In a column published on Project Syndicate on 6 February 2021, Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, made several false or misleading claims. If the Prime Minister’s government is committed to the truth, it should allow independent and transparent UN-led investigations in Tigray and provide access to independent media. All of us, including myself, should stand ready to accept the results of transparent and independent investigations. In the absence and active blockade of independent media and independent investigations, however, it is important to distinguish between truth and propaganda. In this spirit, I will debunk in detail five of the false or misleading claims made by the Prime Minister in the op-ed.
First, Prime Minister Abiy paints TPLF as the root of all evil in the Horn of Africa, absolving himself from any blame or responsibility for the active role he played during the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government. As an intelligence chief of the Information Network Security Agency and a high-ranking member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), a sister party to TPLF in the TPLF-dominated ruling coalition EPRDF, Abiy is at best, complicit, and at worst, equally responsible for crimes and human right violations committed by EPRDF. It is also important to note that his new political party Prosperity Party or himself have not been elected by the Ethiopian people in a free and fair election. He rose to the Prime Minister’s position as an EPRDF leader on the back of an uncontested, and definitely not free and fair, election “won” by EPRDF in 2015. When the Prime Minister points one finger at TPLF to label it as “corrupt and dictatorial,” three fingers are pointing back at him.
Second, Prime Minister Abiy claims that the people of Tigray have been freed from TPLF. It is to be noted that Tigrayans overwhelmingly voted TPLF into office in the regional election held in September 2020. While we can debate the margin with which TPLF won the regional election, one cannot deny that TPLF enjoys overwhelming support in Tigray. This support has possibly multiplied since the war began. We have also not seen residents of Mekelle and other major cities or towns in Tigray celebrating their “freedom” in the way we have seen “freed” people elsewhere in the world normally express their happiness after the end of a brutal dictatorship. In fact, Tigrayans are mourning, and Tigray is now effectively under the occupation of allied Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and militias from the Amhara region, a fact unofficially admitted by Ethiopian military generals as well as the Abiy-appointed provisional administration of Tigray. Western and Southern Tigray have also been illegally and unconstitutionally annexed by the Amhara region. Just yesterday, the United States Embassy in Eritrea asked the Eritrean government to withdraw its troops from Tigray immediately. As reported in the Washington Post this week, three major opposition parties in Tigray also announced that more than 50,000 civilians in Tigray have been indiscriminately killed by allied Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and Amhara regional militias. To tell the people of Tigray that they have been freed from their own regional government while at the same time causing mayhem upon Tigray is paternalistic.
Third, Prime Minister Abiy points to the peace deal he signed with Eritrea as an accomplishment, claiming that it will enable Eritrean citizens and Ethiopians residing along the border with Eritrea to live without the shadow of war. This is dishonest. In violation of international law and beyond reasonable doubt, Eritrean troops are deep in Tigray committing unspeakable atrocities at the moment, a fact both Abiy’s government and the Eritrean government continue to deny officially. Moreover, neither Ethiopia’s Parliament nor the Ethiopian public know the terms of the peace deal. Can a peace deal not ratified by the Parliament, as required by the Ethiopian constitution, be considered a peace deal? Given credible evidence that Eritrean forces are engaged in discriminate killings of civilians in Tigray and the wanton destruction of public property, including factories, hospitals, and religious sites, it is also fair to question whether the peace deal Abiy signed with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki was indeed a war pact, a vengeful marriage of convenience against TPLF. Who let Eritrean troops into Tigray? If Eritrean troops entered Tigray without the invitation of Prime Minister Abiy’s government, as some of its military generals and officials have unofficially stated, why isn’t the Ethiopian government asking Eritrean troops to leave?
It is not only Tigrayans that have faced the brunt of this marriage of convenience between Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias. Tens of thousands of refugees who fled Eritrea to escape life of conscription are now facing persecution and forcible return by Eritrea’s government. As of 2 February 2021, there were 20,000 unaccounted for Eritrean refugees according to the UNHCR. An article published by Vice on 3 February 2021 also presented satellite photos showing that two refugee camps in Tigray, which hosted 25,000 refugees from Eritrea, were deliberately razed to the ground by Ethiopian forces. Prime Minister Abiy’s government continues to deny access to the camps. Why?
Fourth, Prime Minister Abiy claims that communication lines were deliberately destroyed by TPLF, implying that his government did not shut down mobile networks and the internet in Tigray. Putting aside his government’s track record of regularly shutting down mobile networks and the internet since he became Prime Minister, particularly in Oromia, I think it is important to ask two questions. First, who — TPLF or Prime Minister Abiy’s government — stands to benefit from disrupting communication in Tigray and keeping all information in the dark? Second, why does the Ethiopian government continue to shut down the internet in places such as Mekelle where mobile network service has resumed?
Lastly, Prime Minister Abiy claims that the political party he now leads is the first in Ethiopia that is not based on race, religion, or ethnicity. I can think of at least one example off the top of my head to disprove this claim. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) established in 1972 was not based on race, religion, or ethnicity. However, Prime Abiy Ahmed’s party is the first in Ethiopia to wage war on its own citizens in partnership with a neighboring dictator that does not have Ethiopia’s best interest at heart. More importantly, Abiy’s shortsightedness regarding Ethiopia’s diversity and his imposition of an unrealistic unity that overlooks the complexity of the country is creating more instability across Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, Afar and Somali, among other regions.
A government accused of committing war crimes in Tigray by wielding hunger as a weapon, as discussed in depth in an article published by The Economist on 23 January 2021 and one that continues to blatantly lie about the involvement of Eritrean troops in Tigray cannot be trusted in good faith to deliver relief to Tigray. A government that deliberately burned fields of crops in Tigray cannot be trusted with delivering food aid. A government that causes suffering and deaths on its own citizens in a treasonous partnership with President Isaias Afwerki, one of the world’s most enduring dictators, cannot be trusted with ending the suffering in Tigray. To borrow some of the Prime Minister’s own words from the column, a government bound by inhumane norms of conduct cannot play a constructive role across the Horn of Africa and beyond. As the United Nations humanitarian chief privately told the U.N. Security Council this week, Ethiopia “may not have control of up to 40% of the territory in its embattled Tigray region and does not have full command of forces from neighboring Eritrea operating in Tigray.” Unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray to reach people in need is a must in the short term, and for that to happen, the international community should continue to push for access to Tigray, and at the very least, for the removal of Eritrean troops and Amhara forces from the region.
This war has also come at a great cost to Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) soldiers, and possibly hundreds of thousands, are reported to have died in this war. The Ethiopian Air Force has reportedly lost five of its six jet fighter aircrafts. Does this explain the ENDF’s recent recruitment push? When will Abiy announce to families and to the public the names and number of Ethiopia’s military casualties? At what cost is he determined to continue this unnecessary war in Tigray?