Ethiopia on The Edge of a Cliff and Washington at Bay
February 18, 2018
Ethiopia is on the brink of disaster. The latest saga, the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn(HD) is adding fuel to the upheaval rocking the nation from inside out.
Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was insignificant while in power. In 2010, in a surprising move, the late PM Meles Zenawi appointed Hailemariam Desalegn Deputy PM. Desalegn served on that position until 2012 when he became the PM following the death of Meles Zenawi.
For a while, it was uncertain if the minority Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), will allow outsider like Desalegn to become prime minister. The TPLF runs the country under the guise of EPRDF, a coalition of the various ethnic groups of Ethiopia. It is a puppet parliamentary structure they set up to enable them to claim Ethiopia is run by a federal arrangement representing all ethnic groups.
Nonetheless, the TPLF had no choice because Desalegn was President Barack Obama’s and Susan Rice’s only choice to replace Meles Zenawi. Obviously, Obama and Rice were looking for continuity. They were confident that Desalegn will follow on the footsteps of Meles and continue Washington’s agendas uninterrupted. It is worth noting Ethiopia’s elections of 2000, 2005 and 2010 were stolen by the minority regime. Obama and Rice were aware that the people of Ethiopia will, at some point, overcome the brutal regime and take power. Hence, it is reasonable to assume, that Rice and Obama believed, it is a good idea to take incremental steps to bring change and gradually peel-away power from the hands of the TPLF.
Soon thereafter, in 2013, Desalegn became the Chairman of the African Union. This was done to elevate him and to assure all, US is 100% behind him. However, no matter what Washington did, it was impossible for Desalegn to take control of organization he had no connections with.
The TPLF takes no orders from outsiders in this case Desalegn. However, they had no choice because Obama and Rice were intent and determined to back Desalegn. In fact, Obama called to congratulate Desalegn before it was publicly announced. This did not please the TPLF, but they knew they cannot afford to offend Obama hence accepted Desalegn as the PM. And to ensure the decisions are made in accordance with their interests, they assigned three Deputy Prime Ministers to watch over him.
Therefore, Hailemariam Desalegn was a figurehead TPLF accepted to appease Washington. He was not part of the clique and unlike Meles who knew how to push the buttons and wielded total control, Desalegn was outsider that never took control. The question why did the clique force figurehead to resign?
After the 2005 bloody elections, the minority regime imprisoned thousands and brutally killed hundreds on the streets of Addis Ababa. The regime was caught off-guard by the level of opposition it received from the people of Ethiopia.
At the time, the late Meles Zenawi imprisoned all the leaders of the Coalition for Unity & Democracy (CUD) including Professor Berhanu Nega and Engineer Hailu Shaul to slow the momentum, regain control and crash dissent. Since, it has become a familiar pattern to see opposition leaders, journalists and activists imprisoned en-mass on bogus charges simply for challenging the regime.
In fact, the regime uses the imprisoned as bargaining chip and leverages them to get favors from Washington and others.
King Making Washington Style
Since the end of World War II and particularly the last 26 years, one constant in Ethiopian political dynamic has been Washington. Washington’s fingerprint on Ethiopian political discourse is undeniable. In 2005, the TPLF regime was defeated by the majority and refused to hand-over power to the people.
At the time, it would have been a lot easier for Washington to ensure the voice of the people got respected. It was a mistake not-to take a just stand then. Instead, Meles got rewarded with accolades he did not deserve and Washington made a tyrant fixture in G8 meetings and international summits while he was brutally mowing people on the streets of Addis.
In 2006, Donald Yamamoto was assigned as US Ambassador to Ethiopia and became instrumental on the negotiations that helped release Berhanu Nega, and Hailu Shawul from prison. It was surreal to witness Washington fight for the release of prisoners rather than demand TPLF share power as was done in Cote’ d Ivoire to Laurent Gbagbo. Instead, the negotiations became about the prisoners that were imprisoned on bogus made up charges.
Fast forward to 2018, Ambassador Donald Yamamoto is acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. The names of Ethiopians languishing in prison are different, but the circumstances are the same and Yamamoto is forced to deal with the same situation again.
Yamamoto is a skilled diplomat who managed to negotiate the release of prisoners on the past. This time, it was a little easier because Congressman Christopher Smith, Dana Rohrabacher and others have been fed up with the regime and cooperated with the State Department and on February 2, 2018 they gave the regime ultimatum with Resolution H.Res.128 that demanded,
“Release from incarceration all dissidents, members of the political opposition, activists, and journalists who have been jailed, including those arrested for reporting about the protests, for exercising constitutional rights.”
Just as it did in 2005-2007, the TPLF regime was forced to release Merera Gudina, Bekele Gerba and other key figures under pressures from Washington.
The people of Ethiopia are demanding, demonstrating and fighting for fundamental change. They want the regime gone. The regime is at odds with all parties and interested publics in and out of the country. The minority regime has no support whatsoever. Even the people of Tigray, its core constituency, have grown weary. And for the first time they are questioning the regime publicly. If it was up-to the people of Ethiopia the TPLF was legitimately dethroned during the 2005 elections.
The only reason the minority regime managed to stay in power is because of Washington’s unrelenting political-cover, diplomatic, financial and military support. The minority regime, understood what Washington wanted and needed. TPLF understood, if it gives Washington’s agenda the African cover, be-willing and eager to place boots on the ground on-demand and to do what is asked of them, they have Washington’s full support.
Washington on its part understood the shortcomings of the regime. They understood the regime has no support inside Ethiopia. But Washington understood the politics, the players of Ethiopia and knew what buttons to push when. Washington sees and handled Ethiopia as extension of America in Africa particularly in the region. And no matter what happened inside Ethiopia, keeping the vessel afloat was and remains the number one priority.
But what made Washington’s and TPLF’s marriage work is that their agendas mirrored each other. Their agendas are hegemonic in nature, and wanted the similar results in Somalia, Djibouti, Ogaden, Eritrea and other countries in the region. Washington needed a henchman in the African Union and Meles was a willing disciple who delivered unchallenged.
These arrangements came at a huge price. Ethiopians were suffocated out of the political space they need to come together and determine their destiny. This helped the problems of the nation to grow out of control. The TPLF did not tend to issues plaguing the nation and they allowed it to fester because they did not have incentives to do otherwise. To complicate matters, the TPLF monetized the nation for the benefit of the very few Tigrayans at the expense of the masses which in turn heightened ethnic tensions and widened the fissures.
As time went on, it became clear to Ethiopians that the TPLF is not the answer, part of the solution or means to it. They also realized the international community and particularly Washington are not neutral arbiters. They realized Washington and others are complicit thus grew helpless and eventually forwent the ballot box and took to the streets.
Same Games, Dire Consequences
On February 13, 2018 hours before Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation Bronwyon Bruton of the Atlantic twitted,
It is therefore, natural to ask; was Bruton privy to the information of the resignation ahead of the public? Bruton is opinion maker with connections to policymakers and key figures that can recommend-push agendas and implement decisions. She is a key figure and her voice is important in the halls of congress. So, it begs the question. How much did the US Ambassador in Ethiopia know about the resignation? Was it part of a negotiated agreement that helped release the prisoners?
It is reasonable to conclude the US Ambassador was aware and acquiescent to the decisions TPLF made because it is consistent with the modus operandi. Except this time, things are quite different.
Unlike the past, over time, TPLF has lost control of Ethiopia. At the same, the US political climate and the leadership that cuddled the regime has changed. Moreover, the geopolitical dynamics of the region has shifted. In short, things have changed and TPLF is no longer able to maneuver freely. In addition, the regime is fragmented, desperate and in disarray. This is evident because decisions they are making are illogical and dangerous. The latest decision, the declaration of State of Emergency (SOE) reflects that.
The reaction of US Embassy in Ethiopia is evidence that things have gone awry. It also shows, no matter how much control Washington has over the regime it does not translate to the people.
This makes the resignation of Desalegn more significant because it brought to life the reality in ways that exposed the fault-lines. It exposed the regime in ways no one expected. It aroused fears in the hearts of the people of Tigray. It exposed all the possible scenarios. It also brought to light the uncertainties the fall of TPLF can bring. And one thing Washington failed to do is plan for this day. On a fundraiser event, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said,
“Washington was terrified to say anything Meles Zenawi did not like.”
Washington placed all its eggs on one basket. Security, cooperation on the war against terrorism, pursuing US agendas via Ethiopia took precedent over everything else. Washington failed to create partnership with other parties for fear that it will offend the ruling clique.
Where do you go from here? There are no viable options. And it will be futile to try to control the developments with Band-Aids because this is calling for a complete overhaul. And unfortunately, no one has the magic wand. Ethiopia is fragmented. The TPLF damaged nationalism in favor of ethnic identity to enable it to divide and rule. There are no organized opposition parties ready to take power. The military is in the hands of fragmented minority. There is no money. Most importantly, the people are determined to see the regime gone and it is safe to conclude that the minority military will not be able to control the nation. In fact, there are reports that Addis Ababa is on a blockade and goods are not able to get in because the surrounding cities are out of control of the regime.
Washington fed the beast and now the beast is out of control. Washington can no longer dictate terms to events in Ethiopia. It is also clear that Washington is left with no viable choice of its own. Every control mechanism that could have saved developments from spiraling out of control have been quashed.
This maybe a good time for Washington to keep its money, military and diplomatic resources. It may also be prudent to listen to other actors in the region that know Ethiopia, know what they are doing and can affect change in the way that can bring balance. Otherwise, the game is over for TPLF and there is nothing that can save it!