Old rivalries and political repression have tipped Africa’s role model into a violent war – from which no winners can emerge
Every year for centuries, the festival of Mariam Tsion, Mary of Zion, has been held in Aksum, the capital of an ancient kingdom of the same name. Worshippers, dressed in white robes, and accompanied by chanting and drumming, celebrate the saint day of the Holy Mother, the most important celebration of their faith, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
On 28 November last year, over a thousand gathered inside the church of Mariam Tsion after spending the previous night in prayer. They were aware that conflict had broken out in their region, Tigray, on 4 November, but they gathered nevertheless – and their prayers were soon interrupted by gunshots. Eritrean troops drove them outside and, in chaotic scenes, shot over 700 of them dead. Relatives were forbidden to bury the bodies, many of which became food for hyenas.
The celebrations are usually broadcast live on ETV. But this time, unsurprisingly, a recording of the previous year’s celebrations was aired.
Civilians have borne the brunt of hostilities in this war against Tigray. The massacre in Aksum is one of many that have gone largely unnoticed in this age of social media – because, in the very early hours of 4 November, the Ethiopian government severed Tigray’s communication networks, and electricity and water supplies, before launching a military offensive. Communications were restored to the region’s capital Mekelle some weeks later, but the rest of Tigray is still without telecoms and basic utilities. Banks are still closed, most ransacked and robbed.
The incidence of rape in Tigray, very often gang rape, is off the scale. According to estimates, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have so far raped 10,500 Tigrayan women and girls, but the UNFPA is currently recruiting sexual health workers for what it estimates will be 52,500 victims in a region with a population of six million. On 8 April, the US awarded additional humanitarian assistance of $152 million to Tigray, a good portion of which is designated for “safe houses and psychosocial support” for women and girls, some as young as eight, who have been raped, mutilated or tortured. A video shows a surgeon removing nails and other metal objects from the vagina of one victim who was raped by 23 Eritrean soldiers. A mother saw soldiers shoot her 12-year-old boy and was then raped. Eritrean soldiers say their orders are to “kill all men and boys above seven years old”.
Why such visceral cruelty? We can guess at an answer from what the perpetrators tell their victims: “You are worthless.” “We are here for revenge.” And, in the case of the Amhara militia, from the region of the same name to the south, “We are purifying your bloodline.” When the abused women are not killed, the aim seems to be to Amharise their offspring.
Western Tigray has already been handed over to the Amhara region. When Anthony Blinken, US secretary of state, designated the violence as ethnic cleansing, the central Ethiopian government hotly denied it. The government had likely promised Amhara expansionists that western Tigray would be handed over to them, just as, along the northern border, swathes of land have been handed over to the Eritrean government. The latter is already issuing Eritrean ID cards to Tigrayans and other ethnic groups such as the Kunama and Irob in eastern Tigray.
These are old enmities. There is widespread conflict across Ethiopia, but it is at its most extreme in the Tigray region – where it is, in part, about the ancient rivalry between the Amhara and Tigrayans, who have both furnished Ethiopia with emperors throughout the country’s long history. The Amharic culture and language has long been dominant across Ethiopia, but excludes the majority of Ethiopians.
The Eritrean government to the north – led by the unelected president of 30 years, Isaias Afwerki, who despises the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – creates an additional danger. The TPLF led the government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which, with its then allies the Eritreans, ousted Ethiopia’s despotic Derg regime in 1991, facilitating independence from Ethiopia for Eritrea in 1994.
Hostilities erupted when Eritrean tanks invaded northern Tigray in May 1998, following a dispute over currencies. Around 100,000 people died in the resulting war. In the years since, training at Eritrea’s infamous Sawa Military Camp has brutalised recruits, breeding in them a deep hatred of Tigray.
Around the same time, Ethiopia, once a highly centralised state, became a federal democratic republic, with power devolved to the regions – a system highly suited to a vast country with religious, cultural, ethnic, linguistic and economic diversity. Multi-party elections were held in 1995, and the EPRDF won outright. The numerous nationalities were at last governed and taught in their own languages. This continued for 27 years.
What we are witnessing now is an attempt to reverse this process. The past is threatening the present.
During the EPRDF’s tenure, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the country achieved double-digit economic growth; massively increased access to health and education services; and expanded agricultural production, industrialisation and state infrastructure. The country was often mooted as a role model for the rest of Africa.
But from 2014, angered by political and economic marginalisation, students from the Oromo ethnic group launched protests that spread to other regions and eventually led to Abiy Ahmed becoming Prime Minister on 2 April 2018.
Abiy negotiated a peace agreement with Eritrea which was popular domestically and eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. He launched a series of reforms and released political prisoners. Exiled leaders were invited to return. On a wave of popular support, on 1 December 2019, Abiy Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF coalition and merged its parties into the new Prosperity Party. The TPLF disapproved and withdrew to Tigray.
As prime minister, Abiy was a member of the Oromo section of the EPRDF. Oromos, who make up 40 per cent of the population, felt that they had at last found a champion. But the door was slammed in their face when the PM declared his intention to “return to the old glory of Ethiopia” – meaning Amhara domination and re-centralisation.
Abiy also began demonising Tigrayans, calling them “day-time hyenas”, scapegoating them for much that had gone wrong in Ethiopia. As a result, from mid-2018 many thousands of Tigrayans were attacked and even killed. Prominent Tigrayans were assassinated, as was the president of the Amhara region, who was then replaced by an ally of the prime minister. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were dismissed from their jobs and the army and then placed in custody, many in camps.
In June 2020, the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer, triggered violent demonstrations. Officials from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were detained and its leader, Dawud Ibsa, is still in custody, along with most other opposition party leaders. A full military campaign began against the Oromo and, in Wollega and Guji provinces, the internet was cut off for six months to conceal the atrocities. People were burnt to death in their houses, their crops destroyed, women and children were raped – both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops were responsible, a precursor of what has happened since in Tigray.
And so it was that the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea began their joint military assault on Tigray on 4 November. Their troops were already making their way to Tigray when, on 2 November, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, called for “de-escalation”. The TPLF’s taking over of an Ethiopian army headquarters in Mekelle, often cited as the catalyst for hostilities, was instead a pre-emptive strike when the region was already threatened by large-scale troop advancements. Armed drones bombed Tigray from the UAE’s military base in Assab, Eritrea, destroying much of the TPLF’s heavy artillery, and mercenaries from Farmajo’s Somalia also joined the conflict.
For its part, the African Union, the continental body that groups 55 countries, has been powerless to intervene. Its offer to chair peace talks was accepted by Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia’s president, in November last year, only for the proposal to be rejected by Prime Minister Abiy.
The UN Security Council has only discussed the conflict as a footnote and, in any case, any effective action is likely to be thwarted, given that Russia and China will block any vote. The Security Council has not even activated its resolution “condemning the starving of civilians as a weapon of war”.
Of course, the Trump administration turned a blind eye to what was happening in Tigray, despite copious evidence of war crimes. The election of Joe Biden has brought a change in US policy and demands are now being made for Eritrean forces to be withdrawn and for humanitarian aid workers to be given access.
The EU, to its credit, has withheld aid until access to the starving is allowed, but unless firmer action is taken many more will perish. Famine is looming. Will the world stand by and facilitate a repeat of 1984?
In addition to direct violence, hunger and the mass displacement of people mean it is conceivable that 150,000 people could have died in the three years since Abiy Ahmed came to power. Essential infrastructure – schools, hospitals, universities, factories – has been decimated. The government expected that the intervention in Tigray would take “a few days, two weeks at the most,” but Abiy recently had to admit that Ethiopian troops are now fighting on eight separate fronts in Tigray alone and that he is “grateful to Eritrea” for all the military assistance it has given. Ethiopia’s army has a significant casualty toll of its own, so it is difficult to see how Eritrea can leave.
Ethiopian elections are slated for 5 June this year. In the circumstances, with the Electoral Board saying that five out of ten regions are not ready, there seems little prospect of any contests being free and fair. The vote would be improved, of course, if opposition party leaders and members were released from prison, and if the tens of thousands of other prisoners were also released, but that still wouldn’t leave much time for proper campaigning. Another postponement of the election may be the best option.
Besides, a different type of national conversation is more necessary at this point: all parties should come together and decide the future not just of Tigray and Oromia, but of the whole country. One Oromo commentator suggests that a referendum could be a central part of that dialogue – to help bring about a clear outcome. The people must decide, as they did during the writing of Ethiopia’s constitution in the early 1990s, when 36,000 groups debated what they wanted to be included.
One Amhara region resident, considering the possibility of Tigray becoming independent last month, stated simply, “But it cannot, it is the beginning of Ethiopia.” This demonstrates the pride that many Ethiopians have in their history, but it is also counsel for those who defend the old ways of dominance and subjugation. Ethiopia flourished in recent decades when the potential of all its peoples was allowed to unfold.
In any case, Ethiopia cannot go back to the past. Even if one side now “wins”, it is a victory that will leave a country scarred and thousands of people angry and bereaved – which is to say, not a victory at all.
Gail Warden has been a freelance consultant on the Horn of Africa for 30 years.
Photographs by Getty Images