By Donek Tesfaye Zemo
When reading Sarah Vaughan and Martin Plaut’s excellent book, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, we cannot help but observe a typical drive in the instigators of the war, a drive for power not just over Ethiopia but over the horn of Africa. The narration of history provides a pattern of behavior distinctive to the two heads of government, Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki, who primarily mobilized disgruntled forces to wage war. Astutely, the authors coin the triad of land, power, and empire as the central driver of the war in Tigray, making the “centralization- decentralization pull”1Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, London: Hurst, May 2023, 414 at the core of the political divide. However, following the pursuit for domination by both leaders can be a valuable analytical tool that can inform strategic thinking for future action. This digging into the past to prevent what may transpire in the future is decidedly different from what the authors warn as the construction or deconstruction of history as a fuel for unending antagonism. The intention in writing this article is not to lock the Ethiopian dialogue into these sets of findings and therefore dictate future dialogue. Rather, by exploring history, we want Tegaru and other concerned allies to have a relatively clear understanding of the trajectory of the future and, in doing so, stay engaged, sound the alarm, and do their level best for the end of injustice on civilians. We must not forget that at the heart of the war was a genocidal intent that wanted to wipe Tegaru out of the face of the earth. These evil sentiments do not simply vanish into thin air because a peace agreement has been signed in Pretoria. If Tegaru are to stand together, united, it must be primarily against genocide. And to do so, we need to continue to speak against the threat of genocide as we call for accountability for what took place in the past.
The book’s historical expose reveals Isaias Afewerki’s early tendencies for domination and his patient, methodical journey to the 2020 Tigray war. Ever since the annexation of Eretria, the resulting resentment of the student body, coupled with Marxist sentiments, fueled a movement that led to Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for emancipation. It is in this context that Isaias Afewerki rose to power and has dominated Eritrea ever since. Isaias’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was different in ideology from the other student movements of the time in that it neither advocated for pan-Ethiopianism nor ethnonationalism; rather it pursued a united, national Eritrea that fought for independence against outside ‘colonizers.’ From the outset, Isaias hijacked the Eritrean discourse from having a ‘national question’ to a ‘colonial question2Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 122. 3 Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 243 Therefore, according to Isaias, any discussion around ethnic-based, diverse political organizations, even in the country he sought to separate from, threatened Eritrea’s pursuit of one nation. The point here is that Isaias sees fit to interfere in a neighboring country’s politics because he found his idea of one Eritrea being threatened. This continues to be evident throughout his reign: 1995, in his clash with Yemen, 1996, in his military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1996, in the border dispute war in Ethiopia, 1998, in arming Sudanese rebels against their government, 2007, trained and armed the Al-Shabab and in 2008, had a border dispute with Djibouti.3Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 243.
The book helps us understand Isaias’s sense of entitlement to the first fruit of the crop stemming from an identity logged in the Italian era self-awareness of Eritreans as ‘superior’
to Tegaru and other Ethiopians. This is partly why the 1998 war broke out and is the cause of the looting and destruction of Tigray in the 2020 war. Isaias’s “self-conception as a regional elder statesman”4Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 135. has been demonstrated again in the recent union with Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed until recent months. “Ultimately, Eritrea was never big enough for Isaias”5Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 136., and Abiy, albeit for a limited time, had given him unfettered access to Ethiopia, leading towards becoming a regional leader. His great retaliatory ability to anyone that questions this eldership is seen not only in the 2020-2022 Tigray war but also in the 80s when he blocked humanitarian access to starving civilians6Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 127 and in the years between 2000 and 2018 in harboring and giving military training/ logistical support to any hostile adversary.
Likewise, the long-standing resentment of ethno-nationalists, particularly those representing the Oromo, who felt manipulated out of power by the EPRDF’s ruling party, provided the context for Abiy Ahemd’s rise to power. Although, in Abiy’s case, we cannot forget the unholy union of the Oromo ethnic nationalists with the Amhara nationalists and those masquerading as pan-Ethiopian nationalists that were working against the Tigray wing of the party. Abiy carefully cultivated the political elite’s resentment towards Tigray’s ruling party without any loyalty to any specific ethnicity, political ideology, or even the individuals who stood by him but with a sole commitment to his own apprehension and retention of power.
If Isaias leaned into the Italian colonial era to coalesce the diversified political, ethnic, and religious views into a unitary, centralized nation, Abiy invoked a return to the romanticized ideals of the imperial era, especially to the Amhara elites and the so-called pan-Ethiopian nationalists while also appearing as an Oromo nationalist in Oromo circles. “The genius of the silver-tongued prime minister”7Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 186 is in extricating himself from the EPRDF that brought him to power and re-categorizing it as a continuation of the Derg era culminating in a “50- year period of national “aberration” in which Ethiopia had lost its way, under the malign sway of foreign-Marxist-ideologies.”8Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 186. By doing so, he could draw a “parallel between his task as Prime Minister and a mission for Ethiopia’s salvation”9Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, quoting Mehdi Labza, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 186. viewing himself as Ethiopia’s ordained new king. He cleverly coined the term ‘medeemer,’ simply a code word for Isaias’s style of singularity, total uniformity, and a unitary nation.
Although an astute politician/chief manipulator, Abiy lacks coordinated, long-range planning and risk assessment facilities and relies on his instincts, making it rather difficult to predict his next moves. His most disruptive actions were to reform long-established institutions such as the security, intelligence, and military sectors, not to mention bringing in exiled armed and unarmed opposition groups, creating a new governing body in the form of Prosperity Party, not only restoring relations with Eritrea but also giving them access to the country’s intelligence and military data proves this point – that Abiy’s rule is highly erratic, further from logic, in some cases outright treasonous and whose collaborations are short-lived. Nevertheless, with certainty, we can predict one thing; Abiy will stay faithful to the path that will help him consolidate and retain power at any cost.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy similarities between Isaias and Abiy is their lack of reverence for human life. Abiy’s rise to power began with sacrificing the many young Oromos (Kero) who fought for the Oromo political question. In just two months after his inauguration, the grenade that blew up at Meskel sqaure and was duped as an attempt to assassinate Abiy also inaugurated the start of the killings of civilians. Random unaccounted deaths of key figures such as the Grand Renaissance Dam Director or the general Seare Mekonnen and Amhara region leaders occurred in the first few years of his reign. In his own utterance, Abiy admitted to 113 outbreaks of ethnic violence prior to the 2020 war in Tigray.10Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War,200 However, the Tigray War revealed his true nature and exposed his capacity for the most atrocious acts in recent history. His reaction to the women of Tigray being raped by Eritrean and Amhara militias was essentially, “What is the big deal?” The “indiscriminate artillery barrage on civilian areas”11Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, quoting NYT, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 274., the mass killings of men, boys, priests, and monks, the systematic sexual abuse of women and girls, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war were war crimes crafted by Isaias and implemented by Abiy Ahmed himself.
So, what should we learn from these patterns? Recent events have revealed that the rift between Isaias and Abiy is caused by Abiy’s refusal to be viewed or manipulated as “the younger, more inexperienced Ethiopian leader,” which will play second fiddle as Isaias resumes his leadership over the region. This rift may give hope to Tegaru as the enmity may seem to provide a much-needed respite. However, it is folly for the Tigray governing body to bank on such enmity, align themselves with Abiy’s rule, and coalesce with its agenda. It is important to remember that Tigray’s only leverage is in its unity against genocidal actors. Such unity can only be maintained if Tegaru continue to make the genocide front and center. Pursuing justice for the sake of those who have suffered and are under constant suffering is the only hope.
Donek Tesfaye Zemo was the Ministry Evaluation and Learning Lead at SIM, a mission organization committed for the holistic transformation of people including bringing real hope and help to a conflict weary world. She was responsible for giving consultation to more than 300 ministries in over 40 countries in strategic, outcome focused evaluation. Prior to that she served as the deputy country director of SIM in Ethiopia ensuring that the 30-40 ministries carried out by more than 400 workers were appropriately planned, resourced, executed and reviewed. Since leaving SIM, in February of 2023, she works as a freelance consultant and researcher.