By Danait D. Tafere, Conflict Analyst

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Pan-African Council.

Tigray Ethiopia Conflict

Mainstream media is often so focused on tragedy that we barely understand the significance of a particular segment of news. We instead receive a constant influx of grim headlines and traumatic episodes that flood into our homes. These types of fear-based media campaigns desensitize us to violence and human suffering. This consequently manipulates us into staying isolated and atomized in our thoughts and communities, fearful of our neighbors, let alone have sufficient emotional energy left over to help or care for them. According to a study at the Pew Media Center, approximately 90% of the news we hear is negative, leaving us with a sense of confusion, misinformation, and powerlessness. In this article, I will focus on some truths experienced from a local woman’s perspective in the hopes of demystifying the misinformation around the Tigray crisis through a historical lens of the region as well as shed light on its significance for all of Africa.

When 32 freed African nations came together in 1963 to create the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, their biggest challenge at the time was colonization. In the course of time, African countries were progressively “decolonized” and achieved independence, at least on paper. Nonetheless the ground reality left villages split in to two, oftentimes three different countries while their lands and natural resources became the private property of former colonizers and their corporations. The new face of systematic colonization much like systemic racism in the US, where the freedom of African-Americans achieved in 1863 was followed by draconian Jim Crow laws that obliged newly-freed individuals to work on their former slave masters land and share up to 100% of the profit. Developing this new form of oppression through the use of capital, became the defining feature of American globalized capitalism. A hundred years later, in Africa, newly freed nations also found themselves restricted by an evolving systemic colonization. In his essay, The Last Stage of Imperialism, the then President and Doctor Kwame Nkrumah named this ‘neo-colonialism’ and stated “the essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside…by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power. The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world. The struggle against neo-colonialism is not aimed at excluding the capital of the developed world from operating in less developed countries. It is aimed at preventing the financial power of the developed countries being used in such a way as to impoverish the less developed.” Poor countries today receive about $130 billion in international aid annually while $2.4 trillion is extracted in resources via colonially imposed mechanism that obscure legality around these practices.

Reflecting on Abyssinian history, the Queen Sheba was a prominent figure in the Judaic, Islamic, and Christian traditions. Her kingdom was referred to as both to the south and to the east of Israel. The Aksumite Kingdom’s, Solomonic Dynasty used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th Century and which is also the current resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. The Empire also at times extended across most Western Yemen, Southern Saudi Arabia, parts of Eastern Sudan and Northern Africa. Hosting one of the oldest mosques in the world, Al Nejashi Mosque. It is said that when “The Prophet Mohammed realized that he could not protect his followers from the attacks in Mecca. He told them to go to the Habesha land, there is a Christian king there. There is justice in his kingdom. – Inspired by the Ethiopian hospitality, Prophet Mohammed instructed his followers to respect and protect Ethiopia as well as live in peace with Ethiopian Christians… Al Nejashi mosque is considered by many as the second most sacred place of Islamic worship and rightly dubbed by Ethiopian Muslims as ‘the second Mecca.

Since the Abyssinian Empire, Ethiopia claims it was never colonized, however today’s borders are not organic borders, rather they are borders imposed upon the country. To the east we have the Somali-Ethiopians, to the west we have the Gambella–Ethiopians – who are much more like the Sudanese and in the north the Tigray’s – who are the same as most Eritreans, similarly in the south and the Kenyan border. During colonization Ethiopia fought against the Italians but instead of pushing them fully off the coast of the Horn of Africa, Amhara King Menelik II, fearful of the strength of the Tigray speaking north and their rivalry, for the King of Kings title of Ethiopia allowed the Italians to keep current-day Eritrea by splitting the Tigray speaking population of Abyssinia who were the epicenter of the Solomonic Dynasty in the holy city of Axum.

In the 60s, a military coup assassinated King Haile Selassie and the Derg assumed power. This led to a 17-year era known as the “Red Terror” – a bloody era of economic hardship and suffering in Ethiopian history. This period also gave birth to the TPLF and several other PLFs (people’s liberation fronts) like the OLF in Oromia, WSLF in Somalia, ALF in Afra, representing different regions of Ethiopia – these PLFs jointly overtook the Derg and created a collective federal party EPDRF and maintained their own regional autonomy. Each region designated their own leader and appointed them to Addis, in contrast to the New Prosperity Party’s proposal of a top-down decision-making process that undermines indigenous nuances among the 80+ diverse ethnic groups of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s Contemporary Rise and Decline

Over the last three decades, Ethiopia became a commanding force on the Africa continent, leading sustainable development both internally and externally. Ethiopia’s close political ties with China, was extended to the rest of Africa creating competition for pre-existing colonial powers that monopolized vast areas and sectors of the continent. Ethiopia’s economy grew at a remarkable annual average rate of 10.8 percent. GDP increased from US$122 in 1999 to US$794 in 2015, poverty declined from 44.2 percent in 1999 to 23.5 percent in 2015. Illiteracy among adults fell from 20.4 million in 2011 to 7 million in 2016. In an ongoing effort to modernize the financial system which only had 16 private banks and two government banks in the 90s, by 2015 Ethiopia had 363 private bank branches and 131 government bank branches. In rural areas, 18,000 Savings and Credit Cooperative Workers Associations were established serving 11.8 million customers. The government also heavily invested in infrastructure development i.e. freeways connecting different regions, train systems that travel to neighboring countries. With rapid building of massive industrial parks in several major regions, Ethiopia also became a preferred location for cheap labor, safe investments and an influx of hundreds global manufacturing industries. The country’s national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines (with its slogan “The Spirit of Africa”), became the pride of not just Ethiopia but the whole of Africa. Africa’s largest dam, the GRED, is a $5 billion project that no international financial institution such as the World Bank and IMF wanted to support. It was launched by P.M. Meles Zenawi of Tigray who mobilized the Ethiopian Diaspora to get the project going, using 100% of Ethiopian labor, financing and material made in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was developing at an even faster pace than China and with the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia also became the world’s third largest political hub after New York and Geneva. In addition, Ethiopia served as the main peacekeeper in the Horn of Africa fighting Al Shabab and other “extremist/terrorist” groups across East Africa and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region while providing the highest number of UN peacekeepers internationally.

Despite all of that, the status that Ethiopia once enjoyed is becoming increasingly unrecognizable under the country’s new leadership. From the arrest of OLF’s Oromo political leaders in the south, to the assassinations of the Amhara regional president and the head of the Amhara region military in the west, to igniting an all-out civil war in the North. A good question to ask here is, why does a country that was clearly on the right path to economic and political prosperity need new and rigorous reforms? The answer that comes to mind for me is, Nkrumah’s explanation of systemic colonization – the breaking up former larger united territories into a number of small non-viable and manageable states which are incapable of independent development and must rely upon colonial power for defense and even internal security.

Changing Times

When I moved to Ethiopia in mid-2018 it wasn’t my first experience. In 2015 I completed an internship at IGAD (The Intergovernmental Authority on Development) in the office of the Special Envoy for South Sudan under the leadership for Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin and reported to Ambassador Tewolde Gebremeskel. In 2016, I operated a farm in Agena, in the Southern Nations region as well as an AirBnB business in Addis Ababa that catered to tourist from all around the world. When I returned to Ethiopia in May 2018, I dedicated myself to an all women-owned and operated honey farm with a solar powered processing plant in Hagare Selam, Tigray, as well as teaching workshops at Mekelle University. The atmosphere in Addis at the time was very tense. There were rumours about the death of the Grand Renascence Dam’s lead engineer, Simegnew Bekele, being that of an inside job. He was found dead in broad daylight in Meskel Square, and the police reported it as a suicide. Prior to that, P.M. Abiy Ahmed Ali was invited to meet with Donald Trump, this time in Egypt and was given an award for reasons that still haven’t been made public. The Tigrinya speaking population of Addis Ababa began selling their homes and business and relocating to Tigray. By the end of 2018 there were already over 200,000 Tegaru who were internally displaced from other regions back to Tigray. Today we have 2.5 million internally displaced people in Tigray with 4.5 million at risk of starvation. When the Eritrean border opened, thousands of deprived Eritreans fled into Tigray. This inflated market prices creating problem for locals in Tigray who were now paying up to 200% more for goods and services. With persecution from the other parts of Ethiopia leading to an influx of Tigray populations moving back to Tigray and the flood of Eritrean migrants by the tens of thousands, conflict in other regions had also scared foreign tourist and investors, many of which headed to Tigray which was one of the only safe region in Ethiopia. Threatened by the influx of activities in Tigray, the federal government attempted to discourage travel to Tigray by denying investors from boarding a flight to Tigray, and even arrested some of them. In June 2019, the head of the Federal Army General Se’are (Tigrayan) was murdered in his home, as was the retired General Gezae who was also of Tigrayan ethnicity. Both were killed by General Se’are’s own bodyguard who was reassigned to him a few months before the killing by the P.M.’s office for undisclosed reasons.

The Escalation

Timeline of the escalation of conflict between the Federal government and both the leadership and people of Tigray:

  • Apr. 2018 — After years of anti-government protests, Hailemariam Desalegn steps down Abiy Ahmed is elected leader by the EPRDF for the remaining 2 years until Aug. 2020.
  • 2018–2020 — Abiy implements wave of reforms.
  • June 2018 — Abiy travels to Cairo and makes a deal about GRED.
  • July 2018 — GRED Head Engineer Killed.
  • Mid 2018 — 1.4 million Ethiopians internally displaced.
  • Sep. 2018 — Eritrea –Tigray Border open, heavy Eritrean migration into Tigray.
  • June 2019 — Generals of Federal Army Assassinated.
  • Oct 2019 — Abiy awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the long-running conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
  • Aug. 2020 — Abiy postpones the much-anticipated August 2020 general elections.
  • Sep. 2020 — Tigray holds their own election, electing their regional leaders. 2.7 million people voted.
  • Oct. 2020 — Abiy cuts the Tigray Regional Budget accuses the TPLF of unlawfully holding their own polls. When a General was sent to Tigray to take over the Northern Command post, the Tigray Defense force sent him back to Addis.
  • 3 Nov. 2020 — Tigray Defense Force takes over Northern command.
  • 4 Nov. 2020 — Abiy makes a statement saying the TPLF has “crossed a red line” and a military offensive will be launched.
  • 7 Nov.2020 — Parliament declares Tigray government illegal and Eritrean Force entered Tigray

Currently Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers have sealed off the borders of Tigray, prohibiting both entry and exit. Cities in the region have implemented curfews with harsh penalties, some punishable by death. Meanwhile, Eritrean and Ethiopian Soldiers are deliberately destroying historical artifacts like Al Nejashi Mosque which was bombed, university labs and hospitals have also been destroyed and being blamed on the TPLF. There are also gruesome atrocities and violent killing sprees in MaiKadra, as well as massacres in the holy city of Axum and a spike in gender-based violence and violence against children which has left the region devastated with over 50,000 dead, and 60,000 fleeing to Sudan – just before the borders were sealed. The federal government continues to deny these occurrences and has pushed the blame onto the people of Tigray themselves for the conflict. Displacement, ethic cleansing, sexual violence and destructions of artifacts are common tactics in times of war. There have been several reports on the atrocities committed in Tigray, but we have yet to see the international community take action by creating a special envoy for Tigray and Ethiopia. On February 19th, 2021 the Tigray-elected government released a statement regarding a peaceful resolution laying out their eight preconditions for negotiations, the top ones included: 1. The exit of ALL Foreign Troops facilitated by UN peacekeepers. 2. Full Humanitarian Access 3. Restoration of Elected Leaders Legitimacy. 4. Third Party Investigate of atrocities committed.

The federal government must accept these conditions in order to stop the violence immediately and create a space for real dialogue. It is only through dialogue that devastations like the famine Tigray experienced in 1977 can be avoided. The aftermath of war and trauma from that era still weighs on the collective mind and ethnic identity in Tigray. 30 years later, the same war is now plaguing a younger generation of Tigrayans that are on the ground fighting and putting their lives at risk, while the diaspora feels helpless. Unfortunately, this war in Tigray is not the only war on the African continent, there are armed struggles in various regions around the world –  from Central and West Africa, to the Caribbean, South America, US and everywhere Black people are present I leave you with the words of Malcolm X: “We are not outnumbered, we’re out organized”.

We encourage people of African descent everywhere to observe and oppose these neocolonial wars that serve exogenous interests and actively destabilize of the Horn of Africa which further threatens security and prosperity on the African continent.