Ethiopia: Growing concerns for unity as Tigray conflict spreads

Ethiopia: Growing concerns for unity as Tigray conflict spreads

By Vivienne Nunis
BBC News, Africa correspondent

The Tigray Defence Forces managed to recapture Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in June

There are increasing concerns about Ethiopian unity as the conflict in the northern Tigray region escalates.

(BBC)—-The nine-month-long war between Tigrayan rebel forces and the Ethiopian army and its allies has been mostly contained in Tigray itself.

But the fighting is spreading into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.

This is off the back of Tigrayan forces making significant territorial gains, including capturing the regional capital, Mekelle, in June after Ethiopian troops withdrew and the government declared a unilateral ceasefire.

It is a sign that the Tigray crisis is getting worse, but this is by no means the only fighting happening right now in Ethiopia.

It is the second-most populous state in Africa with a history of ethnic tensions. In 1994, a new constitution was introduced which created a series of ethnically based regions meant to address the problem of an over-centralised state.

Until 2018, the governing coalition was dominated by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and was criticised for crushing any dissent.

After Abiy Ahmed – who comes from the largest ethnic group, the Oromo – became prime minister in 2018, he made a series of bold liberalising moves to end state repression.

But this liberalisation was accompanied by a burst in ethnic nationalism, with different groups demanding more power and land.

“You have a plethora of ethnic warfare,” says Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based expert on security in the Horn of Africa.

One hotspot is the western Benishangul-Gumuz region – which borders Sudan and South Sudan – and described by Mr Abdi as a “perennial flashpoint”. About 200 people were massacred in an attack in the region in December.

Last week, regional authorities said security forces had killed more than 100 fighters from an armed group that it blamed for ethnically fuelled attacks.

The dispute has led to skirmishes between the two armies, amid the conflict in Tigray.

“It has the potential to escalate but it hasn’t yet,” Mr Abdi says.

And on a single day last week, 1,100 refugees from Ethiopia’s small Qemant ethnic group fled to Sudan to escape fighting in Amhara, the Ethiopian region which borders Tigray, Sudanese media reported.

Amhara regional authorities have over the past decade accused neighbouring Tigray of stoking the ethnic feud, which Tigrayans deny.

Several thousand people have been killed or wounded in the conflict in Tigray

Add to those, the flare up in a long-running dispute between Ethiopia’s Somali and Afar regions, dangerously close to the Djibouti border, and a growing insurgency against the Ethiopian military in the Oromia region, and it is easy to see why Ethiopia-watchers are worried. “Ethiopia goes through historical cycles of being robust and then precarious and it’s at one of those very, very precarious moments,” says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation in the US. Some Ethiopian experts are now talking about state collapse as a real possibility. “There is no denying Ethiopia is at an existential crisis moment,” says Mr Abdi. “How it is going to navigate this crisis in Tigray as well as multiple points of ethnic warfare nobody can be sure of, but it’s in serious crisis and there is a great risk of Ethiopia collapsing.” But an academic at Ethiopia’s University of Gondar, Menychle Meseret, said he did not believe that Ethiopia was on the brink of state collapse. “It is not even appropriate to have a discussion about it, in the first place. We have a functioning government that controls the country, except for Tigray,” he said. The crisis in Tigray had, in fact, strengthened “national cohesion” among other regions and ethnic groups, which have rallied behind the government and military, Mr Menychle added.

The Tigrayan forces have said they will not stop fighting until a number of conditions have been met by Mr Abiy. This includes the end of the federal government’s blockade of Tigray and the withdrawal of all opposing troops – the Ethiopian army, forces from other Ethiopian regions and the Eritreans fighting alongside them.

The blockade refers to the federal government’s shutdown of all electrical, financial and telecommunications services in Tigray since the Mekelle withdrawal in June. International organisations have also had difficulty getting much-needed aid through.

Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae told the BBC’s Newshour programme on Sunday that Tigrayan forces will continue to fight – including in Afar and Amhara regions – until their ceasefire conditions have been met.

“All our military activities at this time are governed by two major objectives. One is to break up the blockade. The second is to force the government to accept our terms for a ceasefire and then look for political solutions.”

The general added that the Tigrayans are not aiming to dominate Ethiopia politically as they have in the past. Instead they want Tigrayans to vote in a referendum for self-governance.

The war in Tigray has caused much destruction

Ethiopia’s minister for democratisation, Zadig Abraha, told the BBC the Tigrayan rebels had a false sense of power and would be driven out of every village of the region when the government ran out of patience. Mr Zadig denied rebel claims there was a blockade on Tigray and said it was the government’s obligation to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. In a sign the conflict is drawing in yet more combatants, young Ethiopians gathered at a rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, last week, answering a call from regional leaders to join the fight against the Tigrayan rebels. The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis. The United Nations’ children’s agency, Unicef, said on Friday that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer life-threatening malnutrition in the next year, while half of the pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in the region are acutely malnourished. Food experts say 400,000 people in Tigray are experiencing “catastrophic levels of hunger”. All aid routes into Tigray are blocked except for one road from Afar region where food convoys have recently been attacked, reportedly by pro-government militias. The Tigrayan forces say they are hoping to force open a new aid corridor via Sudan by defeating the Ethiopia army and Amhara troops stationed there.

The government has been supplying aid but international organisations have had trouble reaching Tigray

The UN says an estimated 5.2 million people in Tigray need humanitarian assistance, while the recent spread of fighting to Afar region has left thousands there displaced and in desperate need of food and shelter.

In the past few days, diplomatic efforts to address the multiple crises in Ethiopia have been ramped up, says Mr de Waal, with discussions taking place behind closed doors.

Matt Bryden, from the think tank Sahan Research, doubts that a political solution can be found at this stage, especially between two main protagonists.

“The Tigray Defence Forces has to weigh up the prospect of political dialogue with the risk of losing the [military] initiative. On the other side, Mr Abiy shows no interest or understanding that he might need to engage in political dialogue. He has… an unshakeable belief in himself and his mission.

“I’m afraid we’re likely to see conflict continue until either Tigray is essentially liberated or – less likely – until both sides find themselves in a hurting stalemate,” Mr Bryden says.

1 Comment

  1. Ya Oromo, (Also, to the Journalists and ‘Experts’ who write about Ethiopia’s current crisis but whose work I have found to be short on insight and facts…)

    The Anti Oromo Liberation Front campaign in the guise of protecting the ‘unity’ of Ethiopia is in full swing. Nearly thirty years ago, the same campaign was waged against The Eritrean Liberation Front, The Tigray Liberation Front, & the then fledgling Oromo Liberation Front. Today, the focus of this Anti-Oromo campaign is the Oromo Liberation Army. Rather than writing an article about it now, I have republished an essay written on this same issue by H.Q. Loltu in March 1985. I and many of my friends are forever indebted for ALL we have learned from the work of one of our brightest thinkers and writers on the Oromo Question. With a change of names, time, and other minor items here and there, I trust you will find this essay useful in understanding why the “concern” about Ethiopia’s “fragmentation”, at heart, is really an Anti-Oromo propaganda campaign with the sons and daughters of armed Amhara settlers, the Nefxagnas, as the primary drivers of the story line.

    Re-printed from:
    The Kindling Point #5
    “On Unity & Fragmentation”
    March, 1985
    By H.Q Loltu

    Many people seem to be afraid of the “fragmentation” of Ethiopia, and give that as a reason for opposing the Oromo and other movements for national liberation.
    Most people who mention it, however, are either unwilling or unable to explain their concerns. So I have been thinking a lot lately about what might lie at the base of this fear of “fragmentation.”

    Recently while this issue was on my mind, I ran across several articles appearing in Newspapers and Magazines to commemorate the Berlin Conference that was held in 1884-85 in that city to divide up Africa. The articles dealt with how and why the Colonial Powers at the time carved up Africa into its present pieces.When you think about it, the World has really been observing the one hundred year anniversary of the Fragmentation of Africa. The way Africa was carved up made sense only to the colonizing powers and not to Africans. The pieces on the map show only the logic of an outside market and the logic of ruling elites. Foreigners drew lines that dissected living nations of Africans limb from limb for the convenience of intruders. They drew lines around prize territories in complete ignorance and contempt for the inhabitants. Then each colonial power took his prize to play with in whatever way he wished. And each one jealously guarded what was handed to him like a dog guards a bone. It was at this time and in this way that Oromia came to be in the possession of Abyssinia.

    The Oromos were trapped inside the Ethiopian Empire by a gun and a lie and a set of rules written by colonial thieves. If you ask me, the famous Berlin Conference was no better than a big poker game among robbers who were plotting to raid the riches of Africa after a few scouts had returned to tell stories about her wealth.They played with chips that were broken fragments of Africa grabbed from wherever the players could reach and stacked with other parts without rhyme or reason. The biggest prizes went to those who were the best at bluffing and lying about their claims to certain regions. It was not only Europeans who played this game. Abyssinians played also. Abyssinians have always been expert at bluffing.
    They are better at it than at anything else. They could not govern themselves in unity; they could never defeat or absorb the Oromo Republic on their own, no matter how hard they tried. But once they were handed a disputed part of the pot from this gigantic poker game and given guns to “protect” it, they conquered the Oromo nation with a vengeance and then pretended that things had always been that way.

    The greatest outrage of all is the Abyssinian lie that their claims to the region went back to the beginning of time. Ever since they finally conquered the Oromos, the Abyssinians have been worried that the Europeans were going to come and take
    away the prize that was awarded to their Kings. their greatest defense has been to act like that old poker game was a convention of the saints and the rules of thieves were created to protect the “sacred principles of unity and justice.”

    No one has been so dependent on the rule of thieves as the Abyssinians, so [no] one needed to defend them as strongly. when Haile Selassie used the League of Nations to try to hold onto his Empire, the Europeans were amazed and pleased and flattered that someone had taken their old game seriously. They supported Haile Selassie when he cried that Italy was a bully trying to take his piece away from him (but no one was more of a bully than the Emperor to the people inside his empire). When the British stepped in to defend the Emperor’s position and the Italians left, the Oromos were locked in for another fifty years.

    Let me make one footnote here. No colonialism is good. But some types have lasted longer than others. That is the one difference to the Oromos if the Italians had stayed. Former colonies of the Europeans have obtained their independence. The colonies of the Abyssinians have not. And Abyssinian fascism is not less torturous than Italian fascism.

    Later, Haile Selassie tried to use the Organization of African Unity as a platform to hold onto his empire just as he had used the League of Nations. He even invited the OAU to have its headquarters in Addis Ababa. And he began to talk about the importance of “territorial integrity” of the colonial pieces of Africa just as he had used the idea of “collective security” to protect his empire [at the League of Nations].

    Understanding that each of the African Heads of State had inherited a colonial territory, and along with it, the problems, Haile Sellasie calculated that they would not question the terms of the Will and risk losing their inheritance. That is why the Emperor constantly warned them of what might happen to
    Africa if the colonial boundaries were disrespected.

    Can you imagine the colonialist and those seeking their independence sitting together and deciding the future of the African people? Yes I can. It can only happen if one party is aware and the other doesn’t know. Haile Sellasie was the only one who really knew about the nature of Ethiopia when he sat with Africans who did not. (It was truly a case of one rotten apple spoiling the rest!) I am sure that he had no better way to guarantee his holdings than by threatening everyone else’s and making the OAU into a kind of a Shrine honoring the Europeans’ fragmentation of Africa.

    Today in honor of Haile Sellasie, his successor, Emperor-Comared Mengistu Haile Mariam, also Chairman of the OAU, repeats this concern by preaching about the importance of “non-interference in internal affairs of Africa” (especially the people of Africa are not to interfere), and warns about the “Indivisibility of Ethiopian Unity.” (This is nothing new; this is something we have heard before!)
    The essence of this warning is to frighten people with the issue of fragmentation. And if you really think about it, there is no other group that argues more desperately about the evils of “fragmentation” than Ethiopians with an empire to keep together.

    When Africa was broken up and nations splintered into fragments, so was the Republic of Oromia. That was a terrible loss to Africa. The Oromos had a democracy under the Gadaa method of government. This was before the Abyssinians arrived armed with Remington rifles. They defeated the Oromo armies and gunned down hundreds of thousands of Oromos.It has to be one of the worst slaughters and series of uneven battles ever fought in the history of the world.

    From that time of conquest until now, every sign of unity, cooperation and camaraderie among Oromos has caused panic and alarm in the hearts of Abyssinians. This is because they know what they are guilty of doing to the Oromos. The Gadaa
    system of assemblies and lawmaking was outlawed mainly because the Gadaa unified the Oromos in Politics, Economics, and Religion.

    Oromos share every experience of colonized Africans. Oromos were not allowed to move around on their own territory after the formation of Ethiopia. Instead they had to stay and till their own farms and pastures for any one who arrived from Abyssinia with a gun and piece of paper in a foreign language saying he owned the land. Thereafter the people on it had to give up to him everything they grew. If they refused, they were dealt with by the same armed landlords. Oromo land and people were divided into Provinces, Awarjas, and Woredas. Nobody in the international community cried out about “fragmentation” then when the real fragmentation took place.

    But when the Oromos organize themselves to throw off the terrible yoke that has been tied on their necks for a full one hundred years, certain groups become very concerned about “fragmentation” and “economic in-viability of small entities.” It should not surprise anyone to learn that the ones who are especially concerned about these issues are the sons and daughters of the armed landlords,
    the “neftennas.”

    Now I ask you, how can anyone who has looked at the present condition of chaos in Ethiopia find the arrogance to say that they are worried that “fragmentation” could bring disaster? If this is not disaster, what is it? Definitely, it is a disaster impossible to exaggerate, and it is caused by colonial policy. The present crisis is so severe that seven million people are in danger of death by starvation and the rest are terrified of being destroyed by bombers. How can people stand by witnessing the holocaust of the 1980’s and continue to defend the old colonial empire?

    I have been thinking a lot about why the world can be so concerned about Ethiopia and so quiet about the real problem that the people inside are facing. The West is quiet about the problem because they created it. The East is quiet about the problem because they are sustaining it now. Africans are quiet because they are afraid. People who live in glass houses cannot throw stones. Therefore they sit in the OAU and sip champagne while Mengistu is bombing Eritrea, Somalia, Oromia and Tigray and declare that Ethiopia’s problem is due to “natural catastrophe.”

    In my opinion, all of Africa inherited the problem on the day that they agreed not to redraw the colonial boundaries according to an African logic in order to express real African unity. Is it not true that Europeans were more interested in the size of the holding when they entered and drew the lines without considering the ethnic composition of the holding? Look at the Somalis, divided among the Italians, the British, the French, and the Abyssinians. Isn’t the problem of Africa the problem of fragmentation then rather than now? Isn’t the “problem” we see a “problem” of the people wanting to be united who have been torn apart? Isn’t it when the people reject that division that the war begins? Yes, it is.

    I would go further and say that if Africans had redrawn their map the economic
    crisis that they are facing would not have existed and they would be able to take a proper position based on African unity. But the regimes over Ethiopia’s empire must argue to maintain the colonial boundaries because Ethiopia herself is a colonial empire that she wants to keep. The others made a mistake to follow her.

    Redrawing the map is not supported by the former colonial masters. Why? Because if Africa redraws her map, both the East and the West would lose their big markets for weapons systems and Africa would turn to research and development on her own. Why does Africa need weapons systems anyway? To protect herself from the U.S.A? The U.S.S.R or Britain or France? For that matter, Israel? Could she defend herself against any of the great powers even with unlimited investment in weapons? No. She could not. Therefore it is obvious that she needs the weapons to suppress mass discontent and to use against her neighbors and against colonial subjects. All are problems caused by accepting the colonial boundaries. I won’t go into which country is against which because that is easy to find out in the media. The point I am trying to make, however, is that African society has been disintegrated by the colonialism that followed the Berlin Conference–usually referred to as European Colonialism by people who forget that Abyssinia was also in that club. That map is still maintained by European, America, and Soviet Bloc aid. To focus particularly on the Horn of Africa, the trouble we see in Ethiopia’s empire today is the people’s expression of dissatisfaction with that arrangement and their wishes to be reunited.

    I would say that it is the responsibility of Europeans who have created the problem to realize it and stop aiding the empire and to get involved in aiding to rebuild what was destroyed rather than sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the OAU to lead them in a proper direction. (Of course if the West has a
    long-range plan to reconquer, they cannot do that, but otherwise they could and they should.)

    I understand that it is very difficult for the West to go against the situation that they created. They have made the Ethiopians the token blacks for the international community for a century now. People are afraid to say or do anything against it. If Africans say that Abyssinians are colonizers and should be out of their colonial position, those Africans are labelled against African unity or power hungry. If a white person says it, that person is labelled a racist. (Definitely the Abyssinians have enjoyed their position and have even come to believe that they deserve to be there. As a result they not only keep quite but try to close the mouths of others.) Then who can say it? The working Oromos who suffer under the heavy burden have been saying it for years in every way possible to them.

    Let me make a closing remark. I, for one, am totally opposed to the fragmentation of a nation: that is why I support the national liberation movements. When People divide something whole into several parts and then annex each piece to a different entity and call that “unity,” just like the Ethiopians are doing, and when they call anything that comes after that a fragmentation, then the term “fragmentation” loses its real meaning. It becomes an empty phrase in the mouths of those who benefit from colonialism. The ones who can tell the difference between fragmentation, which is the breaking up of a nation, and decolonization, which is the breaking up of an empire, are the colonial subjects themselves. We should listen to them, understand them and support them. By all standards, the Oromo issue is not an issue of fragmentation, rather it is an issue of decolonization and a process of rebuilding a nation.”

    Hordhoofa Q. Loltu

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