The Tigray Predicament: From Ballots to Bullets, and Hunger

The Tigray Predicament: From Ballots to Bullets, and Hunger
A burned-down grinding mill in Hadish Adi, Tahtay Mai Chew. Photo by Professor Kindeya Gebrehiwot.

Cease-Fire – An Emergency Brake to Stop Further Deaths from Weaponized Famine

By Eyob Tadelle Gebrehiwot

There is no doubt that Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki as well as the Amhara regional authorities are using famine as a weapon of war against innocent Tigrayan civilians. Abiy Ahmed’s multi-faceted war on Tigray, amounting to ethno-cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing, has already taken unspeakable humanitarian toll. 

Yet some six months ago, Tigray was an oasis of peace with a promising over-all development. The war, however, has ‘destroyed Tigray, literally,’ to borrow the words of a former top TPLF official, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot. It is Tigray’s retrogression from an electrifying progress to a complete debacle, the phenomena which I prefer to call, the Tigray Peripety. 

This complete reversal has now reached “the tipping-point,” to quote the warning sentence of Kjetil Tronvoll. Though there have not yet been tangible measures taken to stop the crisis, the international community has been repeatedly expressing its concern. 

Pre-War Tigray’s Fight against Poverty, at a Glance

In a UN-backed prize for the world’s best policies to combat desertification and improve fertility of drylands in 2017, Tigray bagged a gold award for greening its drylands – it was, indeed, a fitting international recognition! It succinctly sums up the aspiration, perseverance and efforts of the people of Tigray. 

The restoration of Tigray’s drylands, therefore, has been at the heart of the regional government’s development policy. It was, in fact, an extension of the soil and water conservation-based agricultural development program that had been executed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the areas it controlled during the armed struggle against the military Derg regime. 

After the demise of the Derg in 1991, the Tigray government had intensified its efforts by mobilizing the people to offer voluntary labor, and also through the productive safety net program with paid work, for almost one month in a year to plant seedlings, build terraces and stone walls in the mountains and hillsides, build small dam and irrigation projects, among others. As a result, erosion rates have decreased, groundwater levels have risen, and vegetation cover and agricultural productivity have improved, among others. The opening of the Agriculture Department among the first departments at Mekelle University, also itself the first University in Tigray, was a telling example of the priority the regional government had attached to agriculture, and research activities related to it. Several research projects, together with national and international research institutions, zeroing on water and soil conservation, reforestation, the development of improved seeds, animal husbandry, breeding and poultry were conducted. Several seedling nurseries were established. Every year hundreds of thousands of indigenous seedlings were planted.

Tigray is greener than it has ever been in the last one hundred years or so.

The education and health sub-sectors are among the social sub-sectors that have given due attention. Four public universities – the Mekelle University, Adigrat University, Axum University and Raya University, and several other private universities and colleges have mushroomed from next to nothing. It also possesses several preparatory high schools, vocational training centers, secondary and elementary schools as well as kindergartens. Also, it has built hospitals in almost all of its major towns such the Aider Referral Hospital in Mekele, and General Hospitals in Adigrat, Axum, Shire, Maichew and Abyi Adi, and clinics and health posts in the villages. Pre-1991 Tigray had only one comprehensive high school, let alone university, and only one hospital. 

As part and parcel of the Agricultural-led Industrialization policy, the manufacturing industry and mining sectors were also given top priority. Planted near the picturesque Soloda Mountains some 7 kms from the historic town of Adwa, the Almeda Textile Factory, for instance, was the biggest and leading textile manufacturing plant in Ethiopia. It was established in 1996 and started operation in 2000. With the completion of its expansion projects in 2016, the company had complete new production lines with high-tech machineries imported from Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Japan, making its total investment outlay to climb well over 94 million USD. It had created close to 6000 job opportunities for citizens and a source of foreign currency for the country. It used to export 70 per cent of its products to the international market. It supplied apparel, for example, to Sweden’s fashion retailer Hennes & Maurity. 

Calzedonia Textile Factory (an Italian fashion company), MAA Garment as well as SCN Knit Tex Plc (an Indian company) are among the textile factories that have mushroomed in the last two and a half decade. From Addis Pharmaceutical to Sheba Leather Factory to Messebo Cement Factory to Wolkait Sugar Factory to the high-tech Mekelle Industrial Park to Ezana Gold Mining to Saba Dimensional Stones Plc to Semayata Dimensional Stones Factory, among other large scale manufacturing industries have proliferated here and there.

Physical infrastructures such as airports, in Mekelle, in Axum and in Humera were also constructed. It constructed thousands of kilometers of roads, both asphalt and non-asphalt roads, to connect its towns and villages. The expansion of clean water, electrification and communication, both in urban towns and rural villages, was promising.The service sector – the private sector being the engine, has developed by leaps and bounds: from hotels, resort lodges and restaurants to tour guides to banks, insurances and microfinance institutions.

The Ashegoda Wind Farm near the region’s capital and the Tekeze hydroelectric power in the highly arresting mountains along the Tekeze River have also added sprinkles of light to Tigray’s development efforts.

Tigray’s multi-faceted efforts to pull itself from the quagmire of poverty – it has significantly reduced the poverty level, and given the dearth of resources, are, by any measures, laudable. 

Though Tigray’s democratization progress, like the rest of Ethiopia, had been lagging behind its socio-economic performance, yet, it was still struggling to speed up its democratization process. Tigray’s defiance to conduct the 2020 historic regional election, as per the provision of the FDRE Constitution, was an epitome of its unwavering stance towards constitutionalism and rule of law.    

Ironically however, when Tigray went to the ballots, Abiy Ahmed followed it with bullets, and so was the start of the Tigray Peripety – Tigray’s regression from an  impressive overall progress to a complete debacle!

The Tigray Peripety: From Ballots to Bullets, and to Famine

The Tigray Peripety had started with words – false propaganda against Tigrayans, and has culminated in genocidal war and famine. Abiy’s ‘Encircling Tigray’ policy had started with an economic blockade some three years ago. The main road that connects the federal’s capital to Mekelle had been blocked right after the coming to power of Abiy. The blockade of this road, which runs mainly through the Amhara region, was meant to obstruct such basic supplies as food items, agricultural and manufactured products and medical supplies from reaching Tigray, as well as to steamroll investment flows, inter-regional trade, business and economic activities in a bid to create political havoc by exacerbating the socio-economic problems in the region. 

The declaration of the war heralded the ‘Erase Tigray’ policy. As such, Tigray’s development infrastructures, be it large or small in scale, were among the main targets of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces. 

From Almeda Textile Company in Adwa to Addis Pharmaceutical Factory in Adigrat to Saba Dimensional Stones Plc in Adwa to Sheba Leather Factory in Wukro to Wolkait Sugar Factory in Wolkait to Goda Glass Factory around Edaga Hamus, among Ethiopia’s biggest industries, were completely destroyed. All the machineries and transport trucks were looted, ransacked and destroyed and their buildings burned down, in the first month of the war on Tigray,

From Axum Airport to Adigrat University to Axum University to hospitals to clinics to schools in various towns to health posts in small villages, among others, were looted, vandalized, destroyed and burned down. 

And yet the cruelest part of this policy is the impoverishment of individual farmers who are engaged in small-scale farming, the backbone of the Tigray economy. Farmers are being looted of their cattle and agricultural products, and even, whatever seed grains they have for the next harvest. 

“Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are slaughtering whatever .. sheep ..goat .. whatever cattle around their sight is,” says Getachew Reda, one of the top TPLF official and freedom fighters, in his latest interview broadcasted on TMH. The looting of cattle and livestock has been staggering in its scale, especially in western Tigray and areas bordering Eritrea. People are starving, and yet soldiers are slaughtering their cattle.These troops also burned down entire villages. They ransacked grain stocks and animal silage. They destroyed farming equipment and ruined irrigation projects. 

Former Mekelle University President Dr. Kindeya Gebrehiwot, currently fighting alongside the TDF, also tweeted pictures of ruined properties of farmers including grain stocks and animal silage, veterinary clinics and water pipes of irrigation projects, among others.

Beyond and above all these war crimes, for almost four months since the outbreak of the war, it had closed all doors to humanitarian assistance – aid agencies and humanitarian organizations, including UN humanitarian organizations, were not allowed to enter and operate in Tigrai. Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been blocking, deliberately and purposely, access to humanitarian aid for over 4.5 million people who need urgent emergency relief (the number of people who need aid has reached now, six months into the war, over 5.2 million).

Even now, though aid agencies are allowed to operate in Tigray, a significant per cent of the population is out of their reach, due mainly to blockade of aid convoys and looting of items by Ethiopia and Eritrean soldiers. Citing government documents, AFP, for example, reports: ‘Eritrean soldiers are blocking and looting food aid in Ethiopia’s war-hit Tigray region.’ The government is using famine as a weapon of war – a silent weapon – to starve innocent Tigrayans.

Abiy Ahmed’s war on Tigray, simply, is not only a war that has almost wiped out Tigray’s 30 years of prosperity – of development, of peace and democratization process, but also its priceless religious and historical heritages.

Pressing for Cease-fire: Prospects and Challenges 

Addressing the illegitimate HPRs on March 23, 2021, Abiy Ahmed not only admitted the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray – after five months of official denial, but also strongly argued for his lame reasons why Eritrean troops must stay for an indefinite period of time. Two days later, however, having a one-day long visit to Asmara, he announced Isaias’ concession to pull out his troops.

The screenplay written by Isaias was simple and compact – it was meant to buy time, on the face of mounting international pressure, so as to wage a fresh and decisive offensive against TDF.

Following Abiy’s announcement, several divisions of the Eritrean army are said to have entered Tigray and there have been heavy fightings on several fronts. Although Lieutenant-General Bacha Debele’s recent statement was meant to downplay the latest heavy fightings, he nevertheless, tacitly admitted the occurrence of fighting in eight fronts. He said: ‘the Ethiopian army has annihilated remnants of the ‘junta’ in eight fronts.’    

To the dismay of both governments, however, their plan – reinforcing their troops as much as they can, and wage a decisive offensive against the TDF have proved so far unsuccessful and a futile attempt. In fact, the war seemed to have morphed to a different level and has started to take a different shape – the Tigrayan forces are seemingly augmenting their military and organizational strength. 

With a meaningful military victory for both governments on the battlefield a pie in the sky, Abiy and Isaias are leaning more on one horrific weapon of war – famine, as the only and effective means to weaken their adversaries.   

Thus, Tigray’s humanitarian crisis, with snowballing death tolls every day is getting out of control, in the full view of the international community.

The international community has the moral imperative and the legal duty, emanating from international and humanitarian laws, to protect civilians in the face of such mounting humanitarian crisis, especially when famine, along with mass rape, is being used as weapon of war. 

Apropos of this imminent humanitarian cataclysm, ipso facto, the moral imperative and legal duty of the international community, emanating from such legal norms as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), among others, cease-fire is the only viable option, right now, to stop further deaths from a weaponized famine. 

Against the backdrop of this Herculean task, some fundamental questions pop up: how should the international community deal with the parties to the conflict, one of them being Isaias Afewerki, the man who cares very little, if at all, to the very notion of rule of law, and force them to an immediate cease-fire? Also, if the parties to the conflict fail to agree to such an arrangement, what is next? Are there other options?

First and foremost, the international community, especially the US and EU, must focus on an immediate cease-fire in a bid to stop further deaths of civilians from hunger. Ceasefire must be made the prerequisite condition by the international community as they deal with the crisis in Tigray. 

It is commonplace that a cease-fire is a means, not an end in itself – it is a temporary cessation to a hostility that does not settle the larger conflict nor resolve the root cause of the conflict. However, it certainly helps meet certain ends. The first and foremost rationale is: priority must be given to stop further deaths. To do so unhindered and immediate humanitarian aid must reach the needy. But, it is impossible to deliver food aid and medical items, let alone to those in rural areas but also to people in major urban towns, amidst fighting. Hence, it is one of the first and necessary steps to deliver food aid, especially to areas hitherto inaccessible due to active fighting. It may also create the opportunity to rehabilitate hospitals, clinics and health posts with basic medical equipment. 

Furthermore, with the main rainy season approaching, farmers might get time (there may be still a chance), to plough and prepare their land. And also, it may help to have the opportunity to return the internally displaced people from different parts of Tigray to their home, before the rainy season so that they could resettle again. Though it seems unlikely, a cease-fire may pave the way for further negotiations to end the conflict through diplomatic settlements. 

Issues Within and Beyond Cease-fire

Though cease-fire is the only feasible and practical option to save more lives right now, it is, however, a difficult arrangement due to, among others, lack of interest or skepticism on both sides. Moreover, cease-fire is not simple to achieve, especially when one of the parties to the conflict is Isaias Afewerki, a man who has no regard for the notion of rule of law. Hence, Isaias and Abiy will definitely try to invent another stage-play. In this case, the international community must be very harsh, must not trust what Abiy is promising. It is not time for promise, rather for action. What action?

Abiy must agree to the declaration of an immediate cease-fire, and parallelly, allow an independent UN-led team of observers to operate freely and monitor the cease-fire. His government must commit itself to facilitate unhindered access to humanitarian assistance. He must order the immediate withdrawal of both the Amhara and Eritrean forces from Tigray. There must be a prompt, independent, impartial investigation that does not include the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, to the alleged war crimes. Though it is strongly advisable to have an inclusive national dialogue among Ethiopia’s political groupings, a unilateral negotiation between Abiy’s and Tigray’s legitimate government is a must to end the war diplomatically. Finally, it must be clear that it is only the people of Tigray that determines the future of Tigray. Hence, there must be an agreement, as a final solution to the Tigray question, the people to decide on its destiny through democratic means.   

To cap it all, it appears that cease-fire is not something desirable to the governments in Addis Ababa and Asmara, yet it must be the modest demand by the international community. Other options, it must be clearly communicated, are certainly punitive, such measures as economic sanctions and military action, having far-reaching consequences on both governments. This is very important and that is why the cease-fire option must be considered seriously.

Eyob Tadelle

Eyob has a B.A in Sociology and an M.A in Philosophy. He studied Social and Political Philosophy at Radboud University, the Netherlands. He worked as a journalist for different Ethiopian newspapers published in English including the Ethiopian Herald. Currently he is an independent researcher and lives in Germany

This Post Has One Comment

  1. StillNoShame

    “From Almeda Textile Company in Adwa to Addis Pharmaceutical Factory in Adigrat to Saba Dimensional Stones Plc in Adwa to Sheba Leather Factory in Wukro to Wolkait Sugar Factory in Wolkait to Goda Glass Factory around Edaga Hamus, among Ethiopia’s biggest industries”

    No shame to list some of what was looted from Ethiopia and the said industries have no any bases to be located in Tigray either in terms of raw materials or transportation. As writer mentioned all raw materials were transported from Amhara and oromia regions via the roads crossing Amhara region.

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