An op-ed recently penned by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closes with: “only an Ethiopia at peace, with a government bound by humane norms of conduct, can play a constructive role across the region and beyond.” He goes on to present a misleading account of the genesis of the regional war on Tigray, pointing towards the TPLF ordered attack on the northern command: “No government can tolerate its soldiers and innocent civilians being ambushed and killed in their dozens, as happened at the hands of TPLF last autumn,” he writes.
We emphatically agree with Ahmed’s first proposition. And, despite the federal government’s reaction to Sudanese incursions on the Ethiopian border, I could also easily be convinced that military aggression may warrant a militarized response. However, the statement also prompts the question, has the “rule of law enforcement operation” – a mendacious euphemism used by Ahmed’s administration to describe the regional war on Tigray – been “bound by humane norms of conduct?”
Despite a near region wide communication blackout, credible reports and reporting substantiated by eye witness testimony and gruesome video evidence suggest that “humane norms of conduct” governing warfare, whoever the aggressor, have been brazenly violated. The brunt of the violence of war is being felt by Tigray’s civilian population.
Millions are facing politically induced starvation. Carpet bombing of urban areas and targeted shelling of historic religious and cultural sites has been confirmed. A curfew, enforced by threat of summary execution, is strictly enforced in the capital which has fared better than other towns and cities. In areas under federal government or Eritrean control outside of Mekelle extra-judicial executions, particularly of young males, happen at any given time of day. Massacres such as the ones we now know occurred in Axum and Adigerat are widely believed to have occurred with frightening frequency.
A leaked video of a meeting by the reestablished northern command in which an officer is heard saying with indignation “I understand if women were being raped during the war, but why are they still being raped now that we have taken control of Mekelle?” is insightful in this regard. What was striking about his welcome indignation is its obliviousness; rape is no longer employed as an instrument against combatants let alone civilians. That he’s repulsion to rape is dependent on controlling Mekelle, the supposed end of the conflict, only serves to highlight his acceptance of the act as legitimate instrument of war. He’s unaware that human norms of conduct no longer permit rape and pillage. Looting and burning of family farms, of property as trivial as pots and pans, and of entire factories is occurring on an industrial scale.
There is, as reflected by the article, concern about “ethnic profiling IN Tigray”. There is also concern over ethnic profiling of Tigrayan’s in the rest of Ethiopia. Tigrayan residents of cities like Addis Abebe and Dire Dawa have had their homes searched without warrant, their properties illegally seized and their bank accounts unlawfully frozen. Their purge from the civil service extends to state owned enterprises such has Ethiopian airlines. Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian military numbering in the tens of thousands are being kept in internment camps.
The prime minister goes on to claim his “law enforcement operations” have ‘freed’ the people of Tigray from ‘decades of misrule’ by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. It is wealth accumulated during these “decades of misrule”, public health facilities, public universities along with family farms and private homes that are now being pillaged.
More importantly, it was less than half a year ago that 2.8 million Tigrayan’s took part in elections widely accepted as free and fair voting overwhelmingly the TPLF. In many way’s the impetuous behind Abiy’s so called “law enforcement operation” is a desire to punish not just the TPLF but the people of Tigray for exercising faith in the most fundamental of liberal democratic institutions. The war is in part aimed at indefinitely suspending the political will of the people of Tigray and diminishing it’s democratic space into nothingness.
It should be noted that the federal elections had been postponed twice before the outbreak of COVID. The latest postponement proved most controversial as it effectively extended the term of the executive and the parliament beyond constitutional bounds through “constitutional measures” that have been received by a cross section of Ethiopian society as dubious. Certainly, the disregard shown for safety precautions in pro prosperity political rallies expose the guise of concern for public safety due to the pandemic for the farce it has always been. This war is not aimed at securing and consolidating democratic reforms, it’s aimed at ensuring they never occur.
Although the reform process has failed to deliver on promises of greater democracy it has succeeded in accustoming Ethiopians to crisis. So much so that in a three hour-long address to parliament declaring victory over TPLF, the Prime Minister asked rhetorically “what is 50,000 to us? How many IDPs have we seen during the reform process? 50,000 is breakfast to us, how many have been displaced during the reform process?” With similarly uncouth language, the Prime Minister proudly mused about the nature of the refugees seeking to escape the conflict in Tigray saying “why are no women and children found among the refugees…..?”
It is to the actions of this attitude that many Eritrean refugees previously safely housed in Tigray have fallen victim. The EPRDF and TPLF had widely been praised for their progressive policies towards refugees who were allowed to benefit from public education facilities now burnt or looted.
Despite, in this same address, claiming not a single civilian had been killed during the “rule of law enforcement operation” Abiy admits in his op-ed, “the suffering and deaths that occurred despite our best efforts have caused much distress for me, personally”. This is a significant step forward. Given that “ending the suffering in Tigray and around the country is now my [Abiy Ahmed’s] highest priority,” I hope several more steps forward will quickly be taken.
I second his call for the international community to aid the work of reconstruction, precisely because despite the author’s claims that “operations in Tigray were designed to restore peace and order quickly,” such an outcome has not been achieved. There is neither peace nor order in Tigray.
According to various aid agencies that have spoken publicly on the matter the biggest impediment to the work of humanitarian relief, beyond the active combat situation, is lack of political will and restriction of access from Addis Abeba. While, we should all take seriously the Prime Minister’s concerns regarding the TPLF’s alleged role in hindering aid efforts through alleged targeting of communication lines, we would do well to recall that at a meeting held with the Tigrayan business community, the Abiy Ahmed made widely-reported threats to cut off basic services in retaliation for the TPLF’s refusal to merge and form – along with the other members of the EPRDF – his Prosperity Party. We would also do well to recall that these threats have long since been implemented in other restive areas of the country.
As the Prime Minister notes in his article, the years in which TPLF played a role in federal level politics, it did so as perhaps an overly influential member of EPRDF – a coalition which would have been privy too and culpable in the alleged “torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings”.
Hailemariam Desalegn, Ahmed’s predecessor, said in an interview with DW zone on 24 October 2019, “if you ask about killings the last one and a half years surpass the killings of 6 years that happened in my term…it was not just my government but his [Abiy Ahmed’s], too. Deslaegn initiated the neoliberal reform process now championed by the Ethiopian government before resigning due to the “roughly five years” in which “popular challenges to the regime multiplied… leading to my [Abiy Ahmed’s] election in April 2018 as leader of the then-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front”. Since Hailemariam made this statement, the gravity of the humanitarian crisis, not only in Tigray but all over Ethiopia, has gone on unabated and grown exponentially. In any case, who to blame and by how much has little bearing on whether the war at hand has been “bound by human norms of conduct”?
We agree with the Prime Minister that the peace deal with Eritrea “resolved a violent two-decade-old stalemate…its citizens, and those in my(Abiy Ahmed’s) country residing along the border, can now live without the shadow of war hanging over them.” War no longer hangs over them; it rapes, it pillages, its starves, it terrorizes and kills them. The Prime Minister’s citizens along the border are experiencing violence that proves a peace deal a war pact unbound by “human norms of conduct”.
The narrative on the supposed “re-setting” of relations with Ethiopia’s neighbors is fueled by similar levels of delusion and divorce from reality.
By all accounts, relations between Ethiopia and Sudan cannot currently be described as pleasant. Differences over what ‘stabilizing’ Somalia means is looking more and more likely to create greater tensions between Addis Abeba and Nairobi.
It’s telling that both infrastructure projects Abiy cites as success stories of his administration policies towards regional integration- the Addis Abeba-Nairobi-Mombasa corridor, and the G.E.R.D. – were initiated by a Meles Zenawi led EPRDF.
Only an Ethiopia at peace, with a government bound by humane norms of conduct, can play a constructive role across the Horn of Africa and beyond. It is our hope that all belligerents are determined to work with our neighbors and the international community to deliver on this promise.