Photo by Amanuel Sileshi
Artillery Row

Inside Ethiopia’s civil wars

Abiy Ahmed has joined the long list of Africa’s “democrats” who became dictators

This has been such a febrile period on the world stage: The debacle in Afghanistan, and the return of the Taliban. China’s inexorable rise, and the West’s divisive response, prompting France’s fury. Let alone the Climate crisis. In the midst of this threatening landscape, the drip-drip of information from a place called Tigray speaks to a forgotten dream: freedom. The freedom of Africans. “Free at last”, to quote Nelson Mandela, quoting Martin Luther King. “Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”

But maybe not, when you absorb the horrific tales emerging from the beautiful but barren land of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. I spent eight weeks in Tigray back in 1983 and still see, in my mind’s eye, a spectacular but brutal landscape where drought had parched the terraced hillsides and inflicted deadly starvation on its people. We went to report famine, but we ended up finding ourselves in the middle of a war where the Soviets used their fighter planes to bomb the rebels who took us into Tigray, cutting off any exit route for fifty-five long, sad days.

“It’s not about who wins, and who loses,” Zenawi told us

What I remember is the tragedy, and the hope. The untold suffering of families who marched for days in search of food, losing children to hunger along the way, emaciated bodies by the side of the road. Yet at the same time I hear the voice of one Meles Zenawi, leader of the rebels fighting the Soviet-backed communist government in Addis Ababa. Zenawi promised an Ethiopia that would accept federalism for the many tribes, so the Tigrayans, and the Eritreans, and the Amhara and the Oromo could work together on a national project to prevent famine, to confront poverty and, in time, to grow as communities and country.

“It’s not about who wins, and who loses,” Zenawi told us. “It’s about who emerges from this war to make us free, free to run our own lives.” Zenawi, and his Tigrayan army-cum-movement, did emerge. For almost twenty years the fellow rebuilt Ethiopia, even after the Eritreans left to be independent and then fought a bloody war with his new Ethiopia.

The country prospered economically, living standards rose, famine faded into a curse of the past, while the man himself became a champion for the cause of climate change, way ahead of his time. When he died in 2012 as Prime Minister, a slice of the world mourned. “Let me express my personal admiration for Meles Zenawi’s desire to lift millions of his people out of poverty,” said President Obama.

Fast forward to this past year. The savage war unleashed by the government of Ethiopia against the Tigrayans, under Abiy Ahmed, a leader in Addis Ababa who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea. In his acceptance speech he offered “love, forgiveness and reconciliation”.

Elections now silence the growing opposition

So much for those words when we hear of bodies floating down the river from Tigray into neighbouring Sudan, hands of victims tied behind their backs, their bodies showing tell-tale signs of torture. Or consider reports of rape being used as a weapon of war by the government’s army. The final, tragic irony lies in the central government blocking food aid to Tigray. Hunger and starvation, back on that land after nearly forty years without. 

The years have taught me that both sides in a civil war are to blame, and both sides can be murderous. What’s clear, although maybe not yet to the Nobel prize committee, is that their laureate Ahmed has joined the long list of Africa’s “democrats” who became dictators. And so make a mockery of that dream espoused by Mandela and Dr King.

I think of Robert Mugabe, whom I knew personally, turning his election triumph in Zimbabwe into a heartless dictatorship murderous, reckless and so corrupt that it was an open secret in my time at the United Nations that his wife Grace came to the UN General Assembly in New York in her own Boeing, to carry back all her shopping. 

I recall interviewing Yoweri Museveni in the garden at his home in Kampala, Uganda on a morning when he declared he was heading into the bush to launch a war against the government of Milton Obote, to bring “democracy back to my people”. Some thirty-five years after his victory, President Museveni now stages elections that silence the growing opposition witness the way singer Bobi Wine was beaten up in public by the police when he filed his papers to run for President last year. 

I caught up with Museveni when he visited the White House in the 1990s.

“When will you hold free elections in Uganda?” I asked him, reminding him of that morning in Kampala. 

“When my people ask for them,” he replied, with a disdainful half-smile.

The riots ended just before Mandela Day in South Africa

And then, uniquely sad in so many ways, think of South Africa, and Mandela’s beacon of hope for the continent. This year we witnessed former President Jacob Zuma, an heir to the Mandela legacy, sentenced to prison for corruption, then sending supporters out onto the streets to unleash a campaign of murder, violence and destruction in protest, shamelessly seeking to prevent his imprisonment. 

I noticed that the riots ended just before Mandela Day in South Africa, when everyone is encouraged to do sixty-seven minutes of community service in memory of Nelson’s sixty-seven years of activism. This year saw Mandela day marked by thousands taking to the streets to clean up after the insurrection, helping to rebuild for people who lost their homes and businesses in the violence, opening food banks to feed homeless victims. 

That’s a sign of rare hope in a continent, and a landscape, now scarred by the thought of a Nobel Peace Prize winner launching a conflict that has spawned untold suffering on his own people, not to mention war crimes, in the name of “love, forgiveness and reconciliation”. My old boss at the UN, Kofi Annan, won that prize rightly. The Nobel committee in Oslo should surely ask themselves what signals they send to the new generation of African leaders when they leave the award with the current head of Ethiopia.

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