The Ethiopian state of Tigray is the latest region to attempt to break away from the central government of an African nation. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front retook the capital city of Mekelle last week, setting off celebrations by civilians suffering at the hands of the Ethiopian military. The conflict is far from over.
Just a year before, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, had received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in calming ethnic tensions in his country. What happened? The answer may be found in revolutionary ethnic zeal, tension with a central government that may have ignored regional needs, the debilitating effects of poverty, or most likely all of the above. But there are also historic antecedents that cannot be dismissed.
The African Union is based in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. One of the central missions of this all-African organization is maintaining existing national borders. Despite the colonial origins of those demarcations there is an ongoing fear that old ethnic rivalries could threaten the integrity of nation states as they have in Ethiopia.
When journalist Henry Morton Stanley of the New York Herald visited Africa in 1871, his reports were greeted in the United States with as much fascination as are the photos today of the planet Mars. Africa was largely unknown to Western societies.
For decades the world’s most powerful nations had competed for Africa’s natural resources, including its people. Yet, little was known about the history and cultural traditions of the continent.
The Belgians made the Congo region the personal property of its king. And British, Italian, Portuguese and French explorers planted their flags on different parts of the continent. The United States hadn’t participated in this land grab, but it had earlier created the American Colonization Society to send freed slaves back to Africa, and in 1847 the nation of Liberia was established, more an informal protectorate than a colony.
When a relatively powerful Germany began to take an interest, fear of conflict among European states inspired a conference in Berlin in 1884, hosted by German leader Otto von Bismarck. There, some of the borders that exist to this day were decided. Ancient governorates were largely ignored and colonial boundaries divided the Ashante, Mali, Heledi, Swahili, Benin and other proud African kingdoms.
I was a junior U.S. diplomat in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire in 1968, enjoying the goodwill that the administration of John F. Kennedy had created. A former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Africa Subcommittee, President Kennedy strongly supported the independence movements of Africa.
Starting in 1957, one by one, colonial rulers began to lose ground to charismatic leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Kennedy reminded these new nation-states that Americans too had fought a revolutionary war of independence. He opened embassies in each new nation, created the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps to work in partnership with the African people and their governments. Africans mourned his death, and even in 1968, photos of JFK adorned the walls of African shops and homes.
When I returned to Abidjan in 2015 on a pre-election survey for the National Democratic Institute, a United Nations peacekeeping force was in place. The 2010 election broke the country apart when the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept defeat. At its core was a dispute between Northern Islamic communities and Southern Christians. But to see this as simply a religious conflict would be to skate over the tensions among some 60 ethnic groups realigned by party affiliations that tended to divide the country.
In the 1960s, the city of Abidjan had a population of 400,000. By then, it numbered over 5 million diverse people from all over West Africa. Deciding who could stand for office and who had the right to vote became a major challenge.
Cote D’Ivoire, which has recovered under the leadership of former International Monetary Fund Deputy Director Alassane Ouattara, illustrative of the centrifugal forces with which today’s African nations must contend. Artificially imposed boundaries surround highly diverse and growing populations, proud of their ancient heritage, but often unable to create the critical mass necessary to achieve meaningful power.
There are 46 nation-states in sub-Saharan Africa and each presents its own political and economic context. Many of these nations have become more democratic and their governments more accountable. Since 2015, there have been 27 leadership changes, and, while the pandemic has taken a toll, economic growth rates have been impressive. Trade with the U.S. has increased exponentially thanks in part to the Clinton era’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.
It has been over 60 years since the independence movement broke the bonds of colonialism in Africa, 137 years since the Berlin conference imposed its boundaries. Many African states are doing relatively well, but there are still some 18 state-based conflicts and 2.8 million refugees escaping violence and persecution.
Development assistance is still needed to help these societies deal with poverty, exponential population increases, urbanization, climate change, infectious disease, agricultural production, forest management and fragile institutions.
However today Africans don’t want “aid,” they want development partnerships that will bolster their own efforts. If resources and technical assistance are offered with the taint of colonialism, it will inevitably be counterproductive.
Africans today are still struggling to rationalize inherited borders that too frequently encourage ethnic conflict. Democratic institutions and a growing sense of national pride have ameliorated many of these problems, but not all. Tigray represents a complex of internal Ethiopian factors, but it is also to a large degree a symptom of the colonial legacy.
J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration and was a career U.S. diplomat from 1966 to 1972.