Accusing Ethiopia of Undermining the AU is a Futile Attempt to Assault its Standing in the International Community 

Avatar: Zerihun Addisu
Zerihun AddisuDecember 17, 2020
Accusing Ethiopia of Undermining the AU is a Futile Attempt to Assault its Standing in the International Community 

I am writing this as a response to Alex Dewaal’s piece on BBC with the  headline “Ethiopia is undermining the African Union''. I find it factually unsubstantiated and an outright denial of Ethiopia’s immense contribution and active role in the international community. It also fails to reflect the realities on the ground and the enormous challenges it is facing internally. Furthermore, it jeopardizes Ethiopia’s fundamental interest as he engages in a character assassination of a nation which has been a stalwart and firm believer of multilateralism at regional and global levels. 


Despite its leaders and regimes having a terrible record of upholding democratic values and human right principles, successive rulers have shown Ethiopia’s commitment as nothing but remarkable. Haile Selassie was instrumental in founding the OAU, Mengistu maintained Ethiopia’s commitment and helped train Mugabe in its anti colonial struggle against the British Rhodesia; Meles passionately defended Ethiopia’s position and the seat of the OAU/AU headquarters being in Addis Ababa when he was facing skepticism from some African critics. 


Furthermore, Ethiopia is a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations when much of the rest of the third World was not even enjoying the status of statehood and sovereignty and had no trust in joining any forums initiated by western colonial powers. This was a true testament to its unwavering commitment to the collective security and solidarity of the international community of peace-loving nations. 


Now under Abiy, Ethiopia has initiated and other riparian states including Egypt have accepted to negotiate under the umbrella of AU chaired by its chairperson to resolve the GERD issue and progress has been made. The UN Secretary General also welcomed the AU-led trilateral negotiation between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. 

Alex Dewaal, a close friend of TPLF and the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has become a frequent name in the international media scene where he defends the now overthrown former ruling party. De Waal is a noted expert on African security issues, and no one takes that away from him. Yet he has proven time and again that like most of foreign observers and analysts he misreads Ethiopian politics and its history.  

One should not be complicit of some western observers’ denial to admit TPLF’s brutality and condemn the overzealous attempt to assault a state’s sovereignty to ignore the massive humanitarian crisis and casualties that has been witnessed in Northern Ethiopia. The government needs to open the corridors for humanitarian and aid works and transportations and all communications need to be accessible. The danger of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides is terrifying and strict legal accountability should be in the radar. An independent investigation including by international experts should be carried out as soon as possible. Both sides need to restrain from using force when civilians are in the vicinity and women and children need to be given protection. 


As much as this writer defends Ethiopia’s position and interest, the writer also notes that Abiy has mismanaged the transition and has not delivered as per the promises he made. The institutional and legal reforms are not satisfying. His inability to render order and security is a major drawback that hinders democratic progress. Under his short tenure, the country has suffered immensely from armed violence and atrocities that killed hundreds and thousands of civilians. People have fled their homes amid fear of further attacks. Though TPLF has an active role in destabilizing the country, other armed forces like OLF Shene which is based in western Wollega in Oromia is also causing havoc and atrocities. 


Abiy miscalculated its motive and clearly the terms of agreements are unknown and well-established protocols of DDR have not been followed. While the opening and liberalization of the political space is a big step in diverging from the authoritarian legacy under TPLF led EPRDF, tangible and credible measures are required to create a conducive environment for the cultivation of a nascent competitive, free, inclusive and fair multi party democratic electoral politics in the country. And TPLF ruined its golden opportunity of joining forces in this process.  


As I read Dewaal’s piece it reminds me what the esteemed scholar Samir Amin calls it a Eurocentric diagnosis of Africa’s security, political and economic problems as being treated from the western lens. Dewaal has spent his good amount of years dealing on Ethiopian and African politics and he has demonstrated that he has a strong grasp of the continent’s structural challenges. And this includes the examination of Africa’s inherent critical underpinnings within the global power structure and the world in which it is interacting with. While he has a good understanding, he lacks a good judgment and heavily suffers from the amnesia of dictating sovereign African states to manage their own business according to his doctrine. Conventional wisdom tells that this notion that says Africa needs to accept whatever the western powers dictate has been fatally catastrophic.   


Understandably, Alex Dewaal is not happy the way the Ethiopian government is conducting itself. For an expert who has spent enough time studying, consulting, and advising the TPLF machinery and their apparatus he could have lent them his generous advice and helpful critique. First, since the onset of the new administration the TPLF has been nothing but a clear and present danger to the very tranquility and peace of the country. Their detest and disdain for the new administration is well documented, and it is a public knowledge. As a close friend to the TPLF leadership, Dewaal knows this, for sure.  

Second, in his piece he deliberately avoids that the TPLF has been rejecting any initiative for peaceful resolution of the tension before it erupts into a full-blown conflict. By attacking the Northern Command, TPLF alleged to have launched a pre-emptive strike on the national army. This heinous act officially concluded the no war no peace tension that has been building since 2018. This is also a deliberate tactic to hide TPLF’s wrongs and to spare his critiques. That is a good public relation effort, though. It would have been academically fair, politically sound and morally plausible if he had the audacity to give what is due for his acquaintances; that is an honest advice to leave power peacefully and be part of the reform. But he could not as he fails to acknowledge TPLF’s brutality. Even the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn who was a hand-picked successor of Meles Zenawi firmly believes that the TPLF leadership has no moral equivalency to gain impunity for its crimes. Hence, no negotiation. This coming from a former chairperson of the party reveals the strong consensus even in the coalition itself let alone the opposition. As Tibor Nagi, the US’s Assistant Secretary for Bureau of African Affairs, has succinctly observed this common understanding among Ethiopians has helped galvanize the central government and stoke the national sentiment as a rallying force.  

Third, his harsh and unfair criticism of Ethiopia not obliging itself to the AU’s fundamental principles and values as enshrined in its Constitutive Act is utterly dangerous and very wrong. His call for invoking article 4 of the AU Act of non-indifference is a bogus claim as he himself acknowledges this landmark provision was introduced due to Ethiopia’s enormous support and a state having Ethiopia’s caliber will be able to accept intervention when it has the capacity and the resources at its disposal to render law and order is unimaginable. It is an open invitation for interference on a sovereign land. This is also a false equivalency of TPLF as a victim while it is the aggressor defying state authority which allows and even imposes an obligation on the Ethiopian government to seek assistance in the event of inability to control such disruptive incidents. 

Article 4 (j) of the Act provides for the right of Member States to request intervention from the Union in order to restore peace and security”. The Protocol on Amendments to the Constitutive Act, which was adopted in February 2003 amends Article 4 (h) by adding at the end of the sub-paragraph the words “as well as a serious threat to legitimate order to restore peace and stability to the Member State of the Union upon the recommendation of the Peace and Security Council”. As a founding member, the leading active player in the continent and as the host of the headquarter of the AU, it has initiated and availed itself to AU’s collective decision of resolving African problems through African channels and institutions; fully dedicating itself to the policy ownership and continental autonomy principle. This has been reflected in the government’s willingness to take part in any African led negotiation and diplomatic efforts. His statement citing an AU diplomatic source that “the AU is for others, not for Ethiopia” is disconnected from reality and fallacious. Even the Zimbabwean president Emerson Mnangagwa had rejected South African president’s diplomatic initiative in his effort to commence a round table talk with the opposition.  So, what is different for Ethiopia? The answer is TPLF. 


Unlike Mnangagwa Ethiopia’s government warmly welcomed the idea of having Africa led mediation under the auspices of the current AU chairperson of South Africa’s president Ramaphosa. The highly respected team of former head of states of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique) and Kgalema Motlanthe (South Africa) has produced a report praising Ethiopia’s diplomatic willingness and respectful explanations for the team. The UN Secretary General also commended the chairperson for helping to resolve this conflict. The communique of the team speaks contrary to Dewaal’s claim. While it is obvious that Ethiopia is guilty of expecting the highest standard from the host of the AU headquarter, it is completely unacceptable for it to welcome any wrong diplomatic move and interference. Anyone knows that every state has its national interest and top priorities that it cannot bargain on. This argument employs a dangerous fallacy that since Ethiopia is a host to the AU it must accept and welcome any proposition even if it hurts its interests or at least does not help the furtherance of it. This is an outright assault on a nation’s sovereign capability to examine and pass judgment to matters of its interest. Without this the existence of government and the notion of sovereignty and territorial integrity is irrelevant.  


Another important point that needs a separate deconstruction is that his argument for R2P like in Libya and the conflicts in Congo and South Sudan is a lopsided one. Unlike Libya, Ethiopia has a strong central government that is effectively capable of rendering justice and maintaining order. In Libya, the widespread protest of the Arab Spring was already shaking Ghaddafi’s throne. Obviously, his days were in number. His fate was in the hands of the protest’s leaders and the rebels. Following his death Libya has become a failed state and civil war was looming on the horizon. The inauguration of R2P lauded as a crowning achievement of Kofi Annan and a landmark that helps preserve global order has been too a victim and a tool of this Eurocentric syndrome. Though it is still debatable to measure the effectiveness of the R2P initiative in Libya, one can argue that, at least, it has averted civil war. Contrary to Ethiopia, in South Sudan both forces were on proportionally equal military capacity and as the newest country on earth, the state of South Sudan, is in a very infant stage with no viable institutions and resources.  


The current situation in Ethiopia is quite the opposite. A new government is in place following prolonged and tireless protests on the TPLF led EPRDF authoritarian rule. This change was possible because the popular protest coupled with a split in the ruling party that openly rejected TPLF’s domination and exploitation. Frustrated by the discontinuity of this hitherto unfair advantage, TPLF felt betrayed and rejected from the coalition. Since the take over by the new administration, TPLF has been nothing but an absolute roadblock to a new democratic path. 


Any observer, let alone Dewaal, knows that in its 27 years of rule there is not a single moment that TPLF entertained the very idea of resolving differences through dialogue. Even when the opposition was exerting a mounting pressure for political openness, TPLF was in a weaker position politically. Even the 2005 landmark election could not force TPLF to resort to negotiations considering the high stakes and popular demands for change that ended in a tragic act of brutality killing hundreds and arresting thousands including the opposition leaders. As usual, it ended in favour of TPLF’s narrow self interest of tight grip on power and zero-sum game politics. 


Furthermore, Alex Dewaal’s invoking of the R2P scheme is a reckless call for intervention by foreign powers on a sovereign member state of the UN and the African Union. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), set up by the Canadian Government, which issued a report entitled The Responsibility to Protect also underscores this underlying notion. The concept of R2P drew inspiration of Francis Deng’s idea of “State sovereignty as a responsibility” and affirmed the notion that sovereignty is not just protection from outside interference – rather is a matter of states having positive responsibilities for their population’s welfare, and to assist each other. As a result, the primary responsibility for the protection of its people rested first with the State itself. But, a ‘residual responsibility’ also resides with the broader community of states, which was ‘activated when a particular state is clearly either unwilling or unable to fulfil its responsibility to protect or is itself the actual perpetrator of crimes or atrocities’. This rightfully sides with Ethiopia’s government’s call for arrest of TPLF leaders to provide justice for citizens who have been victims of the atrocities in its 27 years of rule. 

This speaks volume about the deeply existing selective bias of foreign analysts and observers with their cherry picking of African and third world cases for their self serving illegitimate and unfair perpetuation of the neoliberal world order. Even in the International Criminal Court (ICC’s) cases it is Africans that are being subject to the tribunal’s attention. ICC’s bias towards Africa is casting a shadow on its unique ability as then-secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, described the court as a “gift of hope to future generations, and a giant step forward in the march towards universal human rights and the rule of law”. Ironically, the most powerful nation on earth, the US and other European powers are not signatories to the Rome Statute as they do not see it relevant since their domestic jurisprudence is superior to the rest of the world. Out of the 11 cases being investigated by the ICC, 10 are Africans.  Whereas of the 10, 5 are self-referrals-the sate initiating the case for the ICC to investigate since it is unable prosecute perpetrators of crimes genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity within the ICC jurisdiction. All arrest warrant and indictments issued are for Africans including a sitting president Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. 

This biased and totally unfair approach is producing a significant deal of discontent and rejection from the global south. It is a recent memory that the African Union called upon African states not to cooperate with the ICC, after the Security Council voted against deferring to the proceedings against the two leaders of Kenya and Sudan. This claim that ICC unfairly targets Africans is gaining tremendous traction as Burundi, South Africa and Gambia have withdrawn from the tribunal. Clearly some of these claims about the disproportionate focus by ICC are part of Africa’s undemocratic leaders exploiting this genuine complaint for self aggrandizement as a licence to lead a jail-free life after committing egregious atrocities. 

Alex Dewaal should know better that Ethiopia has been a relentless and a reliable partner and an active player in the international arena in promoting peace. His reference of ICC, R2P and the very thought of it is a tragic act of assault on its dignity and integrity. His accusation of Ethiopia undermining the AU should be seen within this broader perspective. Unless the thinking and the culture of the global elites is changed the mere introduction of sound legal frameworks for the hope of making the world a better place to live in is a distant reality. However, we are in it for the long haul. It is only possible when the laws serve us equally and fairly that our hope of building a peaceful world where freedom to live in dignity prevails.  


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A PIECE BYZerihun Addisu

Zerihun Addisu studies public policy at York University, Toronto, Canada. He is an active member of the Ethiopian community in the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, Canada and serves in various leadership capacities and roles . He frequently writes on various political issues in Ethiopia and Africa including global affairs affecting the region. Currently he serves as the policy head of the Society of Ethiopia Canada Chamber of Trade, a think-tank that works to promote business, policy innovation & development, and knowledge transfer between the two countries.