Nearly five months after a change in power in Ethiopia, the country is witnessing an outbreak of deadly communal violence in several regions. The surge in conflict has come after many years of political stability in the Horn of Africa nation, stirring fears that the country may be facing widespread chaos and even break-up.
There are also suspicions that the unprecedented instability is part of a US-backed geopolitical realignment, one which shifts Ethiopia from its strategic economic partnership with China, towards being a client of American-backed Arab regimes. This shift is happening without national consensus, driven by a new ruling faction. It is a fait accompli. Tantamount to a coup.
In April this year, the Ethiopian parliament voted a new prime minister into office. The opaque selection process seemed to involve a lot of horse-trading. A youthful Abiy Ahmed (41) emerged as the new leader. He has won wide praise in Western media and from the US government in particular for supposedly introducing positive reforms. For example, he released hundreds of political prisoners, ended a state of emergency, and condemned past alleged human rights violations by security forces. The condemnation was less admission; more a ploy to undermine the previous government with a false label of "state terrorism".
Abiy Ahmed, who is commonly referred to simply by his first name, has declared an internal peace process with a militant group known as the Oromo Liberation Front (OFL), and he has welcomed back exiled political figures from the US and other countries reportedly in the name of "forgiveness".
Internationally, the new prime minister initiated a rapid rapprochement with neighboring Eritrea, overcoming nearly 20 years of bitter dispute following a three-year border war (1998-2001). The two countries formally declared peace last month.
These apparent progressive changes, however, are more plausibly a misreading of a disturbing reorientation of Ethiopia's politics. While the Western media are portraying premier Abiy as a pro-democracy liberal, there is a darker side to what is going on.
Last week, Abiy welcomed senior officials from the Saudi and Emirati Gulf states. Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir visited on the same day that he made an earlier stopover in Eritrea where he was warmly received by Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki. The Gulf Arab regimes are long-time sponsors of Eritrea. Ethiopia's sudden affiliation with the Arab despots has left many Ethiopians worried that their country is covertly being shunted in a more sinister direction.
What appears to be underway is a geopolitical shift in which Ethiopia is gravitating to the orbit of the United States and its Middle East clients, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That has implications for Ethiopia's erstwhile strategic economic partnership with China, as well as dangerously stoking the country's internal tensions.
The recent flare-up of conflict and tensions in Ethiopia are complex, reflecting the fact that the nation of 100 million is comprised of 84 ethnic peoples. The mainly Christian Orthodox country has also a large Muslim population. There are thus several flash-points, which could explode into widespread violence.
Recently, the country's eastern region bordering Somalia saw dozens of churches attacked and several priests reportedly killed. The danger is that reprisals could lead to a sectarian conflagration. People are nervously anticipating more violence as the country seems to be teetering on a sharp edge.
There have also been other deadly clashes in southern, central and western regions. Notably, the sparse Western media coverage tends to depict the violence as occurring in spite of "reformist" Abiy Ahmed. Whereas, more accurately, the surge in violence appears to be the responsibility of the new ruling faction around the prime minister.
Who carried out the killings in the eastern Somali region is not clear. The authorities in the capital, Addis Ababa, under premier Abiy's control, claim that local paramilitary police carried out attacks on Oromo people. The Western media have tended to promote that claim. But there is suspicion that the killings may have been instigated by the central authorities for a sinister objective of inciting sectarian conflict and asserting central control over that region.
What raises suspicion is that such violence against Christians in that location is unprecedented. The governor of the Somali region, Abdi Illey, is believed to be now in custody of the Addis Ababa central government. But Abdi Illey, while being a Muslim himself, has a long history of benign relations with Christians in his region, having built many churches over the years. More significantly, perhaps, he is also a staunch supporter of the former ruling coalition government, which the new prime minister has shown increasing antipathy towards since he took office in April.
The former central authorities in Addis Ababa were dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF hail from the northern region bordering Eritrea. They were the main revolutionary force that overthrew the despotic Derg regime in 1990-91. What the new leadership in Addis Ababa seems to be doing is rehabilitating remnants of the Derg. When premier Abiy was in the US earlier this month on a week-long tour, he pointedly shared public stages with exiled figures who had been part of the Derg. When he talks about these exiles returning home, this is not viewed as a "progressive reform" by many Ethiopians, as the Western media would portray, but rather as a retrograde move that could reignite past conflict.
Ethiopians, especially in the northern Tigray region, fear that Abiy is stealthily pushing a sectarian agenda which will prioritize the dominance of his ethnic group, the Oromo. There is also concern that Abiy, who has Muslim heritage, is aligning with Arab states which could inflame sectarian violence with Christians. A key indicator to watch is if the Saudis and Emiratis start funneling money into the country to build radicalizing mosques.
According to Ethiopian political sources, it is suspected that Abiy's rise to power is part of a long-term plan orchestrated by Washington and its Arab allies to fundamentally reorient the Horn of Africa region away from China's economic influence. Over the past two decades, China has partnered with Ethiopia as a model for African development. The partnership was very much encouraged by the TPLF-dominated government. That alignment seems now to be eroding under prime minister Abiy. He has, for example, made provocative public comments deriding the TPLF and some of the country's flagship development projects, which China had played a key role in.
It is also significant that Emirati officials were in Eritrea earlier this month where they announced plans for building a major oil pipeline from Ethiopia to the Red Sea via the Eritrean port of Assab. Ethiopia recently discovered significant oil reserves in its eastern region.
That move possibly signals why the Saudis and Emiratis, as well as Washington, were the political driving forces behind the "surprise" peace deal between Ethiopia's Abiy and Eritrea's Afwerki. A deal that Abiy initiated only weeks after taking office.
In order to cleave Ethiopia from China's strategic partnership, it was necessary to bring in an Oromo political figure as leader because the Oromo have historically been opposed to the TPLF-led government, which had opted to partner with Chinese development capital. The Oromo Liberation Front, for example, sided with Eritrea during the war with Ethiopia. That was one of the reasons why OLF figures were exiled or imprisoned by the Ethiopian government. The militant group was previously designated a "terrorist" organization by the TPLF-led administration. The OLF continues to have a base in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. This is the group that Abiy is welcoming back into Ethiopia's political mainstream with brotherly embrace in an act of what he calls "forgiveness".
Thus by shifting Ethiopia away from China into the sphere of the US and Arab influence - with lucrative gains for American capital of course - the Oromo prime minister is nevertheless unleashing combustible tensions within Ethiopia along ethnic and religious lines.
There are fears that a Christian-Muslim conflict could erupt, or that the Oromo and Tigray ethnic groups are driven towards civil war. Some of the Oromo supporters of Abiy Ahmed, whom he brought back from exile, have been making incendiary public statements calling for vengeance against the Tigray. There is also a sinister jihadist hue among these firebrands, consistent with the sponsorship of Saudi and Emirati Wahhabi rulers.
Ethiopia is on a knife-edge which could descend into widespread violence. But one thing is sure, the Western media's spinning of a "reformist" new leader, Abiy Ahmed, is way off the mark. The prime minister seems more like a Trojan Horse figure whose entrance to office is primarily serving the geopolitical interests of Washington and its Arab client regimes, while jeopardizing his own country's stability.
Far from this political development being "pro-democracy" and "progressive", as Western media are mis-reporting, it is more akin to a foreign-backed coup against Ethiopia's international independence.
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