Global Review had the pleasure to have an interview with Dr. Magnus Treiber about the situation at the Horn of Africa, Ethopia and Eritrea.
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 summary about the causes and the development of the Ethiopian civil war? Is it just a conflict between the TPLF and President Abyi or a conflict between Abyi and other Ethiopian ethnic parties and groups who want a ethnical federalism, while Abyi wants to create a centralized national state? Who supports and fights against the TPLF and Abyi and for what reason?
Dr. Treiber: Conflict between Ethiopia’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front, previously leading the national party alliance EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), and Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed, who came to power from within the very same party alliance, though from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, became a full-scale war in November 2020. In a pre-emptive strike Tigray regional special forces attacked the Ethiopian Military’s Northern Command headquarter in Mekele and provoked punitive action from Ethiopia’s political center. However, there are hints, that TPLF’s enemies were well prepared, waiting for the starting shot. 2018’s peace deal between Ethiopia and long-term enemy Eritrea today looks like a strategic agreement to crush the TPLF, which already had to retreat from the national political arena down to Tigray’s provincial level. It seems, the Ethiopian military was alerted since some time, while also regional special forces outside Tigray were built up with heavy weaponry. Massacres among civilians in Mai Kadra mobilized and motivated informal Amhara militias to follow the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and do the dirty work in the rear. Eritrean military has apparently entered Ethiopia in high numbers and was allegedly involved in a massacre in Axum and in the systematic destruction of villages and agriculture, health facilities and factories in Tigray. For several months Tigray was cut off from electricity and telecommunication in order to hide, what had happened. Journalists and translators for the BBC and the Financial Times were arrested, a Tigrayan journalist shot in Mekele. German TV ZDF and Sky News were among the first foreign TV-teams in Tigray filming the damage and interviewing eye-witnesses of alleged atrocities. By now, there are plenty of critically checked and reliable accounts and reports of committed atrocities, systematic murder and destruction, so that Abyi Ahmed eventually had to admit Eritrea’s military presence in Ethiopia as well as potential war crimes, for which also ENDF, Amhara Special Forces and informal militias have to be made responsible. On the other hand, TPLF-fighters have been accused of taking revenge by killing defenceless Eritrean refugees in a refugee camp. After quick initial victories over the TPLF and the killing and arrest of a couple of TPLF- leaders, dynamics slowed down. At this moment, no side can easily win this war. The regular ENDF seems too weak to control more than Mekele and some cities, apparently Eritrean forces have also lost battles or ran into roadside assaults, while desperate Tigrayan youth flocks to regrouped TPLF-forces. Wars win their own dynamics and tie multiple, even contradictory interests together. Abyi Ahmed struggles to oust TPLF leaders not only formally from political positions – which he successfully did early after his nomination – but also from influential economic positions, which turned former TPLF-guerrilla-leaders into rich businessmen. Discharged Tigray- President Debretsion was himself involved in the build-up of modern telecommunication technology in Ethiopia. Asmara seems to actively enjoy the destruction and dismantling of Tigray back into Eritrea’s poor hinterland – a colonial imbalance, turned upside down by TPLF’s focus on regional development. Furthermore, Eritrea once again is an international actor in the region, which cannot be neglected – it links up to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as to Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. Last not least, the chauvinist Amhara militias take the chance to pay back their felt historic humiliation under TPLF-rule by expelling, killing and raping civilians. Abyi Ahmed will have severe problems to close Pandora’s box again.
Global Review: Is there a danger that the conflict is getting internationalized? Not only by Eritrean intervention, but also by other foreign powers and the possible interference of Sudan and Egypt who had already joint military manoeuvres and reject the Ethiopian hydropower project GERD and Russia and Turkey also establish military bases in Sudan.
Dr. Treiber: The war is already international. First of all, of course, due to Eritrea’s presence in Ethiopia, but there are also claims that UAE, running a military base in Eritrea’s Assab, may have provided drone intelligence. In Amhara region, ethno-nationalist chauvinism seems to fly high, so Sudanese security has been attacked in al Fashaqa’s un-demarcated borderland, drawing Sudan into the wider conflict arena, beyond its critical stand towards the GERD hydroelectric dam. Egypt might stay put and wait for potential outcomes. It has strong diplomatic ties with Eritrea and is probably not in urgent need to act, though it might be interested in a less strong Ethiopia – and Abyi Ahmed has certainly weakened Ethiopia’s regional power and its international reputation with his decision to go to war. Eritrean President Isayas Afeworki is pragmatic enough to take all support he can get, be it from the Middle East, Turkey or Russia, while keeping his independence to manoeuvre as he likes. The war will certainly once-more re-structure the Horn of Africa, potentially weaken Ethiopia and enhance the standing of the Middle East in the region, but it is also very much a product of the Horn of Africa’s long history of regional conflict and political rivalry.
Global Review: How does the Ethiopian conflict affect the Oromo group in Ethiopia, the Ogaden conflict and Somalia? Could the Islamist Al Shabab expand her influence beyond Somalia?
Dr. Treiber: In the beginning, Oromo political activists had high hopes connected to the appointment of Ethiopia’s first Oromo Prime Minister – and there was much reason for that, as the TPLF/EPRDF government had indeed a bad reputation for its brutal and lawless treatment of real or only alleged Oromo activists. Its former ally, the Oromo Liberation Front, had been labelled as a terrorist group and domestic repression was easily legitimated within the West’s global war on terror. Abyi Ahmed had freed the ancient regime’s political prisoners and invited exiled opposition groups back into the country, but failed to mediate political debate. Reacting on unfolding upset and chaos, the prime minister returned to repressive policies and arrested leading Oromo party activists. Several Oromo parties have already announced, they might, therefore, not run for national elections in summer 2021. Western Oromia and Beni Shangul areas at the border to Sudan see already an increase in ethnic violence and could become new war zones, involving once more regular and irregular Amhara and maybe even Eritrean forces. As Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia (though not Djibouti) have agreed on renewed regional cooperation, the Ogaden seems relatively calm. It’s major regional party, which was never on eye-level with core EPRDF-parties, might even profit from EPRDF’s transition to Abyi Ahmed’s Prosperity Party.
Global Review: Is there a danger of a failed state Ethiopia, which breaks up in an all-out civil war or do you think that Abyi will prevail? What would it mean for the Horn of Africa and Africa, if Ethiopia would disintegrate and collapse?
Dr. Treiber: Ethiopia as a regional political entity has a very long continuous history – in different size, various forms and probably never without conflict. In wide parts of the country, the war in Tigray and conflict in the periphery, such as Western Oromia or Beni Shangul, seem far-off. In this sense, Abyi Ahmed’s retreat to Ethiopia’s traditional authoritarianism even stabilized government and rule. He also strengthened the political centre at the expense of the regions. So, an end of Ethiopia as a functioning state is not in sight, although some sort of fragmentation and conflict have always been an inherent part of Ethiopia’s history.
Global Review: What are the reactions of the international community, the AU and the regional powers to the war in Ethiopia and which interests do they have?
Dr. Treiber: The Biden-administration – with Antony Blinken as new Secretary of State – and the EU indeed called for an immediate end of military action, the retreat of Eritrean and Amhara forces, humanitarian access and international mediation – which Abyi is unwilling and probably unable to accept. US and EU cannot want conflict in the Horn, they seek to continue their traditional strategic partnership with Ethiopia – for geostrategic reasons as much as migration control. A diplomatic initiative by the AU, seated in Addis Ababa after all, has been rebuffed, claiming the conflict was a purely internal issue.
Global Review; Is Abyi in danger to lose his Nobelprize and could he be brought to the ICC in The Hague or other groups? Are there crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia? How serious is the humanitarian crisis? What are the international and African reactions?
Dr. Treiber: The situation in Tigray is disastrous. People are literally driven towards starvation, security and medical assistance cannot be provided beyond Mekele, the interim administration is powerless, infrastructure and factories have been destroyed, still people are killed – now even witnessed by international NGOs like Doctors without Borders. Certainly alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity will have to be examined, a joint initiative of the UN and Ethiopia’s official human rights commission is under way, but still has to bear fruit. Personally, I think it is very important to see these developments in a longer history of conflict and violence in the region, which have always kept life-worlds precarious and unsafe and also showed entanglement into global politics and policies. Violence is developing into more violence even over long periods of time. What price will Abiy pay? Hard to predict, but the fact that he has already become pretty much like his predecessors is telling. Other than Sudan’s Omar al Beshir, the Ethiopian Prime Minister is, however, per se an important ally of the West. As long as there is no alternative, I do not think US and EU will break up cooperation.
Global Review: After Trump called African states “shitholes” and the AU protested, what has or will change in the Africa policy under the Biden administration?
Dr. Treiber: First of all, Secretary of State Antony Blinken shows again interest in the continent. US foreign policy may seek to re-establish some of Obama’s relations with selected African model states, but will certainly remain interest-based. Conflict mediation, however, will play a much more important role than under President Trump.
Global Review: Last, but not least: How do you think the conflict will develop in the coming future? Will there be a compromise, a ceasefire, a never-ending conflict, a failed state or….?
Dr. Treiber: The political history of the Horn has shown that something unexpected can happen very quickly and complicate an already complex situation. Therefore, it is hard to predict, what will or might happen. However, political conflict will certainly last longer than the actual war. A young generation of Tigrayans grew up in relative safety and prosperity, when all of it was taken at a sudden. Tigrayans experienced exclusion and hatred (itself a reaction on the exclusionary politics of the former TPLF government). Out of war and humiliation a renewed Tigrayan ethno-nationalism might grow as Amhara- and Oromo-nationalism have grown before, conveying violence into the next generation and right into Ethiopia’s future. Refugees – with no perspective to go back to where they came from – will continue to arrive in Europe from both, Eritrea and Ethiopia, fleeing authoritarianism, violence and the impossibility to live a life in security and dignity. The death or arrest of Tigrayan leader Debretsion might calm down the war, but Eritrean troops will probably not all return home. They may be further engaged in Tigray and elsewhere – on the side of Abyi Ahmed, but not under his full control.