A year after the ceasefire between the Tigrayans and the Ethiopian government, the country is still unstable. Fighting broke out elsewhere and no one was punished for the inhumane crimes. According to many, they even still happen. The government then restricts information as much as it can. What was the last great war in Ethiopia like?
Exactly one year ago, the Ethiopian federal government and the rebel Tigrayan authorities stopped fighting. After two years of bloodshed, a glimmer of hope dawned for many. But the ongoing atrocities in the Tigray region cast a dark shadow over peace.
A year after the end of the Tigray war, Ethiopia is still far from a complete ceasefire. Serious human rights abuses have gone unpunished and clashes have erupted in other parts of the country since the ceasefire. According to the International Organization for Migration, a million people remain homeless in Tigray itself.
Half a million dead, the exodus of millions of inhabitants, rape and hunger – all this accompanied the civil war in Ethiopia.
“While the Ethiopian government and its international partners tout the tremendous progress made in the past year, civilians in conflict areas continue to bear the brunt of atrocities,” said Laetitia Bader, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Fighting has now escalated especially in the Amhara region. There are reports of hundreds of civilian casualties, mass arrests and damage to infrastructure. The government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, then resorted to the repressive tactics it tried in the conflict with the Tigrayans.
Armed groups in the most populous federal state of Oromia are also waging a violent campaign. “No Ethiopian region is truly stable today,” said Patrick Ferras, head of the Strategies Africaines think tank. The bloody war could thus be repeated.
Half a million dead, the exodus of millions of inhabitants, rape and hunger – all this accompanied the civil war in Ethiopia. It has been exactly three years since it broke out in the Tigray region. It started with the Tigrayans refusing to postpone the elections, after which the federal army attacked the union state. A year ago, the Ethiopian government finally reached an agreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebels to stop fighting.
Representatives of both sides met in South Africa for peace talks. They agreed to an “orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament.” The deal brokered by the African Union (AU) is a diplomatic breakthrough and has already been acknowledged by many world leaders. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aptly notes that this is a “welcome first step.”
The blood revenge cycled into an endless cycle of murder, rape and torture.
People were no longer supposed to die fighting, but the country remained in deep crisis and its once vibrant economy in ruins. The Tigray region is facing severe food and medicine shortages, people have limited access to electricity and have been cut off from the outside world for more than a year due to unavailable internet and roadblocks. The parties promised each other “unrestricted access to humanitarian aid,” but there is little of it, and promises do not feed anyone.
With the desired ceasefire, the long road to peace has only just begun. The Ethiopian ethnic groups are hostile, and the country was also home to soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, who, like both sides of the conflict, committed inhumane acts. One attempt at a truce has already failed, and we can only hope that this time it will turn out better.
“You Are Evil and We Purify Your Blood”
The Ethiopian government has been blocking access to information since the outbreak of the war in November 2020. Authorities denied most journalists and investigators entry to Tigray and shut down the internet. All this under the baton of Abiy Ahmed, who became prime minister in 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for “efforts to achieve peace and in favor of international cooperation”.
“About half a million people died in the two years of the conflict,” estimates US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “However, we will never know the true number of victims,” adds Patrick Ferras, director of the Association Strategies Africanes, to AFP.
Read also: Information war in Ethiopia: Facts are distorted by both sides, but the prime minister knows how to turn off the Internet
In addition, the war exposed ethnic intolerance in this second most populous country in Africa. Both sides of the conflict are accused of abusing and killing civilians based on their ethnicity. In some parts of Tigray, government soldiers loaded elderly women and children into trucks and took them away from their hometowns and villages. So far, men have been herded into prisons, where many have died of hunger, disease or torture. Several hundred thousand Tigrayans were thus displaced.
Early in the conflict, pro-government forces gained control of western Tigray. Brutal ethnic cleansing subsequently took place there, with the consent and possible assistance of the federal military. Although the Ethiopian government tried to hide such proceedings from the world, in the first half of 2021 there were testimonies of rape, displacement and killing.
From the stories you can read a really big hatred between ethnic groups. “You Tigrayans should disappear to the west of the Tekeze River,” Dansha, a trader who was raped by six men, recalled the words of one of the gunmen. “You are evil and we are purifying your blood,” she heard from them.
This, of course, led to reprisals. Once the TPLF soldiers went on the offensive, they massacred dozens of residents and seasonal workers in the town of Mai Kadra. The Oromo Liberation Army, which was fighting against the government, massacred 400 civilians in the town of Tole Kebele.
Similar testimonies are gradually increasing and, unfortunately, we will probably learn about others. The blood revenge cycled into an endless cycle of murder, rape and torture.
African problems, African solutions
The country is not doing well economically either. When Ahmed took over in 2018, its economy had grown by nearly 10 percent a year since 2010. Since then, its growth has been slowed down by several obstacles: war, locust invasion or covid. This year, according to the International Monetary Fund, GDP growth is expected to be less than four percent. “The economic situation is catastrophic,” notes Ferras.
Inflation skyrocketed due to rising food prices. Between 2010 and 2018, it averaged 13.5 percent. This year it is at roughly 33 percent. With the protracted war in Ukraine, the situation will probably get worse.
The peace of arms was thus supposed to be beneficial for the economy as well. The deteriorating economic situation may have been one of the government’s main motivations for the negotiations, while the TPLF was directly driven by hunger. The latter was man-made in Tigraia – specifically Ahmed’s government, which blocked food convoys after a massive locust invasion – and fueled by a worsening climate crisis. Nevertheless, many people did not believe in the positive outcome of the peace talks.
In Tigraia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not just try to eliminate the rebels. The military also targeted cultural heritage and destroyed many monuments.
After a five-month ceasefire that collapsed in August 2022, the meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, was the first attempt at dialogue. Until then, both sides accused each other of insufficient efforts for peace negotiations. The willingness to sit down for talks under the auspices of the African Union was a surprise.
The African Union (AU) replaced the Organization of African Unity in 2002, which proved dysfunctional. The structure of the AU is loosely modeled after the European Union. Its goal is to unite Africa and bring it to peace and prosperity. It consists of 55 member countries – which means that all African states are members. Despite various difficulties, greater integration of Africa is taking place both at the regional and continental level.
The talks were led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is now the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa. He was joined by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Nairobi’s current envoy for conflicts in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The African Union’s recent increased push for a quick solution also stemmed from pressure from the United States and the United Nations, which demanded a more proactive approach. Washington has also pressed Kenya, a regional heavyweight that sits on the Security Council and is a key American partner in the Horn of Africa. While Kenya’s participation was received rather positively by the parties involved in the conflict, the same cannot be said about the participation of the African Union.
Obasanjo in particular became the target of criticism, who at one time loudly praised the progress of the Ethiopian government, so he did not seem impartial. As a mediator, he also lacked knowledge of the regional context. A similar criticism can be leveled against the entire African Union. Her strategy of calling on prominent political figures for solutions was not always well received. Its representatives often gave the impression that they sided with their political colleagues. For example, when ethnic cleansing was underway in Tigray, AU Commission President Moussa Faki congratulated the government for “courageous steps to preserve unity, stability and respect.”
Read also: Atrocities in Ethiopia can end. There is talk of a truce, but hunger is knocking on the door
On the other hand, the appeal of famous names like Kenyatta and Obasanjo is understandable, because it is necessary to show that “African problems demand African solutions”. However, this war will already remain a stain on the African Union’s efforts to “silence the weapons” – i.e. to end fighting in Africa by 2020, which it committed to in 2016.
Many observers also criticized the decision not to include Eritrea, whose army joined the fighting on the side of the Ethiopian government and has a significant stake in the outcome of the conflict. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front ruled Ethiopia for 27 years, including a period of war with Eritrea from 1998 to 2000. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is clearly trying to ensure that the TPLF never returns to power.
Erase them from the surface
In Tigraia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not just try to eliminate the rebels. The military also targeted cultural heritage and destroyed many monuments of immense value. It deliberately demolished especially religious buildings. These are very important in Ethiopia because faith is very important to Ethiopians. Up to 98% of them perceive it as “very important.” It has shaped community identity and cultural narratives.
Historical remains also play an important role in the identity of the whole of Africa. For example, the Aksum civilization, founded in the first century AD, is one of the four known from that time (along with the Roman, Persian and Chinese), and was located in the territory of present-day Tigray. The monuments in Aksum and the rock-hewn church in Lalibela are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. One of the oldest Christian manuscripts – the Gospel of Gärima – is also preserved in the monastery in the north of the region.
Many landmarks, such as the al-Nejashi Mosque, were damaged by bombing. Rare manuscripts were burned, damaged or smuggled onto the international black market. The efforts of the African Union so far to stop the war seemed all the more paradoxical because it chose Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, as its headquarters in 2002, in response to the Battle of Adwa fought by the Ethiopians against the Italian colonialists in 1896. The Europeans never managed to colonize the country and that is, not to destroy its historical monuments; but the civil war was leading to that.
Peace from despair
Applause died down in Pretoria after the signing ceremony, and the dark side of the convention immediately began to emerge. The agreement was really only the first step towards peace. In the contract presented by The New York Times, the commanders of both sides agreed to meet within five days to discuss the practical course of disarmament.
Also signed was the “swift, smooth, peaceful and coordinated” entry of federal troops into the Tigrayan capital of Mekele, along with the taking of airports and highways under government control. After the talks, Prime Minister Ahmed praised his army, whose “historic victory” on the battlefield he said had helped peace. He called on the Tigraians to stop the bloodshed: “Tricks, evil and sabotage should stop here.”
Read also: “I wanted to die before my sons so they could bury me.” Drought, hunger and wars kill the Horn of Africa
But the TPLF and its fighters resisted much greater odds for a long time and would probably have managed to do so even further, if not for the lack of almost all the necessary raw materials. The hunger that the Nobel laureate supported and caused was probably therefore the main motivation of the Tigraians for peace talks. According to the UN, the region is still on the brink of famine and getting humanitarian aid to it is crucial.
Ethiopians are now only hoping that their prime minister will not use similar tactics on the other political problems outlined at the beginning. Moreover, peace on paper still does not mean an end to the slaughter on the battlefield.