Ethiopia in Transition: War and Peace and the U.S. Role


During the Weekend of November 18-21, 2010, members of the Institute for Horn of Africa Studies and Affairs (IHASA) took part in the 53rd African Studies Association (ASA) conference with the overarching theme of “African Diaspora and Diasporas in Africa” that was held at the lush and swanky Westin hotel, San Francisco. Large Sudanese, Ethiopia, and Kenyan contingents, and a small number of Somali participants were observed.

As customary to ASA participants, a session by the pre-eminent scholar Ali Mazrui comes as a must- to-attend, and more so this year when, Mazrui was reading his treatise about the influence of India and China in contemporary Sub Sahara Africa. Beyond the cultural influence that both countries have on Africa, the possibility of Chinese vs. Indian rivalry on the Horn, especially in light of the insatiable appetite of these emerging powers for the Horn of Africa region’s resources, is, if not worrisome, captivating. The Qalub oil and natural gas in the Somali region in particular comes to mind.

What does this say about America? If China gets access to the Qalub oil fields, does it represent the erosion of the over 100-years-old US influence in the region? Or is it a sign of the fall of US imperial might, as predicted by Paul Kennedy in his book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers”?

As a research-based advocacy institute, whose headquarter is based in San Diego, IHASA reflects the views of the burgeoning Somali speaking and other Diaspora communities from the Horn of Africa region. As such, the conference and its 53rd annual theme on “African Diaspora” had much relevance to the goals and objective of IHASA. Our fellow participants included Faisal Roble, a Senior Researcher who is also the editor-in-chief of the California-based, and Fowsia Abdulkadir, also a Senior Researcher at IHASA.

Ethnic conflict in the Horn and US Engagement

Fowsia Abdulkadir presented a paper to a panel called: Social Divisions in African Polities. Her paper, The Dark-Side of Ethnic Federalism: the Case of the Somali Region in Ethiopia tackled the issue of ethnic federalism and its dispensation. According to Ms. Abdulkadir, proponents of Ethnic federalism argue ethnic federalism is one way to transform Ethiopia while uniting its diverse peoples, and safeguarding its territorial integrity. In other words, the move towards an ethnic-based federalism was to ensure that Ethiopia won’t be consumed with ethnic revolt. Ethiopia has been at cross roads ever since it launched its ethnic federalism. There are inherent challenges in transforming any society and bringing about meaningful economic, political and social change, and Ethiopia is no exception. However, in the context of Ethiopia, there are additional complexities of protracted ethnic-based conflicts which plagued this country. These protracted ethnic-based conflicts are the result of some coercive processes that successive Ethiopia regimes employed in ruling the citizens of this country.

Ms. Abdulkadir argued that Ethiopia provides numerous examples and historical trajectory of rulers and governments who established very strong centralized governments, to the extent that it produced many large ethnically based resistance movements. The current regime has its origins in an ethnic-based resistance movements (The Tigrian People’s Liberation Front), which has rebelled against Amhara hegemony.

Faisal Roble participated in the highly watched Round-table: Reflections and Ruminations on the Horn: Round Three, with the following participants. The panel was chaired by the Somali historian Said Samatar of Rutgers University, Newark Campus, with a robust participation by Ed Keller, University of California, Los Angeles, Faisal Roble (WardheerNews), California, Mohammed H. Ali, Georgia State University, Assefa Mehretu, Michigan State University, and Alemseged Abbay, Frostburg State University.

The discourse of the panelists focused on the historical and political manifestations of the nationality question in Ethiopia and its impacts on regional stability. Professor Edmond Keller, a re-known scholar in the affairs of the Horn, and a keen observer of ethnic politics in Ethiopia, presented a critical and historical evaluation of elections in the last few years in the Somali region under Ethiopian jurisdiction. According to Keller, these elections by far constitute staged elections whose results are manufactured wins for the Somali Peoples Democratic Party (SPDP). Keller argued that for a country to claim “democracy,” or “transition to democracy,” there are more to it than staging elections whose results are predictable. He contrasted the last election the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) participated (freer and fairer), in which the front commanded a substantial victory by a margin of over 68% of the total votes of that year, against the last two elections which the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) “manipulated outcomes.”

Present day insurgency of the ONLF for the secession of that region and for the preservation of the vastly un-exploited resources is partly in reaction to the absence of free and fair elections. In his conclusion, he called upon the State Department for more engagement of both sides to the conflict.

Assefa Mehretu, an economic geographer, mainly attacked the Tigrian Peoples Liberation Front (TFPL) domination of the country’s politics and its resources. He vehemently assaulted the concept of “Killil” or regional governments, an administrative concept, that as Mehretu argued had “ended up dividing the once united Ethiopian family” into tribal regions, while at the same time doing away with the naturally aggregated regions, or “Kifle Hagar.” There were 14 “Kifle Hagar” during the late Emperor Haile Selassie into which the country’s administrative units were organized. He likened present day “Killil” with “regions of containment,” like those of the German camps where Jews were contained.

Since the TPLF overthrew the Dergue regime, it enacted a transitional charter, whose provisions for the first time recognized the existence of ethnic groups in Ethiopia and as such divided the country into ethnic-based administrative regions. Contrary to the one-party rule, the charter enacted in 1991 envisioned a multi-party ethnic based federal system of government. It is this new reorganization of the country (dividing, if you will) that Mehretu considers a step towards the dismantling of the Ethiopian nation. Some members of the panel, including Roble, adversely reacted to Mehretu’s thesis.

Alam Saged Abbay added to the discourse a new and revolutionary dimension, and ably debated on the concept of whether Ethiopia, given the sheer size of the number of languages, needs and must adopt what he called a “lingua franca” so that the elites of the country can easily communicate with ease. He likened the validity of his thesis to the successful expansion and positive reception the English language is receiving from many corners of the world.

The twin and weighty presentations of Faisal Roble and Mohammed Hassan, an Oromo Scholar, focused on the intertwined relationship between colonial subjugations of the Somalis and Oromos, two communities who are geographically and socio-culturally intimate with each other through the centuries of Abyssinia domination, and human rights abuses. Dr. Hassan narrated the historical injustices successive Abyssinian rulers meted and continue to do so against the most numerous Oromo nationality. His analysis about the plight of the Oromos was historical and sociological in nature.

Roble did not mince at the opportunity to underscore the similarities between preset day and past atrocities meted against Somalis and the perpetuation of abuses. He has argued that, when all things are put together (massive civilian arrests without habeas corpus, the 2007 total blockade the TPLF imposed on the Ogaden region, throat slitting as a means of intimidation, the burning of villages captured by Western satellites, the looting and rapping of women), the present regime of Ethiopia is committing as much human rights abuses as previous regimes. He weighed these abuses against the “food for security” aid that Ethiopia receives from the United States of America to the tune of $600 million. (The total aid the West dispenses to the Meles regime amounts to over $3 billion dollars annually.)

Moreover, Roble plausibly argued that the region’s conflict would worsen if and when Ethiopia tries to exploit the Qalub oil, especially as Chinese and the Ethiopian governments’ rapprochement worms up. In that connection, Roble loudly questioned whether recent peace accord between the Ethiopian government and the Diaspora-based ONLF faction and United Western Somali Liberation Front would ameliorate the conflict between the armed ONLF faction and the Meles government. Both Roble and Keller called for a more serious diplomatic engagement by the American government. One of the most diplomatically interesting exchanges took place between Roble and a representative from the US Command Center, and together they inquired about the looming danger that can blanket the region if China decides to bank-roll the Ethiopian government to undertake its Qalub project and to what degree that can escalate conflict in the Horn.

Concluding Remarks

Eying the prospective secessionist outcome of Southern Sudan, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), is threatening to fiercely engaging the oversized Ethiopian army. The combined fuel of resources exploitation and the political aspirations of the Somalis in Ethiopia is a worrisome lethal and potential time bomb that could exacerbate the already fragile conditions of the Horn of Africa region. If left unchecked, once again the entire region can be shadowed by what Robert Ferrell 30 years ago called “war clouds in the Horn,” thus plunging it back into an era of a renewed conflict. Without robust face-to-face internationally sanctioned talks between the belligerent parties, political crises and human rights abuses are looming large.

Institute for Horn of Africa Studies
San Diego, California
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Posted by on December 8, 2010. Filed under FEATURED. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.