Since the beginning of the onslaught on Tigray in northern Ethiopia in November of last year, the Ethiopian authorities have alleged that the goal of the offensive is to “eliminate” the combatants of the “outlawed” Tigray People’s Liberation Front, now the Tigray Defence Force (TDF), with the aim of restoring stability to the northern region.
While the Ethiopian government has claimed victory in the offensive, saying the operation would not last long, the conflict in the region has spiralled out of control, particularly given the intervention of the Tigrayans’ archenemy, the Eritreans, who have steered the course of the action in this restive region from day one of launching the offensive.
The facts on the ground have also shown that the main aim of the operation has been the small ethnicity itself, once dubbed the “powerhouse” of this multi-ethnic nation.
Briefing the European Parliament on his mission to Ethiopia recently, Pekka Haavisto, the Finnish foreign minister and EU special envoy to Ethiopia, said that Ethiopian leaders had told him in “closed sessions” that “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.”
The EU envoy exclaimed that “if you wipe out your national minority, well, what is it?” He added that “you cannot destroy all the people. You cannot destroy all the population in Tigray.” He warned that the situation “looks to us like ethnic cleansing,” and he asked the EU to take action.
The Ethiopian government dubbed Haavisto’s remarks a “hallucination” and “some sort of lapse of memory,” describing his briefing to the EU as a “clear indication of the underlying desire by the special envoy to undermine the Ethiopian government.”
The developments in Tigray are, however “clear indications” of the humiliation that the people of this northern region have undergone since the Ethiopian government triggered the war. People lack access to basic humanitarian needs. The UN has recently warned of a “horrible” man-made famine in the region. It has estimated that 350,000 people are already living in famine conditions, while 5.2 million out of roughly six million Tigrayans are in need of emergency food assistance.
Since Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been preventing access to much-needed humanitarian assistance in the region by coordinating on blocking vital routes, the situation is that food is being used as a weapon in this insane war.
The Eritrean army, in particular, is blocking access to areas regarded as what would be Eritrea’s buffer zone in the future if Eritrean troops are to withdraw from Tigray. Eye-witness reports have spoken of looting in the restive region by Eritrean soldiers who have also been engaging in shameful acts such as raping supposedly fellow Ethiopian nationals as if part of a vendetta from the old days when the Tigrayans were in power.
The Eritrean army has turned a deaf ear, even to repeated calls from the Ethiopian government, to pull back from Tigray. It is unlikely that the Eritreans will leave the region, at least in the foreseeable future.
When the TDF captured towns around Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, allegedly entering the strategic town of Adigrat some 45 km from the border with Eritrea, the Ethiopian military launched an air raid on a bustling local market in Togoga some 30 km from Mekelle. The air raid left some 64 people killed, including children as young as two years old, and scores of others injured.
In what might appear to be satire, the Ethiopian government claimed it was targeting “combatants” disguised as “civilians,” using, as an Ethiopian army spokesman put it, “the latest technology” to conduct precision strikes. One cannot tell what kind of technology the Ethiopian army has that can distinguish combatants from civilians.
Another hilarious testimony to the “ethnic profiling” of Tigrayans is the fact that the Ethiopian cabinet has suddenly approved the renaming of an academy long known as the Meles Zenawi Leadership Academy, in reference to the godfather of modern Ethiopia and the late prime minister who hailed from Tigray, now calling it the African Leadership Excellence Academy.
What can the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed, be thinking of? If such acts, added to the atrocities committed in broad daylight in Tigray, are not plodding away at “wiping out” Tigrayans from the memory of modern Ethiopia, what are they intended for?
The Ethiopian economy has fallen on hard times because of the war in Tigray and the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Inflation has soared to over 20 per cent in a country that used to boast, before Ahmed took over, of a single-digit inflation rate for years. The unemployment rate has hit a new high of 21.6 per cent in a country of 112 million.
Tigray is an endless crisis, and neighbouring Eritrea will not forfeit the gains it has achieved at the expense of innocent Tigrayans. Asmara will surely continue to have leverage in the region, adjacent to its borders, for a long time to come. It is quite impossible that the Amhara ethnicity in Ethiopia will be happy to see another “powerful” administration in the region. The Amhara local government has annexed land long disputed with its Tigrayan neighbours, with this being a step in the long march towards restoring the Amhara “hegemony” over Ethiopia’s politics.
For the Addis Ababa-based federal government in Ethiopia, the war in Tigray sends a clear message to the country’s other minorities that they should think carefully before disagreeing with its authority or actions in the future, with the northern region setting a “bad example” in case any conflict should arise.
The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly