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Another war with Eritrea? A water war with Egypt? Alemayehu G. Mariam deconstructs Meles Zenawi's latest war talk.

At the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right-hand man, told his interrogator:

‘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.’

Lately, Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia, has been beating the drums of war. He charged:

‘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.’

Zenawi asserted the legal doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence (the right to use force in anticipation of an attack, Art. 51, UN Charter) to clothe his naked aggression against Somalia:

‘Ethiopian defence forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation. We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalia’s internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances.’

In 2009, a humbled Zenawi waxed philosophical and struck a grudgingly conciliatory tone as he ordered his defeated troops out of Somalia:

‘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.’

Zenawi now bangs the drums of war and says there will no longer be ‘passive defense’ against the ‘dictatorial regime’ in Eritrea and its Egyptian ‘puppet masters’ who are working in collusion to ‘destabilise’ and ‘terrorise’ Ethiopia.

Since ‘stability’ is the hallmark of Pax Zenawi, one could reasonably ask whether ‘a stable government in place in Eritrea is in our national interest’. The undeniable fact is that Zenawi invaded Somalia to pander to the Bush Administration’s reflexive obsession with terrorism and to deflect criticism for his theft of the 2005 election and the post-election massacre of innocent demonstrators and mass imprisonment of opposition leaders.

Zenawi’s three-year occupation of Somalia created more instability in that country, and the so-called transitional government remains weaker than ever. The very elements Zenawi sought to vanquish in Somalia, including Al Shabab, are today stronger than ever. Somali pirates have become a maritime scourge on the Indian Ocean. Somalia is considerably worse off today than it was before Zenawi’s invasion in 2006.

That invasion created the worst global humanitarian crisis in the first decade of the 21st Century. In the end, Zenawi did not save the Horn from Al Shabab, Al Queida, the Islamic Courts or whatever phantom enemies he was chasing. If Zenawi could not dislodge a ragtag army of ‘terrorists’ from Somalia after three years of all-out war, it is illogical to expect a different result against a well-entrenched ‘dictatorial regime’ in Eritrea.

The fact to keep in mind is that Zenawi is recycling the exact same set of arguments he used to justify his invasion of Somalia. But hidden deep in his justification for war against the ‘dictatorial regime’ in Eritrea and Egypt are a complex set of geopolitical and domestic issues.

At the geopolitical level, Zenawi is floating a trial balloon to see if the Americans will fall for the threat of terrorism. The US will not fall for this again. Obama is neither shopping for war in the Horn nor is he willing to bankroll one. So, there will be no war for regime change in Eritrea or a water war with Egypt.


So, what is the real reason for all the talk about regime change in Eritrea and a looming water war with Egypt? It is all political theatre, part of a three-ring propaganda circus intended to distract the Ethiopian population and diaspora critics from talking about the winds of change that will surely blow southward from North Africa. All the talk of war and regime change is bravado intended to cover something that is deeply troubling Zenawi and his ruling class. It is part of a strategy intended to project invincibility and outward confidence that Zenawi still runs the show in Ethiopia and the upheavals taking place in North Africa will not occur under his watch. But all of the pretentious war talk betrays Zenawi’s obvious preoccupation with loss of control and power as a result of a spontaneous popular uprising. Careful analysis of his public statements reveal the deep anxieties and profound political angst of a delusional and isolated man trapped in a siege mentality.

There is substantial psychological literature which suggests that dictators often resort to bombast and self-glorification to cover up their paranoid obsessions. For instance, dictators who are fearful of losing power will project that fear on their opponents as a way of reducing their own anxiety. More to the point, a dictator fearful of regime change will threaten others with regime change just to deal with his own anxieties. The wind-bagging about war is intended to conceal Zenawi’s vulnerabilities from public view and enable him to suppress the psychological discomfort of consciously admitting that he could realistically become a victim of regime change in a popular uprising.

Metaphorically speaking, the constant fear and nightmare of dictators who ride the back of the proverbial tiger is what the tiger will do to them if they stop riding it. As President Kennedy observed, ‘In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger ended up inside.’

Ending up inside the tiger’s belly is what keeps dictators from sleeping at night and war talk during the day. Suffice to say that the winds of change blowing over the Horn from North Africa must be spreading sheer panic about a lurking hungry and angry tiger in the land of ‘thirteen months of sunshine’.

Professor Jerrold Post’s research in leadership trait analysis is particularly instructive in understanding the techniques dictators use to project false confidence, conceal their anxieties about losing power and reassure themselves that they are omnipotent, invincible and untouchable.

Typically, they begin by making grandiose public statements about war and enemies hoping to boost popular support. They magically discover love of country and wrap themselves in the flag and become jingoistic (super-patriotic). They even propose to reverse territorial losses incurred by their country in an attempt to open the floodgates of popular patriotic emotion. They brazenly pander to the population using nationalistic and chauvinistic sensationalism and try to mobilise public support with cheap sentimentality by manufacturing 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 all others unpatriotic. When all else fails, they openly incite fear and hysteria to distract public attention from their crimes and dictatorial rule.

By ‘facilitating ways for Eritrean people to remove their dictatorial regime’, Zenawi hopes to lay a credible groundwork for a just, moral and humanitarian intervention in Eritrea.

But he is only pandering to the Eritrean people by promising to free them from a ‘dictatorship’ just as he pledged to the Somali people four years ago liberation from the clutches of Al Shabab and Al Qaeda terrorists and the Islamic Courts Union. By proposing ‘to extend our influence there’, he is pandering to elements in Ethiopia who still chafe at the secession of Eritrea and generate war hysteria to punish a ‘historic’ enemy.

There is nothing new in this war propaganda game. From the time of the Roman emperors to the present day, the lords of war have played the ‘war card’ and stirred up patriotic fever in the population to cling to power. Over the millennia, the technology of war may have changed but the deceit, ploys, chicanery, treachery and modus operandi of war-makers has remained the same. Dictators, like schoolyard bullies, are experts in the art of taunting, intimidation, bluffing and teasing. They start a war of words and flood their population with lies, fabrications and half-truths. More often than not, the war of words will not amount to much more than declarations of bravado and hyperbolic accusations and recriminations.

Time will show if there will be war or intervention in Eritrea, and a water war with Egypt. We will monitor the rumours of war over the coming weeks and months. We shall listen to the oratory of war and why it is necessary for two of the poorest countries on the planet to slaughter each other twice in less than 15 years. Isn’t the 100,000 deaths of the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrea war enough? We shall read the dramatic propaganda narratives to be written to create war fever and observe the war hysteria that will be drummed up to bring more misery and suffering to the unfortunate people of the Horn of Africa. If there is war, we shall see the masses of poor people marching to a war they do not want. 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.


It is the scholarly duty of historians, political scientists, journalists, lawyers and others to throw light on repeated historical patterns of war deception to enhance public understanding, and to debunk and unravel the tangled webs of lies and deceit of the war-makers. Herr Goering said, ‘Voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.’ Herr Goering is wrong. The people of North Africa are refusing the ‘bidding of their leaders’. Is it unreasonable to suppose that the people of the Horn of Africa will also refuse the ‘bidding of their leaders’ to become cannon fodder for their dictators?

The common people of Ethiopia do not want war. If there is war, it will be Zenawi’s war. Zenawi has done one ‘fantastic Somalia job’. Another fantastic job in Eritrea is not needed. In any case, there needs to be some serious accounting for the war in Somalia in 2006 and the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea before starting a new war in 2011.

The holier-than-thou dictators ought to remind themselves that, ‘The camel cannot see the crookedness of its own neck.’ Before they go all out to remove other regimes, they should contemplate the simple wisdom of the scriptures: ‘You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ In less sublime terms, ‘people who live in glass houses should not throw stones’.

On the other hand, is it possible that when two elephants fight, the grass could come out as the real winner?

It’s difficult to comment on the situations in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire without sounding like you are in favour of either side. As both crises deepen, the cut and dry actions that underpinned the need for intervention are muddied by significant loss of civilian life and large refugee movements in both countries.

In order to avoid any confusion, however, allow me to categorically state that neither Laurent Gbagbo nor Muammar Ghadaffi are objects of sympathy or support in my view. That said, the US and European governments and agencies that are currently opposing both men and their machines aren’t exactly doing themselves any favours.

For one, there has to be a better way to end the suffering of civilians than bombing them into oblivion. When the insurgency in Libya began to take shape, no one was wringing their hands in fear for Ghaddafi’s legacy, but when the NATO headed military campaign hesitates to apologise for bombing the rebels they nominally support, we have to question what exactly they are fighting for.

Similarly, we accept the legitimacy of the Ouattara government, but we recall that the role of United Nations peacekeeping missions in conflict is to maintain peace and security, and not to support either one of the actors militarily. In a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world, have no lessons been drawn about the folly of underestimating the reach of an embattled but determined leader of disorganised but loyal troops? Or should we brace ourselves for more wars that start with a bang and simmer on indefinitely?

One government in particular has been pushing for a more aggressive stance on both crises, which in the context of historical developments may lead one to conclude that there is more at stake here than stability in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire.

The aggressive posturing of the French in both cases is a development of concern to anyone who believes that violence should be a tool of last resort in international diplomacy. In Côte d'Ivoire as in Libya, the French government has been on the forefront of demanding direct military intervention, some would say, without giving diplomacy or discussion a fair try. It was France that struck first in Libya, and as the former colonial power, France remains deeply intertwined with the UN mission in Côte d'Ivoire. More sympathetic observers argue that the aggressive tack is in part due to a desire to avoid a second Rwanda; the more cynical amongst us find it far too coincidental that the increasingly unpopular president, caught underfoot in Tunisia, is pushing for a war with a government that apparently helped finance his presidential campaign and another that has consistently rebuffed his attempts at intervention.

Beyond the curious coincidences, it is no secret that the Sarkozy government has failed to develop a comprehensive foreign policy, especially towards former colonies in Africa. Oscillating between palpable disregard and ersatz sycophancy, the French failure to read the writing on the wall is perhaps the best argument for reform of the UN Security Council, within which some form of consistency is needed for legitimacy. Indeed, Sarkozy set the tone for his country’s policy on Africa in his speech at the University of Dakar in 2007. Fumbling and bumbling his way through addressing the gathered crowd, he finally concluded that ‘the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history…they have never really launched themselves into the future’.

It may be that the belief that Africans had somehow been overlooked by the march of time underpins the Sarkozy government’s inability to read the mood of African people. Perhaps Sarkozy genuinely believes that everything that could be learnt about Africa has already been learnt, and what remains is to mould the continent into a more tolerable image.

This would go some way towards explaining the lack of finesse in the French approach to resolving issues on the continent. The world’s eyes may now be trained on Libya and Côte d'Ivoire, but consider the French conduct towards Chad, where the French government saw no contradiction between selling £11.8 million worth of arms - making Chad the second largest consumer of French military exports - days after negotiating the release of French ‘aid workers’ caught apparently smuggling children out of the country.

Never mind that Idriss Déby (president of Chad) has been implicated in everything from the crisis in Darfur, to brutally suppressing the rebellion seething in Chad, to pulling one of the most remarkable bait-and-switches in history in the construction of and allocation of resources from the Chad-Cameroon pipeline by the World Bank. A more measured approach would have considered the implications of arming a man who has proven time and again that his personal needs outweigh any national concerns, but a Sarkoziste approach only sees a potential ally in a global war for influence or cultural superiority that France has already lost.

To be sure, a concrete foreign policy is no guarantee of good behaviour - look at Obama’s tentative foray into the crisis in Libya. Still, there is some measure of cold comfort in knowing that it is only a matter of time before a US president flies half way around the world to start or extend a war only months after a British prime minister has sold that country a vast cache of weapons.

In contrast, the wild oscillations between interventionism and blatant neglect that characterise the French approach to international relations, worsened by Sarkozy’s own short sightedness and braggadocio, has introduced an unnecessary wild card into international conflict resolution, that seems to be itching for overly aggressive behaviour. Maybe it’s time we heard a little more from Germany or Japan.


* Alemayehu G. Mariam is professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino.
* Past commentaries of the author are available at The Huffington Post
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.