European morality, messy politics, and perceptions in the Horn of Africa

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Just when you think that irony can’t be beaten to death any further than a mid-sized boat bringing global trade down by 10%, along comes an interstate conflict where the 2019 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is accused of allowing war crimes and massacres.

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, had denied what to everyone else seems clear; the neighbouring country of Eritrea has sent military forces in the Tigray region and is engaged in the ongoing regional conflict. This has since been admitted, but there’s a whole lot more context necessary to understand just what’s happening here.

The Tigray region of Ethiopia is currently the site of a messy regional conflict, where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are in a fight for their existence. The TPLF ruled Ethiopia as part of a multi-party coalition from 1991 to 2019, a time in which Ethiopia saw massive growth, support from the US, and brutal political repression, election-rigging and – crucially – a 2-year border war with Eritrea, with an estimated death toll of 100,000. Eritrea had previously been a federated part of Ethiopia, fighting for its independence and winning it with international recognition in 1993. Keeping up so far? Good.

When Abiy Ahmed took power in 2019 from the TPLF, he instituted a set of reforms, attempting to remake the country as a democratic African power. He negotiated a peace deal with Eritrea, securing hope for a less volatile border situation. All the while, the TPLF had been bitterly resigned to opposition. Events including a refusal to transfer fugitives to the central government and the decision to hold local elections despite a nationwide delay due to the coronavirus pandemic have led to outright violence, with the starting gun a raid on federal military supplies and the deaths of army officers.

The EU has declared sanctions on Eritrea for the intrusions by the military into Tigray and the concerning details of abuses coming from the region.

Where does Europe come into this? Well, as part of a list of sanctions on repressive regimes, the EU has declared sanctions on Eritrea for the intrusions by the military into Tigray and the concerning details of abuses coming from the region. Along with this, plans are in place to cut Ethiopian budget support and aid. This, in my opinion, is the wrong decision.

Ethiopia finds itself drawn into conflict by a hostile opposition party in a contested region. Eritrea has sent troops into a warzone supposedly acting only after a military attack on a civilian airport –one that the TPLF have claimed. Tigray is occupied by a party that has raised alarm about abuses in the conflict but bears responsibility for the spark that started the fire and ethnically motivated crimes. Information coming from the region is piecemeal due to damaged infrastructure and covid- based issues, and yet the EU has taken quick actions based on limited information – unlike nations such as Canada, the UK and US who have urged restraint and understanding on all sides.

Information coming from the region is piecemeal due to damaged infrastructure and covid- based issues and yet the EU has taken quick actions based on limited information.

Despite the western assumption – all too often reinforced by cultural stereotypes – Africa is not a helpless ‘shithole’ (in the words of one former POTUS). Nor is it a region beyond reproach or international involvement. On one side of Tigray is a nation with no elections and one-party control, with a single state television channel. On the other is a democratising nation with a reforming government attempting to succeed where others have failed.

European intervention should be more nuanced to the situation, and respect the nations and people involved. The former PM under TPLF Ethiopia reflected on the lack of moral equivalence, while the current PM has negotiated the removal of Eritrean forces. Call it neo-imperialism, a saviour complex or a propaganda coup against the supposed black-and-white bad guys. What the EU has chosen here is a mistake.

Peace or at least ceasefire will likely soon come to Tigray, as government forces secure the area – but not thanks to European interference, which Africa is generally better off without.

Image: Ethiopia Grunge Flag via Flickr

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