By Awad Abdulsebur Ahmad, Addis Abeba
Awad Abdulsebur Ahmad is a journalist and communication expert closely following the politics of the Horn of Africa. He has worked in Ethiopia for public, private and international humanitarian organizations for more then 20 years. Currently, he is Deputy Editor in- chief at the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), a public owned media outlet operating across the country with its more than 36 branches and 200 correspondents.
Ethiopia, the biggest country in the Eastern part of Africa in terms of size and population has been under huge pressure by some western powers, particularly the US and the European Commission, due to the ongoing conflict in Tigray region. These powers accuse Ethiopia of atrocities committed against civilians and of hindering access to humanitarian activities to help people affected by the conflict. The government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been repeatedly denying these accusations.
According to statements by the officials of Ethiopian government, though the military measures are being carried out, these target only the TPLF forces that had been ruling the region for close to three decades. The government has admitted the fact that hundreds of civilians has been killed and sexually assaulted during the course of the six month long conflict. It has also been taking measures to hold accountable the perpetrators of the killings and other human right violations.
As reiterated by Abiy’s administration, unfettered access has been also given for humanitarian aid both for local and international organizations to help citizens affected by the conflict in addition to the ongoing huge government intervention to deliver the basic provisions including food. Ethiopia even criticizes the international humanitarian community for not responding adequately to the sufferings of Ethiopians in Tigray region, as more than 70 percent of the current humanitarian support has been provided by the government despite the full access given to them to reach the people who need assistance.
However, the US government and European Union have been pressuring the Ethiopian government to negotiate with the TPLF, designated by the House of Peoples’ Representatives of Ethiopia as a terrorist group recently. As part of this continued pressure, the US Secretary of State announced travel restrictions on Ethiopian officials as well as economic and security restrictions on May 23rd.
“I am announcing a visa restriction policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act on the issuance of visas for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray,” the Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. Wrongful violence or other abuses against people in the Tigray region, hindered access of humanitarian assistance to those in the region, are the issues that made the sanction necessary, the statement underlined.
The Ethiopian government immediately expressed anger through its Foreign Affairs Ministry over the sanctions imposed by the US. In a statement the ministry issued on Monday May 24, 2021, accused the US administration for meddling in its internal affairs noting that the decision will force Ethiopia to reassess its more than a century long bilateral relationship with the country.
“After the series of engagements with international partners, including the U.S., and the tangible progress made in addressing some of the prevailing challenges, the decision by the U.S. administration to impose visa restrictions and other measures is not only regrettable but will also seriously harm and undermine the constructive spirit of engagement and the significant gains achieved on the ground, not to mention the centuries-old people-to-people relationships,” the statement said.
It also warned that “if such a resolve to meddle in our internal affairs and undermining the century-old bilateral ties continues unabated, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will be forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.”
The statement has also criticized the US government for putting the terrorist TPLF rebel on equal footings with the Ethiopian government.
“What is even more saddening is the tendency by the U.S. administration to treat the Ethiopian Government on an equal footing with the TPLF, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the House of Peoples’ Representative two weeks ago. There is nothing more revealing than this to understand the misguided approach by the administration.”
Rallies to protest sanctions
Large majority of Ethiopians have expressed their support for the government by denouncing the sanction announced by the US administration in demonstrations held last week across the nation. Particularly, in the capital Addis Ababa tens of thousands gathered in a Stadium demanding the US government to revisit its decision as it did not consider the reality on the ground, understand the efforts being undertaken by the government of Ethiopia to reverse the situation in Tigray as many believe it was dragged forcefully by the provocative acts orchestrated by the TPLF groups.
Participants of the rally have held slogans in their local languages as well as in English and Arabic, demanding the US to refrain from meddling in the country’s internal affairs. They have also expressed support to the Chinese and Russian leaders by holding up their pictures.
The demonstrators have voiced about the disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is constructing on the Nile River, which has been facing strong opposition by Egypt and Sudan. Egypt and Sudan are demanding Ethiopia to stop filling the dam, whose construction has reached more than 80 percent, without a binding agreement among the three countries. The government in the United States shares the concerns of Egypt and Sudan and is very much interested to participate in the ongoing tripartite negation between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. This has been openly revealed by the former President of the country, Donald Trump during his failed initiative to negotiate with the countries in Washington DC.
Trump said, after Ethiopia refused to sign a deal prepared by the US, informing the negotiators that it needed “more time for deliberations with outstanding issues concerning the dam’s operation and the filling of its reservoir.” However, the deal was signed in the absence of Ethiopia during the time and the US Secretary of Treasury urged Ethiopia in a statement to stop filling of the dam before the copmletition of any deal between the countries, though Ethiopia had carried out first filling last year. And the US administration halted certain aid to Ethiopia as a punishment for her rejection of the deal. The incumbent in Washington has also been strongly urging Ethiopia to abide by the demands of Egypt and Sudan in as to the involvements of other actors the negotiation.
In this regard the two world powers Russia and China are against the position being entertained by the US. Particularly Russia announced the importance of AU in the negotiation. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov openly revealed this when his Egyptian Counterpart Shoukry visited Moscow in April. Lavrov stated during the occasion in a joint press conference in Cairo that differences over the GERD on the upper Nile should be resolved exclusively by the interested states through a dialogue under the leadership of AU.
“As for the Renaissance Dam, our Egyptian friends have been bringing up this issue for a while already. We are sincerely interested in settling it. It is possible to do so only by the three interested states. All others should create the necessary conditions for it,” he pointed out. “We support this principle of finding African solutions to African problems most actively, not just on this but also on every other issue, including conflicts that remain in Africa,” the minister emphasized.
Chinese involvement over the dispute on GERD had also been tried by Egypt and Sudan. The two countries had asked China to pressure Ethiopia to reach a binding agreement on the dam’s filling and operation. Egypt has been expressing its dissatisfaction with the involvement of Chinese companies in the construction of the GERD. However, China’s position has been negative, as it continued working with Ethiopia urging the parties in dispute to reach an agreement through dialogue.
Looking for a new ally
Following the conflict in Tigray, the US administration and few of its allies in the West have gone further and tried to pressure Ethiopia on an international level by bringing the matter to the table of the UN Security Council. The US has made an attempt to get U.N. Security Council approval for a statement calling for an end to violence in Tigray region on the first week of March. However, it had not worked for the issue faced strong opposition from some members of the council notably by China, Russia and India, as the matter is totally an internal affair that could only be resolved by the member country itself.
In the last week’s rallies against the US sanction on Ethiopia, the protesters have expressed their support to the China’s leader Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin by displaying big banners depicting pictures of the two leaders. According to observers, the pictures of the leaders of China and Russia indicate that Ethiopians support the position being held by these countries in the UN Security Council on the current situation in Ethiopia. China and Russia are against the actions being taken by the US administration and its few allies in the West by meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Some analysts say the pictures imply that Ethiopia has other friends such as China and Russia that it could cooperate with in a bid to ensuring its national interest in the international fore.
However, the government of Ethiopia doesn’t agree with this analysis. Spokesperson of the ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia Dina Mufti said Ethiopia is committed to strengthening relations with countries in world as long as they are not against its national interest. He told journalist last week “We want to strengthen relations with the global community be it Western or Eastern, rich or poor. The sky is the limit to strengthen its relation with nations.”
However, observers argue that Ethiopia’s current political dynamism prone to the international influence that would force the country to choose good friends that would stand by its side during this trying time. Several reports indicate that Russia is working to renew its relationship with African countries. Notably it has been working to establish its foothold in the Horn of Africa region, in this regard Ethiopia is one of the strategic countries in terms of size both geographic and population. This week Ethiopia and Russia announced an agreement to boost their intelligence and security cooperation. According to the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) of Ethiopia, Temesgen Tiruneh Director of NISS and Russian Ambassador to Ethiopia Yevgeny Terekhin have exchanged views on ways to enhance multifaceted cooperation in the sector.
China is the other world power that has strong cooperation ties with Ethiopia particularly in economic and investment activities. Ethiopia had signed agreement last March with China to establish a protection mechanism for the security of major projects implemented within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative in Ethiopia. This has been sparking curiosity among observers that the agreement might lead the two nations to build military base in Ethiopia as China has huge interest in Ethiopia for its major investments are located in Ethiopia, which is also second biggest borrower in Africa including the GERD.
China’s involvement over the dispute on GERD had also been tried by Egypt and Sudan. The two countries had asked China to pressure Ethiopia to reach a binding agreement on the dam’s filling and operation. Egypt has been expressing its dissatisfaction with the involvement of Chinese companies in the construction of the GERD. However, China’s position has been on the negative continued working with Ethiopia urging the parties in dispute to reach an agreement through dialogue.
Is the US using the conflict in Tigray as a scapegoat?
Participants of the last week’s Addis Ababa rally waved slogans that support the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The demonstrators have also urged the government to undertake the second filling of the dam that has been protested by Egypt and Sudan in their banners.
Though Ethiopians consider the dam as their future hope, Egypt and Sudan express fear that the dam being built on the Nile River would diminish their water supply and are asking a binding deal before conducting the filling. However, Ethiopia has been repeatedly promising that the dam would never harm the countries and affirmed to continue conducting the second round of filling without deal as the Declaration of Principles Agreement signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in 2015 stipulates filling as part of the construction process.
The US administration has been showing huge interest to be part of the ongoing negotiation on the GERD between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Egypt and Sudan have been working to internationalize the issue particularly over the last three years by asking the participation of UN and US among other international organizations in the ongoing mediation among the three countries. However, Ethiopia proposes the African Union (AU) to play the key role in the mediation.
During his recent visit to the Horn of Africa region, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman had also discussed with the officials of countries not only the conflict in Tigray and Ethio-Sudan border dispute but also the GERD negotiation.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Egypt on May 26, 2021 and spoke with the Egyptian President, Sisi in Cairo. In his statement he issued on the day about the visit clearly indicates some kind of political game that the American are playing with the current situation in Ethiopia to attain Egypt’s interest with its depute regarding the GERD.
During the meeting, the Secretary conveyed President Biden’s appreciation to President Sisi for Egypt’s critical mediation efforts in support of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and other groups in Gaza and for Egypt’s help in evacuating American citizens to safety.
The Secretary affirmed the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt and President Biden’s commitment to this relationship. He reiterated the United States’ commitment to Egypt’s water security and to the urgent resumption of substantive and results oriented negotiations under the leadership of the African Union to resolve the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The Secretary had also praised Egypt for its efforts on Libya and noted our mutual support for the Government of Iraq.
Political analysts who are closely following the ongoing GERD negotiation strongly argue that the United States is working in favor of Egypt in its dispute regarding the GERD by pressuring the government in Ethiopia, using the current situation as a pretext. Hence, the concern being showed by the US administration, regarding the situation in Tigray is a scapegoat.
This argument would become more plausible if someone try to remember the fact that how Ethiopia and the United States have been a longtime allies especially in the overall political and security matters across the Horn of Africa. They have been working in close partnership in the fight against terrorism in the region and beyond especially over the past three decades. Though the successive political leaders including the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi used to be accused of rampant violations of human and democratic rights in the country, the US government has been giving a deaf ear and blind eye except the release of annual reports on the matters. And observers are now questioning US’s intention over its current interest on the internal politics of Ethiopia that has pushed it further to impose sanctions that it had never tried over the past three decades on the previous leadership. Is the US gambling for the interest of Egypt as a reward for its so-called collaboration in the politics of the Middle East?