When Abiy Ahmed told the nation that he had pulled his troops out of Mekelle so that farmers of Mekelle would be able to plow unperturbed by the spectre of war, the nation should have mustered the courage to ask some or all of the following questions:
- If giving farmers a chance to plough was the rationale for withdrawing, why did you wait until late June? Farming season starts in mid April.
- Why was the act of generosity extended to some places and not others? Why did the army not withdraw from all parts of Tigray on the same grounds? Given that there are no farmlands in Mekelle, why was Mekelle the first beneficiary of this “act of charity”?
- Is it a coincidence that the withdrawal happened at exactly the same time the TDF registered extraordinary victories, including the downing of military cargo plane and the capture of thousands of POWs?
- Why was the withdrawal executed in such a hasty manner? For example why did you the government fail to ensure that students who are in Tigray where evacautated before the army withdrew leaving them in limbo?
- Do you plan to take control of Mekelle once the farming season is over?
As it turns out, no one asked any one of these questions. Instead, the press corps gave the Prime Minister a bizarre standing ovation for a job well done.
One could argue that it did not occur to anybody to ask any of these questions. Believing that would take an extraordinary leap of faith.
It goes without saying that there is a huge reservoir of credulity in the country and that many people take everything Abiy says at face value. The sense of infallibility he has cultivated around himself could partly explain why his otherwise ridiculous claims fail to raise eyebrows.
But for all the credulity and lack of critical thinking that continues to afflict the nation, surely, there must have been a considerably large number of people to whom one or more of the above questions crossed their minds.
What prevented them from raising these questions?
There are two not necessarily mutually exclusive possible explanations. The first is fear of reprisal. The regime is absolutely clear about how to handle people who scrutinize its decisions or actions. Everyone who had given a different version of events regarding the War on Tigray has been jailed. The regime’s otherwise untenable narrative can only be sustained by muzzling alternative voices. There is no denying that a lot of people have succumbed to the regime’s scare tactics.
But this is not enough of an explanation. A lot of people who swear by courage and are safe from the regime’s merciless hands – for example, by virtue of being based abroad – have also given the regime’s false narrative a pass.
This takes us to the second explanation.
Which is that some people do not want to concede what has happened lest they are forced to concede its implications. What happened in Tigray, in the days leading up to the 28th of June, was that Abiy’s troops were absolutely destroyed by the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF). Every account of events, save the regime’s own, points to the inescapable conclusion that Abiy’s army was defeated.
Even granting such accounts were absent, it is easy to connect the dots and arrive at the same conclusion.
One need only refer to David Hume’s advice when faced with multiple rival explanations. When there are contending explanations about a specific phenomenon, David Hume advises us to ask: which is more likely?
So, which is more likely?
That Abiy’s army was defeated and in desperation, he declared a ceasefire and resorted to another form of warfare, such as economic asphyxiation against Tigray? Or that Abiy withdrew his troops out of Tigray on his own volition out of care and consideration for Tigray? The former would explain everything. It would explain why banks remain closed in Tigray; it would explain why Abiy continues to cling on to Tigrayan territories he controls; it would explain the blockade; it would explain the ethnic profiling against Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia in retaliation; it would explain the mobilisation of ethnic militias; it would explain the hasty nature of the withdrawal and the hullabaloo that ensued (rumour has it that members of the so-called interim government of Tigray didn’t have enough time to pack up spare underpants, leading some people if they’re now going commando – pun not intended – in Addis Ababa); it would explain why the regime can’t give a clear road-map of how it will end the war; it would explain why the people like Berhanu Jula, the Army Chief, have since gone AWOL and why almost anyone can now wake up and call people to arms. And most important, why Abiy and the people around him have been giving contradictory explanations. (Abiy first said the withdrawal was for farmers to plow, then later added he pulled his troops out because the TDF was no more a threat, then later contradicted himself by making a clarion call to the nation to join hands to try to destroy the TDF.)
The latter explains nothing other than giving comfort to people who can’t stomach the reality.
Why are people scared to concede the reality?
There could be multiple reasons but two of them stand out. Supporters of the regime don’t want to admit that the Ethiopian Army was defeated because a) it would contradict the national religion that the TDF had been defeated and b) it would lend credence to claims in some circles of Tigrayan exceptionalism. As regards the first, people shouldn’t have been naive enough to believe the regime’s line, especially given that it lies routinely for a living. As for jingoistic claims of Tigrayan exceptionalism, people should realise that they are views of a fringe group of people. Insofar as claims of exceptionalism can be made, it’s because the people of Tigray have historically been subjected to exceptional circumstances that have called for exceptional bravery. At any rate, why worry that your own fellow citizens are perceived as exceptional? If anything, one should be proud about that, unless one sees them as foreigners, of course.
Talks of how we should resolve our problems and how we should move forward as a country is all well and good. But it can mean only so much if there is no willingness to agree on what has just happened. It is imperative that we first have a common understanding of the past for us to build a common future. And that starts with trusting our own eyes and ears more than the regime’s lies.