When Tigray president Debretsion thanked Abiy Ahmed for sending a delegation to Mekelle, supposedly to facilitate the peace process between the two parties, a lot of people of good conscience were disgusted. How can he thank a murderer who, among other barbaric things, has used starvation as a weapon? On the very people that the president is supposedly leading.
It’s a perfectly understandable and natural reaction. Especially when one is reacting from the heart, not from the head. And in these extremely animated times the head has quietly succumbed to the heart.
Whether Debretsion’s fawning remarks were apposite or how much of what he said he believed can be debated but what’s beyond any doubt is he was using his head when he uttered those words. His heart would have been as disgusted as those of us listening to him. In the days and hours leading up to him sitting in front of the very people who a couple of days ago were trying to murder him, he’d have agonized over whether to say what he truly felt or what was politically convenient. His heart and head would have wrestled against one another fiercely. “These are people who’ve wrought immense suffering, destruction and death on your people. Don’t even look them in the eye,” his wounded heart would have shouted. And his head would have interjected: “Yes, all of that is true. But if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, they might kill another million people and get away with it”. And so Debretsion would have had to reign in on his true feelings and say some painful things, including thanking the tornmenter-in-chief Abiy.
And it was at that moment that it dawned on me that Abiy and all the forces of evil who had helped him had won. It doesn’t matter that it’s a pyrrhic victory to them. It doesn’t matter that Ethiopia had been reduced into nothingness in the process. What matters to them is that Tigray has been crushed. Any cost they might have incurred to achieve that noble cause is totally acceptable. For, as we now know, their hate of Tigray trumps their love of anything.
It is tempting to say that the Tigrayans have fought for a righteous cause and that although they might have been forced to make some concessions they have by and large defended their home successfully. In some sense it is not untrue. They have indeed fought heroically. It’d be an act of sheer folly to try to explain how a tiny nation, sealed off from the rest of the world, managed to hold its ground against two of the mightiest armies in Africa. The truth is that what Tigrayans have achieved is beyond description. But what Tigray has achieved is no consolation to the hundreds of thousands who have perished from deliberate starvation. And to the millions who will have been permanently scarred.
The average Tigrayan person has always been tinged with an element of honest naivete. The belief that there are some red lines that the international community would cross or let be crossed. That there are some things human beings wouldn’t stoop into. That principles one holds dear are worth any sacrifice. Etc. When Abiy in 2020 threatened that he’d lay a siege on Tigray if it went ahead with elections, no one thought he was serious. Not because anyone had any illusion that Abiy wouldn’t contemplate such a thing but because people in their naivete believed that such a thing couldn’t be done in this day and age. They believed that if he floated the idea someone in his circles would tell him that’s a no-no; if no one from his circles, maybe the AU will tell him he couldn’t; and at any rate, the UN will always act as a last resort guardian of sanity. But of course Abiy went on to do that and much more. Neither anyone from Ethiopia nor the AU nor the UN raised so much as an objection. Vapid statements of concern, yes, but really the statements of concern were were cruelly coded words of license for more siege, more cruelty, more shelling, more destruction and much more. And Abiy delivered without fail.
And so Tigray was always going to lose. Principles, righteousness and valour alone, of which the Tigrayans have exhibited in abundance, were always going to be found wanting against a system where anything goes. The Tigrayans were foolish to believe that humanitarians were humanitarians, not appendages of the regime. They’re foolish to believe that the international community, such as it is, bothers to defend principles and values. They’re foolish to believe that if they fought cleanly and honourably, inevitably they would win. Perhaps the last sentence must be said begrudgingly. For in one sense they have won resoundingly. They’ve defended their homeland and for the most part did so cleanly, despite the flood of cruelty unleashed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. Insofar as cruelty could be justified, the Tigrayans would have been within their rights to behave however they wanted. But they warded off all the wrong temptations and that is to their eternal credit. So of course in the proper sense of the word victory, the Tigrayans are victorious.
But of course we live in a warped world, where right is wrong and wrong right. And in this real world we inhabit, Abiy has won. He is reported to have said before he invaded Tigray that you can bend people to your will if you had enough money and might. He has done exactly that in Tigray. There’s one theme in all the conversations that you have with people in Tigray now, possible thanks to the merciful Abiy opening the telephone lines to some areas. And that is that people are hungry, they’re fed up with the war, and they’re generally apathetic to everything. He has bent the people of Tigray to his will and he has won. It’s a temporary victory, and is a victory of the wrong sort, but it wouldn’t matter to him and his people.