The war that is raging in northern Ethiopia, between the Federal Army (Ethiopian National Defence Forces) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is uncalled-for and ghastly by all measures.
The passions that have seized both sides and propelled them to use war as a means of settling differences are historically deep.
The government of Ethiopia represents the old imperial pride imbued with the arrogance of centuries of dictating to everyone from Addis Ababa, and Tigray is incensed by the gradual loss of power its leaders had wielded for over three decades since the fall of the Derg in 1991, power which the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been chipping away through his programme of rapid and slightly unclear reforms since his ascent to power in 2018.
A little background is necessary here. One of the things that Abiy did was dismantle Ethiopia’s ruling party, EPRDF, which had run the country with violence and brutality under former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for almost 30 years. The guys who ran that show were TPLF and they were sidelined by Abiy’s reforms. Since then, he has accused them of destabilising the country by stoking ethnic tensions.
His allies have accused them of assassinations, including one attempt against Abiy himself. When the government of Ethiopia postponed the elections scheduled for August 29, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Tigray defied Addis Ababa and forged ahead with its elections, asserting the region’s autonomy and undermining the central government, which has clearly angered the rest of the leadership.
On November 3, 2020, after the Ethiopian government accused TPLF of supporting rebels who massacred civilians in western Oromia, several Tigrayan officials escalated words, threatening to “bring down” Abiy’s government. Then on November 4, 2020, the government announced that the TPLF forces had attacked the Ethiopian National Defence Forces Base located in Tigray region and attempted to rob the northern command of artillery and military equipment. That’s when Abiy ordered his army into the Tigray region.
The result of this confrontation is a senseless war, perhaps a war whose true origins are beyond Ethiopia and the outcome of which will benefit no one in the country.
What we see from outside Ethiopia is that Africa has yet again, without fail, showed the world the old images that paint the continent as a place of misery, where citizens suffer unnecessarily just because the leaders running some of the countries have chosen personal pride and wrestling for control of power over and above the welfare of the people, over the viability of the country itself. It seems that it is going to be Ethiopia’s turn this time round to shame the region, just as the East African region may have thought South Sudan was the winner in terms of senseless and pointless wars.
West Africa region, while still faced with the problem of leaders who cling to power beyond their term limits, has really made a marked progress when it comes to reining in war tendencies. Southern Africa is far ahead of the rest in this regard since it ended cold war era civil wars. East, Central and Horn of Africa have a long way to go in terms of resisting the temptation to rush to arms.
And when it is the turn of Ethiopia to make us in this region look bad, the war is all the more painful, not just because it is the biggest country, the most populated, the biggest economy, nor even the fact of it being the capital of Africa in a way, the African Union base, but also because what ails Ethiopia also in many ways bites in Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and further afield.
One is unable to wrap their head around the wave of news headlines about this conflict. Reports of close to 30,000 Tigrayan and other Ethiopians fleeing to Sudan to escape attacks by the Ethiopian Federal Army; the involvement of Eritrea on Ethiopian government’s side; the appeals for peace talks from regional organisations and heads of state from within the Horn and East Africa; of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed showing determination to end this conflict militarily; the Tigrayan leaders in Makelle, the regional capital, insisting that they would rather die standing up than surrender to what they see as a one man dictatorship.
But Ethiopia, a country that has been the pride of the region because of its double digit growth, its government’s reform agenda, the inspirational story of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, is stuck between the federal government’s right to assert control over the country’s affairs, a right no one doubts, and the cries from the civilians in Tigray who are being hammered in this confrontation. Who will blink first to save Ethiopia from totally ruining itself by its own hands and spare the regional neighbourhood the ripple effects of this baseless war?
Prime Minister Abiy is caught at once between Ethiopia’s ethnic politics, the desire for state monopoly of force and the Nobel Prize for peace he received in 2019 on the occasion of ending the war with Eritrea.
Which way will he pick? Perhaps his own attempt to remind us all about the pains of war would best be read back to him in an effort to sway him against the way of war. During his Nobel lecture, he talked about his participation in war and he called it the epitome of hell, saying, “I've seen brothers slaughtering brothers on the battlefield. I have seen older men, women and children trembling in terror under the deadly shower of bullets and artillery shells. War makes for bitter men, heartless and savage men.”
For a man with such memory to get into a power struggle with his own former comrades to the point of driving his country to the brink of an all-out war, Abiy Ahmed will have a lot of explaining to do to thousands of Ethiopians who are facing death because their leader, like others before him, could not swallow his pride and take the path of peace, if only to just honour his peace prize and his own reflections on what war does to men.
Whatever he chooses to do going forward, assuming it is all up to him and no invisible hands steering him, whether to sit down in peace talks with TPLF, pursue a military solution or isolate and starve Tigray over a long period of time, there is no question that Ethiopia as a country will be the biggest loser, not just in terms of lives wasted, infrastructure destroyed or resources squandered, but most importantly the injury to the country’s body politic. Ethiopia’s unity will be in tatters and the war will no longer be confined to Tigray.
With huge street demonstrations that took place in Addis Ababa on Monday and Tuesday, which are purported to be spontaneous in support of the war, but were reportedly encouraged by the Prime Minister himself to drum up the case for a sense of aggression the rest of Ethiopia feels Tigray has inflicted, it is clear that he wants to first exhaust his military options before seeking a peaceful settlement. On November 17, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said “the final and crucial” military operation will launch in the coming days against TPLF forces.
Perhaps it is time for the elders of West and Southern Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Graca Machel Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, to apply their hard-earned statesmanship to take yet another peace trip to Ethiopia. They can stop along the way to get Paul Kagame, the only East African leader who has earned that status while still in office. Can Africa, for once, just once, put out its own fires!