Only A Legitimate Government Should Commit Ethiopians to War !!

By Dr. Solomon Terfa

   I am not approaching the impending war between Ethiopia and Eritrea lightly for I have very little confidence in the decision making abilities of the leaders of both sides. I have agonized over the idea  and have spent countless sleepless nights contemplating it. The positive and or negative ramifications of the position that I am about to take and advocate are my concern as the death and destruction that the war would cause, if it is allowed to continue. I do not want to be misunderstood nor would I want my arguments to be misconstrued.

   At the outset I categorically insist that I am not of pacifist persuasion, although that is a respectable position. The pacifist persuasion gives paramount respect to the lives that could be lost during wars. For instance Mr. Howard Zinn in his December 2001 article entitled A Just Cause, Not Just War enquired on page one “....How can a war be truly just when it involves the daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes to escape the bombs?”. And on page two he argued that “...we (the US) must not match the death lists—it is an ugly exercise–as if one atrocity is worse than another. No killing of innocents, whether deliberate or accidental can be justified. My argument is that when children die at the hands of terrorist or–whether intended or not–as a result of bombs dropped from airplane, terrorism and war become equally unpardonable.” To be fair to Mr. Zinn, it is the weasel words or phrases employed by governments and military leaders, i.e., “collateral damage” “accident”,” military target” to mitigate possible uproar and opposition that have compelled him to oppose any and all kinds of wars. It is incumbent upon me to mention that Mr. Zinn does not consider himself “pacifist.”

   I should say that I am a proponent of a just war. A war that is waged if and when it is imposed upon by an aggressor that threatens the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and peace of a nation. The nature of this war is defensive, a last resort therefore justified. History attest to the fact that Ethiopia’s war against colonial Italy, 1896, and colonial-fascist Italy, 1935, on the eve of the Second World War, are both defensive wars. So also were the wars imposed upon that country by the surrounding countries, i.e., Egypt at Gundent, 1875 and Gura, 1876, then the Sudan, Turkey, and even in the twentieth century from Somalia.

   A just war should only be waged by a legitimate authority is one of the principles advocated by authorities of the area. And in this connection, discussion of the concept of legitimacy as it pertains to war is in order. Max Weber in one of his seminal works (1947), identifies three sources of legitimacy. Charisma is one where the individual’s personality sets him or her apart from ordinary people thereby making him/her legitimate to lead and rule. The second is the Tradition model which is prevalent in feudal society. Power in the tradition model is inherited from one’s parents. Kingship and Chieftainship are of this type. And the third is the Bureaucratic model which obtains in many of the developed societies. It rests on “legality” or in modern parlance, legitimacy is derived from a constitution. Leaders in bureaucratic models are elected by the voters and are accountable to same. Hence, the source of power are the people. Sovereignty belongs to them.              

   It goes without saying that Ethiopia’s defensive wars were all led and waged by its Kings and Emperors, whose legitimacy was derived from the traditional model. Even though their powers were intermittently challenged they had managed to establish stable administrative apparatus and rally their subjects to defend their core value, i.e., territorial integrity of the country. The Orthodox Church  had, throughout the governance of the former, served as agent and instrument of the legitimacy. Emperor Haile Selassie, the 65th ruler in the so-called Solomonic Dynasty that began its chronicle in 1268, introduced the first constitution in 1931, just a year after he became Emperor and in 1955 he introduced his second constitution. Hence he became the first emperor to legitimize imperial succession by the constitution thereby ushering the transition from the traditional to the bureaucratic model. Thus, the Emperor’s authority as the commander in chief of the armed forces of the country was also transformed.

   The overthrow of the emperor by the military ended the Solomonic dynasty. Colonel Mengistu, the leader of the military government ruled the country by fiat until the Constitution of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, (PDRE), 1987, and also the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, (WPE), 1984. The constitution of the PDRE was drafted by Constitutional Commission established in 1986. Its members were drawn from diverse social, economic, and political background, i.e., religious leaders, artists, writers, doctors, academics, athletes, workers, former members of the nobility, and large numbers of the WPE.  Once drafted, the constitution was distributed to the various Kebeles and peasant associations through out the country. It is reported that over 500,000 suggestions were submitted for amendments. The referendum was then held on February 1, 1987. On announcing the result the president said “....96 percent of the 14 million people eligible to participate (adults eighteen years of age and older) actually voted. Eighty-one percent of the electorate endorsed the constitution, while eighteen percent opposed ( one percent of the ballots were invalid).” It is also reported that in Tigray and Eritrea, however, the regime held referendum only in urban centers as most of the territories were controlled by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) respectively.  (U.S. Library of Congress).

   Though the constitution gave the regime a veneer of democracy, it was contradicted by the Stalinist-authoritarian governance of the president who reduced the constitution to an appendage of the WPE. The paramount position of the WPE was enshrined in the 1987 constitution which stated that the Party should be “ the formulator of the country’s development process and the leading force of the state in the society. (U.S. Library of Congress). The dictator’s legitimacy was then anchored on the now eclipsed constitution and the Worker’s Party of Ethiopia. Thus he was  to mobilize and rally the nation and the armed forces against secessionist forces in Eritrea and the expansionist military forces of the government of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1978-79.

   It could be argued that there is correlation between legitimacy of any of the three models and mass support and/ or lack thereof. It is this dialectical relation between legitimacy and mass support that helped the various leaders of Ethiopia defeat their enemies and protect the territorial integrity of their country. The converse is also true that when leaders have finally dissipated and squandered their legitimacy through wrong- doing towards their citizens, the later would adopt nonchalant, indifference and apathetic position to the political process thereby denying or robbing these citizens of their desperately needed legitimacy. This was the case when Emperor Tewedros II was abandoned by his people during his war with the British General Napier in 1868 and when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the military in 1974, and again in 1991 when the coalition forces of TPLF and EPLF overthrew the military quasi-socialist dictatorship of President Mengistu. It could safely be argued that legitimacy, whether it is derived from tradition, charisma, or bureaucratic sources, could be lost unless leaders deserve that legitimacy.

   Now the question is, from whence does the legitimacy of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi come from? It may be argued that it is derived from the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The bombastic sounding title of the constitution may hoodwink the gullible into thinking that is in fact democratic. But in actuality, neither the process of drafting it nor its application and exercise is democratic. It was drafted by the TPLF and its junior partners in the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It is no wonder, therefore, that the first national parliament and regional elections held in May and June 1995 were boycotted by most opposition parties. It however assured a landslide victory for the EPRDF. It is curious that the long- awaited first national elections were boycotted by the opposition. What might be the reason/s? It is my contention that the seeds of peoples’ suspicion of the motives of the TPLF were sown when the TPLF led government squeaked through its pre-cooked constitution with the help of so-called Constitutional Assembly hand picked by the authorities in December 1994. Why didn’t the government allow the people to participate in the drafting and adoption of the constitution? Even the pretentious and make believe constitution of the military government had people participation.

   I would venture to describe the government’s relation with the people as democratic-authoritarianism. That is democratic in words but authoritarian in deeds. For those who manage  to see through the subterfuge, the paramount objective of the TPLF, in all these exercises, is to divide and weaken and then rule the more populous ethnic groups of the country, namely the Amharas and the Oromos. While the structure of the constitution promises to empower the people of the various ethnic groups, its delivery falls unbelievably far short. Polity IV Country Report 200: Ethiopia observed:

Since the overthrow of the Marxist dictatorship in 1991, politics in Ethiopia have been dominated by the EPRDF, which is, in turn, dominated by Tigrayan elites. While the EPRDF oversaw the reestablishment of ethnic-based federalism in Ethiopia in 1994, most non-Tigrayan ethnic groups view this de jure devolution of power with great suspicion. The Amhara view the new federal structure (which includes ten ethnic-based administrative districts) as an attempt by the Tigrayan-dominated ruling party to dismantle their hegemonic position within the national government. Moreover, most southern ethnic groups, including the Oromos and Ogaden Somalis, see the government’s regionalization plan as simply a ploy by the new Tigrayan elite to replace the Amharas as head of the national government without actually devolving any real power to the regions. They argue that the regional and local administrative districts created by this new federal structure continue to be dominated by supporters of the EPRDF who, in fact, simply serve as intermediaries for national government directives. Thus, while the government has actively encouraged the division of the country into distinct ethnic units, it has simultaneously sought to destroy those ethnic organizations that are independent of the EPRDF ( including the Oromo Liberation Front and the All Amhara People’s Organization). What distinguishes the ethnic policy of the EPRDF from its predecessors, then, is simply the language of democracy and ethnic diversity. Behind this liberal facade, ethnic organization, chauvinism and discrimination remain integral components of the Ethiopian political system”.

   It is no wonder therefore that EPRDF’s legitimacy has been suspect from the inception. This suspicion is also borne out by the 2000 parliamentary election which was again boycotted by most of the parties. The fact that credible and well respected citizens resisted to establish genuine and bona fide parties indicate their vehement opposition to legitimizing ethnically- based political parties. It is antithesis to nation building. It will undoubtedly aggravate and also intensify the suspicion and animosity that ethnic groups harbor for one another. Added to this is those same citizen’s  unequivocal opposition to Article 39 of the constitution which purports to support the right of every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia to self-determination including secession. It could therefore be argued that the legitimacy of the TPLF led government is grounded on the highly suspicious and most controversial constitution. The government managed to rule or misrule the country for eleven years. However well articulated the so-called democratic rights of the people are in Part Two of the constitution—

Art. 29—right of thought, opinions, and expression

Art. 30—the Right of assembly, demonstration, and petition

Art. 31—freedom of association

Art. 32—Right of nationality

the exercise of these rights has been horrible and deplorable. In this connection, I should say that I have restricted my analysis to the violation of the civil and political rights of the people only. The violation of the social and cultural rights will be addressed at a later time. The atrocities that are perpetrated by the government are so widespread it would be self defeating on my part to try to address them in a study as short as this one. Human Rights Watch World Report 2003 observed:

“Human right conditions in Ethiopia did not perceptibly improve in 2002. In southern Ethiopia they significantly worsened: Police shot into groups of civilians and conducted mass arrests. Arbitrary arrests, however, were not confined to the south. Those who were arrested were subjected to prison conditions that did not meet international standards and some prisoners, particularly in Oromiya regional state, were tortured. Courts rarely intervened to stop human rights abuses, parliament not at all. The print media was allowed to publish but was frequently harassed. The ruling coalition Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front ( EPRDF) led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi maintained a firm grip over the federal and state government. Local elections were subject to intimidation and fraud. The EPRDF also continued to exert control over the judiciary.”

   A Government 101 course will tell you that constitutions have at least two important functions; The first one is to be used as instrument of government and the second one is to guarantee, protect, and expand the personal rights and liberties of citizens. However pretentious the government might be in its declaration of having established a federal form of government, it is betrayed by its violation of the human rights of its citizens. Federalism is a form of government where the checks and balances between the three branches of government–legislative, executive, and judiciary– prevent the centralization of power in one of them which could lead to tyranny. The government has become tyrannical. Mr. Negasso Gidada, who once served the EPRDF government as president and now elected to the federal parliament expressed his fear to Thilo Thieke of Der Spiegel, on November 23, 2005 that “ the situation in Ethiopia is very serious. In Addis, it has become commonly routine to imprison people and throw them in jails and concentration camps on a daily basis. Young people are routinely beaten and the police are literally plundering the private houses of the people they suspect. Most of the concentration camps are located in malaria infested areas of the country. A great majority of the opposition leaders, including artists, journalists and professors are under arrest. Although the official figure of those imprisoned is about 8000, the numbers are definitely much higher than this and may reach about 40,000." The New York Times in its editorial on November 27, 2005 warned: “ Somebody needs to remind Meles Zenawi that he is supposed to be setting the example for how democracy should work in Africa. As things stand, the only example Mr. Meles, the Ethiopian prime minister, is setting is one of autocratic repression....Mr. Blair should publicly evict Mr. Meles from his Commission for Africa. The rest of the international development crowd should exile him”.  Compounding these problems, Human Rights Watch on Mach 24, 2005 accused the government of Ethiopia as having perpetrated crimes against humanity. Under the title “Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region” human rights watch accused the government as follows:

“The Ethiopian military has committed widespread murder, rape and torture against the Anuak population in the remote southwestern region of Gambella since December 2003.... the military launched a series of attacks on Anuak villages that destroyed well over 1000 homes and left several dozen villagers dead. In numerous smaller incidents, soldiers have severely beaten and sometimes killed Anuak men they encounter along roads or in sweeps of Anuak villages. These abuses have forced several thousand Anuak civilians to flee their homes for camps across the Sudanese border, while others have sought refuge with friends or family in the relative safety of Gmbella’s larger towns”.    

   Has the TPLF led government exhausted all of its pretensions of legitimacy and has now embarked upon brute force? All signs indicate this to be the case. The eminent social scientist Thomas Dye, on writing on the relationship between “power”, “authority”, and “legitimacy” said:

Legitimacy is the belief that the exercise of power is ‘right’ or ‘proper,' that people are morally obligated to submit to it. Legitimacy depends on people believing that the exercise of power is necessary and valuable to society. As long as people believe in the legitimacy of the institutions in which power is lodged and believe that power is being used rightfully and properly, then force will seldom be required. People feel obliged to obey laws, follow rules, and abide by decisions that they believe to be legitimate. But if people begin to question the legitimacy of institutions( that is governments, corporations, churches, the military, and so on), and if people come to believe that laws, rules, and decisions are no longer rightful or proper, then they will no longer feel morally obligated to abide by them. Institutional power will then rest on sheer force alone, as, for example, when unpopular, ‘illegitimate’ governments rely on repression by police or military forces to exercise power over their populations”.

   Since many eminent and qualified scholars and journalists have written about the state of the nation in the post May 15, 2005 election, I will not belabor the issue here.

   The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace that is more preferable to the one that was in existence before the war was fought.

In order to address this principle of a just war, it is incumbent upon me to revisit the reasons why the 1998-2000 war was fought to begin with. It is to be remembered that though Badme and other contested areas became the stated issues, the real and underlying reasons were radically different. The launching of the Nakfa, Eritrea’s currency, and the demand by the Ethiopian government to make the U.S. dollar a medium of exchange between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the resultant effect of these two positions on other relations, particularly the diversion of the Ethiopian export and import to the port of Djibouti were the primary reasons for this war. This was compounded by the competition between these two countries each desiring  to be the  dominant power of the region. Thus the war. It is perhaps the most destructive war ever fought in Africa. In the two years in which the war was waged, it is estimated that close to 100,000 lives had been lost. What makes the whole exercise senseless is that it is fought between two brotherly and sisterly people. Since these people are condemned by geography to live next to one another as neighbors, war does not seem to be the answer. As it is, neither nation is fortunate as they are both languishing under tyrannical fascistic governments that have outlived their legitimacy. The governments that are terrorizing their respective people are former guerillas, who used to be  governed by the rule of the jungle. The transition from lawless guerilla to statesmanship has been very difficult for them. There is too much innocent blood on their hands that has prevented them from being humans once again. Their modus operandi is diametrically opposed to the ways most civilized nations conduct their business. The leadership of both governments have no slightest compunction when they take the lives of their former comrades-in-arms and when they send them to the dungeons under fabricated charges. Neither leadership trust the other. As the old adage goes; when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers, so also is the case with the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The animosity between the two leadership has devastated the peoples of the two nations. As long as the leadership in both states are allowed to continue misruling their people and harbor sinister motive of overthrowing each other’s government, this geopolitically strategic region and the people of the two countries will be living a wretched-hellish life. It was reported by global security org., on November 27, 2005 that President Isayas has accused the governments of the Sudan and Ethiopia of harboring sinister motives against his government.

“President Isayas says the plot to topple his government is fueled by Ethiopia’s intimidation of Eritreans who still live in Ethiopia. They are trying to educate them to work with what they call opposition groups and fight the government in Asmara....President Isayas also says Sudan is sponsoring military strikes by a group known as the Eritreans Islamic Jihad. He says Sudan and Ethiopia are also behind a new political alliance based in Khartoum...led by a long time rival and head of Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) Abdula Idriss.”

Abdanom Fitwi in his featured article “How can a Killer Condemn a Killing”exposed President Isayas’ sinister intentions for Ethiopia.

“When Mr. Isayas had conflict with Ethiopia, he stated his vision clearly too. He said openly ‘e’ta abay Ethiopia ktbetaten eya’ (the big Ethiopia will be disintegrated) and he tried to translate his vision into reality through Somalia, using all different groups: Al-Ittihad, OLF (ONEG) etc. But fortunately, he could not succeed....”

The Algiers Agreement.

   The war between the two sides ended when both became willing participants at the Algiers meeting. They signed the agreement in December 2000 thereby committing themselves to the principle of respect for the borders existing at independence, and that the border was to be determined on the basis of colonial treaties and applicable international law by Boundary Commission. The two parties further “...agreed that the delimitation and demarcation determinants of the Commission would be final and binding”. They also pledged to “...respect the border so determined, as well as the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party”.

   Upon the issuance of the border ruling by the Commission, the Meles regime declared out of incompetence and misinterpretation of the rulings that the decision was made to keep Badme under Meles control. On April 17, 2002 the BBC reported Prime Minister Meles’ observation. “....The ruling vindicates Ethiopia’s land claims. The decision of the Boundary Commission has awarded Ethiopia all the contested areas it had claimed.” But when the ruling of the Commission became  crystal clear, Meles wrote a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations characterizing  the decision as  illegal, unjust and irresponsible, requesting that the Security Council set up an alternative mechanism for demarcating those parts of the border that were being contested. It seems, however, with diplomatic pressure to accept the Commission’s decisions, the Meles regime began to prevaricate and straddle. Global IDP Project Org. reported that the Meles regime has declared that it would accept the ruling “in principle” but made its proposal for opening dialogue between their two countries contingent upon Isayas’ acceptance. Of course Isayas responded in the negative and suggested a counter proposal making the dialogue contingent upon Ethiopia’s troop withdrawal from the territory along the 1000 kms. border awarded to Eritrea.

   In the meantime, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea began to warn the Universal organization about a war that was in the making inside the borders of both countries beginning the year 2004. The Head of the Mission Joseph Legwalila said:

The stalemate could lead to the conflagration of another war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and  could obviously spill over to other parts of the region. Lately, troops and instruments of war that include tanks and missiles are being deployed. The Eritrean government has not only imposed a helicopter ban but also restricted the movement of the 2,800 peacekeeping troops that are stationed to patrol the Temporary Security Zone (TZS)”.

It is reported that there are about 300,000 troops on both sides deployed and awaiting order from their leaders. As I have argued under the section a war is just only if it is waged by legitimate authority, I oppose the right of the tyrannical TPLF regime to send the precious sons of Ethiopia   into war because of the regime’s incompetence. How would the regime explain to the mothers and fathers of the soldiers why their sons became cannon fodders? To perpetuate its tyrannical rule over 70,000,000 people? How would history record and justify this senseless war? What do I mean by “the regimes incompetence ?” I say incompetence because after having sacrificed the precious lives of over 30,000 young Ethiopians and won the war, I repeat won the war, and            expelled the invading and occupying forces of the EPLF government, the Meles government agreed to resolve the problem by going to Algiers and committing itself to abide by the decision of the Commission. Again during the debate before the Commission, the TPLF government chose to present Treaties and maps that were relegated to the dust bin of history. Professor Jon Abbink in his article entitled: Badme and the Ethiopia-Eritrean conflict: Back to Square One? argued: “There is a number of colonial treaties made between Italy (colonizer of Eritrea since 1890) and Ethiopia dating from the early 20th century: the one-page Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1900, the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 and the Treaty of 1908 (which relates to the eastern border). These treaties or agreements carried annexes with unclear maps sketching the rough outlines of the border. None of the borders was ever marked on the ground. There was great ambiguity on the names of places and rivers on the maps, some of them occurring more than once. Italy also steadily encroached on Ethiopian soil, and even marked up maps unilaterally. But its invasion in Ethiopia of 1935 automatically made all treaties and unilateral maps null and void.

After the Second World War, Emperor Haile Selassie confirmed the invalidity of the previous treaties, and Italy renounced them in 1947 with the Peace Treaty. Eritrea became a UN Trust territory under Britain in 1942, was federated with Ethiopia in 1952 and in 1962 incorporated as a province, in a process of questionable legality”.

   In light of this incompetence par excellence, I feel justified to ask why should Ethiopia's precious children pay the ultimate price? My suggestion is; unless peaceful resolution is found, the tyrannical regime could settle the not more than 1,000--Jon Abbink says there were 892 in 2003--   residents of Badme to other parts of Ethiopia, as it is already doing with others and spare the lives of our children. As far as they are concerned they had already done their duty. It is the politicians that have failed.

   In conclusion, I would say  that the Prime Minister knows that it is inevitable that Badme will be incorporated into Eritrea. The question then becomes: why is he posturing? Because he wants to save himself from the wrath of the people of Tigray who will be outraged by his decision. It would be insane for the world to let this man start another cataclysmic war just to retain his power. What he should do is explain to the people of Tigray why he has decided to let Badme go and convince them why it is in their best interest as well as the interest of humanity that they should accept his explanation. He has to show them that they have very limited option. If he is “magnanimous” enough to accept the premise that Eritrea is not part of Ethiopia, then he should also be open minded and understanding enough to accept the verdict and considered judgment of the Commission, that in fact Badme, according to the very document he used to argue his own case, is part of Eritrea. Another war will not change the fact that Badme has been awarded to Eritrea through legitimate means. Prudent and political wisdom dictate that leaders should evaluate and weigh the pros and cons of the consequences of their decision before they act on them. 

  The end of the war, if there is to be one, will not usher in a new peaceful era between the two countries as long as these illegitimate groups of leaders are in control of these respective countries.


Solomon Terfa ( Ph D )

Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations.

Mississippi Valley State University

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