Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (Photo by Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Ethiopia teeters as UK government is preoccupied by Covid-19

Developing countries that the UK assists are being sidelined as the UK government’s attention is seized by Covid-19 and domestic troubles

The prettiest beggars in Addis Ababa tended to be the single mothers who had travelled hundreds of miles southward to the Ethiopian capital from Tigray, the country’s most northern region. There was one Tigrayan mother living on the street near where I lived whose two-year-old daughter was the personification of Tigray’s feisty spirit. That wild little imp cheered me up every time I passed the two of them in their dirty clothes as she danced to the hi-fi music coming from the street-side stores or just ran around like a little dust devil while her mother smiled on indulgently.

The United Nations and human rights organisations are already calling for an independent investigation

By the end of nearly four years living as a freelance desperado journalist in Ethiopia—and it really was pretty desperate at times, especially having previously been a smart cavalry officer in the British Army after attending a very fine school, though the less said about those times the better, quite possibly—I’d developed quite a soft spot for Tigrayans. Two doors down from my apartment there lived a Tigrayan widow who, even though neither of us could speak a word of the other’s language, would sometimes invite me into her tiny apartment to share a freshly brewed coffee with a hunk of traditional Ethiopian bread. Between 2013 and 2019, including return trips to Ethiopia, I reported all over the Tigray region on the likes of humanitarian projects striving to ensure no repeat of those terrible images of children with distended bellies and skeletal faces that seared themselves on the international consciousness in the 1980s, on the influx of Eritrean refugees coming into the region, and even on a brave British expat trying to establish a milk farm there. I always came away from these trips impressed and uplifted by encounters with the Tigrayan people, whose vigour and friendly boldness was in contrast to the polite but taciturn reserve of the Amhara people whom I was mostly surrounded by in Addis Ababa, a contrast that struck me as Ethiopia’s equivalent of the more ebullient Irish character compared to that of the stiff-lipped English type.

But, as I previously wrote for The Critic, Tigray is a bit like the Donald Trump of Ethiopia. If you are judged not to have criticised it or the people associated with it enough—primarily the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s main political party that dominated Ethiopian politics for decades—or to have suggested nuance in relation to any of the above in a way that might be interpreted as vaguely sympathetic, there are a lot of people out there who get mighty riled. The parallels with Trump have continued most recently, because just as the once seemingly Teflon-coated American president has finally fallen, so has the TPLF.

On 28 November, following six weeks of conflict between TPLF forces and the government, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory following an offensive by federal forces culminating in the capture of Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital (and which became one of my favourite Ethiopian cities to visit). TPLF forces and their political leadership appear routed. But it is all but impossible for it to be that simple—nothing in Ethiopia ever has been, is, or could be—and the odds are that an insurgency is brewing with all the further devastation that could bring; the United Nations and human rights organisations are already calling for an independent investigation into allegations against all sides involved in the conflict of civilians being massacred and the shelling and looting of residential areas; most estimates suggest that thousands have been killed, and more than two million people have been displaced, both within Tigray and with about 50,000 fleeing into neighbouring Sudan.

“There is no doubt that the TPLF has suffered serious losses during this conflict, including some of its senior leaders,” says Matt Bryden, director of Sahan, a research think tank focused on peace, stability and development in the Horn of Africa, East Africa and the Middle East. “But the TPLF also enjoys key strategic advantages, including the support of much—if not most—of the Tigrayan population, mountainous terrain that favours the defender, and a large, well-disciplined force. Time is also on the TPLF’s side: in asymmetrical warfare, the insurgent wins by not losing and the government loses by not winning. The conflict has already endured much longer than Abiy predicted and heavy fighting is still reported across much of Tigray.”

Bryden’s conclusion is that he “expects it to evolve into a long, grinding insurgency with the potential to spread not only to other parts of Ethiopia, but potentially to Eritrea as well.” The involvement in the civil conflict of neighbouring Eritrea—the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea runs along Tigray’s northern edge—represents a major fault line that could easily expand and threaten the recent and hard-won relative stability across the Horn of Africa, a region prone to volatility and the harbouring of terrorist, jihadist fundamentalist groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia. It’s the sort of tense, potentially escalatory situation that should have the UK diplomatic corps all over it. But as Mark Sinclair commented in his article for The CriticHow the rise of digital technology facilitated lockdown, the collateral damage of Covid-19 is spreading from the domestic front to the  developing world that we engage with and assist; it’s exasperated  by the political fallout of Covid-19 following British politics of the past few years being utterly monopolised and drained by Brexit, a black hole for all the political energy and attention that could be channelled to myriad different avenues such as foreign policy.

The ramifications for Ethiopia, and other developing countries, of the UK being so distracted and wrapped up in dealing with Covid-19 is compounded by the fact that leaders of countries like Ethiopia know full well that we are distracted—and hence now is a great time for Abiy Ahmed to settle his political and ideological differences with the TPLF, confident that the likes of the UK has too much on its plate and lacks the required bandwidth to engage in leveraging how it is one of Ethiopia’s most significant and longstanding partners and providers of financial aid. The UK was the first country to provide economic development aid to Ethiopia following World War II, when British and Commonwealth forces fighting alongside Ethiopian troops defeated the occupying Italian army and restored Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to power. In 2019, Ethiopia received the second largest amount of foreign aid from the UK—£300 million—just behind Pakistan (which received £305 million), according to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s 2019 Statistics on International Development.

From what I saw during my time in Ethiopia, its government already ran rings round the UK’s diplomats

But even before Covid-19 arrived like the most demanding of dominatrices to tie up the hands of Westminster’s finest, from what I saw during my time in Ethiopia, its government already ran rings round the UK’s diplomats (in their defence, it did so with everyone else’s, although perhaps not quite so much with the US, the biggest foreign financial backer). The Ethiopian government took our money, politely listened to the British Embassy expressing concerns about this or that, and then cracked on regardless. The added level of distraction now caused by the pandemic and repeated around the world among developed countries’ governments perhaps explains how Abiy had the audacity to respond to initial calls for peace in Tigray from the international community—which collectively provides astronomical amounts of money and has previously cancelled billions of dollars of Ethiopian debt—by telling everyone to stay out of Ethiopia’s affairs.

A statement released by him on 25 November noted that while the country appreciated the concerns of the international community, he would “like to stress that Ethiopia is very much capable and willing to resolve this situation in accordance with its laws and its international obligations.” As a result, he said, Ethiopia “rejects any interference in our internal affairs” and requests the international community to “respect the fundamental principles of non-intervention under international law”.

I’m not sure what the equivalent diplomatic term is but down at the pub—if it was open—a comment like that made against such starkly obvious context would be described as a little bit necky, all considered. Abiy has been on a bit of a roll lately when it comes to such comments and stretching credulity. He followed up his admonishing advice to the international community by appearing on Ethiopian television to announce that not a single civilian had been killed by federal military forces during its offensive into Tigray. In such instances, one of the frustrations as a journalist—especially as a journalist who formerly was an army officer fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan—is that journalistic convention dictates you need to get another person to comment on exactly what you know to be the case and hence could point out easily enough yourself. But as we are among friends here at the The Critic, indulge me in going ahead and stating the obvious: that Abiy’s comment is beyond risible and cannot contain an ounce of truth—otherwise known as constituting a bald-faced lie.

If only warfare could be conducted with clean score sheets where civilians are concerned. But it’s impossible, as I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan where, to the British Army’s credit, it went to great lengths to prevent civilian casualties with complex rules of engagement (ROE) and various levels of exacting oversight (among the graffiti covering the inside of a portaloo in Abu Naji Camp outside the Iraqi city of Al Amarah in 2004, there was a lengthy lamentation by a solider bemoaning just how difficult it was to actually fire back at Iraqi insurgents due to all the various ROE we had to follow). None of that applies to the forces involved in Ethiopia’s civil conflict, all of whom are battle-hardened from previous conflicts, constant skirmishes around the borders and fighting terrorist groups in the Horn of Africa, while not being given to worrying about the finer details of artillery and drone strikes. Abiy knows this full well as a former military officer, hence, as Bryden notes, it “raises questions as to whether the prime minister is dissembling, is himself misinformed or actually believes his own rhetoric.”

Abiy—adored by most Ethiopians when he came to power in 2018 promising reform and hope, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate after brokering a historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending a decades-long stand-off—increasingly presents a worrying and deadly riddle. I recently spoke with one long-time writer and commentator on Ethiopia who needs to remain anonymous, but whom I can vouch for as one of those rough-edged good guys who can’t tolerate any bullshit, who told me that Abiy is exhibiting the same terrible traits as previous cruel regimes—megalomaniac was one word used—which includes pursuing his own agenda with no regard for ordinary Ethiopians. They remain, as has ever been the case in Ethiopia, entirely expendable to the exigencies of political power. It’s an opinion backed up by WhatsApp messages I am receiving from Ethiopian friends.

Any further conflict in Tigray, given some form of TPLF insurgency, would exacerbate the already serious humanitarian crisis unfolding. Tigray has long endured food insecurity—hence my looping reporting trips there—and its situation was already critical before fighting broke out, due to unprecedented locust invasions straight out of the Bible that devastated the harvests of Tigray’s largely subsistence farmers. The impact of Covid-19 has further weakened food supply chains by reducing agricultural output.

Restricted access to the region means the UN and its agencies have been unable to restock warehouses with humanitarian supplies. Tigray also houses on a long-term basis, tens of thousands of those Eritrean refugees fleeing the authoritarian regime of Isaias Afewerki—with whom Abiy has continued to foster more than cordial relations since the Nobel Prize-winning peace deal and who has shown himself a stalwart ally to Abiy during the Tigray conflict—a support network that depends on the UN, its agencies and the Ethiopian government. All the above is fuelling fears that a malicious triumvirate of ongoing civil conflict combined with the implications of locust invasions and Covid-19’s fallout—compounded by restrictions to foreign aid and Ethiopian government funding—could unleash a fully-fledged humanitarian crisis leading to the sorts of food insecurity levels seen in the 1980s. It’s estimated that 4.5 million Tigrayans currently need emergency food assistance, according to the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre established by the federal government after the fall of the TPLF.

Any further conflict in Tigray, given some form of TPLF insurgency, would exacerbate the already serious humanitarian crisis unfolding

The crushing irony, therefore, is that just as Abiy is telling the international community to back off, his belligerent actions mean that the assistance of the international community is especially needed. What a conundrum, especially given the already hotly debated issue of how much of our national income we should devote to foreign aid. With the UK economy reeling from Covid-19, “during a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public service,” in the words of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, the UK has cut its commitment to foreign aid spending in 2021, pledging to spend 0.5 per cent of gross national income, instead of the usual 0.7 per cent. It’s estimated the temporary reduction in overseas aid could save about £4 billion annually. It’s an entirely understandable and pragmatic response that innumerable other countries may be having to consider. The problem is that an Ethiopian humanitarian house of cards rests on that foreign aid, and which many would argue richer, more lucky countries also have a duty to provide.

“Without doubt the most important way of showing affirmative virtue is to have a strong and positive programme of assistance to the less fortunate lands,” the acclaimed American economist J.K. Galbraith, and author of the acclaimed The Affluent Society, wrote in his 1960 book The Liberal Hour, a collection of essays about US economic policies:

Critics of foreign aid might imagine what our present position in the world would be if we had been content since the Second World War to invest in our own comfort and well-being and let the rest of the world go by. One of the things now reasonably well established in international relations is the obligation of the richer countries to help the less fortunate lands. Historians will give us credit for this.

Are they, though? For another perspective, I’ll always remember the comment I heard while reporting on a bad drought in Ethiopia’s southeast from an Ethiopian working for a foreign NGO paying him an excellent salary. “I don’t like NGOs,” he told me. “If it was up to me, they would all leave the country. There would be an increase in deaths for a few years but then we would be forced to sort things out ourselves and the country would be better.”

It’s a brutal logic that is hard to agree with and countenance, but, regardless, it may be about to be tested to some degree due to Covid-19’s impact on both the fiscal and diplomatic abilities of countries like the UK. Not that Abiy seems unduly concerned yet about any of this, certainly not about financial repercussions; his government is currently drafting a bill to establish an Ethiopian stock market. You’ve come so far, Ethiopia! We couldn’t be more proud of the progress you’ve made! At this rate, and especially under the visionary mentorship of Abiy, you might even become as good as us.

“If we see the aid as a manifestation of the quality of our society, we will also see that it does not advertise an expedient or parochial attachment to the goals of the good society,” Galbraith wrote. “This happens when we extend assistance to corrupt tyrannies or reactionary ruling oligarchies which are a principal menace to their own people.”

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