Ethiopia’s diplomacy has not seen such a mess for almost two decades, at least not under its veteran Minister of Foreign Affairs Siyoum Mesfin, who has been killed in the military offensive launched by the Ethiopian government against its northern region of Tigray.
Though in office Mesfin took up hard positions against Egypt and was responsible for much of the propagandistic narrative that the incumbent Ethiopian government is employing against the downstream nation, he was a seasoned diplomat who could manage differences without jeopardising very good relations with Ethiopia’s neighbour.
Now things have greatly changed. Under man for all seasons Demeke Hassan Mekonen, who hails from the Amhara ethnicity, the arch-rival of the Tigray, Ethiopian diplomacy has shifted from the allegiance to the country, as should be the case, to a narrow-sighted vision favouring one ethnicity above others, namely his own Amhara.
Ethiopian ambassadors have been competing with one another to put in words what could appease the current Ethiopian foreign minister, even if this would risk the country’s relations with its neighbours. One should not, therefore, be taken by surprise when Suleiman Dedefu, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, flew off the handle, tweeting that “the current Egyptian attempt at a proxy war on Ethiopia through a Sudanese invasion reminds us [of] a similar proxy war in 1974 by Saed Barre of Somalia.”
Dedefu’s remarks are solely aimed at appeasing the Amhara ethnicity, which seeks to restore the expansionist glories of the country’s founding fathers, most notably the controversial emperor Menelik II.
The Amhara clique believes that the Sudanese region of Al-Fashaqa is theirs since millions from that ethnicity have settled there over six decades, only to grow much more influential under the rotten regime of former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir. The Ethiopian militias, known as Al-Shafta, are the armed wing of the regional government of Amhara, and they have taken good care of the “business” that is flourishing in the Sudanese territory, for which the Amhara government has been paid revenues.
This explains the tough language that the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry has been using against Sudanese leaders, to the point that Ethiopia has issued a weird statement accusing “the military wing” of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan of “trumpeting” the conflict “only to serve the interests of a third party.”
Former prime minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn, who hails from the less-powerful Southern Nationalities ethnic group, made it clear in the Ethiopian parliament that the land in dispute with Sudan is “Sudanese” and that the Al-Shafta militias had caused a great deal of harm to the friendly relations between Sudan and Ethiopia.
However, it seems that Desalegn’s recognition of this has continued to fall on deaf ears, with the current Ethiopian top diplomat, Mekonen, together with his spokesman, the former Ethiopian ambassador in Cairo Dina Mufti, blatantly arguing that no dialogue can take place with Sudan before Sudan pulls its troops back from the “Sudanese” territory.
More dangerous has been the fact that they have both called the arrangements on the border lines between Sudan and Ethiopia – reached under the Tigray-led government of former Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi – null and void, because to them the Tigray favoured the Sudanese and did not stand by their fellow Ethiopians from the Amhara.
This is testimony to the non-commitment of the incumbent Ethiopian government, dominated by the Amhara, to agreements sealed in the past. It would probably not commit to any either if Egypt and Sudan were to strike a deal with Ethiopia on its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Much worse is the fact that Mekonen may have fast-talked Ethiopia’s callow prime minister into the tragic and barbarous war on Tigray. For decades, both the Tigray and the Amhara have engaged in conflicts over claims of land amongst their citizens for grazing or cultivation, claiming the lives of many in both camps. When the smaller ethnicity was in power, the Tigray took advantage of their influence and took control of land claimed by the Amhara, only for the latter to fight back against the Tigrayans when the latter were invaded by Ethiopian federal forces, Amhara militias and “foreign” troops in the shape of the Eritreans.
A recent statement by the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), the ruling party of the region, has accentuated the fact that the “invasion” of Tigray to “enforce the law” was a fishy tale and that the war was meant to seize land from the smallest Ethiopian ethnicity.
“The areas glossed over as Western Tigray are traditional Amhara territories recently freed from the genocidal clutches of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF),” the NaMA statement read. Even more alarming in the statement is the fact that the party wants the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to “withdraw its backing [from] and call for the removal of Tedros Adhanom” from his post as director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In the wake of waging a war on Tigray, the Ethiopian military made public an announcement that Adhanom, a Tigrayan, was mobilising “arms” for his ethnicity by using his high-level international post.
In practice, the Amhara clique has been dealing with the Sudanese Al-Fashaqa in the same manner that they have with Tigray: they have mobilised troops along the border with Sudan, pushing the Ethiopian government to engage in a war to get what they call “traditional” land.
The aggressive tone that Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry has been employing whether with regard to Sudanese territory or with Egypt as far as the GERD is concerned in no way serves the best interests of the Ethiopian people, who have enjoyed amicable relations with their neighbours for decades. On the contrary, it opens up a Pandora’s Box, particularly when such “verbalisation” connects with “irrational acts” on the ground.
Ethiopian diplomacy under Mekonen, who also doubles as the country’s deputy prime minister, a position he has kept under two governments, has become much more belligerent, irrational and irresponsible. The landlocked Horn of Africa nation is losing its hard-won status in the region reached under late prime minister Meles Zenawi.
One testimony to the declining role of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa region was the telephone call between US President Joe Biden and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in which they discussed the crisis in “Ethiopia’s Tigray”.
This was unmistakably a crystal-clear message to the Ethiopian government that the failure of its diplomacy to solve unending troubles, both homegrown and overseas, is risking the prestigious status that Ethiopia once boasted in the region. More alarming is the fact that other “new players” may now step in and replace the landlocked Horn of Africa nation as leaders in East Africa.
*The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly