Ethiopia - an "economic miracle" turned into a nightmare

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The Biden administration, overturning the policy of Trump to some extent, has acted quickly but cautiously over the rapidly deteriorating internal war in Ethiopia, and more largely around the Horn of Africa, by appointing a retired diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, as Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Feltman has been clear about the possible impact of problems facing the country and the region when he said: "Syria will look like child's play in comparison"[1]. Feltman has already toured the region and spoken to the regimes of Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt as well as the Ethiopian government. The Horn of Africa, a critical crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, is a vital, strategic area for imperialism and has attracted those such as France, Britain, Turkey (which has stated that it sees Ethiopia as its "open door" to Africa", FT, 17.1.2021, pay wall), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the EU, China and the US. The region has ports, raw materials and oil wells but it is largely rural and its main attraction for imperialism is its geographical and thus its strategic position on the imperialist chessboard. Though China follows, in a fashion, its policy of "non-interference", there is the danger that this region, with the interference of powers large and small, will descend into a greater free-for-all but, with military bases of US, France, Japan, China and others, close by in Djibouti, the situation contains the danger of larger-scale clashes.

Both the US and the EU saw the Ethiopian federal government of Abiy Ahmed as a regional policeman and strongman able to keep this fragmented country of over a hundred million people together and pacify the surrounding ones. The EU and the west couldn't find words warm enough to describe their confidence in the Ethiopian economy describing it as an "economic miracle" (BBC, 13.8.2015) along with their total support for Ahmed, awarding him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The words of European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, are instructive of the gap between delusion and reality when she said: “Ethiopia has given hope to a whole continent and beyond, showing that peace with one's neighbours, for the good of the people, is possible, when there is courage and vision. I am here today to show the European Union's full commitment to supporting Ethiopia and its people on their future path" (EU press release, 7.12.2019). The EU alone has directed nearly a $1 billion dollars of "development cooperation" towards Ethiopia in the last few years and the west has "invested" $9 billion overall with the IMF alone, making a massive $2 billion available. But because of its involvement in the mass killings and ethnic cleansing in the region of Tigray, the US and the G-7 began in April to impose punitive measures against the Ethiopian regime, using sanctions, pausing or stopping tranches of "aid"[2] with the risk of driving it closer to China or even turning to Russia. China already had a head start here with its "health diplomacy" (its vaccine programme - or "vaccine war" - has been integrated into this) on the continent, but particularly in Ethiopia which it sees as a hub for its "Belt and Road" soft power drive. On a much larger scale than that undertaken by "socialist" Cuba during the Cold War, China has successfully used health diplomacy as an adjunct to its imperialist drive in Africa (and elsewhere). In this respect it has stolen a march on the "old" western governments active in Africa, being particularly quick off the mark from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

China has described its policy towards Ethiopia as an example of its "stronger community of Sino-African destiny". For a number of years now it has been funding civilian and military projects in Ethiopia, the former including industrial parks (in which Britain amongst other was interested in becoming involved), hydro-powered dams, highways, railways (connected to the town and port of Djibouti - important for this land-locked country), metro system, skyscrapers, sports stadia, etc., while the latter has seen officers in the Ethiopian army being trained in China. China has also funded half of Ethiopia's debt and is underwriting the $4 billion for the construction of the "Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam" (GRED) on the Blue Nile, forty-five kilometres east of the border with Sudan. The dam, whose construction started in 2011 and is now starting to be filled, has raised tensions with Sudan but also with Egypt, with the US backing both countries, but the latter in particular. The US has been very vocal in supporting the Egyptians over this issue, with a regional commander of US forces going onto Egyptian television recently (reported on Channel 4 News, June 25) stating his total support - and thus the US administration's - for Egyptian moves to stop the project, even suggesting that the Egyptians were not acting aggressively enough in this respect. But the Ethiopian regime is resisting US pressure, and this is an expression of the historical weakening of US hegemony and the growth of the tendency of every man for himself in international relations.

All countries have their specificities but Ethiopia particularly stands out in Africa as being a country that has never been colonised, fighting toe-to-toe against attempts to do so. It has its own written history but, never having been through a classic bourgeois revolution, is less a unified nation state than a patchwork of clans, ethnic and religious groups - a real anomaly. But even as such it was an expression of a nascent form of African imperialism developing at the same time as it was throughout the industrialised world. This was expressed in Ethiopia under the reign of Menelik II, 1844-1913. Menelik set up a more co-ordinated and centralised state structure, using appointments rather than hereditary privilege. It had an efficient, well-trained and well-armed army strong enough to take and beat any would-be colonisers, particularly the Italians. Menelik's state oversaw the building of modern roads, bridges and set up a postal and telegraph system. It ruthlessly suppressed the slave trade and gave Ethiopia a sense of national identity, establishing a modern state in 1898. The Menelik Empire collapsed under the weight of global imperialist war. It was invaded and occupied by Mussolini's Italy in 1936 and then by Britain in 1941, with Emperor Haile Selassie compelled to turn to the RAF for support.

During the Cold War, with "national liberation" firmly on the imperialism's agenda and supported by leftism around the world, Russia threw the leftists into a spin by abruptly changing its support from Somalia to that of its adversary, Ethiopia in 1977. More disconcerting for the leftists was that the US did exactly the opposite, forcing them to switch sides as well. The "socialist" leader in place, Mengistu Haile Mariam, became Moscow's placeman and ruled with terror. There's never been much of a working class in Ethiopia and this is reflected in the weight of Mao-like Stalinism in the country with its emphasis on the peasantry. There was some working class, student and popular protests in the 1970's, though largely controlled and manipulated by the various leftist factions. Even so, the regime cracked down hard with its form of Stalinist terror and a whole range of Eastern Bloc troops from Bulgaria to Cuba were barracked on Ethiopian soil. But by the mid-1980's the reach of Russian imperialism was faltering badly under the blows of the economic crisis; military and economic support from Moscow to Addis Ababa was being severely curtailed as the Soviet Empire stumbled towards its collapse. In 1989, as an example of not very good timing, Mengistu declared Ethiopia a "Workers' State". Two years later he and his regime were gone, beaten by history and an alliance of 21 factions fighting together under the auspices of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which included a significant force of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) a "Marxist-Leninist" organisation whose pro-Albanian "national liberation struggle" was supported by many on the left wing of capital around the world. Both the Abiy Ahmed[3] faction and the TPLF ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, during which time they fought a bitter war with the Maoist Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). Eritrea achieved "self- determination" in 1993 and is today ruled by the same dictator, His Excellency Isaias Afwerki, who according to Human Rights Watch presides over one of the most repressive regimes in the world.[4]

Imperialist turn-around in Tigray

The Tigray region is one of ten in Ethiopia based on ethnic divisions and, from a "national liberation" perspective, so popular with the left of capital to this day, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has provided important support to the state of Ethiopia, running its regional government for decades and beefing up its internal security forces which is a known strength of all these Stalinist gangs[5]. When he was part of the Ethiopian government, the leader of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael, was very close to China, while there were also moves from the US and the west to curry favour with the TPLF.

As so often in the history of this region, with its jig-saw of ethnic and religious conflicts, adapted and inflamed by the needs of different imperialist powers, there has been a major turnaround in the forces involved. The reckoning between the Abiy and TPLF factions broke out into open warfare last November, when after months of feuding Abiy sent his army into northern Tigray in a major escalation of the conflict. The Ethiopian government turned for help towards its previous adversary, Afwerki's Eritrea, which sent its largely press-ganged and undetermined conscripted and half-starved army into Tigray to wreak havoc along with the warlords and militias of the Amhara Region Special Forces responsible for the ethnic cleansing and massacres in Tigray, November 2020. Despite the internet lock-down, many stories of massacres and atrocities by the Eritrean and other forces emerged. This had the effect attracting thousands to sign up on the Tigrayan side but this repressive "national liberation" regime itself has perpetrated its own massacres and atrocities throughout its own history up to and including the war today.   

The war is unfolding as the media talk up the Ethiopian election, an obscene side-show at the best of times. Ahmed denies anyone is hungry[6]: "There is no hunger in Tigray" despite UN reports and a document from the US Agency for International Development saying that 900,000 people face immediate famine[7] with millions more in danger; this forced starvation by the government along with rape are deliberate weapons of war. The upshot today is a devastating and brutal war of each against all with an unknown number of deaths; fuelling famine and the flight of uncounted numbers of refugees, not least through the deliberate whipping-up of ethnic tensions and with a breakdown of the whole region into utter chaos and warlordism now on the cards.

Latest developments have seen a strong counter-offensive of Tigrayan forces which have regrouped under the umbrella of the Tigray Defence Forces, a composite of factions under the wing of the TPLF which themselves have opposing factions, warlords and interests. These "rebel" (BBC) forces have considerable heavy weaponry and fighting experience, shooting down an Ethiopian military C-130 transporter and retaking the regional capital of Mekelle[8]. Eritrean forces have mostly left the country having committed atrocity after atrocity with the Tigrayan forces now threatening to follow them into Eritrea, while Sudan, unnerved by neighbourhood events, has militarised part of its border with Ethiopia. The major powers are virtually helpless here and all NATO can do is mouth meaningless platitudes while setting up a liaison office with the African Union whose African base is in Addis Ababa. Both NATO, which has a number of troops on the ground, and the AU, do not possess the forces or the wherewithal to confront or control the growing destabilisation.

China's presence has for the moment met a set-back in this part of Africa[9]. It has invested heavily in Ethiopia and particularly in the Tigray region which it figured could be part of a hub for its Belt and (Silk) Road initiatives, but now it's a much riskier business for Chinese investment as the country and the region begins a descent into chaos and, possibly, wider military confrontations. All across Africa economic crisis and capitalist decomposition are advancing and extending and nowhere is this more the case than in the current war in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Boxer, 9.7.21


[3] Abiy Ahmed was a politician who negotiated his way through the endless ethnic faction fights rising to the top from mid-2000 through the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

[5] Within the endless wars of secession, there are a number of these gangs including the Oromo Liberation Front, a split from that, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which attacked a Chinese-owned oil facility in Abole, Ethiopia close to the Somali border in 2007 killing dozens of Ethiopians and Chinese. There are others, with some going in and out of the Ethiopian government's designation of "terrorist". The likes of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) have supported some of these various gangs at one time or another in the recent past talking about their "resistance to the Western-backed government", their "struggle against counter-revolutionary forces", and their "fight for reforms" in the region.

[6] Yahoo News, 26.6.2021


Imperialist conflicts