BAHRU ZEWDE: Truth is a major casualty of the war in Northern Ethiopia
Seeds of the conflict now ravaging the African state were planted years before Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power
The war in northern Ethiopia is now just over a year long. It has resulted in many casualties. One of them is truth. It is not at all helpful to draw facile parallels with Afghanistan, for instance. Comparisons are risky undertakings under the best of circumstances. They become downright perilous when an event that has already run its course is compared with one that is still unfolding.
The fall of Kabul came in the wake of the precipitative withdrawal of the US troops that had been buttressing the Afghan forces. There are no such foreign forces supporting the regime in Addis Ababa. There was little or no Afghan resistance to the advance of the Taliban. In a move reminiscent of the mass mobilisation against Somali aggression in 1977 and the Badme war with Eritrea in 1998, Ethiopians stand united behind the federal government.
The impasse in which Ethiopia now finds itself is traceable to at least 1975, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was created. It transformed itself into the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1988, some three years before it reached the capital. But, throughout its tenure (1991-2018) the TPLF’s hegemonic position was uncontested. Not only did it enjoy political hegemony, but it also controlled the economy through the multiple party-affiliated businesses that sprouted under its aegis.
In 2016, the country was rocked by popular protests in Oromia, Amhara and Southern regions. After failing to contain them with a series of state of emergency proclamations, the incumbent prime minister, Haile Mariam Desalegn, had to resign and the stage was set for new elections for the leadership.
Foreign policy analyst Peter Fabricius recently wrote that the more popular Lemma Megersa should have been chosen for the post rather than Abiy Ahmed. To begin with, an important precondition of being considered for election was membership of the House of Peoples Representatives. Lemma was not a member; Abiy was.
Second, Lemma actually relinquished his position as chair of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) to Abiy, who was then deputy chair, to ensure the post was filled by the OPDO.
Third, Abiy was not considered “a safer pair of hands” at all. In fact, the TPLF did not want Abiy; it preferred the current deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonnen, representing the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). When Demeke Mekonnen withdrew his candidacy and ANDM went over to the side of Abiy the whole TPLF strategy collapsed and Abiy was elected.
Now that Abiy has become an international pariah, he is even denied credit for the reforms that he instituted. Yet it was under Abiy that previously banned organisations like the OLF and Ginbot 7 were unbanned. Likewise, a respectable National Election Board was established, a human rights commission that has now gained international respect set up, and the 2009 legislation that had shackled it was replaced by a more enabling law.
The conflict with the TPLF could be said to have started the very day Abiy made his inaugural speech. Loaded with pan-Ethiopian rhetoric, it flew directly against the discourse of ethnic diversity that had been the dominant paradigm under EPRDF. The TPLF leaders thereafter barricaded themselves in their Mekele stronghold and started building their own force for what they believed was the inevitable showdown. Various efforts to mediate between the two parties came to naught.
In effect, the TPLF created a state within a state. This became all the more manifest when it went ahead and held its own regional elections, defying the ruling of the National Election Board to postpone the scheduled general elections because of Covid-19. This was not a pretext, as some have argued. Many other countries have postponed elections for the same reason.
It has now become abundantly clear that the war in Tigray started when TPLF forces gruesomely attacked their non-Tigrayan comrades in the Northern Command on the night of November 3 2020 and appropriated the sophisticated weaponry of the government’s elite division. TPLF officials are on record bragging about this “lightning strike”.
All wars are brutal. This one is no exception. As the recently released joint report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and OHCHR shows, all parties are guilty of atrocities of various hues and colours. Last June, the federal government opened a window of opportunity to stop the carnage and come to the negotiating table when it declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its forces. Rather than reciprocating, TPLF opened an offensive into the Amhara and Afar regions. The human tragedy that had afflicted Tigray in the previous months has now been replicated manifold.
From Abiymania to Abiyphobia
Most news reports and analyses have focused on the personality of Abiy, as if this war is between him and the TPLF! As if he does not have the support of the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians. And the Nobel peace prize he won in 2019 has been a convenient weapon to demonise him. What can be more catchy than a Nobel laureate waging war? As if winning that prize entails the proverbial turning of the other cheek.
The Nobel committee has reiterated that it does not have the habit of revoking prizes it has awarded. Second, it is an underestimation of the person’s character and determination to imagine that he would cherish the prize more than his country’s security.
• Zewde, an emeritus professor of history at Addis Ababa University, is a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. He is author several books on Ethiopian history, notably “A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991".
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.