A bizarre political rhetoric that has emerged in the civil and political spaces in Ethiopia and its diaspora since 2020 asserts that the break-up of the Ethiopian state is in the interests of the West, and more specifically the United States.
While the US and other Western powers and institutions have the means of orchestrating such an outcome while exerting their influence over the fate of less powerful nations, I argue here that, in this political moment, such an outcome cannot be in the interests of the US-centred global order as it relates to Ethiopia as such a move would negate all the efforts to build, via successive Ethiopian regimes, a reliable military and political proxy in the Horn of Africa region.
The narrative suggesting that the US is invested in dismembering Ethiopia into several smaller states has been backed by the Ethiopian government and heavily propagated both in Ethiopia and among sections of its diaspora. Based on conversations I have had with people engaged in other liberation struggles inspired by radical and far-left politics, I have come to realise that this narrative has been gaining traction.
During a conversation with a pro-Palestinian liberation group in Nairobi, they stated that they were not sure where to stand on Ethiopia because, according to them, the US was actively trying to affect the nation’s unity. The question that immediately came to mind was: “How can this narrative be true?” I argue here that a sequence of facts and realities, when arranged in a specific order and looked at from a particular angle, supports the emergence of a narrative that is convincing enough to create such a scenario. This narrative does not reflect the complexity of the socio-political crisis Ethiopia is facing, and nor does it provide any radical solution.
One of the most visible manifestations of this rhetoric is the #NoMore campaign. According to an article published on borkena on 21 November 2021, “The #NoMore campaign was created by a coalition of Ethiopian and Eritrean activists led by former Al Jazeera & CBS journalist Hermela Aregawi. Its central objective is to oppose an alleged Western media disinformation campaign, Western economic warfare, diplomatic propaganda, and active military interventions in Africa in general, and possible ones in the Horn of Africa.”
I do not intend to analyse that campaign here but will touch on it by simply referring to the narrative in this introduction as the “no more” camp narrative. The last bit of context that I wish to add is that I often reference the Ethiopian government of 1991-2018 as being TPLF-led (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). With regard to Ethiopia’s diplomatic, geopolitical and broad security operations at the time, I believe that this was mainly a TPLF project, but when it came to the human rights abuses that took place across Oromia, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) were co-conspirators and were actively involved in the state violence that characterized Oromia from 1991-2018.
After the fall of the DERG regime—an initially popular communist revolution that turned into a deadly dictatorship—the US made its way into the centre of the negotiations between the TPLF, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that took place in London in 1991. In these negotiations, I believe that several options existed regarding political arrangements: the formation of two or more confederate states, the formation of a unitary state, or—what became the adopted path—the formation of a multinational federation. The creation of independent states had been the explicit agenda of the OLF when it was formed some 30 years prior. However, it was the EPLF that achieved this goal during the negotiations.
Historical, cultural, linguistic, and political factors, as well as different nations having different experiences with the Ethiopian state and the process of its formation, were priorities that stakeholders at that table needed to address. A multinational federation, organized along ethnic lines, where governing powers were given to the regimes of these ethnic nation-states while the centre remained lean, peripheral, but present, sounded ideal on paper. But one essential component that would determine this structure’s success was missing in the case of Ethiopia as it embarked on its new chapter, and that was a political elite that was earnestly willing to see such devolution of power.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that was formed in the wake of the 1991 negotiations was dominated by the TPLF, and the following 27 years of governance would, in theory, be a multi-national federation, but in practice, an authoritarian, centralized state with regional proxies that enforced a draconian order punishing anyone that embodied nationalisms deviant from Ethiopianism. While the Tegaru people had been victims of the political and cultural centralism of Ethiopianism of previous regimes, the TPLF nonetheless, enforced it as a tool of control, rather than as a tool to facilitate the healthy integration and growth of this new state arrangement formed along the lines of these autonomies. In 1991, the TPLF was the second most powerful military power after the EPLF, and although it claims that altruistic motives drive its engagement in the Global South, in 1991 the US was interested in either further consolidating or expanding its position at the top of the geopolitical ladder—as it still is today.
The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority. It is not that US expressions of concern and actions to protect human rights are in and of themselves negative. The “no more” narrative argues that these humanitarian efforts and cries for human rights are often hypocritical because the US is itself an active participant in human rights abuses at home and abroad, and that either its expressions of care or its wilful ignorance of such abuses are always motivated by underlying geopolitical interests. While its backing of the TPLF-led regime in 1991 can be understood from the perspective of realism, sustaining this support for two decades despite consistent evidence of human rights abuses taking place across the country is exactly the kind of hypocrisy that gives the “no more” campaign legs to stand on.
There is a world in which Abiy Ahmed, the current prime minister of Ethiopia, juxtaposed against leaders of the EPRDF, looks very much like the anti-imperialist leader that the non-Western world needs. Abiy Ahmed makes an ideological stance when he remains opposed to human rights-related calls to action from the US, allowing them to fall on deaf ears because it can be reasoned that the US is just exhibiting its habit of lording over the internal affairs of other nations while having blood on its hands.
The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority.
Moreover, the US backed multinational federalism in 1991, a political arrangement that Abiy’s regime moved to do away with early on in the transitional period, claiming that it is an invention of ethnic nationalists committed to fostering disunity. This can lead one to another assertion that the “no more” camp makes: that the US’s previous ties with the TPLF are a factor in its current proactiveness within the crisis.
The US-Ethiopia relationship of 1991-2017 is a microcosm of the wider culture of political presence that the US has across the African continent and the rest of the Global South/Eastern world, and if we are talking about significantly less powerful nations (militarily/economically), it also reflects the way the US engages other Western nations. The US has pursued its post-Cold War agenda of consolidating global military and economic dominance by making sure that any regional power that grows, does so under its wing and/or whilst indebted to it.
Along with amassing military and economic power, expecting ideological assimilation is also part of the way the US retains its position as leader over the geopolitical order. To challenge this without sufficient military or economic strength can result in isolating, crippling, or even deadly effects such as in Cuba, Iran and Libya. While taking hit after hit from the US, Abiy has repeatedly asserted that he is resisting the tradition of political manipulation that the US is known for and to protect the right of a developing country to forge its political pathways without interference. He has refused to be swayed by sanctions, a punitive measure that, even if flustering the political and economic elite, usually has far greater impact on the working class of any targeted country. Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy. Even if the current Ethiopian context is different (as I will argue below), what lends him credence is that the US approach to Ethiopia has mirrored what it has done in many other parts of the world where, in pursuit of its interests, the US has facilitated the collapse of entire societies in the name of human rights and democracy.
Another narrative that the “no more” camp leans on to create its anti-imperialist façade is the current Ethiopian government’s relationship with Eritrea, while ignoring that Eritrea’s invasion of Tigray and Oromia is an imperial adventure of the Eritrean regime. The Ethio-Eritrean so-called peace deal is hailed as Abiy’s most successful political manoeuvre. The deal falsely propagates the narrative that Abiy’s leadership is the re-emergence of a revolutionary and anti-imperialist vision in Ethiopia because it is at odds with the EPRDF’s hostile military and political relationship with Eritrea. Being on better terms with the west, the EPRDF was widely recognized as the contriver of this hostility, whilst Eritrea was viewed as the victim of it. Although arguing that both regimes have been sanctioned by a geopolitical order that is structurally racist and fascist (which is true), this narrative ignores the fact that Eritrea is a de facto military concentration camp and that its regime is involved in conflicts across the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, among some leftist communities, Eritrea is still perceived as a beacon of revolution because it achieved independence while others opted for a political arrangement endorsed by the US. Abiy uses this narrative to assert his position as a liberationist politician and argues that in targeting his administration, the West is out to the destroy forces of revolution and self-determination in East Africa. It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature, although this is not reflected in the country’s leadership today.
Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy.
To summarise the picture painted thus far, since the war in Tigray broke out, US calls for action have more or less been aligned with the TPLF’s rhetoric (even though TPLF leaders have also been subjected to US sanctions). A deafening silence on the part of the US regarding the TPLF’s 27-year regime that was toppled in 2018 by popular protests was the norm. The TPLF-dominated governing coalition had completely supported the US’s regional interventions and the relationship that the EPRDF/TPLF had with Eritrea also creates specific storylines.
These historical facts were and are still used by Abiy’s regime as part of the narrative to justify the current war. According to Abiy’s regime and its supporters, Tegaru aggression is part of an effort to dismantle Ethiopia by advocating for federalism, a system that the US backed in 1991, and that is in opposition to the unitary political vision that Abiy is championing that his supporters believe is the answer to complex questions of identity and nationalism in Ethiopia, and which the TPLF and the OLA/OLF are an enemy of. All of the above, arranged in this or similar sequence, strongly makes the case that the US is indeed interested in Ethiopia’s break up, or, at the very least, is backing the parties that have the intention to tear Ethiopia apart.
So, where and how does this narrative fall short?
US efforts since the beginning of the war in Tigray (because they weren’t interested when the war was waged solely and specifically in Oromia) have been geared towards keeping Ethiopia together as one polity. The reason is that this makes it easier to facilitate its interests in the region, and that, on the contrary, it is the consequences of the federal government and its adversaries warring in the north and south that could lead to Ethiopia’s break up. To be clear, I am not arguing for or against Ethiopia’s break-up here. I believe that, for the multitude of communities in Ethiopia to move forward, it is a decision that must be made by the people and that there is no reason to stubbornly insist on Ethiopia continuing as one polity if the people decide otherwise.
When the federal government launched its assault on Tigray in collaboration with Amhara Special Forces and the Eritrean Defence Forces in November 2020, their narrative was that the TPLF had attacked a government military base and a law and order operation would be launched targeting only the leaders of what they called the “criminal clique”. The TPLF, on the other hand, asserts that they were attacked first. Whatever the truth is, what ensued was an ethnically targeted killing spree by government forces, Eritrean troops, and Amhara militia and regional forces that has seen thousands of Tegaru women raped, thousands of people made refugees and thousands dead. Ninety per cent of Tigray’s population requires food aid while ongoing conflict in areas where land is contested between the Amhara and Tigray regions is exacerbating the crisis and the abuses listed above.
It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature.
Moreover, just months into the transitional government process, which was supposed to guide the country towards elections after the fall of the EPRDF government in 2018, Abiy’s regime began its campaign against the OLA, a force that has radically increased in number and activity since the assassination of prominent Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeesaa in June 2020. During this campaign, government forces have similarly targeted civilians across Oromia. This war intensified after the announcement of the federal and regional governments’ operation against the OLA in April 2022, with the war witnessing scores of civilian massacres across Oromia and an increase in extrajudicial killings by regional and federal forces.
Prior to the military activity that led to the declaration of war in Tigray by the federal government, the decision by the TPLF to proceed with regional elections—despite national elections having been postponed against the backdrop of a discourse suggesting that they would lack fairness and integrity—agitated an increasingly centralizing state. Even if the TPLF were not invested in nurturing genuine multinational federalism when in power, once they lost power following a four-year-long grassroots protest movement dubbed the “Oromo Protests”, that political arrangement became necessary if they were to retain autonomous power. Thus, Tigray’s regional elections could have had the potential to mature the political centre’s (that is, the power centred in Addis Ababa) relationship to relatively autonomous regions. However, instead, the central government opted to take measures to stamp out this “deviance”. In similar fashion, the mere existence of the OLA, and the simple fact of being an Oromo who represents a strong cultural or political will, reflects the same nationalism that the Abiy regime is unwilling to tolerate, and that we see embodied in the act of holding regional elections in Tigray.
The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity, and thus a belief that the existence of divergent national, cultural, and linguistic identities will cause disunity. But it is the very war to stamp out this difference that is edging the Ethiopian state closer to collapse.
Interestingly, the US’s diplomatic silence and inaction when the federal government’s offensive was confined to Oromia, an expedition that was first declared during Abiy’s tenure in early 2020, with Ethiopian National Defence Force leaders stating that they would “send the army to crush remaining rebels within 15 days”, supports assertions made by the “no more camp”, while also nullifying the narrative entirely. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, massacres, disappearances, arbitrary detention, rape, and sexual violence as a weapon of war have been the norm in Oromia since Abiy took power but this has not been of interest to the US government because, until mid-late 2021, the OLA was not perceived as a military power strong enough to cause any long-term or meaningful destabilization to the state.
Still, even if this pattern of behaviour in the US’s approach supports the assertion that the US only cares about human rights when its interests intersect with blasting the human rights abusers, the OLA’s operations gaining visibility has not warranted a strong or streamlined response to the crisis in Oromia. In my opinion, this is because there is an assumption in Washington that the OLA (representing the largest region and population in Ethiopia) are less inclined to accept political arrangements outside of secession, compared to the TPLF elite—another assumption that rests on the experiences of 1991 and thereafter (although the Tegaru and TPLF contexts differ greatly today given the magnitude of the Tigray genocide). If the US wants to back cessation, it will. Focussing on the government or the military’s human rights abuses is a perfect way for the US administration to back secessionist movements, and when said secession is in the interests of the US for one reason or another, it will deploy all the mechanisms available to it to make it clear that human rights violations are occurring and it must step in like it did in Sudan and South Sudan. The US is not known for its humility when it can use the human rights narrative to pursue its interests; if it wanted Ethiopia to fragment, clear and open support of the OLA would be a textbook move. However, the carefulness and moderation that characterise its approach, when the human rights conditions are some of the worst in the world, strongly suggest that its objective is not Ethiopia’s break-up.
The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity.
Imperialism is an issue, and in fact, Ethiopia has a localized manifestation of imperialism that it has yet to address. The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up. The war crimes committed daily by an array of actors against anybody that represents an identity that the Ethiopian state considers a threat to its self-image as a cultural, linguistic and religious monolith are paving the way towards the country’s disintegration. I believe that the US backed the formation of a multinational federation in 1991 because it understood that differences needed space to thrive if one polity was to be feasible, and it wanted and needed one large and strong polity in the region with which to collaborate militarily, politically and economically.
Understanding this desire for expansion and consolidation is central to understanding US engagement in 1991 and its subsequent silence as the EPRDF abused power over 27 years. The same reasoning is now informing the US’s current stand regarding the Ethiopian crisis. It does not want to deal with having to reinstate itself as the key neo-power in the region if the country were to break up into many new states—the variables outside of its control would be too many to reckon with—so it is doing what it can to mitigate the crisis. It refuses to admit that there is popular demand for independence within Oromia and Tigray.
One thing the US is doing that could propel the country towards violent disintegration, is watching out for its interests while ignoring the fact that Ethiopia needs to engage in a national dialogue that could result in holding multiple referendums that lead the country either into a chapter of healing as one polity or to peaceful disintegration. Either way, the people must choose, and this kind of consensual nation-building is not something the US backs unless it makes sense for its own interests.
The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up.
The Abiy regime and the “no more” camp have taken part of the truth and successfully centred it as the whole truth. If they (the Abiy regime and its supporters) believed that Africans have the agency and means to solve their problems internally, an idea I believe in, then why not do that by reckoning with the fact that the Ethiopian state itself requires a decolonial process that addresses century-long questions of power and identity? Instead, the “no more” camp generally applies the political violence of neo-colonialism to itself by diverting attention from the fact that the conflicts inside Ethiopia that we see today are a result of a colonial legacy.
This article should not be mistaken for an argument in support of US government intervention in Ethiopia, despite such an intervention endorsing approaches like multinational federalism, an arrangement I believe had the potential to offer Ethiopia some healing. Nor is it an argument in support of the US because I have suggested that the US could back secession, a position I have vehemently argued in favour of in the past. Neo-colonialism is real and the US is a leader in using it to expand its political and economic interests as well as its military might. The very fact that the US is a player in the fate of Ethiopia, in whatever direction, should be resisted.
And nor is this article an endorsement for the “no more” camp as radical resistance to war or unfair geopolitics. I believe that the “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.
This article is part of a series called Deception, Denial, Dialogue: Fall of an Empire