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 checkered 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 claims Ethiopia’s federal forces have not killed a single civilian in Tigray, and his administration insists 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 Afwerki has 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.
According 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 of refugees.
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 actively 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, and reasonably 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 killed 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 4,000 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 engaged 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 reports 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 itself?
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 Somalian sinkhole. Could it be because Tigrayan victims of America’s East African linchpin don’t count?
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 donated 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 Theater 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 accused 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 perhaps more 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 Christmas…
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