We should not underestimate the potential and lasting damage generated by the selective and illiberal use of so-called “Western values” in Africa, write Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal.
By Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal, October 8, 2021
In recent days, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in and parliament approved the cabinet of his newly elected government, although his country’s forces continue to fight an armed uprising in the geostrategically important Horn region of Africa.
This week also saw a bizarre and worrying meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) where issues concerning UN humanitarian officials allegedly supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia’s quasi-civil war in clear violation of UN strict rules on these conflicts were discussed.
Ethiopia has faced a long violent conflict in the northern region of Tigray, initially triggered by an unprovoked attack on the country’s federal forces in a northern base that saw the slaughter of thousands of troops. If such an attack took place in the West, would any country have refrained from an appropriately robust military response?
This is not the sequel Abiy would have imagined in the first three years of his relatively constructive and internationally acclaimed premiere meeting. His successful peace talks with Eritrea were deeply problematic for the more extreme-militant TPLF leadership, which could not keep quiet about Abiy’s successful conciliatory negotiations with Isaias Afwerki, the leader of Eritrea and nemesis for the TPLF leadership.
A recently leaked and published TPLF strategy, allegedly taken from the TPLF management’s offices in Mekelle, had laid plans for the unprovoked attacks. TPLF’s worldwide digital and media attack, knowledgeable and resourceful resources, will also be deployed in support of its violent terrorist operations on the ground. The TPLF posed a complex conventional and cyber threat on a scale that every developing and democratically sovereign state required international support to deter and govern.
Instead, however, the Abiy government suffered from a lack of international support and the absence of a focused on-the-spot analysis-based analysis. As a result, Ethiopia has experienced an unnecessary conflict and humanitarian crisis that has cost countless levels of pain and suffering in a poor country heading for positive change.
The international community must confront the impact of what it did does not do, as opposed to what it did. International humanitarian partners continue a very commendable effort to bring aid to Tigrayan communities, many of whom have long relied on food aid under the TPLF rule for years. But despite the wealth of credible evidence, the global silence on the TPLF’s use of child soldiers, their deliberate attacks and targeting of internally displaced persons, their misuse of humanitarian aid and the disappearance of 428 UN flatbed trucks without further investigation reveals serious issues that have not been addressed. Equally problematic is the international community’s treatment of the TPLF and the Ethiopian government as equals.
Some of these issues were raised at this week’s meeting of the UN Security Council, which discussed Ethiopia’s decision to expel seven UN officials from humanitarian agencies from the country. The meeting was an unprecedented measure pushed by some UN Security Council members. Yet the UN Security Council had never officially commented on the decisions of other national governments regarding UN agency guests in their country. This measure is based on the decision of the UN Security Council to discuss Ethiopia’s National Water Infrastructure Development Project. Some Member States have responded in particular by calling on the UN Security Council to leave such issues to the host country and its African neighbors.
By questioning whether the laws of a democratic government have been upheld or ignoring how child soldiers and displaced persons have been treated in Ethiopia relative to other countries, even in other parts of the same region, an unpleasant form of double standards has been revealed. This runs counter to the very global humanitarian and neutral values that the UN as an organization should uphold.
The UN Secretary-General has argued that Ethiopia’s deportation of UN staff was an illegal step and pointed out that the UN as an international organization should not be treated in the same way as a nation state under Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Meanwhile, internal sources have approached others to communicate their concerns about corruption of UN operations in Tigray. Only a thorough and independent examination of these issues and supporting evidence from the Ethiopian Government will bring this situation to light.
Yesterday’s UN Security Council meeting also showed the extent to which global leaders are now polarized in their views on what is happening in Ethiopia. Why this has happened is still a question that only those who know the country well and who worked there for years might understand.
The international community must be particularly careful about how it analyzes conflicts, especially when confronting productive and polarized digitized terror-inspired narratives. While different views are rightly prioritized, there seems to be a lack of coherence between facts and information that should be informative about the analysis. Critics of the Ethiopian government can rightly point out shortcomings in how it e.g. Could have handled the uprising. But they often do not place the same emphasis on the terrible violence of the TPLF uprising or the challenges facing the government, which make its response more understandable and legitimate. The end result is that the analysis often treats the government as equal to a terrorist group.
In some respects, the polarization of the narratives surrounding the Tigray conflict is not so much like two completely separate radar screens examining the same phenomena, where hits and clusters on one radar screen are simply not filtered as relevant information to the other. Readers are then faced with the difficult task of assessing what they can from the conflict, often returning to polarized narratives that seek to blame one side while completely apologizing to the other. What has been learned from experience, however, is that attitudes taken by some towards Ethiopia over the last 10 months, informed by this disruption, often constitute a “two-sided-ism” approach that blames both pages equally. Such insane foreign policy positions remain unconstructive.
The perceived and perhaps unintentional tolerance of the international community towards the violent TPLF-led rebel leaders isolated the legitimate Abiy democratic government and only intensified the insurgency. It also affected the global media and the political narrative of the conflict, which proved very difficult to change.
This is especially the case for the US political response – specifically its threat of harsh sanctions against a poor country’s government based on their unwillingness to negotiate with a terrorist rebel group. The experience has also revived feelings of distrust and anger towards the West, not only within Ethiopia’s domestic population exceeding 100 million people, but also across the very large global Ethiopian and sub-Saharan Africa diaspora community.
These new views have the potential to isolate longtime allies and partners in Africa. This also comes at a time when the world demands productive partnerships to strengthen resilient supply chains, tackle climate change and demonstrate our commitment to global justice. Ethiopia’s experience, which persists even in the wake of the debate in Afghanistan, is rapidly raising concerns in Africa about the West’s broader interests on the continent in the future.
As China’s existing trade and investment presence only expands, Kenya’s interest in African-led problem-solving now echoes through multilateral chambers, and Russia, Turkey and India’s amplified voices on state sovereignty sharing both UNSC and NATO partners, we should not underestimate the potential and lasting damage caused by the selective and illiberal use of so-called “Western values” in Africa.
The West should not worry about the willingness of the Ethiopian people to hold the new government accountable. The country’s increased national resilience, driven by the universal defense of its sovereignty and integrity, leaves Ethiopians more than ready to do so. Instead, the West must reflect on and learn from a wealth of experience from this almost year-long bloody conflict and prolonged humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. Failure to do so risks encouraging new global breaks that will be unpleasant for both the developed and developed worlds.
Ann Fitz-Gerald is Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of International Security at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Department of Political Science. She is also a senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute.
Hugh Segal is a Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, Senior Advisor at Aird & Berlis and former Chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism.