Ethiopia war risks regional peace 

The civil war in Tigray province is fast spreading across East Africa. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.

The Horn of Africa stands on the brink as the conflict in Ethiopia’s rebellious Tigray region continues to escalate.

The war between the Ethiopian state and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the restive northern region, was sparked after separatists allegedly raided an Ethiopian army base in November, killing government troops and looting heavy artillery and weapons.

In the three months since the attack, the conflict has escalated into a regional war, with Tigrayan separatists launching rockets on Ethiopia’s big cities, as well as the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, Asmara, dragging Ethiopia’s long-term foe into the conflict on its side.

But while the Tigrayan threat may have drawn Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki even closer together – the pair signed a 2018 peace deal ending their countries’ decades-long conflict – there are fears the opposite might be true of Ethiopia’s other neighbours.

The instability in the region has already led to disputes with Sudan over the Al-Fashaga triangle claimed by both countries.

‘The displacement of millions of people, who are being forced in to camps or to flee across international boundaries, is creating a complex emergency of monumental proportions,’ explained Dr Wafula Okumu of The Borders Institute.

‘The conflict is also undermining Ethiopia’s contributions to peacebuilding efforts in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, the rapprochement with Eritrea, and the AU’s campaign to silence guns on the continent.’

Addis’ war with the separatists comes as little surprise to Ethiopia watchers.

According to Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, there have been ominous tensions between the central government and the TPLF, which ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until a popular revolt swept Abiy to power in 2018.

‘Abiy swiftly curbed the TPLF’s dominance over Ethiopia’s political and economic life,’ explained Gabriel Negatu, a senior fellow at the Center,leaving its leaders feeling targeted and purged.’

Negatu argues that since losing power in 2018, the TPLF has worked to undermine Abiy’s reform efforts.

The Tigrayan party is allegedly behind much of the internal tensions and ethnic violence that has plagued Ethiopia’s regions since the Abiy administration took control.

The TPLF is accused of working with break-away groups in other regions to foment conflict by organising, training, and financing forces opposed to the federal government.

However, the immediate trigger for war between Abiy and the TPLF came in September 2020, when Tigray officials went ahead with parliamentary elections in direct defiance of the federal government, which had postponed general elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tigray leaders said that by postponing the general elections, Abiy had lost his mandate to lead. In response, the federal government voted to cut funding to the region, which outraged Tigrayan leaders.

The government and the TPLF had accused each other of plotting to use military force before the TPLF seized the federal military base in November.

Fears now abound that if extended indefinitely, the present conflict may rouse groups elsewhere to rise against the Abiy government. 

Amharas living in areas bordering Tigray, for example, harbour territorial claims over land illegally annexed by the TPLF when it assumed power.

Such groups have been drawn into the present conflict on the side of the government and are already celebrating the recapture of annexed territory.

More worryingly is how a prolonged conflagration between well-armed factions inside Ethiopia could send hundreds of thousands of refugees across borders, disrupt trade routes, and force Addis Ababa to abandon its role of regional peacekeeper.

‘That would be a potentially cataclysmic scenario for a region ill-equipped to handle additional tumult or a humanitarian fallout that could affect more than nine million people,’ the UN said in a statement.

Just Security, the New York University-based think-tank, said the conflict has already claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands more, including more than 40,000 refugees who have fled across the Ethiopian border into eastern Sudan.

The United Nations, the African Union (AU), and numerous political leaders have called for an immediate ceasefire and negotiation to resolve the conflict.

But Abiy – the 2019 Nobel Peace Laureate – has rejected calls for a ceasefire or negotiation, including proposed mediation by the AU.

Instead, he has insisted that his government restores law and order before negotiations can begin, adding:

‘Unless there is an unexpectedly quick resolution to this conflict, it will likely have a destabilizing effect throughout East Africa.’

With a population of 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa and borders six other African nations, all of which suffer from chronic instability.

Most concerning of these is Ethiopia’s relationship with Sudan, which has been under strain in recent years over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a massive infrastructure project on the Blue Nile that could threaten Sudan and Egypt’s freshwater supply.

Years of negotiation have yet to resolve key differences, with Donald Trump famously predicting late last year than the disagreement might lead to war, after Ethiopia started filling the reservoir behind the dam while negotiations were still on-going between the three sides.

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Ethiopia-Egypt dam 'war' threats

As President Trump warns that Ethiopia’s new dam could lead to war with Egypt, NewsAfrica asks whether Addis should be as scared as it seems to be.

‘Egypt will blow up that dam,’ US president Donald Trump told Sudan's Prime Minister in October.

He was speaking to Abdalla Hamdok during a live broadcasted phone call on the US-backed peace deal between Sudan and Israel.

The famously thin-skinned leader was clearly still smarting over Addis Ababa’s rejection of a similar US-brokered agreement between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the country's controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.

‘I had a deal done for them,’ said President Trump.

‘And then unfortunately, Ethiopia broke the deal, which they should not have done.

‘That was a big mistake,’ the president continued, using his famous catchphrase.

‘It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way.

‘And I said it and I say it loud and clear - they'll blow up that dam.

‘And they have to do something.’

Critics of the US president may have scoffed at what they see as Trump’s hyperbolic comments, but the president was, in fact, only echoing something the Ethiopians are war-gaming for, and which many experts have been warning for more than a decade could lead to the world’s first real ‘water war’.

Egypt receives over 90 percent of its fresh water from the Nile River and over 85 percent of that water comes from Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, which meets the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan.

The Egyptians have long argued that a dam on the Blue Nile would choke them of the fresh water on which more than 100 million Egyptians and the entire agricultural industry relies.

Sudan, geographically located between the two regional powerhouses, says the project could also endanger its own dams.

Unperturbed by its neighbours’ objections, Ethiopia ploughed ahead with construction of the $4.6 billion gravity dam in 2011.

The landlocked country has said it needs the dam to provide a reliable electricity supply to its 115 million inhabitants, the majority of whom are currently not connected to the grid.

Many Ethiopians contributed to the dam through private donations and consider it as a major catalyst for driving millions of their people out of endemic poverty.

The dam, now more than three-quarters complete and already starting to fill with water, will reach full power-generating capacity in 2023.

Rumblings of a potential war between Egypt and Ethiopia have been getting louder over the past few months as water levels in the dam have begun to rise.

Ethiopia even took the symbolic decision to ban all air traffic over the project in early October over fears of an Egyptian-led strike.

Yet despite the long-running saga, Trump's comments provoked outrage on the Ethiopian side. Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Gedu Andargachew, summoned US Ambassador Mike Raynor to demand an explanation.

The ministry also released a stinging statement in which the president’s comments were referred to as an ‘incitement of war’.

Experts on the row over the Blue Nile dam expressed concern over the US president’s statement. Professor John Mukum Mbaku, from the Africa Growth Initiative of The Brookings Institution in Washington, told NewsAfrica: ‘President Trump’s actions are reckless and are likely to escalate the conflict, especially given the relationship between Egypt and the United States.’

The Cameroonian added: ‘The United States provides Egypt with significant amounts of military aid and hence is in a position to have significant influence on the country’s leadership. Unfortunately, the US president is misusing that influence.

‘President Trump’s efforts to bully Ethiopia into signing an agreement, that they do not believe is beneficial to them, can be counterproductive.’

During the tri-party negotiations in February, there was widespread concern in Ethiopia that its delegation was being pressured by the US to accept a deal it couldn’t live with.

A few dozen Ethiopians in Washington protested in front of the US Department of State building, urging America to stop its pressure campaign against Addis Ababa.

After Ethiopia walked away from the talks, the US president suspended millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia over the dispute, angering Addis, who accused the US of being biased in its earlier efforts to broker a deal between the three countries.

There hasn’t been any comment from the Egyptian government on Trump’s recent remarks, but pro-government media covered them extensively.

Geopolitical tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have escalated this year since satellite imagery revealed a significant filling of the dam prior to reaching any agreement.

Ethiopia insisted the filling occurred naturally from rainfall and runoff during June and July without needing to close the dam gates.

Cairo has repeatedly said it wants to settle the dispute through diplomatic means, but it also has said it would use ‘all available means’ to defend the interests of its people.

‘Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s recently remarks that Egyptian air forces have to be ready to handle targets inside and outside of the country was interpreted as a threat, not only to Turkey in Libya but also to Ethiopia,’ said Ahmed Soliman, Research Fellow for the Horn of Africa at the Chatham House policy institute.

Professor Mbaku, however, believes that despite the ‘incitement’ by President Trump, Egypt is unlikely to take military action over the dispute.

‘A war with Ethiopia would be extremely costly and would force the country to squander scarce resources that are needed for poverty alleviation,’ the professor stated.

‘And perhaps, more important is that there is no guarantee that such military intervention in Ethiopia will guarantee Egyptians the water that they so desperately need.’

The economics professor added that if Egypt unilaterally attacked Ethiopia, it would be violating ‘various international and regional agreements’ and would ‘face sanctions’ from the international community, as well as from the African Union and its member states.

‘It is not likely that Sudan will side with Egypt because the Sudanese stand to gain significantly from the electricity generated by the GERD, as well as increased trade and investment with Ethiopia,’ he said.

If Egypt does launch a surprise attack, however, the professor expects a strong response from Ethiopia.

‘The GERD has become a symbol of national pride and identity for Ethiopians. Hence, any effort by Egypt or any other country to destroy this national symbol would be seen by Ethiopians as an attack on their very identity and would be made with a very robust response.’

He added that Egypt would also suffer ‘significant damage to its national territory’ in any Ethiopian response.

Perhaps most crucially, though, a military strike on the dam would be disastrous for all sides, according to Abebe Yirga, of the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.

Speaking to Associated Press the expert said the dam already held ‘more than 4.9 billion cubic meters of water’.

He added: ‘It will affect thousands of people along the way if this huge amount of water gushes out of the dam.’

Although the chances of an Egyptian attack may be small, wars have erupted for less significant reasons, and certain circumstances might raise the risk of war.

‘Deteriorating political and economic conditions at home could force Egyptian leaders to use threats against Ethiopia as a distraction from their inability to govern effectively and deal fully with peace and security issues,’ explained Professor Mbaku.

‘Perhaps, more importantly, Egypt could be pushed into such an untenable situation – that is, war with Ethiopia – if its leaders continue to listen to benefactors, such as the United States, whose president has already intimated that the Egyptians should blow up the GERD.’

The negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the contentious dam are set to restart, after the African Union had extensive consultations with the three countries, according to African Union chairman and South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.

The US president has been interested in the GERD project since he agreed to intervene on Egyptian President el-Sisi’s request in September last year. He has since invited officials from the three countries to at least two Oval Office meetings, and called Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali to discuss the matter.

Professor Mbaku, however, doubts whether international involvement will really help in solving the conflict about the mega dam.

‘Ethiopians and Egyptians are more likely to understand and appreciate the challenges that they face, particularly in the areas of water security, climate change, food production, and poverty alleviation,’ said Mbaku.

He added: ‘Both citizens and governments should be made part of the solution to the water-related conflicts that now threaten peace and security in the Nile Basin.’

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Ethiopian denim queen glams up Dubai

Ethiopian designer Feiruza Mudessir talks to Judy Cogan about her streetwear stylings, and how she’s creating an Ethiopian-inspired oasis amid the bling and skyscrapers of the UAE.

Feiruza Mudessir opened her first stand-alone store at The Westin Mina Seyahi hotel in Dubai last October.

It was a big step for the Ethiopian, whose edgy men and women’s fashion label, Finchitua, fuses hip streetwear designs with traditional Habesha fabrics.

Her range of vibrant sarongs, tulle skirts and bleached embroidered denim jackets are infused with references to her East African heritage.

‘I’m a proud Ethiopian,’ said the designer. ‘My label stays true to my roots.’

Indeed, everything in Mudessir’s boutique, which is situated on Dubai’s iconic Jumeirah Beach, tells a story of the designer’s history.

There’s a silk scarf inspired by Ethiopia’s Aksum Empire and a bag printed with its ancient Ge’ez script.

While other items, such as her colourful Mirchi Masala skirt – named after a mix of ground spices in Hindi — are a nod to her teenage years modelling in India.

But it’s Mudessir’s African heritage that really inspires the designer, who founded her fashion label a few years after moving to Dubai in 2003.

She is currently in the process of collecting Ethiopian literature to create a reading area within her store to teach her customers about the heritage and culture of her birthplace.

‘I want my customers to relax and feel like they’re walking into an Ethiopian home,’ said the businesswomen.

‘I love telling my customers facts about Ethiopia, its diversity and rich history. They are buying into that story, after all.’

Before setting up her label, it was important to Mudessir that she took the time to properly research Ethiopian history and its culture, starting from the Aksum Empire.

‘I knew the basic history, but if I want to inject that into my designs, the only way to do that was to go back to the beginning. Digging deeper has been fun and feels like a real privilege.’

The traditional Habesha fabric Mudessir uses in her collections originates from the Dorzee tribe in southern Ethiopia and is now her trademark.

However, sourcing the material proved a big problem for the designer.

‘I noticed the shemanes [traditional Habesha weavers] would only supply their hand-woven fabrics to big retailers,’ explained Mudessir.

Luckily, her sister and her family still live in Addis Ababa, and, with their help, she was able to cut out the middlemen and set up her own team of local weavers.

‘By going directly to the source, I could put more money into the women’s pockets,’ said Mudessir.

‘I also pay them in advance, which helps them immensely because the retailers pay them in arrears. It’s hugely fulfilling seeing the positive impact we have on these families.’

She added: ‘We’ve been working with the women for four years now and we’ve even redesigned the Habesha pattern to make it unique to Finchitua.

‘My number one goal is to tell my story through my designs and always remain true to my roots, while at the same time giving these women a sustainable income and a higher quality of life.’

Finchitua’s popularity is growing year on year with orders coming in from all over the world.

A T-shirt will set you back $65 and a custom-made denim jacket around $190.

‘Using traditional Ethiopian fabrics with modern material, like denim, gave my designs a really distinctive look, and my one-off jackets, dresses and tutu skirts have gained notoriety, particularly with European customers.’

Mudessir has also introduced Arabic calligraphy into her designs as well as modest streetwear and denim abayas (the traditional cloak worn by Arab women).

‘My collections have grown with the diversity of my customer base,’ said Mudessir.

Her journey into the fashion designer she is today hasn’t been smooth sailing.

She signed up to a ‘crash course’ in design in Dubai and ignored advice from her tutors to accept a role in a well-known fashion house upon graduating.

‘I was determined that the first clothes I made would have my own name on the label, which looking back was pretty naïve,’ she admitted.

Instead, Mudessir created one-off made-to-order pieces while working full-time as a visual merchandiser at global retail giant Mango.

Then came an idea to upscale an old denim jacket.

‘I had a vision of creating this denim jacket by incorporating all three of my worlds: Ethiopia, India and the UAE. That’s how my first AfroRetro collection was born.’

Mudessir also dabbled in the difficult world of pop-up stores, local fashion shows and market stalls.

‘I had very little knowledge of the business side of fashion back then and zero industry contacts,’ she explained.

‘I chose the hard way, but I have learned a lot through my experiences and I’ve loved this whole process of self-discovery.’

Fashion, though, is a notoriously difficult industry to crack, as Mudessir found out while working with a ‘huge’ global denim brand.

‘I was approached to create fresh designs with the brand that would culminate in a professional photoshoot and a behind-the-scenes documentary,’ said Mudessir.

‘It was a dream come true! I put my heart and soul into the project and worked day and night for two months straight.’

Unfortunately, two days before the launch, Mudessir received some bad news ­­­ –she’d been dropped.

‘They decided to collaborate with a bigger named artist on the project instead.

‘It crushed me. I felt so let down. The pain of disappointment was real. But I did find my own silver lining.’

Determined not to be kept down, she added the designs to her collection and made a killing.

‘Those pieces have since become my best sellers. I wouldn’t have come up with the concepts if it wasn’t for that particular opportunity, so surprisingly enough, all the pain was all worth it.’

Mudessir’s happy-go-lucky attitude is very much part of the brand’s DNA. It’s even in the name: Finchitua means ‘the girl with a gap between her teeth’, a reference to her gappy smile.

Like the rest of the world, 2020 has brought little to smile about for the Dubai-based designer.

When the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world earlier this year, the five-star hotel where her store is based was forced to close. It only reopened again in October.

‘I’ve had a lot of time to be creative,’ mused Mudessir on the lockdown.

‘I used the time to finish working on a new capsule collection that focuses on the African fabric Kente. I’ve never worked with this fabric before so it’s a new look for Finchitua.

‘When it is safe to do so I plan to do a big brand campaign in Ethiopia,’ added the patriotic businesswoman.

‘Ethiopians are proud to see their culture spread to other parts of the world, but I get a lot of encouragement to take the Finchitua brand back to Addis Ababa – to celebrate our diversity, warmth and heritage.

‘I feel it’s my duty to share the beautiful stories of Ethiopia past and present.’

finchitua.com

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