Ethiopia-Eritrea Wargames of Mass Distraction? [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]


De ja vu: Haven’t we seen that movie (circus) before?

In April 2011, I wrote a commentary about the T-TPLF’s art of war by mass distraction.

The T-TPLF (Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front), the ruling regime in Ethiopia, is a terrorist organization listed in the Global Terrorism Database.

In April 2011, the late TPLF thugmaster Meles Zenawi was talking about war, rumors of war and war with Eritrea and a water war with Egypt.

Here we go again in June 2016.

In the past few days, we are hearing once again talk about war, rumors of war and drumbeats of war signaling a ground war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

But are we also watching a wargame of mass distraction?

T-TPLF communication minister Getachew “Motor Mouth” Reda said, “There were significant casualties on both sides, but more on the Eritrean side. We used to take precautionary measures against this regime, but this time was much more important in terms of magnitude than the measures that were taken so far.” (Whatever that means!)

Eritrea claimed  to have killed 200 Ethiopian soldiers and wounded 300 more.

Hiram Johnson, a famous U.S. Senator from California, long ago said, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”

When the two warring parties agree on the same “truth”, I begin to wonder if truth is the first and only casualty.

I also begin to smell the stench of a rat. I can smell a rat from 10 thousand miles away.

Sniff! Sniff!  “Ethiopia- Eritrea War”.

Of course, Johnson’s dictum on the first casualty of war does not apply to wargames.

I have observed over the years that every time the T-TPLF leaders find themselves in a superbad publicity pickle, they conjure up a wargame.

I guess that is the T-TPLF’s way of hard-jamming the bad news and distracting domestic and international attention from their ongoing crimes against humanity, corruption, abuse of power and brutal suppression of all dissent.

There is no question the past few weeks have been all bad news for the T-TPLF.

Last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) slammed the T-TPLF big time and ordered it to cough up $6.5 million it illegally ripped off from its supporters and other favor-seeking and bootlicking Diaspora Ethiopians in the U.S. They have to fork the money over to an independent Administrator appointed by the SEC no later than July 8, 2016.

That has got to be pretty humiliating for the T-TPLF and a big blotch on the memory of the late thugmaster who bragged about building the largest dam in Africa by shaking down the people of Ethiopia and Diaspora Ethiopians.

Imagine building a dam by racketeering in unregistered bonds in the U.S.! Bond protection racket?

I can imagine the T-TPLF leaders chafing  over the fact that they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar three years after I had cited to them the chapter and verse the U.S. Code they were violating by selling unregistered bonds in the U.S.

I told them straight up on May 8, 2013. Don’t do it! Don’t sell unregistered bonds. It is a crime under U.S. federal and state laws. Don’t do the crime, it will come back to haunt you in time.

Three years later the crime of selling unregistered bond (It is a crime; See “Securities Act of 1933”, sec. 20 (b))  came back to haunt them.

But the T-TPLF’s snake oil unregistered bond salesmen barely escaped criminal prosecution.

But did they really?

The T-TPLF leaders have been getting away with crimes against humanity for so long that they thought they could also get away thumbing their noses at American laws.

They did not.

On the heels of the SEC revelation and order, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a major report entitled, “‘Such a Brutal Crackdown’: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests.”

That report details the T-TPLF’s “use of excessive and unnecessary lethal force and mass arrests, mistreatment in detention, and restrictions on access to information to quash the protest movement.”

Leslie Lefkow, HRW Deputy Africa Director, said, “Ethiopian security forces have fired on and killed hundreds of students, farmers, and other peaceful protesters with blatant disregard for human life.”

Firing into a gathering of “peaceful protesters with blatant disregard for human life” is a crime against humanity. I just want to say that for the record.

In December 2015, T-TPLF minister Reda said  the people killed in the protests were “an organized and armed terrorist force aiming to create havoc and chaos has begun murdering model farmers, public leaders and other ethnic groups residing in the region.”

A bunch of high school and college kids protesting in the streets are “an organized and armed terrorist force”?

It reminds me of Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of Living Lies where Puff  takes a little girl called Sandy, to the Land of the Living Lies. There she meets such famous fibbers as Pinocchio and the boy who cried wolf.

In the Land of Living Lies, Puff and Sandy get to see the famous purple cow that no one has ever seen and pink elephant that some see too often.

In the Land of Living Lies that Ethiopia has become under the T-TPLF, school children and college students are seen as an “organized and armed terrorist force aiming to create havoc and chaos.”

I remember when Ethiopia was known as the “Land of 13-months of Sunshine”.

Anyway, President Uhuru Kenyatta and others were charged in count 2 of the International Criminal Court indictment in 2012 for their involvement in the massacres of nearly 2 thousand innocent and peaceful Kenyans during the 2007 presidential election in Kenya.

HRW called for an independent inquiry into the “Oromo Protest” massacres.

The T-TPLF, as always, has turned a deaf ear.

The T-TPLF has been getting bad publicity for its total incompetence in dealing  with the famine situation affecting some 20 million Ethiopians and its shameless efforts to keep news of that devastation from international scrutiny.

In complicity with USAID and the other international poverty pimps, the T-TPLF has succeeded in stonewalling any real time information from the famine-stricken areas and sandbagged  journalists from making the effort to discover the truth for themselves.

So far the T-TPLF has been somewhat successful in avoiding accountability for its gross negligence, incompetence and criminality in the famine situation. (See my letter to USAID Administrator Gayle E. Smith.)

It is understandable why the T-TPLF wants to hard-jam all the bad news.

What better strategy is there to hard-jam the news than manufacturing news of war and rumors of war to create mass distraction?

I must confess that I view a “war” between the T-TPLF and its “adversaries” to the north as the equivalent of medieval England’s War of the Roses. It is an in-house fight for power between different members of the same family.

The T-TPLF and their alleged adversaries fought together for years as a band of brothers to dislodge the military regime and seize power. They struggled as comrades-in-arms cooperating and helping each other in military operations and diplomatic offensives. There is ample evidence that various top T-TPLF leaders have family and kinship ties with their “adversaries”.

Once the T-TPLF took over power in 1991, they shared it cheerfully with those they now accuse as adversaries in a curious circus in which the tail wagged the dog. That ended in 1993-94.

Between 1998-2000, the former comrades-in-arms were tangled up in a border war. The Eritreans attacked and captured Ethiopian territory. They were repelled after “an estimated 70,000 to 120,000 soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict.”

The late thugmaster Meles Zenawi declared victory; and in an insidiously calculated act of political capitulation and betrayal agreed to turn over the recaptured territory to Eritrea in international arbitration.

When Zenawi lost in arbitration by conveniently failing to put up a vigorous legal defense, he said the arbitral decision is not worth the paper it is written on.

Now, the former comrades-in-arms say they are fighting a war. They are pointing accusatory fingers at each other.

But are they really fighting a war or just wargaming?

But why are they warring against each other? They don’t say.

A high level Eritrean official alleged that the U.N. report which “accused Eritrean leaders of committing crimes against humanity including torture, murder and enslavement” was orchestrated by Ethiopia:  “The gathering of information from ‘witnesses’ organised by Ethiopia allows the latter to advance its propaganda against a country that it aims to destabilize.”

Could the U.N. report be the casus belli (cause for war)?

In his book “Why Nations Fight” (2010), Richard Ned Lebow argues that historically four motives —  fear, interest, standing, and revenge – have led states to initiate war. He argues the majority of wars are fought in a quest for standing and for revenge in an attempt to get even with adversary states who had previously made successful territorial grabs.

Is standing, revenge and recapture of territory the cause for “war” between the two states today?

My studies of dictatorships and wars initiated by them suggest an alternative explanation.

Pulling out the “war card” is the oldest trick in the dictators’ handbook.

The “handbook” says, “When the going gets tough, declare war. Declare a real or fake war. It does not matter. Talk about war. Spread rumors of war. Sound the drumbeats of war. Play wargames.”

But why? Because war is a sure and proven method of mass distraction!

From the time of the Roman emperors to the present day, the lords and gods of war have played the war card and stirred up patriotic fever in the population to cling to and prolong their hold on power.

Over the millennia, the technology of war may have changed but the deceit, machinations, sophistry, treachery and modus operandi of war-mongers has remained the same.

Dictators often start with a war of words and flood their population with a propaganda of lies, fabrications and half-truths about the need for war.

The prelude to war launched by dictators follows a predictable pattern. They begin by making grandiose public statements about the necessity of war and demonize their enemies hoping to boost popular support at home.

They magically discover love of country and wrap themselves in their flags and become jingoistic (super-patriotic). They will even promise to reverse territorial losses in an attempt to stoke patriotism.

Dictators brazenly pander to the population using nationalism and chauvinism in an effort to mobilize public support. They manufacture mass hysteria about imminent attacks, invisible enemies, lurking terrorists, loss of sovereignty and the rest of it.

Every chance they get, they try to trigger paroxysms of public anger against the enemy and inflame public opinion with provocative and outrageously concocted stories designed to make themselves look patriotic and their opposition and enemies appear unpatriotic.

When all else fails, dictators openly incite fear and hysteria to distract public attention from their crimes and dictatorial rule.

More often than not, the war of words will not amount to much more than declarations of bravado and hyperbolic accusations and recriminations. It often ends at the stage of skirmishes.

But dictators will often continue to talk about and spread rumors of war long after the guns have been silenced in the battlefield.

But war is a tricky proposition for dictators.

The survival of dictators more often than not depends on whether they win a war they have started.

Defeat in war often means the end of dictators.

Defeated dictators are often ousted in coups or other violent mass upheavals. The likelihood of exile, jail and death for dictators increases geometrically with each war dictators lose.

Some African dictators have remained in power despite losing wars they have launched recklessly. Indeed, they have used defeat as a justification and excuse to brutally suppress their population. They have used their enemies as bogeymen to scare their own population into submission.

Other African dictators have no incentive to win a war they started or joined. They feel so entrenched in power that war becomes a wargame for them; but a war of death and destruction for their population.

No one made the fact of dictator-launched wars more clear than Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right-hand man. He told the following to his interrogator at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945:

Naturally the common people don’t want war. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along…Voice or no voice [democratic or non-democratic government], the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

In April 2011, the late thugmaster Meles Zenawi echoed Goering when he said:

Recently, Eritrea is training and deploying Al Shabab and locally grown destructive forces to terrorize our country. But Egypt is the direct force behind these destructive elements that back them. Until now, our strategy has been defending our sovereignty by speeding up our development. Now, we found that we could not go any longer with passive defense. It’s not possible to take passive defense as the only alternative. Therefore, we have to facilitate ways for Eritrean people to remove their dictatorial regime. We have no intention to jump into their country but we need to extend our influence there. If the Eritrean government tries to attack us, we will also respond proportionally.

In December 2006, Zenawi used the exact same logique de guerre (war logic) at the onset of his unsuccessful 843-day war to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union and crush the Al Shabab in Somalia. He said:

With regard to physical attacks or physical acts of the invasion, what has happened since last summer is that the Islamic courts have been training, equipping and smuggling armed opposition elements into Ethiopia. These elements have been engaged in activities of destabilization in Ethiopia. Hundreds of these have been smuggled and they have been involved in clashes with security forces in Ethiopia. To the extent that the Islamic Courts have trained them, equipped them, given them shelter and transported them to the border for smuggling. To that extent, they are directly involved in an act of aggression on Ethiopia. And that has been going since summer. It is still continuing.

In 2009, after leaving Somalia with his tail between his legs, Zenawi waxed philosophical: “If the people of Somalia have a government, even one not positively inclined to Ethiopia, it would be better than the current situation. Having a stable government in place in Somalia is in our national interests.”

That is the same guy who in December 2006 said he will make mincemeat out of the terrorists in Somalia and be back home in a jiffy.

What Zenawi did was cause the death of tens of thousands of Somalis civilians through indiscriminate shelling and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

How many Ethiopian soldiers died in Zenawi’s war in Somalia?

In 2009, Zenawi told “parliament it does not need to know how many soldiers died in Somalia”.

Dictators can make cannon fodder of their population and tell everyone it is not their business to know how many died in a war.

Now we are told the T-TPLF and Eritrea are banging the drums of war. They are dancing to the drumbeat of war.

Of course, the obligatory warnings against war have come from the usual suspects.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling for “cessation of hostilities” and urged “both Ethiopia and Eritrea to cooperate in promoting stability and sustainable peace in the region.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Ethiopia and Eritrea “to show maximum restraint and abide by the accords that ended their border war seven years ago.”

The bottom line question is whether there is a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea or just wargames?

I do not know!

They are having wargames, methinks.

Both sides claimed to have killed and wounded hundreds.

All that sounds and smells fishy to me. It does not pass my smell test (no pun intended).

What I do know is that I have seen this movie (or is it circus?) before.

In 2011, I saw the political theatre of wargames in a three-ring propaganda circus intended to distract the Ethiopian population and diaspora critics from talking about T-TPLF’s crimes against humanity, corruption, abuse of power and the rest of it.

On the other hand, could it be that all of the talk of war and rumors of war is a cover for another kind of “war” that is deeply troubling the T-TPLF?

In my view, all the pretentious war talk betrays the T-TPLF’s preoccupation with the inevitable loss of power and control as a result of a spontaneous popular uprising. All the war talk reveals the deep anxieties and profound political angst of a regime trapped in a siege mentality.

President Kennedy observed, “In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

The prospect of ending up inside an angry and hungry tiger’s belly is what keeps the T-TPLF leaders and supporters from sleeping at night and talking about the nightmare of war all day.

I believe the T-TPLF is deeply concerned about a war, but not a war with Eritrea.

It is concerned about a war with the people of Ethiopia.

The T-TPLF knows I am telling the truth because that is what they talk about to each other all the time. What if the people of Ethiopia….?

I do not know if what we are witnessing in June 2016 is a prelude to war or watching a band of brothers just playing wargames of mass distraction.

Could there be war among those who are on different sides of the same coin?  They need each other to remain in power just as Siamese twins need each other to live. They are peas in a pod.

War is one thing neither side needs today; and they know it.

In October 2015, the U.N. Security Council “reaffirmed the arms embargo on Eritrea.”

Prosecuting a war under an arms embargo could prove exceedingly difficult.

The much maligned British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain said, “In war whichever side may call itself victor. There are no winners. But all are losers.”

In an Ethiopia-Eritrea War, who will be the losers?

There is a familiar old saying about fighting (warring) elephants and the grass.

Why is it not possible for the grass to come out as the real winner in a war among elephants?

In April 2011, I wrote, “Time will show if there will be war or intervention in Eritrea, and a water war with Egypt…. But for now, no one needs to lose sleep over that prospect. The only war being waged today by Zenawi is a war of mass distraction.”

In April 2011, Zenawi threatened to “facilitate ways for the Eritrean people to remove their dictatorial regime.”

The facts of the last 5 years speak for themselves.

Call me naïve. Even say that I was born yesterday and do not understand geopolitics and all that.

It may be true that I am naïve and may have been born yesterday. But I was not born last night!

I will repeat what I said in April 2011 in June 2016. The “Ethiopia-Eritrea War” is a wargame of mass distraction.

Filed in: Articles & Opinions