Those determined to eliminate Tigray’s ruling party appear to have no upper limit on the number of Tigrayans they are willing to see perish in pursuit of that goal.
As Tigray forces withdraw from Afar and Amhara regions following military setbacks, it is important to examine what drove their offensive.
The proximate cause was Tigray’s predicament after armed resistance in the first half of this year forced the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies to retreat from most of the region in June. As it announced a “unilateral” ceasefire, the federal government proceeded to cut off banking, electricity, and telecoms services to Tigray, and restricted road access for aid trucks to one choked circuitous corridor via Semera, Afar region’s capital.
Furthermore, Amhara’s government remained in control of parts of southern Tigray and most of western Tigray, two areas that the region claims from Tigray. In the case of the latter, that position was buttressed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.
Meanwhile, the narrative from Addis Abeba was that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had been taught a lesson, not that a popular armed resistance had exposed the folly of trying to force a region with a long history of autonomy to submit to federal diktat.
For right or wrong, Tigray’s leaders decided that none of that was acceptable, and a sizeable proportion of Tigrayans seemed to back the ensuing counter-offensive that began two weeks after the federal retreat.
Why was that?
Imagine that for months you had poured scorn on victims’ accounts of some of the worst crimes that humans are capable of.
Imagine that your hatred of a political party and system of government had led you to not only disbelieve the victims’ stories, but deride their cries for help, shoveling salt into the gaping wounds left by the pillaging of Tigray.
Imagine that many Ethiopians, including the most privileged and the best informed, were acting in this manner.
Imagine that some of those people were using the TPLF’s long period of preeminence—when political dissent was crushed and human rights abuses were rampant—to justify the suffering of Tigray’s population.
This nightmarish scene has been Ethiopia’s reality, while the denialism and delusion indicated that Tigrayans would not be waking up from the horror any time soon.
This explains the now halted offensive operation of the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).
Disagreements etched into a diverse country’s soul exploded last November after the federal government tried to bring to heel a dissident province. The move, whose legal justifications at least had some merit, opened the gates of hell in Tigray.
Conflict had become all but inevitable following a constitutional spat over the region’s right to hold its own election. Perceiving a federal military attack to be imminent, the Tigray authorities and some Tigrayan officers in the national army worked together in an attempt to wrestle control of a powerful federal military command stationed in the region, and this sparked the civil war.
There was nothing particularly surprising about that cataclysmic development for anyone who had been paying attention.
The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) Northern Command, comfortably the military’s largest command, had a Tigrayan-heavy officer corps and had at times been a focal point of the federal-regional power struggle since 2018.
Temperatures approached boiling point after Tigray’s 9 September 2020 election for its regional council, which was held in defiance of federal authority, and the subsequent Addis-Mekelle mutual delegitimization. It became even more contested after the regional government flexed its muscles in late October by blocking its commander’s replacement.
Believing that a military alliance was amassing to attack, Tigray’s leadership and the defecting ENDF officers acted to ensure that the Northern Command and its mechanized divisions were not turned against them.
In a seemingly well-prepared ‘shock and awe’ response, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed immediately enlisted the rest of the ENDF, along with security forces and militia from, at least, Amhara and Afar regions, and also Eritrea’s military.
A fleet of covertly attained attack drones (possibly provided by the United Arab Emirates) bombarded military hardware that had been commandeered by the Tigray forces and other targets, killing some senior Tigray figures. Next came systematic looting, ethnic cleansing, massacres, and gang rapes.
That orgy of violence was accompanied by a similarly lurid barrage of dishonesty by dissembling Ethiopian elites who were desperate to punish Tigrayan leaders they had long loathed. As a result, supporters of Abiy’s war effort appeared unconcerned about the manner in which victory was achieved.
The primary causes of this hydra-headed catastrophe were the mixing of an official propaganda campaign and an identity-based power struggle so bitter that Tigrayans’ views and, subsequently, their lives became a mere inconvenience for the war’s proponents. A vital ingredient in the lethal cocktail is that a surge of dubious reports and cries of fake news were used to deflect from the very real destruction that has been brought to bear on Tigray and its people.
During the war, pent-up vengeance in Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara nationalists was unleashed against a political party, the TPLF, whose years of armed struggle and rule are intertwined with the collective Tigrayan identity.
Even with the tragedy that has occurred so far—one that is impossible to quantify, as nobody knows how many people have perished—the worst may still be to come with the war seemingly entrenched and a full-blown manmade famine likely worsening inside blockaded Tigray.
The thinking behind the full-spectrum federal-led onslaught was perhaps that Tigrayans would be intimidated into distancing themselves from their long-serving leaders. That notion has proved to be delusional, as was obvious from the outset to those familiar with the dynamics.
Instead, the opposite occurred, especially as news of atrocities against civilians spread. As Tigray’s resistance consequently grew, so did the violence of the counter-insurgency. The reports of atrocities pushed more and more civilians, including those who previously opposed the TPLF, into backing Tigray’s fight for survival.
This is why the Eritrean and Ethiopian leadership’s scheme to destroy the TPLF was a bad idea in the first place and why the federal government’s mischaracterization of their opponent as merely a small cabal of criminal politicians was so dangerous.
To avoid this worsening horror, the rest of Ethiopia should have reconsidered these matters. Sadly, with bloodlust and groupthink in full swing, that is increasingly unlikely to occur. This is especially the case now after the Tigray forces turned the tide on their opponents, initially advancing through eastern Amhara—also showing a thirst for revenge at times.
Instead of a course correction, more doubling down is likely, with any dissenting voices being accused of promoting a TPLF narrative. Partly due to people’s perennial unwillingness to admit their mistakes, and partly due to prejudice, the denial and delusion is set to endure. This will ensure an increase in repression that is destined to exact an increasingly horrifying toll on Tigrayans, and on other Ethiopians.
A broad clique
There have been several important incidents in Ethiopia in recent years where it has been hard to be sure of exactly what occurred. But that does not mean it is not possible to be sure of some critical matters. With regard to the background, contemporary political dynamics, and conduct of the Tigray war, there are things that are well known that should give those who back the war pause for thought.
Paramount among these was the considerable respect that TPLF has in Tigrayan society, in contrast to elsewhere in Ethiopia where the party is commonly viewed as tyrannical for being the nucleus of an authoritarian regime. The war widened that divide into a chasm, making reconciliation between Tigray and other key political constituencies—notably urban elites, especially in Addis Abeba and Amhara—hard to conceive. A lasting separation now appears to be likely, although only after more warfare.
As was drummed into Ethiopians for three decades by TPLF propaganda that became a staple of the state media, the party played a leading role in overthrowing the Derg military dictatorship in 1991 and ensuring Tigray’s autonomy via self-determination, a right that is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.
Many Tigrayans are proud of this achievement and TPLF veteran freedom fighters—known as tegadalay and tegadelit—are commonly treated as liberation heroes, sentiments that are truisms for those who hold them. However, for influential parts of Ethiopia’s political, business, and cultural elite, such viewpoints are anathema.
Ethiopia’s pan-nationalist intelligentsia has always dismissed the claims that the history of imperial marginalization justified special arrangements that are fairly common in diverse polities—in Ethiopia’s case, a multinational state with unlimited self-determination rights for its ethno-linguistic communities. From their perspective, the federal system is a diabolical TPLF plot to divide-and-rule, pitting the more populous Amhara and Oromo people against each other by handing them autonomous regions, thus forever allowing the minority Tigrayans to rule the roost.
Ethiopian and Amhara nationalists spent decades portraying the TPLF as the most powerful of the anti-Amhara ethno-nationalist forces who, in their eyes, ruined the somewhat violent, but fairly typical, nation-building exercise of an exceptional, traditional-yet-modernizing African civilization. Some go so far as describing the party’s veterans as Nazi-like villains.
Those sentiments exploded during the anti-government protests that brought Abiy to power in 2018, as shared opposition to TPLF domination converted enemies into friends, albeit fleetingly.
These hardline anti-TPLF viewpoints have been effectively propagated, first by the likes of ESAT—a formerly anti-Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) diaspora-based channel that promoted a strident Ethiopianism since 2010—and, after 2018, via state-affiliated propaganda channels, including feature-length documentaries that greatly offended many Tigrayans. As a result, there has been increasingly little sympathy around for those who defend the TPLF, let alone for the party’s politburo members.
This meant that rather than acknowledge the reality—that the likely cost in Tigrayans lives is unconscionable—those who made the case for war adopted fundamentalist poses.
Rarely, if ever, was it suggested that there is an upper limit on the number of Tigrayans who may perish in pursuit of what was dubiously presented as a law-enforcement operation.
Instead, with the TPLF cast as an anti-Ethiopian force hellbent on dismembering the country, any price becomes worth paying for the survival of the nation. Prime Minister Abiy and his advisor, Deacon Daniel Kibret, are among those who have even gone so far as to use exterminationist language, describing the party as “weeds” and “cancer”.
In some instances, the thinking was even more explicitly genocidal. For example, an Amhara militia leader extended the logic by pointing out that with a population roughly five times the size, the Amhara people could comfortably survive even if one of them was killed for each slain Tigrayan.
The same grim logic flows from other less sensational official pronouncements, such as Abiy’s refusal to negotiate with a locally popular party that the federal parliament designated a terrorist organization in May.
The disastrous consequences of this approach have been obvious for months. For example, back in April, the head of the Northern Command, General Kinde Gezu, admitted that “tens of thousands” are flocking to join the TDF. This meant that the number of “terrorists” was growing rapidly, and, accordingly, the number of ‘legitimate’ targets.
There has been the same problem with the standard federal portrayal of the TPLF as a “junta” or “criminal clique.” In terms of propaganda value, those labels have been effective, helping win popular backing for the war by further demonizing the party. But propaganda, which is by its nature produced to further political objectives, rarely aligns with reality.
Far from an isolated “junta”, Tigray’s leadership was hardly alone in its defiance of Addis Abeba, an act of brinksmanship that contributed to the outbreak of conflict.
As evidence, 2.59 million out of 2.63 million voters backed the party in the fateful regional election, and competing Tigray nationalist parties backed the TPLF government’s position on the constitutional dispute—that the term extensions were unconstitutional and the region had the right to hold an election.
Yet, rather than acknowledge mass Tigrayan support for the TPLF-run regional government’s position on self-determination, the standard response was to undermine the significance of the landslide by pointing to the party’s undoubted role in electoral authoritarianism. This is an example of how reasonable analysis (‘Elections under the TPLF-dominated EPRDF were by no means free and fair’) is exaggerated to produce a conclusion with grave implications.
It is correct, of course, that the EPRDF government, at times brutally, suppressed dissent in Ethiopia and repressed opposition activity, leading to absurdly lopsided election results, particularly in 2010 and 2015. It is also accurate to say that conditions in Tigray were far from perfect for polls last September, with preparations rushed, and some parties boycotting.
However, there is also reason to believe that the TPLF’s landslide victory was, broadly, an expression of the popular will. No journalists or researchers reported to the contrary, and, given the siege mentality that had developed among Tigrayans since 2018, it was natural for them to flock to the TPLF. The party still commanded considerable respect, was an omnipotent incumbent, and, perhaps most importantly, was considered to be the only force capable of defending Tigray and its long-cherished autonomy.
Therefore, with war approaching, TPLF support in the region was probably higher than it had been for years, as many Tigrayans clung to the TPLF as a shield to protect them from perceived persecution and imminent all-out attack. This means that as the federal government set out to capture or kill a “narrow clique” of TPLF elites, Addis Ababa’s actions were opposed by millions of Tigrayans.
Collective punishment was, therefore, unavoidable.
Revealing further the distortions of federal propaganda is the stance of Tigray’s military class on the constitutional dispute and the government’s treatment of that dynamic.
Given the defection of some Tigrayan Northern Command members, the subsequent federal detention of thousands of Tigrayan ENDF personnel was, from a strictly security perspective, logical. Such a move reasonably assumes that other Tigrayan soldiers and officers may also sympathize with the regional stance. However, with ethnic profiling adopted, it is no longer tenable to describe the opponent as a small TPLF “clique.” The dispute is evidently with a broader swath of the Tigrayan population than the party leadership.
The dissonance was on display in a 27 April story by the pro-government Fana Broadcasting Corporation that referred to authorities confiscating funds controlled by the “TPLF junta” while also talking about seizing the assets of “treasonous military officers who were fighting alongside the Junta” and of “three civil society organizations which were under the leadership of some members of the Junta.”
When Associated Press detailed the mass detention of military officers and other Tigrayan state employees in April, the public diplomacy head at Ethiopia’s UK embassy, Mekonnen Amare, said that the government is “only after the top leadership” of Tigray’s former rulers and that “there is no such thing as mass detention or mass abuse of rights.”
Attorney General Gedion Timothewos, however, told the BBC that Ethiopia’s ethnicized politics means that many Tigrayans are being arrested in connection with the war against TPLF. Unfortunately, he said, “the law enforcement response might… have an ethnic dimension to it as well. But that is not from the design or intention of the federal government—it is the very nature of the political organization [TPLF] itself.” Now, reportedly, he expresses concerns about the consequences.
In summary, while it is rational to suspect Tigrayans of supporting the TPLF, as millions do, particularly with respect to the autonomy dispute, that also meant the federal justification that the military intervention was merely a “law-enforcement operation” against a small party elite was unsustainable from the outset.
Instead, what has been occurring is, at best, a sweeping exercise in ethnic profiling. Now, it has seemingly become something much worse after defeats piled up for the federal and Amhara forces, and the resulting anger was taken out on Tigrayans at large, amid a draconian State of Emergency.
As the brutal war evolved, increasingly outraged Tigrayans opposed the federal government and backed the TDF, which is fighting against subjugation and for the constitutional rights of the Tigray nation—including the right to become an independent state.
As the federal government punished Tigrayans by illegally cutting services and blocking trade and aid to the region—both during the initial operations to remove the TPLF government and then after the federal interim administration was forced to flee in late June—many felt they had no option but to support the armed resistance.
The nature of the conflict convinced some high-profile Tigrayans who had split from the TPLF decades ago, such as Seeye Abrha, that it was an illegal war waged to bring Tigray to its knees, and, therefore, must be resisted. “Let us fight at this crucial moment before our people perish through starvation,” the former defense minister said in January.
As Tigrayans continued to struggle, the blockade tightened. Aid operations ground to a virtual halt in late October, as no fuel had arrived in the region after early August. While anti-TPLF activists tried to deflect and distract by focusing on aid trucks that did not return from Tigray (largely, it seems, as the mostly Tigrayan drivers did not feel safe returning), the simple truth is that, even in the most charitable interpretation, the federal government and its allies are prioritizing military victory over Tigrayan lives. More bluntly, Abiy’s objective “is to starve [Tigray’s] population either into subjugation or out of existence,” as former UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock argued in early October.
Indeed, some pro-Abiy Ethiopian elites barely hide this objective. Alemayehu Gebremariam (Al Mariam), an ardent supporter of Abiy and a constitutional law scholar in the US, tweeted, in a response to an October US demand for a halt to hostilities and “unhindered” aid access, that “fighting will cease when those who started the fight [TPLF] cease to exist”. He claimed that the US call in actuality means an “unhindered supply of weapons to TPLF”.
Similarly to Seeye, activist Getachew Temare, a previously vocal Tigrayan opponent of the TPLF, is now only vocal in his opposition to the war in Tigray. The same goes for Goitom Tseday Gidey, a leader of opposition Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty—which boycotted the September election—and for countless other Tigrayans who were either apolitical or, like many of their compatriots, had no love for the ruling party.
Even some members of Tigray’s interim government, appointed by the federal government partly because of their opposition to the TPLF, were horrified at the war’s impact. Their complaints about, for example, Eritrean soldiers’ abuses were explained away indifferently by the TPLF’s role in starting the war.
Because of the circumstances surrounding the conflict, but more importantly the atrocities, most Tigrayans, it appears, now vehemently oppose the federal government. This means that many support the armed resistance. For plenty of Ethiopians, that converts those Tigrayans into “junta” and justifies all measures taken against them.
The federal mischaracterization means that as its war to destroy the TPLF expanded, millions of Tigrayans risked being incarcerated or killed by the Ethiopian state. As the target grows, so does Tigrayan’s anger. The counter-offensive, which has been partly in response to that, catalyzed even more fury among their many opponents. As a result, the two camps are locked in a death clutch.
Faced with these dark realities, the federal propaganda war has tried to undermine counter-narratives by claiming that media and human rights reporting on the conflict has been biased or false. Some key incidents expose the dishonesty.
An important example is the case of Eritrean soldiers killing hundreds of civilians in Aksum in late November. Initial reports were unreliable, claiming that 750 civilians were killed at Maryam Tsion Church in a single incident, leading to justified skepticism.
However, the space for rational doubt shrank when Associated Press detailed the incident on 17 February and Amnesty published a report on 26 February, which was shortly followed by similar findings from Human Rights Watch. The reality of Eritrean soldiers killing civilians en masse in Aksum then became beyond reasonable doubt when the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded that Eritrean troops killed over 100 civilians there. Later, the Attorney General’s Office reached similar findings.
This presented a problem for the federal narrative, as the Eritrean presence had been denied up to that point. In addition, the EHRC, a legally autonomous federal institution, had already been played up in Addis Abeba as the arbiter of truth in Tigray, including after the Amnesty Aksum report was released and with regards to the Mai Kadra killings.
Given all of this, it would have been logical to acknowledge that the EHRC’s findings on Aksum confirmed the media and international rights groups’ work—but there was no such acceptance. Instead, blogged conspiracy theories were circulated, while anti-TPLF Ethiopian nationalists, who often seem more concerned about the fate of Amhara civilians, argued that the Tigrayan civilians had it coming given that local militia defended Aksum against the Eritrean army.
This reasoning is a good example of the warped mindset that perpetuates the antipathy that is driving the continuation of the conflict. It was legally and ethically acceptable for people in Aksum to defend themselves when a foreign army arrived. It was a war crime when Eritrean soldiers responded by executing civilians.
The most embarrassing example of the war supporters’ lapsed judgment was the attempt to undermine Amnesty’s Aksum report by claiming that its researchers had relied on a man living in Boston, US, pretending to be a priest from Maryam Tsion. This ludicrous falsehood was built on the fact that the individual in question, Michael Berhe, had taken part in a dramatic reconstruction of the Aksum massacre organized by a Tigrayan activist group in the US.
The misrepresentation first emerged from the social media swamp and soon captured the imagination of partisan bloggers. It was then repeated by state media, and also found its way into the mouth of the hapless Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Dina Mufti. Astonishingly, it then led to the federal government requesting Michael’s extradition.
Lurking behind the pro-war propaganda is a longstanding suspicion that the TPLF is a grandmaster of disinformation and false-flag operations. That belief goes back to at least 1988, with its opponents making the dubious allegation that it set up the bombing of Hawzien market that killed more than 2,500 people. Such theorizing is behind the easily rebutted ENDF claims that the Mahibere Dago massacre was staged by the TPLF.
Occurring possibly around 20 January, videos purportedly show Amharic-speaking Ethiopian soldiers with a group of detained men sitting on the ground. Other footage shows some men being walked towards a clifftop, and executed. Geo-location analysis by the Bellingcat collective identified where the killing occurred and that the videos of Ethiopian soldiers with the seated detainees occurred within about a kilometer of the clifftop executions.
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It argued, among other things, that the killers shown in the video must have been TPLF child soldier recruits, as the uniforms didn’t fit well. More consequentially, ENDF spokesman Mohammed Tessema said that it was indeed ENDF soldiers video recorded with the seated detainees. His admission unwittingly placed Ethiopian soldiers near the scene of the crime around the time of its commission.
In addition, researchers found that on 14 January, Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers went into Mahibere Dego and surrounding villages and killed people, destroyed houses, and slaughtered animals. In nearby Trhas village, they possibly killed around 24 people. On 15 January, dozens were taken to a military camp near Adi Haro and were last seen alive on 18 January. A captured soldier said he recorded the massacre and gave his version of events to the Tigray regional broadcaster.
As with the telecommunications sabotage, the bridges over the Tekezze that were destroyed as the federal operation collapsed in June, and many other incidents, it is not possible to definitively prove that ENDF soldiers committed the Mahibere Dago massacre. But, objective assessment leads to a strong conclusion that the video is what it appears to be: Ethiopian soldiers captured some Tigrayan men they suspected of being part of the rebellion, or sympathetic to it, and murdered them.
Another egregious incident that should have shifted perceptions was the killing by federal soldiers of at least four minibus passengers shortly after a reported nearby fatal ambush on an ENDF convoy. The reason for this is that it was witnessed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff, who saw men being dragged off the bus to be executed and Ethiopian soldiers threatening to kill their driver.
The military told MSF afterward that they would look into it. Given the relative lack of exposure to the war due to the telecom’s blackout and constraints on research, it is hard to think of a less ambiguous incident coming into view. The shocking events could have led pro-war Ethiopians to think seriously about how members of the Ethiopian military are behaving in remote locations in Tigray if they are engaging in this illegal conduct on a main road around 50 kilometers from the regional capital. That did not noticeably occur.
These well-documented incidents are buttressed by many media reports that describe Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers looting, raping, and killing, and of Amhara forces doing the same. But instead of this body of evidence altering thinking, it led to an increase in allegations of media bias, including accusations that claims of atrocities stem from ideological support for the TPLF or financial support from the party.
For example, in a 19 February piece, US-based academic philosopher Messay Kebede wrote: “To this explanation is added a second one, which is that the TPLF is using the complex and extended network of Western partnerships, mostly based on buyoffs, which network it was able to establish during its dictatorial rule over Ethiopia.”
Similarly, Al Mariam wrote: “Foremost, Western JournLIEsm on Ethiopia is the politicization and weaponization of journalism for the purpose of demonization, denigration, destabilization, demoralization, and dehumanization of the Ethiopian people and their government.”
There is, however, no evidence of the international media having an anti-Ethiopian agenda or an ideological affiliation with TPLF, let alone Western journalists having a corrupt relationship with Tigray’s ruling elites.
None of the journalists regularly reporting on the conflict have ties to the TPLF and many have not been based in Ethiopia for that long. Most Western journalists, researchers, and their institutions are, in fact, ideologically predisposed to be biased against the TPLF, due to its authoritarian inclinations, ethnic politics, and disdain for liberal democracy.
This was particularly the case during the protests that brought Abiy to power in 2018 and under Abiy’s rule when the reductionist narrative has been that Abiy, a democrat, has replaced the authoritarian TPLF. Such framing went into overdrive when the Prime Minister was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Similar ideological predispositions can be found among Western diplomats in Addis Abeba, with most inclined to disapprove of the statist developmental model, the multinational federal system, and ethnic politics in general—especially Europeans, with multinational Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse still fairly fresh in their minds—and TPLF’s passion for authoritarian collectivism.
Instead, along with their American counterparts, Western diplomats are naturally inclined towards civic nationalism, pro-market reforms, and other standard liberal ideals. This explains why the rhetorical proponents of such ideas like Abiy and his ally Berhanu Nega, the leader of Ezema, were initially portrayed as Ethiopia’s saviors.
Western coverage of the conflict can be split into three categories: media reporting and commentary; human-rights research; and analysis by other non-profits and researchers. Proponents of the war conflate the three and use the prominence of some analysts, such as Alex de Waal, Rashid Abdi, and Kjetil Tronvoll, who openly support the Tigrayan cause, to suggest that there is overwhelming pro-TPLF bias. That, however, does not stand up to scrutiny for the media or for the human rights advocates.
In the case of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the organizations are applying the same methodology to the current conflict as they do everywhere, including in Ethiopia when TPLF was a core part of the federal government. This is shown by comparing their recent Ethiopia reports with previous ones documenting EPRDF human rights violations.
Indeed, the allegations against the human rights groups of pro-TPLF bias are even less convincing when you consider that some of those now dismissing these organizations as TPLF pawns championed their reports when they criticized the EPRDF regime.
The evidence indicates that the reason Western entities reported Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara atrocities against Tigrayans is because they found sufficient evidence to justify doing so; just as they have covered allegations of TDF atrocities against Amhara and Afar civilians since the fighting moved to those regions.
Extreme partisanship, conspiracy theorizing, and information warfare during conflict—including assigning blame to shadowy networks—are hardly the sole preserve of pro-government Ethiopians. But, in this instance, the post-truth reality-denial is just the latest phase of conditioning that leads many Ethiopians to either ignore or downplay the suffering of Tigrayan civilians, even when incontrovertible evidence emerged out of the blackout to illuminate the horror.
By denying the atrocities and accusing the TPLF of staging them, and therefore implicitly alleging that purported Tigrayan victims are lying, pro-government Ethiopians sanitize the war, deflect from the horrific reality, and so left Tigrayans few options other than to hit back.
As the war got underway, former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn wrote in Foreign Policy about the inappropriateness of putting Tigray’s dissident leadership on an equal footing with the legitimate federal government. But false equivalence has also characterized pro-war arguments that attempt to create the impression that civilians from both sides have suffered equally.
The main focus has been on Mai Kadra, where a Tigrayan militia reportedly killed a large number of Amhara civilians on 9 and 10 November 2020 as tensions boiled over into inter-communal conflict in the days after the war began. The brutality also allegedly involved Amhara killing Tigrayans near Mai Kadra as forces from the neighboring region seized western Tigray.
In addition, Tigrayan forces allegedly killed Northern Command soldiers, Tigray militias attacked Eritrean refugees, TDF reportedly killed civilians, ransacked property, and committed multiple gang rapes in Amhara and Afar, and convicts went on looting sprees after they were freed from detention in Mekelle as the TPLF government collapsed.
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Yet, these allegations of Tigrayan malfeasance represent a relatively small proportion among countless incidents that have occurred in the war—the overwhelming majority of which were committed by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces against Tigrayan civilians. In April, researchers said they had identified 1,900 people killed in more than 150 massacres, with the total now at 9,184. Opposition parties in Tigray estimated in February that more than 50,000 civilians had been killed.
Even though Tigray’s fighters have reportedly committed more atrocities since they launched their offensive, the attempt to claim equal suffering is just another effort to downplay Tigrayan suffering, and to mask the federal government’s illegal conduct during the war.
Ideally, after information started seeping out through the communications blockade months into the conflict, the rational reaction to media, rights groups, and international organization reports would have been that Tigrayan citizens had suffered greatly during the war. Instead, the response was to claim that those institutions had all been duped by TPLF propaganda. In part, the war continued due to these kinds of attitudes.
In keeping with other elements of the unfolding catastrophe—such as the degree of TPLF responsibility for EPRDF authoritarianism, the extent of TPLF control of the political economy during the EPRDF era, how much Tigrayans benefited from that control, and the contribution of the multinational federal system to inter-communal violence in Ethiopia—the rights and wrongs of the Amhara-Tigray territorial dispute is a legitimate area of discussion.
What is in no doubt is the Amhara perception of the issue, which simmered for decades and then exploded over in the last five years. This was that part of the TPLF’s perceived anti-Amhara agenda was annexing relatively fertile Amhara lands, often known among Amhara activists as Welkait and Raya, partly in order to give Tigray an international border with Sudan. That was done, so the narrative goes, by taking over areas that had formerly been part of predominantly Amhara provinces, Gondar (Begemder) and Wollo, and depopulating the areas of Amhara people.
For the record, the primary pro-TPLF version is that the areas were assessed to be majority Tigrigna-speaking, and hence they were included in Tigray, in line with the alignment of the federation’s administrative boundaries with ethno-linguistic settlement patterns. That process occurred across the county as the federation was constructed and new regions were formed to offer self-determination.
The territorial concerns are flanked by Amhara allegations that the region had been denied its fair share of the federal budget and even that, partly due to an alleged TPLF-campaign of forced sterilization, two million Amhara went missing from the census between 2004 and 2007. Overarching this perspective is the claim that all ethno-nationalisms that emerged in the 1970s were unfairly directed against alleged Amhara imperial dominance and that the multinational federal state the TPLF produced was designed to disadvantage Amhara people.
The war has supercharged these sentiments. Following TDF’s success in South Wollo, popular Ethiopian figures called for the mass arrest of Tigrayans, while Raya activist Dejene Assefa posted explicitly genocidal remarks. These dangerous sentiments were echoed by Yesuf Ibrahim, a member of the leadership at the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) following the assault on Dessie.
Yesuf said that the reason TDF was successful was the support it got from Tigrayans in the city, and all 30,000 Tigrayan “traitors” there would no longer be tolerated for the sake of political correctness. Abiy also made a call for people to be vigilant over the presence of suspected TDF collaborators among them, while the Deputy Director of the Ethiopian Media Authority, Yonatan Tesfaye, called for them to be “eliminated”.
Another offending outburst came from Messay Mekonnen, an ESAT pundit who, in a now-deleted Facebook post, said that “the government should put Tigrayans in concentration camps, regardless of their association with TPLF.”
Back in 2016, the same individual said: “One of the ways of getting rid of spoiled fish from the sea is to get rid of the water of the sea,” as he called on Amhara to block roads to Tigray, which then occurred in the two years preceding the conflict. Such remarks and actions were a precursor to the blockade strategy used during the war. ESAT, it should be noted, sprang up after the violence and EPRDF crackdown that followed disputed 2005 election, when a newspaper published by Eskinder Nega carried anti-Tigrayan hate speech.
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This was the febrile background when the Amhara and Oromia EPRDF wings sought to downsize the power of their TPLF comrades from 2015. Around that time, the Amhara territorial demands ratcheted up, leading to serious tensions in 2016 when a Welkait Identity Committee activist Colonel Demeke Zewdu, was arrested. This escalated into outright hostility between the Amhara and Tigray EPRDF regional parties after Abiy took power.
Therefore, the Amhara region’s recent violent seizing of territories in Tigray as part of the conflict was the culmination of years of mobilization. This background should have informed observers that when Amhara security forces and militia poured into western Tigray in November, they did not just have law enforcement on their mind.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s allegation that there was then “ethnic cleansing” of Tigrayans from the area is only the most high-profile allegation. Witness testimony from those who fled is corroborated by researchers and humanitarian workers, who describe towns that have been virtually emptied of Tigrayans. The joint UN and Ethiopian human rights report said over 600,000 Tigrayans fled the area. The UN’s latest figure is twice that.
Some have heard genocidal rhetoric from Amhara militia, describing the desirability of creating a new generation of Tigrayans by killing all of those over the age of five. Earlier this year, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans to around Shire from the region’s west confirmed the mass exodus.
Rather than draw the conclusion that the Amhara ‘reclaiming’ of land led to violent mass evictions, as was widely reported, Abiy and his government accused Tigrayans that fled to Sudan of fabricating stories and claimed that they were primarily comprised of young men who had participated in the attack at Mai Kadra. Daniel Bekele, the head of the EHRC, which rushed to produce a one-sided account of the Mai Kadra killings, also cast doubt on refugee testimonies.
There may be elements of truth to such allegations in that the refugees probably overwhelmingly support the TPLF/TDF and some of them may have even been involved in the violence against Amhara in Mai Kadra, and, subsequently, the armed resistance. But that is by no means sufficient reason to undermine all of their experiences. Doing so is another example of a callous attitude towards Tigrayan victims, which has driven increasing numbers of people from the region to support the ongoing counter-offensive that soon evolved into an effort to replace Abiy’s government with a transitional administration.
Tigrayan and Eritrean commentators have described the various motivations for Eritrea’s participation in the war, which include historic rivalry between Tigrigna-speaking elites and their clashing nationalisms, and the political toxicity built up during their shared anti-Derg armed struggle that converted into mutual hatred during and after the 1998-2000 war.
While the sadism of some Eritrean soldiers was shocking, it was not a surprise that Isaias exacted vengeance against the TPLF/Tigray, and that Eritrean soldiers looted Tigray. These actions echoed, albeit on a larger scale, the crimes committed by Ethiopian soldiers against Eritrea in the previous war, as documented by a Claims Commission.
Yet, despite the context, Ethiopian officials and the war’s proponents initially denied Eritrea’s involvement. This charade was maintained for months. When Eritrea’s significant presence became irrefutable, some began arguing that it was necessary. Given the nature of the crimes, that denial and deflection is morally abhorrent. Regardless of the reason for Eritrea’s participation, the atrocities must be condemned.
Once again, these approaches enrage Tigrayans, push them away from other Ethiopians, make their resistance stronger, and, at times, trigger revengeful sentiments.
Military officers have referred to the professionalism of Ethiopia’s soldiers to refute allegations of human rights abuses. Eritrea’s government, meanwhile, said that such claims are “not just outrageous, but also a vicious attack on the culture and history of our people.” Yet, given the level of vitriol directed at the TPLF by some of its opponents, there is nothing that surprising about the abuses against those suspected of being part of or collaborating with the resistance.
A case in point is Al Mariam, who for decades has obsessed about the group. His political perspective is so driven by anti-TPLF sentiment that, when TPLF politicians were instrumental in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, he derided the project, but since 2018 he can be seen joining Abiy on visits to the site. As an example of the hyperbole heaped against the TPLF, he wrote on 3 August last year: “…the TPLF is an organization that has committed untold crimes against humanity…”
Another is Neamin Zeleke—a former member of Ginbot 7 and ESAT’s Managing Director who is now behind the GLEAN (Global Ethiopian Advocacy Nexus) campaign that has ties to top Ethiopian diplomats—whose hatred was on full display during a France 24 panel debate.
Mobilization against the TPLF was seen as justified by many during the pre-Abiy ‘Oro-mara’ protests that were generally seen as progressive in both Ethiopia and abroad. Those dynamics became increasingly problematic when Tigrayans flocked around the TPLF after 2018, as foreseen by Jawar Mohammed two years before.
Given the broken ties that have resulted, it is now logical to look towards Tigray’s secession. Seyoum Teshome—a supporter of Abiy who organized a major 2018 rally for the new premier, and now peddles dangerous and deranged conspiracy theories—is one of the few prominent pro-government commentators to have promoted the idea of Tigray becoming an independent nation: “All their lives they have betrayed [Ethiopia]. I don’t have the burden of having to live with those who have made betrayal and ‘Bandanet’ [treason] a culture. We have to state it clearly. We have to secede Ethiopia from Tigray.”
The core of this viewpoint, which had received almost 80,000 views and more than 1,000 mostly complimentary comments on YouTube prior to the account being closed, has logic to it given that ties have indeed been broken between many Tigrayans and lots of other Ethiopians. In reality, however, it is just another recipe for enduring war.
Abiy, by empowering the Amhara takeover of territory in Tigray, made peaceful secession impossible, and the same can be said with respect to Isaias’ role in the war. Tigray’s leaders would want an international border to Sudan in the west and a seaport for a new nation state. Therefore, a genuine bid for Tigray’s independence cannot occur without further war with Amhara and Eritrea.
When evaluating Abiy’s approach to the conflict, the Amhara and Eritrean motivations reveal either his ignorance or willingness to wage war in Tigray, as he warned of in May 2020 about the consequences of holding illegal elections. Given the dangerous propaganda and the mobilization that occurred at the conflict’s outset, and also his speech following federal troops withdrawing from Tigray, the latter seems more likely.
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A former Tigray administration official recently said that Abiy outlined plans to remove TPLF in a few days—just like the military victory achieved in August 2018 with Somali region’s errant leader—in a Prosperity Party meeting a couple of weeks before the war.
Regardless of his precise intentions, by pursuing catastrophic policies, Abiy got himself into a position that was impossible to back out from.
Various explanations are needed to unpack the different pro-war positions. Most officials may well have gone along with the war in order to maintain their positions, convincing themselves that conflict was inevitable and that victory would be quick. However, it is not clear how top officials who knew the TPLF and Tigray well, such as Zadig Abrha, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Redwan Hussien, failed to realize what would ensue.
Some, such as Attorney General Gedion, may believe that the removal of the TPLF was necessary for constitutional reform, and failed to realize how devastating the conflict would be. Most problematic is the vengeance on display from those who lost out in 2005 to the TPLF, specifically the Amhara elites, who have been pushing hateful anti-TPLF propaganda for decades, and Isaias.
With Abiy, apart from his megalomania, there have also been indications that he wanted to improve Ethiopia’s authoritarian political culture—though not at the expense of his own power. He has never seemed to have any real appreciation for core democratic values such as freedom of expression. His prescriptions for Ethiopia’s malaise have been simplistic, his transition management abysmal, and, when he was challenged politically, he responded by using the state’s coercive power. Since the war broke out, his messianic absolutism has led the nation into catastrophe.
Everyone has the right to their views on the TPLF’s record, multinational federalism, the build-up to war, and many other issues and events. But, trying to undermine evidence of war crimes is not just irrational but also immoral. Promoting obviously false official narratives fans the flames of violence and feeds back into Ethiopia’s vicious polarization.
The disastrous divisions that have exploded into violence reflect decades of toxic discourse. There were few domestic or foreign observers who did not recognize the need for the EPRDF’s almost totalitarian authoritarian grip to be weakened as protests picked up after 2015. The TPLF was at the very core of that national security state that not only trampled on constitutionally protected civil liberties but also the group rights that the party is now fighting for.
But, similar to other leftist parties that tolerated little or no dissent, as in Cuba, Venezuela, and China, the TPLF-led EPRDF’s developmental state model also achieved significant gains, laying down social services and infrastructure, achieving rapid growth, and carrying out socio-economic improvement. Rather than build on those, Abiy and other former coalition partners teamed up with those who refused to acknowledge any gains under the EPRDF, leading to today’s ruinous consequences.
Moreover, somewhat ironically, the authoritarianism exhibited by Abiy’s government—whether the political repression, the Orwellian propaganda, or the brutality against civilians—has not only made a mockery of claimed reformist democratic credentials, but served to put the TPLF’s controlling dictatorial tendencies in perspective.
The TPLF’s previous ruthless approach to what it considered dangerous political opponents should also now be seen in a different light after those supposed frustrated democrats, such as Andargachew Tsige, sided with Isaias to back this brutal campaign.
All this shows that such grave problems are more embedded in an authoritarian Ethiopian State and the accompanying political culture, and less a product simply of the TPLF itself. This conclusion undermines the overarching justifications for all-out war that, given the party’s allegedly uniquely malignant nature, any price is worth paying to try and vanquish it.
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Main photo: Tigrayan women mourning victims of the late November Maryam Dengelat massacre; AFP/ Eduardo Soteras.
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