In Defense of Tigray: Nuance of the Tigray War From an Anti-Imperialist Perspective
By The Renegade and Tigray Map
- A History of Subjugation and Resistance
- An Internationalist Summary of the EPRDF Governing Coalition (1991-2018)
- Who is Abiy Ahmed?
- Condition in Tigray
- Conflict Racism as a Unification Device
- Global Coercion of Tigray
- Addressing War Crimes and Information Warfare
- What We Know
- Controlled Opposition vs. Anti-Imperialism in the Tigray Discourse
- An Internationalist Summary of the EPRDF Governing Coalition (1991-2018)
- Closing Nuance
A History of Subjugation and Resistance
For centuries, the Tigray region has acted as the Ethiopian state’s militarized buffer zone in wars against imperialist powers. Almost the entirety of both Italo-Ethiopians Wars (1894-96, 1935-37) were fought in Tigray, Tigrayan communities were the first to suffer from mustard gas and a range of atrocities. Virtually every war involving Ethiopia during the 20th century was centered in Tigray, from the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37) to the Eritrean War of Independence (1961-91) and finally the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-00). This was not by chance, nor caused solely by Western powers.
The Tigrayan people, making up 6% of Ethiopia’s population and mostly concentrated along the northern border, are a convenient kind to throw into state violence without harming Ethiopia and Eritrea’s central power structures. It is also relatively easy to engineer man-made famines in Tigray while the rest of Ethiopia comes off mostly unaffected. Estimating from the list of historical famines in Ethiopia, Tigray has been the epicenter of at least 63% of Ethiopia’s recorded famines over the last century while making up only 5% of the land. When looking at historical accounts, all of these famines have either been caused or exacerbated by the Ethiopian state. The centuries-old social and economic scope of anti-Tigrayan sentiment is a major factor in how today’s Ethiopian government has been able to easily employ militarized racism in its effort to destroy the Tigrayan people.
Fast forwarding to the 1980s Ethiopian Famine, Tigray was unsurprisingly the most severely affected region per capita, with up to 20% of its population killed and over 75% at risk of dying of starvation. This, again, was not by chance. Over a quarter of Tigrayan farmers interviewed during the 1980s famine reported that the army had stolen or destroyed their farming equipment, leaving them incapable of yielding crops. The Soviet-dependent Derg regime was an Amhara hegemony hellbent on creating a homogenous cultural structure through the destruction of minority and marginalized ethinic groups. For Tigrayans, this was nothing new, and is still nothing new.
In 1991, the Derg regime was overthrown by a coalition of five ethnic socialist parties after 15+ years of atrocities and famine driven by the Derg’s absolutist power structure. This coalition subsequently became the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by the syncretic socialist Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). A socialist ethnic federalism was established for the first time in East Africa, its power distributed across all ethnic communities. This pluralist structure ensured an end to unitary statism, subverting the Amhara ethnic hegemony that had long dominated Ethiopia’s political structures. The model separated Ethiopia from the Western status quo structure of liberal republicanism, experimenting with a new democratic centralist ethnic representation created by and for Ethiopia. Following centuries of repressive monarchy and 13 years of brutal autocracy, Ethiopia had finally adopted its own endemic political structure.
During the governance of the EPRDF, Ethiopia saw multi-ethnic leadership spanning across multiple ethnic groups, beginning with Amhara PM Tamrat Layne (1991-95), then Tigrayan PM Meles Zenawi (1995-2012), and finally Wolayta Southern National PM Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe (2012-18). Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was an influential figure and the public face of the party for the majority of the EPRDF government’s tenure, presenting an illusion that the TPLF was the overall face of the state. This viewpoint is flawed, as nearly every action of the TPLF required the approval of coalition parties representing the other ethnic groups. The TPLF may have appeared as the face of the state, however it was only one limb of the state’s body. Schism between the parties and with the military certainly existed, leading to gridlock within the EPRDF. This schism would eventually enable the neoliberal bloc to end all facets of democracy in the Ethiopian state.
An Internationalist Summary of the EPRDF Governing Coalition (1991-2018)
The EPRDF single-handedly ended the remnants of Ethiopia’s 1980s famine and made Ethiopia capable of economic self-sufficiency for the first time in modern Ethiopian history after the UN botched its aid operations. It saved millions of lives by reorganizing Ethiopia’s economy into an endemic model capable of autarky, successfully reversing many structural abuses of the Derg regime. For the first time in Ethiopian history, attempts were made to unify all of Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups by ensuring their representation in a ruling coalition. Military action revolved around confronting Eritrean state aggression and unifying Ethiopia against external aggressors, not internal oppression of ethnic groups and dehumanizing of indigenous people as the Ahmed regime is currently exercising.
Women’s rights became the most improved in Ethiopian history during the EPRDF administration, with the EPRDF Women’s League developing a range of unprecedented social, economic, and political benefits. Women’s representation in parliament skyrocketed from 2% to 40% within a span of 15 years. Prior to the EPRDF, women were granted negligible representation and had virtually no social programs. Under the Ahmed administration, many women’s programs have been neglected or altogether dismantled. Youth political power likewise increased exponentially with the formation of the EPRDF Youth League, which granted elected youth representatives of EPRDF to make collective decisions regarding youth policy. This dismantled ageist power structures prevalent in previous governments. The EPRDF also expanded the university system extensively, founding at least 20 universities across Ethiopia.
The flaws in the EPRDF governing structure, however, inevitably contributed to its collapse. Most governing power was democratically centralized in the coalition, creating a ruling class somewhat disconnected from the general population. Free speech and grassroots civil society was sometimes suppressed, keeping ethnic groups confined to the majority consensus of their respective coalition parties. Asserting democratic centralism over a highly heterogeneous country whilst suppressing growth of its civil society under a dense bureaucracy led to gradual drop in popular approval. The EPRDF economic structure can be described as Yugoslavia-esque with Ethiopian characteristics. Similar flaws and a similar demise, albeit with more sustainable distribution mechanisms backed by a web of social programs. Its administrative structure was also reminiscent of the Yugoslavia model, following a multi-party vanguard model that has historically disintegrated following an irreconcilable accumulation of popular grievances suppressed over multiple decades.
The EPRDF gradually became lenient with Western military support to appease ENDF generals, avert a military coup, and deter the Eritrean state from invasion. It also forged relations with the Chinese state that would eventually allow Chinese corporations to penetrate the economy and undermine local sectors. Lack of oversight and rogue nature of some units in the ENDF led to crimes committed against the Somali population of Ogaden in 2007 and 2008. Protests erupted in 2014 after the EPRDF announced a plan to integrate Addis Ababa into Oromo region, undermining Oromo farmers and suggesting that some would be displaced. This was followed by an announcement of resignation from what would be the EPRDF’s final chairman, Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe. Abiy Ahmed would soon take advantage of this to impose neoliberal statism.
Who is Abiy Ahmed?
Rise to Power
Abiy Ahmed, ethnically half-Oromo half-Amhara, has shuffled around many Ethiopian political chambers as a staunch neoliberal politician and minister since 2008. His ethnic background, comprising Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, has provided him with a popular normative advantage over leaders from smaller ethnic groups. After becoming the face of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, Ahmed received a Doctorate of Philosophy in 2017 and came to power as a pan-Ethiopian neoliberal promising to transition the Ethiopian political system into a Western model. The renewed duality of pan-Ethiopian nationalism and neoliberalism was appealing to some constituencies of the Ethiopian population, yearning to experience a novel form of governance after three decades of a bureaucracy-heavy administration. With the support of the Oromo and Amhara elite amid a deteriorating EPRDF, Ahmed became the perfect candidate to reinstall ethnic hegemony over Ethiopia. The Oromo and Amhara oligarchies in particular were then placed at the helm of state privilege once again while smaller ethnic groups were virtually discarded from governance under the grasp of a new unitary republic. All movements deviating from the new neoliberal consensus were subsequently cracked down on.
Ahmed did not come to power democratically. Usually the Prime Minister of Ethiopia is elected by the House of Representatives, not the general population, although the exchange of power in 2018 was even more concentrated. Following the premature resignation of Chairman Hailemariam Desalegn in March 2018, intra-council elections were held by the EPRDF Executive Council to appoint the new EPRDF chairman. That month, Ahmed gained power through what was supposed to be 84 votes on the 180-seat Executive Council. Ahmed received a 102-vote 57% majority of the Executive Council only after his EPRDF-friendly opponent Demeke Mekonnen dropped out of the race under pressure from the oligarchy. Had Mekonnen not dropped out, Ahmed would have received only 47% of the votes, forcing him to remain as a minister. Mekonnen had not previously announced any intention to drop out, raising eyebrows as to how much influence the neoliberal bloc had in his decision.
Thus, 102 politicians in a country of nearly 120 million people undemocratically elected Abiy Ahmed in March 2018 by consensus of neoliberals, not ‘the Ethiopian people.’ Had democratic popular elections actually occurred in 2018 to determine the new chair of the EPRDF, the political landscape would look entirely different, separated from the neoliberal power grab. A hero of the neoliberal bloc, Ahmed subsequently formed the Prosperity Party as a vehicle to consolidate the military and oligarchy, yielding a new ultranationalist propaganda machine sweeping across Ethiopian civil society that would allow his re-election in 2021.
The rise of this neoliberal-military bloc is largely what kept Ahmed in office after the 2021 Ethiopian general election. This new power structure continues to oppress virtually all other ethnic groups outside of the hegemony, from Somalis in the east to Sidamas in the center to hundreds of tribes in the south and Tigrayans in the north, all of whom having resumed armed struggles against the government since 2020. Ahmed’s popularity among pan-Ethiopian nationalist communities is the result of a consensus between the neoliberal and military elite, from which narratives of security and ethnic privilege reassurance stem from. This is the hegemonic engine which lays under pan-Ethiopianism, the idea that all majoritarian power in Ethiopia must be unitary, condensed and concentrated into a single person. The monarchy and Derg followed this pan-Ethiopian model, the EPRDF broke it and distributed political power to all ethnic groups for the first time in Ethiopian history, then the Ahmed regime reinstalled it.
Tigrayan Perception of Ahmed
Ahmed’s structural racism was not always obvious, allowing the neoliberal-military bloc to establish a facade of national unity under his name. During his rise to power in 2018, Ahmed was initially welcomed by many Tigrayans, including within the TPLF. He was regarded as a youthful, intelligent, and modest leader who would potentially make many changes that were neglected under the EPRDF administration. In numerous addresses, he honored the TPLF and expressed his appreciation for the people of Tigray. In an April 2018 speech given in Mekelle, Ahmed stated that “Tigray is the motor that runs Ethiopia.” The Ethiopian and Eritrean nationalist blocs were so disgusted by Ahmed’s praise of Tigrayans that they published racist polemics about Ahmed being a TPLF sympathizer throughout the anti-Tigrayan media web. These same outlets and authors are now defending Ahmed on his genocide in Tigray.
Racialization only became noticeable in July 2018, when Ahmed and President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea reached an understanding to de-escalate tensions, leading to Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize and immediate ruling class credibility to the West. Tigrayans were furious about this peace deal as Eritrean dictator Isaias Afeworki was regarded by Tigrayans as a despot who hated both Tigray and Ethiopia, evident in the 1998 Eritrean invasion that killed thousands of Tigrayans. Afeworki’s anti-Tigrayan hatred has been further displayed by his contribution to the genocide in Tigray. During the 2018 peace agreement, the schism between Ethiopia and Eritrea was blamed on the TPLF by both Eritrean and Ethiopian nationalists despite the Eritrean state’s irredentist aggression targeting the Tigrayan population. Overtly hateful anti-Tigrayan slurs were produced by this misconception. In August 2018, Ahmed referred to Tigrayans as “Daylight Hyenas,” or “የቀን ጅብ” for the first time. We know well what happened afterward.
Ahmed the Western Puppet
Upon his appointment, Ahmed ended almost three decades of an endemically-crafted EPRDF federal model and replaced it with a UN-approved European republic model. Following Ahmed’s inauguration, government sectors were immediately privatized and deregulated, enabling foreign corporations to gradually flood the economy. These actions allowed him to win the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the you did something cool for the West medal, which otherwise may never have happened. From 2018 to 2020, Ahmed’s Ethiopia became a significantly larger economic and military partner of Western powers:
- Ahmed signed an extensive USAID agreement in 2019 agreeing to create a Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS), effectively opening up the Ethiopian economy to US structural adjustment programs which had previously been denied under the EPRDF administration.
- The same year, Ahmed hosted US AFRICOM and NATO at Hurso Training Center for Exercise Justified Accord, the largest and most anticipated yearly NATO exercise in all of Africa. Hurso Training Center remains as Ahmed’s main hosting location for US AFRICOM and NATO.
- Ahmed also secured a deal with the Israeli state in 2019 to install air defense systems near the Renaissance Dam.
- In March 2019, Ahmed made a $100 million deal with French President Emmanuel Macron allowing the French military to restructure the Ethiopian Navy. Ahmed then hosted Macron on a tour of Lalibela.
- The Ahmed regime received over $1.6 billion in aid from the US government in 2020 alone, an over 400% increase from average yearly aid to the EPRDF between 1988 and 2015.
- Ahmed’s newly-created Ministry of Peace hired Florida-based law firm Holland & Knight to lobby US Congress and the White House, neglecting Ethiopians and choosing an American firm instead.
From the economic side, Ahmed has no intention to forge a self-sufficient Ethiopia free of Western capital that various anti-imperialists seem to be conflating with his governance. His primary economic policy is to enable foreign corporations to flood local sectors, creating a deep dependence on foreign direct investment (FDI). In 2019, Ahmed turned to the IMF to relocate some of the Ethiopian state’s debt to Washington DC, receiving a $2.9 billion loan in return for implementing neoliberal structural adjustment programs. Ahmed then completely eroded the Ethiopian economy with Chinese corporate investment, expanding the Ethiopian state’s $16 billion USD of debt to the Chinese state. As of August 2022, he is currently waiting on another $339 million in loans from China’s EximBank.
Condition in Tigray
In August 2020, Ahmed postponed regional elections and shifted the date to 2021, hoping to consolidate his power under the pretext of Covid. The TPLF viewed this power grab as a violation of Tigrayan self-determination, and decided to hold regional elections of its own in Tigray. The elections in Tigray were conducted in a Covid-safe manner in September, yielding a 97% turnout. Though Ahmed claimed the elections were invalid, the TPLF ultimately won the elections, and the rival political parties acknowledged that the elections were free and fair.
After the Tigray elections, it became clear that Ahmed was positioning the Ethiopian state to attack the region and eliminate all chances of political negotiation. It was disclosed on October 29, 2020 that ENDF soldiers stationed in Tigray were being withdrawn and given orders to assume defensive positions in the nearby Afar and Amhara regions. It was also disclosed that troops from Ethiopia and Eritrea were stationed near Tigray’s borders in preparation for an assault. On November 4, Ahmed ordered an offensive on Tigray, cut off all government services, and blockaded the region, marking the beginning of the Tigray War and a period of severe starvation in the region. The TPLF mobilized once again as the Ahmed government and its allies created famine and committed atrocities in Tigray under the guise of eliminating remnants of TPLF power. It has been widely confirmed that Ahmed incited the war as a premeditated act. As investigative journalist Declan Walsh points out in his December 2021 piece “The Nobel Peace Prize that Paved the Way for War,” the Tigray War was planned, not by Tigrayans but by Ahmed and the Ethiopian state.
The Ahmed regime established a coalition between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Fano, and Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) expecting a renewed uprising in Tigray. Fano is an Amhara supremacist death squad and vigilante group known to be particularly barbaric against Tigrayans, reflected in its numerous mass rapes and massacres. Self-identified Fano are confirmed to be embedded in Amhara units of the ENDF and police departments, and some contingents have also been trained by the EDF. The ENDF-Fano-EDF coalition has committed unabated acts of genocide on Tigray, beginning with the famine-spawning blockade and worsening with a military occupation enforced via sexual violence and mass executions of civilians.
In the midst of Tigray’s worst locust swarm in 25 years that wiped out vital crops in November 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces seized and destroyed farming equipment so that Tigrayan farmers could no longer yield any crops. A tactic of genocide taken directly from the playbook of the Derg regime. Blockaded by the government with no flow of resources, Tigray’s medical system was also among the first targeted sectors, collapsing within weeks of the first ENDF offensive. 82% of Tigray’s medical facilities were looted, occupied, abandoned, or destroyed by March 2021, leaving nearly the entire Tigrayan population with no medical care. Needless to say, a blockade of medical supplies flowing into Tigray in the midst of a forced famine was purposeful, to annihilate as much of the population as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Facing another state-driven famine on their homeland, Tigrayans were confronted yet again with the decision to mobilize or starve to death. To break the blockade, the TPLF reorganized its armed units into the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and launched a versatile guerrilla counter-offensive. With heavy employment of hit-and-run attacks, rapid encirclements, and combined arms ambushes, the counter-offensive led to the capture of multiple major cities over the course of a year. In November 2021, a rebel alliance was formed between the TDF, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and several other armed movements representing marginalized ethnic groups across Ethiopia. The TDF and OLA linked up for the first time in November 2021 following the capture of Kombolcha in eastern Amhara Region.
As Tigrayan forces began to capture more land, Ahmed intensified the anti-Tigrayan pogrom across the country, declaring a state of emergency which was weaponized to detain and brutalize anyone who spoke Tigrinya. Supporters of Abiy Ahmed were given the power to stop random cars and pedestrians, verify their IDs, then turn them over to the police if they appeared to be Tigrayan. They would profile on the basis of having a Tigrayan name, speaking Amharic with a Tigrayan accent, speaking Tigrinya, or playing Tigrinya music in their cars. In acts of ethnic profiling, people who engaged in these actions were viewed as TPLF or TDF supporters, and members of the “junta.” Thousands of Tigrayans were subsequently imprisoned, executed, raped, and sent to concentration camps by the government and military. Letters were sent to Tigrayan military camps stating that the military was “firmly instructed to eliminate any Tigrinya speakers found in the camps after the stated date.”
Meanwhile, Ahmed continued to reinforce his fascist narratives by making more dehumanizing and militaristic statements, inciting further pogroms across the country. Ahmed escalated his dehumanization of Tigrayans from labeling them as “Daylight Hyenas” to “cancer” and “weeds.” The neoliberal and military blocs followed up on these narratives by distributing genocidal rhetoric of their own, many nationalist leaders blatantly calling for the extermination of the Tigrayan people. These narratives have been regionally circulated by ethnic media outlets that the government finances and co-opts in defense of Ahmed, constructing a gag rule on critique of the Ethiopian state while blackmailing the outlets to share a common anti-Tigrayan sentiment or face imprisonment.
Current Status (August 2022)
In December 2021, the TDF came within 100 miles of Addis Ababa. Later that month, the TDF announced a tactical withdrawal and offensives slowed down on both sides. In March 2022, the TDF announced a humanitarian ceasefire. Some portions of western and northern Tigray remain occupied, however the majority of the region has been liberated. Though dialogue is ongoing, the ceasefire is not expected to last (as of August 2022). Given common ENDF incitement during lulls in fighting such as the airstrike in January which killed 57 Tigrayan civilians, ceasefires have been weaponized by the Ethiopian state to terrorize the Tigrayan population. Violence remains steady particularly with shelling, airstrikes, and drone strikes on Tigrayan civilians, let alone the state-induced famine.
Conflict Racism as a Unification Device
Ethiopia’s transition from relative calm to sudden racialized securitization in 2020 was heavily reminiscent of the 2016 Turkish coup, where Turkish President Erdogan abused a state media-inflated crisis to transition the country into an anti-Kurdish police state autocracy, rekindling the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s armed struggle across Anatolia. Likewise, Ahmed knew the Tigray War would make an effective narrative tool, reviving centuries of convenient and familiar anti-Tigrayan norms. Ahmed reacted to the 2020 elections in Tigray precisely in the same manner Erdogan reacted to the 2016 Turkish coup attempt: militarization, consolidation of power, and brutalization of out-group populations. He ended tensions with the Eritrean state only to divert them toward Tigray, leading a coalition which resorts to mass rape, torture, and extensive brutality against Tigray’s population. In doing so, he has not only unified the Ethiopian neoliberal-military bloc, but the Eritrean neoliberal-military bloc as well.
Following decades of anti-Tigrayan crimes perpetrated by the Eritrean state, Ahmed has allowed the Eritrean state to occupy large portions of Tigray and administer them directly, effectively ceding the land to Eritrea as colonial war loot. This is similar in dynamic to how the Iraqi state and Barzani regime have allowed the Turkish state to occupy land in Southern Kurdistan, ceding Kurdish homeland to the Turkish military as far as 35 miles away from the border. In Tigray, the occupation extends even further, with the southernmost territory of Eritrean occupation stretching roughly 65 miles away from the Eritrean border.
It hasn’t just been ethnic Tigrayans impacted by conflict racism in Tigray, however. Endangered indigenous groups have also been severely impacted. In one example, the Eritrean state has occupied Irob homeland in the eastern region of Tigray that borders Eritrea and Afar. The Irob people are an indigenous ethnic group in Tigray with a population between 30,000 and 40,000. Since November 4, 2020, the EDF has controlled half of their territory (766.32 km square out of 1,532.64 km square). The EDF appears to have massacred at least 72 Irob civilians in January 2021 alone, not including other timelines. Acts of anti-Irob racism have been perpetrated by the Eritrean state for decades, showing that ceding of Irob land serves to strengthen ENDF-EDF unity through conflict racism against indigenous people. The Kunama are yet another endangered ethnic group in Tigray. As of August 2022, the Kunama of Tigray hold a population of just a few thousand, found mostly in Tigray’s northwestern regions. Kunama land is still occupied by the Eritrean state and Amhara supremacist forces in western Tigray. The EDF has put the Kunama on the brink of extinction by destroying their farming equipment, looting their livestock, and torching their villages.
In sum, by prompting the Tigrayan population to rebel, Ahmed has created an opportunity to consolidate his power by employing conflict racism against Tigrayans and other indigenous peoples as a national unification device. This tactic is seen throughout modern nation-state history from Jackson’s genocide of indigenous peoples in North America (prompting the bloodiest phase of the American Indian Wars), Ataturk’s genocide of Armenians (prompting Turkish-Armenian War of 1920) to the historical cliché of Hitler’s genocide against Jews and Romani (prompting Warsaw Uprising and other revolts), Rwandan Genocide (prompting Rwandan Civil War) and in recent examples like the 2016 Turkish state consolidation of power which prompted the Turkish invasion of Rojava, to name a few. Similar rhetorical methods disseminated by ruling classes have been used in virtually every state-perpetrated genocide in modern history. Ahmed’s policy against Tigrayans follows this historical genocide template closely, and it is unsurprising that Ahmed has sought alliances in states that share a history of conflict racism.
Global Coercion of Tigray
The global military-industrial complex has set its sights on Tigray as the newest conflict zone to test weapons on marginalized ethnic groups. Tigray has become a global vortex of drone imperialism. Who better for a genocidal regime to ally with than some of the world’s most hegemonic states in a massive circle jerk of drones, one that unites these power structures under a genocide of indigenous people? Hmm, it feels like we’ve seen this before.
The Western Drone Imperialism Circle Jerk
Not-so-coincidentally, Ahmed and Erdogan are military-industrial complex partners in the Tigray War. Turkish advisors and drone pilots have been confirmed present in government-held areas, the Turkish state one of Ahmed’s closest allies. Turkish TB2 Bayraktar drones, praised in the West for their effectiveness against Russian forces in Ukraine, have been used to massacre civilians across the world. The Turkish state stands as one of the most genocidal powers on Earth, recently massacring populations from Libya to Armenia to expand its power.
It is no secret that the Israeli state is also actively backing the Ahmed regime. Along with the Israeli air defense systems at Renaissance Dam, Israeli drones have been sent to the Ethiopian state in large numbers during the Tigray War. These drones were provided to combat “locust swarms” according to laughable claims from state-backed media outlets. Ethiopian special forces have been spotted carrying a variety of contemporary Israeli weapons such as the Tavor rifle. Needless to say, conflict racism and the Israeli state are two concepts inextricably connected.
The rampantly imperialist United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has invested its military-industrial complex in the genocide of Tigrayans by providing large quantities of drones and other supplies to ENDF via Harar Meda Airbase. The UAE is no stranger to propagandized hatred, systematically dehumanizing Shia Muslims to justify its intervention in Yemen.
The Eastern Drone Imperialism Circle Jerk
Stepping up efforts to boost its sphere of influence in Africa, the Iranian state has also joined the drone circle jerk by supporting ENDF with its own Mohajer-6 drones. The Iranian state has likewise harnessed conflict racism to dehumanize Kurds, Balochis, Azeris, and other marginalized ethnic groups that have rebelled against hegemonic oppression from the Iranian state’s Persian power structure.
The Chinese state has meanwhile provided Wing Loong I drones to ENDF, which have been regularly used to bomb Tigrayan cities. ENDF has also received munitions from the Chinese state. The Chinese state has poured billions into Belt & Road Initiative projects over the course of the Ahmed regime, and thus backs the Ethiopian state in order to protect its investments. Chinese drones and munitions have not helped solve Ethiopia’s crippling $16 billion debt to the Chinese state which has multiplied under the Ahmed regime, but they do give the Chinese state further influence over Ahmed’s decisions.
The Russian state has contributed to the genocide by sending drones to the Eritrean state and military equipment to the Ethiopian state. Russia provided the EDF with 26 drone technicians in addition to eight Zala KYB suicide drones in exchange for a Russian military base near Massawa. It is unclear whether these drones have yet been used in Tigray, but it is now certain that the Russian state is willing to sacrifice the Tigrayan population for its imperialism in the Red Sea. This imperialist presence in Eritrea comes with some context in recent decades.
The Eritrean state under Afeworki begged the US to establish a military base in Eritrea back in 2002, asserting that Eritreans were “Pro-America, half Christian and half Muslim,” as tensions between the US and the Arab World were escalating. After some consideration, the George W. Bush administration ultimately turned down the offer, choosing to occupy Djibouti instead. This refusal infuriated the Eritrean state, which then immediately antagonized the US in its policies. What we understand from this is that the Eritrean state has long yearned to host an imperialist military in its country. The Russian state giving the EDF drones in return for allowing Russian occupation in Eritrea is killing two birds with one stone for Afeworki, subtly embedding imperialist powers into his genocide in Tigray while fulfilling his objective to become a satellite state.
The Somali Personnel Fiasco
Embedded with Eritrean forces, some 10,000 Somali soldiers brutally attacked communities in Tigray after being sent to Eritrea by the Somali state. Survivors knew these soldiers were Somali because, despite wearing Eritrean uniforms, they spoke Somali and not Tigrinya like the actual Eritrean soldiers. Eritrean soldiers also directly referred to them as Somalis. These Somalis were deployed to Tigray a few weeks after the war started and left in March 2021 as word of their presence and atrocities in Tigray began to spread.
According to a Somali soldier who received a 6-month training prior to escaping Eritrea, around 400 Somali soldiers reportedly died in Eritrea while being imprisoned in horrible conditions with insufficient access to food or medical care. Somali officials have rejected reports that Eritrea was holding these soldiers for a 50 million dollar ransom and insist that the soldiers were just transferred there for training and would soon be repatriated. The Somali state referred to reports of Somali personnel in Tigray as “rumors” despite definitive evidence pointing to the contrary. The parents of these Somali personnel have protested and called for their children to be sent back since the beginning of the war.
While it is unclear whether these Somali soldiers were trafficked into Tigray, sent there with full consent of the Somali state, or both, it is confirmed that Somali personnel were present in Tigray and committed atrocities while embedded with Eritrean forces. Considering deep Turkish relations with the Somali state, it would not be a surprise if the Turkish state was also involved in this fiasco. The Turkish state has delivered TB2 Bayraktar drones to Somalia, trained thousands of its military and police personnel, and holds its largest overseas base in the country, showing a common hegemonic link to the Turkish state.
Addressing War Crimes and Information Warfare
Deeply embedded trauma, will to avenge fallen loved ones, and limited psychological care have caused isolated instances of war crimes committed by some TDF units. TDF fighters responsible for war crimes have been directly addressed and disciplined by the TPLF administration, and the TPLF has also made several calls for a UN investigation to address any potential crimes. These calls were shot down numerous times, as the Ahmed regime refused to allow any independent investigation and continues to hamper investigation efforts. While war crimes have been perpetrated by a select few units of the TDF, numerous war crime accusations against Tigrayan rebels have also been proven fabrications and false flags by Fano and the Ethiopian government. In one example of many, the Ethiopian state immediately blamed Tigrayans for the killing of three Doctors Without Borders workers in June 2021, when it was later confirmed that the murders were perpetrated by ENDF.
In perhaps the most debated instance of supposed Tigrayan war crimes, the Mai Kadra massacre of November 2020, Tigrayans were immediately blamed by the Ethiopian state despite conflicting testimony from survivors. It was confirmed that both Tigrayan and Amhara civilians were murdered in the massacre, dispelling claims that this was a systematic act perpertrated by Tigrayan forces. The independent youth militia Samri, which has been accused of participating in the Mai Kadra massacre, is completely disconnected from the TPLF and has no oversight. Lack of an independent investigation has allowed the Ethiopian state to hold an information monopoly on the Mai Kadra massacre while silencing all Tigrayan victims.
One of the few confirmed cases of TDF war crimes was during the Amhara region offensive, when a unit may have emulated crimes committed by the ENDF-Fano-EDF coalition out of revenge. Certainly there is no excuse for any instance like this, no matter how rare, and the TDF knows that. Nonetheless, state-backed Amhara civil society and oligarchy have utilized this as an opportunity to peddle “Amhara genocide” narratives feeding the Ethiopian state’s propaganda machine. TDF and OLA are often blamed for crimes later confirmed to be perpetrated by state-backed forces in the region. Members of the Amhara community have frequently called out Ethiopian state propaganda on this matter.
Foundations of Ethiopian State Propaganda
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the origin of most accusations against the TDF, is funded and controlled directly by the Ethiopian government despite posing as an independent NGO. This follows the information monopoly template of other nation-states, seen in the so-called independent International Human Rights Defense Committee which is controlled by the Russian state, so-called independent Radio Free Asia which is controlled by the US Agency for Global Media, and so on. EHRC rarely provides definitive evidence in any of its statements. For example, a September 2021 report stated: “The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is alarmed by disturbing reports it is receiving about allegations of deliberate attacks against civilians in Kobo town and surrounding rural towns by TPLF fighters including shelling on civilian areas, house to house searches and killings, looting and destruction of civilian infrastructure.” This format is used in almost all of EHRC’s reports, with no primary nor secondary evidence provided whatsoever, just “disturbing reports.” A detailed account of EHRC’s misleading propaganda can be found here.
What is most concerning: the EHRC is deemed a legitimate source by the US Department of State and the UN. It is also cited by human rights NGOs like Amnesty International, who sometimes defer to EHRC-linked reports when there is little else to go off of. EHRC’s influence can be seen clearly in Amnesty International’s lopsided reporting of the Mai Kadra massacre and other incidents, which not only provide lackluster evidence of the perpetrators but also accuse the TPLF of political matters that have little to do with the mentioned attacks. EHRC even went as far as endorsing Amnesty International for repeating state narratives. Despite EHRC’s blatant propaganda rhetoric and fabrications, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions ranked EHRC in full compliance with the UN Paris Principles in October 2021, displaying the power that the Ahmed regime holds over the international sphere of consensus.
In mid-2021, the UN conducted a joint investigation with EHRC at the insistence of the Ahmed regime. A few months into the investigation, seven UN officials were deported on charges of “meddling.” This investigation was widely condemned and viewed as an Ethiopian state propaganda effort. Many reports from this investigation reflect clear censorship and prejudice toward state narratives. Nonetheless, against the will of EHRC, the UN found that the vast majority of corroborated war crimes between November 2020 and December 2021 were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces against Tigrayans, and that TDF crimes were mostly isolated.
In December 2021, the UN Human Rights Council narrowly passed a resolution to finally hold an independent investigation. The Ethiopian state has made every effort to stall the investigation and block funding, fearing a decrease in its propaganda credibility among ruling classes. UN officials state that the investigation has been impeded by lack of staffing and allocation of resources, which explains why no extensive findings have yet been published as of August 2022. The actual independence of this investigation is also highly questionable, given that UN officials suggested that they will be working directly with state-backed regional organizations. It is also unclear how much access the UN really has outside of Addis Ababa, where it is forced to negotiate with the Ahmed regime.
UN investigations and their incomplete findings remain flawed with many unanswered questions, the UN working directly with EHRC and adopting this state agency as a partner. Given UN complicity with the Ethiopian state propaganda machine, any findings accusing Tigrayan forces must be analyzed critically. The African Union, meanwhile, has been entirely reluctant to support peace talks or investigations of any kind, despite numerous entities across international civil society calling for its involvement.
What We Know
Isolated acts do not determine the intentions of a movement, systematic ones do. It is important to note that the TDF and TPLF have scorned crimes against civilians while the Ahmed ruling class encourages and employs them on a massive scale. The density of confirmed and corroborated war crimes in the Tigray War has weighed disproportionately against the ENDF-Fano-EDF coalition. The Ethiopian state inflates TDF war crime statistics to create an illusion of ENDF saviorism. So while isolated war crimes have likely been committed by some elements of the TDF, there are three points we know for certain:
- We know that the ENDF-Fano-EDF coalition is often a perpetrator of massacres in the region and relies on the Ahmed regime to bail them out with internationally-legitimized propaganda.
- We know that Ethiopian media and state-backed organizations report fabricated, misblamed, and false flag massacres, which are then disseminated to international organizations due to the Ethiopian state’s monopoly on information.
- We know that the TPLF has called for an independent investigation which has been repeatedly denied by the Ethiopian state, and is thus unable to effectively identify potential war criminals and rogue units within the TDF.
- We know that the TDF actively disciplines its forces and pledges to hold war criminals accountable, no matter how isolated the act.
The Myth of US Backing Then
In the wake of victory against the Derg regime, EPRDF initially took aid from the US only to redistribute it to the general population, barring all US firms from taking over sectors. When USAID and the UN botched their aid operation in 1985, the TPLF and later the EPRDF reduced their allowance of aid, refusing to become dependent on any foreign entity until the rise of the neoliberal-military bloc in the 2010s. Ahmed, the head of this neoliberal-military bloc, uses the Bretton Woods institutions to directly fund his genocide campaign. There is a significant difference in how US aid has been used between the EPRDF administration and the Ahmed regime, to what extent it has been used, and what the repercussions have been. This nuance must be considered.
Historically, military cooperation with the US and Chinese states during the EPRDF administration was heavily driven by ENDF generals and contested within the government. Fear of a military coup similar to those attempted against the Derg regime eventually forced EPRDF leaders to compromise with the military bloc. In 1989, many generals who later joined EPRDF had attempted a coup, citing weapons shortages from Moscow as a major factor in their decision. When the Derg regime fell, these generals looked to the EPRDF to provide them with a steady flow of foreign-supplied weapons and a militarist stance against the Eritrean state, or else the consequences would be made known in a coup.
In 1998, facing a devastating Eritrean invasion, PM Meles Zenawi was therefore prompted with a decision to either accept further US military support or risk a coup and even worse, Eritrean state occupation. Tensions between EPRDF and the military often led to rogue unilateral decision-making by the latter, manifesting in crimes such as those seen in Ogaden against the orders of EPRDF. Blame is often misdirected toward the TPLF when in reality the TPLF had significantly less power over the military than these narratives suggest. The EPRDF administration made a significant effort to avert US influence in Ethiopia, an effort which is often ignored by historical accounts.
The TPLF had much warmer relations with the Chinese state during the EPRDF administration, and may actually still work with Chinese firms as a source of opal mining revenue. Some Tigrayans view Belt & Road as the largest source of existing corruption within the TPLF. Considering the TPLF’s extensive historical interaction with the Chinese state and frequent resistance to US initiatives in spite of US pressure, it is fallacious to assert that the TPLF succumbed to any alliance or coalition with the US.
In 2007, the EPRDF shot down a request from the White House to implement US surveillance and structural adjustment programs, putting a deathblow to US relations while averting US attempts to hijack the region. The US subsequently began to blacklist the TPLF for refusing to comply. The US Department of Homeland Security published a memorandum in 2014 suggesting the TPLF should be listed as a Tier III terror organization, and that the TPLF had only been exempted on grounds of being a ruling party. The memorandum also lays out guidelines to profile Tigrayan asylum seekers and migrants. Propelled by increasing Chinese cooperation with the EPRDF, the memorandum clearly states that the TPLF is an antithesis of US interests. The US remains diametrically opposed to the TPLF on a policy basis while perfectly aligned with Ahmed’s widespread economic deregulation, which enables an exponentially larger volume of FDI from Western corporations.
The Myth of US Backing Now
US State Department in November 2021 press briefings:
“…we are working with the Government of Ethiopia…We have been in touch with the government quite extensively…I can just say that we’re in very regular conversation and discussion with the government…Prime Minister Abiy told me again on Sunday that his top priority is to get the the TDF and the TPLF out of the lands that they have occupied…We share that objective.”
There is no evidence that the TPLF has worked with a single US firm or organization since its departure as a ruling party in 2018. US sanctions against the Ahmed regime have not taken place to support the TPLF, but because of Ahmed’s increasing relations with the Russian and Chinese states. The US also sanctions the TPLF, condemns it frequently, and clearly does not care to see it as a ruling party again. The US Department of State still unofficially views the TPLF as a Tier III terror organization for its relations with the Chinese state, and this classification has not been rolled back in any way. As of August 2022, the TPLF still appears on the US Department of State list of organizations in “Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds Exemptions,” which is essentially a list of these people have done things the US doesn’t like and if we could classify them as terrorists, we would.
The US has taken advantage of war crimes to masquerade as an ethical moderator, using this also as an excuse to pressure Ahmed into submission against Russia and China with sanctions. It is attempting to get the most out of a negotiation process that would end in the integration of Ahmed’s governance, the termination of TPLF power, and a US economic presence in Tigray after it becomes reoccupied by ENDF. It strives for both of these imperialist ideals simultaneously, both putting pressure on Ahmed to remain a US ally and both harming the Tigrayan war effort. This is clearly reflected in US sanctions against Tigray, not just the Ethiopian state. Accusations of a US partnership with the TPLF are therefore baseless, and play directly into the hands of the US by promoting its actual proxy, the ENDF.
Controlled Opposition vs. Anti-Imperialism in the Tigray Discourse
From a civil society standpoint, many Ethiopian anti-imperialist groups have been vocal in their exposure of the Ahmed regime, however these groups have had their voices crowded out in leftist circles, mainly by Western Leninists and Dengists defending the regime for its Belt & Road compliance. Many self-proclaimed anti-imperialists have jumped on the Ahmed bandwagon complaining about US intervention when it is actually themselves who have succumbed to US intervention in this dialogue, supporting Ethiopia’s first purely neoliberal regime in the country’s history. Particularly on the part of Western Leninists, condemning the US blockade on Cuba whilst defending the Ethiopian blockade on Tigray houses a dizzying hypocrisy. No blockade of basic necessities can ever be justified from any lens of human rights, let alone an anti-imperialist one.
Anti-imperialist dialogue must be directed under the confirmed pretext that the US supports the Ethiopian state, not Tigray, and before all the ENDF military-industrial complex. Narratives that antagonize the Tigrayan resistance to US-backed imperialism only serve controlled opposition to the US, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Dialogue must not stop at the surface of US sanctions, it must consider the neoliberal nuance that leads to these sanctions which also affect Tigrayans, otherwise the dialogue is severely incomplete. The misconception that Ahmed is a democratically-elected anti-imperialist directly serves Western narratives by legitimizing his transition of Ethiopia into a neoliberal republic. Dialogue centered on historical TPLF relations with the US tends to neglect how Ethiopian relations with the US have expanded dramatically under the Ahmed administration.
Avoiding Misinformation in the Tigray Discourse
The Worku Aberra piece “Opinion – Biden’s Blunder on Ethiopia” and others like it have been frequently cited by state apologists and misled anti-imperialists in defense of the Tigray Genocide. Aberra is a neoliberal economics professor who panders to pan-Ethiopian ultranationalist narratives whilst wholly ignoring all social and structural explanations. These soundbites from state-backed figures are unfortunately very common in the Tigray discourse, uniting neoliberal and so-called anti-imperialist stances.
Aberra’s piece and others like it:
-Dehumanize Tigrayans and make heavy use of state propaganda narratives with no consideration for the social and political conditions that created the Tigray War.
-Reduce the entirety of problems created by the Ahmed regime to the TPLF
-Conflate the entirety of the Tigray War with US interference, creating a baseless and racialized illusion that the Tigrayan people are US-backed puppets.
-Advocate for IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs in Ethiopia.
It is important to avoid all sources like this, including the December 2021 Foreign Policy op-ed article “Biden’s One-Sided Support for the TPLF Can’t Achieve Peace in Ethiopia” (later renamed) which follows a similar flawed and dehumanizing approach, but this time from Western academics of the Atlantic Council who clearly have investments in the Ahmed regime. Likewise, neoliberal-slanted pieces coming from Foreign Policy asserting the Tigray War to be a war over economic power and ideology are heavily flawed. Many Western Leninist and neoliberal academic circles alike agree on their support of the Ethiopian state. First and foremost, this is a genocide against the Tigrayan people and they are responding to it with their vehicle of self-defense, being the TDF. Explanations must be predicated on this fact.
An Internationalist Summary of the EPRDF Governing Coalition (1991-2018)
- Singlehandedly ended the remnants of Ethiopia’s 1980s famine and made Ethiopia capable of economic self-sufficiency for the first time in modern Ethiopian history after the UN botched its aid operations.
- Saved millions of lives by reorganizing Ethiopia’s economy into an endemic model capable of autarky.
- Successfully reversed many structural abuses of the Derg regime and made attempts to unify all of Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups by ensuring their representation in the ruling coalition.
- Military action revolved around confronting Eritrean state aggression and unifying Ethiopia against external aggressors, not internal oppression of ethnic groups and dehumanizing of indigenous people as the Ahmed regime is currently exercising.
- Women’s rights became the most improved in Ethiopian history during the EPRDF administration, with the EPRDF Women’s League developing a range of unprecedented social, economic, and political benefits. Women’s representation in parliament skyrocketed from 2% to 40% within a span of 15 years. Prior to the EPRDF, women were granted negligible representation and had virtually no social programs. Under the Ahmed administration, many women’s programs have been neglected or altogether dismantled.
- Youth political power increased exponentially with the formation of the EPRDF Youth League, which granted elected youth representatives of EPRDF to make collective decisions regarding youth policy. This dismantled ageist power structures prevalent in previous governments.
- Expanded the university system extensively, founding at least 20 universities across Ethiopia.
- Most governing power was democratically centralized in the coalition, creating a ruling class somewhat disconnected from the general population.
- Free speech and grassroots civil society was sometimes suppressed, keeping ethnic groups confined to the majority consensus of their respective coalition parties.
- Economic structure can be described as Yugoslavia-esque with Ethiopian characteristics. Similar flaws and a similar demise, albeit with more sustainable distribution mechanisms backed by a web of social programs.
- Administrative structure also reminiscent of the Yugoslavia model, following a multi-party vanguard model that has historically disintegrated following an irreconcilable accumulation of popular grievances suppressed over multiple decades.
- Attempted to assert democratic centralism over a highly heterogeneous country whilst suppressing growth of its civil society under a dense bureaucracy, leading to gradual drop in popular approval.
- Became lenient with Western military support to appease ENDF generals, avert a military coup, and deter the Eritrean state from invasion.
- Forged relations with the Chinese state that would eventually allow Chinese corporations to penetrate the economy and undermine local sectors.
- Lack of oversight and rogue nature of ENDF led to crimes committed against the Somali population of Ogaden in 2007 and 2008.
- Protests erupted in 2014 after the EPRDF announced a plan to integrate Addis Ababa into Oromo region, undermining Oromo farmers and suggesting that some would be displaced. This was followed by an announcement of resignation from what would be the EPRDF’s final chairman, Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe.
Above all, the most central nuance to this discourse is the Tigrayan people: an indigenous people with a homeland, a right to self-determination, and a right to self-defense, like all other indigenous peoples who bless this planet. It is only with indigenous voices that the quest for internationalist knowledge and keys to ancestral resistance can be realized. Otherwise, internationalism is nothing more than Eurocentric ruling class apologia accessible only to the Global North.
Long live the Tigrayan resistance to imperialism in all its forms, and may the Tigrayan people exist in immortality as state power structures crumble.
About the authors
Tigray Map is an ethnic Tigrayan journalist who has lived for 8 years in Tigray and Ethiopia. In May 2022, he created his outlet, Tigray Map, to use his skills as a voice for his people. Tigray Map is an outlet devoted to the fighting in Tigray, the political condition, the combat scenario, the history of Tigray, the predicament Tigrayans are in, and the adjacent wars.
The Renegade is an ethnically Celtic organizer and journalist from California. He is a member of DSA International Committee, founder of rising grassroots journal The Renegade, and founder of the now defunct world-renowned conflict blog war_pic. His work as an organizer and journalist has been acclaimed by members of unrecognized nations across the world from Tigray to Kurdistan to West Papua.