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Tigray War: Another African Conflict?



The war on Tigray has not shown any signs of subsiding when it comes to the targeting of the Tigrayans for their ethnic identity. The war against Tigrayans has awoken a level of inhumanity that seemed to have been below the surface of a society deeply entrenched in unresolved ethnic grievances. A recent video of government forces in Ethiopia, committing a crime against humanity was brought to the attention of the masses. This video, after horrifying so many, has only received a precipitous investigation, one raising more questions than it answers. Keeping this in mind we need to also reflect on the actors who have been inciting such acts, and what their roles in society are. Comparable to the actors of the Rwandan genocide, the matters of provocation, whilst resting on state-wide propaganda also bear heavily on Ethiopia’s elites both in the economic sector as well as the religious institutions. Accountability in a state sponsored genocide is near impossible internally, which is why at times accountability can only be exercised externally. In an era where Pan-Africanism has been misconstrued in Ethiopia as a method of increasing the chokehold on a region experiencing “hell on earth”, one has to wonder whether conflicts in African states have become a secondary issue to those in other continents. After all, it hasn’t yet been three decades since the world said ‘never again’ to an African genocide. 

Crimes against humanity and the investigation

A video, which stands to be extremely graphic, emerged on social media in the early hours of March 11th 2022. It shows the burning of a man, who is led by uniform-wearing army personnel to a fire that seems to have been burning prior to the beginning of the recording. The viewers can clearly identify corpses lying amidst the flames. The video shows a number of men surrounding and jeering whilst watching the victim writhe in pain in the fire. They even go as far as saying that the victim’s flesh would ‘taste good’ with some bread. It shows both uniformed and plain clothed men standing around the burned bodies. The victim is poked and prodded by a man with a large wooden stick to ensure he does not avoid the raging fire. The acts all give an insight to the organisation, and premeditation of the actors before the witnessed killings. 

To contextualise such a video is extremely difficult, and must be said, sensitive. However, one can plainly see the video is another important piece of evidence needed to categorise the events unfolding in Ethiopia, as an assassination of the Tigrayan identity, not only through misinformation and political repression but also in such barbarism that we have come to watch in a repetitive manner since November 4th 2020. 

Some of the videos, with similar likeness have reached a multitude of media forums and outlets, which could be various acts of crimes against humanity, as most of the victims identified had not been carrying weapons and did not wear a uniform to represent any particular actor of the conflict unfolding. This has indicated that these are civilians and not soldiers in combat. Additionally, the videos tend to carry a theme of the perpetrators usually being Ethiopian, Eritrean soldiers or regional Amhara forces voicing discriminatory remarks before committing the acts shown in the videos, which consists of shooting, throwing deceased bodies down steep cliffs and, the latest, the burning of victims whilst still alive. The Ethiopian Human rights commission has categorically identified the perpetrators in the disturbing video of the burning of a man as members of the ENDF (Ethiopian Nation Defence Force), Amhara Liyu Hayil (Amhara Special forces) and SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region) Police.

The Ethiopian Human rights commission, headed by Daniel Bekele, released a statement three days after the surfacing of the gruesome video online. The statement detailed an investigation of the incident. It entailed the pretext of the crime, and went into depth about an attack that had taken place on March 2nd, 2022. EHRC stated that armed forces had attacked a convoy which was in escort of civilians travelling from the town of Gilgel Beles to the towns nearby. The statement goes on to describe the attack by the armed group (which were later claimed by the government forces as being fighters from the Tigray region), which allegedly left 20 government forces and 3 civilians dead and a further 14 government forces injured. According to the EHRC the video was recorded a day later, on March 3rd. Eight ethnic Tigrayans had been stopped in the town of Benishangul-gumuz, Metekel zone, in a town named Aysid by government forces. They had, allegedly, been discovered with a military radio and 40,000 Eth birr alongside papers to confirm their release from Metekel zone jail, they were believed to be inhabitants of the area, and returning home. The government forces had conducted physical torture of the men (physical assault), which led to a confession that, allegedly resulted in all of them being shot, including two ethnically Benshangul-gumuz individuals who had objected the extra-judicial killings (no further information was given in regards to these individuals). The incident caught on camera, according to the EHRC, consisted of a Tigrayan that was found hiding in the vehicle belonging to the government forces. He was, as witnessed in the video, burnt alive, whilst tied by a rope. The statement concludes with Daniel Bekele being quoted as stating a public investigation and compensation for victim’s families is required by the government.

A number of questions can be raised by the statement released by the EHRC. Firstly, the time-scale in which they had been able to successfully investigate the incident and what had led up to it was seemingly very limited, three days. The video shows dozens of men watching the act taking place, it seems unlikely that the EHRC is able to clearly interrogate all those present in a limited 3-day period which would include the interrogation of the residents of the towns mentioned. Notably there has been no military engagement or operations conducted in the Benishangul-Gumuz area by the Tigray defence forces who have withdrawn into Tigray in December 2021, which brings to question how these individuals could be forces from the Tigrayan faction. Amongst all the questionable circumstances lies one of the most obvious, if the victims had been released from jail, how were they able to get their hands on a military radio and be able to plan such a sophisticated ambush even if 40,000 ETH birr doesn’t seem like a suspicious number between 8 people. One is also left wondering what the need was to burn one of the victims alive if the others had been, supposedly, shot. Especially seeing as the video confirms that the other victims had also been burnt, with no confirmation if whilst alive or dead. A key component of the incident that stands to carry the key in providing some context to the current climate in Ethiopia is in regards to who gave the orders.

 The involvement of three governmental institutions to such a degree where there is a presence of dozens of government forces personnel and the confidence in the perpetrators to freely video record the incident be undertaken without an approval from a figure of higher authority in these institutions is questionable. If there is an argument to be made that those orders did not stem from higher up, could we argue that these actors, vast in numbers, are functioning outside of the conduct given by the central government. Either way it points to two possible circumstances, the first being that orders are being given In Ethiopian governmental institutions to commit crimes against humanity with a genocidal intent. Or the second, that the central government is not able to exert enough influence in its forces to monitor their account, in definition we are dealing with rogue forces armed by the government. Both these circumstances define the same thing – government involvement in acts committed with a genocidal objective. The latest video is one of many that yet again implicated the government of Ethiopia directly, yet the only recognition or statement released by the government was brief and dismissive. 

Deja vu – Actors in another Genocide in Africa

In 1994 a similar trail of events had unfolded in the state of Rwanda. Machetes were used to kill ethnic Tutsis in a vicious manner, in an attempt to cleanse a whole ethnic group. Politicians, religious figures and various public figures had participated in the genocide against one million Tutsis (a minority ethnic group in the region). The dehumanisation and alienation of the Tutsis by prominent ethnically Hutu public figures had been a key element to the genocide. Ethiopia’s reality does not stem too far from this particular dark time in African history. 

Similar to the actors of the Rwandan genocide, actors such as Felicien Kabuga, a multi-millionaire, who was the owner of the well-known Radio télévision libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), a radio channel which played a key role in inciting, encouraging and facilitating the hunting down and killing of identified Tutsis, Ethiopia has an equivalence in Worku Aytenew. Unlike Andargachew Tsige (a British citizen who is a political figure in Ethiopia) and Daniel kibret (one of the head figures of the Ethiopian church), who have both been noted to have been inciting violence against Tigrayans in the region, Aytenew’s financial impact allows him to have more than an influence on the actions of the Ethiopian government. Comparable to Kabuga’s raising of funds for ammunition and providing logistical, financial and moral support for the Interahamwe Militia, Aytenew has directly supported the genocidal war from the very beginning. Worku Aytenew, as reported on Fana broadcasting’s website (Ethiopian state media) donated over 4-million-birr worth of support for the ENDF and Amhara Special forces. Notably, Aytenew’s inauguration for WA Edible Oil Factory, worth 5.2 billion in Debre Markos, included the likes of Prime minister Abiy Ahmed and other regional presidents.

 Both ENDF and Amhara Special forces have been exposed to be actively taking part in the acts that can be evidently considered as carrying genocidal intent and constitute to being a crime against humanity. Shifting back to the Rwandan context, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda charged Kabuga of both crimes against humanity and genocide. An interesting difference in these men, however, is that Aytenew, in a video that surfaced online some months ago can be directly quoted saying “you should not think about sacrificing yourself to just kill them, to even roast them like a goat and eat them in itself is a great achievement” in reference to ethnic Tigrayans, leaving nothing to the imagination of his intentions in supporting the acts committed by those accused. In accordance to Article II of the Genocide Convention, Aytenew’s mental intent (as portrayed in his speech) and his physical funding of these groups to kill, implicate him directly in this specific act.  One may find it chilling to come to terms with the fact that this particular line was made a reality by a group deriving from the forces Aytenew was seen preaching to in the footage. Similar in the manner that the Rwandan genocide had unfolded, the situation in Ethiopia, contrary to the notion of the government of being under control, is erratic and has reached a point in which it requires external solutions.

Differences in types of ‘concern’ 

As the world watches the Ukrainian conflict unravel, the feeling of empathy and support is in the air. The US government has signed an Act consisting of $13.6 billion in assistance, the UK has committed £400 million, the EU 500 million Euros for humanitarian support as well as 120 million for budget support and in addition is providing micro-financial assistance of 1.2 billion in the form of loans. The financial assistance for Ukraine speaks  volumes in the world’s concern about the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the region, less than a month into the conflict with Russia. The surprising factor was in the speed that sanctions were introduced against Russia just days after the conflict began, internationally. The US, UK and EU were quick to introduce sanctions against the Central Bank of the Russian Federation (CBR), as well as Russian state-owned banks, and multi-millionaire elites close to Putin. In the East, Japan has followed suit by sanctioning 15 prominent Russian individuals with governmental connections and nine organisations, including state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport. The reaction from the international community clearly aims to use sanctions as a form of economical deterrent to the continuation of the ongoing conflict, without having to provide boots on the ground.

In parallel the USA is calling for a cessation of hostilities from both sides of the war in Tigray whilst simultaneously voicing their concern of the lack of access being provided to the delivery of much needed aid to over 5.2 million currently in dire need in the region. James Duddridge, Minister of Africa in the UK, has recently expressed ‘the real issue is not money & resources in Ethiopia; it is getting the access’ in reference to the de facto blockade created by the Ethiopian government in routes to Tigray. WHO’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan also commented on the dire situation in Tigray “From my perspective, it is an insult to our humanity to allow a situation like this to continue, to allow no access,” whilst speaking on the subject. The matter of sanctions has been contained to a small handful of individuals (Ethiopian and Eritrean governmental figures) whilst maintaining a business-as-usual approach. The UK via CDC Group PLC (the UK’s government’s development finance sector) and the British company, Vodafone,  have proceeded with the $850 million investment after the Global Partnership for Ethiopia consortium won a 15-year spectrum telecom licence. Additionally, the UK has authorised £65,000 worth of military exports to Ethiopia since 2018. This comes after Dominic Raab’s agenda of Britain as a ‘force for good’ was a talking topic in March 2021. Raab’s speech shone a light on the role of Britain as a global power and its ability to be a key player in conflict solution globally “We have an unparalleled range of expertise to help resolve conflicts and disputes, from Cyprus to Yemen. We are a problem-solving nation and that gives us influence and it gives us reach.”

As the Ethiopian government declares a truce for humanitarian relief purposes, it leaves alarm bells ringing that the world is merely focused on the amount of aid delivered in one given time to Tigray, rather than ensuring the rights of the needy in the region to having a sustained access to aid as well as basic services. It was adopted into the Geneva conventions in 1977, in Article 54 of Additional Protocol I and Article 14 of Additional Protocol II that starvation of civilians shall not be used as a tool of warfare. Consecutively, starvation itself can be categorised as a form of extermination as entailed in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As the world continues to entertain futile attempts by the Ethiopian government in cooperating in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Tigray, Ethiopians are burning their fellow country-men (Tigrayans) alive. Thus far, this is a conflict yet to be recognised as a genocide by the international community.

Although admirable that the international community has been engaged with the humanitarian crisis created by a systematic siege of the Tigray region and the reports released by human rights organisation such as Amnesty and the Human rights watch, it is not mildly equivalent to the actions needed that may hold the fate of over 6 million people; an entire ethnic group. On the contrary, we are yet to witness the use of economic sanctions to deter human rights abuses to the extent required when dealing with a force that is at war with a genocidal intent, as illustrated by the Ethiopian government. If there is to be an equivalence in actions taken in similar humanitarian disasters worldwide, if there is to be any improvement in recognising an African genocide before the instigators have fled the country or covered up substantial evidence and if economic sanctions that the world has used to deter Russia from causing further grievances in Ukraine are seen to be beneficial, it is puzzling as to why  these actions are not being taken in Tigray. This is why steps such as the H.R. 6600 (Ethiopia Stabilisation, Peace and Democracy Act) and S.3199 (Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act), bills introduced in the USA and passed by their respective committees, must not only be implemented fully in the USA but also endorsed by their EU and UK counterparts. Such a bill is a step towards accountability and the recognition of human rights abuse as they happen. It is a deterrent for more atrocities as perpetrators will understand the implication of such acts. It will also play a key stepping stone in the subsiding of hostilities so negotiations can occur without holding over 6 million starving Tigrayans hostage.

Melat Habtu is an International Relations graduate from the University of Westminister. Her area of research is politics and governance with a focus on global human rights issues. Her professional background revolves around communications, service delivery and charity. Melat has taken up leadership roles in setting up and running a U.K. Based charity.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Negasi Awetehey Nega

    April 14, 2022 at 10:55 am

    DONE well, logical and factual.
    By the way, we are lucky to get the footages that in areas where Amhara and shabia forces are brutal killing are a daily occurrence. Especially, in the times July and August many young tigrayans who tried to cross Amhara from Addis are killed in mass. Many of them were returnees from Saudi Arabia want to get their homes, the majority are from southern and southeastern Tigray.
    They don’t even let them speak. It is because we got videos that we are using that as an epitome of the genocide. Now, the higher bodies are advising the soldiers not to film any killings

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