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Power and Resentment: The Unholy Marriage That Gave Birth to the War in Tigray



By Donek Tesfaye Zemo

When reading Sarah Vaughan and Martin Plaut’s excellent book, Understanding Ethiopia’s  Tigray War, we cannot help but observe a typical drive in the instigators of the war, a drive  for power not just over Ethiopia but over the horn of Africa. The narration of history provides  a pattern of behavior distinctive to the two heads of government, Abiy Ahmed and Isaias  Afewerki, who primarily mobilized disgruntled forces to wage war. Astutely, the authors coin  the triad of land, power, and empire as the central driver of the war in Tigray, making the  “centralization- decentralization pull”1Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, London: Hurst, May 2023, 414 at the core of the political divide. However, following  the pursuit for domination by both leaders can be a valuable analytical tool that can inform  strategic thinking for future action. This digging into the past to prevent what may transpire  in the future is decidedly different from what the authors warn as the construction or  deconstruction of history as a fuel for unending antagonism. The intention in writing this  article is not to lock the Ethiopian dialogue into these sets of findings and therefore dictate  future dialogue. Rather, by exploring history, we want Tegaru and other concerned allies to  have a relatively clear understanding of the trajectory of the future and, in doing so, stay  engaged, sound the alarm, and do their level best for the end of injustice on civilians. We  must not forget that at the heart of the war was a genocidal intent that wanted to wipe Tegaru  out of the face of the earth. These evil sentiments do not simply vanish into thin air because a  peace agreement has been signed in Pretoria. If Tegaru are to stand together, united, it must  be primarily against genocide. And to do so, we need to continue to speak against the threat  of genocide as we call for accountability for what took place in the past.  

The book’s historical expose reveals Isaias Afewerki’s early tendencies for domination and his  patient, methodical journey to the 2020 Tigray war. Ever since the annexation of Eretria, the  resulting resentment of the student body, coupled with Marxist sentiments, fueled a  movement that led to Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for emancipation. It is in this context that  Isaias Afewerki rose to power and has dominated Eritrea ever since. Isaias’s Eritrean People’s  Liberation Front (EPLF) was different in ideology from the other student movements of the  time in that it neither advocated for pan-Ethiopianism nor ethnonationalism; rather it pursued  a united, national Eritrea that fought for independence against outside ‘colonizers.’ From the  outset, Isaias hijacked the Eritrean discourse from having a ‘national question’ to a ‘colonial  question2Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 122. 3 Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 243 Therefore, according to Isaias, any discussion around ethnic-based, diverse  political organizations, even in the country he sought to separate from, threatened Eritrea’s  pursuit of one nation. The point here is that Isaias sees fit to interfere in a neighboring  country’s politics because he found his idea of one Eritrea being threatened. This continues to  be evident throughout his reign: 1995, in his clash with Yemen, 1996, in his military  involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1996, in the border dispute war in  Ethiopia, 1998, in arming Sudanese rebels against their government, 2007, trained and armed  the Al-Shabab and in 2008, had a border dispute with Djibouti.3Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 243.

The book helps us understand Isaias’s sense of entitlement to the first fruit of the crop  stemming from an identity logged in the Italian era self-awareness of Eritreans as ‘superior’ 

to Tegaru and other Ethiopians. This is partly why the 1998 war broke out and is the cause of  the looting and destruction of Tigray in the 2020 war. Isaias’s “self-conception as a regional  elder statesman”4Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 135. has been demonstrated again in the recent union with Ethiopia’s Abiy  Ahmed until recent months. “Ultimately, Eritrea was never big enough for Isaias”5Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 136., and  Abiy, albeit for a limited time, had given him unfettered access to Ethiopia, leading towards  becoming a regional leader. His great retaliatory ability to anyone that questions this  eldership is seen not only in the 2020-2022 Tigray war but also in the 80s when he blocked  humanitarian access to starving civilians6Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 127 and in the years between 2000 and 2018 in  harboring and giving military training/ logistical support to any hostile adversary.  

Likewise, the long-standing resentment of ethno-nationalists, particularly those representing  the Oromo, who felt manipulated out of power by the EPRDF’s ruling party, provided the  context for Abiy Ahemd’s rise to power. Although, in Abiy’s case, we cannot forget the  unholy union of the Oromo ethnic nationalists with the Amhara nationalists and those  masquerading as pan-Ethiopian nationalists that were working against the Tigray wing of the  party. Abiy carefully cultivated the political elite’s resentment towards Tigray’s ruling party  without any loyalty to any specific ethnicity, political ideology, or even the individuals who  stood by him but with a sole commitment to his own apprehension and retention of power. 

If Isaias leaned into the Italian colonial era to coalesce the diversified political, ethnic, and  religious views into a unitary, centralized nation, Abiy invoked a return to the romanticized  ideals of the imperial era, especially to the Amhara elites and the so-called pan-Ethiopian  nationalists while also appearing as an Oromo nationalist in Oromo circles. “The genius of  the silver-tongued prime minister”7Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 186 is in extricating himself from the EPRDF that brought  him to power and re-categorizing it as a continuation of the Derg era culminating in a “50- year period of national “aberration” in which Ethiopia had lost its way, under the malign  sway of foreign-Marxist-ideologies.”8Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 186. By doing so, he could draw a “parallel between his  task as Prime Minister and a mission for Ethiopia’s salvation”9Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, quoting Mehdi Labza, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray  War, 186. viewing himself as Ethiopia’s  ordained new king. He cleverly coined the term ‘medeemer,’ simply a code word for Isaias’s  style of singularity, total uniformity, and a unitary nation. 

Although an astute politician/chief manipulator, Abiy lacks coordinated, long-range planning  and risk assessment facilities and relies on his instincts, making it rather difficult to predict  his next moves. His most disruptive actions were to reform long-established institutions such  as the security, intelligence, and military sectors, not to mention bringing in exiled armed and  unarmed opposition groups, creating a new governing body in the form of Prosperity Party,  not only restoring relations with Eritrea but also giving them access to the country’s  intelligence and military data proves this point – that Abiy’s rule is highly erratic, further  from logic, in some cases outright treasonous and whose collaborations are short-lived.  Nevertheless, with certainty, we can predict one thing; Abiy will stay faithful to the path that  will help him consolidate and retain power at any cost.  

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy similarities between Isaias and Abiy is their lack of  reverence for human life. Abiy’s rise to power began with sacrificing the many young  Oromos (Kero) who fought for the Oromo political question. In just two months after his  inauguration, the grenade that blew up at Meskel sqaure and was duped as an attempt to assassinate  Abiy also inaugurated the start of the killings of civilians. Random unaccounted deaths of key  figures such as the Grand Renaissance Dam Director or the general Seare Mekonnen and  Amhara region leaders occurred in the first few years of his reign. In his own utterance, Abiy  admitted to 113 outbreaks of ethnic violence prior to the 2020 war in Tigray.10Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War,200 However, the  Tigray War revealed his true nature and exposed his capacity for the most atrocious acts in  recent history. His reaction to the women of Tigray being raped by Eritrean and Amhara  militias was essentially, “What is the big deal?” The “indiscriminate artillery barrage on  civilian areas”11Vaughan Sarah and Martin Plaut, quoting NYT, Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War, 274., the mass killings of men, boys, priests, and monks, the systematic sexual  abuse of women and girls, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war were war crimes  crafted by Isaias and implemented by Abiy Ahmed himself. 

So, what should we learn from these patterns? Recent events have revealed that the rift  between Isaias and Abiy is caused by Abiy’s refusal to be viewed or manipulated as “the  younger, more inexperienced Ethiopian leader,” which will play second fiddle as Isaias  resumes his leadership over the region. This rift may give hope to Tegaru as the enmity may  seem to provide a much-needed respite. However, it is folly for the Tigray governing body to  bank on such enmity, align themselves with Abiy’s rule, and coalesce with its agenda. It is  important to remember that Tigray’s only leverage is in its unity against genocidal actors.  Such unity can only be maintained if Tegaru continue to make the genocide front and center.  Pursuing justice for the sake of those who have suffered and are under constant suffering is  the only hope. 

Donek Tesfaye Zemo was the Ministry Evaluation and Learning Lead at SIM, a mission organization committed for the holistic transformation of people including bringing real hope and help to a conflict weary world. She was responsible for giving consultation to more than 300 ministries in over 40 countries in strategic, outcome focused evaluation. Prior to that she served as the deputy country director of SIM in Ethiopia ensuring that the 30-40 ministries carried out by more than 400 workers were appropriately planned, resourced, executed and reviewed. Since leaving SIM, in February of 2023, she works as a freelance consultant and researcher.

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  1. nimintai

    May 16, 2023 at 8:45 pm

    Abiy presented himself as Oromo leader, but he is more attuned to the Amhara side of his lineage, meaning that he shares Amharas deeply held animosity and the eagerness to wage a war of atrocities against Tigray people. For Isaias, Eritrea is like his personal trophy and reward to rule as he pleases after leading the war of secession. Generally speaking, Eritreans consider themselves different / separate from Tigray people, but I don’t believe most Eritreans share Isaias’s craving for vengeance and bloodshed as he has done against Tigray.
    Abiy and Isaias together might have had the wish to be seen as the new hope in the Horn of Africa, but their illusion proved to be deeply flawed, because their first project became a military conspiracy to wage war on Tigray, described by the West as war crimes and crimes against humanity. And thus, between Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Abiy/Isaias/Amharas war on Tigray, the Horn of Africa continued to be the horror story of Africa.

  2. Tesfa

    May 16, 2023 at 4:13 pm

    So Tigray is supposed to make genocide “front and center”. How pathetic, how unhealthy, What a horrible legal to leave to your children.

  3. Alem

    May 16, 2023 at 3:07 pm

    In other words, you need an enemy to find unity of purpose. No enemy, no unity. Why, that’s delusional. There’s already a huge crack within Tplf leadership after promising quick victory, in the process condemning tens of thousands of Tigrayan youths (often mobilizing through coercion and deception) to the bloody war to keep themselves in power. Well, it did not happen. Guess whose fault that was? Of course, Isaias’s, Abiy’s, everybody else’s except Tplf and its warped ideology. You want any sane person to believe your crap? Perhaps Martin Plaut, because this is good promotional stuff for his book and the fact that he has made a career out of our misery and he has yet to be held accountable for perpetuating violence!

  4. Tadele Teferra

    May 16, 2023 at 12:01 pm

    Thank you Tghat! Your presentation aims to expose the reality on the ground. Despite the fact you clearly made public, some Oromo opportunists allied with the man with false claim that Dr. Abiy Ahmed works for the RIGHTS and BENEFITS of the Oromo populace. That is utterly false because he openly and clearly told us to complete the PLAN started by King Minilik! His Medemer is a sufficient showcase. He seemed to change “Unitary” with illusive term “Medemer”, meaning to add up! He intends to add us up as if we were cash or commodity. His utter failure becoming ever more transparent under the present crises. He seems to have missed his target!!!

  5. Siltan Mesay

    May 15, 2023 at 10:42 am

    By making the genocide “front and center”, should we risk #bringing the genociders uniting under the umbrella, common enemy( Tigray), again? There henceforth, instead of widening the rift, we would find ourselves harboring history repeat it self.

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