Tribune. From the start of the war in Ethiopia on November 4, 2020, the province of Tigray was cut off from the rest of the world. Addis Ababa had a stated objective: to eliminate the leaders from the ranks of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), accused of rebellion for having demanded self-government of the province, as stipulated in the Constitution, and of abuses during their twenty-seven years of national hegemony.
Under pressure from the army and its allies, Amhara militias and Eritrean forces, the Tigrayan political and military apparatus was swept aside. The conventional war ended with the capture of the regional capital, Mekele, on November 28. But the vast majority of Tigrayans, civilians or members of the local armed forces, did not sign their surrender: they organized themselves to fight. « l’invasion » with their secular weapon, the guerrillas.
Despite very difficult access to this region located in northern Ethiopia, reliable information has ended up filtering, corroborated by international media, the United Nations system, leading NGOs and major Western powers. We know that the war was extremely violent from the outset. Eritrean troops, Amhara regional forces and the federal army have stepped up bombardments of towns and massacres, including of religious leaders.
The last known, on May 8, saw 19 civilians executed just north of Mekele, according to The Guardian. An Ethiopian site specifies, with names to support it, that among them, nine children were under 10 years old and a baby 1 month old. There are also summary executions and rapes, often collective and in the face of family members, used as a weapon of war. The UN estimates that more than 20,000 victims will dare to seek treatment in the coming months. The camps that housed 100,000 Eritrean refugees have been razed to the ground.
In this first phase of conventional war, the regional Tigray troops did not stop retreating. Apart from an early massacre of Amhara in the town of Mai-Kadra, no tangible evidence of major abuses on the part of Tigrayans has come to light.
This unbridled terror was accompanied by systematic looting: entire factories were dismantled and transported out of Tigray; vehicles in working order, such as house windows and even kitchen utensils, were washed away; 80% of the crops were looted or stolen, according to a UN official; and 90% of the cattle were slaughtered or taken away, including oxen, irreplaceable for plowing.
The official goal of the federal government remains to put the TPLF out of the game, but few observers believe it is possible. For lack of anything better, he made all Tigrayans, inside and outside Tigray, pay for the guerrillas and the national domination of their elite for nearly three decades. The Tigrayans are brought to their knees and even dispossessed of the means to get up. It is at the same time a civil war, revenge, interethnic, territorial, international. A war that its barbarity is “out of the ordinary”.
A scorched earth policy hits Tigray. Some 87% of health facilities have been looted, deliberately ransacked or demolished, according to Médecins sans frontières (MSF). Of the 296 ambulances in Tigray, 31 remained in working order at the beginning of January. Schools suffered the same fate. Water supply installations have been rendered irreparable. Agricultural implements were destroyed. In short, vital means of existence and production have been willfully wiped out.
Finally, the Amhara authorities annexed the western and southern extremes of Tigray, without any legal basis, on the grounds that they had been improperly incorporated into this region after the TPLF came to power. They imposed “ethnic cleansing” there. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, whether they have lived there for ages or have moved there more recently.
The humanitarian crisis is worsening
The insecurity resulting from the continuation of the war obviously thwarts humanitarian action. According to the World Food Program (WFP), more than 90% of the 6 million Tigrayans are in need of emergency food assistance. The internally displaced are between 1.7 and 2 million. But above all, military forces are blocking the distribution of aid, according to the UN. Rehabilitated health centers are again looted. The interim Tigrayan authorities, however appointed by Addis Ababa, confirm that farmers are knowingly prevented from cultivating and receiving fertilizers and seeds.
The European Union (EU) denounces the use of humanitarian aid as ” war weapon “. Tirelessly, governments and donors unsuccessfully demand a “Unimpeded access” to affected populations. Far from regressing, the humanitarian crisis is worsening, as are human rights violations. Any independent investigation will prove war crimes and crimes against humanity. If Ethiopians use the term “Genocide”, of which they have a much broader definition than that commonly accepted, some foreigners evoke “Genocidal acts”.
Ethiopia is crumbling. For example, in Oromia, the most populous and wealthy region, the progress of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is meteoric. Not a day goes by that we don’t end up being informed of “Clashes between communities” – in fact pogroms – here and there. In this context, the elections scheduled for June 21, of which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed discounted his legitimacy, will not be credible. Addis Ababa stubbornly retorts with surreal denials. At most, we admit in private that the “Difficulties” in Tigray are the inevitable ” collateral damages “ of any war.
But in reality, the federal power is paralyzed. Abiy Ahmed gets trapped in a messianic vision that detaches him from realities. He has just declared that he would overcome all obstacles to lead Ethiopia to prosperity, as Moses led the Jews to the Promised Land despite the Red Sea. He is the hostage of the forces supposed to support him: Amhara extremists, revenge or expansionists; the part of the Oromo elite who want to get their hands on federal power and the benefits to be derived from it; Eritrean power in Asmara. All of them tactically allied to bring down the TPLF but strategically diverge more and more.
Most worrying is that the reason seems anesthetized, including within the intelligentsia. The intensity of ethnic polarization is such that no force emerges credible and powerful enough to be listened to if it sounds the alarm, and followed if it seeks a way out by overcoming ethnic hatred.
Faced with external pressures, Addis Ababa and Asmara are posing as paragons of national sovereignty. In fact, the obligation of foreign investment to revive growth, the close relations of the Ethiopian elites with the Western world, starting with the United States, and their oligarchic nature make officials vulnerable to external pressures. These must be accentuated.
René Lefort is an independent researcher specializing in the Horn of Africa