The European Union is at a critical juncture in the Horn of Africa.
BY HIZBAWI MENGHISTEAB
As recently as February 8, 2021, in a Joint-Statement by High-Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell, Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen, and Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, the European Union (EU) expressed its concern on the on-going Law and Order Enforcement Operation in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia.
The statement was based on “unverified allegations” and it serves neither bringing peace and stability to Ethiopia and the wider region of the Horn of Africa nor addresses the root causes of the conflict and dangerous consequences it could have spilled to the peoples of the Horn of Africa had the attack by TPLF forces on the Federal army went according to plan.
But above all, such unfounded claim could once again be a cause to erect ‘Berlin Wall’ to the new promising era of peace, stability, economic cooperation, and integration of the countries of the region and tear down the new hope and excitement felt since 2018 for the first time in two decades by the millions of people of the Horn, who just shattered a ‘Berlin Wall’ that was standing tall from 1998-2018 between the countries of the region and constantly causing instability and fear of war, mutual mistrust, separating families, chocking economic growth of the region, exposing millions to poverty and hunger.
The series of events that unfolded in 2018 in the Horn of Africa were true landmarks to turn the ugly chapter in the history of the Horn of Africa. In April 2018, after waves of popular uprising and protest against the ‘Hitlerian’ rule of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) engulfed the country for over six months, a young reformist leader, Abiy Ahmed, came to power.
One of the brave and hallmark of his nascent leadership was to announce the acceptance of both the Algiers Agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia in December 2000 and the ‘final and binding’ verdict of the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border Commission (EEBC) of April 2002 unconditionally, which until that time the TPLF-led Ethiopia was refusing to honor both, while Eritrea publicly expressed its unconditional acceptance and commitment to Algiers Agreement for 18 years and the latter for 16 years.
According to the Algiers Agreement, enforcing the implementation of the “final and binding decision” of the EEBC was the responsibility of mainly the four powers who signed as witnesses and guarantors, of which EU was one of them (USA, UN & OAU being the others).
However, after the “final and binding decision” of the EEBC was announced, TPLF rejected to honor the internationally recognized lawful conclusion of the border dispute and its obligation under the Algiers Peace Agreement. The EU, with its partner, the US, opted not to exercise its responsibility of ensuring the implementation of the ruling and peaceful ending of the suffering of millions of people of the region.
In that critical period, the EU stood on the wrong side of history, and it will not only be remembered in the annals of history as such but will also be responsible for the ‘no-war, no-peace‘ situation that ensued for so long, draining the two countries’ economic resource, young productive force, missed opportunities in terms of economic growth and the prolonged suffering of millions of people. The effects of the ‘no-war, no-peace‘ situation to both Eritrea and Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region was and still is no less than that of the Berlin Wall, which divided not only Germany but also Europe physically and ideologically from 1961-1989.
The resistance of the peoples of the Horn of Africa, particularly Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia to the TPLF, also supported by deliberate negligence and willful actions of the EU, the US, and other actors, finally led to the downfall of not only the minority regime in Ethiopia but also the perpetual hate, division, conflict, and mutual mistrust orchestrated and installed by TPLF.
For some regional and international observers, the series of events that happened in 2018 since Abiy took power – the hopes restored, the families reunited (which were separated by TPLF erected a wall of hate, division and mistrust) – were reminiscent of and equivalent to the events witnessed in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was indeed one of the darkest histories of 20th century Europe, as it represents hate, fear, displacement and separation of families, mutual mistrust, and economic stagnation of Europeans East of the wall. So was the ‘Berlin Wall’ of the Horn of Africa one of the darkest periods of the region in the 21st century.
After the fall of the TPLF-erected ‘Berlin Wall’ of the Horn of Africa, the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed visited Eritrea in July 2018, for the first time any Ethiopian Prime Minister to do so in over 20 years. Hundreds of thousands Eritreans lined up on the streets of Asmara and accorded warm welcome to Abiy and his delegation. Asmara has never witnessed ever such a huge crowd of people coming out to welcome any foreign leader visiting the country.
The rapturous reception by the Eritrean people and Government to the Ethiopian PM and the ‘Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement’ signed between the leaders of both countries on July 9, 2018 marked the fall of the ‘Berlin Wall’ of the Horn of Africa and equally heralded the dawn of new era full of hope, optimism and bright future for both peoples and the region.
A week later, President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea also reciprocated the visit to Addis Ababa on July 14, 2018, for the first time in over 20 years. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians crowded the streets of the capital city to welcome President Isaias and his delegation. It was the biggest crowd ever Addis Ababa has seen to welcome a foreign leader, even bigger than the crowd came out to welcome the return of Emperor Haileselassie to Ethiopia in 1941 from exile after the British defeated the Italians.
Soon after, flights between the two capital cities resumed, land borders opened and people started to cross freely, families separated for over 20 years reunited, displaced people and refugees started to return to their homes to start a normal life again, and cross border trade picked up fast. The positive externality and peace dividend of the new era of peace and friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia went beyond the borders of the two countries and begun to bring in Somalia and South Sudan and Sudan. The people of the Horn of Africa, for the first time in their modern history ever, started to look to the bright future ahead in unison.
However, as the Eritrean proverb runs “Zeragi enkelo tsuruy may neyste’’ (roughly translated as ‘Where there is a spoiler, one hardly drinks clean water.’), the TPLF, which willfully sidelined and self-isolated, begun to be a wedge to the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa. Not only openly and officially declared it doesn’t accept the Algiers Peace Agreement and the final and binding EEBC verdict, but also begun massive military preparation for war against the Federal Government.
TPLF funded media outlets, both online and TVs, started to mushroom fast inside Tigray and in Diaspora. Filled with open provocative messages and ethnic hatred, they worked day and night to poison the fresh air of hope, optimism and enthusiasm.
Domestic terrorist groups, either directly linked to or funded by TPLF, such as ‘Samri’ (local youth directly organized, trained and equipped by TPLF, who are, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, responsible for the Mai-Kadra massacre of over 700 ethnic Amharas), OLF-Shene (according to the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) of Ethiopia, responsible for many terrorist acts and civilian deaths) and armed groups in Benshangul Gumuz region (according to Ethiopian Human Rights Commission responsible for the death of 200 civilians in December 2020 and another over 80 in January 2021 in Metekel), went on a spree of ethnic-based killings.
During his speech to the Ethiopian Parliament at the end of November 2020, PM Abiy Ahmed described that over the past two and half years of his tenure in office, there were 113 ethnic based conflicts orchestrated by the TPLF. He said that, “all those conflicts were financed and supported by the TPLF to create the impression that the new administration is weak.”
In terms of regional distribution, there were 37 conflicts in Oromia Regional State, 23 conflicts in Amhara, 15 in Benishangul-Gumuz, 14 in Addis Ababa, 7 in Gambella, 3 in Afar, 3 in Dire Dawa, 2 in Sidama, and 2 in Harrari as well as other areas. The logic behind the TPLF’s evil policy of inciting and fomenting ethnic-based violence is simple – to reap apart Ethiopia through ethnic-based violence and undermine the credibility of Abiy Ahmed and his reformist Government and in the process using the violence as a vehicle to return to power.
For the last almost 76 years since the end of World War II, the Horn of Africa has seen massive loss of life, destruction and displacement, and migration of millions of its population due to unabated wars and natural disasters, like famine and drought. The absence of peace and stability in the region for such a long period means, the natural right to live and the dreams for a better life, economic development and prosperity of the millions of its inhabitants were stolen.
Consecutive generations of children and youth were denied their opportunity for better education and better standard of life. As a result they ended up in poverty, which in turn push them to easily get exploited and manipulated for destructive agendas. Economic growth stagnated, resulting to one of the poorest regions in the world. However, the region is naturally endowed and it not poor. So, it has huge potential to be one of the most productive and economically prosperous regions. But if it is to realize its potential, it undoubtedly needs peace and stability. For peace and stability to be a reality, one condition must be met – the unnecessary and undesirable external interference, which are the main drivers of the vicious cycle of conflicts of the region, must stop.
For so long, the Horn of Africa has been the theatre of superpowers muscle flexing. The big powers rivalry in the Horn of Africa right after the end of WWII was directly responsible for the 30 years war of independence fought by Eritreans from 1961 to 1991 against Ethiopia as well as the Ethio-Somalia War of 1977-78. In the last 30 years since Eritrea’s independence, those big power unconstructive interferences in the internal affairs of the countries of the region has not subsided either. Especially, since the Ethio-Eritrea border war in 1998-200, the region has been the victim of hasty statements and decisions of the EU, US and other international actors with devastating and far-reaching consequences.
Such statements, which scapegoat one side, especially Eritrea as witnessed time and again in the past over 22 years, served as a precursor to unjustifiably punish the innocent governments and reward the epicenter of all the conflicts and instabilities, none other than the TPLF, which wreaked havoc of unprecedented scale and magnitude to our region.
The simplest case in point is imposing sanctions on Eritrea in December 2009 based on unfounded allegations, while on the contrary pumping billions of dollars in the name of aid to the TPLF-led Ethiopia, which until the TPLF-dominated government was removed from power by a popular uprising in April 2018 continued to renegade from implementing the Eritrean-Ethiopia Border Commission’s (EEBC) verdict.
Those kinds of misguided policies and silence of the Western powers in the face of political adventurism of the TPLF only encouraged more defiance of international laws and norms by the same group that in turn led to a myriad of calamities in the Horn of Africa. The two examples in the above – failing to enforce the EEBC decision of April 2002 and imposing sanction on Eritrea in 2009 based on false allegations – clearly prove that the EU’s policy in the Horn of Africa of the last 20 years has not been balanced based on inclusive and constructive engagement with all governments of the region equally, but one that rather fosters a small group which its core political mantra is “rule by ethnic division”, incite and fuel conflicts and instability to survive at the expense of the people of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region.
EU’s founding principles are peace, unity, harmony, political and economic cooperation, and integration. Its impressive economic integration process over the last 63 years was only made possible due to the enduring peace of the six founding members, which served as the nucleus of the big dream. The success of the six founding members of the European Economic Community in their economic cooperation and the rapid economic growth it brought appealed to more and more neighboring states to join the block. The deep economic cooperation led to the creation of a single market, which further fostered economic interdependence; as a result, it avoided major conflicts between the states.
Similarly, for the countries of the Horn of Africa to achieve economic growth, they need peace. And to attain durable peace in the region, the countries of the region must cooperate to avoid anti-peace forces and situations. Eritrea and Ethiopia are partners and the nucleus of the peace, friendship and hope for development emerging in the Horn of Africa.
Therefore, the EU and other powers should support the two countries and play their positive role through constructive engagement with both governments in order to buttress their efforts for successful economic cooperation, and in the long-run economic integration.
Engaging the countries of the region in general and Eritrea in particular, which has been at the receiving end of unjustified hostility and unverified allegations for many years, in good faith will be a huge step in the right direction. Because Eritrea is a hugely important and constructive partner in the strategic region. Otherwise, in the post-TPLF era, pointing fingers and singling out one country for punitive measures is an out-dated approach and futile at best.
At this very promising time for the Horn of Africa, harming one country is not only harming the other one but also killing the dream for peace, friendship, prosperity, and development of the around 190 million population of Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan and Djibouti. It also harms not only EU interest, but also world peace as well as international trade and commerce.
The Horn of Africa is in a very critical historical period or in its critical juncture. How it sails out from the rough challenges of this critical juncture will define the future of the region for generations to come. All the major factors and events unfolding in the region for the past almost three years indicate the region can break the cycle of conflict, instability, economic stagnation, and poverty. This prospective and exciting future ahead is evident in the initial cooperation and consultation of the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia in many fields and the mutual trust and confidence in each other.
At this critical juncture, the countries of the region need the positive and constructive engagement of the big powers, not an approach on the part of the EU that hints there is a desire to bring back yet another ‘Berlin Wall’ to the Horn of Africa.
If the Horn of Africa missed the opportunity to break from the ages-old vicious cycle, then its consequence will obviously endanger world peace, stability, and international trade and commerce. Therefore, it is high time now that the EU, US, and others reflect on the consequences of their past mistakes and redeem themselves if they really want to engage constructively with the countries and peoples of the region in the new post-TPLF era and gain the trust of the victims of their past fatal policies.
When it comes to the Horn of Africa region in general, Eritrea and Ethiopia in particular, the EU and other big powers are in their critical juncture too. What do these countries want and desire to see in the Horn of Africa – a region that is in peace and stability with itself and as a result economically prosperous region that plays its role in fighting many global challenges? Or they want to build yet another Berlin Wall in the Horn of Africa that will prolong the conflicts and instability, death of innocent children and women, massive displacement and migration crisis, economic stagnation, destruction of infrastructure and property, a region that breeds terrorist groups who can target Western interests anywhere?
The weight of history is on the EU and its partners either to witness the consequence of yet another Berlin Wall in the Horn of Africa or a region similar to theirs which is peaceful and economically interconnected where its people live with a better standard of life.