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Artillery Row

Ethiopia weeps again

The Ethiopian prime minister’s Nobel Peace Prize appears increasingly ludicrous as he risks civil war

Tigray is a bit like the Donald Trump of Ethiopia. If you are judged not to have criticised Ethiopia’s most northern region enough or the people associated with it—primarily the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s dominant political party, and even ordinary Tigrayans too—or to have committed the apparently most egregious transgression of suggesting nuance, in relation to any of the above, that might be interpreted as vaguely sympathetic, there are a lot of people out there who get very angry very quickly.

These are not Mickey Mouse military groups, the Ethiopian army and Tigrayan forces are battle-hardened

I found this out during four years working as a foreign correspondent in Ethiopia, during which I, along with all the other foreign journalists there slogging it out against recalcitrant government officials, NGO workers and foreign diplomats to try file objective and balanced stories, were routinely accused of being TPLF stooges and sympathisers, even enjoying financial backhanders—nope, just the usual measly rate from tight Western editors—or faced torrents of abuse on social media (some foreign journalists even started to receive abusive phone calls after their local numbers were tracked down).

Perhaps such invective won’t flow quite so freely this time round for writing with some compassion about Tigray’s current situation. While the world was transfixed by Donald Trump’s electoral struggle, on 4 November Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed put aside his Nobel Peace Prize from last year to launch a military offensive into Tigray, claiming it was in response to a Tigrayan attack on a military base housing government troops in the region—a claim denied by Tigray authorities. Having seized numerous Tigrayan towns and cities, federal forces are now poised to attack Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital, after Abiy issued a deadline to surrender by 25 November.

In its usual manner of stating the entirely obvious, the UN has warned of the threat of major hostilities if the Ethiopian army advances on Mekelle, home to about 500,000 people, including the risk of war crimes—all but guaranteed given the fact they have already happened in this conflict and the way both sides’ armed forces function. These are not Mickey Mouse military groups—the Ethiopian army and Tigrayan forces are both battle-hardened from previous conflicts, constant skirmishes around the borders, and fighting terrorist groups in the Horn of Africa. They are literally very lean and very mean.

Abiy’s liberalising reforms were met with genuine joy and hope across Ethiopia and beyond

Hundreds of people have reportedly died during three weeks of clashes—a guess that is likely wildly underestimated at this stage due to so much confusion and lack of access and communications in the Tigray region—with both federal forces, its allied militias and TPLF-aligned forces accused of massacring civilians. Human rights group Amnesty International first highlighted reports of a massacre in the Tigray town of Mai-Kadra but has been unable to confirm who was behind it, or exactly how many died.

Reports suggest around 600 residents may have been stabbed and hacked to death. Thousands of civilians are fleeing the fighting, according to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, with estimates of 40,000 crossing the border into Sudan (a rapid increase from the 30,000 when I previously checked).

The clash comes after months of feuding between Abiy’s government and TPLF leaders, on the back of tensions simmering between the two sides ever since Abiy came to power in 2018 and launched a broadside of sweeping reforms. The deeper context is decades of national strains over the interplay between ethnicity and political power that has dominated Ethiopia politics ever since the TPLF spearheaded the defeat of Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition party that subsequently assumed power, in which the TPLF retained almost complete control, applied a distinct political model of ethnically based federalism to the country’s heterogeneous masses—about 110 million people speaking more than 80 dialects—who are spread across nine regional states like Tigray and two administrative city states.

Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups and attendant risk of bedlam breaking out, the EPRDF managed to keep the peace on a national scale—typically through authoritarian methods. The EPRDF’s security apparatus was ruthless and efficient. Political opponents were imprisoned and tortured. Human rights abuses were an article of faith. As a result, the EPRDF, and especially the TPLF, were loathed by a sizeable portion of the Ethiopian population, both at home and abroad.

“I hope the women who puked #EPRDF members out of their bodies have their wombs filled with cement and buried like dogs with rabbis [sic],” read one Tweet I came across, a common example of the imaginative imagery employed in abuse, especially from the Ethiopian diaspora, many of whom had to flee to the likes of the US where they are better able to express the level of their invective against the cruelties of the former regime.

Ordinary Tigrayans are highly vulnerable to ethnic-based agitation

This meant Abiy’s liberalising reforms were met with genuine joy and hope across Ethiopia and beyond. But worsening ethnic unrest and violence during his premiership led some to argue he moved too fast. As relations between communities and regions have soured—during the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s; by the end of 2019, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million—observers have spoken of the parallels with 1990s Yugoslavia, where a federal state organised along similar lines failed to cohere, with awful consequences.

Making up only 6 per cent of the country’s population, ordinary Tigrayans are highly vulnerable to ethnic-based agitation. History always matters, but especially in Ethiopia, where people take the long view. Ethiopians cherish their history—one of the world’s oldest Christian traditions; the only African country that wasn’t colonized—and recall and tell the associated stories spanning the centuries; at the same time they remember the tragedies and atrocities committed among the country’s various ethnic groups, all of which exerts a powerful influence on the present. An Ethiopian never forgets.

Last year, simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments led to attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions. When I went to Mekelle, many Tigrayans told me they felt increasingly isolated from their fellow Ethiopians.

“The rest of the country hates us,” I was told by a 25-year-old man squashed next to me in the back of an old Land Cruiser.

Rank corruption within the EPRDF meant a select few monopolising lucrative deals in the economy, with them and their select beneficiaries to be then seen splashing out on oversized shiny pick-up trucks and drinking bottles of Black Label whiskey in Addis Ababa’s swanky new hotels, which seem to pop up daily in the Ethiopian capital.

“Since Ethiopia’s economic growth is due to a centralised driven process, a lot of non-Tigray people suspect the Tigray elite to be the only beneficiary of the economic boom,” says Robert Wiren, a French journalist writing about the Horn of Africa for the last 15 years. “There is a real danger of ethnic hatred against the Tigrayans.”

Other Tigrayans told me that despite Abiy’s reforms, there hadn’t been any change to the narrative that they are responsible by association with that Tigrayan elite widely blamed for all of Ethiopia’s corruption, inequities, ills and wrongs. The irony is that the vast majority of Tigrayans endured years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF and have as many reasons as other Ethiopians to feel betrayed.

“The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country—into the judiciary, the universities,” my translator and guide around Mekelle, a whip-smart Tigrayan guy in his thirties, told me over a few khat leaves chewed as we relaxed after finishing a day’s reporting. “It became like something out of George Orwell’s 1984.”

Despite stiff competition in a country that is no stranger to suffering, Tigray has often seemed to come off worse than other regions due to corrupt TPLF leaders squirreling away funds for themselves or investing in industrial parks and manufacturing plants rather than in infrastructure to benefit the local population.

All the while, Tigray’s harsher environment has always made it particularly susceptible to drought—that dreadful 1984-85 famine which gave us Live Aid: its epicentre was Tigray—while the region’s bordering Eritrea represents an enormous can of worms ready to be opened (Tigray was the main battle front for the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea).

Though Tigray’s urban centres offered evidence of progress, the rural areas are straight out of the Dark Ages

Most of the Tigrayan cities now caught up in the present conflict I remember from when I reported around the region on the likes of the influx of Eritrean refugees and humanitarian projects striving to ensure no repeat of those terrible images of children with distended bellies and skeletal faces. Though Tigray’s urban centres offered evidence of progress—Mekelle, especially, is lovely and great fun—outside in the rural areas, I constantly came across villages and people living lives straight out of the Dark Ages.

While many educated Tigrayans I met said they disliked the TPLF as much as everyone else in the country, they explained that turning to its patronage might be their only means of seeking protection due to the changes in Ethiopia since Abiy came to power, and the growing and open anti-Tigrayan animosity.

“The fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country,” my guide told me.

The TPLF may well be leveraging this sentiment and counting on it as they try to face down Abiy and the might of the federal forces arraigned against them. Ever since Abiy—who comes the from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, constituting more than 35 million people—suddenly burst out of nowhere to utterly shake up Ethiopia’s political landscape in 2018, he has been locked in a power struggle with the TPLF. His reforms instigated unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF. At the end of 2019, he went even further and dissolved the EPRDF, merging the ethnically based regional parties into a single, national party—which the TPLF refused to join.

Relations between the two sides further soured when Abiy postponed Ethiopia’s June national election due to coronavirus. The TPLF responded that the central government had become illegitimate, arguing Abiy no longer had a mandate to lead the country. In September tensions escalated further when Tigray held a regional election in defiance of the Covid-19-related nationwide ban, and Abiy ruled the result illegitimate.

The real challenge for any de-escalation of tensions and conflict is the degree of genuine animosity involved: the TPLF for Abiy, and vice versa. This is compounded by the fact that Ethiopians, for all their noble qualities, are not well versed in the art of conciliation—it’s just not in the national psyche.

“Ethiopians don’t know how to compromise,” I was told by an aging and wise Ethiopian professor I met in Addis Ababa. “It’s all about gaining mengist, the Amharic word for power, it always has been.”

Critics have accused Abiy’s approach to politics as being PR-motivated and detached from reality

This disregard for negotiation and concession is not a good national character trait for a nation that is meant to be a federation of diverse ethnic groups that need to cooperate for the greater good of the country and its population. Both Abiy and the leaders of the TPLF are succumbing to it, though it’s hard to tell whether the sinisterly banal jargon being used by Abiy—he has called the military offensive a “law-enforcement operation”—or the more impassioned style of Tigray’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael, who has said they are “ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region”, is more indicative of this perilous national habit. But Abiy is the one at the top who is setting the agenda on this one.

Any errors or intransigence by the TPLF don’t excuse him increasingly acting like all the other authoritarian strong-man leaders who have dominated Ethiopian politics stretching back to Emperor Haile Selassie and beyond, and who, while varied in their particular cruelties, have all been united by the governing modus operandi in Ethiopia of gaily sacrificing ordinary Ethiopians in order to cement power.

Abiy doggedly continues to resist international calls for peace. On 25 November, he released a statement saying that while the country appreciates the concerns of the international community, he would “like to stress that Ethiopia is very much capable and willing to resolve this situation in accordance with its laws and its international obligations.” As a result, he said, Ethiopia “rejects any interference in our internal affairs” and requests the international community to “respect the fundamental principles of non-intervention under international law”.

What happens in Africa’s second most populous country matters to the rest of us

So reasonable, Abiy. Straight out of the equitable strong-man’s playbook, with a deft turning of the international community’s law-abiding verbiage back on itself. Who are you really, Abiy? Are we now getting closer to the truth? When it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to him, the Nobel committee praised a series of achievements during Abiy’s first 100 days in power in 2018. The main one was his ending a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Eritrea—with the current clash already spilling over the border and sucking in Eritrea, it could easily get bad enough to make everyone pine for the days of the former dispute—while the committee also highlighted his impressive litany of domestic reforms: the lifting of the country’s state of emergency, the release of thousands of political prisoners, the legalisation of outlawed opposition groups, the tackling of corruption (which was bad news, and rightly so, for elements within the TPLF) and the promotion of women in politics.

But all the while, especially on the domestic front, voices of concern noted worrying characteristics exhibited by Abiy. When Abiy released in 2019 one million copies of his book Medemer that promoted his personal ideology based on the Amharic word meaning “synergy”, in addition to being mocked by many as an exercise in inane rhetoric, it raised concerns that he was trying to establish a personality cult on the back of the “Abiymania” that greeted his initial hopeful reforms, and leveraging pronouncements of national unity to consolidate his personal power.

Critics have also accused his approach to politics as being PR-motivated, superficial and detached from the reality of an Ethiopia that is socially conservative to the core. His style of government has also been accused of lacking transparency, while at the same time repressing media and repeating the authoritarian ways of previous Ethiopian governments. This has included the ongoing implementation of a controversial Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle dissent and gag journalists, including by imprisoning them.

Ethiopia has become a sort of talisman for development and hope on the international stage

What happens in Africa’s second most populous country matters to the rest of us. It matters primarily because of that enormous population, who have suffered more than their fair share of pains and horrors over the decades. But it alsomatters because of the mockery being made of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize and the risk of the whole Horn of Africa being destabilized as other surrounding countries like Eritrea become involved (a situation which would suit terrorist groups already in the region).

It also matters because of the special place Ethiopia has come to hold in the world’s consciousness. Partly this is due to the country becoming a sort of talisman for development and hope on the international stage after its famine-stricken image seared itself into our collective global memory. But I think it also has something to do with—it certainly has for me—the fact that we are all Ethiopian in a way, as this is the land from where the first humans are thought to have migrated out of Africa 60,000 years ago.

That the immediate fate of this previous developmental success story and its long-suffering people may now lie in the hands of its mercurial prime minister whose real intentions are increasingly difficult to discern should have the Nobel committee, and a great deal many others, paying much more attention. Unfortunately, two of the biggest donors and international supporters of Ethiopia, the US and UK, are both caught up in botched responses to Covid-19 and endless domestic political wrangling. At least they aren’t going to war over any of it—yet—Ethiopia and Tigray aren’t so lucky.

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