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The war in Tigray: A tale of “miscalculations”

The Conflict in Tigray: A tale of “miscalculations”

Ann Fitz-Gerald is the Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The Canadian native has worked in many nations, including in Ethiopia on issues of national security. Here she converses with The Reporter's Samuel Getachew on her past and ongoing time in Ethiopia, on the current conflict, on what she thinks might work as a solution and more.

Professor Fitz-Gerald, you have had an interesting career that has taken you to too many nations. Share with me the highlights of your career?

I am a village girl from the Ottawa valley region of Canada who has worked in different transitioning countries for many years.  Following an initial career in the financial sector, I returned to university and completed degrees in international relations and war studies, the latter of which was done as the first civilian female in Canada to graduate from the Royal Military College of Canada. I was young, and somewhat intimidated by this environment, but grew quickly to greatly respect my new military friends across all ranks in this postgraduate programme.

I then followed an interest in international security studies, which led me to work with organisations such as the international peacekeeping centre in Canada and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Belgium. It was an enriching experience to support transitioning democracies from central and east European countries and to learn of the governance challenges that these countries were facing. During these years, I spent time in conflict-affected countries like Haiti, parts of the former Yugoslavia and nations in East Africa.

This experience led me to complete a PhD in the UK.  I worked at the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College, London University, then at Cranfield University at the UK Defence Academy campus. I was promoted to full Professor in 2014 and became the University’s Director, Defence and Security Leadership in 2018. In parallel to my academic work, I have served as Senior Security and Justice Adviser to the UK Government which has taken me to many parts of the world and across the African continent, with a particular focus on the Horn of Africa region.  This work included support to the United Nations and the AU’s High Implementation Panel for the peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan.  In 2019, I was appointed as Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Canada. I feel privileged to be leading an organization with many great scholars from the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural, physical and material sciences – it is the intersection between these areas where much further research is needed.

You have spent much time within Ethiopia – teaching and advising different actors on areas of peace. Share with me the highlights of your time here?

My first ‘grown-up’ work-related trip to Ethiopia was in 2002 when I was asked to teach a course in defence governance and management to members of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces.  It was in late July and I remember teaching at the golf course.  The rain came down long and hard on the tin roof which covered the upstairs ‘classroom’…I was using all my energy and voice to be heard above the noise of the rain…and I thought the audience would call for a break…but they didn’t and were fixated and engaged in the discussion, despite the noise!  It was at this moment when I experienced the deep and genuine thirst for knowledge in the country – something which I have remained conscious of ever since.

I continued travelling regularly to the country, delivering courses for the armed forces, which soon expanded to the broader security and justice sector.  I supported advisory work in the Office of the National Security Adviser and also worked with regional authorities.  I continued my research in places like GamoGofa, Harare, Wolayta, Hawassa, Jimma, Dessie and many other towns and rural areas.  One of my favourite past times was spending Sunday mornings walking or biking around Sululta, or the Yeka hills, but also early evening sunset walks around Kassanchiz.  But between 2008 and 2019, my research and teaching commitments brought me to Ethiopia monthly.

Highlights? There are so many….meeting so many wonderful friends and colleagues from whom I have learned so much over the years; playing a part in supporting the development of civil society in the security, justice and human rights spheres; being able to learn so much about Ethiopia-specific governance approaches and learning about important traditional practices – such as the Gadaa system – and more local and rural practices at the zonal and woreda levels.  I also loved experiencing ‘nations’ and working in regions which straddled borders, such as Ethiopia’s southern border with Kenya and its south-west border with South Sudan.

You are now observing the recent conflict in Ethiopia from a distance in Canada. What is your take on it?

Ethiopia is a challenging country to govern, even without having experienced a significant leadership change within the same party with the expectation that an ‘old guard’ and ‘new guard’ could move forward in stable harmony.  A complete change in political party, may have, in the circumstances, preserved greater stability. It was always a risk that the preservation of one large and prolific political party without widening the political space, would have over time.  Whereas it was admirable how much work the EPRDF put into researching what it felt was the most optimal model to drive fast-paced economic growth – with a view to attracting foreign investment and eradicating poverty – the importation of Asian development models into a very diverse society would also bring many tensions and incompatibilities.

What do you think transpired for it to come to this stage?

I think that the answer here concerns miscalculations.  The new administration miscalculating the impact that an exodus of security and political leaders - who felt that they had sacrificed a lot to be shuffled out with little ceremony and support on their departure – would have on stability; miscalculating the extent to which outgoing colleagues believed that new political reforms would still preserve systems (like a strong central party with little voice in the regions) underpinning the EPRDF’s founding ‘doctrine’ and vision – in which the TPLF had invested huge efforts to maintain, and which – it undoubtedly hoped - would carry its leadership legacy for years to come; lastly, miscalculating the extent to which the root of the tensions had, over time,become very personalized towards the Prime Minister’s leadership.

On the other hand, I think that the TPLF leadership miscalculated how 28 years of international relationships would not, on its own, enable the legitimacy required for an equal seat at the negotiating table with a legitimate ruling party and in the face of unconstitutional behaviour; the cohesion, respect to leadership and the regard towards being a ‘people’s institution’ within the national armed forces in light of the 2018-2020 military reforms; lastly, it underestimated the view of the Ethiopian people towards recognizing the limited prospects for a very unclear ‘TPLF endstate’, as well as a general intolerance towards ongoing ‘rule breaking.’

What must be done for the nation to move forward and what can it learn from your own nation, Canada?

I believe that Canada and Ethiopia have much in common.  Canada has as much to learn from Ethiopia as it may have to share with it.  Our borders often invite significant challenges, as well as benefits; we are multicultural and diverse; we are welcoming towards migrant communities; we have a federalist system with regions which wield considerable autonomy; we have had regions which have vied for asymmetric federalist negotiated settlements; indigenous settlers whose traditional and land rights, which have been suppressed in the past, are now consistently recognized and respected; and we have a landscape which is rich in beauty and heritage.  Canada has built conflict resolution structures on power sharing, revenue sharing and linguistic fairness into its constitution – using federalism and principles of subsidiarity as conflict avoidance pathways.  Like Ethiopia, we are not a ‘loud’ voice at the table but, like Ethiopia, we have a story to tell – a story which has increased relevance in the world we are now living.

Canada strives to uphold principles of fairness, equity, rights, freedoms, transparency and justice – its education system plays a key role in socialising these principles and the necessary ways and means to realise them, both at the individual and organisational levels.  Perhaps some would see us as unusually politically divided, but all of our federated governments and the national government remain committed to basic principles that can lead to a strong ‘social contract’ – and a compelling unification across Canadian society.  As we have seen throughout the pandemic, unified societies become resilient societies…and resilience will, now and in the future, be both Canada’s and Ethiopia’s strongest national asset.  

Ethiopia should not underestimate the utility and strength of many of these characteristics which it shares with Canada.  These characteristics can be acknowledged, agreed on, and explained to the country in the context of how the Government will defend, project, pursue and promote these characteristics that represent Ethiopia – and the Ethiopian people.  Humility and honesty must also be exercised in providing the people with a realistic view of what must be achieved in the shorter term to enable significant progress in the medium to longer term – and appeal to the country to move forward together on this project.  These broader objectives should have milestones – that are informed by the input of a vibrant civil society – to which the government can be held accountable.

But none of these steps will be enabled without a conversation taking place – starting with the grass roots level of society across all corners of the country.  Here, listening and understanding how communities realize essential aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy, with some practices requiring change and some practices requiring preservation.  Ethiopia should appeal to its international partners for support to dialogue and healing in order to support urgent policies promoting stability and cohesion – and which can credibly demonstrate how the fruits of a ‘social contract’ can be realised in practice.  

With much time spent in Ethiopia, when you look at its future, where do you think Ethiopia is heading as a nation?

I definitely see a bright future for the country.  Of my many friends across the regions, no one is currently feeling despair.  Change can often be not-so-straightforward, and sometimes a bit messy….but Ethiopia has, in my own view, produced tolerant, hard-working and dignified people whose story – and drive towards national resilience – is now required to shoulder, what will be, very normal – and inevitable - bumps in the road.