The unfolding situation in Tigray in northern Ethiopia has shown that efforts, once thought of by the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee as worthy of a prestigious prize that should have been awarded to real advocates and hard-workers for peace, were in fact mostly aimed at setting the stage for war.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s frequent visits to Eritrea and the deal he brokered with the Tigrayans’ arch-foe Isias Afewerki, the long-serving president of Eritrea, to end hostilities in this once-united country were meant to serve another end: to secure Eritrea’s help and logistical support in case Ahmed ordered an Ethiopian offensive into Tigray.
As the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fired rockets at the airport in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, reported by eyewitnesses who had to flee their homes in fear for their lives and the possibility of a ground offensive originating in Eritrean territories into their region, all the evidence was in place that Ahmed was preparing for war the moment he assumed office, or, at best, the moment he had reached the point of no return with his rival Debretsion Gebremichael, now stigmatised as the leader of a rogue rebel group.
Misleading Ethiopian public opinion and the landlocked country’s neighbours, which now bear the brunt of an intense humanitarian crisis taking its toll on their already poor resources, particularly in Sudan and South Sudan, Ahmed, who once led a reconnaissance taskforce during the two-year border war with Eritrea, made a public announcement to the effect that the offensive was in response to the TPLF’s attack on an Ethiopian National Defence Force military division there.
But the other side of the story, as the Tigrayans have revealed, is that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate initiated the war after the failure to arrest top Tigray leaders by sending commandos into the region aboard a civilian airplane, similar to the tactic he used to force out Abdi Omer, the former president of the Somali region of Ethiopia in 2019. However, this time round, Gebremichael, politically groomed by former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, seemed aware of the plot and was pushed to act proportionally.
From introducing new Ethiopian banknotes, mainly as a means of putting financial pressure on Tigrayan business tycoons and draining their accumulated wealth, to cutting off federal funds and severing ties with the TPLF, Ahmed has indeed revealed himself as a warmonger and not in any sense a peacemaker.
The frenzied campaign against everything related to Tigray has gone from a formal request to the “helpless” African Union to fire its chief of security, Gebreegziabher Mebratu, who hails from Tigray, on charges of “disloyalty” to the Ethiopian government, to the issuing of arrest warrants for over 70 officers accused of having links with the TPLF, even when this stains Ethiopia’s image internationally. Another unsubstantiated accusation against another Tigrayan, World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom (also a former Ethiopian minister of both health and foreign affairs), has been made, with Adhanom accused by the Ethiopian army chief of using his position to “procure” arms for the now criminally labelled TPLF.
Ahmed, though a PhD holder, has forgotten that politics is about finding a rational and doable solution for troubles. His growing sense of self-importance and the West’s premature support for the “cosmetic” changes he introduced two years ago have made him think of himself as someone who holds the “staff of Moses” and can miraculously change things overnight. Even though he later backtracked on these changes, the licence of the international news agency Reuters was revoked in Addis Ababa, for example, and the BBC was browbeaten into running a fact-check on the Tigray war on behalf of the Ethiopian government in order to avert a similar scenario.
Does the war in Tigray cloud the already stalled talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)? The answer is a simple yes. Ahmed’s minister of water has kept on playing the broken record that “historical water agreements” should be sent into oblivion, dubbing them “colonial”. This time around, the remarks of Sileshi Bekele have fallen on deaf ears in Ethiopia, however, and there has not been the usual “patriotic celebration” in the state-run media. In truth, the Ethiopian people are now busy thinking about how to reconnect with their loved ones after Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate had all communications cut off to Tigray so that forces loyal to his totally miscalculated military adventure against supposedly fellow citizens in Tigray could finish this dirty job in broad daylight.
The Ahmed-led government’s tone is expected to lighten up regarding the project it lives off, the GERD, in another desperate bid to mislead average Ethiopians into believing that the war in Tigray will not keep the government from overseeing the project until it is finished. Ethiopia’s language towards Egypt in the next stage is expected to be much more “arrogant,” much more “provocative” and much more “audacious”. The Ethiopian government will again attempt to bypass problems originating at home and frame an “external enemy” instead, so that Ethiopians will pay no heed to the killing of their brothers at the hands of their multi-ethnic army in order to keep them focused on an imaginary force acting against their “prosperity”.
The failure of the most-recent round of the record-breaking and decade-long talks on the GERD was thus anticipated. The message is clear: the war in Tigray has not de-prioritised the incumbent Ethiopian government’s top priority: that after the Tigray war Ethiopia should be as “belligerent” as it was before it. The GERD, according to the Ahmed government’s rhetoric, is needed to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty and provide access to electricity for those deprived over decades of electrical power. This rule does not apply to Tigrayans, however, as the Ethiopian air force at last has seen a “historic” mission successfully accomplished in bombing a federal hydraulic power station to sink Tigray into darkness, with the TPLF claiming that parts of the Tekeze Dam were hit during airstrikes cutting off power to the region.
Sending the Tigrayans into the dark ages and cutting off all their communications has not, however, stopped a horrific tragedy from taking place. Innocent Tigrayans have been massacred because of their ethnicity, as reported by the international rights-group Amnesty International. Hundreds of per diem labourers were slaughtered with knives, axes and machetes, it said, though they had nothing to do with the war. The lucky ones who managed to flee the battleground have been sent into the desert with no food, water or shelter, triggering a humanitarian crisis. Both Sudan and South Sudan are calling for immediate intervention by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade group.
With the battles growing fiercer and with no looming victory on either side, Ahmed finds himself deadlocked: pulling back his troops without a “sweeping” military victory would be a declaration of defeat, but the continuation of the war would mean wasting even more resources in an already impoverished country that is categorised as a Least Developed Country (LDC). Even if Ahmed is able to secure the victory he dreams of over his fellow citizens in Tigray and manages to install the puppet administration he has ordered, does he still think he can rule over the Tigrayans again after shedding the blood of their loved ones and pushing thousands of them to cross the Sudanese border for their own safety?
Does this Nobel Peace Prize laureate still hold the view that the Tigrayans will opt to stay within a federation that has requested assistance from a foreign country to invade their territory and already sees them as inferiors?
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly