Almost nine years after the death of Meles Zenawi, arguably the most influential and charismatic politician in modern-day Ethiopia, his legacy still shapes the different political forces in the country today – and the conflicts among them. In fact, it is not by chance that analysts explain today’s war in Tigray through the lenses of his politics.
Tigrayan by birth (thus hailing from the Northern region, bordering Eritrea) and father of the ethno-federalism that dominated the country until recent times, in the late 1990s Zenawi reorganized Ethiopian regions based on historic, cultural and ethnic factors. As he became Prime Minister in 1995, he sought to develop the country by implementing stricter divisions; cultural, educational and linguistic policies prompted a staggering crystallization of demographic features in the different regions, bringing about renewed identities and tensions. After decades of developmental plans and economic transformation – not without violence or repression – the current government of Abiy Ahmed Ali has paved the way towards a decisive turn of events.
When he took office in 2018, his administration’s birth was already noteworthy: after riots and hundreds of deaths ahead of the general elections, Abiy Ahmed Ali was appointed Prime Minister. A member of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) – the Oromo being the largest ethnic group and yet one of the most marginalized – his alliance with the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP, another prevalent ethnic group) was set in place to ostracize the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had been ruling the country for decades. Himself being issued from both Oromo and Amhara cultures, the former were expecting a lot from his government – expectations that were bound to be left unmet.
Ethiopia has witnessed a radical change of pace: strong liberalizations, the freeing of political prisoners of the now ruling ethnicities, new gender policies, media freedom and, most of all, the acceptance of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration vis-à-vis the Eritrean–Ethiopian War. These have all been saluted as progressive efforts by Western observers. The establishment of diplomatic relations with Eritrea earned Abiy Ahmed Ali the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
However, it was precisely because of the goal to halt the ever-lasting ethnocentrism, that the government was faced with exploding tensions. Mainstreaming Oromo and Amhara cultures beyond their regions and within Addis Ababa implied a strong marginalization of the Tigray people (and of other minorities), now harshly confined to their regions in the north of the country.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the government postponed the August 2020 general elections to May 2021 (the exact dates remain vague). The vote was expected to be an important test for the numerous reforms that were brought by Abiy Ahmed Ali and – as for many countries hit by the pandemic –– a test for governmental practices that out rule more standard and democratic decision-making processes. It is very likely that the present government and parliament will remain in office until the end of the coronavirus pandemic, and both are largely accused of purposely stalling elections towards this purpose. The terms of the parliament were extended, and discontent grew. Nonetheless, as it was rightly noted by global journalists, this irritation “is more about ethnic bitterness than non-democratic practices.” In fact, supporters and opposition mobilized their constituencies in all regions – often with opposite goals.
On 9 September 2020, in open defiance of the federal government, the Tigray region held parliamentary elections. Unsurprisingly, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front won 98.2% of the vote. After weeks of stalling, due to the irreducible positions of both the federal government (which strongly contested the elections) and the Tigray government, tensions escalated, until TPLF forces attacked the army in the neighboring Amhara region. On 4 November 2020, the Ethiopian army entered its northernmost region to chase its former leaders.
Since then, in what was nonsensically called a “police operation” by Abiy Ahmed Ali, the conflict exploded in the whole region, killing thousands and making headlines about unjustifiable violence. Reports account for the mobilization of the Amhara and Oromo militia alongside the regular army, which dreadfully recalls ethnic conflicts. The Ali government closed the borders of the Tigray regions to both reporters and humanitarian workers and mobilized the entire army, wiping away years of supposedly liberal policies in the name of war. Former leaders have been chased, arrested and killed in the northern mountains; assassinations include Sekoture Getachew, TPLF spokesperson; Daniel Assefa, former head of the Tigray finance bureau; Zeray Asgedom, former head of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority; and Abebe Asgedom, journalist. On 28 November, the army seized Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, and put a $250.000 bounty on Debrestion Gebremichael, the head of the TPLF party.
The role of neighboring countries
Borders do not limit conflicts, and most of the neighboring countries are playing a role in the war. The Sudanese army accused the Ethiopian army and Amhara militias of looting artillery units across the border. Moreover, Sudan is currently the destination of some tens of thousands of refugees that are fleeing the conflict, and while the government is pledging for peace, its actions remain ambiguous. Tensions keep mounting on the border in the fertile Al-Fashqa region where there were several weeks of skirmishes in December between the two countries’ regular forces – as the Ethiopians are reportedly impeding the transit of people. There have also been rumors that Somalia has been relocating soldiers to fight the war alongside the Ethiopian regular army in Tigray, supposedly fulfilling obligations under the three-way regional security arrangement with Eritrea and Ethiopia.
However, the biggest and most worrisome role is being played by Eritrea. While the formal peace agreement of July 2018 was saluted as an act of goodwill, progress has been stagnating: Borders remain mostly closed for people and goods, and no telephone lines are set up. There remains the strong suspicion that peace was not a real deal, rather a pact between autocrats.
In this context, an overwhelming number of international reports claim that the Eritrean army was let in and accompanied to the refugee camps in Tigray, where soldiers looked for political opponents to the Asmara regime, in exchange for military help with Tigray rebels. Some argue that the Eritrean and the Ethiopian armies are fighting side by side in the mountains in Tigray, to chase after Tigrayans and Eritreans who had previously fled the regime. And while refugees and asylum-seekers fled in terror, the Ethiopian government was diligent enough to take them back to the camps near the border.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi stated that, should these accounts be confirmed, “these actions would constitute a major violation of international law.” Currently, nonetheless, UNHCR and other UN agencies have not been granted access to the four refugee camps in Tigray, namely Shimelba, Hitsats, Adi Harush and Mai-Ayni. The latter, a UNHCR camp, was reportedly burned to the ground. The Shimelba camp used to harbor almost 100,000 refugees, and according to a group of researchers, satellite imagery proves intentional attacks on the structures.
The Ethiopian government forcefully denies the involvement of Eritreans in Tigray, a statement contradicted by the stance of an Ethiopian military commander who confirmed the presence of Eritrean security forces. Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, Eritrean soldiers have attended meetings in which humanitarian workers negotiated access to the camps with Ethiopian authorities. The active involvement of Eritrean fighters alongside regular troops has been confirmed by refugees who fled to Sudan and even by US diplomatic sources.
A looming civil war and humanitarian catastrophe
Today, borders within and outside Ethiopia remain closed to journalists, and the only information sources on the conflicts are governmental bulletins – that only report on targeted killings rather than the widespread violence. Thousands of people have died in the fighting, by most estimates, and the few humanitarian workers who have been permitted to enter Tigray report human rights abuses, boundless sexual violence, looted refugee camps, devastated hospitals, and prodromes of starvation for millions of people.
As reported by the UN and humanitarian NGOs, more than 2.5 million people are at risk of either starvation or malnutrition in Tigray, including in Mekelle, as the outbreak of the war in early November prevented harvesting. According to other sources, even the Oromo people fell victim to the federal army: Today, in Addis Ababa, the Amhara have occupied all relevant positions in the establishment and are said to be in the driving seat of the conflict.
The ethnocentric politics in Ethiopia recall Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution: Tito managed to centralize power and to put ethnic disputes on mute, but once he was gone these tensions exploded. The same can be said for Meles Zenawi, whose Tigrayan background was less important than the progress he made for the country. Nowadays, without this centralization, ethnic rivalries are surfacing again, with the dreadful scenario of ethnic cleansing on the horizon.