By Gebrekirstos Gebremeskel for Ethiopia-insight
Tigray’s enemies all have different motivations, but they share a common objective.
On 3 November, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced, on Facebook, that his government has started a military intervention in Tigray, a member state of the Ethiopian federation. For a month and a half, a combination of Amhara forces and the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries have been attacking Tigray on multiple fronts.
Abiy alleged the cause for the war was Tigray’s strike on military bases in the region. Yet his recent “victory speech” to the expired parliament detailed preparations for war that began more than two years ago.
In response to his own question of “some people ask, why was the [military] measure not taken earlier, why this late?”, he said “one who understands the enemy’s capacity and regional alignment of forces does not ask this question,” explaining the federal government was not in a position to act earlier.
Additionally, Fikre Tolossa, a confidante of the premier, confirmed in a 7 November post that Abiy had long planned to attack Tigray. Fikre says he met Abiy a year ago and asked him why he was not taking measures against the TPLF. Abiy’s response was partly that Ethiopia did not have equal military capacity at that moment. In parliament, Abiy revealed how the federal military was recently strengthened, including adding drone capacity, and done covertly so that Tigray’s leaders were not aware.
Since the war began, heavy bombardment and shelling has rained down on Tigrayan cities. The region is being attacked on many fronts by the Ethiopian National Defense Force, the Eritrean military, Amhara security forces and militia, and special forces from Afar and other regions. There has been massive destruction of lives and property. Eritrean and Amhara elements have engaged in widespread pillaging and looting, including, according to multiple reports, prized cultural and religious artifacts.
Tigray is almost completely sealed off. Just before the war, internet, telephone and electricity lines to Tigray were cut by the federal government. It is also blockaded by road and air. All banks have been closed.
Tigrayans outside Tigray are being profiled and dismissed from their jobs. Tigrayans have been fired from the military, police, and other institutions, and remain interned in camps. All bank accounts opened in Tigray have been frozen.
Tigrayans have also been effectively barred from flying inside and outside the country. Even Tigrayans working in international organizations are not spared. Tigrayan peacekeepers in Somalia and South Sudan have been victims. Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the WHO, has also been targeted.
Journalists are not allowed to report from Tigray. There is no humanitarian corridor, only an agreement for aid agencies to provide assistance in areas the federal government controls. Before hostilities, Tigray had an aid-dependent population of around one million. Since the war, reports indicate another one million have been displaced.
More than 50,000 Tigrayans have fled to Sudan after the Amhara factions occupied western Tigray. If it were not for the blocking of fleeing Tigrayans by invading forces, the number would be higher. Eyewitnesses and Tigray’s government have reported massacres and evictions of Tigrayans, probably far outnumbering the well-publicized killings in Mai Kadra.
In western Tigray, Amhara administrators have been installed. The area is effectively being incorporated into the neighboring region. Huge billboards on towns proclaim the towns as such. The same has also been done in southern Tigray. The Eritrean army has hoisted Eritrean flags deep in Tigrayans areas, especially in areas surrounding Sheraro.
In a 4 December statement, Tigray’s government defined the war as an attempt to exterminate the Tigrayan people. That is no exaggeration—the war is on Tigray and Tigrayans. This reality may come as a surprise to those fixated on alleged Tigrayan minority rule during the federal era, but it does not to Tigrayans, and nor should it be to those who know Ethiopian history.
Competing national narratives
What are the historical and ideological causes and new developments and events that have led to this war on Tigray, and what are the aims?
Tigray is the origin of almost everything held dear by the Amhara national narrative for Ethiopia: 3,000 years of uninterrupted statehood, the Axumite and pre-Aksumite civilizations, the Ethiopic (Ge’ez) script, the entry point for both Christianity and Islam, the religious music of St. Yared, the land of the First Hijra, the many archeological sites and monasteries, the vast Ge’ez literature, and the battle of Adwa, to name some.
This history is, counterintuitively, a source of chronic political problems, both in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Prior to colonialism, Tigray was a hub of politics and power in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with, towards the end, Mekelle as the main political center. Back then both of them were known as Abyssinia. For a long time, Tigray, also as in the name of the kingdom of Aksum, has been a constant focus of political constituencies in today’s Eritrea and Ethiopia.
About Tigray’s central and constant presence, historian Richard Reid says “Tigray/Abyssinia is always the reference point, the entity however difficult to define in itself from which others are either ‘independent’ or to which they pay ‘tribute’. It is the shadowy imperium whose presence is constant, if more in the mind than in reality”. Tigray, by the force of its history and heritage, has been an integral part of the politics of Ethiopian and Eritrean nationalisms, even when it is not asserting itself.
After the martyrdom of Emperor Yohannes IV at the battle of Metema while fighting the Mahdist invasion, colonial Italy and an Ethiopian internal power struggle split this constantly existing reference point and political center into two: today’s Ethiopian Tigray and the Tigrinya-speaking part of Eritrea. This sundering was a political cardinal sin that continues to haunt Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Italians were in search of a foothold in the area, and King Menelik of Shewa made a secret deal with them, inviting them to take more territory in order to divide Tigray and blockade Tigray proper from having access to arms. Tigray was, like now, attacked by allied Italian Eritrea and Menelik’s Amhara Ethiopia. At the expense of Tigray, two power centers emerged: Asmara of Italian Eritrea and Addis Abeba of King Menelik of Shewa.
The two centers imagined and embarked on two different nation-building projects that are, albeit differently, related to the Tigray/Aksum civilization.
The project centered in Asmara wanted to create a new national identity completely severed from Tigray/Aksum. The other one centered in Addis Ababa wanted to appropriate the Tigrayan/Aksum history as an Amhara history and to assimilate or eliminate the Tigrayan people. It envisioned an Amharized, centralized Ethiopia where Amharas are its legitimate rulers and to which everyone else should melt into. This was a departure from previous imperial Ethiopia, Niguse-negest—the king of kings—which was a loose empire with an emperor and different kings that pay tribute to the emperor but have almost all other power within their kingdom.
In an effort to boost these two national projects and to prevent Tigray’s rise, both Italian Eritrea and the new Amhara Ethiopia employed tactics to weaken and impoverish the region. The Tigrayan elite were blockaded and eliminated via arrests and by making them fight each other. Tigray was subjugated, impoverished, excluded and, eventually, neglected.
Over the years, as a result of the deliberate impoverishment and neglect and subsequent emigration, Tigrayans came to be seen as paupers and were subjected to derogatory names in both countries. In Eritrea, Agame, the name of the Eastern Tigray area, was changed into a derogatory word to refer to all Tigrayans. Tigrayans were also portrayed as treacherous and perfidious to the extent that a zigzag road was named Libi-Tigray (‘the heart of Tigray’) and it is still in use today. In Amharic Ethiopia, such derogatory terms as locusts, lice-infested, beggars, banda, and many more, were used to refer to Tigrayans, and are still employed today.
Oppression, rebellions, and punishments
At the end of the 19th Century, in Emperor Menelik’s Ethiopia, oppression and destruction befell Tigray.
Contemporary historian Fisseha Abiye Ezgi wrote that “every man they could find was either slaughtered or his genitals cut off”. He adds “the Shewan soldiers looted and demolished houses or set them on fire. They reduced Enderta into non-existence”. Tigrayans were scattered in all directions. Gebrehiwet Baykedagne, another Tigrayan political economist of the time described the conditions of Tigrayans thus: “There are hardly any Tigrayan youth left in their birth place, Tigray. Like a swarm of bees without their queen, they are aimlessly scattered in four corners of the earth”.
Ever since the formation of Menelik’s Ethiopia centered in Shewa, Tigray has been seen as a threat, and the solution has been to impoverish and repress it.
Speaking of this, Dr. Solomon Inquay in his book “Tigrai: The Agony and Ecstasy” writes about the underlying philosophy of Shewa in relation to Tigray “a rich and prosperous Tigray is ungovernable and a threat to Shewan supremacy…whoever wants to rule Tigray should ensure that it remains poor and begging”. This thinking still thrives, making some Ethiopians oppose development projects in Tigray, and is one of the main reasons for the war on Tigray today.
Driven by the unbearable oppression and poverty in Menelik’s Ethiopia and attracted by the booming colonial economy, many Tigrayans fled to Italian Eritrea where they were also treated as inferior by Italians and their collaborators in order to help create a feeling of “privilege” among the Tigrayans in Italian Eritrea, as opposed to the Tigrayans coming from Tigray proper.
The reality of superior economic development in Italian Eritrea, the poverty of Tigrayans, and thus their migration for menial jobs to Italian Eritrea, eventually led to a belief of superiority among Eritreans and a flourishing of dehumanizing and degrading stereotypes against Tigrayans.
In Amharic Ethiopia, Tigrayans were treated even worse, which helped create Amhara supremacy. Just to give an example of the demonization of Tigrayans in Menelik II’s Ethiopia, his chronicler, Afewerk Gebreyesus, in his book “ዳግማዊ ምንይልክ (Menelik II),” wrote “[when Tigrayans speak] in their language which lacerates the throat, pregnant women undergo miscarriage while the breast of women who just had delivery dries out.”
In 1943, Tigrayans rose in rebellion, known as The First Weyanne, against Emperor Haile Selassie, Menelik’s eventual successor. The main cause was the abrogation of Tigray’s autonomous status and imposition of direct rule from Shewa (Addis). Tigrayans demanded an end to oppression and a reinstatement of self-rule.
Haile Selassie, with the help of the British Royal Airforce, bombed Tigray into submission. Among the areas heavily bombed is Mekelle market. This is memorialized by the unique buildings known as Dif’o in Mekelle’s Qedamay Weyane area, which was then the market area.
As punishment, the Ethiopian army was let loose on the people resulting in vindictive mass massacres, pillaging and looting. This was fed by the paranoid fear that, if not weakened, Tigray would rise to supremacy again and rule the country. As result, Tigrayan lands were taken away and given to the Emperor’s favorite nobles and to the neighboring regions of Wollo and Gondar. The ongoing war, the measures being taken, and the annexation of Tigrayan land recalls this past era.
Infrastructure left by Italians was dismantled and taken to Shewa—just as Isaias Afewerki’s stormtroopers are carrying back looted Tigrayan equipment to Eritrea today.
For instance, in the 1940s, power generators supplying electricity to Adwa, Selekleka and Adigrat were dismantled and taken to Addis. The towns had to wait decades before they could get electricity access. Almost all schools in Tigray were also closed. Tigrinya was forbidden even between two Tigrayans conducting any business.
The oppression and grievances eventually gave birth, in 1975, to the second Weyanne, a prolonged struggle led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF formed a tactical alliance with the then Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and waged a guerrilla war against the communist junta of Mengistu Hailemariam, the successor to Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime. The EPLF was fighting for independence from Ethiopia. The TPLF eventually formed a strategic alliance with other political groups and founded the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1988.
The Ethiopian civil war and natural disasters hit northern Ethiopia hard.
In the infamous 1984-5 famine, Tigray was the center of the crisis and the communist junta denied the humanitarian aid the kind-hearted citizens of the world sent to the famine-stricken people. In fact, in the Tigrayan people’s difficult time, the communist junta saw an opportunity to exterminate them once and for all. It launched a murderous campaign it phrased “to kill all the fish, it was necessary to drain the sea”—the sea being the Tigrayan people and the fish the TPLF fighters.
Under this, Tigrayans were uprooted from their villages, rounded up in markets and humanitarian aid centers, and resettled in scattered areas in the south. The rest were indiscriminately massacred and their villages and towns bombarded. Tigrayans tried to escape by fleeing to Sudan where they could receive aid. The communist junta bombed the trekking masses wherever and whenever it saw them.
A particularly painful collective memory for Tigrayans is that the Isaias Afewerki-led EPLF collaborated in the communist junta’s effort to exterminate Tigrayans. It blocked the route to Sudan that Tigrayans were using to escape the famine and civil war and to receive humanitarian assistance in Sudan.
Now, federal soldiers and Amhara militia block the way to Sudan once again as desperate Tigrayans flee.
After 17 years of bitter armed struggle, the communist junta was overthrown. In 1991, Eritrea became de facto independent and the EPRDF took power in Addis Ababa and ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until Abiy dissolved it in 2019 to form the Prosperity Party that now rules without having faced the electorate.
When the EPRDF took power, it dissolved the 100-year-old unitary state and adopted a federal arrangement where dominant nations have their own regions, use their own languages, make their own policy and manage their own security. It was a direct response to Ethiopia’s tyrannical past. The regions also have constitutionally guaranteed rights of self-determination up to secession. In this federal configuration, Tigray became a regional state.
This became a threat for the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ, what the EPLF morphed itself into) and the Amhara. Not only was the reemergence of a power center once considered dead a reversal of what had been achieved, but also it was seen as a threat to the nation-building visions of Amhara Ethiopia and the Italian-inspired Eritrea.
For Eritrea, which strives to build on the Italian-initiated project of constructing a brand new Eritrean identity that is severed from its surrounding, the Ethiopian federal arrangement in general and the reemergence of Tigray next door pose a serious threat that could inspire similar sentiments in Eritrea.
An essential element of this identity is that it is created and maintained by contrasting the ‘civilized, superior and rich’ Eritrean against the ‘backward, inferior and destitute’ Tigrayan in particular and Ethiopian in general. A prosperous and powerful Tigray is especially feared as it pulls the rug out from under this identity and might draw the Tigrayans of Eritrea to it by the force of identity and history. This was one of the causes for the Ethio-Eritrea war of 1998-2000.
For the Amhara, who see Ethiopia as their sole property, the formation of federal states with their own languages was seen as a reversal of a century-old Amharization of Ethiopia. The mere reemergence of Tigray posed a threat to the Amhara national narrative that relies on appropriating Tigrayan history and heritage.
The mere existence and flourishing of Tigray and Tigrayans contradict the national Amhara narrative and creates insecurity among the Amhara elite. As the TPLF was the oldest and dominant force behind the formation of the EPRDF, both the Amhara and the PFDJ saw the TPLF and Tigray as a mortal enemy. But because of the enmity between them, it took them decades to form an alliance against Tigray.
Now—doubtless temporarily—that has been achieved.
The coming of Abiy Ahmed
Abiy came to power on the back of mainly anti-TPLF waves of protests by Oromo and Amhara against what they viewed as minority Tigrayan dominance. While the TPLF may indeed have held a disproportionate vote share in EPRDF organs, this was in part to counteract the tyrannical majoritarian impulses now on display. The minority-rule narrative was first preached consistently by PFDJ, and later through Eritrea-funded Amhara-focused diaspora media, of which Ethiopian Review website and ESAT were the main ones.
Although the Oromo struggle had at its roots just and legitimate questions, towards the end, and out of a desire to forge alliance with the Amhara, it largely morphed into an anti-TPLF campaign that involved plenty of violent anti-Tigrayan discrimination. While the allegations that Tigrayan securocrats held sway at the federal level were true enough, those of political and economic hegemony were bogus, and of corruption wildly exaggerated. Meanwhile, while suffocating, the ERPDF approach achieved impressive development outcomes, similar to some East Asian state-led models.
The ultimate alliance of convenience, nicknamed ‘Oromara’, largely organized by the Oromo and Amhara factions of the EPRDF, led Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign and brought Abiy to the helm of power after some horse-trading within the coalition. With the EPRDF’s authoritarian development model in need of regenerating, Abiy was mandated by the coalition to oversee a transition to enhanced democracy.
It is important to note that Abiy was not elected by the Ethiopian people, but by the EPRDF, the very coalition party in which, prior to assuming the premiership, he served as a minister and which, after assuming the premiership, he accused of committing terrorism on the Ethiopian people.
Most of the TPLF, tired of the accusation of minority dominance, grudgingly agreed to the change of leadership, especially confident that the Oromo questions were, after all, not against the constitutional order that the TPLF holds sacrosanct, and believing in the promises made to it.
According to Jawar Mohammed, a driving force of the Oromo protest movement, the TPLF was promised by “protest leaders and reformists” that it will not be targeted for “revenge, be it in the form of prosecution or a punitive redistribution of wealth (through nationalization, confiscation, judicial seizures, or other processes).”
That promise was betrayed—and that betrayal was felt so bitterly by the TPLF.
Upon assuming power, Abiy showed no desire to implement the EPRDF reform program nor to articulate any other roadmap for that matter. He had his own plan: consolidation of power to become Ethiopia’s “seventh king”, to use his own term, that he claims his mother envisioned and relayed to him when he was seven years old.
Riding on a wave of populist anti-Tigrayan sentiment, he therefore saw the experienced TPLF leaders as threats to his power. He immediately started tarnishing the EPRDF’s legacy, by then synonymous with TPLF legacy in many Ethiopian eyes. He invited and befriended anybody whom he thought was his enemy’s enemy: Eritrea, Ginbot 7, and other opposition groups from the diaspora. He also worked hard to win foreign support by taking actions that appealed to international audiences, such as making his cabinet half women.
He continued to concentrate power around himself, to portray the TPLF and thus Tigrayans as corrupt and evil, their rule as “27 years of darkness”. He also started to eliminate opponents, eventually even those who were once his closest allies, such as Lemma Megerssa.
Tigrayans saw where he was going—autocratic rule—but did not openly oppose Abiy, hoping the trajectory would change. But the premier’s selective targeting of Tigrayans for corruption and abuse charges, and his continuous implicating of Tigrayans in anything negative, was not received well by Tigrayans.
Some important Abiy actions were especially bitterly felt by Tigrayans:
1) Targeting of Tigrayans
In the run-up to the selection of Abiy, Tigrayans were tired of accusations, and when Abiy came to power, they thought they would be spared. That is why he was well-received in Tigray. They started to heave a collective sigh of relief, but that was premature. The reverse happened.
Anti-Tigrayan propaganda and rhetoric grew and became normalized in media and official forums. The TPLF, or shadowy forces tied to it, were blamed for almost every violent incident and problem the country faced, helping to allow Amhara and Oromo rivals to keep focused on a common enemy, and casting suspicion on Tigrayans as a whole
2) Sidelining Tigray in the Eritrea ‘peace deal’
Tigray, which shares the longest border with Eritrea, which has the deepest wounds from the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrea war, and which is one of the main actors of the 1998-2000 war (in many ways, the Ethio-Eritrea war of 1998-2000 was a Tigray-Eritrea war) was completely sidelined from the Ethio-Eritrea peace of Abiy and Isaias. As if to add salt to the wound, when Abiy was touring the U.S, he was asked by a Tigrayan to involve Tigray and Tigrayans in the peace process, to which he responded by insincerely misrepresenting the question as rejecting his authority and remarking that would be “village politics”.
Together with his other actions and words in his stateside tour, such as “27 years of darkness”, singling out Tigrayans and angrily reprimanding them for asking questions, accusing them of asking questions that were not their own, and implicating Tigrayans in crimes and several denigrating references to Tigrayan personalities held as martyrs and heroes by Tigrayans, this “village” reference to Tigray was felt strongly among Tigrayans. Adding to this, Isaias’ open denigration and insults for TPLF (such as ‘game over’ and ‘clique’) and its legacy, Tigrayans saw the rapprochement with Eritrea not as a “peace deal”, but as an alliance against them.
3) The dissolution of EPRDF and formation of Prosperity Party
The manner and speed with which Abiy rushed to dissolve the EPRDF and form the Prosperity Party was astounding. Its formation was the main step towards concentrating power around himself. With that, he de facto appoints and dismisses the presidents of the regional states and any other top official. No Ethiopian legal procedure was followed in the dissolution of the EPRDF, and the formation of the Prosperity Party did not even fulfil legal requirements. Although the TPLF raised these points, there were no other major forces that backed it.
The TPLF refused to join the new party. The TPLF saw it as illegal, having no right to rule since it was a new party with a new ideology. But since the election that Abiy promised to make free and fair was approaching, the TPLF decided not to make a big fuss, other than making its position known.
Upon TPLF’s refusal to join, Abiy reacted by dismissing any remaining TPLF members from his cabinet and other federal posts, making Tigray without senior representation in the federal government. The TPLF, again, showed restraint and called for a modus vivendi, but Abiy did not heed them. The Prosperity Party was also widely opposed in Oromia, even by his hitherto closest ally, Lemma.
4) Election postponement and term extensions
Abiy has shown on several occasions that election was neither mandatory nor necessary. On 10 June 2019 responding to questions in Aksum, Abiy said “election is not mandatory. There are countries that have not had elections for 20 or 30 years”. This reminded Tigrayans of Eritrea and of Isaias’s response “what elections? … we will wait for three, four decades …” in response to Al Jazeera’s “when are elections going to be held in Eritrea?”. Given the Isaias-Abiy cosiness, Abiy’s mother’s vision of the seventh king, and Isaias’s declaration that he is as much a stakeholder in Ethiopia’s reform as Ethiopians, and that Eritrea won’t watch idly if the reform is sabotaged, Abiy’s lack of commitment to elections was not well-received, not least in Tigray.
Elections were customarily and also for practical reasons always held in May, months before the expiry of the government’s term. The electoral board handpicked by Abiy, who realized his new Prosperity Party had no chance of winning the election and who had been in search of excuses not to hold elections, postponed the election to August, to the middle of the rainy season.
Then came COVID-19, and Abiy immediately grabbed the chance and the board postponed the election again. Not only was a government extending its own terms of office problematic, and the mechanism by which it did so constitutionally dubious, but also it crossed a constitutional mandate of the regional states when it also extended the term of office of the state councils. Tigray’s government saw this as a clear attempt to grab power unconstitutionally.
The act was interpreted by Tigrayans as making regional legislatures and leadership illegitimate and dependent on the federal executive. Tigrayans thought, with such a legitimacy deficit, they had no means to fight Abiy’s march to dismantle the federal constitutional order and the establishment of a one-man rule that Tigrayans were sure he strived for.
Tigray’s election and the war on Tigray
After calls by the TPLF and other political parties for inclusive dialogue about the election postponement were ignored, Tigray decided to conduct its own election for its regional parliament. Note, this election does not concern itself with Tigray’s representatives to the federal houses. It requested the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia to oversee and organize the election, to which the answer was ‘no, you are not allowed to do that’. The board members were all appointed by Abiy and any of their major decisions were what Abiy had already hinted would be done.
For instance, before the board’s decision to postpone, Abiy suggested that the election would be extended due to COVID-19. After the subsequent decision, Abiy tried, clumsily and revealingly, to explain that he did not force the board’s decision. Tigray then established its own Election Commission and registered political parties and had an election, which the TPLF, unsurprisingly, won.
On 7 May when addressing Tigray’s preparations for election, Abiy gave away his belligerent intention when he said “in order for politicians to assume power children shall not perish, mothers shall not wail, houses shall not be destroyed and people shall not be displaced”.
Abiy had through the illegitimate—on account of its expired term of office—House of Federation labeled the Tigray election as “null and void” and laid down “legal” grounds for military intervention in the future. Tigray, upon forming the new government, repeated what it had been warning for a long time: that it does not recognize Abiy’s government as legitimate any longer.
Abiy retaliated by trying to redirect Tigray’s budget, and excluding Tigray from COVID-19 protection and locust prevention tools and funds. Abiy, in preparation for his aggression on Tigray, appointed to the Northern Command stationed in Tigray a general with an experience of toppling militarily the regional government of Somali.
Tigray, consistent with its position, said Abiy had no legitimate authority for appointing generals and restructuring the military and informed the general and his deputies not to come to the region. That stung Abiy. Simultaneously, he and Isaias had been preparing for their war on Tigray. Isaias issued press releases where he repeatedly denigrated the TPLF and Tigray.
In his Machiavelli-type Amharic book, “The Throne and the Stirrup”, Abiy wrote “hounding the enemy is temporarily useful. But an enemy that is not completely crushed such that it won’t rise again will come back to attack. It is therefore important to wait for an opportune time, swoop on the enemy and dash its dreams”. And exactly when the world was focused on the U.S. election, Abiy and Isaias mobilized to perform that act on Tigray. Tigray, in conjunction with Tigrayan military officers stationed in the region, foiled their plan and we are now in a conflict that is a month and half old, and set to continue.
Although one can think of the cover of the U.S. election as an opportune moment for starting the war on Tigray, there may be a more sinister reason for the timing.
Tigray was affected by COVID-19, hard hit by desert locust invasion and it was denied COVID-19 prevention tools, locust-chemical spraying drones and planes, and financial help. Amhara areas bordering Tigray were sprayed with anti-locust chemicals, but even a drone sent by diaspora Tigrayans to help the fight against locusts remained withheld at federal customs warehouses in Addis Ababa.
After this is the Tigrayan harvest time for what is left off from the locust invasion. It is the time when the vast majority of Tigrayans work hard to collect their food for the rest of the year. It is exactly at this time that the war was started. Crops are now not only left to rot, but they are purposely destroyed by the invading forces. The main commercial sesame producing western Tigray is devastated. This is in line with the idea of impoverishing and devastating Tigray.
The genocidal undercurrents
The genocidal undercurrents that power the war go back centuries.
There is a long history of anti-Tigrayan hate and preaching in Amharic and also in Eritrea, especially from the fall of Tigray as a political center. A case in point is the Menelik chronicler’s denigration of Tigrayans we mentioned above. With time, the intensity of anti-Tigrayan hate and preaching grew.
Haile Selassie and Mengistu used to denigrate Tigrayans as the cause for the deterioration of Ethiopia’s international image. Mengistu once said: “It is because of the hunger and famine that comes from this region [Tigray] that we are called poor and hungry; there is no poverty in the rest of the country”.
We also find hate against Tigrayans in religious books and the hagiography of Ethiopian saints, in articles by influential people, in political party programs and slogans. For instance, professor Tilahun Yilma likens Tigrayans to a cancer that needs to be removed, and openly calls for their deportation from Ethiopia.
Professor Getachew Haile likens EPRDF rule—he calls it Tigrayan rule—to colonialism. He says “…as the British cannot accept Irish rule, the Iraqi would not swallow Kurdish rule, or the Israeli cannot fathom Palestinian rule, neither would the Amharas tolerate a Tigrayan rule”. Amhara hate for Tigrayans is intense due to historical power rivalry, but every other Ethiopian ethnicity and Africans in general are targets of Amhara contempt and denigrations.
From political parties, we can mention Ethiopian Patriotic Front which has a repulsive anti-Tigrayan message in its political program published on 8 May 1994. In the program, the party characterizes Tigrayans as traitors, and frames its struggle as being against the “disgraceful” Tigrayan ethnicity. (Often the TPLF’s 1974 manifesto is called “anti-Amhara”, but that referred only to the “Amhara ruling class” oppressing Tigray and other nations in Ethiopia).
It further details that it was wrong to separate the TPLF and the Tigrayan people, and that the aim of its struggle was to remove the Tigrayan people from Ethiopia. It also said that Ethiopians who believe in the aim of the struggle, that have no Tigrayan blood and who have no marriage ties with Tigrayans can be a member or supporter of the party.
Similar anti-Tigrayan sentiments were displayed by the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party during the 2005 election demonstrations and slogans. An infamous slogan of the time was “[A] Tigrayan to Mekelle, his property to the city administration” which calls for confiscation of Tigrayan properties and summary deportation of Tigrayan to Mekelle. There were also calls to ostracize Tigrayans. Ethiopian Patriotic Front eventually merged with Berhanu Nega’s Ginbot 7 which itself morphed into the current EZEMA, a party close to Abiy. Ginbot 7 was formed by remnants of the CUD after the 2005 election.
In recent decades, Tigrayans were likened to the Jews of Germany and calls for “Ethiopians” to take lessons from “Nazi Germany’s heroic extermination techniques” have been made. Of special relevance here were Eskinder Nega’s now defunct newspaper, Asqual, and ESAT, a 10-year-old Amhara diaspora satellite television channel.
Eskinder’s Asqual, under a column “ወግድ ይሁዳ (“exterminate the Jew”) which ran for more than a year, instigated Ethiopians to do what Nazi Germany did to their troublesome minority. ESAT, once a fringe diaspora anti-Tigray hate media funded by Isaias and Egypt, is now prominent in Abiy’s Ethiopia. ESAT has, since its founding, preached anti-Tigray hate.
On 15 February 2019, members of ESAT were welcomed to Ethiopia, as heroes, with fanfare at Bole Airport and at the Millennium Hall and by high-profile government officials. Among the high government officials are the deputy prime minister Demeke Mekonen who received them at his office, and the minister of tourism Hirut Kassaw. Abiy, in a parliament session, honored ESAT’s prominent member, Sisay Agena, as exemplary journalists. ESAT now gets its funding from Abiy’s government, works with both Isaias and Abiy, and is one of the media through which Abiy and Isaias disclose their intentions and plans.
The joint Ethiopian and Eritrean military aggression against Tigray was first floated and recommended by ESAT in their 1 July ‘Eltetawi program. The video was shared by the Isaias-affiliated Eritrean Press with the message “this is inevitable; TPLF is an Eritrean agenda”. ESAT has on several programs called for measures to disrupt and weaken Tigray. On its 2 October ‘Eletawi’ program, it called on the Abiy government to disrupt the infrastructure of banking, electricity, internet, telephone, and salary payments in Tigray.
On its 7 October “Eletawi” program, ESAT called for closing Tigrayan businesses and Tigrayan bank accounts and specifically said “the most important point is that the federal government must take actions that disrupt the livelihood of the Tigrayan people”, thus preparing them psychologically for new rulers. A couple of weeks after these calls and recommendations, the war on Tigray was launched, and every recommendation has been adopted.
Abiy is in a loose network of the people that were and are behind ESAT. For instance, the founder of ESAT, former chairman of Ginbot 7 Berhanu is now Abiy’s friend and advisor and a leader of EZEMA, the successor party to Ginbot 7 that has happily cheered the war on Tigray. According to Andargachew Tsige, Ginbot 7’s secretary-general, he provided the undisclosed roadmap that Abiy supposedly follows. This would also probably mean Isaias’s roadmap, as Ginbot 7 was based in and supported by Eritrea.
Abiy himself has added fuel to the burning hate preached by ESAT.
Speaking in code words and in the pretext of attacking TPLF, Abiy has dehumanized Tigrayans on several occasions. A few months after assuming the premiership, Abiy spoke in code words to refer to Tigrayans saying “የቀን ጅቦች (daylight hyenas)”, and “ፀጉረ ልውጥ (unfamiliar others)”, two dehumanizing and hate-laden expressions in the Ethiopian context. Although he did not explicitly say Tigrayans, everyone understood who he was referring to, and there were attacks on Tigrayans, especially in Amhara.
In 2017, when Amhara and Oromo protests were intense and Gondar was festering with genocidal anti-Tigrayan sentiments, ESAT broadcast what it claimed was a message it received from Gondar and which called for the 95 percent of Ethiopians to exterminate the 5 percent [Tigrayans].
The message said the struggle was not between an oppressive government and an oppressed people, but between an ethnic group that wants to rule and the rest of oppressed Ethiopians. It recommended “one way to remove a stinky fish from the sea was to dry the sea in order to remove the fish”. The sea is a reference to the people of Tigray and the fish is to the Tigrayan politicians.
As observed above, this expression was used by Mengistu when he was fighting the TPLF.
As part of his strategy, the 1984 famine was seen as an opportunity. Denial of humanitarian assistance and indiscriminate massacre and bombing was used to take advantage of the opportunity the famine created. A prominent example is the bombardment of the market town Hawzen in 1988 on market day, killing more than 2,500 innocent civilians. Now, Hawzen is under attack again.
But it is not just ESAT. All state media attack TPLF and Tigrayans to the extent that Tigrayans have stopped being shocked.
One documentary on human-rights violations in the past 27 years, broadcast on all TV stations, portrayed Tigrinya speakers as criminals and corrupt worthy of ostracism and persecution. Supposed victims were made to explicitly attribute horrible crimes to Tigrayans by deliberately mentioning a rehearsed “Tigrinya speakers” as the perpetrators of the crimes. By this, the crimes were attributed to all Tigrayans, as opposed to individuals who have names. This caused massive anti-Tigrayan sentiment and Tigrayans were made targets of hate by other Ethiopians.
When Abiy assumed power, he quickly started to attack the EPRDF legacy. Given that the wave of protests that brought him to power were mobilized by anti-TPLF sentiments, his attack on TPLF and Tigrayans was received well by a large section of the Ethiopian public. As a result, he continually played the TPLF card, blaming the TPLF and Tigrayans for any problems the country faced. The narrative, after all, was the only one that could unify the Oromo and the Amhara.
As time went by, however, the Oromo and the Amhara moved to their real issues. The Oromo want real autonomy, language rights and to administer Addis Ababa. The Amhara want the dismantling of the multinational federal order and the return of Amharized Ethiopia. Eventually, Abiy got co-opted by the Amhara, and unleashed attacks on Oromo nationalist leaders.
With Abiy’s swing towards the Amhara, the anti-Tigrayan sentiment and rhetoric entered a heightened stage with government media and figures openly denigrating and dehumanizing Tigrayans—all under the pretext of being against the TPLF.
His grudge with the TPLF and Tigrayan elite fused with the historical Amhara grudge and enmity for Tigrayans, as well as their irredentist ambitions. To make matters worse, Isaias with his deep desire for revenge on the Tigrayans that defeated and humiliated him, joined this dangerous alliance, creating a deadly force moved by vengeance.
The three actors have different motives but the same ambitions with regards to Tigray.
Isaias wants to settle old scores, neuter Tigray, dismantle the federal order, and have unfettered influence in Ethiopian politics. By reversing, through destruction and looting, Tigray’s strides in infrastructural development over the last two decades when he did nothing in Eritrea, Isaias not only aims at creating a destitute Tigray, which is essential for the Eritrean identity, but also he answers, in an unusual manner, Eritreans’ question of development by creating equality by subtraction.
He also believes enmity between Amhara and Tigrayans helps weaken the Habeshas that have cultural and historical connection with Eritrea. There is a belief in the PDFJ elite that the further the dominant ethnicity in power in Addis from Asmara is, the better, and that the Habesha connection is an obstacle to the building of an Eritrean identity, and so it must be severed.
The Amhara elite and Isaias of Eritrea see Tigray as the originator, the last bastion and the champion of the federal order in Ethiopia. And if it is subdued and subjugated, they believe the rest of the Ethiopian states are a walk in the park. Weakening, impoverishing and possibly eliminating Tigray and Tigrayans is therefore their common agenda. For example, the Amhara claims on the Tigrayan lands of Welkait and Raya are as much Isaias’s as they are Amhara’s.
In portraying Tigray as taking lands from Eritrea and from Amhara, Isaias presents Tigray as unfairly annexing territory. Never mind that half of Afar was under Tigray and that there was no Amhara region to take lands from before 1991. Both Isaias and the Amhara believe that reducing Tigray by taking away Tigrayan lands is in the interest of their respective nation-building projects. A senior PFDJ cadre once said “we need to reduce Tigray to as much as the southern zone”. That is one of the small subdivisions of Eritrea bordering Tigray.
The idea of dividing up Tigrayan lands as a permanent means of reducing and impoverishing Tigray has almost certainly been developed together with Isaias. According to this, Amhara takes western and southern Tigray, and Isaias takes the contested lands and more from bordering Tigrayan lands. In this sense and at some level, the Ethio-Eritrea pact between Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara allies on one hand, and Isaias on the other hand is like the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that enabled them to partition Poland. A key strategy in the PFDJ-Amhara agreement is for Amhara to take all of western Tigray so that Amhara and Eritrea share a border encircling Tigray and blocking Tigray from having access to Sudan.
When the Humera(Tigray)-Omhajer(Eritrea) border was opened before it was closed again, the Eritrean ambassador to Japan, Ambassador Estifanos, tweeted “PM ABEY & Pres. ISAIAS reopened officially Teseney to/ from Gonder western trade corridor on #Eritrea & #Ethiopia”. By this tweet, he is making a statement: Western Tigray is Gondar, Amhara. Now, Tigrayans are systematically and brutally being eliminated from western Tigray either by chasing them out or by massacring them.
Abiy now shares Amhara and Isaias’s plans for reducing Tigray—but more as a way of eliminating the threat from Tigray and appeasing his allies.
Since he took power, the three of them have been intensifying their propaganda war, demonizing Tigrayans and calling for measures against Tigray. A key means to advance their agenda is blaming all violence on TPLF. For instance, the 2018 grenade at Meskel Square, the killing of singer Hachalu Hundessa in June, and the November massacre in Wollega were all instantly blamed on TPLF.
Abiy’s relationship with Isaias and the anti-Tigray Amhara elite was formed when he was working as a high government official. According to Andargachew, formerly of Ginbot 7, who claimed to be the conduit for the Isaias-Abiy connection, Abiy used to leak information to Eritrea and to Ginbot 7. Immediately after becoming premier, Abiy and Isaias, unsurprisingly, allied, for which Abiy received a Nobel Peace Prize. But the actual reason behind that drama was Tigray: they also had found a common enemy.
Tigray and Tigrayans have been subjected to extreme devastation and agony. Tigrayans are not only under an invasion and occupation, psychological warfare, ethnic profiling and targeting, but also their cries, agony and pain is in the darkness of communications blackout in order for the rest of the world not to hear. Abiy is enraged that some have escaped to Sudan and are exposing the atrocities of the war. He is now trying to portray them as criminals.
It is to stop the truth about the war from being told that the enemy forces have now blocked Tigrayan refugees from fleeing to Sudan. If we are shocked by the condition and stories of the Tigrayan refugees in Sudan, imagine the condition and stories of those blocked and trapped in western Tigray, without food and at the mercy of bloodthirsty Amhara militias.
The war on Tigray has ideological and historical causes. But it is also beyond that. The ethnic profiling and targeting, the harsh and devastating measures on Tigray and Tigrayans, the pillaging and looting, and the destruction of civilians and civilian infrastructures, the massacres, the blockade and blackout, the collective punishments, the carpet bombings and the refusal to independent investigation and allow humanitarian aid should be seen as the product of genocidal undercurrents.
The Abiy government’s plan is to eventually starve Tigray so that it can then use international aid as a weapon against the Tigrayan people, just like the communist junta did during the 1984/5 civil war and famine. That explains its refusal to allow independent humanitarian access and its insistence on controlling international aid agencies.
The conditions for genocide against Tigrayans are ripe, and there really are intentions and deeds to destroy Tigray, and cleanse and exterminate Tigrayans. International intervention is needed to avoid a 21st century genocide of Rwandan proportions and a silent massacre of millions of Tigrayans by starvation.