On Sunday 29 November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announcedto national and international Medias that the ENDF – Ethiopia National Defense Force, over the weekend took control of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. The airport, public institutions, the regional administrative office and other critical facilities are under the control of the federal government.
For the federal government, the military campaign against the rebel region ended with the defeat of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which from 1991 to 2018 ruled the country unchallenged by controlling the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRD) government coalition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali said that now there will be only operations conducted by the federal police to intercept the leaders of the TPLF and bring them to justice and round-up of the last pockets of resistance of the Tigrigna forces and of the stragglers still in arms.
The takeover of Mekelle should officially end the conflict. In this complicated political crisis, the conditional is a must, as many regional observers think that in the absence of the total beheading of the TPLF Tigrinya leadership, the conflict will continue in the form of guerrillas, (probably supported by Egypt and Sudan) continuing to represent a series national threat and to the stability of the region. According to testimonies of humanitarian workers in the capital of Tigray, the federal forces would have conquered Mekelle without finding much resistance. The bulk of the TPLF forces would have left the capital before the encirclement to start a long guerrilla war in the surrounding and impenetrable mountains.
That the fratricidal war did not end with the capture of Mekelle is clarified by Gebremichael, leader of the TPLF. During an interview with Reuters, he promised to keep fighting on Saturday. “The brutality demonstrated by the federal government can only strengthen our resolve to fight these invaders to the last.” Asked if this meant that his forces would continue to fight, he replied: “Of course. It is about defending our right to self-determination “.
Despite the mutiny of the Northern Division, the TPLF found itself fighting against 16 divisions of the federal army, the Amhara militias, at least two divisions of the Eritrean army and dozens of combat drone squadrons sent from the United Arab Emirates. Such a deployment of forces, associated with the land and air blockade imposed on the northern region, would have convinced the TPLF to abandon the open clashes to take up the guerrilla tactics, of which the TPLF is a champion. At the moment, the official victory over the rebel TIgray government has avoided dangerous divisions within the army and revolts of other ethnic groups, primarily that of the Oromo. Risks that will arise again if the TPLF really manages to organize an effective and protracted guerrilla war, forcing the government to keep its troops in Tigray, completely devoid of popular support.
The news of the victory in Mekelle was preceded by an equivocal and contradictory stance by the European Union. Despite the diplomatic efforts of the Pope Francesco and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to activate international pressure on the warring parties of the conflict in Tigray in order to impose an immediate ceasefire and the start of peace talks, the European Union has ruled out the possibility to intervene in favour of peace in Ethiopia. The choice of passivity in the face of the civil war actually espouses the theory of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali: foreign powers do not have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. ‘Non-Interference’ is a pillar of China’s foreign policy that allows it to do business with any African government, be it democratic, dictatorial or genocidal. A policy for a decade harshly condemned by the European Union which accuses Beijing of favouring dictatorial regimes, ignoring the respect for human rights and civil liberties.
The EU position would have been clarified even before the official meeting in the Brussels Parliament by Janez Lenarcic, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, during a meeting in Brussels with Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Demeke Mekonnen, according to information released by Ethiopian broadcaster Fana. “The EU has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia“, recite the statement of the European Deputy Prime Minister. Foreign Minister Mekonnen would have reassured Lenarcic, promising that the military campaign would be short, therefore it was not worthwhile to create diplomatic fractures between the E.U. and his government. The Tigray capital conquest, would show that Mekonnen has kept its promises.
The non-interventionist line chosen by Leanarcic would reflect the position of the two main European powers, France and Germany, which would have put in the minority the mediation position supported by Italy by aiming, justifiably, on a quick victory for the feds. In the official EU the concept of non-interference in Ethiopia’s ‘internal affairs’ is softened with appeals to the duty of the parties to the conflict to protect civilians and ensure their safe and free movement in accordance with international humanitarian law, the urgent cessation of hostilities to avoid a serious destabilization of Ethiopia and the whole region, the unlimited and immediate access of humanitarian workers to all areas affected by the fighting. With the correct position adopted by Premier Conte, Italian foreign policy seems to have awakened from the torpor that has lasted for the last twenty years which in fact created the almost total absence of Italian diplomacy on the international stage. The protracted absence of guidelines and strategies in foreign policy has caused the loss of influence exerted in Libya and the exclusion of Italian investments in the rich Great Lakes Region, to name just two examples.
The federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, despite the diplomatic passivity decided by the EU he expressed his ‘alarm and surprise’ at the official communiqué issued by Brussels, which was considered ambiguous. The hints of war crimes and the dire situation of nearly 9 million Ethiopian citizens whose lives are endangered because of their ethnicity were not welcome. “There is a gap in the EU’s understanding of what is happening in Ethiopia right now” mockingly declared Hirut Zemene, ambassador to the European Union.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister would regret that the EU did not fully embrace the government version on the birth of the conflict with the northern region of Tigray. A version that revolves around an attack by the regional security forces on a military camp of the federal army located in Tigray on 3 November. This attack, which would have aggravated the tense relations between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, forcing the federal government to intervene militarily in the rebel region in order to defend democracy and national territorial unity. The TPLF in January had decided to leave the Coalition of Government which it controlled for 30 years and last September to hold regional administrative elections despite the fact that the Prime Minister the previous month had postponed the regional and national elections (scheduled for August) to the end of the Covid19 pandemic.
Considering that, like many African countries, the Covid-19 pandemic also had a slight impact on infections and mortality in Ethiopia, the postponement of the democratic exercise of the vote (citing health security reasons) was designed to allow Abiy to remain in office beyond the expiration of his mandate and strengthen his Prosperity Party, which occupied the parliamentary seats that remained empty with a political game after the TPLF’s exit from the Coalition of Government in January 2020. A manoeuvre that offered Abiy a virtual parliamentary majority without real popular support. The postponement, taking the pandemic excuse, serves only to buy time in order to permit the Prosperity Party to become a mass party capable of presenting itself successfully in future elections.
In reality, the attack on the bases of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force was a symbolic gesture carried out by the TPLF officials as a measure of ‘anticipatory self-defense’. The testimonies collected state that there was no fighting during the attack on the barracks but a simple handover of military positions and arsenals by the Northern Division after making the decision to mutiny to the federal government and join the TPLF in the defence of the Tigrinya population. Only a few officers of the Northern Division refused to join the TPLF and were detained. Upon their release with the capture of Mekelle, this handful of officers was magnified by Abiy’s well-rotated propaganda machine in order to downplay that the Ethiopian army’s elite division had decided to fight against federal government.
Addis Ababa, to justify the fratricidal war, offered another virtual truth. Prime Minister Abiy allegedly sought to integrate the TPLF into his reform program which involved an enormous effort to initiate the democratic process, breaking the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which had ruled as a one-party state for three decades. The leaders of the TPLF would be states that they would not take part in democratic reforms process and would attack first just as the government was asking the TPLF to open a political discussion to peacefully resolve the crisis created between Addis Ababa and Mekelle.
In its press release following the decision taken by the EU Ethiopian ambassador Zemene wanted to load the dose by reiterating that the current conflict is an internal problem, throwing the responsibility exclusively on the TPLF defined as a small political group that creates turmoil in the country. “The purpose of the operation is to disarm, bring the perpetrators of the sedition to justice and return to normal” concluded Zemene.
Nothing could be further from reality. Since 2019, the TPLF executives have been under constant attack by the Prime Minister through a series of arrests for corruption aimed at beheading the well-structured TPLF political and military leadership during the 30 years of absolute power held by the Tigers in the Coalition of Government. The fight against corruption seemed to be aimed at strengthening the democratic process that had begun. Unfortunately, already in January 2020, when the TPLF decided to leave the Coalition, it was evident that the attack on the Tigrinya regime was actually aimed at replacing the TPLF with the Prosperity Party in managing the country, using the same repressive and authoritarian methods.
The postponement of the elections, the orders to shoot zero-shot demonstrators during the Oromo protests and the violence exerted on the Tigrinya civilian population during the first phase of the conflict amply demonstrate that the dispute between Abiy and the TPLF did not originate from genuine interest to strengthen democracy in Ethiopia but from a fight to the death for absolute power.
The position adopted by the EU it turned out to be paradoxical since a day earlier even the United States had radically changed its mind about the Ethiopian conflict. After taking note of the ongoing war crimes and ethnic cleansing and conflict regionalization risks (already reality with the involvement of Eritrean troops and UAE combat drones), the White House had decided to transform the initial support for the Abiy military campaign in an explicit request for a ceasefire and the opening of dialogue for peace.
The EU position is paradoxical also following the contradictory statements of the EU High Representative for foreign affairs, Joseph Borrell. “The situation in the Tigray region, ethnic-targeted violence, allegations of atrocities and human rights violations are a matter of deep concern. There is a real danger of an imminent and serious humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and the neighboring region. We are very concerned about these prospects and have reiterated our calls for dialogue and to stop the violence and return to dialogue” Borrell said at a press conference.
On the one hand, the European Union admits the serious humanitarian crisis and the violence exerted on civilians from the beginning but on the other it affirms that it cannot intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign State. The majority of the violence against civilians was committed by federal troops and fascist Amhara militias, as evidenced by the now numerous testimonies of refugees who fled to Sudan. This fact has been cleverly disguised by European Union communication experts team, who have suggested (even to the main Medias) to talk about violence and war crimes committed by both sides. A version of reality aimed at diluting (by a lot) the responsibilities of the individual actors, primarily Abiy.
Ethnically targeted violence, massacres of civilians, hate speech and demonization of Tigrigna ethnic group are not an internal affair of a country but abominable crimes that should not be tolerated by the international community due to the side effects inherent in the attempt to transform a civil war for absolute powerinto an ethnic one. More than 43,000 Tigrinya refugees in neighbouring Sudan and the regionalization of the conflict (Eritrea and the United Emirates already involved alongside the federal government), are not internal affairs of a country but a serious violation of peace and stability that the international community must oppose without reserve.
The position taken by the EU in the Ethiopian fratricidal war is a serious precedent that directly affects the democratic and civil pillars of the European Union itself: defence of human rights, peaceful coexistence of peoples, strengthening of democracy. If the Ethiopian conflict is an internal affair, then so are the generalized massacres by the Burundian military junta which has already prepared the plans of genocide in case of a possible defeat. Even the order to shoot at zero shooting on the demonstrators given two weeks ago by the Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni to win at all costs the elections next January and remain in power, returns in the ‘home affairs’ category or is it a serious human rights violation?
The big regional winner of this new European non-interference policy (copied by China for convenience) is the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki already partially rehabilitated with tight peace in 2018. Now there is a chance that the concept of non-interference will be applicated to Afewerki thanks to the mediation of Abiy as payment for the participation of Eritrean troops in the offensive against the TPLF. The dispatch of Eritrean troops to support the federal government’s offensive, in exchange for disputed border territories too, marks a newfound alliance between Asmara and Addis Ababa. An alliance that could be weak and temporally limited. Some regional observers harbour the doubt that the dreams of absolute power nurtured by Prime Minister AbiyAhmed and disguised as ‘democratic reforms’ do not stop at Ethiopian borders. There is doubt that he will try in the near future to annex the territories of Eritrea to resurrect Greater Ethiopia. Amilitary blitzkrieg able to manage the overthrow the Eritrean regime thus presenting itself to the Eritrean population as a liberator and regaining the outlet to the sea lost with the independence of Asmara.
The EU it originated from the need to defend the Ethiopian Prime Minister, hitherto glorified by Western diplomacy as a pacifist and a democratic reformer, creating a political figure far removed from the true intentions of absolute power of the young and ambitious prime minister. By labelling war crimes and ethnic cleansing ‘internal affairs’, the European Union has de facto followed the comfortable and ambiguous policy of Chinese imperialism of non-interference, always harshly criticized by Brussels, which for decades has accused Beijing of favouring and protecting dictatorial and bloody regimes. The message launched by Brussels is devastating. Now any African regime has an extra weapon to crack down on internal opposition or to resolve a political crisis with military intervention against a specific ethnic group. Just call them ‘internal problems‘ …
The EU position (where Italy was placed in a clear minority) is based on the rapid end of the conflict which, with the capture of Mekelle, appears to have been secured by Abiy. A victory that will erase the crimes committed by the federal army and the Amhara militias, in the name of stability and democracy … European diplomacy, abdicating the duty to defend human rights and democracy on a global level to favour an ‘alleged’ stability of the status quo could, will prove disastrous if the conflict now turns into a long-fought guerrilla war in the Tigray Mountains.
It will also represent a strong source of embarrassment if the Prime Minister, swollen with victory, decides to use violence and the army to tame the opposition of the Oromo and Amhara in order to impose an absolute power of the Prosperity Party and the future Emperor Menelik III, (Abiy Ahmed). We will remember November 2020 not as the month of the second wave of Covid-19 in Europe but as the month in which Brussels chose to sacrifice the values of justice and democracy that were at the basis of the creation of a united Europe after the advent of Nazism and the related world war. From now on, any African dictator or despotic government will be able to massacre its own population or part of it by invoking the precedent of “not interfering in the internal affairs of a Sovereign Country“, but on one condition: that it hurries to do the dirty job …
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