Ethiopia: a dirty war behind closed doors

Eritrea Ethiopia Tigray

(Source: Tghat) –

Publisher’s note: the leading Belgian magazine in French language, Le Vif published, last week, a long article about Tigray. We present here an English translation. Belgium’s federation is, in some sense, similar to Ethiopia’s and it is something Ethiopia can learn from. Belgian writers are more likely to understand Ethiopia’s problems.

By Gérald Papy, Deputy Editor-in-Chief for Vif/L’Express

What is the view of federalism for Ethiopia? It is on this issue that the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has engaged against the main movement of Tigray a conflict on which hangs the suspicion of ethnic cleansing. 

A prime minister who, in the name of the unity of his country, engages in a military operation against a regional power and joins forces to accomplish it with a dictatorial neighbouring state, this is not trivial. And it’s even less so when the leader in question, the Ethiopian Abiy Ahmed, is the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for signing a peace agreement with Eritrea, now an accomplice in repression. Not really good for uniting a nation. 

Ethiopie: une sale guerre à huis clos
The Ethiopian army has succeeded in imposing its law in the major cities of Tigray. But the conflict continues in the form of guerrilla warfare in rural areas. © belga image

The Tigray conflict dates back to early November. After the attack on a military base by fighters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the governmental army, aided by militias from the neighbouring Amhara region, launched a large-scale offensive, that was probably prepared ahead of time. In a few weeks, it seized the main cities, including the regional capital Mékélé. TPLF leaders and troops are hunted down, arrested and murdered. After a month of fighting, the Ethiopian Prime Minister believes he can declare that “the operation to return to constitutional order” is completed. But the facts contradict him relentlessly. While the situation in the cities is under the control of government forces, rural areas continue to be the scene of guerrilla action by the TPLF. Testimonies of human rights violations – including “very serious allegations of rape” – are growing.  They often involve Eritrean soldiers who have come in support of the Ethiopian army. And, the third source of criticism against Addis Ababa, the military blockade of the region prohibits almost all delivery of humanitarian aid and raises the risk of starvation among the population  (see box below). Tigrayans have fled to Sudan. Others, at least one million, are displaced in their own region. The death toll is uncertain. Infrastructure has been destroyed. Access to water is problematic in some areas. 

The spectre of famine 

Tigray has already experienced a famine associated with a conflict situation, also between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian army, in 1984 and 1985. Combined with another in the south of the country, it had claimed between 200,000 and 1 million lives. It had given rise to a solidarity movement in the West symbolized by the Live Aid concert. It originated with very low rainfall in the region. The same ingredients can be found in the current situation in Tigray. The last harvest was not good because of the drought. Fighting and access difficulties for humanitarian organizations raise fears of the worst. Some 4.2 million people are already believed to be in need of food. An association in Belgium is mobilizing to help the Tigrayans. Based in Liège, Tesfay, which works in the field of education, housing and health, plans to send a truck full of 6,000 kilos of bags of wheat to Adigrat, a Tigrayan city. 

The obstinacy of the Nobel Peace Prize 

In other words, the Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate is trapped in the operation he orchestrated. But why did it come now? In the Tigray conflict, two conceptions of federalism, past resentments and contemporary interests clash. In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister of Ethiopia (110 million inhabitants) which had become a small economic dragon with a desire for reform. He frees opponents, promotes the return of others from abroad, opens the political field and ends two decades of conflict with Eritrea. He also intends to evolve the prevalent “ethnic federalism” into a “federalism of unity”. “Three visions of federalism coexist in Ethiopia,” explains  Sonia Le Gouriellec, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Lille and a specialist in the Horn of Africa. Ethnic federalism, the one established by the Tigrayans when they took power in the early 1990s, classical federalism and federalism with a strong central power. Abiy Ahmed has that last vision. He developed a conception of the organization of the state, the Medemer  (Editor’s note: “synergy” in the Amharic language), which advocates integration and does not support divisions.” From speech to deeds. The Prime Minister blasts the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which brought him to the head of government. It consisted of four ethnic-based groups: the Tigrayan TPLF, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization, of which Abiy Ahmed was a member, the Amhara National Democratic Movement and the Democratic Movement of the Peoples of Southern Ethiopia. According to the will of the country’s new strongman, this coalition becomes the Prosperity Party and its original components are required to surrender their community foundations. 

A spirit of revenge 

But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front refuses. This rupture, combined with the postponement of parliamentary elections because of Covid, and the very consequences of the pandemic, exacerbated tensions between the government in Addis Ababa and the TPLF-dominated Tigray regional government. In his logic, the Ethiopian Prime Minister could not let this insubordination pass. But the revanchist dimension of Abiy Ahmed’s policy should not be ruled out. Oromo himself and allied with the Amhara rulers, he settles his accounts with the Tigrayens who crushed political life during the thirty years of “reign” of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1995-2012). Similarly, the involvement of Eritreans in the conflict alongside the Ethiopian army is explained by a grudge against Tigrayan Meles Zenawi who never agreed to implement the terms of the peace agreement that ended the 1998-2000 Eritreo-Ethiopian war under which Addis Ababa was to return border territories to Asmara.  

Quelque 60000 Ethiopiens se seraient réfugiés au Soudan à la suite de la guerre au Tigré. Les déplacés intérieurs sont beaucoup plus nombreux., belgaimage
Some 60,000 Ethiopians are believed to have fled to Sudan as a result of the war in Tigray. There are many more internal displaced people. © belga image

The participation and abuses of Eritrean soldiers in the Tigray conflict, however, put the Ethiopian Prime Minister in great difficulty. “If he were to acknowledge that he had authorized the presence of the Eritreans, the marginalized and totalitarian power of the region, he would lose a lot of international support,” observes Sonia Le Gouriellec. He is in a race against time to succeed in stopping and eliminating the last Tigrayan leaders.” Before the international community exerts too much pressure on Addis Ababa or really realizes that the blindness of a Nobel Peace Prize may have led to a famine among its own population.


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