A war fought in the dark
With a long history and various players, Ethiopian politics is to most people an unknown. For many university students, it is not a country on their radar except for its double-digit economic growth through most of the 21st century. Recently, with the outbreak of a high-profile conflict in Tigray (northern Ethiopia), understanding Ethiopian politics has become crucial, due to its possibly lasting international implications. Furthermore, it has joined a pantheon of modern conflicts defined by the geopolitical and technological makeup of our time.
The alleged attack on the Northern Command military base of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) by forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) on the 3rd and 4th of November 2020 supposedly marks the beginning of the conflict in Tigray. Yet, we would argue that it was only the straw that broke the camel's back.
30 years ago Ethiopia had just emerged from the rule of a communist military junta called the Derg, remembered by many as authoritarian and violently repressive of dissent. Having overthrown the emperor in 1974, the Derg’s time in power was marked by a long civil war that ended in a rebel victory in 1991. Won by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of armed rebel groups led by the TPLF, and with the assistance of Eritrean separatists.
The current Ethiopian state was formed by these bloody foundations into an ethnic federation, where ethnic groups had constitutional protections for their land, religion, culture and language. This allowed a certain level of decentralisation, granting ethnic regions the right to maintain militias and secede. However, there has always been a strong federal government with the EPRDF as the ruling coalition, after having transitioned into a civilian-led coalition.
Since then, the EPRDF has held almost all the seats in the Ethiopian parliament, with the TPLF leading the coalition. Since the civil war, Meles Zenawi ruled the country until his death in 2012. Towards the end of his tenure, Meles came under increasing criticism for his authoritarianism, with various groups in Ethiopia claiming the TPLF's rule within the EPRDF was oppressive.
Meles’ successor, Hailemariam Desalegen from a southern Ethiopian party, was unpopular, seen as a puppet of the TPLF by the two largest ethnic groups of the country, the Oromo and the Amhara. In 2014, an expansion of the federal district in Addis Ababa was proposed, which would see land from the Oromo region subsumed into the city's jurisdiction, sparking student protests. The forceful and deadly response from the government led to a mobilisation of an opposition within the EPRDF, ending with an Oromo/Amhara alliance that saw Abiy Ahmed becoming Prime Minister in 2018.
As Abiy came to power he started to systematically remove Tigrayans from senior positions across sectors including the military, which only intensified with time. It is also reported that the TPLF were intentionally excluded from the peacemaking process with Eritrea in 2018, which ended the 1998 war over the disputed northern border. In Abiy’s drive to liberalise the country, he dissolved the EPRDF in 2019, replacing it with the newly formed Prosperity Party, in which the TPLF refused to play a part. This only compounded the divisions occurring between Abiy and the TPLF, further polarizing them and further isolating the TPLF, against a background of increasing inter-ethnic violence throughout the country, which only intensified with the Covid-19 crisis. Not only was there economic hardship that made matters worse, but due to the pandemic, the promised elections were delayed.
However, the TPLF proceeded with their regional elections, stating that the federal government had no right to dictate whether Tigray may hold them. This led to a crescendo of tensions between Abiy’s federal government and the TPLF. As both sides began to delegitimize one another, the TPLF claimed that the federal government was overstepping its constitutional authority and that the Prosperity Party had no real mandate. The federal government, for its part, deemed the election illegal and increasingly viewed the TPLF as an aggressor. This set the stage for the start of the conflict in November, escalating into a full-fledged assault by the federal government and its allies by mid-November, claiming to restore law and order. By the 28th of November, the federal government asserted that it had reestablished “full control” of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. Yet, almost half a year later, the fighting continues in the countryside. And despite the combined forces of the Federal Government, Eritrea, and both the Amhara and Asmara regional forces, the TPLF persist in their resistance.
With the federal government periodically shutting down telecommunications and electricity, it has left many people unable to use their phones to record evidence or access social media. This has only intensified the confusion on the nature of this conflict, with it being very difficult to verify anything coming out of Tigray, making the propaganda war all the more important, allowing all sides to assert their own narrative of the conflict and the outcomes. Increasingly, this war of words has been taken to the online sphere, but not solely.
Both sides have taken to any channel possible to state their case. The federal government has also used its official channels of state with, for example, the Ethiopian ambassador to the EU labelling certain media outlets as “fake news” and at various press conferences adhering to the official line of the Federal Government. Surprisingly, the official social media accounts of the government are relatively quiet when it comes to the war, focusing on other successes in the country, continuing with business as usual. Meanwhile, the TPLF has used these channels differently, releasing official statements online.
While both sides use social media in official capacities, they also have loyal supporters posting for them and making their voices heard. This helps them spread willingly and deliberately the propaganda that will perpetuate their perspective on events. With examples of pages being created with copy/paste messages that can be shared across any social media platform. Moreover, all the affected communities have large diasporas in the United States and Canada, holding protests and peace rallies, lobbying their governments, posting to forums, writing online articles, creating podcasts, and university students hosting panel discussions with NGO’s and journalists. These populations of diaspora also have a considerable social media presence, often holding polarising opinions. Thus, it is difficult to have a clear view of reality from any perspective.
Meanwhile, intergovernmental organisations such as the EU and the UN have tried to distinguish truth from fiction by sending emissaries to the region. They have also tried to pave the way for humanitarian aid and peace. EU special envoy Pekka Haavisto declared the situation as "out of control" in February. Hunger, communication blackouts, refugee masses and an ongoing civil war could well summarize his report. Since his second visit in April, the situation seems to have evolved towards a "will for justice and peace" on the part of the federal government. While the UN proclaims some progress in humanitarian assistance, this does not mean that either of these institutions have solved anything. Towns are becoming ghost towns because of displacement. Rural areas have been devastated by famine and the surrounding conflict. According to UN humanitarian partners, 4.5 million people are "in need of life-saving assistance". Hopefully, this newly found 'goodwill' from the government can be followed by actions. However, mounting evidence of war crimes, such as targeted sexual violence from Ethiopian and Tirgayan health officials, has made this a much more daunting prospect.
The slow formation of aid corridors, the continued information blackouts, and there currently being no sign of Eritrean forces pulling out of Tigray, make it abundantly clear that this is a conflict fought within the borders of Ethiopia and that any further interference is welcomed in words, not in action. Only time will tell if we are able to cut through the noise and obtain a more coherent understanding of what is happening in Tigray, and whether the situation will continue to deteriorate.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.