“Forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten,” wrote eminent 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon of the “Aethiopians” as they “slept near a thousand years.” Ethiopia remains the only African country not colonised—its rugged mountainous terrain kept out intruders and helped to preserve one of Africa’s most unique cultures. The country is far more prominent on the global scene these days, in large part due to a terrible famine that seared images of its starving children into the world’s collective consciousness during the 1980s. But more recently, it has attracted attention due to its remarkable economic renaissance. The country was in the ascendant and its tourism industry was champing at the bit. A campaign was launched promoting Ethiopia as the Land of Origins—the cradle of humanity out of which the antecedents of modern humans set off from Africa around 185,000 years ago.
But the world’s tendency toward forgetfulness has re-emerged since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military into Tigray, the country’s most northern region, last November. This move has plunged Ethiopia into deepening internecine conflict, ethnic cleansing, and starvation. It didn’t help that the world’s attention was transfixed by the US election and the ensuing controversy when Abiy sent federal troops to the region in response to attacks by forces directed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s dominant party, on federal military bases in Tigray.
Abiy set aside his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and dismissed the international community’s meagre protestations, and the conflict has now lasted more than 110 days, producing multiple allegations of massacres. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic and the management of its fallout has sapped the political energy and attentions of UK and US governments which have long been close partners of Ethiopia. This has included providing colossal amounts of foreign aid, which you’d have thought would give them some leverage with the Ethiopian government. But apparently not, as one horror story after another emerges from the region.
Reports of massacres of civilians (with machetes and knives), extrajudicial killings, and widespread looting and rape by troops (including the alleged use of gang rape and forced incestuous rape as a tool of psychological warfare), have been attended by reports of artillery strikes on populated areas, hospitals, churches, and mosques. More than two million people have been displaced within Tigray, and about 60,000 have fled into neighbouring Sudan. According to a UN report, an estimated 4.5 million Tigrayans—out of a population of around six million—currently need emergency food assistance, prompting fears of a return to those dreadful scenes from the 1980s. Tigray was the epicentre of the 1984 famine that led to the Live Aid concert—the region has never had it easy due to a combination of harsh climate and even harsher political machinations.
The Ethiopian government has attempted to maintain total control of the narrative by locking down the region and imposing a communications blackout. This has made it next to impossible for journalists and foreign agencies to access the region and evaluate the videos of brutal executions of civilians that have emerged (one of the more recent clips appears to show Ethiopian soldiers beating and murdering Tigrayans while a crowd of Amhara cheer). Alleged massacres have been given credence by international groups and Amnesty International, which just released a report about the killing of hundreds of civilians between November 28th–29th in the city of Axum by Eritrean troops, who have been supporting Ethiopia’s military.
Since the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal of 2018 that won Abiy his Nobel prize—a decision that increasingly looks like satire—he has fostered particularly cordial relations with Eritrea’s authoritarian leader Isaias Afwerki. Isaias loathes the TPLF, blaming them for starting the devastating 1998–2000 war between the two countries in which the northern edge of Tigray constituted the front line. Eritrea used to be Ethiopia’s most northern region before a referendum officially gave it independence in 1993. The upshot has been that, on both sides of the border, many people share the same language—Tigrinya—as well as Orthodox religion, cultural traditions, and even familial connections. And as with any familial meltdown, powerful emotions and potential recriminations remain a grave threat.
On November 30th, as locals in Axum began burying civilians killed by Eritrean soldiers—many of them boys and men shot on the streets or during house-to-house raids—Abiy addressed the Ethiopian Parliament and told its members that “not a single civilian” had been killed by the military during the Tigray offensive. A few media outlets commented on the stunning dishonesty of this claim, but not many. The tragedy unfolding in Tigray is compounded by how the fomenting of ethnic tensions across the country has been worsening for the last few years and obvious to anyone involved with Ethiopia. Ordinary Tigrayans are targeted due to their association with the TPLF, and the worst violence might have been averted had the significant international presence in Ethiopia not chosen, as usual, to look the other way for the sake of diplomatic expediency. The military offensive followed months of feuding between Abiy’s government and the leaders of the TPLF and on the back of simmering tensions between the two sides. When Abiy came to power in 2018, he launched a broadside of sweeping reforms that pushed the TPLF, which used to dominate Ethiopian politics, onto the side-lines.
In addition to COVID-19 discombobulating international efforts and responses, another problem for Tigray is that Ethiopia is not at the top of the new Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda. During Joe Biden’s big “America is back” foreign policy speech on February 4th at the Department of State, the promotion of LGBTQ rights on the international stage got a notable mention. And the disaster in Yemen was recognised at least, thank goodness. But nothing about Ethiopia, despite the close bonds between the countries. The US is Ethiopia’s largest partner in humanitarian assistance—the UK is not far behind—and has contributed greatly to Ethiopia becoming a talisman for development and hope on the international stage. All that could be jeopardised as Tigray comes apart at the seams, possibly taking Ethiopia with it, and maybe even the Horn of Africa, as the ripple effects spread outward.
In addition to the conflict drawing in Eritrea, the Ethiopian military has reportedly used drones from the United Arab Emirates, which along with Saudi Arabia is involved in a power struggle between other Middle Eastern countries over the Horn of Africa. Leaving aside the tragedy within Tigray’s regional borders, it’s the sort of tense, potentially escalatory situation that foreign diplomatic corps should be all over. It threatens the hard-won stability in a region prone to volatility and the harbouring of terrorist groups.
But the UK and US governments are still entangled in domestic travails. Even before COVID-19 arrived to tie up the hands of Westminster’s and Washington’s finest, from what I saw during my time in Ethiopia, its wily politicians were already running rings round foreign diplomats. The Ethiopian government took foreign countries’ money, politely listened to their embassies expressing concerns about this or that human rights travesty, and then cracked on regardless. The added distraction caused by the pandemic perhaps explains how Abiy had the audacity to respond to initial calls for peace by telling everyone to stay out of Ethiopia’s affairs. Abiy continues to act like a man confident that foreign governments will have too much on their plates to interfere. The TPLF leadership has issued conditions for talks about a peaceful settlement to occur. But everything indicates Abiy is in no mood to compromise.
“The level of intolerance around Tigray is as extreme as anything I have seen,” said one long-term commentator on Ethiopia who recently visited the country after working there for nearly a decade. He added that Abiy is displaying “classic dictatorial tendencies.” Abiy knows that donor countries such as the UK and US—like all other nations who collectively make vast donations to Ethiopia—are in a bind. Withholding money now will only worsen the mushrooming humanitarian crisis, a detail not lost on Abiy and previous Ethiopian leaders as they game the international community and its liberal doctrines, while pursuing their own ruthless agendas.
A recent article in the Spectator about Tigray drew comparisons with Rwanda. When I reported in 2018 on social media users stoking ethnic violence in Ethiopia, I suggested that social media was playing a similar role to the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcasts that spread much of the toxic hatred and disinformation that fuelled Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. At the time, I wavered about making the comparison to one of the international community’s most terrible and avoidable failures for fear of being alarmist. The worsening situation in Tigray is not yet on the scale of Rwanda. But just where and when should you draw the line?
It can be said with confidence, however, that Tigray involves a standoff in which the opposing sides both possess troops and militia hardened by years of wars and border skirmishes, who are not prone to worrying about the Geneva Convention or rules of engagement. The combustible ethnic element—over which the dark shadow of Rwanda especially hangs—lies at the heart of the ideological clash between Abiy and the TPLF, who are at odds over the role ethnicity should play in the country’s current ethnically based federal system. In addition to their ruthless rule, the TPLF grew to be loathed during more than two decades in power because Tigrayans constitute such a small proportion of Ethiopia’s vast 110 million population. The country also includes much larger ethnic groups of the Oromo—numbering around 35 million, and to which Abiy belongs—and the Amhara, numbering around 27 million.
It increasingly appears that the conflict is being used by irregular and undeclared militias, which have joined Abiy’s campaign in the hope of settling perceived historical scores and ethnic grievances. According to an internal United States government report recently obtained by the New York Times, Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray. The Times says the report, written in February, documents “a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for.” The report describes how fighters and officials from the neighbouring region of Amhara—that has a long and bitter rivalry with Tigray—are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation. Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased.” (The Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy organization representing Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, has suggested that the report was in fact a leaked memo offering only general impressions of the situation. The Association claims the Times article paints an exaggerated and unsubstantiated picture of systematic ethnic cleansing.)
Some commentators are saying it is time for the UN Security Council to weigh in. But where will that lead? As a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and their terrible fallouts, I instinctively balk at most forms of direct intervention these days. That reflex is shared by much of the international community and has sapped the appetite for the responsibility to protect. It’s an understandable reaction, given how hard achieving successful intervention overseas has proven to be. But there is an equal danger in overdoing prudent restraint and not speaking truth to slaughter. As Rwanda illustrated, genocide can come from deep within the folds of those rugged mountains that once protected Ethiopians.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer. He previously served in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the British Army. You can follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.