Tigray crisis viewpoint: Why Ethiopia is spiralling out of control
By Alex De Waal
Ethiopia appears to be fast approaching civil war. Fighting between forces loyal to the federal government headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has claimed hundreds of lives and is threatening to rip the country apart.
While battles rage on the ground, the two sides are also fighting a war of words. Each is trying to rally their people and also to convince the world that they have the moral high ground.
The government in Addis Ababa and the TPLF accuse one another of starting the conflict. Mr Abiy has said that army officers were murdered in cold blood.
The Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael says there was a co-ordinated attack by Ethiopian special forces and troops from neighbouring Eritrea. Until there is an independent investigation, the rival stories remain allegations, which are being used to whip up hostile sentiments. ‘Years of darkness’ The two sides see Ethiopia’s history totally differently. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a revolution in 1974. A military junta known as the Derg seized power.
It inflicted the infamous “Red Terror”, when tens of thousands of young people were murdered by the military regime, and a prolonged civil war against insurgents across the country. The Tigrayans remember those as years of darkness, when daily bombing raids by air force jets forced them to move only at night. In one terrible air raid in 1988 on the town of Hausien, 1,800 marketgoers died and the smoke and dust from the bombardment literally turned a bright day as dark as midnight. A coalition led by the TPLF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) defeated the military government in 1991. On the day they took power, the EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan, said that his number one goal was for Ethiopians to be able to eat three meals a day.
Over the EPRDF’s 27 years in power the child mortality rate fell from about one in five to one in 20. Famine was banished. Large-scale civil war was ended. But Ethiopia did not see democracy. Prime Minister Abiy and his followers call these “27 years of darkness”. A rising generation of young people felt silenced and shut out of political participation. They argue that a clique of Tigrayans dominated politics, the army and the economy for their own benefit.