Following three years of protests in Ethiopia, former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February and now a new government is taking over, which promises to recognize a peace treaty with Eritrea, possibly bringing a long period of tensions to an end. We speak to Glenn Ford of the Black Agenda Report about Africa’s second most populous country
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
Recently. Ethiopia has been in the news. Over the past three years there’s been protests in Ethiopia, and recently a new government has been installed, and this government has been moving rapidly to change past policies that the Ethiopian government had for the last two decades. So joining me today is Glen Ford, who is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, and author of “The Big Lie,” to kind of explain to us what’s going on in Ethiopia. Glen, thanks for joining me.
GLEN FORD: Well, thanks for having me on. You know, Ethiopia surprised the world with the announcement from its newly sworn-in president, Mr. Ahmed, that his country is finally, finally going to accept the terms of a peace deal that it made with neighboring Eritrea that it originally agreed to back in 2000. It’s been a very uneven contest between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia is Africa’s second-largest country. It’s got 105 million people, and it’s closely aligned with the United States. Eritrea has only six million people, but it is a fiercely independent country. Eritrea is one of only two countries on the entire African continent that has refused to have any kind of military relationship with AFRICOM, the U.S. military command in Africa. And Eritrea also refuses to accept Western so-called foreign aid, or to join their trade blocs.
However, after fighting for its independence from Ethiopia for 30 years, beginning in the 1960s, and then winning independence at the point of a gun back in 1993, and then after fighting another all-out war with Ethiopia from 1998-2000, we had this agreement, finally, with Ethiopia, and Ethiopia reneged on the deal. That agreement, which would have recognized Eritrea’s borders and solidified, finalized, its quest for independence, that agreement had been backed by the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, and the United States. But when Ethiopia backed out of the agreement and refused to recognize Eritrea’s borders, those countries, those guarantors, did nothing. Instead, the United States backed Ethiopia to the hilt and put Eritrea on its hit list.
The Ethiopian government, which is in the hands of a minority people, the Tigrayans, who represent about 6 percent of the population, that government aligned itself such with the United States that it has, in fact, become a military client state of the U.S. in Africa. Back in 2006, with the backing of the United States, the Ethiopians invaded neighboring Somalia. They overthrew a government of a moderate Islamic Courts faction, and that plunged the nation into such turmoil that the radical Shabaab movement rose, and later allied itself with al Qaeda. The U.S. then accused little Eritrea of aiding the Shabaab, and got the United Nations to whip up very severe sanctions on Eritrea, further damaging its economy, further isolating it, and further damaging the reputation of the country in the world.
And I have to say this, that to accuse Eritria, whose government is revolutionary and socialist and rigorously secular, of being an ally of Islamic jihadists is ridiculous. And the United Nations backed off of that charge, and said, oh well, Eritrea no longer is helping the Shabaab. But then, at the urging of the United States, said it would continue to apply those harsh economic sanctions against Eretria under the reasoning that, well, the sanctions worked, because they’re no longer helping Shabaab.
So Eritrea’s isolation, at least from the West, has been ongoing, but now Ethiopia says that it is going to recognize the treaty that it signed 18 years ago. And it is commonly understood that the reason for this change on the part of Ethiopia is because the minority Tigrayan-based government in Addis Ababa has been besieged by protest movements that are based in the majority of the country’s population, especially the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromos and the Amhara. And the new president, who is from the Oromo ethnicity, has probably reasoned that they don’t need another front, another distraction, because they’ve got some nation mending to do in Ethiopia itself.
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EDDIE CONWAY: Well, it’s my understanding that he’s going to release, or already have released, thousands of political prisoners, and shut down some of the prisons and camps that’s been classified as torture centers. Is this true? Are the political prisoners being released?
GLEN FORD: Well, you know, Ethiopian exiles and some folks within the country have been reporting that there have been prisoner releases for some months now that were widely announced and heralded, heralded by the government. But the exile and dissident groups said that the kinds of prisoners who were released were not the main leaders of these various antigovernment movements who’ve been held. So I think we’d have to wait for these groups to tell us whether the people that they really wanted out of prison are among the latest 500 or so that have been been released.
But certainly this is a sustained effort at internal placation of dissidents. And, and now a serious effort to mend fences, or at least lower the military levels of conflict with Eritrea. Something certainly is happening here. And the question is what reasons internally and externally have led to this. Most, lots of folks are talking about the much more internationalized situation that has occurred in the Horn of Africa. The United States for the last more than 20 years has been the main partner in the world of the Ethiopian government, especially militarily, but China has invested massively in the Horn of Africa. It’s building a railroad from landlocked Ethiopia through to the Red Sea. It’s invested a great deal of money in buying up lands and developing projects in Ethiopia. Certainly that has an effect. And there are-. The internationalization of the situation makes it much less likely that the Ethiopian government can play the client to the United States solely in that part of the world.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, now, I understand that one of the other changes is that this new government is recognizing the peace agreement from 2000, and accepting the border dispute resolution of 2002 around that particular town. Is troops still occupying that town, are they talking about withdrawing those troops? Because that seemed to be the source of the conflict for the last 17 years or so.
GLEN FORD: Yeah, one would think if Ethiopia is going to accept the agreement in full then that would call for the evacuation of its troops from Badme, because that is what the agreement calls for. The Ethiopians now say, and their friends the United States now say, that the ball is in the Eritreans’ court. But I’m sure the Eritreans say no, not as long as Ethiopian troops are on Eritrean territory. If they really are agreeing to go along with the agreement after all these years, get out of town. Get out of Badme.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yes, that would seem to be the case. So do you have any idea at all, though, because I have been looking at the news, and I didn’t see any response whatsoever from Eritrea in relationship to this. And I understand that their position have always been that we’re not even going to talk about it until you take your troops off of our territory. Is that, is that why there’s silence? Or is, has there been any movement?
GLEN FORD: I haven’t heard anything, I haven’t read anything, and I don’t trust any call that I make. I think that the Eritreans aren’t going to say anything until they’ve discussed this very surprise development thoroughly among themselves, and to come forward with a position that they feel internally comfortable with. But certainly their logical position would be that you must evacuate right now. But, but countries can’t just give each other ultimatums and orders. There has to be coordination between the militaries so that if Ethiopia does pull out of this border town and the Eritreans move in there aren’t clashes in the interim. There has to be consultation with the local people about who is going to take care of the water and the sewer needs of the little towns. So yeah, the two of course have to talk. It is a surprise to the Eritreans. I wouldn’t be too suspicious about them taking a few days to get used to this, this real sea change.
EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah. I mean, because one of the things I notice is that there’s huge armies facing each other on that border. And part of the international, I don’t know if it’s propaganda or what it is, but I’m assuming it’s propaganda, claim is that a lot of people are leaving Eritrea as a result of conscription, or being forced to join the army, and kind of like man those posts on the border. And so people are fleeing across the Mediterranean, et cetera, et cetera. But according to Eritrea, it seems like other people from other nations in Northern Africa is using that as justification to enter Europe, and so on. Do you know anything about that?
GLEN FORD: Oh, sure. This is a fascinating story. You know, of course Eritrea is a highly militarized country. There’s no doubt about that. When you are fighting a life and death battle with a neighbor who’s, who has 105 million people, and you have 5 or 6 million people, and that 105 million person country also has the world’s superpower, the United States, as an ally, yeah, you tend to get very militarized. But it’s also a socialist country. And so this state service, which they call conscription, is not just for the military. All the teachers, virtually all the teachers, in Eritrea, are also part of state service. And many other services of government are actually staffed by people who are part of the state service, which they call conscription, which everyone is liable to serve for 18 months, and many have served longer than that.
But in terms of, of, you hear all the time how Eritreans seem to be the most prone to leave their country of any people in the world. Well, here’s the reason that this appearance has occurred. The United Nations, because of the West, because of the European Union and the United States and their influence over the United Nations, the United Nations recognizes any refugee from Eritrea as having, on the face of it, a political refugee bonafide. That, that is, that if you leave Eritrea you can go to any one of these European countries and say that I am leaving for political reasons, rather than being an economic refugee. No other country in Africa has that. So if you are an Ethiopian, if you are a Sudanese, and you want to make your way to Europe, or even if you are Nigerian and you think you can pass, and you want to make your way to Europe, if you can you will try to pass yourself off as an Eretrian. Because if they accept that you are an Eritrean then you have a political case for for asylum and to stay legally in the country that you don’t have if you’re an Ethiopian or Sudanese or Nigerian.
So people from all over Africa, and especially from Ethiopia, which has ethnic connections, language and such, with Eritrea, claim that they are Eritreans. And that grossly exaggerates the number of Eritreans who have left their country. It also, however, has the effect of encouraging more Eritreans to leave the country, because they know that they can go to Germany and make the case that they are political refugees. And so it encourages Eritreans to leave, and then it exaggerates the number of Eritreans who have actually left by encouraging refugees from all over Africa to claim that they are Eritreans. And this is all manipulated by the United States. It’s part of their blanket hostility towards the Eritreans because they won’t collaborate with AFRICOM, they won’t accept foreign aid, they won’t dutifully roll over and take orders from the superpower.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I know you’re going to keep up with this and the outcome of the, the peace offer and the stalemate between the military forces. Could you come back and let our audience know what the outcome of all of this new maneuvering is about in the near future?
GLEN FORD: Oh sure. And you know, if there’s a trick in the game it’s going to come from the United States. The new Ethiopian president has enough to handle domestically, and wants some kind of peace with his neighbor. But the United States, not so.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Well, I’m looking forward to hearing about this. Thanks for joining me, Glen.
GLEN FORD: Thank you.
EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.