By: Mulu Beyene and Gebrehiwot Hadush
Last week, Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), president of Tigray, sent an open letter to the UN Secretary-General, highlighting the devastating humanitarian crisis in Tigray and a looming danger in Ethiopia. The letter, the latest among similar correspondences, can be primarily seen as a last attempt to avert another round of full-fledged war. This desperate plea to avert a horrific humanitarian crisis in Tigray also demonstrates the seemingly unwarranted trust and hope that the authorities in Tigray continue to place on the UN system to help resolve the devasting conflict. On the other hand, the letter seems overly focused on countering diplomatic gains the Abiy Administration received following its declaration of a humanitarian truce, which it appropriately identified as being ‘an empty promise’. In this short commentary, we would like to flesh out some of its contents and highlight a few of its weaknesses.
The central message of the letter
First and foremost, the letter underscores the suffering that the entire population of Tigray continues to endure as a result of the genocidal war, intentional destruction of the economy, and ongoing siege and blockade. It describes the horrific conditions in Tigray at this time.
The letter then goes on to detail at great length how Ethiopia is in danger of calamitous disintegration and the importance of rapid action by the international community to stop it. It alludes that the current condition in Tigray, resulting from the intentional destruction of Tigray’s economy exacerbated by the siege and humanitarian blockade that has persisted even after, would entail a war of survival, which may as well end in a violent disintegration of Ethiopia. Other reasons that reinforce the danger of disintegration, as per the letter, include the raging economic crises the country is facing; other conflicts across the country stoked by the Addis regime; the destructive role Eritrea continues to play, including by occupying Tigray territories; and incompetent leadership in Addis to address existing and looming calamities.
The letter also expresses deep disappointment with the way Tigrayans have been treated by the UN and the international community at large through the course of the conflict. Among others, it laments international actors for failing to give the catastrophic crises in Tigray a fraction of the urgency it deserves; denounces the sustained praises many actors are offering the regime in Addis in response to empty promises to facilitate humanitarian relief; expresses dismay at the continued encouragement given to the regime as it continues to link humanitarian aid with political and military concessions.
The letter refers to arrangements that led to the withdrawal of Tigray forces in December 2021, including a promise for unfettered humanitarian access and expeditious negotiations to end the war, which have not been met. It denounces the fact that efforts made by Tigray forces to live up to these arrangements are being touted as signaling stability for Ethiopia when Tigray is still under a total siege with no access to basic services and a humanitarian blockade.
Based on all of this, the letter warns that the current status quo is not sustainable and that the government of Tigray cannot tolerate the continuation of the current state that has effectively rendered the survival of the nation in danger. Before it so resorts to war, it calls for swift international intervention. To this end, it expresses readiness for TDF to further withdraw from defensive positions it held in Afar, a commitment that is now fulfilled following Tigrayan forces’ full withdrawal from Afar. In response, it demands that humanitarian relief to Tigray is guaranteed and Eritrea’s complete withdrawal is ensured, stipulations that are yet to be met. It is only after that, concludes the letter, that Ethiopians can ‘begin to address their political challenges free from malign external interference’.
A necessary call
The message conveyed is, by and large, appropriate. It is, in fact, long overdue. It provides a reasonable description of the dire situation in Tigray. It also rightly points out the fact that the international community’s inaction has been unprincipled and that in the long run, it is counterproductive to Ethiopians and beyond.
Most importantly, a clear warning that a devastating war is coming if no action is taken is necessary. Many observers have been calling for action in the face of the tightening siege by the regime and the seemingly indifferent international community, inexplicably content with the situation.
Of course, openly writing such a letter will likely be touted as a provocation by the regime in Addis and its backers, who continue to attempt to normalize and/or justify the catastrophic situation in Tigray. It is, however, impossible to deny the natural right to self-preservation and this call for intervention before such an action is launched is both reasonable and appropriate.
Some limitations of the letter
A great deal can be said about the letter, and we would like to focus on a few limitations we observed.
The first relates to the focus the letter placed on the fate of Ethiopia. Nearly a quarter of the letter’s content is dedicated to describing how the unfolding crisis in Ethiopia in general and the humanitarian blockade specifically would endanger the stability and integrity of the Ethiopian state. The letter even criticized the Abiy Administration for its flawed ‘economic foreign policy’ which it calls beggary. It is true that unless it is deterred the danger, goes beyond Tigray. However, in the face of the thousands already dying of hunger and easy disease and Tigray’s own projection that the lives of millions are in real danger unless the siege is lifted NOW, we wonder if the primary focus should not have been on this rather looming calamity that needs to be reversed, one way or the other.
The second and related reservation has to do with the solution that the letter envisages.
The letter seems to convey a message that the Tigrayan authorities are worried the country will fall apart under Abiy Ahmed’s watch, causing much more problems than today if the UN doesn’t respond promptly. Given that Ethiopia is represented by the central government, we contend, it carries less weight at the UN for a sub-national entity to call upon the UN to save a country from disintegration. This is not to say that a sub-national entity cannot make a plea for saving a state at all, but it cannot be in a situation to fare better in doing that where the central government is in control of the political capital and relatively a large part of the country. Moreover, in the context of the current circumstances, the letter could be read as hinting at a political aim by the Tigrayan authorities for power-sharing or even more so an intention to oust the central government.
The third point, related to the second, relates to the framing of Ethiopia’s relation vis-à-vis Tigray.
What Tigray wants after such a horrendous experience with Ethiopia is yet to be answered. At this point, no one from the diplomatic community is explicitly articulating what it should be, but it seems pretty clear that the relationship between Ethiopia and Tigray has taken a different shape, prompting different arrangements including a possible breakaway from the Ethiopian State. And such directions ought to come from Tigray, with the UN as a primary forum.
Closely looking at the content of the letter, the Tigrayan authorities seem to dwell on a one-state solution. At face value, the letter refers to the central government as ‘Ethiopian authorities’ but it also addresses them as ‘federal authorities’; hence remaining vague on the nature of the solution that Tigrayan authorities are seeking to propose. Yet, given the amount of focus the letter gives to the stability and territorial integrity of Ethiopia, it follows that the letter is intended to offer reassurance that the Tigrayan authorities are seeking one state, not a two-state solution. This seems, by far, the more likely reading of the letter.
This approach seems at loggerhead with the sentiments apparently held by most Tigrayans. Tigrayans, including the government itself, describe the ongoing conflict as genocidal and, hence, they do not see any trust left to live in a political union as before. As such, there are growing demands that the Tigrayan authorities should do more and push Ethiopia vs Tigray relationships toward a ‘two-state’ solution. This path, to us, is inevitable. In a two-state solution scenario, Tigrayan authorities are expected to communicate with Ethiopia and third parties, including the UN as leaders of a defacto-state with effective control of its internal matters, including regulating trade, finance, and other economic, socio-cultural, and political affairs, and doing anything a state can do within its own territory. The letter fails to initiate this or other reasonable political solutions to the war.
In conclusion, it is understandable why the government of Tigray has limited its diplomatic engagement with third parties and now with the UN primarily in relation to the ongoing catastrophic humanitarian crisis. However, the question of Tigray cannot be reduced solely through the prism of humanitarian issues. It was imperative for the Tigrayan authorities to cleverly articulate and clearly express issues of territorial integrity and self-determination rights of the people of Tigray. We hope the authorities will break with the modesty and use all means possible to advance, promote, and ascertain the fundamental questions of Tigray in its entirety in their future engagements with third parties, including the UN.
About the Authors:
Mulu Beyene studied and taught law in Ethiopia. He is currently a PhD student at the University of Bergen, Norway.
Gebrehiwot Hadush is the former dean of the College of Law and Governance at Mekelle University. Currently, he is a Ph.D. researcher at the faculty of law at KU Leuven University, Belgium.