By Donek Tesfaye Zemo
Many political observers have been commenting on the dwindling activism of the Tigrayan diaspora after the Pretoria Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. Indeed, it is puzzling because many of us believe that the truce has not brought about the change that the deal promised. Many insist that the agreement does not represent Tigray’s rights and needs. Before the the signing of the agreement, the preconditions for negotiations included a referendum, the right to keep the army, and a call for international investigators into the war crimes committed in the region. The peace agreement did not include any of these conditions. One may argue that there is a give and take in a peace negotiation, and Tigray leaders needed to make tremendous concessions given what negotiating power they would have had at the time. Be that as it may, seven months into the agreement, Tigray is still occupied by the Eritrean militia; Tigrayans are still disappearing; They are being detained, tortured, killed, raped, and forcefully displaced. It shows that what little win the agreement has promised has not been delivered. The recent Human Rights Watch report of ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray confirms the same. It is obvious to many of us that Abiy Ahmed is baulking at implementing the terms of the peace agreement. He is allowing Amhara Fano to destroy the lives of Tigrayans while re-engineering the demography by forcefully displacing Tigrayans and settling Amharas in their places. He has also allowed Eritrea to occupy, abuse and kill Irob and Kunama people. So, why are members of the Tigrayan diaspora not engaging in droves as they did passionately and sacrificially before the signing of the agreement?
Although this issue is multifaceted and needs a more thorough study, two points are worth mentioning now. The first is our (mis)understanding of justice. The concept of justice is very elusive to many of us. Some of us view justice as retaliation, the emotional satisfaction of watching those who have hurt us pay for what they have done. And there are those of us who think justice stands in the way of peace and, therefore, must be let go of for a supposedly higher cause: peace. However, justice is neither of these things. Yes, justice is judgemental; it punishes wrongdoing based on a predetermined standard, which we call the law. But it does so because it upholds the predetermined standards as the guarantor of a healthy community. Furthermore, Justice is more than bringing judgement; it is about ensuring the right relationship between people. It is the foundation for peace; peace is realised through justice. Without justice, there is no lasting peace, and without lasting peace, retaliation may be mistaken for justice. Perhaps, there isn’t as good an example for explaining this concept, at least in recent years, as the decision of the leaders of the Tigray church to sever ties from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church.
When the church fathers decided to part ways with the Ethiopian Tewahido Church, some may have misconstrued it as a lack of ability to forgive and reconcile. It may have even looked as “unchristian.” However, the reality is far from this. What the church fathers are objecting to is not reconciliation but a reconciliation that does not incorporate justice, for there is no reconciliation without justice. Their primary objection is that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church has for centuries been a tool for successive regimes, and, in the case of the Tigray war, an outright supporter of the Ethiopian regime. As a result, it has veered off the original mission, vision, and purpose of shepherding and guiding her sheep on the right path. They aim to return to the apostolic, strong, ancient church; to do so, it must purify itself. Of course, what kick-started this initiative was the war in Tigray, where many Tigrayan monks, priests, and believers were subjected to extrajudicial killing, gang rape, detention, and disappearance. Tigrayan church fathers cried out for help and support, expecting the church leaders in Addis Ababa to consider their sacred call to care for their sheep, stand sacrificially alongside their brothers and sisters, and did whatever it took for the war to stop. Instead, the Ethiopian church stood in support for the war by being the government’s propaganda wing, fundraising for the military, and providing logistics. This wrongdoing does not exclude the leaders who stayed silent and did not oppose those leading the church in this way. The Tigray church leaders have witnessed one of their own’s head cut off and propped on a stick. The centuries of wrongdoing of the church have never resulted in this level of atrocities. Tigray church leaders firmly believe that it reached this level because the church did not take the right action when it abandoned the gospel and wedded itself with the government of the time. Since the Tigray church does not have jurisdiction over the Ethiopian Tewahido Church, it can only separate from such a church. But they didn’t separate without putting a prerequisite for reconciliation. The requirement is a confession of wrongdoing based on the church’s moral code, ex-communication of wrongdoers, and a commitment to the church’s original mission and vision witnessed by a third-party mediating body. This serious action will ensure justice – the right relationship between leaders and their followers, as it punishes wrongdoing so it will not be repeated.
Even as we seek such an elementary peace for Tigray, we are seeking the right not to be killed, raped, and displaced; the right to receive fertiliser, to harvest and eat; the right to develop and operate schools and health centres for Tigray. This right can only be ensured if justice ensures it by punishing those who stand against it. Justice provides it because it sits above the government, which is responsible for keeping its people safe and holds wrongdoers accountable. Therefore, Tigrayans must learn from their church fathers and understand justice as the mechanism by which peace is guaranteed and must seek to listen to leaders who call for justice and get behind justice, not shun it. Perpetrators of this war, those who committed genocide, who engaged in it at all levels, must be brought to justice. Only then can Tigray have lasting peace. For this to take place, we need independent, international investigators to be given unfettered access and mandate to uncover the truth. Let us remember that we are embarking on a long-term struggle which will require the creative and impressive activism we saw pre-truce by the Tigrayan diaspora. The call for justice is a uniting cause for Tigrayans because it will bring lasting peace to Tigray.
There is one more elementary aspect to justice that many of us miss drastically, and this point will be a great segue to the second reason. One of the foundational concepts of justice starts from the value and dignity of a human life. For a monotheistic society, it is easy to speak about the concept of imago die, which was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. This concept teaches that each person has worth, dignity and is unique and significant because each person is created in the image of God. The idea brings reverence to each human life and makes the person’s preservation the most central part of justice. However, as beneficial as our communal mindset is, it deprives us of looking at the individual as more than a tool for the well-being of the many. Many of us rely on each other for our survival. Even among the diaspora, who live in a highly individualistic society, the interdependence of our community is our support system. This community is often led by designated formal and informal leaders who tell us how to think and behave. Therefore, there is a high cost associated with individual thinking.
One of the fascinating revelations of imago die is that every person has “something within them that God injected…every[person] has the capacity to have fellowship with God” (Martin Luther King Sermon, Ebenezer Baptist Church, July 1965) Even though most of our monotheistic people uphold this idea as accurate, it stands in contrast with our lack of value for the uniqueness of individual thought and opinion. If we acknowledge that we are created by the creator, and in his image we are created, then we need to value not only the individual as a precious member of the community but also honour the thoughts and ideas that emanate from them. Justice demands not just the safety of the majority but the safety of each person. Justice instructs that the harm that falls on one person is harm that falls on all. Justice demands that we allow individuals within our communities to think and express their thoughts. Therefore, there is a need for the Tigrayan diaspora to gain the courage not just to follow along but to stand against the fray and speak when it requires it.
Often, we are reprimanded for objecting to the status quo because unity is essential. However, the recent fragmented unity seen among Tigrayans is a result of not holding our leaders accountable. Accountability reinforces unity because it brings the focus back to the cause that unites. We need Tigrayans not just as a group but as individuals as well. We need you to hold our political leaders accountable when they veer off justice and speak truth to power when necessary. In this war, we lost close to one million people. We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. Though the journey is long, let us persevere as we stand, seeking justice for each of these fallen lives and the millions of people still hanging between life and death.
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.