A Peacemaker, Who Might Oversee the Collapse of His Own Country

By Max Lyster
Staff Writer

In October, Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, won the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. It might have been the case that many people were perplexed by this surprising announcement because they simply had no idea who Ahmed was. On closer inspection, it is clear why he won the prestigious award: being a fighter for democracy, human rights and peace.

Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, inheriting a country that has long been plagued by ethnic violence, authoritarian practices and a decades-long war with its neighbor to the north, Eritrea. But Ahmed was determined to fix his country, and immediately brought about much-needed reforms aimed at promoting democracy, human rights, and economic prosperity. 

Within months of becoming Prime Minister, Ahmed ended the war with Eritrea. The two countries had been at war for twenty years over competing claims to the border town of Badme — a city with no strategic importance or valuable resources. The war turned from a petty dispute to a bloodbath with 100,000 people dying in just two years of fighting. The two countries signed a peace agreement in 2000 and a border commission was appointed to decide the fate of Badme — which was awarded to Eritrea in 2002. However, Ethiopia never recognized the commission’s decision, leading to nearly twenty years of intermittent border skirmishes and tensions between the two countries. Two months after being elected, Ahmed announced that he would honor the commission’s decision and so now the two countries have finally agreed to end the bitter war. The newfound peace has created new economic ties, spurring economic growth in both countries. The two countries had consistently opposed each other on nearly everything, including the war in neighboring Somalia, as Eritrea backed Islamist fighters, while Ethiopia supported the internationally recognized government. The newfound peace will not only bring stability to Ethiopia and Eritrea, but to the entire region, hopefully spurring economic development and stability in the Horn of Africa at large. 

In addition to ending the war with Eritrea, Ahmed has introduced many reforms in order to open up Ethiopian society. He fired incompetent bureaucrats, lifted bans on certain newspapers and websites, freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, partially privatized inefficient state-owned companies, ended a controversial state of emergency used to crack down on protestors, appointed women to his cabinet, fired the head of the prison system and shut down the infamous Maekelawi jail, a symbol of authoritarianism and torture. All of these reforms came within less than a year and a half since Ahmed came to power. Ahmed has made incredible progress in democratizing Ethiopia and fostering the beginnings of a society that respects human rights and civil liberties.

For these reasons, its clear to see why Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize back in October. However, today the country has been driven to the verge of collapse while Ahmed no longer seems to be the reformer the world thought he was.

By no longer cracking down on political opponents and allowing more freedom of speech, Ahmed has opened a pandora’s box. Ethnic groups that have been mistreated and silenced by previous dictators are releasing decades worth of anger and strife aimed squarely at Ahmed. This boiling over of tensions has led to renewed ethnic conflict and violence. In July, there was a coup attempt that left the president of the Amhara ethnic region and several military officers dead. In October, protests against Ahmed’s government led to the death of nearly 70 people; which was made worse by the fact that he was in Russia and said nothing about the protests. Ahmed has lost the support of many of those in his Oromo ethnic group after a very influential Oromo activist and media mogul, Jawar Mohammed, claimed Ahmed and his security forces tried to assassinate him. Meanwhile, he has failed to denounce an Oromo ethno-nationalist movement, prompting other ethnic groups to claim Ahmed is favoring Oromos in his government. Lastly, the Tigrayan ethnic group that long-held power in Ethiopia, but makes up only 6% of the population, is supporting ethno-nationalist movements across the country to destabilize the country and Ahmed’s government. 

The growing chaos in the country has led to some disturbing, autocratic decisions by Ahmed and his government. Ahmed has threatened to silence media outlets that are “sowing unrest” in Ethiopia, conducted mass arrests of political opponents and shut down the internet, while claims of torture are coming out of the country’s prisons. 

The growing unrest and subsequent crackdown by Ahmed has led many to claim there is a serious risk of state collapse in Ethiopia. If Ethiopia is to fail, there would be serious consequences in the Horn of Africa and the West. 

Within the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the main guarantor of stability, as it is surrounded by failed states and dictatorships like Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea. Ethiopia’s collapse could lead to an unprecedented economic downturn and only perpetuate the instability in the region. Ethiopia’s fate has a large impact on neighboring Sudan and protests there fighting for democratic reforms. Murithi Mutiga, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group, explains that protesters in Sudan are looking at Ahmed, and if his attempts at democracy fail, it will “embolden the forces that really believe in increasing authoritarianism which have been ascendant in the Horn of Africa.”

In addition, Ethiopia now has one of the world’s largest displaced populations, with over 3 million people being uprooted from their homes because of the growing ethnic violence. Ethiopia is also home to thousands of refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea. State collapse in Ethiopia, a country of over 100 million and home to thousands of other refugees, could lead to a humanitarian crisis. Europe and the U.S. would likely see a large influx of migrants from Ethiopia and the rest of the Horn of Africa, with both areas already reluctant to taking in more refugees as it stands today. 

The U.S, the UK and the E.U. should be doing all in their power to urge Ahmed to continue democratization and implore him to engage in efforts to reduce the growing ethnic violence in his country. Ahmed is starting to stumble down a slippery slope towards autocracy, while the threat of state collapse looms large in Ethiopia. The West praised Ahmed and awarded him with a Nobel Peace Prize. It is time for the West to get more involved in Ethiopia, and ensure Ahmed stays true to his early reforms and intentions. The world must push Ahmed to ensure the people of Ethiopia are safe in their country and have their rights protected. If not, the country of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa may plunge into catastrophic violence and instability, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk. It’s time for the world to take Ethiopia seriously.

*Photos are disseminated by Abiy Ahmed’s Office and are public domain images. The pictures are “free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.”

Bolivia In Crisis: The Legacy of Evo Morales

by Marc Camanag
Staff Writer

Although there is little consensus on whether Bolivia’s recent shift in leadership constitutes a coup, there is a power struggle plaguing the nation. Amidst widespread protests, it is clear that the resignation of former president Evo Morales carried very real consequences for the Latin American nation and its people. But to what extent? The fall of Morales — the country’s first indigenous president — after nearly fourteen years in office sparked violent protests between his native loyalists and defected police forces. While mostly rooted in deep-seated fears of regression, strong opposing ideologies in Bolivia date back to earlier times involving oppressive post-colonial structures

The current interim president and successor, Jeanine Áñez, is a senator of European descent with a problematic history of anti-indigenous tweets. And since Morales’ resignation, Áñez has only served to further aggravate this ethnic tension. All things considered, Morales’ legacy may be the only tangible piece in the complex puzzle of Bolivia’s future. 

Morales’ ascension to power in 2006 was strongly regarded as a victory for indigenous Bolivians, who have long been subjected to hegemonic rule under a small elite of European descent. For many, Morales was a much-needed break from the tradition of the Spanish colonial era that had long divided the population. Under his administration, the stark social divisions of the past were completely disrupted by a rhetoric of populism and racial distinction. Morales’ Bolivia saw a growing number of indigenous representatives within the government, along with a revival of indigenous culture and the establishment of the Wiphala as an official flag. Despite criticism that his discourse was polarizing and sparked disunity, it is apparent that Morales had a major hand in uplifting the long-marginalized indigenous people of his nation.

Economically, the impoverished Bolivia thrived under his presidency, with two million people being lifted out of poverty through the redistribution of natural gas assets and maintenance of a balanced national budget. For a country that has long suffered from instability and poverty, Evo Morales was a beacon of hope — and then things started to change.

Eventually, Morales’ desire to protract his rule manifested in increasingly concerning behaviors. As more and more of his opponents were prosecuted and institutions become packed with pro-Morales figures, Bolivians began to search for a way out. Their victory in a referendum that enacted term limits was short-lived; soon after, the nation’s Constitutional Court ruled that such an imposition would violate Morales’ human rights. Years of dissatisfaction with the president culminated in this year’s presidential election, during which results were halted for an entire day prior to the announcement that Morales’ lead margin was enough to avoid a runoff. Amid mass accusations of fraud by the incumbent president, the Organization of American States confirmed the presence of irregularities and urged for a new election. This revelation only further incensed Bolivians, who took to the streets in late October to protest against Morales. 

These demonstrations proved to be the conditions for Morales’ fall, but the death blow came when police commandos in Cochabamba sided with protestors against the president’s re-election. The initially localized mutiny triggered a nationwide defection of security forces — an action that foreshadowed Morales’ demise. Now in the streets themselves, police officers across the nation voiced their disdain for Morales, burning the Wiphala flag and tearing the symbol from their uniforms. After weeks of protest, the military requested that Morales resign from the presidency to restore peace in the country. The demand — coup d’état or not — was successful, and the embattled Morales left Bolivia for Mexico soon after. 

Into today, the ex-president’s retreat has not become the solution that the military expected it to be. As Morales’ opponents scaled back from the streets, they were subsequently replaced by his supporters, who fear the loss of political gains made for indigenous communities. Jeanine Áñez — the self-proclaimed interim president — has done little to pacify this new unrest, seemingly condoning the police’s escalating violence against indigenous defenders of Morales and ignoring the rising death toll of these protests. Even with the promise of new presidential elections within ninety days, the opposition senator has faced incredible condemnation, particularly for creating a caretaker cabinet without any indigenous members and having made derogatory tweets against indigenous people — including one that referred to Morales as a “poor Indian”. With the nation in such a fragile state, Áñez must work quickly — before the crisis escalates into a violent and unforgiving civil war

For now, Evo Morales will likely remain in Mexico, where he has been granted asylum. Despite his desire to return to Bolivia and finish his term, it may be too late to make amends. For many, Morales’ legacy is already set in stone. 

Featured image courtesy of Ruperto Miller

Opinion: No Crackdown in Hong Kong

by Marshall Wu
Staff Writer

When Hong Kong was returned to China by the end the of its lease to the United Kingdom in 1997, among the agreements made between the United Kingdom and China was a fifty-year guarantee of one country, two systems. After over one hundred years under British rule, today Hong Kong is uniquely part-Western and part-Chinese. It is no longer the same city it once was under Chinese emperors. This is apparent in a common viewpoint among Chinese today, who may find Hong Kongers ‘spoiled’. In dramatic difference from the city of Shenzhen, fewer than thirty minutes north, Hong Kong has truly become a dual-language populace. In Hong Kong, cab drivers speak English and street signs retain both Chinese and English spellings.

Hong Kongers’ identities have once again been called up for debate by a controversial extradition bill which has now since been withdrawn. Hong Kong’s duality in governance would formally end when one country, two systems expires, but its citizens may not want to accept it. For protesters, the fundamental question is not about the change of rules but about how Hong Kongers now find themselves as different from China. The debate goes beyond Hong Kong, and invites the world to weigh in: Has Hong Kong’s history under British rule created Hong Kong, the city-state, or can it re-embrace its Chinese history again? As long as Hong Kong looks across the river to the north and refuses China, there will always be room for conflict.

As the current protests have extended into their eighth month, Beijing may be considering harsher measures. However the feared Tiananmen-style crackdown, rolling armored vehicles and soldiers into streets, is an unlikely outcome now and in the future. Barring extreme circumstances, a bloody crackdown would be harmful to China’s long-term control of Hong Kong itself, as well as China’s international standing and its ambitions abroad.

While negotiating Hong Kong’s handoff between the United Kingdom and China, Deng Xiaoping stated to Margaret Thatcher that if he wanted, he could skip the negotiations and retake Hong Kong by force within a day. Thatcher responded with the plain and simple: The world would see for itself that the change in hands was marked by bloody transition. The British, formerly the imperialistic overlords would represent stability and peace while China would be condemned as belligerent. China could have taken Hong Kong without negotiating, but the issue was not about China’s physical possession of the city. Taking Hong Kong by force would have destroyed the city’s economic confidence, stability, and powerful international characteristic. Taking the city by force would have been somewhat a pyrrhic victory.

Thatcher’s response to Deng continues to be relevant today. Despite that China’s international stature has strengthened significantly since 1997, it may still be getting used to the discomfort of losing its former primacy where Middle Kingdom has become East. Today it must contend both with a city which at its core is not entirely Chinese and rejects Beijing’s rule and a world which would not respect the ugliness of a crackdown. Thatcher’s response was about what China could not control- unlike a time before British ownership of Hong Kong. The act of subduing Hong Kong by force today might similarly miss the point of what exactly China means to subdue. Is it in fact the protests themselves, or the beliefs which drive them?

Had Deng chose to bypass negotiations, the price China would pay for forgetting about the world was made simple in the outcome of Tiananmen in 1989. The diplomats and statesmen who went through the painful years of diplomatic isolation and international ostracization following the crackdown are alive today. When they consider dealing with Hong Kong, the cost of returning to that period is surely on their minds.

Many anticipated that China’s 70th anniversary celebrations would be the definitive end of Hong Kong’s months of protesting. Unsurprisingly, Beijing showed no move to silence protests even in the face of heightened protests on the day of anniversary. Assuming that Beijing was willing to risk punishment from around the world in exchange for Hong Kong was a dubious assumption. Many argued that China would obsess to have a clean stage to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding, yet neglected to consider what would be an incomparably worse setting had it decided to bring guns and tanks into Hong Kong’s streets. While Beijing is said to care about appearances, that would not make it unpragmatic. No matter how ugly the protests are to Beijing, in a digitalized, affluent, and multinational city such as Hong Kong, media of soldiers shooting would be incomparably worse in every measure. No amount of repression could prevent pictures, cameras, and reporters from bringing the shooting to front pages everywhere across the world.

On the contrary, any violent crackdown in Hong Kong could only lead China to lose it for the foreseeable future. In a city not yet subject to Chinese censorship, pictures and memories of China marching into Hong Kong would last forever. Organized and internet-savvy Hong Kongers would weaponize media of Chinese ‘attacks’ in ways only preventable through unrealistically high levels of political and internet repression. This is not to mention that repression going beyond physical force would violate what sovereignty Hong Kong has. Today Hong Kong sees itself as more than just a river away from the mainland. Rolling in troops from across the bridge is a contemptuous but tacit acknowledgement of their differences made clear for everyone to see.

A crackdown in Hong Kong has repercussions beyond the immediate area that go into China’s own international projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) goes beyond Asia and Middle East, some of its silk roads tying China all the way to Europe, the Arctic, and beyond. They currently intend to bind China to states between itself and the end of the silk roads in political, economic, and even social ways. If China wants its projects to succeed, it must become politically sensitive to these mixed group of countries ranging from autocracies to democracies. The message of the BRI coming from China is that of cooperation and prosperity.

Today the initial honeymoon period for the BRI is far past, and resistance to the project has started building.  Countries crucial to BRI such as India have already expressed significant reluctance over further cooperation: For starters, the infrastructure debt from the Belt and Road Initiative taken on has become highly suspicious to domestic populations no matter how much their national governments want the investments. In this current state of BRI, stunning on-the-fence BRI partners with heavy-handedness in Hong Kong is tantamount to Beijing calling it quits on BRI itself. China’s investments and efforts will have been wasted. To think that Hong Kong, whose GDP has already been surpassed by its quieter and more docile neighbor Shenzhen, would be worth harming China’s future ambitions for might only be possible if China were irrationally unpragmatic.

In summary, an aggressive crackdown would be counterproductive in nearly every way. Beijing may be said to care about face and stability when it comes to justifying suppression, however it is not unrealistic. Crushing protests may credit Beijing with neither. But more than that, the question is about Hong Kong’s beliefs, which are not something reducible by anything like a gun.

Photos courtesy of:

Guillaume Ferrante