In Ethiopia, echoes of Yugoslavia

We’ve seen this story before. This time we should make sure it has a different ending.

Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed | Jemal Countess/Getty Image

Arminka Helić is a member of the British House of Lords and served as special adviser to Foreign Secretary William Hague from 2010 to 2014.

(Politico) — Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently said that his country is “facing an enemy which is the cancer of Ethiopia.” He drew a chilling distinction between Tigrayan Ethiopians and others in the country, describing “the children of Ethiopia” as “wheat” and his Tigrayan opponents as “invasive weeds,” who “must be uprooted in a manner that will never grow again.”

Thirty years ago, in the country of my birth, Yugoslavia, similar dehumanizing language was a prelude to ethnic cleansing and genocide. No two countries or conflicts are the same. But the parallels with Yugoslavia make me fearful for the people of Ethiopia: for those suffering violence, and for those in whose name it is being carried out.

Like Ethiopia today, Yugoslavia was a large, multiethnic state with a recent history of dictatorship, going through a period of political change. Attempts to turn Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia (and some of it into a Greater Croatia) by force failed — but only after four years of war, genocide and the disintegration of the country. Thirty years on, I look at Ethiopia and fear that history could repeat itself.

The war in Yugoslavia began slowly, but deliberately. Politicians whipped up nationalism to drive their careers, and embraced war and genocide to “protect” their people as the ultimate expression of that nationalism. The machinery of a federal Yugoslav state was turned against a section of the population who were deemed “wrong,” and the armed forces were used to kill the very people they were meant to protect.

Fighting began in one region and spread to others. Atrocities fueled further atrocities. The international community, initially silent, eventually stepped in and froze the war — but only after they had proved at best incapable, at worst actively harmful, throughout the preceding four years. Yugoslavia disintegrated into five nations. Today, after further conflict, the region is made up of seven nations — and it is still riven by tension and nationalist aspirations.

There has now been fighting in Tigray for nine months. In that time, we have heard horrific reports of atrocities, massacres, looting and systematic sexual violence. Humanitarian aid access is deliberately impeded, and there are signs that hunger is being purposefully inflicted as a weapon to starve Tigrayans into submission.

Abiy’s words are a warning that the conflict could yet get worse. They incite Ethiopians to turn against Tigrayans — “to uproot them.” He targets his invective at a “junta,” but his language of wheat and weeds appears to cast all Tigrayans as inferior.

He knows what he is suggesting is brutal: He says “Even though we are united as to our end, there may be arguments about the means.” But he is determined: “The children of Ethiopia have identified their enemy. And they know what to do. And they will do it.” The military operation in Tigray is no longer being presented as just a police operation, but as a whole-nation effort to eliminate a mortal threat — a threat defined on the basis of ethnicity.

Just as fighting in Yugoslavia spread to encompass the different nations that made up the state, so are there signs of Ethiopia’s other regions and its neighbors being drawn in to the conflict there. Eritrean soldiers and Amhara ethnic militias have been active in Tigray throughout the conflict, possibly committing some of the worst atrocities, and the Tigray Defence Forces have spoken of taking the fight to them in Eritrea and Amhara.

Tigrayan forces recently entered the neighboring region of Afar, with the stated intention of “degrading enemy fighting capabilities.” As Yugoslavia showed, once war begins, it becomes increasingly hard to contain. Your enemy is your enemy, wherever they are. Much of the conflict in Yugoslavia stemmed from jockeying for power in a collapsing nation. In Ethiopia, sporadic interethnic violence is not unknown. It is not hard to imagine the war in Tigray, and the weakening of the central state it is causing, opening a space for further conflict.

In the 1990s, as Yugoslavia was torn apart, Western nations proved unwilling to act until it was too late. In Ethiopia today, we can see signs of the same inaction. The country’s size and importance — the reason why conflict there could be so devastating — is holding us back, with governments, including ours in the United Kingdom, seemingly averse to the risk of damaging trade ties or relations with an important partner and regional lynchpin.

Likewise, the African Union has not been able to speak or act as effectively as the crisis deserves: Its headquarters are in Addis Ababa, and Ethiopia holds considerable sway on crucial bodies like the Peace and Security Council. Vestigial memories of Abiy’s Nobel Peace Prize from only two years ago may still cause some people to hope that there will be a peaceful resolution.

But when a prime minister speaks of his opponents as weeds and cancer, when rape and famine are deployed as weapons, and when a nation seems to be on a path that could lead to collapse, it is not possible to maintain normal relations. Our government and the international community should set aside, for now, the pursuit of deeper trade links with the Abiy government and accept that the hard work of conflict diplomacy is required.

We should support the African Union, and should seek to forge a common position behind them with the United States and the European Union, in order to help the different warring parties toward peace — and pull Ethiopia back from the brink. We should be prepared to use sanctions to back up that diplomacy, if it does not produce results — as the U.S. has already done.

The war in Yugoslavia began with speeches, political disputes and minor clashes. It continued, and grew, in part because of international inaction. It is time for the international community to step up and mount a more concerted diplomatic effort to secure peace in Ethiopia. It is never too late to learn the lessons of history.

1 Comment

  1. Re-posted from Kichuu

    Ya Oromo, (also, to the Journalists and ‘Experts’ who write about Ethiopia’s current crisis but whose work I have found to be short on insight and facts…)

    The Anti Oromo Liberation Army campaign in the guise of protecting the ‘unity’ of Ethiopia is in full swing. Nearly forty years ago, the same campaign was waged against The Eritrean Liberation Front, The Tigray Liberation Front, & the then fledgling Oromo Liberation Front. Today, the focus of this Anti-Oromo campaign is the Oromo Liberation Army. Rather than write an article about it now, I have republished an essay written on this same issue by H.Q. Loltu in March 1985. I and many of my friends are forever indebted for ALL we have learned from the work of one of our brightest thinkers and writers on the Oromo question. With a change of names, time, and other minor items here and there, I trust you will find this essay useful in understanding why the “concern” about Ethiopia’s “fragmentation”, or “Balkanization,” at heart, is really an Anti-Oromo propaganda campaign with the sons and daughters of armed Amhara settlers, the Nefxagnas, as the primary drivers of the story line. Other proponents of the ” scare-the-bejesus-out-of- -the-reader” writers about the ‘evils’ of “Fragmentation” or “Balkanization,” fall within the range of those who are plainly oblivious to the history of the Horn of Africa AND the Oromo in particular, to those who have an agenda of their own to push under the guise of “respect for Ethiopia’s Sovereignty”…

    Re-printed from:
    The Kindling Point #5
    “On Unity & Fragmentation”
    March, 1985
    By H.Q Loltu

    Many people seem to be afraid of the “fragmentation” of Ethiopia, and give that as a reason for opposing the Oromo and other movements for national liberation.
    Most people who mention it, however, are either unwilling or unable to explain their concerns. So I have been thinking a lot lately about what might lie at the base of this fear of “fragmentation.”

    Recently while this issue was on my mind, I ran across several articles appearing in Newspapers and Magazines to commemorate the Berlin Conference that was held in 1884-85 in that city to divide up Africa. The articles dealt with how and why the Colonial Powers at the time carved up Africa into its present pieces.When you think about it, the World has really been observing the one hundred year anniversary of the Fragmentation of Africa. The way Africa was carved up made sense only to the colonizing powers and not to Africans. The pieces on the map show only the logic of an outside market and the logic of ruling elites. Foreigners drew lines that dissected living nations of Africans limb from limb for the convenience of intruders. They drew lines around prize territories in complete ignorance and contempt for the inhabitants. Then each colonial power took his prize to play with in whatever way he wished. And each one jealously guarded what was handed to him like a dog guards a bone. It was at this time and in this way that Oromia came to be in the possession of Abyssinia.

    The Oromos were trapped inside the Ethiopian Empire by a gun and a lie and a set of rules written by colonial thieves. If you ask me, the famous Berlin Conference was no better than a big poker game among robbers who were plotting to raid the riches of Africa after a few scouts had returned to tell stories about her wealth. They played with chips that were broken fragments of Africa grabbed from wherever the players could reach and stacked with other parts without rhyme or reason. The biggest prizes went to those who were the best at bluffing and lying about their claims to certain regions. It was not only Europeans who played this game. Abyssinians played also. Abyssinians have always been expert at bluffing.
    They are better at it than at anything else. They could not govern themselves in unity; they could never defeat or absorb the Oromo Republic on their own, no matter how hard they tried. But once they were handed a disputed part of the pot from this gigantic poker game and given guns to “protect” it, they conquered the Oromo nation with a vengeance and then pretended that things had always been that way.

    The greatest outrage of all is the Abyssinian lie that their claims to the region went back to the beginning of time. Ever since they finally conquered the Oromos, the Abyssinians have been worried that the Europeans were going to come and take
    away the prize that was awarded to their Kings. [So] their greatest defense has been to act like that old poker game was a convention of the saints and the rules of thieves were created to protect the “sacred principles of unity and justice.”

    No one has been so dependent on the rule of thieves as the Abyssinians, so [no] one needed to defend them as strongly. when Haile Selassie used the League of Nations to try to hold onto his Empire, the Europeans were amazed and pleased and flattered that someone had taken their old game seriously. They supported Haile Selassie when he cried that Italy was a bully trying to take his piece away from him (but no one was more of a bully than the Emperor to the people inside his empire). When the British stepped in to defend the Emperor’s position and the Italians left, the Oromos were locked in for another fifty years.

    Let me make one footnote here. No colonialism is good. But some types have lasted longer than others. That is the one difference to the Oromos if the Italians had stayed. Former colonies of the Europeans have obtained their independence. The colonies of the Abyssinians have not. And Abyssinian fascism is not less torturous than Italian fascism.

    Later, Haile Selassie tried to use the Organization of African Unity as a platform to hold onto his empire just as he had used the League of Nations. He even invited the OAU to have its headquarters in Addis Ababa. And he began to talk about the importance of “territorial integrity” of the colonial pieces of Africa just as he had used the idea of “collective security” to protect his empire [at the League of Nations].

    Understanding that each of the African Heads of State had inherited a colonial territory, and along with it, the problems, Haile Sellasie calculated that they would not question the terms of the Will and risk losing their inheritance. That is why the Emperor constantly warned them of what might happen to
    Africa if the colonial boundaries were disrespected.

    Can you imagine the colonialist and those seeking their independence sitting together and deciding the future of the African people? Yes I can. It can only happen if one party is aware and the other doesn’t know. Haile Sellasie was the only one who really knew about the nature of Ethiopia when he sat with Africans who did not. (It was truly a case of one rotten apple spoiling the rest!) I am sure that he had no better way to guarantee his holdings than by threatening everyone else’s and making the OAU into a kind of a Shrine honoring the Europeans’ fragmentation of Africa.

    Today in honor of Haile Sellasie, his successor, Emperor-Comared Mengistu Haile Mariam, also Chairman of the OAU, repeats this concern by preaching about the importance of “non-interference in internal affairs of Africa” (especially the people of Africa are not to interfere), and warns about the “Indivisibility of Ethiopian Unity.” (This is nothing new; this is something we have heard before!)
    The essence of this warning is to frighten people with the issue of fragmentation. And if you really think about it, there is no other group that argues more desperately about the evils of “fragmentation” than Ethiopians with an empire to keep together.

    When Africa was broken up and nations splintered into fragments, so was the Republic of Oromia. That was a terrible loss to Africa. The Oromos had a democracy under the Gadaa method of government. This was before the Abyssinians arrived armed with Remington rifles. They defeated the Oromo armies and gunned down hundreds of thousands of Oromos.It has to be one of the worst slaughters and series of uneven battles ever fought in the history of the world.

    From that time of conquest until now, every sign of unity, cooperation and camaraderie among Oromos has caused panic and alarm in the hearts of Abyssinians. This is because they know what they are guilty of doing to the Oromos. The Gadaa
    system of assemblies and lawmaking was outlawed mainly because the Gadaa unified the Oromos in Politics, Economics, and Religion.

    Oromos share every experience of colonized Africans. Oromos were not allowed to move around on their own territory after the formation of Ethiopia. Instead they had to stay and till their own farms and pastures for any one who arrived from Abyssinia with a gun and piece of paper in a foreign language saying he owned the land. Thereafter the people on it had to give up to him everything they grew. If they refused, they were dealt with by the same armed landlords. Oromo land and people were divided into Provinces, Awarjas, and Woredas. Nobody in the international community cried out about “fragmentation” then when the real fragmentation took place.

    But when the Oromos organize themselves to throw off the terrible yoke that has been tied on their necks for a full one hundred years, certain groups become very concerned about “fragmentation” and “economic in-viability of small entities.” It should not surprise anyone to learn that the ones who are especially concerned about these issues are the sons and daughters of the armed landlords,
    the “neftennas.”

    Now I ask you, how can anyone who has looked at the present condition of chaos in Ethiopia find the arrogance to say that they are worried that “fragmentation” could bring disaster? If this is not disaster, what is it? Definitely, it is a disaster impossible to exaggerate, and it is caused by colonial policy. The present crisis is so severe that seven million people are in danger of death by starvation and the rest are terrified of being destroyed by bombers. How can people stand by witnessing the holocaust of the 1980’s and continue to defend the old colonial empire?

    I have been thinking a lot about why the world can be so concerned about Ethiopia and so quiet about the real problem that the people inside are facing. The West is quiet about the problem because they created it. The East is quiet about the problem because they are sustaining it now. Africans are quiet because they are afraid. People who live in glass houses cannot throw stones. Therefore they sit in the OAU and sip champagne while Mengistu is bombing Eritrea, Somalia, Oromia and Tigray and declare that Ethiopia’s problem is due to “natural catastrophe.”

    In my opinion, all of Africa inherited the problem on the day that they agreed not to redraw the colonial boundaries according to an African logic in order to express real African unity. Is it not true that Europeans were more interested in the size of the holding when they entered and drew the lines without considering the ethnic composition of the holding? Look at the Somalis, divided among the Italians, the British, the French, and the Abyssinians. Isn’t the problem of Africa the problem of fragmentation then rather than now? Isn’t the “problem” we see a “problem” of the people wanting to be united who have been torn apart? Isn’t it when the people reject that division that the war begins? Yes, it is.

    I would go further and say that if Africans had redrawn their map the economic
    crisis that they are facing would not have existed and they would be able to take a proper position based on African unity. But the regimes over Ethiopia’s empire must argue to maintain the colonial boundaries because Ethiopia herself is a colonial empire that she wants to keep. The others made a mistake to follow her.

    Redrawing the map is not supported by the former colonial masters. Why? Because if Africa redraws her map, both the East and the West would lose their big markets for weapons systems and Africa would turn to research and development on her own. Why does Africa need weapons systems anyway? To protect herself from the U.S.A? The U.S.S.R or Britain or France? For that matter, Israel? Could she defend herself against any of the great powers even with unlimited investment in weapons? No. She could not. Therefore it is obvious that she needs the weapons to suppress mass discontent and to use against her neighbors and against colonial subjects. All are problems caused by accepting the colonial boundaries. I won’t go into which country is against which because that is easy to find out in the media. The point I am trying to make, however, is that African society has been disintegrated by the colonialism that followed the Berlin Conference–usually referred to as European Colonialism by people who forget that Abyssinia was also in that club. That map is still maintained by European, America, and Soviet Bloc aid. To focus particularly on the Horn of Africa, the trouble we see in Ethiopia’s empire today is the people’s expression of dissatisfaction with that arrangement and their wishes to be reunited.

    I would say that it is the responsibility of Europeans who have created the problem to realize it and stop aiding the empire and to get involved in aiding to rebuild what was destroyed rather than sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the OAU to lead them in a proper direction. (Of course if the West has a
    long-range plan to reconquer, they cannot do that, but otherwise they could and they should.)

    I understand that it is very difficult for the West to go against the situation that they created. They have made the Ethiopians the token blacks for the international community for a century now. People are afraid to say or do anything against it. If Africans say that Abyssinians are colonizers and should be out of their colonial position, those Africans are labelled against African unity or power hungry. If a white person says it, that person is labelled a racist. (Definitely the Abyssinians have enjoyed their position and have even come to believe that they deserve to be there. As a result they not only keep quite but try to close the mouths of others.) Then who can say it? The working Oromos who suffer under the heavy burden have been saying it for years in every way possible to them.

    Let me make a closing remark. I, for one, am totally opposed to the fragmentation of a nation: that is why I support the national liberation movements. When People divide something whole into several parts and then annex each piece to a different entity and call that “unity,” just like the Ethiopians are doing, and when they call anything that comes after that a fragmentation, then the term “fragmentation” loses its real meaning. It becomes an empty phrase in the mouths of those who benefit from colonialism. The ones who can tell the difference between fragmentation, which is the breaking up of a nation, and decolonization, which is the breaking up of an empire, are the colonial subjects themselves. We should listen to them, understand them and support them. By all standards, the Oromo issue is not an issue of fragmentation, rather it is an issue of decolonization and a process of rebuilding a nation.”

    Hordhoofa Q. Loltu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.