Viewpoint

History is being denied in Abiy and Isaias’ war on Tigray

Tigray is being decimated because its ruling party presents a challenge to two strongmen.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his ally, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, are waging a catastrophic war in Tigray that has caused alarm globally, including at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The UNSC has put Tigray on its agenda due to the gross human rights violation committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in the region.

Although Abiy called the war a “law enforcement operation,” targeting only leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the operation dismantled the entire regional government structure, socio-economic infrastructure, and resulted in grave human rights violations.

Tigray was a safe and peaceful region in Ethiopia and the TPLF had won in the regional elections just a few months before the war.

Abiy claims the war was started following the TPLF’s attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in Tigray, but the writing was on the wall ever since he and Isaias forged their unholy partnership in 2018.

Both have a common interest in eliminating the TPLF, though for different reasons.

The secretive nature of the relationship between Abiy and Isaias was a precursor to what would come. The two leaders met many times before the war, the dividends of which are not evident other than the war on Tigray.

Not long after Abiy assumed power in April 2018, his regime launched a two-pronged campaign; one against Tigrayan opinion leaders and another at the government of Tigray. He did this by undermining Tigrayan socio-political leaders and crippling the region’s economy with blockades.

These activities were part of a larger pre-war preparations.

Opposed narratives

Both sides of the conflict have diametrically opposed narratives of how and why the war started.

Abiy, along with his allies, seeks different benefits from the war but they all have the same narrative: that it was initiated by the TPLF, an organization they blamed for all the ills of the country.

However, this is not accurate.

To start with, blaming the TPLF for all the turmoil in the country is not justified. The TPLF was but one member of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Although the TPLF was the dominant force, other members of the EPRDF ought to be responsible for both the successes and failures under their leadership.

Also, what are the measurable outcomes of Abiy’s reformed government? Is Abiy’s human rights record any better than that of the TPLF and does his party have the moral standing to designate the TPLF as a “terrorist organization”? Is this a mere smear campaign to conceal a ‘dirty’ political agenda, or is there any currency in the allegations against the TPLF? These questions deserve further scrutiny through both a historical and an ideological lens.

Comparable to a center-left party in a Western country, the TPLF has been prominent or dominated Ethiopia’s politics for the past half a century. It is admired by many and demonized by others. Some still question the party’s political motives and objectives.

In the past three decades, the TPLF is credited by some for the country’s incredible economic progress, its regional diplomatic influence, and noted for the discipline of the party, including during its armed struggle. For those that understand the TPLF’s historical journey, its pragmatic political ideals, and its relationships with Ethiopia’s political elites, the views of its critics may seem bewildering.

Although it has had its glorious years and its day of reckoning, the TPLF’s track record is not as its die-hard critics would like to posit.

As a rebel force in the 1970s and 80s, the TPLF established a strong local base in Tigray enjoying popular support and admiration for its discipline and determination. Party members and leaders alike led sacrificial lives giving priority to the safety and protection of the peasantry—and, in return, the people of Tigray supported the TPLF’s ultimately successful armed struggle.

The areas they occupied enjoyed relative stability while chaos prevailed elsewhere. This cemented their relationship with Tigray’s rural communities. Despite facing the strongest military in sub-Saharan Africa at that time, they harnessed this popular support and helped overthrow the military regime known as Derg after 17 years of hard struggle.

Like many Ethiopian political elites, top members of the TPLF were students, and some came from relatively well-to-do families. They saw Haile Selassie’s imperial rule as archaic and unfit to transform Ethiopia to modernity.

Political movements of the 1970s including TPLF were also inspired by anti-colonial movements and left-wing political ideologies. But the TPLF was among the few parties that believed only peasant-supported struggle can oust the freebooter military government that filled the power gap when imperial rule collapsed in 1974.

Eventually, the TPLF-led EPRDF coalition succeeded, in part, because of its emphasis on a broad-based, peasant-supported struggle, while many other movements failed. Coupled with ideological differences, this exposed the TPLF to sharp criticism and negative sentiments that lingered for decades.

This coalition, after securing the Ethiopian state apparatus in 1991, made history by inviting all other armed movements and opposition parties, hitherto illegal, for the establishment of a transitional government.

Though the early years of the transitional government were not easy, EPRDF was able to restore peace in the capital and many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. The transition to a civilian political role was eased by the fact that EPRDF’s success was not based solely on military might but on a strong political arm that was able to chart a vision for postwar Ethiopia.

The TPLF distinguishes itself from its predecessors, and the current government, in the way it treated deposed military leaders when it gained control of the country in 1991.

Generals and political leaders accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity were given their day in court.

The Derg was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people including students, members of the royalty, wealthy individuals, dissenters, and underground opposition members. The TPLF’s decision to resort to legal means was an indicator of its desire to break the cycle of revenge and resentment from which, unfortunately, its opponents are unable to escape.

The TPLF-led EPRDF also made economic and social transformation its prime occupation once it won its fight for liberation. This gained it considerable support from Ethiopia’s rural communities.

During this time, Ethiopia rose to greater heights in the economic and diplomatic arenas.

In 2017, just a year before Abiy took over, it was the fastest-growing economy in the world. The World Bank considered Ethiopia to be one of the fast-growing African economies with an average growth record of 10.6 percent over more than a decade.

During this period, foreign direct investment progressively increased  and Ethiopia’s leaders represented Africa at world stages and economic forums, sharing their experiences on poverty alleviation and environmental protection.

The country also produced two five-year Growth and Transformation Plans to transform the country into a manufacturing hub, though the second was cut short when Abiy came to the scene.

Overall, Ethiopia was slowly but surely leaving behind its image of famine and civil war.

Mismanaged change

Abiy was arguably one of the most popular leaders in the history of the nation during his first few months in office. Human rights abuses were widespread during the years of the EPRDF and many were hopeful that a new leader would guarantee these rights.

Instead, developmental and peace-building policies were upended, a process that included the dissolution of the EPRDF coalition, the most enduring political alliance in Ethiopian history, though one with a continued tendency to authoritarianism and a growing culture of impunity.

While each of the four EPRDF member parties publicly accepted responsibility for wrongdoings, the blame was put squarely on the TPLF during this period of political transition. This was done to regain popularity and dissolve and substitute the coalition with a new one, the Prosperity Party (PP).

Abiy and his new party then asked the TPLF to join the rebranded party. The TPLF rejected the offer.

When TPLF refused to join the PP, state-led systemic media campaigns were launched accusing party senior leaders of corruption and maladministration. Paradoxically, the new leaders absolved themselves from any guilt during the previous tenure.

Why would Abiy want the TPLF to join his party if indeed he believes it to be a terrorist group that threatens the unity of the country? Apparently, Abiy is only concerned about one thing—ensuring his authority goes unchallenged.

This takes us to the reality behind the current ordeal.

Besides Abiy, the other major players in the war on Tigray are Eritrea and the Amhara elite. Isaias had waited two decades to get even with the TPLF for the losses he suffered in the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean War as had the Amhara elite, who had dominated the centralized administrative system prior to 1991 and now have an irredentist agenda.

This tripartite partnership needed a common excuse for the joint project—accusing the TPLF of promoting ethnic division and conflict. However, the TPLF did not bring ethnic conflict to Ethiopia as claimed by Abiy and his supporters.

In fact, many ethnic groups were already fighting against the central government before the birth of TPLF, including the Oromo Liberation Front, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, the Afar Liberation Front, and others.

TPLF recognized these communal challenges facing Ethiopia and devised a permanent solution to keep the country united.

Attacking and silencing the standard-bearer of the EPRDF’s policies was, therefore, a carefully chosen strategy: change public opinion to neutralize the TPLF’s capacity to challenge the new leadership and dissuade any potential partnership with other like-minded parties. The TPLF’s political footing and its military experience made it a prime target.

Ending atrocities

The war declared on 3 November 2020, under the pretext of “enforcing law and order”, is a smokescreen devised by this tripartite group. The evolution, scope, and extreme nature of the violations are evidence of planning and the result of many years of resentment.

In his war against Tigray, Abiy has enlisted the full military capacity of Ethiopia and Eritrea, regular and paramilitary forces from neighboring Amhara regional state, and, reportedly, forces from the Republic of Somalia and drones flown from the Assab base that the United Arab Emirates leased in Eritrea.

This disproportionate use of force has resulted in the death of thousands of civilians. Girls and women have been raped, more than five million people are in need of emergency food assistance, and famine hit the region.

The people of Tigray have been denied access to food, health services, electricity, internet, telecom, banking, and independent media. Their means of livelihood have been deliberately destroyed: crops have been burned down, cattle killed and looted, and grain stores have been destroyed.

With what moral authority can either Abiy or Isaias blame the TPLF for this carnage? The TPLF is no collection of angels but its opponents are morally and ideologically more corrupt. The current devastating war is a competition for stature and dominance. As dictators, Abiy and Isaias are threatened by the TPLF and do not accept any solution short of its annihilation.

The war in Tigray has shown the world how public opinion can be manipulated and how countries get dragged into conflicts that cost thousands of lives and turn years of economic gain to ashes. But there is a more serious question.

The international community laments its passive role in the past genocide in Rwanda and atrocities elsewhere. Therefore, why is it allowing another to take place?

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This is the viewpoint of the author. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at Asmara International Airport in Eritrea; 09 July 2018; Reuters

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About the author

Ethiopian Canadians for Peace

Ethiopian Canadians for Peace (ECfP) is formed by a group of professionals in Canada to promote dialogue to resolve the political deadlock in Ethiopia and the war in Tigray.

10 Comments

  • Dear Editor:
    Is at all you can say? I am just trying to advice you; you can’t operate a website if you do not know the ABC of serving different opinions. You are a funny person; really you crack me up! Honestly, I am not surprised to hear from patrician group like you when you mentioned the following, not knowing the definition of what you talking about;
    “This is our website and we set the guidelines”
    What are your guidelines?
    Here are the guidelines for the Ethiopia Insight comment section:
    “We welcome constructive comments beneath our stories, but not those considered, for example, belligerent, hateful, or gratuitously insulting. Please try and be polite and offer some form of supporting evidence for claims, especially if they are highly likely to be provocative to some other readers. We are trying to create a forum for productive conversations, so any comment that we do not think contributes to those risks not being approved.”
    Now, I am going to show your bias, perhaps a sign of complete ignorant of violating its own guidelines;
    An Eritrean fellow by the nick name Dave commented a nasty accusation and insult on Professor Kjetil’s “Eritrea’s final war? (25 June, 2021)
    quote;
    “Dave
    1 July, 2021 at 12:47 am
    This author is utterly ignorant as hell. Lol
    “His analysis is appalling beyond comprehension. He doesn’t actually done his paid home-work diligently to be able to describe/analyses the real situation on the ground in the horn of Africa. He is delusional. He is one of the highly bribed westerner TPLF agent. He is paid to write propaganda for TPLF daily on twitter and factious articles like this one also every now and then.”
    Does this fit your guideline? Common now!
    Honestly, you are not comfortable with someone like me who exposed TPLF for many years the ideology it implementing and crime it committed. Too bad, but you need to take the bitter pill, it is real. It is politics we are talking about here. I am not here to be sweet to your party or to romanticize the Nazism and fascistic ideology of Tigrayan ethnic politics. Oaky?! So I ask your conscience mind, if at all you have one, to dichotomize my opinion with the Eritrean fellow you allowed to be posted under your supposedly “guidelines”? I am sure, you will not answer my challenge to you, because you have nothing to answer, for fact that you are a bias or you have no knowledge of knowing your own guidelines.
    As for your rubbish recommendation for me to go to other websites; if I don’t like your bias; “ I have been in politics before you own this partisan website and I know where to address and I have been addressing, teaching and opposing the Tigray Nazi conscience before your website even came to life. Please, take the bitter pill and deal with it, no matter how it hurt. Okay? I am asking for the second time, to show me where is the guide lines of your website that my comment violated? Please as a trained website operator, I am expecting you to show where the violations causing for my comments not allowed for post? I have seen few like you, but, yours is exceptional or failing to show where I violated the guidelines. You think, you have obligation to show your visitors or writers when they violated your guidelines, but you have the moral and ethnic obligation to show us what went wrong, so we learn for the future.

  • Donc les video d’exécution
    Les fille violes
    Les sang dans la grande Eglise dAksoum.
    ……
    Juste une conseille au peuple du Tigray..
    Car on a fait a des gens sans valeurs faut faire attention.

    Qui parmi vous connaissez l’histoire des Arménien ….
    ….
    Ce identique
    Phase 1: arrestation des intelectuel
    Phase 2: destruction et appropriation des biens
    Phase 3: massacre deportation
    Phase 4: denie effacement des traces et donnees

    Au finish les elites amaha dans la quête de leurs vengance contre le TPLF
    sont devenu eleve d’Issaias…
    Mensonge propagande sur la toile
    Ils a quelues mois ..les uns on nie la présence des forces erythree et des Emirats…
    Meme de haut responsable
    Ca en dit long sur le gens de personne qu’il sont et de quoi il sont capable

  • Good article overall, well written.
    We should not forget the Amhara elite also had a big part to play in this war therefore accountability squarely lays in them.

    Not only did it propagate the wrong narrative of painting the EPRDF (by association TPLF) work and agenda as divisive and based on ethnic lines rather than what it truly is handing over self determination rights to nations and nationalities….. this obviously goes against the 100 year I’ll fated project of making Ethiopia an Amhara only state.

    if they (the Amhara elite) genuinely desired true democracy for all people, they would have supported the constitution which puts the people of Ethiopia at the center and worked with the EPRDF in the 27 years vs. Determined opposition including working with enemies such as Egypt and Eritrea… bypassing the national security of the country in jeopardy therefore what we have today.

    Let’s not forget, Tigray and the TPLF gave 1/2 the territory of Tigray to create what is now known Afar region to make the constitution work.

    While the Amhara elite talks about “territory of Raya and Wolkait that Tigray allegedly took” they don’t mention those territories Tigray have given away to create Afar fir the purposes of the ethnic based admin region creation…..: (facts are Tigray’s borders are till Aloha had it not been for Haileselassie taking it and giving it to Wollo and the then administrator, his son Algaworash), and wolkait given by Menelik.

    Responsibility should also equally and squarely rest on the Amhara elites for getting us to where we are today and what’s to come which unfortunately will be nothing but divided and dismantled Ethiopia.

    I hope folks don’t still have the audacity of proposing & wanting Tigray and Tegaru in this Ethiopia project after they have been so silent for 7 months while “their fellow Citizens” are suffering!

    • Response to Yikuno Amlak:

      Dear Yikuno Amlak Welkait, Tegedge, Telemet, and Setit-Humera are not part of Tigray. Same applies to Raya land. These were forcefully seized by TPLF since TPLF needed their fertile land and water resources (but not the people that actually live on it) for the future republic of gerater Tigray. These are now liberated from TPLF. These land belong to Ethiopia and not Tigrai. They will never agree to be administered out of Mekele. TPLF handed over half of Tigray province to Afar. I suggest going to Semera and ask regional government to hand over the lands that TPLF handed over without any consultations. WHy dont you try that and let us know how it goes :):):)

      Good luck

  • This can be hard to digest for those who like to multiply everything by zero. History can’t be erased by repeated and consistent lies.

    • The TPLF and its population have enviable attributes that is unique to the Horn of Africa:

      Discipline
      Resilience
      Authenticity
      Resourceful

      only time will tell what will unfold in the future but one thing is for sure revenge and hate and murder does not justify the wrong committed by tplf. Could have been addressed through a more legal and ethical means. The SAVAGERY waged on Tigray and its civilians and it women and children does not equate to the wrongs committed by a few hundred officials. Ethiopia lost its dignity and its integrity it did not do itself a favor. I have a feeling it will be a fuel that would propel Tigray to rise out of the ashes like the Phoenix in the future….

  • The piece is a TPLF propaganda. The TPLF has been evil from the beginning to the end and has gotten what it deserves albeit very late. The TPLF denied the people of Tigray the opportunity to enjoy political views other than TPLF’s and forcibly made the Tigray people to ‘LOVE’ it. The evilness of TPLF is like no other, even in its demise it made sure that the people of Tigray suffer with it.

    • Can some one make you love some things that you don’t love?
      If so you are out of your mind.
      If not Tplf is well loved by the people!
      that is why growing its power & know they are able to humiliated Ethiopia,Eritria & Somalia at the battlefield it is up to you to accept or deny the fact but one thing is for sure the people of Tigray will be victorious & we would have a free independent Tigray!
      Again it is up to you to see it or deny it. Life is only the effort of your work and understanding.

  • Despite the unsubstantiated reports and other innuendos and despite TPLF has played unforgivable, destructive tole its internal affairs and civil war in the past , I seriously doubt that Somalu has much role in this dispute.. When still struggling to fix it’s own domestic issues and done damages over decades. I dont think they would venture thius far into other far flanked places. If nothing, it seems a familiar TPLF propaganda machine to sway opinion of the West and get some political traction by portraying their local misfortunes and bad choices as a regional conflict that somehow threatens the westerns interest in general. Remember the menace of a ragtag Isamists from Mogadushu to the whole world and how they siffoned billions from West? I’m not saying Abiy and company wont use similar scheme given an opportunity, but it is a less sophisticated and worn out trick

  • wow, can anyone get this kinda white-washing and history revisionism treatement? or is it just for TPLF?
    Asking for a friend.

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