Thursday, April 18, 2024
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What will become of Abiy Ahmed’s ‘Acts of Aggression’ against the Somali people?

By Dr Aweys Omar Mohamoud

Part I

On new-year’s day, the Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed signed a deal giving his country naval access to the Red Sea with separatist Somaliland leader Muse Bihi. Somalia declared the deal an ‘act of aggression’ against its sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence, and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signed into law a piece of legislation nullifying the so-called MoU between these two leaders.

Prime Minister Abiy and President Bihi

Abiy Ahmed’s open contempt for the UN Charter is particularly revealing. It seems that no one has picked him up on the aggressive, confrontational and open threats made by the Ethiopian leader prior to new-year’s day to demand land and sea territories that are not rightfully his. On Oct. 13, 2023, Abiy Ahmed claimed that his land-locked country has a right to demand maritime access to a Red Sea port from its neighbours in the Horn of Africa either through diplomacy or by force if necessary. While a later statement was slightly tempered, his remarks were clearly seen as threatening conflict should Ethiopia be denied what he called his country’s intrinsic right to red sea maritime access.

Abiy Ahmed’s threat of use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of the littoral states of the region (unless his illegitimate grand naval ambition is granted) and now his signing of an illegal MoU granting him ownership of land and sea territories of the Federal Republic of Somalia with separatist leaders must be strongly repudiated as a violation of the basic principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, a “solemn treaty” recognized as the foundation of international law and world order.

There were legitimate ways to react to the threats Abiy Ahmed made against these three states (Somalia, Djibouti & Eritrea) towards the latter part of 2023. The events prior to his so-called MoU with Muse Bihi could’ve been considered valid grounds for a joint diplomatic initiative of self-defence by the leaders of these three countries, who each and every one of them in their own way felt threatened by Abiy’s aggressive posturing. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, using his democratic credentials of being elected as President of Somalia twice, should have encouraged them to collectively approach the Security Council to authorize appropriate measures to respond to Abiy’s threats. Any rejoinder Abiy Ahmed made would have had no such authority because his hands are not clean; they’re bloodied.

Igniting a new border conflict or rekindling an old one!

Why does Abiy Ahmed want to start a fresh border conflict in the region? Ethiopia, under his leadership, is already suffering from protracted conflicts that caused extra-ordinary violence, ethnic blood-letting and broken communities. The conflict in Tigray was one of the deadliest in recent world history for the extraordinary amount of war crimes committed, human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, and human displacement. The War and its associated humanitarian disaster had killed approximately 600,000 people, and displaced more than two million people from their homes. Social, political, and economic reverberations continue across the country, causing enormous human suffering and resentment. Ethnic relations have seriously deteriorated, and Abiy’s regime is once again engaged in violent internal conflict, this time involving militia groups from the regions of Amhara and Oromia. 

It is said that “war is more likely when … [leaders] believe conquest is easy”. Perhaps Abiy Ahmed has come to believe in the “cult of the offensive” after all that’s happened in Tigray and other ethnic territories in Ethiopia that his army has subdued in the last few years. Perhaps being too cerebral, he has come to foresee a final winner-take-all struggle for the domination of the Horn of Africa – a clash that would quickly end in complete victory for him as the winner and a crushing defeat for the loser (whoever that may be!).

Life ain’t that simple, and Abiy Ahmed needs to proceed with caution. Caution, as they say, is the eldest child of wisdom – the opposite of arrogance and hubris because wisdom listens. He’s got to listen to the clamour of his people for peace and stability and a future free from oppression, violence and injustice. He’s got to listen to the voices of families, friends and communities whose young people (and old too) perished and are still perishing in the many injudicious protracted conflicts in his country. And he’s got to listen to the voices of the families and communities whose sons and daughters perished in the border conflict between his country and Eritrea, from 1998 to 2000.

Who controls the small border town of Badme was the spark that set off that war. Both countries spent hundreds of millions of dollars and suffered tens of thousands of casualties as a direct consequence – estimates suggest that between 70,000 and 300,000 people were killed and 650,000 were displaced. The conflict resulted in a tense stand-off that persisted for the next 20 years which meant that both countries faced hostilities from each other and were living in a perpetual state of conflict and strife.

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 because he appeared to end Ethiopia’s long-running border conflict with Eritrea. But behind the optimistic headlines, old grievances are back and new ones are being born. At the end of 2023, they were, ominously, on the brink of war primarily because of Abiy’s ambitious quest to regain access to the Red Sea, which Ethiopia lost in 1991 after Eritrea’s independence. 

The history of conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia goes equally deep and involves historical, cultural, and ideological fault-lines. The 1964 Ethiopian-Somali border war, or the First Ogaden war, mark the first military conflict between the newly independent Somali Republic and the old Ethiopian Empire of Haile Selassie, and lasted 2 months from 8th February to 2nd April 1964. The Ethiopian-Somali war over the Ogaden region (1977-78) resulted in the death of an estimated 60,000 people, both soldiers and civilians. Close to one million people were displaced.

The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia at the end of 2006 lasted two years. This occupation removed the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) leaders from power but spawned the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist insurgents. The Islamists portrayed the invasion in religious and nationalist terms and painted the US and Ethiopia as Christian invaders of a Muslim country.

Further back in history, we have a 19th century Ethiopian Emperor, Tewodros II, offering Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1861 an alliance ‘to destroy Islam’. Such war-mongering judgemental attitude fuelled by religious hate should of course have no place at all in international politics, either in the past or at the present. The British anyhow ignored the scheme and, when no response came, Tewodros imprisoned the British envoy and other Europeans. This diplomatic incident led to a British military expedition that defeated Tewodros’s imperial force in 1868. Tewodros committed suicide a few days later to avoid capture.

They may be nearly two centuries apart, but it would be easy to draw parallels between what the Emperor Tewodros II proposed in his offer to the British Queen and what the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of the noughties was trying to accomplish. The United States, with all its vast air power, together with 40,000-50,000 Ethiopian soldiers on the ground could not break the back of Somali Islamist rebels. Thus Al-Shabaab was born and recaptured nearly all territory lost by the UIC. The FGS has been struggling with that terrorist outfit ever since the AU peacekeepers were deployed in Somalia 17 years ago and the whole country is still living with their menace of deadly terrorism. 

Abiy Ahmed’s purported MoU (signed with separatist leader Muse Bihi) needs to be qualified as an illegal annexation of land and sea territories of the Federal Republic of Somalia. He’s literally carving up Somalia into numerous warring clan territories whilst engaged in multiple brutal wars at home justified on the basis of resurrecting the power of the old Ethiopian state that is embodied in a unitary power: the will of the monarch, if you like.

But he’s making a fatal mistake because Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups, and ethnic wars in his country are old as Ethiopia itself. His pseudo-religious world view of carving up other states in the region, primarily Somalia, will promote a new language of ethnic separatism in his own backyard. 

The Hope for the Somali People

The hope for the Somali people is this: we’re one of the oldest and most prominent nations in the horn of Africa, united by common descent, history, culture, religion and language and inhabiting a vast territory that belongs to us. Whatever Abiy Ahmed does cannot change those facts. It may well be a blessing in disguise for us. What we see now is the rise of Somali national consciousness especially among the youth, both at home and in the diaspora. We need to organize our young people so that they can find new and modern ways of promoting a positive Somali identity with a deep sense of belonging, and a feeling of love for their country.

When leaders commit hubris and reject to learn the wisdom of their limits, they forfeit their power and the grace that could be theirs. The wisdom of limits is what Abiy Ahmed needs to learn if he’s to have any hope of sustaining his power for the sake of peace and ending the wars in his own country and the broader region. The Horn of Africa’s most significant test in 2024 and beyond will be building partnerships and institutions for cooperation that can meet new and existing challenges for peace and development. If the Ethiopian leader continues to reject the wisdom of his power’s limits, he’ll be compelled, sooner or later, by either internal or external forces, and generally in a tragic and destructive way.

Stay tuned for part II of ‘What will become of Abiy Ahmed’s ‘Acts of Aggression?

Dr. Aweys Omar Mohamoud
Email: [email protected]

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Related articles:

1.A pact cast adrift: Navigating the legal maelstrom of the Ethiopia-Somaliland accord By Dayib Sheikh Ahmed (faracadde)

2. The escalating Ethiopia-Somalia rift: A precarious path to conflict By Hassan Tahir  

3Has Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed failed history at the school? failure in history may lead him to failure in leadership By Prof Abdisalam M Issa-Salwe and Abdullahi Salah Osman

4 .Abiy Ahmed’s MoU with Muse Bihi threatens Horn of Africa stability by Abdirahman Baadiyow

5-Calculated ambiguity: A sovereign port, access to the sea or a naval base? By Prof Ezekiel Gebissa

6-The historical search for a sea outlet and leadership legacy By Faisal A Roble

7.Ethiopia and Somaliland deal: A declaration of war against Somalia By Hassan Zaylai


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