Six million hostages in Tigray

Mostafa Ahmady
Wednesday 31 Aug 2022

As war returns to the region of Tigray, the Ethiopian government must understand that a healthy and integrated Ethiopia cannot be established by taking some six million people hostage.


A fragile five-month ceasefire between Ethiopian federal government troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has come to a dead end as fighting has erupted alongside the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.

Both parties to the bloody conflict in Tigray have traded accusations over which side initiated the fighting, a reminder of what the Ethiopian federal government said in November 2020, the date on which it raided Tigray, when it accused the TPLF of storming into the Northern Military Command stationed in the regional state.

In practice, the truce was not meant to be sustained. Prior to the most-recent fighting, bellicose rhetoric between the two parties had not stopped for a single second. Since March this year when the Ethiopian government announced a one-sided ceasefire for what it called “a humanitarian truce,” neither the incumbent government nor the TPLF headed by former Ethiopian strongman Debretsion Gebremichael have been able to keep a civil tongue.

The resumption of hostilities between the parties to the conflict in Ethiopia looked inevitable. As of June 2021, the Ethiopian government imposed a ruthless blockade on Tigray, home to some six million ethnic Tigrayans, with basic services such as the Internet, telecommunications, banking, electricity, and water being cut off, a fact that the Ethiopian government cannot deny.

This coincided with the continued “demonising” campaign against the regional state, particularly from media affiliated with the Tigrayans’ arch-enemy and adjacent region of Amhara. Amhara officials have in fact seized the opportunity of annexing four districts in Western Tigray and Northwest Tigray adjacent to their regional state citing issues of the so-called “historical” ownership of the territories by the Amhara, a reference to the imperial age when Ethiopian emperors, notably the last emperor Haile Selassie, were at the helm.

The issue of the Western Tigray territories has been a bone of contention between the two sides, particularly as the TPLF, once the powerhouse of the country but now officially labelled a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian parliament, has demanded that their territories be returned before sitting down with the federal government to work out a permanent ceasefire, a concession that the jubilant Amharas will never be willing to accept.

Though crucial for the peace talks, this is not the only hot issue on the table. Earlier this month, a high-level Western delegation arrived on the scene, landing in Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray. The delegation comprised both the EU and the US envoys to the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber and Mike Hammer, respectively, among other ambassadors from top Western countries, including the UK and Canada.

After meeting with TPLF President Gebremichael, the latter handed them a “letter of guarantee” to be passed to the Addis Ababa government. The letter guarantees to ensure the safety and security of any staff the government sends to resume basic services in the region.

The delegation may have thought that it came within an ace of reaching a deal between the two warring sides. But these hopes were shattered, unfortunately. The Ethiopian government, led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed, in which the Amhara are powerful, rejected the TPLF letter on the spot and voiced its “dismay” over the meeting and what it called a “precondition” set by a “terrorist” organisation for engaging in peace talks.

Jumping the gun, the Ethiopian government has been amassing troops near Tigray drawn from both the federal government and the lawless Amhara-based Fano militias officially endorsed by the regional government of Amhara. Concomitantly, the Ethiopian air force has alleged that it downed a “foreign” aircraft carrying out a raid from the Sudanese border, saying it was carrying weaponry to the TPLF.

Though officially denied by Sudan’s military spokesman, who said that Sudan knew nothing about this aircraft, Ethiopia seemingly wants to drag its neighbour, with which it is at loggerheads over the Sudanese territories of Al-Fashaka, into the war in Ethiopia. Ethiopian officials have not stopped their rhetoric about Sudan’s involvement in smuggling arms to the TPLF in addition to what Addis Ababa loves to dub as Ethiopia’s “historical enemies”.

One wonders: has this allegedly downed aircraft vanished into thin air leaving no trail behind it? Or is it another “lie,” as TPLF Spokesman Getachew Reda put it?

As the war began to surge, the Ethiopian government carried out an air raid on Mekelle, bombing a kindergarten and killing four people including two children. Prior to this tragic incident, it made it clear that it would hit “targets” in Mekelle and asked fellow Ethiopians in Tigray to avoid them.

The root causes of the war on Tigray lie in the failure of the Ethiopian ruling elites to read the big picture. None have seemingly worked for the “disintegration” of the country, an accusation usually labelled against the TPLF, though a right to secession is officially included in the Ethiopian Constitution for all ethnicities. But none are ready to allow their cultural identities or their traditional way of life to be “melted down” in favour of an Amhara-dominated centralised form of government either. The facts on the ground have shown that this cannot be imposed by force.

It is also crystal clear that Ahmed is helpless in the face of the Amhara hawks who steer the course of action in Tigray and elsewhere in the country. Under his administration, the Ethiopian ethnic nations and nationalities no longer favour a centralised form of governance, which is a killer blow to Abiy’s own “philosophy” of “Medemer,” literally “synergy,” that has advocated a centralised form of government against semi-autonomous regions in the past.

Before Abiy took office, Ethiopia was composed of nine regions, but under the “Medemer” system the country now has 11 regions, with a 12th being in the pipeline. From time to time, “woredas,” literally “districts,” file a request to the House of Federation, the upper chamber of the Ethiopian parliament, to form their own regional states. Added to this is the unprecedented state of enmity that now exists between ethnic groups that used to coexist in a relatively harmonious way under Ethiopia’s former leader Meles Zenawi.

A disintegrated Ethiopia would be a dreadful nightmare for Ahmed and his Amhara entourage and one that they do not want to see happening. A healthy and integrated Ethiopia cannot be established, however, by taking some six million Tigrayans hostage and cutting them off from the world.

It might be as well to quote from the international official Tedros Adhanom, a former Ethiopian minister of health and foreign affairs and now director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), who has alarmingly said that “nowhere on earth are people more at risk than in Tigray.”


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 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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