By Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal
In the post-Covid world, Western democracies have lamented the absence of commitment to the collective good – “shared common values” – among states. But their response to the conflict in Northern Ethiopia today suggests otherwise. The positions of the US and its Western partners on the conflict reinforce the conclusion held by authoritarian states that democracy – and the less-than-sustainable hegemonic status of the West – simply doesn’t work.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rule, which dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition since 1991 for 27 years, was known for its repressive governance culture and commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideological, economic and security policies. Labelled as a tier 3 terrorist organization by the United States government, this autocratic elite demonstrated its true colours one year ago today by staging an unprovoked terrorist attack which murdered thousands of federal Ethiopian forces across all outposts of the national armed forces’ northern command in Tigray.
Had the same incident been visited upon a NATO member state, no one would have questioned that ally turning to others for diplomatic support to underwrite a law enforcement operation, aimed in good faith at neutralizing such a serious threat to the national interests of the legitimate administration. Instead, and despite being fully aware of the TPLF’s repressive persecutions and terrorist classification, some global leaders knuckled under a narrative of a digital intimidation and fake news campaign that was launched by the TPLF’s remote and well-resourced satellite hubs.
The TPLF narrative vilified Eritrean forces, a long-term TPLF opponent, for unproven and uninvestigated alleged crimes. It criticized the government for postponing a federal election which international advisers had encouraged it to do, in line with the decisions of 78 other countries which postponed their elections due to Covid-19. It accused the Abiy government of “genocide” even within hours of its murderous and unprovoked attacks on its forces. And it has continued to issue critical comments to both the Ethiopian government and the population, which were working overtime to provide 70% of the humanitarian aid to a region that had been scourged by TPLF-staged chaos.
The United States and others were consistently critical of the Ethiopian government, even following the country’s federal elections in June in which approximately 75% of the eligible population voted. These numbers were bolstered by an additional 6.6 million who voted in September, bringing the outcome of the election to an approximate 80% voter turnout. It was the first peaceful, democratic and transparent election ever to be held in the country, confirmed by100,000 local election monitors and over 100 international election observers.
Yet despite an outcome of which even Western democracies would be proud, in which PM Abiy Ahmed secured a landslide victory, congratulatory messages normally issued in this context were not forthcoming. Not backing democracy at the outset makes it harder to support later democratic victories, even when such support should be self-evident. By embracing moral equivalency where none exists, Western states have undermined their own position.
In effect, the position that some world leaders have adopted on Ethiopia not only ignores the voice of over 100 million Ethiopians, as well as a very populous global Ethiopian diaspora, but also defies basic democratic values – values which Western countries are supposed to support. The West’s failure to call out the TPLF for its atrocities and breaches of international law – instead preferring to direct punitive measures towards the country’s duly elected government – reflects a selective and illiberal application of these values. By treating a terrorist organization as equal to a democratically elected and legitimate government, the US and its partners, the underlying values and principles of the West come across as inconsistent and contradictory.
Such values would normally include pushing for a peaceful transition from the harsh TPLF rule that the West supported in 2018, enhancing the security of states, their populations and their borders – actions for which Ethiopia has been vilified and denied international respect – and supporting basic human rights and freedoms. These values, in turn, must rest upon a stable world order – a prospect which has diminished in the face of irresponsible meddling and destabilizing actions which have made other African states fear similar treatment.
For a hugely populous, diverse and landlocked country situated in a challenging and unstable region, Ethiopian federal democracy is the only option in the Horn of Africa. The very model that the US insists it upholds has been freely chosen by an African people for the first time in their country’s history. Yet rather than a milestone to celebrate, this is being derided and condemned by its supposed allies.
If the United States and the European Union continue to do all they can to undermine Ethiopia’s progress, the result will be damning. Washington and Brussels will be rewarding a terrorist organization that has committed the same heinous crimes as al-Shabab and Boko Haram and that has arguably targeted more children than these groups. One year on, and the embarrassment does not lie with the emergent federal democracy in Ethiopia. It can be found in Washington, Brussels and Geneva, whose commitment to democracy seems more tentative than ever.
Both President Putin and Secretary Xi have made the case openly and frankly that democracies are undependable. There are several strains to their allegation. First, they claim that important domestic decisions cannot be made effectively through the democratic process as conceived and implemented in the West. Second, they also contend that democracies are unreliable as allies and partners. Whatever the accuracy of these allegations, the failure of Western democracies to support other democratic governments, especially when they are in conflict with terrorist organizations that are bent on destroying democracy and imposing a harsh Marxist dictatorship, clearly underlines the core question around reliability.
For more than a year, the Ethiopian government has been battling an armed insurgency eager to destroy the country’s democratic character. Civil conflict produces excesses and tragedies on all sides, but there is no moral equivalency between those sides. Any lack of resolve on that issue in the democracies of the West weakens democracy everywhere.
Ann Fitz-Gerald is the Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a Professor of International Security at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science Department. She is also a senior research associate with the Royal United Services Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD).
Hugh Segal is a Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, Senior Advisor at Aird & Berlis and former chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism.