Eritrean enemies – may
be viewed as exposing Abiy’s real centralization plans and/or desire to reestablish
traditional Amhara dominance (though typically identified as a member of the
Oromo ethnic group – multiple sources identify
his mother as Amhara). Are they next, many ethnic minorities and their regional
leaders may wonder? Is it Tigray that’s been under attack – or ethnic federalism
In such a scenario – their own instances of brutality aside – Abiy’s assault
and metropole-centripetal policies may turn the TPLF fighters into bandit folk
heroes like some band of African Jesse Jameses or Bonnies and Clydes. In fact,
perhaps the analogy sticks – since it’s already replete with an old fashioned
bounty on their bandit heads. Last week, the Ethiopia government announced
a 10 million birr ($260,000) reward for information on the whereabouts of the
fugitive Tigrayan leaders – or, if Abiy keeps it up: newfound Robin Hoods!
There’s also some dangerous – if anecdotal – language circulating among Tigrayans
that I’ve personally heard fuel insurgencies and sectarian civil wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq. One half-Tigrayan, half-Eritrean, civilian refugee – who barely escaped
after five family members were shot – said
that since the war, “The people that I know, they hate the TPLF. But now
they want the TPLF to win. They want them to take over the power. Even people
who had hope in [Prime Minister Abiy].”
So here we go again, with military overreach and overreaction alienating broad
swathes of already unstable countries, thereby empowering – by dint of communal
fear and perceived necessity – dubious violent actors previously lent less legitimacy.
Oh, and all with an amoral American assist, enable, or authorization. I don’t
know about you, but I’ve seen this movie before – including a sequel! – and
it never ends well.
AFRICOM’s Ethiopian Opacity
Ethiopia’s hardly always been Washington’s East African linchpin. On the contrary,
for a long while – and not so long ago – Addis Ababa was America’s regional
nemesis, the foil to Uncle Sam’s best laid plans for the Red Sea region. Ethiopia,
in fact, was a Soviet linchpin from the 1970s to the fall of the Berlin
Wall – and Somalia’s autocrat was America’s man on the Horn. Talk about
a turnabout! How soon Washington’s professional policymakers forget what they
likely never knew in the first place. One wonders if the US generals charged
with policing – I’m sorry, “security assisting” and “capacity
building” – Africa have the slightest inkling of what’s under the continent’s
hood. Given their record in East Africa – specifically Ethiopia – the safe money
says hell no.
Strange isn’t it (or is it?), that in the month and a half since this
semi-major regional war broke out over Tigray, that AFRICOM hasn’t
published a single press release on the subject? Not even something mundane
like otherwise obligatory calls for restraint, ceasefire, or respect for civilian
life. The command did, of course, brag about – and release war porn footage
– its airstrikes targeting Al Shabaab just across the border in the US military’s
Could it be because Tigrayan victims of America’s East African linchpin don’t
See these poor, erased souls happened to be killed by the wrong people – Washington’s
allies. And so it always goes in America’s deadly and language-distorting proxy
campaigns on this – and other – troubled continents. Good news though! While
thousands of Tigrayan Ethiopians were being killed, those sweethearts at AFRICOM
a field hospital to the Kenyan Border Police – but hey, those guys keep our
naughty shared Somali enemies outside of their US”partnered” colonial-legacy
boundaries. They deserve humanitarian aid – Kenyan lives matter!
It’s actually rather hard to parse out the exact nature of AFRICOM’s agreements
with and assessments of Ethiopia. After all, the command’s Fiscal Year 2020
Posture Plan redacts the entire section identifying “gaps and risks”
in US agreements with Addis Ababa. What our troops and our taxpayer dollars
do in We the People’s name is by necessity secret squirrel stuff, I guess. That
includes, especially, any problems with partner-relationships.
So about all AFRICOM’s more than 50 percent redacted overall posture reveals
is that the US has an “enduring” Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement
(ACSA) with Ethiopia – this excessive acronym vaguely described as a “bilateral
agreement [that] allows exchange of Log[istics] support, supplies, and services
(LSS)” offering the “benefit” of “support [for] combined
operations [to] strengthen strategic partnerships.” Odd too, that America’s
ally on Africa’s Horn didn’t receive a single mention in 43 pages worth of AFRICOM
commander General Stephen Townsend’s testimony
before the House Armed Services Committee this past March. Not one.
Strange because, just weeks earlier, the general took a two-day
trip to Ethiopia and addressed the closing ceremony of the African Land
Forces Summit (ALFS) – co-hosted by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF)
and US Army Africa. While there, the AFRICOM chief met with General Birhanu
Jula, Ethiopian military’s Deputy – and now primary – Chief of General Staff.
You know, the same East African “land force chief partner” who recently
the Word Health Organization’s first African director-general – “without
offering any evidence” – of leaving “no stone unturned” to procure
weapons for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). No matter, Ethiopian
military’s conspiracy theorist in chief and his subordinate officers can still
expect a cool $1 million
in Uncle Sam’s International
Military Education and Training (IMET) largesse next year.
Plus, a couple of months before that, in November 2019, Townsend had praised
Ethiopia’s “critical and significant leadership role in the region,
and across the continent,” and how “their willingness to develop and
enhance security capabilities, have helped create a safer region.” As the
Pentagon’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) – the continent’s
largest and most enduring US base and headquarters in nearby Djibouti – put
it in their 2019 “Command
Year in Review:” They “are proud to be on the same team building a
safe and secure Africa with our coalition partners” – including “Ethiopia.”
See, shooting down protesters in the streets, failing to control widespread
nationwide ethnic killings, or the late brutality – including at least one credible
massacre that could be the “tip
of the iceberg” – of the ENDF’s recent operation to cow Tigrayan separatism:
none of this warrants Washington halting the flow of aid to Addis Ababa.
What can, and recently did
put Ethiopia’s development assistance at risk – to the tune of $130 million
cut by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September – is angering
an even more staunch and autocratic American ally, Egypt. The unforgivable crime:
daring to begin filling a damn for a Nile River – 85
percent of which’s water sources are inside Ethiopia’s borders – to
than double the power capacity of a country where 60 percent of the
people still lack electricity.
There’s a hierarchy to US favoritism, Prime Minster Abiy – you should know
that by now – and it has little to do with a country’s respective stability,
democracy, or humanitarian record.
Get with the program, doctor! It’s big boys rules on the Horn of Africa this
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center
for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com,
and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared
in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American
Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications.
He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West
Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders
of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic
Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris
“Henri” Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress
on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet
and on his website for
media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen