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Ethiopia: a dirty war behind closed doors

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.



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. © belgaimage

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…

“The conflict turns against Abiy Ahmed” 

The entanglement in Tigray and accusations of ethnic targeting are ruining the Ethiopian prime minister’s idea of a lightning offensive carried out in the indifference of the international community, according to Sonia Le Gouriellec, a senior lecturer at the Catholic University of Lille (France). 

"Le conflit se retourne contre Abiy Ahmed"

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, from Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 to warlord against part of his people in 2021. © belga image

Did Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s concept of “unitary federalism” inevitably lead to an armed conflict with the Tigrayans? 

All federal states in the world are experiencing tensions between central power and regions. This is also the case in Belgium, I believe. In Ethiopia, the ethnic federalism set up by the charismatic Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1995-2012) worked because he was authoritarian. On his death (Editor’s note: in August 2012, at the Saint-Luc hospital in Brussels),a transition began. It led to numerous demonstrations throughout the country because Ethiopians wanted to benefit from the dividends of the country’s economic development. Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in April 2018 has given them great hope, especially among the Oromos from where he originates. They thought he was going to accede to their requests. Many were therefore surprised that he had this very unitary vision of federalism. First of all, the Tigrayans who, under the mandates of Meles Zenawi, had held power for thirty years and now felt marginalized. It was almost inevitable that the Ethiopian pressure cooker would explode at some point. There was a verbal escalation and a fallback by both for a year. The confrontation came in a political context aggravated by the health crisis. As the military theorist Clausewitz put it, “war is only the continuation of politics by other means.” That is exactly what happened. 

Doesn’t Abiy Ahmed take a lot of risks in this operation while he was full of the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize? 

Yes, it is a disaster. At first, he was very smart. He took the pretext of the attack on a federal military base in Tigray by the Tigrayans to carry out his offensive. However, it had been under preparation for a few weeks. He launched it on the morning of the U.S. presidential election, a perfectly chosen timing so that one doesn’t get too interested in it. It was fast and lasted a month. But it has focused on cities and has not secured the countryside. It has therefore been prolonged into a guerrilla war. If the conflict had been limited to a month of fighting, it would have taken place in a certain international indifference. The problem is that the government army is getting bogged down. The conflict is dragging on. So the world is starting to worry about it and wonder what Abiy Ahmed is doing. Especially since this is not just a “police operation”. The conflict is an opportunity for genuine ethnic targeting, in Tigray, including rape, and as far as the capital Addis Ababa, where Tigray officials have been invited to stay at home and where police raids have targeted certain populations. The offensive in Tigray is indeed turning against Abiy Ahmed. I think he’s aware of that. 

Is there a possible way out of the crisis? 

Abiy Ahmed has set up another local government with more “soft” Tigrayans. All members of the TPLF must renounce their membership in this movement and join Abiy Ahmed’s new party. There remains still a big unknown. Does the TPLF have troops? What armament did it retain? Among its leaders, who was arrested, killed? I do not have the answers to those questions on which the duration and outcome of the conflict will depend. 

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