The Curse of Minority Regimes: The Case of Ethiopia
By Asgede Hagos
November 17, 2003

“At the end of the day governments have to sometimes take decisions which are unpopular [sic] because it is the governments that enter into treaties, international obligations. They must deliver on that.”

These are the words of the British ambassador to Ethiopia in an interview with an Ethiopian newspaper last month on the need for the TPLF regime to show leadership in ending the border conflict peacefully and legally. However, he missed an important dimension to the problem: the minority nature of the regime.

The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) regime ruling Ethiopia today is a minority regime that represents a sliver of the population with virtually no social base in the center or political support anywhere in the country. When regime or group survival is the primary preoccupation of a government, maybe it is too much to expect it to show leadership or “give up small things in order to achieve big things,” as he put it.

It is important for the international community to recognize this aspect of the problem in the implementation of the Eritrean-Ethiopian boundary demarcation ruling so that the world can apply pressure accordingly. Generally speaking, minority regimes lack the capacity to lead because of the absence of internal legitimacy, no matter how much some Western powers try to paint their ‘favorite” dictators otherwise. External legitimacy cannot cover up that critical deficiency for any group that tries to lead without excessive dependency on the coercive organs of the state.

Let us look at the minority regime in Burundi, which I have had a chance to see closely from inside the country, especially when former South African President Nelson Mandela stepped in as the lead negotiator three years ago, injecting a great deal of hope and enthusiasm for a peaceful resolution of that nation’s internal conflict, with some external dimensions. However, as with the minority regime in Ethiopia, the Tutsi regime viewed achieving peace as potentially fatal to Tutsi ethnic hegemony and stranglehold on the apparatus of power. Though the international community has invested a great deal in the peace process in this central African nation in an attempt to avoid another Rwanda-type tragedy, the minority Tutsi regime kept moving the goal post on the negotiators led by two of Africa’s greatest former leaders, first by the late Julies Nyrere and, after him, by Nelson Mandela. As in Ethiopia, the Burundi minority regime staked its continued stay in power on a strategy of a
 state of constant instability that allowed it to keep being armed to the teeth. No wonder, the Burundian crisis is still raging and peace is nowhere in sight.

Minority regimes see their survival in the disproportionate share of the fire-power they control in the country, which in turn creates a feeling of more insecurity among the oppressed majority. There is no question that the TPLF used the war with Eritrea as a convenient cover to permanently transfer more of Ethiopia’s military hardware to Tigray. However, as I said, the more a minority regime accumulates the weapons of destruction, the more the feeling of insecurity among the majority of the population as in the case of Burundi and Rwanda.

The lesson here is that the minority regime in Ethiopia, whose social base is proportionally even smaller than those of the “twin sisters” of Burundi and Rwanda, should not be expected to behave differently. It is important for the international community to recognize that the regime has long concluded that peace at home and with its neighbors is tantamount to a regime death warrant and a threat to its ethnic hegemony. Therefore, no one should have any illusions about the TPLF regime’s capacity to do the right thing and shoulder its responsibilities in resolving the border conflict peacefully and legally; the world should therefore apply the necessary pressure accordingly so that the Hague ruling on the Eritrean-Ethiopian boundary can be implemented as final and binding—and soon.

The regime’s aggressive intent is becoming clearer by the day. Here is what the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States said this week in a letter to the Boston Globe newspaper, in a response to an editorial deploring Ethiopia’s intransigence on the boundary demarcation: “Badme must remain in Ethiopia,” he said, “and Eritrean aggression (sic) should not be rewarded.” What is clear is the TPLF’s unmistakable intent to continue the aggression it unleashed against Eritrea and the Eritrean people in May 1998 under the veil of being invaded.

This is not surprising, given the behavior of this particular minority regime whose primary preoccupation is regime survival and whose motivations are as sinister as they are varied. Since the first diplomatic attempt by U.S. and Rwandan mediators in l998 to resolve the border war with Eritrea, the regime has been moving the goal post to prevent a peaceful resolution of the conflict. For example, on Badme, the prime minister’s public positions have morphed from “I don’t care whether Badme belongs to Senegal or to Eritrea, it is a question of the status quo ante,” to “It is a matter of the rule of law,” and now “Badme cannot be in Eritrea.” This is part of its latest political and diplomatic ploy to justify its intransigence on the border ruling. And all these despite the fact that even some of the maps his own regime submitted to the Commission show Badme in Eritrea, according to the Boundary Commission.

However, the real question is not where Badme is—every legitimate map, or any map that was not made in Tigray or commissioned by the TPLF, puts it in Eritrea. It is that this minority regime views any move towards peace on the border as a threat to its plans to stay in power. Badme is just a convenient ploy to keep the conflict going, to keep the ultranationalists dreaming about what might happen, and still hoping for an opening for its grand design for Tigray at the expense of everybody around it.

The international community should not be confused by the TPLF’s latest ploy: its relentless call for a dialogue, which sounds rational and logical to the politically and diplomatically innocent. First, a dialogue on the “final and binding” ruling sounds like an oxymoron. But, more importantly, knowing what we know about this sinister regime, a dialogue would effectively kill the ruling and take the process to square one, thus fulfilling the TPLF’s goal for permanent instability in this region.

The international community, especially the UN Security Council, should put an end to these shenanigans—and soon!