Last week, the editor of this website had a candid, open, and unguarded conversation with a friend and professional acquaintance who has worked with the American and British governments and currently works in Kenya, but what he does will not be divulged. The editor asked for permission to publish some details of the conversation, subject to respecting dialogues that he (the acquaintance) does not want to be published. The editor got the permission but on the premise of not revealing his (the acquaintance) name, or any personally identifiable information.
In the following conversation, italics and bold have been used to show emphasis as per the discretion of the editor. This conversation will help shed some light on some of the issues that drive conflicts, misunderstandings, and diplomatic tensions in the Eastern Africa region, which covers the Horn of Africa (HoA), East Africa Community (EAC), and Mozambique (which is part of SADC). Most importantly, this was a conversation, not an interview. The reproduction of the conversation has been done to be as accurate as possible, and omit dialogues that the editor was asked to never publish.
The conversation started with a discussion about the regional crisis in Eastern Africa, and how regional bodies like EAC and AU are handling it. The topic of Kenya’s role in helping solve the existing crisis came up. To this, he explained that lots of people in EAC are displeased with the way Abiy’s government removed almost all Tigrayans from government posts and security forces. He also explained that another bone of contention was Abiy’s embrace of Eritrea, and harming Kenya’s interests in Somalia. However, he stated that Kenya cannot openly express its displeasure without involving EAC. He explained it as follows:
“If Kenya wants to express its displeasure with Ethiopia, then Kenya must work within the framework of Jumuiya (Kiswahili designation for EAC). Kenya cannot condemn Abiy’s administration because there exist some pacts between the 2 nations. At the moment, Kenya must follow the diplomatic norms set by the AU (African Union) regarding respect for political autonomy and territorial integrity of African nations when speaking about other African nations in international fora. However, as much as Kenya is forced by AU norms and protocols to defend the political autonomy and territorial integrity of Ethiopia in public statements, our interest must also be factored in. This is best done by using these same international fora and UN platforms to get Ethiopia to lift the terror tag that its parliament has placed on TPLF and OLA. Lifting this terrorist tag will enable Kenya to openly call for dialogue between Abiy and the TPLF. Also, to build goodwill, we need to call on Abiy to negotiate with all armed actors in Ethiopia. In the current crisis, dialogue between Abiy and TPLF should be done outside Ethiopia, preferably in any nation in Jumuiya or SADC. This will also allow TPLF cadres to easily visit EAC nations, and openly work with our governments and allied governments. If Abiy rejects negotiations to be led by AU, then he risks himself. We know what happened to Gaddafi when he thought that AU and Arab League just exist to be seen”.
TPLF and OLA were proscribed in 2020 as terrorist organizations. In a related matter, RPF got an opportunity to win the war in Rwanda (with Uganda’s backing) after dialogues were started with the elected Hutu-majority government. RPF used the ploy of US-backed negotiations for a ceasefire to fight its way to power in 1994. About the pacts, the main pact spoken about is the Ethiopia-Kenya mutual defense pact that was signed by Emperor Haile Selassie and Jomo Kenyatta, and later renewed by Meles Zenawi. It has not been ratified or renewed by the Abiy administration, which has instead pursued a defense pact with Somalia. When asked about this state of affairs, he answered as follows:
“Abiy is an oddball. He has allied himself with Somalis and Eritreans, both people who want Ethiopia to be destroyed. We are not even sure about Abiy’s real intentions. He may be setting up Amhara and Tigrayans to fight each other so that they weaken themselves. This way, they cannot oppose Oromo expansion which will take place before Oromo secession from Ethiopia”. He then asked a telling question “Do those Somalis who Abiy has allied himself with support his idea of One Ethiopia, or are they just pushing him to destroy Ethiopia? Haven’t you seen these Farmaajo allies in Kenya and Somalia openly celebrating the atrocities in Tigray and hoping for breakup of Ethiopia?”.
Tripartite Alliance of Central Powers
“Now, let us look at this so-called Tripartite Alliance, which in reality is just another name of Central Powers in the Horn (HoA) region. You know what the Central Powers did to the entire world in 1914. They plunged the world into World War 1, and the stupid Germans used their intelligence service to topple the Russian Tsar and install the bloody Bolsheviks who killed tens of millions of people and even subjugated Germans after 1945”.
“What I want you to get is that this Tripartite Alliance of Central Powers in our region should not be allowed to thrive. By the way, what value has it added to the people in the horn? Let us look at the facts. This alliance has turned Ethiopia into a large Eritrea and made it unstable like Somalia. Like Eritrea, Ethiopia is now becoming the pariah of Africa and sanctions are now being imposed on it. Can you imagine China sacrificing its regional goodwill by prioritizing its friendship with North Korea over sane international relations? That is what Ethiopia has done. It has allowed a small pariah nation to turn a large productive nation into another pariah nation. Now, let me make you laugh. Don’t you see Ethiopians celebrating this alliance that is destroying their nation? Now, even (the) African Union cannot speak sense to them”.
At this point, it was pointed out that Eritrea and Ethiopia alliance should not be considered in black-and-white terms because it is clear that the people in both nations see it as good, and even the former ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), would have pursued such an alliance should circumstances have allowed for it. He gently disagreed and then made his comparison with Somalia as follows:
“Right now, there are tribal rebels fighting against the Ethiopian government, and some like the Oromo rebels are capturing lands and establishing their own tribal rule over these areas. Ethnic differences in Ethiopia are now being settled with the force of arms, and warlords are starting to emerge just like in Somalia where the government is weak and warlords and al-Shabaab rule much of Somalia. This has never happened in Ethiopia. There have been killings of Amhara farmers by Oromo rebels, and Somalis in Ogaden are working with Somalis in Djibouti to attack and kill Afar people. This could not have happened if a sane government was in power in Ethiopia. But who do we have, a so-called leader who plunged Ethiopia into a civil war by attacking Tigray, the most peaceful region before November 2020, and now ENDF is weak and disoriented to help check tribal rebellions”.
He then added, “You can look at ENDF’s performance in Tigray and ask yourself, are these soldiers really committed to fighting, or are they demotivated and will hand over their weapons to TPLF and surrender or run away at the first opportunity?”.
Allies for Regional Peace and Stability
There was a discussion about Somalia’s politics, and he strongly hinted at Mohammed Roble, the Prime Minister of Somalia, being an ally of Kenya, and friend of what he described as “Allies for Regional Peace and Stability”. The editor later learned that these allies include United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – 3 Arab nations that have economic and security interests in EAC and HoA. For instance, 2 Egyptian companies – Al Mokawloon Al Arab and El Sewedy Electric – are building the largest dam in Tanzania – the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Station in Stiegler’s Gorge in Morogoro. The main contractor for this project is Arab Contractors (Al Mokawloon Al Arab), which is associated with the Egyptian Armed Forces. The disagreement between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning GERD is well known.
When asked about whether TPLF is being supported because USG wants to establish navy bases on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, or at least get the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to establish a presence in Eritrea. He declined to answer the question but noted that regardless of USG’s intentions, they are committed to realize their strategic goals. He then pointed out the power of media and narrative management.
Media Caused Defeat of Donald Trump and it Will Help USG Achieve its Aims
He pointed out how powerful the American media is, and how it can be used to influence policy formulations by American policymakers. He started by explaining how media can unmake leaders. He then provided the following comment:
“American media defeated Trump. It was the mainstream media (that) worked to ensure that Donald Trump lost the elections in November 2020. I will not go deep into how American politics work, but I want you to know 2 things. First, the American mass media is very powerful. If it got Trump defeated, do you think Abiy will survive? (An insinuation of the power of media narrative). I may not know much, but what I know is that Abiy and his supporters will enjoy a media blackout. Let their information and views be reported by some unknown media entities or propaganda news outlets associated with Russia and China. Have these Chinese, Russian, and Conspiracy media ever saved any country?” He asked rhetorically.
We then got to the next point:
“The second thing that you need to know is that Trump lacked an Africa policy because he never filled many vacancies in the Bureau of African Affairs in the State Department. Trump gave Africa a wide berth, but Joe Biden has filled all those positions and they need to prove themselves”.
At this point, he asked an interesting rhetorical question and then gave thought-provoking hints:
“You know that by December 2020, TPLF was on their back foot, and even in March 2021 after Biden was in office, TPLF was still on a back foot. Everything changed in June 2021 when TDF emerged from nowhere and defeated ENDF in Tigray. So, ask yourself, how did TDF, which did not exist in March 2021, suddenly emerge as a powerful army to shock the entire world by defeating ENDF? I cannot give you the answer, but you need to understand that not everyone working with Abiy wants him to win this war. What TDF was expected to do was to march into Mekelle and show the media the atrocities done by Abiy’s soldiers. Instead, what we got was TDF marching thousands of ENDF captives in Mekelle. I think this was wrong, but looked like Tigrayans wanted to project an image of being more powerful than Abiy. If we instead got images of starving mothers and dying children, the R2P would have kicked in, and Abiy would be out by now”.
R2P stands for responsibility to protect, and it is one of the humanitarian policies that can be used to justify military intervention to oust a government that is committing grave human rights abuses. Relatedly, TPLF states that TDF was formed in November 2020, which contradicts the statement that it did not exist in March 2021.
Can TPLF Create Rebel Groups to Build a Rebel Coalition?
The conversation shifted to who will win and who will lose in this conflict. To this, he responded as follows:
“The losers in this civil war in Ethiopia are Amhara people who I believe are being set up by Abiy and his Oromo allies. I think they are being set up to be surrounded by enemies – Oromo and Gumuz to the south, Tigrayans to the North, and Sudan to the West. Also, if (the) Afar Republic is formed, then Amhara will be surrounded on all sides by people opposed to them.”
When asked about what interests Oromo people have in driving Ethiopia towards state collapse. He answered as follows:
“Oromo people have grievances and most of them believe that they should have their own nation. The current civil war works well for them because it weakens ENDF, and Oromo soldiers are not that enthusiastic about fighting TPLF or dying for a nation that they believe lacks legitimacy to protect their interests. I am surprised that TPLF has not turned their prisoners of war into new armed outfits to fight ENDF. Some of my colleagues believe that TPLF will be well-served if it builds rebel outfits from its prisoners of war because these captives already have military training and understand weaknesses in ENDF. Think of it this way, TPLF should be able to group captured Gumuz soldiers and tell them to build an armed rebel outfit dedicated to promoting their ethnic interests. So, we can have the Gumuz National Liberation Front created out of former ENDF soldiers. TPLF can do the same with Southern tribes which are called Southern Nationalities, and we get the Southern Nationalities Liberation Front. They can do the same with captured Somali soldiers and we get the Somali National Liberation Front. I hope you get the idea, and it is quite easy in my view because these soldiers-turned-rebels will take ownership of these rebel groups and be their public face. A Gumuz soldier-turned-rebel leader being the public face of Gumuz rebels (can) make the rebellion popular in their ethnic homeland. This way, TPLF can craft a rebel coalition that will support its goals”.
He admitted that TPLF has some very unsavory people, but justified his support for TPLF by noting that the protection of vital interests in any polity cannot really be justified on moral grounds. He continued the conversation by revealing that:
“We know what is happening inside Ethiopia. We have people inside the governments of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea who have lost faith in their governments, and are working with us and our allies to change the political course in their nations. Some of these people are our harshest critics in the public media, but we allow them to use Kenyan financial systems and even host their families and relatives here. We know about the battlefield losses being suffered by ENDF, EDF, TPLF, and the militias. If need be, we will flex our diplomatic and economic muscles by working with our friends in EU, US, and the Arab League to give TPLF some support”.
He then asked a rhetorical question, “why do you think Turkey is publicly denying (the) sale of drones to Abiy?”, and then continued that “China has been warned that it risks its investments in Jumuiya if it makes wrong moves in the Horn region. China understands that it is replaceable as an investment partner, and it has a choice to make. Does it need Abiy, or will it hedge its bets with us? Remember, China has signed a US$50 billion contract with DRC. Can Ethiopia provide comparable economic value? For Ethiopians, they will have to choose between poverty or working with the West. Ethiopia is heavily reliant on remittances that come from the West, not from China or Russia or India. In fact, China is not a friend of Africa; and for Ethiopia, the Chinese are taking away their foreign reserve, a net loss for Ethiopia”. He then added: “If you look at it, even the biggest critics of American policies on (towards) Ethiopia (sic) tend to live in the West. Do you think they will want to be sanctioned by Americans or Europeans? Why don’t they migrate and go make money in China?”.
So far, China has maintained a low public profile concerning the Ethiopian crisis, with the exception of publicly supporting GoE in the UNSC while calling for a negotiated settlement to the crisis, even welcoming the African Union’s intervention to help end this conflict. As explained in a previous post, the best way to read the Chinese ‘perception’ of a government is to find out if it is investing more or less in the nation.
From this conversation, one can deduce that the Ethiopian crisis has a great power rivalry component to it, with China being enticed to intervene on GoE’s side or be seen as an unreliable partner whose Africa policies are profit-driven. If China intervenes and it loses the war, then the Quad Alliance will be emboldened to openly challenge Chinese power in the Asian theater. Even so, Quad has India as one of its members, and India has defended Ethiopia in the UNSC. Still, India’s policy towards the Ethiopian crisis will be driven principally by the need to align its (India) policies with those of EAC and SADC where India’s interest in Sub-Saharan Africa are concentrated. India has deep ties with EAC and SADC; for instance, the Governor of India’s Central Bank from 2016-2018, Urjit Patel, is Kenyan.
Cushitic Alliance and Fake Pan-Africanism
The next subject of the conversation was how SADC and EAC can work with Ethiopia and its neighboring nations so as to promote their collective well-being. To this, he disagreed that EAC and SADC can work with HoA on any regional framework, and he explained himself as follows:
“Have you seen demonstrations in American and European cities that are held in support of the Ethiopian government? How many Africans outside the horn region do you see participating in those demonstrations? Do Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis demonstrate with East Africans in the West when they are protesting against unfair western policies? How many Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis walked side-by-side with Congolese to show their support for peace in DRC? You can also look at it this way, how many Africans care about Abiy? How many outside the Horn show him support in Social Media, or in public statements?”.
He then became more forthright and said:
“The so-called tripartite alliance of Ethiopians, Somalis, and Eritreans is called a Cushitic Alliance for a reason. It differentiates them from us and you can see that these 3 tyrants are weakening IGAD. They don’t believe in regional cooperation, (and) they are only out to create havoc and chaos in this part of Africa. We don’t want anything to do with such an alliance. In fact, if it is destroyed, the better for our region. This fake pan-Africanism being expressed by Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis is just that, fake pan-Africanism. They realize that they are in trouble and they now want to drag other Africans into their trouble, but we see through it. Right now, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia need us, but we do not need them“. When asked if any country in Jumuiya will host the so-called Government-in-Exile (GiE) of Eritrea, he requested that his answer should not be published, and his request is upheld.
Equally, he explained why he values TPLF:
“TPLF was good for the region. It understood our security needs and worked with us to advance our collective security. It did not have petulant foreign policies like the current administration in Addis. Since 2019, Abiy’s administration has been undermining AMISOM’s unity, and I was not shocked to see some Ethiopians, Somalis, and Eritreans join hands to call for the expulsion of AMISOM from Somalia. They consider AMISOM as outside their Cushitic Alliance, so why should we care much about them. TPLF worked with all nations of Jumuiya in 2007-2008 when AMISOM was being created. In fact, (Meles) Zenewi garnered support for his Somalia stabilization plan in Jumuiya, and got Burundi and Uganda to commit troops to cover the exit of ENDF from Somalia starting in 2007. Zenawi stood up and fought to save the lives of East Africans by destroying the terrorists in Somalia. As East Africans, we must show appreciation, Zenawi fought to defend us and we must now help defend his people in Tigray. You cannot compare EPRDF to this Abiy-Farmaajo axis that disrespects AMISOM and its sacrifices. Without AMISOM there would have been no government in Somalia”.
“Now, Farmaajo thinks he can bring in Eritrean soldiers to replace AMISOM. That is not even considering the fact that Farmaajo is fighting East Africa by attacking our soldiers in AMISOM and civilians in Kenya, and lately in Mozambique. Farmaajo should not be in power right now, and this duo of Abiy Ahmed and Isayas Afewerki must be removed from power”.
This statement is quite similar to the statements made by the late Seyoum Mesfin Gebredingel, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, who said: “Let Isaias and Abiy make no mistake that the Ethiopian people will not be observing from a sideline when Isaias and Abiy are creating havoc and initiating (a) civil war in Ethiopia. The early removal of these actors is a must, is a must, because it will complicate matter(s)”.
He continued to explain why he supported Zenawi:
“We, as East Africans, are grateful to Meles Zenawi for taking up the mantle of protecting regional security in 2006 when he marched ENDF into Somalia to oust the terrorists of ICU (Islamic Courts Union) who can be compared to Taliban because they were acceptable to some people who do not have our interests at heart. It was the destruction of (the) ICU (it was also described as the Union of Islamic Courts[UIC]) that created al-Shabaab, which can be likened to the violent ISIS…(that) Arabs and Somalis in Kenya fear to publicly support. Basically, Meles destroyed a Taliban that would have become stronger, and from its destruction allowed a Somali version of ISIS to arise, and he then brought our nations together to fight this ISIS. This is what AMISOM is, a regional alliance that works with the EU and America to ensure that the threat of Islamic terrorism emanating from Somalia is walled in Somalia. Abiy wants to break down this wall, and unleash jihadis from Somalia into East Africa. We cannot agree to that. He (Abiy) should go, he has caused enough damage already”.
He then added that “TPLF is still reaping from the genius of Meles Zenawi because the regional goodwill (that) Zenawi created through AMISOM and regional cooperation with nations like Sudan are now serving the TDF well as Sudan secretly supports TDF, and Jumuiya nations greatly sympathize with the plight of the Tigray people”.
Prognosis of the Conflict
Asked about how he thinks the conflict in Ethiopia will play out for the rest of the year, he said: “Our projections are that Abiy’s administration will have collapsed by December 2021, and we will have a new dispensation in the Horn region by May 2022”. (It turned out different, though, in May 2022, Farmaajo was constitutionally removed from power in Somalia through an election).
Asking him about these confident projections and almost fixed timelines, the answers were quite straightforward and he explained candidly as follows:
“Jumuiya has 2 nations that border Ethiopia – Kenya and South Sudan, and Sudan is working with Egypt to help us manage a potential crisis that can affect Jumuiya. So far, this funny (tripartite) alliance is surrounded to the south and west by Jumuiya and Sudan, and to its east and north is the Indian Ocean and Red Sea; and none of these 3 nations (in the tripartite alliance) has any notable navy to challenge a naval blockade, or even prevent outside navies from challenging their control over these waters. Also, they can be weakened financially if Americans sanction the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, and freezes its assets held in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York”.
Asked if such sanctions will be counterproductive and push Ethiopians to protest against unfair treatment. His answer was:
“Ethiopia is not at the same level as America, and this form of punishment should also serve as a warning to those countries in Africa who think that being rogue states is some sort of achievement. Also, if Ethiopian assets are frozen, then it will lack money to buy weapons and the Birr will collapse, which in my opinion is fine because the countries that will emerge from Ethiopia will not need the Birr“.
Asked about his confidence that punishing sanctions will be imposed on Ethiopia, his answers were as follows:
“Let me assure you of one thing, the US will impose an arms embargo on Abiy and Afwerki, and Somalia is already under an arms embargo. We will see if the Chinese and Russians are truly committed to Abiy by coming to his aid. At least, we know that Kenya, Sudan, and South Sudan will not covertly supply weapons to them. What needs to happen after sanctions are imposed is for TDF to capture ENDF’s heavy armaments because ENDF will not have a chance to replenish its losses. Moreover, TDF will be subject to (the) same sanctions, but they will think of a way around it. This way, TDF will do what TPLF needed to do in November (2020), and that is to march into Addis (Ababa)“.
“For Somalia, the problem is Farmaajo and if he is replaced by another leader who will exit the Tripartite Alliance and work with Egypt, then the alliance will be reduced to 2 parties – Abiy’s and Isayas’ administrations, which will then be joined at the hip. If one of them falls, then the other falls. If economic sanctions punish Eritrea, and TPLF weakens the Eritrean military, then Eritrea cannot come to Ethiopia’s help when a coalition of rebels made up of Oromos, Somalis, Gumuz, Tigrayans, and people from Southern Ethiopia surround Addis Ababa and topple the government of Abiy Ahmed. Also, remember that TPLF securing access to the Red Sea through Eritrea is critical to establishing supply lines for weapons”.
When asked about what he expects to happen if Abiy falls, his answer was:
“What happens from there, we cannot know. But we hope for an independent Tigray that will work with Jumuiya. If Oromo people decide to work with Jumuiya, then well and good. (Still), in my personal opinion, Jumuiya is best served if Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea are broken up into statelets; and Tigray becomes a powerful nation that can work with Jumuiya to help contain Islamist violence and refugee crisis in the Horn region. Moreover, breaking these nations into small states will address a potential refugee crisis because tribes will have their own countries where they can live in, and not run away from. This way, there will be very few refugees from the collapse of these 3 countries, and this will address the concerns of our Arab and European allies who do not want refugees flocking into their countries”.
He then continued:
“For us in East Africa, we can have Sidama and Gedeo nations serve as our northern barrier to prevent violence from spilling from Oromia into Kenya. Additionally, if Sidama, Gumuz, and Gedeo governments ask EAC to help them, we can see if they can be helped. About the Tigray Republic, we hope that TDF will be working with EAC. Also, don’t forget that most of the newly created Christian(-majority) nations will be strong allies of America and Europe, which is why you see Americans and Europeans are not much concerned about peaceful breakup of Ethiopia, which can only happen through a referendum held when rebels form the next government. This is the best option as compared to the evil tripartite axis of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia bedeviling this region”.