5:21 pm - Saturday July 20, 2058

Getting things right on the Ethiopia conflict! (Jon Abbink - Professor)

Getting things right on the Ethiopia conflict!

Jon Abbink

Professor of political anthropology-African Studies

A group of African intellectuals has made an ‘Open Call for for urgent action on Ethiopia’ (https://africanarguments.org/2021/08/an-open-call-by-african-intellectuals-for-urgent-action-on-ethiopia/. Such a general call to stop this armed conflict is fine, of course. The human toll is appalling, the material destruction great and the damage done to Ethiopia’s social fabric very worrying. And, as state in that Call, Ethiopia is indeed of continental significance, symbolically and politically.

This appeal, however, is partly the victim of biased Western media (mis)reporting and scheming by unreliable pro-TPLF circles and enemy foreign parties.

Here are some comments, prompted by the mistakes and errors of judgement in the Open Call:

  1. There is no ‘TDF’: they may now call themselves like that but there is only the militia of the TPLF, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. There is no independent Tigrai state and hence no ‘TDF’: no entity like this was ever formed in a legal manner. TPLF (the former ruling regime in Ethiopia before February 2018, dominating the EPRDF party), has done untold damage to Ethiopia and in the past 2,5 years to Tigrai, ‘their own’ region. In 1991–2018 it installed a vicious politics of ethnicity ‘unique’ in Africa that has posited all so-called ethnic groups against each other, across the country. If the signatories suggest that TPLF is a credible partner for negotiation then they are wrong. Why? Because of its appalling record: a) before they were inched out of power (non-violently) in March 2018, when Dr. Abiy Ahmed was elected within the ruling EPRDF party as leader and new PM, their 27-year rule in Ethiopia made TPLF (dominating the EPRDF) exceedingly unpopular in the country, and b) because of its inhuman, exceptionally cruel violence in the night of 4 November 2020 — killing thousands of federal army soldiers in their sleep and when they woke up, and the theft of federal army equipment. Testimonies of survivors are quite shocking. This treason was unprecedented, and made the TPLF unreliable and unacceptable. They are not capable of negotiations in good faith. Remember the year-long efforts of PM Abiy Ahmed before November 2020, to amicably settle outstanding differences between the Tigrai Regional State and the federal government (and by many other civil society groups): ALL rebuffed by TPLF leadership.
  2. The war was and is perpetuated by the TPLF. The ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Forces) showed restraint. The unilateral ceasefire declared on 28 June was meant to give breathing space to civilians, let more aid in, allow Tigrai farmers to plant crops, and give the TPLF occasion to rethink what they were doing and come up with proposals forward. Instead, the TPLF refused on all counts and intensified the war outside Tigrai, killing, torturing, and maiming hundreds if not thousands of civilians in the process. There are even eyewitness accounts that dozens of people in Afar and Amhara regions were killed with lethal injections. ENDF and allied local Amhara militias have no other option than to respond to the TPLF offensives.
  3. A second defining event after 4 November attack was the 9 November 2020 mass-killing in Mai Kadra town in the Wolqait-Kafta Humera region, an annexed part of Amhara Region in post-1991 Tigrai. As we now know, over 1500 civilians (largely of Amhara background) were literally slaughtered, with knives, machete and clubs, others shot: men, women, children and elderly. This was not a military battle. Culprits were TPLF militia and youth group members (‘Samri’). A few days later they fled to Sudan, where they spread under the ca. 60,000 Tigrai refugees. How to ‘understand’ or negotiate with people (TPLF) who to this day show no remorse whatsoever of this massacre?
  4. Eritrean troops: I still don’t understand why Eritrea would have no right to assist the Ethiopian federal forces in this TPLF-initiated war. What law or statecraft tradition forbids a country from assisting another, notably when there are indications that self-defence was involved? Not all details are clear, but while Eritrea likely sent in troops a couple of days after 4 November to secure the border, they became fully engaged after TPLF forces fired missiles on Asmara. That the Eritrean forces have gone too far in their actions and may have committed serious abuses is something else — but of course to be condemned. But that alone is not sufficient to say ‘All Eritrean troops should leave’. And as said before in various sources, probably Eritrean military action in Humera town (on the Sudan border) in early November last year prevented the TPLF to perpetrate another targeted mass killing of civilians.
  5. The Open Call speaks of a ‘national regional government of Tigrai’. But is there really a functional or recognized ‘national regional government of Tigrai’ that could act on behalf of the Region, let alone in name of the Tigrai people? I don’t think so.
  6. The remarks in the Call on “targeted illegal detentions (especially because of ethnicity), the enforced disappearances and torture in captivity” — one is not sure what this does refer to. If it is based on news messages in the global (Western) media and Al Jazeera, then one should be cautious. People have been arrested, but on the basis of suspected crimes.
  7. The “… destruction of hard-earned physical and metaphysical infrastructure across Tigray”, e.g., the ICT and power supply structures — is, unfortunately, largely the work of the TPLF. Time and again, the Ethio-Telecom and others restored the damage, again to be destroyed by TPLF units.
  8. Ultimately, of course a political solution is called for. Tigrai is a quintessential part of the historical Ethiopia. What is the way forward now? Difficult to see. TPLF doesn’t like a political solution. Listen to the statements of their second-rate ‘leaders’ and ghost-writers. TPLF thought it could reconquer Addis Ababa militarily. That was their ‘solution’. It chose the violent way, and still does so now. And then in the form of ‘scorched-earth’ tactics: attack, kill civilians and destroy infrastructure, loot property, kill livestock, burn crops, and then retreat. Also, via intimidation by mass killing, like in early August 2020, the shelling of a building with IDPs and children in Galicoma, Afar Region, with over 200 people killed: many of them children and all non-combatants. Such ‘feats’ were not recorded on the side the Ethiopian federal army.
  9. A serious problem preventing real negotiations is that the ordinary people of Tigrai — and the child soldiers, the victims of TPLF rule, the parents forced to give their children to the TPLF army and who have to hand over international food-aid rations to the TPLF troops — to voicetheir concerns. They are not allowed to speak freely and give their views on the ways forward. If they did, they would be victim of Taliban-like retaliation by TPLF cadres.
  10. Foreign interference and pressure, especially of the biased and incompetent USA and EU foreign policy-makers, is to be discouraged. The EU freezing of promised aid funding and US sanctions and threats to remove Ethiopia as eligible to the AGOA would be devious and counter-productive. The initiatives toward a solution must rather come under the umbrella the AU, and possibly via neighbours like Sudan (if it stops listening to Egypt), or Kenya, or even South Sudan. Egypt can be no partner because it is systematically sabotaging Ethiopia on account of the GERD Blue Nile dam and it has apparently been selling arms to TPLF as well as training their forces in the Sudanese refugee camps. So much for Egypt’s African solidarity. IGAD doesn’t seem to be a serious candidate either.
  11. Imperative upon all those concerned about this conflict is dismantling or ignoring the wave of pro-TPLF propaganda and misinformation that comes to us daily, including from so-called ‘reputable’ news outlets like BBC, Washington Post, New York Times, etc.: appalling superficiality and even purposeful misinformation. They are served by active and well-financed pro-TPLF media and cyber-mafia, by ‘lobbying’ firms (in the US), and by certain academics who incomprehensibly back the TPLF, thus betraying academic principles (I thought) of honesty, fairness, and looking at the evidence. One day, the story of this will be told in detail.
  12. The idea of a ‘national dialogue’ in Ethiopia sounds so nice but is a fake one, launched by some less-informed observers and by some Ethiopian opposition parties that feared being side-lined, and some of whose leaders have been active in fomenting violence. There were elections in June this year, remember? PM Abiy Ahmed’s ruling Prosperity Party received a big mandate. Yes, there were many problems, but these still were serious elections. The results provided the basis for a new political compact (a 2nd round in some remaining constituencies will be held on 6 September). Extra-parliamentary manoeuvring to get representation and invite sabotaging parties like the remnants of TPLF to a ‘national dialogue’ is incorrect, if not devious. It is a deflection of the political process. It is also forgotten that there is already a ‘Joint Council of Political Parties’ in Ethiopia, a forum that regularly consults with the government.
  13. In short, a call to peace is fine and needed. But it is perhaps too early and ways forward are difficult to see. TPLF will never accept it. They have posed ridiculous preconditions. They will continue wreaking destruction and go on killing civilians and destroying infrastructure and property in northern Ethiopia. There is an element of deep hatred in their activities. So they are not really a party in any ‘negotiation’. The Tigrai Region’s ordinary people may think otherwise, but we can’t hear them. Other ways have to be found by the Tigrayan people to mediate/negotiate. The Ethiopian people (including its academics, few of whom will ever sign the Open Call of the concerned African intellectuals), are in large majority behind PM Abiy Ahmed. It would be paradoxical and sad to see African intellectuals become unwitting tools of Western misconceptions and misguided policy machinations. The Ethiopian federal government is not without its mistakes and failings, but in this tragic case of the Tigrai conflict it needs (critical) support. Many Tigrayans in the rest of Ethiopia are also opposed to the TPLF. Some serve in the federal government, some in the armed forces, and others in all kinds of institutions and walks of life. It is not something ‘ethnic’. Among the TPLF we don’t SEE any positive traits right now. Because of their choice for death and destruction, the TPLF is destined to decline. Their expiry date is long overdue.





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