A Race To The Bottom: Ethiopia at Risk

By Aklog Birara (PhD)

As a prelude to the predictable collapse of Mengistu Hailemariam’s Socialist Military Dictatorship two years before the TPLF/EPRDF took power in 1991, the Associated Press wrote the following ominous report. “Nearly the entire high command of this Marxist government has been killed.” If you liquidate your entire defense command, it goes without saying that what follows is state and government collapse. AP could have added at the same time that, almost the entire population of Ethiopia had revolted against and rejected the regime. Today, the heroic and proud people of Gondar are making history by defying the TPLF Security and Defense apparatus that only caters to its creator, the TPLF. The peaceful and honorable protestors urged all Ethiopians to join the popular struggle for justice, genuine equality, national unity and sovereignty and a rapid transition to a democratic state and government. The people of Ethiopia are speaking with a loud and unified voice that the TPLF repressive state and government machine is no longer acceptable. Political elites and opposition groups better wake up from their slumber that the people are far ahead and unify their assets.

From this popular revolt that defied the cruel and punishment prone TPLF state and government machine we learn that a regime that does not capture the hearts and minds of the population that it governs has essentially lost the legitimacy to rule. No one respects it; let alone accept it. Its downfall is therefore predictable. My interest is this. This loss of the social and human capital base created and nurtured by the TPLF makes Ethiopia vulnerable regardless of the security and defense establishment the current ruling party deploys. This bloated, well-paid, well-endowed narrow ethnic based Security, Defense and Diplomatic machine is no longer invincible. Nevertheless, it has enormous capacity to kill Ethiopians. It had earlier failed to preserve Ethiopia’s access to the sea. It had abandoned its obligation to defend Ethiopia’s territorial integrity with the Sudan. It had failed to defend Gambella from foreign attack. In all cases, it acquiesced to the dictates of the self-absorbed and self-serving TPLF rather defending the national interests of Ethiopia and its people.

Mistrust of State and Government is Consequential

The consequence of public mistrust in the state and government at a time of external threat is huge. It has far reaching effects on the fabric of Ethiopian society, the lives of the vast majority of the population and the security of the country. No sustainable and equitable growth can take place under this condition. This is why experts suggest that no regime can afford to punish its population and explain away the relentless punishment of ordinary people as a response to external “subversive and terrorist forces.” In short, the state and government have become the problem. When you kill, maim, imprison, evict and dispossess citizens; you subvert the socioeconomic, cultural and political bonds that hold the population together. You undermine the essential capacity of the country to withstand externa threat. A society whose social fabric is broken through relentless repression and ethnic divide and rule lends itself to external threat and to a failed state. This is inevitable. In effect, TPLF repressive responses suggest that deep seated and systemic problems can be resolved through the use of force rather than through political reform including a transitional government of national unity that will lead to shared political power and ultimately to a free and fair election; and the formation of a genuine democratic state and government. Trying to quell popular unrests in Gambella, the Omo Valley, the Ogaden, Oromia and Amhara regions -----whose root causes are the system and government—through state violence is a losing proposition. Aside from the important domestic socioeconomic and political turmoil it creates, the suppression and alienation of the vast majority of the population emboldens external enemies (See Freedom House, Ethiopia: Attack on Civil Society Escalates as Dissent Spreads, July 233, 2016).

“Ethiopia’s perceived stability and its much-touted role in the global fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa are at stake if EPRDF continues to ignore the dangers of suppressing citizens’ legitimate demands (Gondar, Oromia, Gambella and the Omo Valley) for inclusive and accountable governance. Any economic progress can only be sustained with a genuine commitment to political reform that adequately responds to the demands of Ethiopia’s diverse political, ethnic, and religious groups at all levels of public life.” You can’t be a regional leader against terrorism while “terrorizing your own people,” said one foreign expert in a conversation about the subject. Freedom House explains the essence of the chronic system-driven problem 101 million Ethiopians face and calls for a radical political reform now and not tomorrow. Simply put, Ethiopia’s vulnerability is compounded several fold by the current system of ethnic enclaves and unbelievable state-sponsored atrocities. It is madness.

This leads me to my own assessment of the external threat that is out there for anyone who reads the Arab, especially the Egyptian media on a regular basis. Long before the TPLF/EPRDF took power, this same media opined and supported the secession of Eritrea and did all it could to make this happen. It had a willing partner in TPLF that facilitated secession that led to Ethiopia being one of the largest countries in the world to be land locked. The TPLF is now teaching children that Eritrea was never part of Ethiopia. It is also teaching them that the lands the TPLF snatched from Wollo and Gondar are historically part of Tigray. In the case of the former, it is even debatable that the ultimate beneficiaries of secession are Eritreans. The Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are achieving their goal of weakening Ethiopia by establishing their predominance over the entire Red Sea. Incidentally, this is what Sadam Hussein had vowed in supporting Eritrean secession. A quarter of a century later, the same Arab media chorus has focused on Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), whose completion is not that far. While I have consistently supported Ethiopia’s legitimate right to harness its rivers in support of its 101 million people, especially through irrigated farming, I am not convinced that the beneficiaries of the GERD will be Ethiopians. It certainly will be TPLF elites and the Sudanese. The dam is inches away from the Sudan border for a strategic reason, TPLF’s and not Ethiopia’s. Does anyone really know why the dam was not built far inland?

Egypt’s Daily News covers the story of the dam on a constant basis. In its latest coverage, it acknowledges that the GERD is 70 percent complete. Academics and experts present a constant barrage of criticism not only against Ethiopia but also the government of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Simply put, the Arab World’s media blitz against the GERD is “war-like and vicious.” Professor Nader Noor El-Din, a water resources expert at Cairo University argues that consultation and negotiation is “useless.” Instead, “Noor El-Din suggested that Egypt should resort to the International Court and the UN Security Council to prove the potential risks of the construction of the dam on Egypt’s access to water.” He further contends that “If potential harm was proven later on (after completion), Egypt would not be able to take legal action.” The likelihood that the International Court or the UN Security Council would dispute Ethiopia’s position to harness its waters for its own development is almost nil. The question is what, if any, is Egypt’s option B?

In the “Coming War: Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Nile,” March 301, 2016, Malcom Dash quotes Egyptian and pro-Egyptian alarmists as experts. “Egypt is totally dependent on the Nile. Without it, there is no Egypt.” This is only an assertion. Non one can predict the impact of the GERD on the flow of water to Egypt. Here is the problem. Egypt is used to “be the dominant power in the region for 200 years” by excluding Ethiopia, the primary source of Nile waters. Although Ethiopia was a sovereign state at the time, the water has been regulated by a 1959 Agreement with the Sudan. “This agreement allotted nothing to Ethiopia and other riparian states.” It was therefore inevitable that black African states would renegotiate the agreement; and they did. The New Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement that black African states signed and Egypt rejected makes it possible for Ethiopia and other black African nations to harness their waters, including building dams. This new agreement has “shaken things up in the region.” Dash argues that “Egypt now finds itself without any right of inspection in the GERD…and without a right of veto.” I believe Egypt must recognize and embrace the new agreement of sharing the waters of the Nile. If there is decrease in its allotment so what?

The problem is this. Egypt still feels that its “historical and natural rights” position is legitimate. “While officials here (in Cairo) hope for a diplomatic solution to diffuse the crisis, security sources say Egypt’s military leadership is prepared to use force to protect its stake in the river.” This will be a disaster for all concerned.

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