We must not underestimate the potential and lasting damage generated by the selective and illiberal application of so-called “Western values” in Africa, write Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal.
By Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal, October 8, 2021
In recent days, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in and parliament approved the cabinet of his newly elected government, even as his country’s forces continue to fight an armed insurgency in the major Horn of Africa region. geostrategic.
This week also witnessed a strange and disturbing meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where issues regarding UN humanitarian officials allegedly supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the near-war Ethiopian civilian, in clear violation of strict UN rules. about these conflicts, it was discussed.
Ethiopia has faced a long and violent conflict in the northern region of Tigray, initially sparked by an unprovoked attack on the country’s federal forces located at a northern base that saw the massacre of thousands of soldiers. If such an attack had taken place in the West, would any country have refrained from a suitably robust military response?
This is not the sequel Abiy would have envisioned during the first three years of his relatively constructive and internationally praised post as prime minister. His successful peace negotiations with Eritrea were deeply problematic for the TPLF’s more extremist leaders, who could not remain silent in the face of Abiy’s successful conciliatory negotiations with Isaias Afwerki, the leader of Eritrea and nemesis of the TPLF leadership.
A recently leaked and published TPLF strategy, allegedly retrieved from the TPLF management offices in Mekelle, had laid out plans for the unprovoked attacks. The TPLF’s smart and well-resourced global media and digital engagement would also be deployed in support of its violent terrorist operations on the ground. The TPLF posed a complex conventional and cyber threat, on a scale that any developing and democratic sovereign state required international support to deter and manage.
Instead, however, the Abiy government suffered from a lack of international support and the absence of an investigative analysis based on evidence on the ground. As a result, Ethiopia has experienced unnecessary conflict and humanitarian crisis that has cost countless levels of pain and suffering in an impoverished country on the road to positive change.
The international community must face the impact of what it did no do, unlike what he did. International humanitarian partners continue to make very commendable efforts to bring aid to the Tigrayan communities, many of which have relied for years on food aid under the TPLF government. But despite the wealth of credible evidence, the worldwide silence on the TPLF’s use of child soldiers, its deliberate targeting of internally displaced persons, its misuse of humanitarian aid supplies, and the disappearance of 428 trucks of UN platform help without subsequent Investigations expose serious problems that remain unsolved. Equally problematic is the international community’s treatment of the TPLF and the Ethiopian government as equals.
Some of these issues were raised at this week’s UN Security Council meeting, which discussed Ethiopia’s decision to expel seven UN officials from humanitarian agencies from the country. The meeting was an unprecedented measure promoted by some members of the UNSC. However, the UNSC had never officially ruled on the decisions of other national governments regarding the guests of UN agencies in their country. This move is based on the United Nations Security Council decision to discuss Ethiopia’s national water infrastructure development project. In particular, some member states have responded by calling on the UN Security Council to leave these problems to the host nation and its African neighbors to solve.
Questioning whether the laws of a democratic government have been respected or ignoring how child soldiers and displaced persons have been treated in Ethiopia compared to other countries, even in other parts of the same region, has revealed a way disgusting double standards. This goes against the global neutral and humanitarian values that the UN as an organization should uphold.
The UN Secretary-General has asserted that Ethiopia’s expulsion of UN personnel was an illegal measure, noting that the UN, as an international organization, should not be treated in the same way as a nation-state under article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Meanwhile, internal sources have turned to others to voice their concern about the corruption of UN operations in Tigray. Only a thorough and independent investigation into these issues, and the supporting evidence provided by the Ethiopian government, will bring clarity to this situation.
Yesterday’s UN Security Council meeting also demonstrated the extent to which world leaders are now polarized in their views on what is happening in Ethiopia. Why this has happened remains a question that can only be understood by those who know the country well and who have worked there for years.
The international community must take special care in the way it analyzes conflicts, especially when faced with prolific and polarized digitized terrorist-inspired narratives. While it correctly prioritizes the various points of view, there seems to be a disconnect between the facts and the information that the analysis should inform. Critics of the Ethiopian government could rightly point to shortcomings in the way it could have dealt with the insurgency, for example. However, they often do not give equal weight to the terrible violence of the TPLF insurgency or the challenges the government faces that make their response more understandable and legitimate. The bottom line is that the analysis often treats the government as equal to a terrorist group.
In some respects, the polarization of the narratives surrounding the Tigray conflict is not so much like two completely separate radar screens examining the same phenomena, in which impacts and groups on a radar screen just don’t filter out as information relevant to the other. Readers then face the difficult task of evaluating what they can from the conflict, often reverting to polarized narratives that seek to blame one side while fully excusing the other. However, what has been learned from experience is that the positions taken by some towards Ethiopia over the past 10 months, informed by this disconnect, often amount to a “both sides” approach that blames both sides equally. Such incipient foreign policy positions remain unconstructive.
The perceived, and perhaps inadvertent, tolerance of the international community towards the violent insurgent leaders led by the TPLF isolated the legitimate democratic government of Abiy and only emboldened the insurgency. It also influenced the global media and the political narrative on the conflict, which proved very difficult to change.
This is particularly the case with the United States’ political response, specifically, its threat of severe sanctions against the government of a poor country due to its unwillingness to negotiate with a terrorist insurgency group. The experience has also rekindled feelings of mistrust and resentment towards the West, not only within Ethiopia’s domestic population of over 100 million people, but also within the vast global community of the Ethiopian and sub-Saharan African diaspora.
These emerging views have the potential to isolate long-standing allies and partners in Africa. This also comes at a time when the world requires productive partnerships to strengthen resilient supply chains, address climate change, and demonstrate our commitment to global justice. Ethiopia’s experience, sustained even after the Afghanistan debacle, is rapidly generating concerns in Africa regarding the broader interests of the West on the continent in the future.
With China’s existing trade and investment presence only deepening, Kenya’s interest in African-led problem solving now resonates through multilateral chambers, and the enhanced voices of Russia, Turkey, and India on dividing state sovereignty. To both the UNSC and NATO partners, we must not underestimate the potential and lasting damage generated by the selective and illiberal application of so-called “Western values” in Africa.
The West should not be concerned about the willingness of the Ethiopian people to hold the new government to account. The country’s increased national resilience, driven by upholding its sovereignty and integrity throughout society, leaves Ethiopians more than ready to do so. Instead, the West must reflect and learn from a multitude of lessons from this bloody, nearly year-long conflict and the protracted humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia. Failure to do so runs the risk of encouraging new global fractures that will be useless for both the developed and the developing world.
Ann Fitz-Gerald is Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of International Security in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Royal United Services Institute.
Hugh Segal is a Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, Senior Advisor to Aird & Berlis, and former Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Counterterrorism.