Ethiopian Armed Opposition and the Eritrean Regime
By Shiferaw Abebe
“The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old saying which actually has been applied in practice in politics and international military alignments from time to time to achieve short term goals. A striking example would be the alliance between England, France and the United States on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other against Nazi Germany during WWII. That alliance indeed achieved its immediate objectives. However, not only did the alliance break down following the end of the war and the disintegration of Nazi Germany, but the two sides also became enemy no.1 to each other as they were before the war. That enmity lasted for another 45 years until the Soviet system collapsed and, of course, the on-going confrontation between Putin Russia and the West is a legacy of that enmity.
Coming close to home, listening to a recent ESAT (Yesamintu Engda) interview with Andargachew Tsigie of Ginbot 7, and a VOA report on a Ginbot 7 meeting in Washington last weekend I was forced to re-evaluate the validity of the above principle in the context of the alliance between Ginbot-7 and the Eritrean regime against the common Enemy aka Woyane. I should point out from the outset that I do not or am not in a position to question the motives of Ginbot 7. Even though I wrestle with the conception of Ginbot 7 as an organization – it is not a political party thus doesn’t aspire for political power, has no policy on any issue, hence no accountability to anything, and yet, would like to play a central, almost “king-making” role in Ethiopian politics – I am more than willing to believe what the leaders say regarding their intentions.
However, regardless of the esteemed regard one may have for Ginbot 7 leaders or how much one hates Woyane, I believe anyone who is familiar with the back history of Shabia and the damage it caused Ethiopia has to raise, at the very least, serious concerns about an alliance between Shabia and any Ethiopian opposition group including Ginbot 7.
Shabia is ganging up with Ethiopian opposition forces against Woyane in the short term to avenge the “betrayal” and subsequent humiliating blow it received in the hand of its former protégé during the 1998-2000 war. Ginbot-7 who otherwise would not come close to Shabia is holding its nose in getting into this alliance because it believes the Woyane regime is enemy number 1 and should be removed by any means possible. This much is explicit and, I would think, most Ethiopians would have no major issue with this short term objective.
What is disconcerting is what could happen after that. Are Shabia’s and Ginbot 7’s long term objectives reconcilable? Are there compatible and enduring interests to turn this alliance into a mutually beneficial long term relationship? In other words, can Shabia be a trusted partner in the aftermath of the removal of the Woyane regime?
To go back to the WWII example, the Soviet Union and its Western allies turned on each other once Nazi Germany was defeated because: i) there was no common interest or goal to keep the alliance going, and ii) the factors that were the source of enmity between the two sides before WWII were still there after the war.
So could be the case with the current alliance between Shabia and Ginbot 7. What would make this alliance even more precarious is that it is not based on equal or equivalent leverages between the two sides. Shabia has all the leverages and all the cards.
In his ESAT interview, Andargachew has attempted to provide a rather simplistic narrative of why the Eritrean regime could have an enduring interest in the wellbeing of Ethiopia long-term. The story line, paraphrased, runs like this: under the Woyane regime, Ethiopia has fallen under too much foreign influence, rampant government corruption, widespread youth addiction to hashish and ‘chat’, and sexual immorality. Esayas is worried that these bad things will eventually find their way into Eritrea and corrupt the Eritrean government and nation. Indeed, he is so much worried about this danger more than the staggering economic, social and political ills that have crippled Eritrea currently that he is determined to stop them from their source. Hence the reason his government is supporting Ethiopian armed opposition groups to unseat the Woyane regime. Now I consider this a silly, farfetched rationale, yet no one would take offense if the delusional leader in Asmara believes it. But when Andargachew, who reportedly spent the last four years in Eritrea, talks about it with a straight face, it made me scratch my head.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Enemy’s Enemy
It is a fact that the Eritrean regime has been a host to numerous opposition groups that are aspiring to remove the TPLF regime by force of arms. But what has also been revealed in recent years by members/leaders of the Ethiopian People Patriotic Front (EPPF) and their vocal supporters was that the Eritrean regime is only truly interested in supporting ethnic based groups while groups/leaders that stood for the whole of Ethiopia, such as EPPF, were crippled and eventually decimated. Report after report has alleged that the Eritrean regime has forced opposition groups to organize along ethnic lines. Now Gibot-7 is on record contesting any such claims and according to Andargachew Shabia has nothing to do with the existing alignment of groups or any of their weaknesses.
Defending the Eritrean regime is a tall order in any context. Doing so in the context of the Ethiopian-Eritrean relationship is a much harder task that is putting Ginbot 7’s credibility on the line. There is no evidence of a slight quantity to show Shabia is different from Woyane or has changed its perspectives when it comes to the long-term interest of Ethiopia. First, Shabia parted with Woyane only because its greed and appetite to plunder Ethiopia got out of hand by 1998, plunging the two countries into a bloody two-year war that ended with Shabia’s defeat. Even after the two fell out of each other’s love, Shabia has continued to work hand in hand with the likes of OLF, forces bent on dismembering Ethiopia. Even today, the majority of the so-called Ethiopian armed opposition groups in Asmara are ethnic based, some of which have an official policy to secede some part of Ethiopia. And imagine, for the sake of imagination, that these groups backed by Shabia (not just logistically, quite possibly, militarily as well) have the good luck of defeating the TPLF army and marching to Addis under their individual identity and flags. Is it not a scary image? Would it not be like the biblical parable of a man freed from one demon only to be inhabited by a legion of demons?
There is a simple test to verify if Shabia has only good intentions toward Ethiopia. It should tell the disparate opposition groups to form a united front under the Ethiopian flag, warning them if they don’t they would have to leave his country. Such a simple gesture from the Eritrean regime would make Ginbot 7’s task much easier or even unnecessary. Some groups may oppose and leave Eritrea, but Esayas would prove that he is seriousness about a long term, mutually rewarding relationship with Ethiopia after Woyane is gone. His recent outrageous comment that Ethiopia was created after WWII is the antithesis of goodwill towards Ethiopia; it is a divisive position aimed at lending support to claims by secessionist groups such as Ogaden National Liberation Front.
Apart from what is adequately evident on the ground, there are logically compelling reasons why Esayas or his regime would not want a united Ethiopia. First, Shabia understands a united Ethiopia will be a strong Ethiopia, and a strong Ethiopia will inevitably claim the Assab port. This is a real fear for the Eritrean government and Eritrean loyalists within the Ethiopian ruling clique. That was a fear Meles Zenawi took with himself to the grave.
There is a second, perhaps subliminal reason why the Eritrean government would like to see a divided and weak Ethiopia. Many Eritreans gave their sons, daughters and finances for the 30-year war of secession believing Shabia’s propaganda – that, once “independent”, Eritrea would be a country where honey and milk would flow from its rivers, that it would rise to economic and military greatness in no time, etc. etc.. That fairyland vision was juxtaposed with a vision of an agrarian Ethiopia that would become a great source of raw materials and cheap labour to the booming industries of Independent Eritrea.
As it turned out, that vision is anything but. Twenty two years later, Eritrea is poorer than it was before. To make a sorry story ironical, its citizens are migrating back to Ethiopia for security and livelihood while the reverse is unthinkable. Its leader has made the country an outcast among the world community of nations. There is already a great deal of discontentment among Eritreans comparing the fruits of their “independence” with where Ethiopia is today by comparison. A unified, democratic, stronger, and prosperous Ethiopia in the future will only add to that discontentment and lead to an inevitable revolt against Esayas’ rule and his legacy.
Peaceful Struggle versus Armed Fighting
Is peaceful struggle a dead end for Ethiopia? Before he changed his mind, Ginbot-7’s leader, Dr. Berhanu Nega, himself had written a book from a prison cell arguing fiercely for a peaceful struggle as the only form of struggle Ethiopians should stick to. At the Ginbot-7 meeting referred to above, a question was asked if Ginbot 7 had exhausted the peaceful form of struggle. Dr. Berhanu’s response was in a nutshell that the peaceful struggle will not bear results under the Woyane regime.
Putting the philosophical (peaceful versus armed) debate aside for now, peaceful struggle had actually borne tangible results during the 2005 Ethiopian election except that the numerous tactical and strategic blunders Kinijit leadership committed forfeited the hard-earned gains. It is true the Woyane regime stole the win, but what Woyane itself admitted would have been a great step forward for Kinijit and the peaceful struggle. Kinijit should have taken the over 100 parliamentary seats Woyane admitted. Kinijit should have taken over the governance of Addis Ababa for which Dr. Berhanu was the elected Mayor. I know the excuses provided for not doing so, but they were largely ill-considered. Had Kinijit acted differently in 2005, it could have saved itself from disintegration and the people of Ethiopia from much heartache, and the peaceful struggle could have been dramatically different now. Kinijit would have protected its credibility and respect in the public’s eye. The peaceful struggle has been pushed back by at least ten years after the 2005 election. If Woyane takes the lion’s share of the blame, Kinijit leaders are responsible for a significant portion of it. Kinijit leaders might not have had the opportunity to see their errors when they were in the thick of it and when situations were too fluid, but they have to acknowledge them now with the benefit of hindsight, so that good lessons could be learnt for the future. One such lesson is that the results of a peaceful struggle should not be radical, in fact, often times, they are piecemeal adding up to a radical change only overtime.
Going forward, again much depends on the behavior and actions of the TPLF regime, but a great deal also depends on the opposition camp to make the peaceful struggle succeed. If we throw our hands to the air and give up the peaceful struggle simply because demonstrators are barred from marching to Meskel Adebaby, we have not understood what a peaceful struggle involves. The real problem is not where opposition groups hold their protest rallies. It is whether they are working together, solidifying their unity and their support base. For there will come a time when they will not have to listen to the regime as to where they should hold protest rallies. That is the time when they earn the credibility, respect, and following of the Ethiopian people who are waiting for a solid sign of unity and determination from the now fragmented opposition.
I would like to mention here the hopeful comment Andargachew made regarding the peaceful form of struggle. He said he believes the best option to unseat the TPLF regime would be through a strong peaceful political and civic opposition and resistance. He didn’t appear to be dismissive of the potential of a peaceful struggle as long as the fractured opposition is able to form a united front and pose a credible challenge to the regime.
Is armed struggle a viable option as a matter of practicality, particularly one that is supported by the Eritrean regime? This is a question that must not be left for armed groups or their supporters alone to answer. Ethiopians should have this conversation in a realistic and honest manner and make up their mind. Personally, the Eritrean regime is a red flag. The armed ethnic groups are a red flag. At the very least, I would like to see the numerous armed groups coming into a unified force under the Ethiopian flag with each stating allegiance for a unified Ethiopia on their websites or other media before my concerns would be assuaged.
My prediction is however that the Woyane regime will disintegrate before any fighter out of Eritrea sets a foot anywhere near Addis. The real question is whether the opposition groups inside Ethiopia would be ready and adequately prepared to fill in the gap that will be created when the regime collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions? The real question is whether each one of us will give our dodged support to the peaceful struggle in meaningful ways?
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org