Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Détente in Ethiopian Civil War—or U.S. Power Play in the Horn of Africa?

Media have been reporting on a special announcement by the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) National Council, the most high-profile group representing Ethiopia’s Oromo minority internationally, to the effect that they are ending their armed struggle for a separate state.  But less widely reported is that actual Oromo fighters engaged in the armed struggle within Ethiopia reject that.  Are the Oromo really laying down their arms?  Who really represents the Oromo?  And does this statement from an American exile group claiming to speak for Oromo in Ethiopia reflect a new phase in Ethiopia’s stabilization, or is it merely a reverberation from a United States power play in the Horn of Africa?

The OLF statement, released on January 1st and announcing the results of its December 30-31 meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, states that the Council “has examined all aspects of the Oromo peoples’ struggle; the political program of the OLF; the current conditions of the Ethiopian peoples under the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi; and the importance of working with all democratic forces in Ethiopia to end the suffering.  ...  The New OLF political program will accept the new federal democratic republic of Ethiopia that will work for the betterment of all of its citizens, neighboring countries and international communities.  ...  Therefore, we call upon all Oromo political forces and other forces in Ethiopia to join us to implement this new vision.  The OLF National Council also appeals to International Community to stop supporting the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi’s regime that has engaged in terrorizing the Ethiopian people, selling the precious resources of the country to the highest bidders, and the government that does not respect the principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law.”  (You can read the entire OLF press release here.)

Map showing the aspirant nation of Oromia within what is now Ethiopia

But while the Minneapolis meeting was still going on, the United Liberation Forces of Oromiyya (ULFO), from within Ethiopia, released an announcement on the Oromo Parliamentarians Council (OPC) website titled “Response to the Current Onslaught on the Oromo Liberation Struggle.”  The statement essentially implies that the OLF, despite their anti-regime language, are beholden to the status quo and accuses the OLF of “fashion[ing] a pseudo shared political platform as a concerted effort to distort the history and the object of Oromo political struggle ... under the guise of ‘uniting all political opposition groups against the regime of Meles Zenawi.’”  (You can read the full ULFO statement here.) Other regional media have also questioned the significance of the announcement, and the Ethiopian government has not responded to it.

As is usual with these complex topics, a brief history lesson is in order.

Ethiopia is a country with no ethnic majority.  The Oromo are the largest group, making up 34.5% of the population.  The Amhara, with 26.9%, are the next largest, while the rest of the population is made up of dozens of groups with a 10% share or smaller.  Emperor Haile Selassie, the national hero (and international hero to the African diaspora), who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was a popular uniting figure partly because he was of mixed ancestry, being from the Oromo, Amhara, and Gurage ethnic groups (the Gurage are 2.5% of the population) (in addition to being, by popular tradition, a direct descendant of the Hebrew King Solomon).

Ethiopia’s ethnic regions

In 1974, Selassie was deposed in a Communist revolution by Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose personal and ethnic background was murky but who followed Selassie in using Amharic as the federal language of business and thus reserving a prominent place for Amhara in public life.  The Communist period saw a series of calamities for Ethiopia, including a fracturing along ethnic lines.  Tigray, Oromo, Eritrean, and Ogaden groups led armed separatist struggles.  Somalia briefly invaded Ethiopia, in 1977, to try to annex the Ogaden region, which is ethnically Somali.  Most infamously, the Mengistu regime in the 1980s used one of the worst famines of modern history as a weapon of war—fattening the military while choking off the flow of aid to rebel regions.

Mengistu Haile Mariam

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its aid to Ethiopia ended abruptly, Mengistu fled to exile in Zimbabwe, and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a multi-ethnic anti-Communist rebel group, moved into Addis Ababa, the capital, and took power, with no Soviet troops even to slow them down.  (Soon after, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia with international recognition, reinscribing the old line between Italian Eritrea and British-ruled Ethiopia.  See my recent blog post on African colonial boundaries for some context.)  Meles Zenawi was installed as Ethiopian prime minister, a post he still holds.  Meles is a member of the Tigray ethnic group (6.1% of the population), and indeed the EPRDF was originally a coaliton of several Mengistu-era rebel groups, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the OLF, as well as an anti-Communist Amhara militia.  However, the OLF departed the new EPRDF government soon after it took power, leaving a ruling party disproportionately dominated by Tigrays; ULFO even bluntly calls it a TPLF government.  The largely ceremonial presidency is currently filled by Girma Wolde-Giorgis, an Oromo.  Amhara retain a role mostly because their homeland includes the capital and their mother tongue is the language of government, but the association of them with former regimes leaves them out of the political spotlight so as not to provoke long-standing ethnic resentments.

Meles Zenawi

Meles’s Ethiopia is a nominally free and multi-party state but—while not quite the dictatorship the statements quoted above make it out to be—is in reality a deeply flawed, corrupt, and ethnically unbalanced democracy.  Its apparent unity, especially compared to its neighbors, belies divisions just below the surface.  Only Somalia’s own dysfunctionality prevents a revival of war in the Ogaden region, and only the current alliance between Amharas and Tigrays in the Ethiopian federal government prevents full-blown separatist struggles from leaving the country divided as it was in the 1980s.  In June, the Ethiopian government had issued a list of terrorist groups operating in the country, including the OLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, Al-Shabab, and a multi-ethnic civic organization it dislikes calls Ginbot 7.  Western governments, indeed, are happy to support the central government, whatever its shortcomings, rather than risk a second failed state in the region, alongside—yes literally alongside—Somalia (see map below).  Indeed, an argument can be made that Western, especially U.S., efforts to control and contain and where possible exploit separatist tensions in the Horn of Africa may be a subtext behind the current split in the Oromo community, with rebels on the ground vowing to continue the fight and activists in the diaspora criticizing Meles but willing to focus on the possibility—and let’s be clear, it is only a possibility—of a free, democratic, and multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

The flag of Ethiopia

But what is behind this sudden conversion of one faction of Ethiopia’s last remaining serious rebel movement?  An observer could be forgiven for wondering whether there is a U.S. power play behind this move by the U.S.-based OLF National Council exile movement (which, although it is hard to tell, is probably distinct from what goes on at  the OLF headquarters in Asmara, Eritrea).  To understanding if or why this could be the case, it’s necessary to look at U.S. interests in the region since the Cold War.

By 1974, when Ethiopia became Marxist, Somalia had for five years already been in the grip of the coup leader Mohammed Siad Barre, under a more moderate Socialist banner.  Barre’s infatuation with Communism soured after the Soviet Union helped Ethiopia win the 1977 war with Somalia over the Ogaden region.  After this, Barre began courting the U.S., which, not minding terribly much that Somalia was a socialist dictatorship, mostly wanted to seize the opportunity to partially encircle the Soviet client state of Ethiopia.  The U.S. poured military aid into Somalia, while, according to the U.S.’s Somali allies, Ethiopia supported rebel factions throughout Somalia in an attempt to destabilize it.  Around the time Ethiopian Communism fell in 1991, Somalia imploded, resulting in the Somali Civil War and the disastrous U.S. intervention there during President George H. W. Bush Sr.’s administration.  Although Ethiopia was no longer an ideological enemy, the U.S. has since sought to prop up what passed for a unity government in Somalia, even as bits of it like Somaliland and Puntland split away (see map below).  Today the U.S., with the rest of the international community, recognizes only the so-called Transitional Federal Government—I say “so-called” because it controls little more than much of the capital, Mogadishu.  During Bill Clinton’s presidency, and especially after the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993, the U.S. became concerned that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations had found a haven both in the chaos of Somalia and in neighboring Sudan.  Comfortable with Puntland and Somaliland as stable pseudo-states which did not allow Al-Qaeda to operate there, the U.S. began to focus, vainly, on helping the TFG control central and southern Somalia.

Areas of control in Somalia today

The orchestration of South Sudan’s secession from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011—a process initiated under President George W. Bush, and then completed under Barack Obama—can also be seen as a deliberate crippling of the terrorist-harboring regime of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum.  With South Sudan now a U.S. client state (without the U.S. it would not exist), and with the rump Sudan under ongoing international pressure for its human-rights abuses in Darfur and elsewhere, the past few months have also seen a major U.S.-led offensive to root out the al-Qaeda-aligned terrorist al-Shabab network which controls much of southern Somalia.  In early 2011, the very southwesternmost region of Somalia—calling itself by a variety of names, including Azania, Jubaland, and even “Greenland”—attempted to set up an autonomous region and de facto independent state on the model of Somaliland and Puntland, specifically as a bulwark against al-Shabab.  However, soon after, in the fall, a U.S.-supported invasion across the Somali border by Kenya put the kind of pressure on al-Shabab from the south that the U.S.-supported TFG never could from the north.  Meanwhile, just in the past couple weeks, Ethiopia invaded southern Somalia as well, capturing some border regions and further tightening the noose on al-Shabab.  Clearly, this represents a recent diplomatic success by the U.S. in securing Ethiopia as an at least temporary ally.  Surely the U.S.-supported international sanctions current embargoing Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea for supposedly backing al-Shabab helped ingratiate Ethiopia to the U.S.

The 2011 Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia

All of these events have helped transform the Horn of Africa, in a few short years, from a country with vast swaths of territory in the control of violent Islamists into an area with U.S. allies in the form of South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia (at least the southern half), and, now, perhaps, Ethiopia, all fighting alongside the U.S. against al-Shabab.  Perhaps the U.S. hopes that this latest defection of one Oromo faction from separatist rebellion to unity government in some sort of emerging alliance with an Amhara- and Tigray-dominated government in Addis Ababa will be one of the puzzle pieces that helps consolidate the Horn of Africa, in these uncertain times of Muslim upheaval around the world, into a more or less safe region for American interests.  Perhaps one side effect of this will be that the U.S. helps usher Ethiopia away from authoritarianism and toward becoming an ethnically unified country that is a stabilizing force in the region.  But it may be a gamble.  And, if it fails, Somalia may eventually succeed in dragging Ethiopia down into its own familiar chaos.

Members of the Oromo diaspora in the U.S. display their ethnic flag at a demonstration
[You can read more about Oromia and other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

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