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Analyzing the Tragic Conflict in Ethiopia and the War on Tigray

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                      December 28, 2020


This article intends to critically examine the current conflict in Ethiopia, with particular focus on the war in Tigray, but most importantly it will systematically analyze the complicated and complex factors that contributed to the war in Tigray. Many observers, notwithstanding few and far in between freelancers who correctly monitored the situation on the ground, have superficially reported about the war and this article, thus, will shoulder responsibility by way of presenting the main and core factors and forces that have played a major role in the conflict. Furthermore, this essay will expose the many non-Ethiopian actors who are directly or indirectly engaged in the conflict.

In order to successfully analyze the Ethiopian conflict and the war in Tigray, it is important to begin with some background account to the present crisis and doing so view the conflict in-depth from many dimensions and angles, and this is the only way we can really grasp the essence of the war that was unleashed on Tigray, a unique historical phenomenon of the 21st century. I say ‘unique’ because there has never been in the annals of history where a government attacks its own regional state by inviting other states (ex. Eritrea, United Arab Emirates, and Somalia); ancient and modern nation-states have sought help from other friendly states in order to defend their land from an aggressor nation, but they never invited such forces in order to quell their internal rebellion or crush a domestic people’s resistance.  

First let me begin with some ideas that explore the psychological and cultural dimension that contributes to skirmish and major conflicts and that I have attempted to elaborate in my article entitled “The Ascendance of a New Regime and Contradictory Measures in Ethiopian Politics” (2018), and this is what I said then: “As always, the Ethiopian phenomenon is complicated, complex, and shrouded in mystery to say the least. Given the admixture of a lingering feudal mode of thinking (the mode of production was done away with in the wake of the 1974 revolution) with unpolished and haphazard modernity (considering the exposure of Ethiopians to Western values and technology), obscurantism in the Ethiopian political culture is not surprising. Hybrid politics, however, is dangerous because it tears apart Ethiopians between the archaic framework of thinking and the relatively science-based orientation. Ethiopians, thus, are suspended between two irreconcilable poles, and adding fuel to the fire, the present generation of Ethiopians are even in a much worse condition for the following reasons: 1) they have no knowledge of the rich and proud history of Ethiopia; 2) they lack political consciousness; 3) they are unable to make linkage with the legacy of the patriotic pan-Ethiopian movements (ex. the Ethiopian Student Movement); and 4) they have lost the common Ethiopian identity and embraced rather a much narrower ethnic identity.”1

In the final analysis, Ethiopians who are now engaged in series of conflicts and the war in Tigray are victims of their psychological makeup, a mode of thinking that negates objective reality and positive contributions made by powers that be; when the Derg (military government) assumed state power following the Ethiopian revolution and the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, it immediately tarnished the image of the Emperor and portrayed him as a diabolical autocrat without giving him any credit during his entire reign. Similarly, when the EPRDF defeated the Derg, it presented the Derg rule as one of fascistic rule without attributing anything positive to the seventeen-year military government of Ethiopia; and in very similar fashion, following the 2016-2018 uprisings and subsequent downfall of the EPRDF, the new Abiy-led regime began campaigning against the EPRDF itself, but more so against the TPLF, which was the dominant party within the EPRDF coalition. The newly established Prosperity Party (PP) led by Abiy Ahmed fiercely attacked the TPLF and associated its stay in power of twenty-seven years with “dark ages” without even giving credit to the TPLF/EPRDF for its foundational economy that are visible in Addis Ababa and in the rest of Ethiopia. I personally have criticized the TPLF/EPRDF for not introducing the democratic political culture into the corpus of the larger Ethiopian society and for incarcerating media personalities, but I have given it credit for its initiatives in development projects and the expansion of higher institutions of learning; for major industrial plants such as industrial parks; infrastructures such as roads and railways, and for establishing four dozens of universities, in my book, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State. By the same token, I have given credit to Emperor Haile Selassie for his attempts in modernizing Ethiopia and the expansion of elementary and high schools, but I criticized him for failing to uplift Ethiopians from poverty in his long reign. I also have given credit to the Derg regime for its contribution in meager development projects such as the National Literacy Campaign, the Beles agricultural project and the Melka Wekena hydroelectric power, although the Derg conducted huge atrocities against the Ethiopian people via its so-called Red Terror, and it is documented in my debut book, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition (1995). This is what a scholar must do, but unfortunately, the present Ethiopian intellectuals are not bold enough to tell the truth and to objectively analyze reality, and they seem to relish rather in lies, innuendo, and propaganda. 

The other dimension that can help us understand the conflict in Ethiopia and the war in Tigray is the nature and characteristics of the new regime led by Abiy Ahmed. Who is Abiy and what kind of government does he preside over? If we examine Abiy and his mission and objectives superficially, it is apparent that he is the byproduct of the EPRDF who ascended to power via smooth transition when he was sworn in the Ethiopian parliament in April 2018; soon after he became prime minister, he unequivocally told the Ethiopian audience and the world that he is committed to a neoliberal policy agenda and that he would establish a capitalist economic system as opposed to a mixed economy of its predecessor regime. There is nothing wrong in promoting the market economy in Ethiopia and fostering private enterprises, but it could be detrimental to the overall economy of the country if the major companies and corporations like Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Ethiopian Electric and Power Authority (EEPA), Ethiopian Shipping Lines, Ethiopian Airlines etc. are sold to foreign investors.

On top of the above attempt to explore the nature of Abiy and his government, it is also important to have a look at contradictory verbiage and policy measures. For instance, in many instances, Abiy said his motto in uniting Ethiopia is Medemer (inclusiveness in order to augment unity) and this in turn entails ‘love’, ‘unity’, ‘forgiveness’, wonderful expressions that made a significant number of Ethiopians rally around Abiy’s orbit, but soon the Medemer mobilizing power diminished considerably and it proved to the people that it was indeed evanescent; in fact, it really disappeared in the mist of thin air because Abiy and his cohorts began contradicting their own “love-ridden” policies; they began incarcerating journalists like Eskinder Nega  and political leaders like Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed, and Lidetu Ayalew (now discharged from prison); Abiy himself in one conference said that he is “very close to becoming a dictator”; in another instance, he said “Ethiopia is not sovereign” and on the contrary, the country ‘is aid-dependent’ and he further said, “I am good at begging” and implied that Ethiopia is a beggar nation; the latter parlance has some truth; Ethiopia is indeed a poor nation and dependent on foreign aid like many Third World countries, but discarding ‘Ethiopian sovereignty’ is a dangerous premise, and perhaps tantamount  to treason.

Consistent with the above contradictory measures of the regime, one thing that was abundantly clear to most Ethiopians is the absence of rule of law and security and consequently the internal displacement of thousands of Ethiopians throughout the country; violent attack on ethnic groups by “unknown armed group” and the burning of public property and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches; interestingly the patterns of the latter heinous crimes were same in all Ethiopia; on top of these disturbances, left unchecked by the government, all roads to Tigray were closed by local bandits but with the tacit approval of the government.

As a result of the multifaceted contradictory padding and measures by the government, the Abiy reform policy also began to disappear like a phantasmagoria. I have argued once that “the so-called reform is now derailed and the reemergence of open political debate and civil dialogue could altogether vanish…The government, it looks, is more interested in populist agendas of gathering people and promising all the good wishes… But the populist narrative is contradicted by the “day-time hyenas” rhetoric and the attempt to isolate the Tigray Regional State from the Ethiopian body politic. It may not be clear whether this is, a reflection of paradox of mental vision, or involuntarily releasing the hidden true self like a deflating balloon, but what is quite astounding is the regime’s immersion in self-perpetuating cycle of dysfunction, which is manifested sometimes with some shocking revelations. At any rate, whatever interpretation we give to the promises made in a public square, the lofty statements are mechanisms of distraction from the more pressing problems that Ethiopia has encountered now.”2

With the above analyses of the nature and characteristics of the Abiy regime, we may not be able to certainly affirm what Abiy and his cohorts are up to. What is their real motive? May be, we can find the answer in Finian Cunningham, the brilliant Irish journalist, assessment of Abiy’s regime. “The new prime minister” says Cunningham “has embraced Washington’s Arab allies in the region, in particular Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates…The nation [Ethiopia], which was seen up to now as an African role model for independent development, is being shifted from its erstwhile independence and partnership with China to become a client of Western capital and Washington’s regional allies among the Arab states.”3  

What makes Cunningham’s thesis credible is Abiy’s newly forged alliance with Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by making “state visits” to these countries several times and signing so-called peace treaties and diplomatic relations with the head of states, namely Isaias Afeworki and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, but the Ethiopian people have no clue whatsoever of Abiy’s diplomatic ventures with Eritrea and UAE. But, a significant number of Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals have now learned that Abiy’s peace accord with Isaias in fact was a window dressing conspiracy against Tigray; their agenda was to encircle Tigray and ultimately wage against the regional state, the last bastion of peace compared to regional states that were wrecked by incessant skirmish and ethnic violent confrontations, now in Somalia, now in Benishangul Gumuz, and now in Konso, not to mention Wolita and Sidama that were hit hard by similar aggressions under the watchful eyes of the regional police; the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF), as part of the command post, were engaged in constant wars with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) forces in the Wellega Zone of Western Ethiopia. The EDF, by serving as command post fighting forces in the Southern regional state and Oromia, have already lost its national duty as a territorial and defense army and became rather a police-type military that is engaged in subduing its own people, and now when they are mobilized in war in Tigray, they have completely betrayed the Ethiopian constitution, and one fine day they may be charged with treason.

The generals of the EDF may have lost their memories of the magnanimity and charisma of Chief-of-Staff General Seare Mekonnen, but some them, I suspect, that they know very well that Seare geared the psychology of the army toward respecting the constitution and defending the Ethiopian nation-state, but none of the army members probably know why Seare was assassinated, including the present chief of staff General Birhanu Jula, who wept during funeral service of Seare. But, as of recent, new revelations testify that General Seare was assassinated because he fiercely opposed to the idea of a United Arab Emirate intelligence experts involvement in the Ethiopian national security agencies; he is believed to have said, “involving foreign intelligence specialist in the Ethiopian national security system could derail and undermine Ethiopian national interest”; soon after, he was assassinated; he paid a price for just defending his country, but it is now glaringly obvious that he had to be eliminated long before the war on Tigray was declared, and in which the United Arab Emirate came into the battle zone of Tigray with its drones.      

After two and half years of preparation on the Abiy side and more than two decades discreet drawing up on the part of Isaias’s Eritrea, the Ethiopian government declared war on Tigray on November 4, 2020. The war mongers have strategized to come on all directions to first fight the TPLF forces, and then occupy, destroy and plunder Tigray and that is what exactly happened; the Eritrean troops, brigades after brigades, have overrun northern Tigray from Humera and Shire area in the north west to Aksum and Adwa in the central zone, and Agame on the eastern frontier; the EDF came from the south on the Alamata front; and the Amhara Militia and Amhara Regional States special force, accompanied by the EDF came on the western front, in particular the Dansha, Tesegede area. The objective clearly was to destroy Tigray and perpetrate genocide as well.

With the war in Tigray, now in its 55th days, and a surprisingly protracted war given all these enemies against one small regional state, the brunt the Tigrayans have paid, however, is enormously huge; it ranges from death of entire families to the destruction of public properties, factories, institutions, universities, and farm areas. The barbaric Eritrean troops have not only shelled major cities like Adigrat, Adwa, Shire etc. but they also have plundered virtually everything possessed by the Tigray Regional State and some Tigrayan businessmen; they looted the Addis Pharmaceutical Industry of Adigrat and destroyed it; they plundered computers and laboratory equipment and other essential materials from Adigrat University and then destroyed the physical buildings, halls, and classrooms of the university. Few kilometers away from Adigrat, in a church called Mariam Dinglat, the congregation were attacked by Eritrean troops and more than hundred of them were slaughtered in the church. By the same token, they looted and destroyed the textile industry of Adwa and the edible oil factory and hotels in Shire; they have done the same thing in Mekelle with the approval and collaboration of the EDF.

The bombardment of Tigray, however, is not an isolated incident; all Ethiopia is now in shambles; all Ethiopian people, in one form or another, have been attacked by “unknown gunmen” as mentioned above; when members of the Somali Democratic Party (SDP) opposed the integration of their party with the PP party of Abiy Ahmed, they were violently attacked; earlier, the president for eight years of the Somali Regional State, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, an ardent supporter of the Ethiopian constitution, the federal system, and an open friend of the TPLF, was taken from his home in Addis Ababa, and was thrown into prison. His successor, Mustafa Muhmmed Omer, serving as member of PP is one of the top Abiy advisors who justify the war against Tigray.

Abiy will not have a problem with the Amhara Regional State leaders because they are his best allies; the Amhara militia and Amhara Regional State current President Agegnehu Teshager are working hand-in-glove with him and they have a vested interest in emasculating Tigray and recapture Wolqait and Raya that they have been claiming for a long time. Although Agegnehu, in his recent speech, said, “we are not interested in land, but in the revival of our identity” (whatever that means), he contradicts the mission and objectives of the ‘Land Reclaiming Committee’ established by Amhara irredentists a decade ago, and I strongly believe that their irredentist ambition would be realized given the current crisis and the fragility that they have caused in Tigray.

We must also address the political economy factor that has contributed to the current conflict and the war in Tigray. While the whole Ethiopia was in dire economic crisis due to sudden interruptions of many projects, the drastic reduction of productivity of factories and industries, and most importantly the slow economic growth (from 10-11% in 2010-2016 to 7.7% in 2018 and now to 1.9% at the end of 2020) coupled by the absence of foreign direct investment (FDI), Tigray was doing well in relative terms and was on the right track in economic development. But Abiy and his government, directed blockages; first the main highway to Tigray was blocked; then the other route via the Afar Regional State was blocked, and Tigray was left with only one outlet or corridor on the Sudan-Western Tigray border. Following the blockages, the Abiy regime entered in what I call local cold war with the TPLF leadership; the TPLF challenged him on many issues including elections that were postponed, the rule of law, the continuation of the federal system and the current constitution; Abiy, it seems to me was frightened by the TPLF, which also was organizing an all-Ethiopia federalist forces conferences in Mekelle, which in the long run could undermine his stay in power. The TPLF was a real headache to Abiy Ahmed, but in my opinion this TPLF frustrating tactic was not something that I condone; the TPLF should have lessened its superfluous criticism of Abiy and give him some space for comfort so that he could come to a negotiating table; I also believe, the TPLF missed a golden opportunity when the Ethiopian faith-based institute led by the Patriarch Abuna Matias went to Mekelle and asked Dr. Debretsion to reconcile with the PP and sit in a round table for negotiation. By way of responding to the proposal of the religious leaders, the TPLF said, “the reconciliation should not be between the TPLF and the PP; it should include other opposition parties as well” and this was where the TPLF erred in policy and in principle; it should have seized the moment and used the opportunity to sit in a round table with its opponent, instead of bothering with the inclusion of other opposition political parties.    

However, the political economy of sabotage increasingly undermined the development agenda and initiatives of the Tigrayan leadership; and it was impossible for the latter to reconcile its differences with the Abiy government. The budget that was allocated to all regional states was not given to Tigray; the federally owned industrial park of Mekelle was also denied funds when the federal government distributed funds to all other industrial parks, including that of Hawassa Industrial Park; and when there was a challenge of the second invasion locusts in northern Wollo and southern Tigray, federal government drones were spraying insecticides on the Wollo area but not on the Tigray zone.

It seems to me the war on Tigray was craftly designed by Abiy and Isaias and their Arab mentors so that they could have control and upper hand on the geopolitics of the Red Sea zone and the Horn of Africa. Moreover, while Eritrea is interested in looting and destruction of Tigray, Abiy and his government are interested in claiming victory, perhaps a vainglorious one, over the TPLF, and then conduct other wars in Benishangul, Oromia, and mobilizing his forces against other mini states that are perceived as recalcitrant and rebellious; wars, thus, will continue in Ethiopia for a relatively long time. If the wars with Benishangul, Oromia, and Sudan continues unabated, the TPLF might get some respite and gather momentum and the Abiy government could reach a vanishing point. History is full of surprises and anything can happen in Ethiopia during the post-war period, and we will have to wait and see.

One more factor I like to add and which I think is relevant to analyzing the Ethiopian conflict and the war on Tigray, has to do with two important insights on the hidden agendas pertaining to Ethiopian resources and aid to authoritarian regimes. In relation to these two themes, I recently came across two interesting titles: 1) “US Businessmen are close to exploiting Ethiopia’s oil plans in a multibillion scheme” by Zekarias Zelalem; and 2) “The Conflict in Ethiopia Calls in to Question Authoritarian Aid” by Nic Cheeseman.

Zekarias explores the hidden agenda to exploit Ethiopian oil reserve, which, apparently was handled and operated by the Ethiopian Mineral, Petroleum and Biofuel Corporation (EMPB) founded in 2016. Zekarias is interested in investigating and exposing one fake corporation by the name Greencomm Technologies, a company located in Virginia, and according to the writer, “Greencomm referred to itself as “a global leader in renewable energy and sustainability on its LinkedIn profile despite there not being any evidence of a single completed project anywhere in the world”. Greencomm may have now signed a contract of $3.6 billion with EMPB, and it is all a secret deal. “Whether or not the Ethiopian government officials are complicit,” says Zekarias, “in ensuring the Greencomm scheme would be a success that cannot be established thus far.4

The war on Tigray would effectively hide the Greencomm scheme and other similar plots that international media outlets would attempt to cover and report, but beyond the grand secret designs, however, it is highly probable that the crude oil in the Ethiopian Somali Regional State could be exploited by Isaias’ Eritrea and other interested parties who participated in the war against Tigray.

The article of Professor Nic Cheeseman is focused on ‘aid on development to authoritarian governments’ who made a difference in transforming their respective societies; he mentions Ethiopia and Rwanda as examples, but there are many other nations that did very well in development under autocratic regimes; the Asian Tigers and China are a very good example of this aid-development-autocratic-regime nexus. In an attempt to extrapolate his thesis, Cheeseman argues, “…Ethiopia and Rwanda achieved impressive success, attracting international praise for reducing poverty and unemployment while consistently securing high economic growth…The gains achieved from 1995 to 2012 under then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi have proved more resistant to caricature but have been no less influential …Ethiopia’s fall from grace is especially important because it has the potential to radically change this situation, making it much harder for international donors to justify sacrificing human rights on the altar of development.”

With respect to ethnic identity in Ethiopia, Cheeseman furthermore argues; “Rather than seeking to enforce one ethnic identity over the others, the EPRDF committed to giving the country’s different communities the freedom and self-respect they had always desired. The government enshrined a right to self-determination in the Ethiopian constitution…The system was sustainable during Meles, whose personal authority and astute political management papered over the cracks. But after his death in 2012, the EPRDF began to come apart at the seams. The rise to power of the current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was a direct product of these tensions”5

Unlike Cheeseman, other many scholars, and myself who see the Ethiopian constitution and federal structure as contributing factors to the self-determination of the Ethiopian nationalities, the present government led by Abiy and his associates in the PP, the miniscule parties that support PP, and the chauvinist elements of the former Derg remnants, who are now serving as advisors to Abiy, view the federal system and the constitution as major impediments to their agenda of dismantling the current systems that guaranteed self-determination. In order to realize their agenda of deliberate reversal of the twenty-seven years gains in self-determination, and that is why they have been working hard in dismantling the Ethiopian social fabric; hence, the internal displacement of millions of Ethiopians in the last two and half years; and now, in order to facilitate the grand agenda of dismantling Ethiopia and its “fall from grace” as Cheeseman aptly put it, they have conducted a major war against Tigray, an Ethiopian Regional State that was relatively peaceful and viable.

Notes:

1.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Ascendance of a New Regime and Contradictory Policies and Measures in Ethiopian Politics” July 4, 2018

www.africanidea.org/Ascendance_Contradictory_measures_Ethiopia.html

2.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Is Ethiopia Heading Toward a One Man Show or One-Party Dictatorship?”, www.africanidea.org/Is_Ethiopia_heading.html  September 22, 2019

3.    Finian Cunningham, “Ethiopia, Breaking the Dam of Western Debt Slavery”, in ‘Strategic Culture’ www.africanidea.org/Is_Ethiopia_heading.html

4.    Zekarias Zelalem, “US Businessmen are close to exploiting Ethiopia’s oil plans in a multi-billion-dollar scheme”, Quartz Africa, December 22, 2020

5.    Nic Cheeseman, “The Conflict in Ethiopia Calls to Question Authoritarian Aid”,

https://carnegieeurope.eu/2020/12/22/conflict-in-ethiopia-calls-into-question-authoritarian-aid-pub-83515

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