CW: violence, sexual violence, descriptions of mass killing.
In a ‘global’ world, national conflicts reflect international trends—or so the argument goes. Our ‘global’ orthodoxy assures us that we live in a world where everything and everyone is interconnected, where patterns of causation extend over the furthest reaches of the Earth. And perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic—literally a disease of ‘all people’—vindicates this worldview. But to this flawed weltanschauung, I present Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis.
With ‘global’ discourse dominated by Trump, Brexit and COVID, the Tigray Conflict has been pushed to the periphery and isolated. In the hierarchy of what is important in the world right now, the Tigray Crisis ranks very low indeed. For us, this Western-imposed isolation of the Tigray Crisis exposes the asymmetric power structures and false promises of the ‘international’ age. This incomplete coverage exposes where the power is in our world and where the ‘global’ is not.
If the Tigray Crisis remains almost unknown in the ‘Western’ public consciousness, it is first worth trying to correct this injustice. In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister of Ethiopia and he quickly took steps to liberalise his country. He ended a decades-long standoff with Eritrea, freed political prisoners, welcomed rebels back from exile, and appointed reformers to key positions. In doing this, he even won ‘global’ accolades, including the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. However, the pace and scale of these reforms unsettled key players in Abiy Ahmed’s ruling ‘Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’ (EPRDF) coalition. The hitherto dominant ‘Tigray People’s Liberation Front’ (TPLF) fiercely criticised these measures, with its most fervent objections centring around the apparent end of ‘ethnic federalism’—a fixture of Ethiopian politics since 1995. In short, Ethiopia’s ethno-federal arrangements allow for the devolution of political power to Ethiopia’s ethnically fragmented population. The system aims to establish equality between ethnic groups, but its success is fiercely debated.
For those opposed to the constitutional provision, ethnic federalism undermines national unity and promotes ethnic antagonisms. Ethiopian academic, Menychle Meseret, argues that ethnic federalism ‘has made ethnic groups believe that they have their own areas, and if you come from a different ethnic group … You are chased out, burnt, killed’. However, according to ethnic federalism’s proponents in the TPLF, the provision ensures against the forced-assimilation methods practised under former emperors from Menelik II (1889-1913) to Haile Selaisse (1930-1974). In this view, ethnic federalism acts as a bulwark against coercive centralism.
As Ahmed Soliman, a fellow at the think-tank Chatham House, alerted to in 2019, ‘Abiy’s aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia’s government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries’. Abiy can hardly have been surprised that centralising reforms which redistributed power from the TPLF brought with it significant backlash. And it is in this backlash that we find the origins of Ethiopia’s present crisis.
On 21st November 2019, Abiy Ahmed formed the ‘Prosperity Party’ by merging three of the four parties that made up the EPRDF with five other affiliate parties. Before this move, the EPRDF only governed four of Ethiopia’s ten regions; by creating a new party, Abiy extended control over the whole country except Tigray. Ethiopia’s PM is driving the country’s transition from the centre and the TPLF argue that their concerns are unheard. Undoubtedly, Abiy’s agenda has exposed the taut ethnic fault-lines that have long-bedevilled Ethiopian society.
With the Prosperity Party formed, Ethiopia was due to hold general elections on 29th August 2020. However, Abiy rescheduled the elections for an undetermined date in 2021 citing the threat of COVID-19. At this juncture, the long-running tensions between Abiy and the TPLF hit a new low. The TPLF accused Abiy of using COVID to illegally extend his time in power and they pressed ahead with their local elections in September. These elections were declared illegal by the federal government, which responded by cutting all funding to the Tigray region. For the TPLF, this response amounted to a ‘declaration of war’. Finally, the situation turned to violence on November 4th with a TPLF attack on a Government defence base. The TPLF cited pre-emptive self-defence—but, whatever the case, there was no doubt Ethiopia’s conflict had begun.
In November 2020, following a month-long ‘law enforcement’ campaign that included airstrikes and ground troops, Abiy declared victory over the TPLF. This ‘victory’ came following the shelling of Mekelle, Tigray, a city with a population numbering 500,000. Abiy insists there were no civilian casualties, but witness reports attest differently. Further, Abiy’s pronouncement of victory was manifestly premature. ‘Almost all the Tigrayan forces are outside the big towns and cities’, related one TPLF intelligence officer. Al Jazeera observed ‘that the large numbers of fighters and substantial military hardware that the TPLF is widely believed to control had … already been tactically retreated into the nearby mountains’. And on November 12th, the now-fugitive TPLF Chairman Debretsion Gebremichael denied that the conflict had ended: ‘we are still holding. These people cannot defeat us. We cannot be beaten’.
With Tigray cut off from the world and journalists blocked from entering, much remains unclear about the conflict. But what we do know is incredibly worrying. According to a report released on November 17th by the UN Refugee Agency, the fighting has erupted into a ‘full-scale humanitarian crisis’. A TPLF-led, 24-hour-long massacre in Mai Kadra, Tigray on November 9th saw reasonable coverage in Western media. A preliminary investigation revealed that as many as 600 innocent victims—all labourers not subject to the conflict—died at the hands of TPLF forces. According to one witness, ‘those wounded told me they were attacked with machetes, axes and knives. You can also tell from the wounds that those who died were attacked by sharp objects’. ‘Police and TPLF youth militias went all over town searching for non-Tigrayans to kill’, attested another onlooker, ‘at around 3pm, police and the youths with machetes came to the home we were hiding in’.
This is one of many shadowy crimes against humanity reportedly committed in Ethiopia over the past six months. In February 2021, The Associated Press exposed the killing of an estimated 800 people in the city of Axum, Tigray; government-backed Eritrean forces are blamed. Further mass killings will likely come to light as further investigations are conducted. There are also disturbing accounts of sexual violence and abuse, fears of mass starvation and reports of ‘fires burning and other fresh signs of destruction’ all occurring at Tigrayan refugee camps hosting nearly 100,000 people.
In September 2020, the Trump administration suspended $130 million worth of aid to Ethiopia because of ‘a lack of progress’ on negotiations pertaining to the construction of a dam on the Blue River Nile. According to state department officials, this decision came directly from the President. This was an unusual intervention in African affairs for a President who never visited the continent and rarely commented on it publicly. Trump’s reference to African countries as ‘shithole[s]’ epitomises the former-‘leader of the free world’s’ total bankruptcy of sense regarding the diverse African continent.
Donald Trump’s ignorance, although singularly damning, is not unique. Centuries of suppression and neglect have created an unconscious mental block that disallows the global north from viewing Africa on its own terms. I fear that if the Tigray Crisis ever earns its due coverage in ‘western’ media, it will be used to buttress age-old representations of Africa as a ‘dark continent’ defined by anarchy, poverty and peril. In the eyes of the wilfully uninformed, the Tigray Crisis might prove Trump’s ‘shithole’ remark. Ultimately, this familiar but false imagery the global north uses to ‘imagine’ Africa needs immediate and complete revision. For in such a continent of ‘darkness’, crises like that in Ethiopia appear ‘normal’—and they are not.
The silencing of the Tigray Crisis is but another chapter within a narrative of Western global domination. And, unfortunately, we are not even close to the fundamental reconsideration of global affairs needed to correct this injustice. While Brexit and Trumpism saw pundits decry ‘the end of the global world’, it is important to recall that which was never ‘global’ at all. It is still customary—if not encouraged—to consider ‘global’ relations as the varying interactions between China, Russia and the US. And with this narrow geopolitical gaze, it is scarcely believable that nations outside of the ‘big three’ and their influence do anything at all. A quick check of BBC News’ ‘World’ page will underline how unimportant ‘other’ nations are.
As is dictated by centuries of Western thinking, the Tigray Crisis is culturally destined to remain quiet.