Interview with Dr. Treiber about the Horn of Africa, Ethopia and Eritrea: „GERD is a national and nationalist mega-project“

Interview with Dr. Treiber about the Horn of Africa, Ethopia and Eritrea: „GERD is a national and nationalist mega-project“

Global Review had the pleasure to have an interview with Dr. Magnus Treiber about the situation at the Horn of Africa, Ethopia and Eritrea.

Prof. Dr. Magnus Treiber

Dr. Magnus Treiber is a professor of anthropology at LMU Munich. Following his PhD research on young urban life in Asmara 2001-2005, he has done extensive research with Eritrean refugees and published his professorial thesis on migration from Eritrea (Migration aus Eritrea, Berlin: Reimer 2017). He has taught at Munich, Bayreuth and Addis Ababa universities.

Global Review: Dr. Treiber, could you give us a brief history of Ethiopia and Eritrea after the toppling of Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam? Who were the driving political forces and political or ethnic groups constituting the new states and what changed politically, economically and culturally?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: The Ethiopian military regime that emerged from the revolution against Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 collapsed due to multiple reasons. Insurgencies in the neglected periphery of the country engaged central government forces. After Gorbachev’s Soviet Union denied further support, large territories, including the whole northern province of Tigray literally had to be given up. In 1991, a number of Ethiopian guerilla fronts agreed to form a new government coalition, propagating decentralization and far-reaching provincial autonomy. In this Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – in the beginning a mere peasants’ guerrilla – took the lead under the smart and politically apt Meles Zenawi. The victorious Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) backed the TPLFs seizure of power in Ethiopia, but insisted on Eritrea’s independence – as colonial Eritrea had not been part of modern Ethiopia until UN-brokered federation in 1951 and its open occupation in 1961. Both dominant forces, TPLF/EPRDF and EPLF, aimed at autocratic rule and survived essentially by suppressing oppositional voices.

Global Review: Which are the most important parties in Ethiopia and how much do they rely on a common political program or more on ethnicity or tribal loyalty? Are the Ethiopian political parties comparable to Western parties or are there differences? Are there more left wing and more right-wing parties? Is there a stable national common sense or consciousness of being one nation and nationality?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: I am not sure if categories of right and left help much to understand political and historical complexities. Nominally a democracy, Ethiopia under the EPRDF allowed opposition parties, these, however, were always tightly controlled and not granted equal access to media and public funds. More so, most elections since the mid-1990s appear to have been rigged. Most important was the crushing of protests after the 2005 election, in which two opposition alliances apparently won the majority of seats in the national parliament as well as all seats in the provincial parliament of the capital Addis Ababa. The ruling party had expected a clear-cut win, now votes had to be ‘re-counted’. However, also the state’s doctrine changed from Ethnic Federalism – empowerment of the periphery – towards deliberate third-world developmentalism. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is only the most visible and prestigious project in the then propagated transformation of land and society towards a modern nation based on industry, large-scale agricultural production and middle-income. Interestingly, this trope of modernization dates back to the 19th century. Ethnic Federalism, which formally divides the country into nine regional states and two independent cities, was laid down in the country’s new constitution of 1995 and indeed changed the country’s political landscape. The new political system granted a certain autonomy to ethnically based regional and district governments, but kept the respective local parties tightly dependent. Ethiopia’s political parties and – more often – party coalitions have continually changed names and composition, particularly since Abiy Ahmed has become prime minister in 2018. Political positions and parties often mirror tensions between center and periphery, however. Abiy Ahmed’s new Prosperity Party, which succeeds the demised EPRDF, clearly stands for a new centralist perspective, while the TPLF, for decades engaged in national and international politics, was again reduced to a regional party.

Global Review: How did Eritrean independence develop and was the Eritrean government supporter of Maoism, especially since it refused development aid and relied on its own strength and sought self-sufficiency? Its political system and development strategy seems to differ from that of Ethiopia? What were the causes for the Ethiopian-Eritrean wars? Was it also a proxy war of foreign powers about the control of the Horn of Africa or more a homegrown, internal conflict?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: Eritrea has been ruled by the same president, former EPLF leader Isayas Afewerki, since its independence in 1993. Internal critics, all high-ranking members of the political elite, were put away in 2001, shortly after the end of the Ethio-Eritrean border war. This conveyed the country from an autocratic guerrilla regime towards open dictatorship. Since then all promises of development and future prosperity have been disappointed. The formal peace agreement with neighboring Ethiopia did not change impoverishment, lawlessness and lack of perspectives for the young generation. Indeed, the EPLF has a Maoist heritage, since Isayas Afewerki received political and military training in Nanjing. Maoism as an ideological background helped to integrate a very diverse population and form a new nation during the years of struggle and also after independence. However, it also helped labelling critics as traitors and destroyed Eritrea’s democratic political culture of the 1950s. 1998’s border war was primarily on political and economic hegemony in the region. However, the Eritrean government oversaw that the TPLF, formerly EPLF’s uneasy junior partner, then ruled the Horn of Africa’s most important country and therefore got all international support. Eritrea became insignificant – until its refugees crossed the Mediterranean in masses.

Global Review: The OAU was transformed into the African Union which is based in Ethiopia. If you compare the AU with the EU – what are the differences? Does it mean that Ethopia’s international role and its role in the Panafrican movement has been upgraded. Which are the political most important African states for Panafricanism and international politics in Africa at the moment?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: Emperor Haile Selassie was an apt diplomat and political strategist, who fostered relations with former colonial powers as well as with Africa’s newly independent states, the USA and even the Soviet Union. In his late years he managed Ethiopia’s international relations far better than domestic conflict and change. It was certainly a success to get the OAU to Addis Ababa, which since then is a diplomatic hub. Lots of embassies and international organizations are located here, international conferences take place and hotels in town mainly live from international guests. Besides infrastructural importance Ethiopia’s international role and its leading position among African states has always depended on the leaders and regimes in power. EPRDF’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi won respect among the leaders of the West and at the same time became a respected spokesperson for developing countries e.g. concerning climate change and global warming. Therefore, much of EPRDF’s political repression was overlooked or welcomed as indispensable war against terrorism. Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for both, his peace initiative towards Eritrea and Ethiopian opposition movements in exile. It was clear from the beginning that he would face considerable difficulties and might not be able to put his political program of ‘medemer’ – ‘come together’ – into effect.

Global Review: Why did Prime Minister Abiy seize power? Which are the groups and political parties supporting him and who is opposing him? What were his main political goals and differences to his predecessors? As there was already an assassination attempt on Abiy and now the assassination of a popular musician, who is the likely mastermind behind it and how stable is Abiy’s political base? What role does the Ethiopian military play?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: Abiy Ahmed did not seize power, his nomination was the result of a stalemate and the upcoming conflict between EPRDF’s coalition partners. After Meles Zenawi died in 2012 Ethiopia was nominally ruled by the Southerner Hailemariam Dessalegn, with mighty, but unpopular TPFL cadres in the back. Both, political opposition particularly among Oromo nationalists and its violent repression increased after the regime had lost Meles’ charismatic face and his international credibility. When Ethiopia became practically ungovernable, Hailemariam Dessalegn resigned in early 2018. Abiy Ahmed was made chairman of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization within the EPRDF. His nomination offered a compromise between EPRDF’s various parties and fractions as well as between EPRDF and militant Oromo activists. Abiy Ahmed exchanged political personnel, weakened TPLF’s influence, closed ill-famed prisons, rehabilitated formerly illegal opposition groups and called them back from exile. Indeed, he opened Pandora’s box and fueled political violence, which has always been an inherent part of modern Ethiopia. Ironically, in order to protect himself and his government, he found himself forced to resort to political repression. Thus, Abiy Ahmed’s political transition resulted in political rumormongering and radicalization and on all sides. The murder of Oromo singer and political activist Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent voice of Oromo emancipation, was subsequently blamed on many potential interest groups and highlights the tense and fragile state of current Ethiopia. Political uncertainty does also apply to the state’s own bureaucratic institutions, in which new interest groups seek influence, while others may sit and wait before taking sides. The Ethiopian military, which was newly built up after the fall of the derg, certainly mirrored TPLF’s dominance, but appeared as an efficient apparatus following its own logic. 2019’s coup d’état in Bahir Dar regional state, in which both, Ethiopia’s army chief and the regional governor, were assassinated by radical Amhara nationalists within the military, showed that disintegration also took place here.  

Global Review: The Gulf crisis now threatens to reach the Horn of Africa. The latest high point is the agreement between Erdogan-Turkey and Sudan to restore an old port, as well as a new dock with civil and military facilities, which should also enable Turkish warships to call Sudan. The African Horn is a strategic point through which much of the world’s oil supply and important trade flow, but many countries like Somalia or Sudan are caught up in political crises and a proxy war between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even China no longer wants to stay out of the conflict, has joined the international anti-piracy coalition, which also includes the United States and Germany, and has set up its own military bases in Djibouti in addition to the United States, France, Japan and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish-Sudanese contract for $ 650 million intensifies the conflict between the two countries various major and regional powers. It also enables Turkey to have a military presence in the Red Sea, while at the same time sending troops to Libya and taking Egypt in a double grip. Yet another conflict between Sudan and Egypt escalates over the territorially controversial border region of Halayeeb. Sudan has accused Egypt of deploying troops across its border, entering its airspace and overflowing coastal areas, and Sudan has also closed the Eritrean border following reports of Egypt and UAE troops deployed in Eritrea. Sudan has also complained to the United Nations that Egypt has given Saudi Arabia two strategic islands near Halayeeb back, and the conflict over Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam that could cut off Egypt’s vital water inflows.. To what extent is Ethiopia threatened by Sudan, Somalia’s Al Shabab Islamists and Eritrea? Which major great powers support Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea in this geopolitical conflict?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: Post-revolutionary Sudan still has to find its new regional and international role – and may currently trade off Saudi Arabia, which backed Omar al-Bashir’s regime, for Turkey. Concerning Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam Sudan is caught between two stools – Egypt’s longstanding attempt to control the Nile beyond its own territory and its own interest in importing hydroelectric power from Ethiopia. Eritrea – a friend of Egypt in the region – seems in a better position to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia. Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki apparently sticks to his new friend Abiy Ahmed, but might also be involved in Ethiopia’s internal turmoil. Ethiopia has a vital interest in a stabile Somalia, a cooperative Somaliland and a calm Ogaden, Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited region in the West. As Ethiopia’s own stability is now at stake, Somalia is not that much a pressing issue, but this may change of course. Internationally, Ethiopia is backed by the United States, for economic and strategic reasons, and the European Union, interested in economic relations and migration control.

Global Review: In addition to the peace agreement with Eritrea, does Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed want to push ahead the country’s economic development? What does his economic program look like? Are there similar modernization plans like Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 or Egypt’s Vision 2025? What role do foreign investments play in this? Is Ethiopia part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative? What role does China, the EU and the USA play after Trump described the African states as „shitholes“?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: First and foremost Abiy Ahmed seeks to initiate economic networks and development in the whole region, therefore he put Ethiopia’s interest in Eritrean ports higher than EPRDF’s unyielding claim for marginal border areas. He basically sticks to EPRDF’s development policy, the Renaissance Dam and Ethiopia’s aim to become a country of middle income meeting World bank standards. China has been heavily involved in the build-up of infrastructure and industry, but apparently less in land grabbing, which has become a big problem for the affected rural population. China is a key partner for Ethiopia and responsible for various prestigious infrastructure projects, such as the country’s first highway between Addis Ababa and Adama, Addis Ababa’s urban tramway and the re-built railroad between Djibouti and the Ethiopian capital. Still, Ethiopian governments have always considered Ethiopia to be the wider region’s hegemon. Though dependent on the economic and technological support from international and global powers, Ethiopia’s national independence and relative autonomy were always put first. In this tradition EPRDF’s Ethiopia proved far less attractive for private investors and international companies – many from Turkey – than initially thought. Despite the county’s inherent asymmetries, brutal hierarchies and deep rivalries, also modern Ethiopia is seen and understood in centuries, if not millenniums. US-President Donald Trump claimed that he should have been given the Noble Prize for enabling the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace agreement – which he probably did. His era, however, will end eventually.

Global Review: What role does the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) play in Ethiopia’s economic development? Who financed it and who owns the dam? Does this mean the large-scale electrification of Ethiopia and perhaps also of some neighboring countries? How much electricity will the dam produce and how far does Ethiopia’s energy balance depend on different energy sources? Is it just an economic project or a geopolitical project that is trying to blackmail Sudan and Egypt like Turkey through the GAP project controls the Euphrate and Tigris in Iraq and Syria by controlling the strategic water reserves?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: GERD is a national and nationalist mega-project, financed by public funds and tax money, built by Ethiopian engineers. Together with Ethiopia’s other hydroelectric power dams it will allow electrification of the whole country and even the export of electric power to Sudan, which itself has recently built Merowe Dam further north. Both countries are in urgent and increasing need of electric power. Mega-projects have returned to the so-called developing countries and their modernist policies, promising greater autonomy and autarchy and thus less dependency on international actors. Of course, ecological risk and the displacement of the local population have been accepted, critical questions or prudent political protest ignored or even suppressed.

Global Review: GERD is facing resistance in Egypt and Sudan as both countries fear that the diverted Nile water could significantly affect their agriculture, irrigation systems and the water supply for their cities and population? Does Ethiopia take these concerns into account or does it act according to the motto ‘Ethiopia First’, regardless of the economic, political and ecological effects for the other countries? In the meantime, the UN is supposed to be involved, but Ethiopia sees this more as a national prestige object of a renaissance and refrains from outside interference. How can this conflict be resolved or, if not, what does the Horn of Africa have to fear for stability?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: Ethiopia argues, that in the end no Nile water will be taken out. The filling of the dam, which has now started, will, however, reduce the flow of water from the Blue Nile for up to 15 years. Despite its current internal fragility, many Ethiopians rally behind the dam project, which is of course affronting Egypt. In the longer run – and even in the unlikely event of a limited air strike by Egypt – these North-East African regional powers will have to come to terms with each other and particularly the USA will pressure for a pragmatic trade-off. Egypt will have to accept the political emancipation of its Nile hinterland – at least to a certain extent. Post-revolutionary Sudan remained neutral until pressured to take Egypt’s side, but as mentioned before, is very much interested in hydroelectric power from Ethiopia.

Global Review: The AU signed a Panafrican freetrade area which was unnoticed in the Western media. Is this African Free Trade Area comparable to the European Common market? How many African countries are participating and do you think this free trade area could give the economic development a boost and maybe bring about an EU-AFTA free trade agreement?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: This certainly has been a decisive step for the AU. Not all of the 54 participating states have yet ratified the agreement and it will take some time until its effects will be measurable. Economic production and effectivity is yet very unequally distributed over the continent and its huge potential of mineral and agricultural resources and increasing industrialization – all fields that bear the promises of economic success as well as the risks of deprivation, economic disaster and further social differentiation into few super-rich, a struggling urban middle-class and left-behind masses. Ethiopia mirrors all these developments in a nut-shell and Abiy Ahmed’s peace offensive certainly has a strong economic dimension. On the other hand, African states are remarkably nationalist – at least in their centers – and fundamental political changes via the economic ticket should not be expected in the very near future.

Global Review: How does the Covid crisis affect the African and Ethiopian and Eritrean society, politics and economy?

Dr.Magnus Treiber: In contrast to Europe, infection numbers and particularly the death toll appear less alerting – maybe a consequence of Africa’s predominantly young population. However, the crisis has much more effects than in Europe. Few states were prepared and had sufficient medical equipment or emergency assistance at their disposal, welfare systems exist only rudimentary if at all. The availability of clean water is another problem. The temporary lockdown, declared by many countries in Africa, prevented large parts of the population from going out to work or seeking daily laborer jobs. Despite limited resources rural families had to care for relatives who fled the cities. The death of fathers and mothers may leave children in total poverty – as the Ebola-epidemics in West and central Africa have shown. In various countries, military and paramilitary police killed people including children during curfew – who might have been in the streets simply to organize money and food. Furthermore, severe cases of domestic violence have been reported. So, the crisis’ social dimension and its potential to stir up conflict is much more at stake than in most European states.

Eritrea does report relatively few cases and no deaths. Ethiopia, Somalia and both North and South Sudan are highly affected – particularly densely populated areas including also refugee camps. At the same time, life has to go on. With all the political tensions and outbreaks of violence in Ethiopia and the wider Horn region and the existential need to make one’s living, not all people are able or willing to care about COVID-19.

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