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Abiy Ahmed’s War on Tigray: The Descent into Tragedy

By Eyob Tadelle Gebrehiwot
Tigrai Online October 31, 2021

Tigray Genocide One Year On

On November 4, 2020 - just a couple of months after his grand coronation in Oslo as the World’s Peace Laureate 2019, PM Abiy Ahmed declared war on Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Two days later, he tweeted the following on his tweeter: “Operations by federal defense forces have clear, limited and achievable objectives – to restore the rule of law and the constitutional order.”  

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By the irony of history, what was then euphemistically called ‘law enforcement operation,’ has become one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.

The war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced millions of people, caused indescribable human sufferings, unprecedented crisis, humanitarian and war crimes and ethnic cleansing and genocide, inter alia.

Also, Ethiopia’s government has been accused of using gang rape, prohibited chemicals, famine and mass starvation, among others, as weapons of war against vulnerable Tigrayan civilians.

It has also engaged multiple actors – Ethiopia’s National Defense Forces (ENDF), Eritrea’s Defense Forces (EDF), and Special Forces and militias from almost all regions of the federation, especially from Amhara and Afar regions as well as troops from neighboring Somalia and drones allegedly from UAE, Turkey, Iran, China and Russia.

By and by, the country’s socio-economic and politico-military conditions have been steamrolled, and its diplomatic physiognomy, tarnished. Security conditions have become even precarious, human rights abuses rampant, ethnic profiling and animosity at their peak, and the country’s sovereignty at question mark, or even worse.

Things are now - one year into the military war, somehow clearer than its early phase, entailing a critical analysis that could help shed some light on the elements that have shaped the tragedy.

Mutatis mutandis, the diabolically evil atrocities committed against Tigrayan civilians and the colossal damage and magnitude of the war, there are still question marks zeroing on the intention of the architects of the war: was it ‘to enforce law and restore constitutional order’ having a ‘clear, limited and achievable objectives,’ as it was stated by the PM on 6 November 2020?

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How can we reconcile this to the diagonally opposite statement of the PM when he said on 2021, after the humiliating defeat of his forces in Tigray: “Mekelle (the capital of Tigray) is no more the center of Ethiopia’s political gravity - we have obliterated Mekelle to the level of Beshasha” (a very remote small rural village where the PM was born)?

In the same vein, can we decipher the true ‘intention of this same government from the recent interview of Lt. General Abebaw Tadesse, ENDF deputy chief of staff, when he said: “we have achieved our goals (on the war on Tigray), we have completely destroyed the administrative, military and physical infrastructures of the region.”

Had not these plans/motives been projected into reality or precisely translated into material facts (-facts that have demolished the whole of Tigray to the level of Beshasha)?

Also, was Abiy's call for the normalization of relations with Eritrea a deliberate move from the outset to attack the TPLF, rather than reinstate peace between the two countries? Was there a clandestine pact between Addis and Asmara?

What is the political implication of the assassinations of high government officials, especially of the late Army Chief General Seare Mekonnen, an ethnic Tigrayan, prior to the war?  

So what was, and still is, the underlying cause behind these intentions? What are the myths, the facts, our fears and the prognosis?

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The Oromo Protest and EPRDF’s Quest for Reform – Lost Dreams?

Since its inception as a modern political entity in the 19th century, Ethiopia has always been a deeply divided state in which major political issues are violently contested along the lines of the complex ethnic, religious, and regional divisions. The Oromo protest that started on May 2014 is just an expression of a larger historico-politico-legal malice lingering at the heart of Ethiopia’s political system.

The Oromo protest forced the country’s ruling party - the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four political parties, to pursue reform and also led to the resignation of its chairman, who was also PM of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, on February, 2018. Some months later, the EPRDF elected Abiy Ahmed as its chairman, and hence the PM of Ethiopia. This also heralded the shift of intra-party political power towards the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) within the EPRDF. In a way Abiy was elected to facilitate EPRDF’s reform agenda, on the one hand, and Ethiopia’s transition to democracy and inclusive politics, on the other.

As per the reform agenda of the EPRDF, Abiy continued some of the positive measures that had already been started by his predecessor, such as, the release of political prisoners; allowing exiled members of opposition parties and armed groups to return and operate peacefully in Ethiopia, among others. But most importantly his so-called ‘peace deal’ with Eritrea had garnered him much respect and international recognition, including the grand prize in Oslo - world’s peace laureate 2019.

Regrettably, these reform measures were short lived.

Ethiopia’s Transition to Democracy under Abiy: a Pie in the Sky

Abiy, who dropped out school to join in the military during the Ethio-Eritrea war in 1998 (by the way, he also knows how to get a PhD without going through the arduous academy life), seems to have an extremely militaristic mentality, who wants to solve everything through the barrel of a gun. He started to see people around him who he thought were potential threats to his power with suspicion. Hence, unlike the relatively stable and peaceful EPRDF era, high-profile assassinations have become ubiquitous.

The series of assassinations – starting from Engineer Simegnew Bekele, Manager of the GRD, to General Se’are Mekonnen, ENDF Chief of Staff, to the President and high officials of the Amhara regional State and Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo artist-activist, seem to have something in common: they all had some political end.

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Many political commentators believe that General Se’are’s assassination was a precursor to Abiy’s ominous plans on Tigray: to marginalize Tigray from the politico-military sphere by ‘cleaning’ the army from prominent military officers of ethnic Tigryans, on the one hand, and his intention, from the outset, to use military measure against Tigray, like what he did to arrest Abdi Illey, former President of the Somali region, on the other. Later, he has in fact thrown away hundreds of prominent Tigrayan high ranking military officers and thousands of soldiers to linger in prison.

General Se’are was indeed a good Ethiopian, but not in the eyes of the ‘Ethiopianists.’

Also, by killing Hachalu, they argue, Abiy killed three birds with one stone: first he used the opportunity to arrest his political opponents in his home region, like prominent Oromo opposition politicians Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba and many others who had helped him grasp the highest political power. And second, he used it to break the spinal cord of the Qeero movement, during the social unrest following Hachalu’s death. Third, he used it to imprison veteran politicians like Lidetu Ayalew (now released and in exile), Eskinder Nega and others.

Having removed his political opponents outside of his party, he then gathered all his strength to eliminate those inside the EPRDF - the main targets being the TPLFites.

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Abiy and the TPLF: The Big Question

Abiy deliberately made an enemy out of the EPRDF - the TPLF.  

Why did Abiy Ahmed choose to turn the TPLF, the founder of the EPRDF and the midwife of the other sister parties in the EPRDF, and a party that has nurtured him starting from an ordinary solider all the way to Premiership, an arch enemy?

The immediate and obvious answer seems: inter-party power struggle, i.e. Abiy wanted to consolidate his power and completely dominate the EPRDF, which seemed unlikely, for some obvious reasons, in the presence of the TPLF.

Others also claim that Abiy feared that the TPLF might “come back,” as Shimels Abdissa, President of Oromia region, once claimed, which is simply false for several reasons. The one glaring fact is: Abiy Ahmed received power in a gold plate from TPLF. TPLFites have relinquished their power at the federal level in their own volition, to ease public grievances, and went to Tigray.

The most plausible and more convincing claim is that he wants to dissociate himself from the sins of the EPRDF. Ethiopia, under the EPRDF, had achieved electrifying socio-economic developments, yet there were obviously serious human rights violations. The four member parties of the Front share whatever positive achievements and negative ones that had happened in the last 27 years. Abiy himself was part and parcel of the EPRDF establishment. He was Director of the country’s Information Network Security Agency (INSA), and later Minister of Science and Technology. But Abiy made the TPLF the scapegoat for all the sins of the EPRDF, and for whatever wrong there was in the country. As such, by magnifying the human rights violations committed during the EPRDF, and also fabricating other stories, Abiy wanted to steamroller the legacy of the TPLF. And finally, he has rechristened it Prosperity Party (PP).

Abiy’s actions are also partly a reflection of the subjective sentiment/resentment of the OPDOites regarding ‘soft’ political power relations within the EPRDF, particularly in relation to the TPLF. It, in fact, is totally a problem subjective to, and completely created by, the OPDOites themselves, a psychological pathology that emanates from a confluence of factors, for example, that they were seen by their opponents in their constituency as stooges of the TPLF, as most of the founding members of OPDO were POWs during armed struggle against the Derg regime. Also, that they were seen (in fact they were/ and they are) as corrupt agents (of justice, of politics, of land, etc), rather than standing for the Oromo cause. And so on.

And when the TPLFites facilitate the transfer of power to OPDO, the latter were suspicious, even some could not believe it, and hence they wanted to consolidate their power not by keeping the TPLFites at bay, but by completely annihilating them - the heavyweight politicians who have shaped and dominated the political physiognomy of the country for more than three decades.

The Tripartite Alliance – Where Abiy Has Completely Gone Astray

In a complete diplomatic shift to the ideology of his party, Abiy Ahmed has forged alliance with Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki and Amhara Fundamentalist Forces, who operate, paradoxically, under the banner of ‘Ethiopianism’.

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Abiy’s prime candidate was Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki.

Relations between Tigray and Eritrea have always been tied to history, identity, politics, language and geography, among others. Mereb Melash, also called Medri Bahri, the original names for present day Eritrea before it was rechristened by Italian colonizers in 1890, was part and parcel of Tigray since time immemorial, and thus, of the grand Tigryan civilization in Axum.  Eritrea is, simply, a product of Italy’s colonization of part of Tigray.

Isaias, himself a victim of the psychological impact of colonization, does always want to invent a new history of Eritrea that does not include these historical facts. Hence, his successive aggression on Tigray is not simply his loath towards the TPLF or because there was a border issue, but rather Isaias considers the very existence of Tigray and Tigrayan identity as the major obstacle to his utopian nation building project: the invention of Eritrea devoid of its Tigryan origin.

Moreover, his highly miscalculated war against Ethiopia in 1998 was almost an act of suicide. Ethiopia, led by the late PM Meles Zenawi, who was also the chair man of the TPLF, meticulously yet completely crippled him, both militarily and diplomatically. This was one reason, but not the only reason; there were also other irrational reasons behind Isaias’s loath against TPLFites. As such, he has had a bitter hate towards TPLF and its social base – the people of Tigray.

Abiy’s second candidate was the Amhara expansionist force who wants to annex whatever land that borders its region. This force, mainly known for its mobilization capacity - under the guise of Ethiopianism or one Ethiopia, and media monopoly, is led by power mongering individuals like Andargachew Tsegie and Birhanu Nega, who also brokered the Abiy-Isaias clandestine pact. This force has called for genocide against ethnic Tigrayans, some years back, through its mouth piece - ESAT media, as follows: “the war is now between 95 million people (i.e. of Ethiopia) and five million people (i.e. of Tigray).”

The main objective of this political force is to restore the pre-1991 unitarist form of government and to scramble Tigray - the champion of federalism, thereby to annex parts of it to Amhara region.   

The coming to power of Abiy Ahmed unexpectedly created a golden opportunity - almost a political miracle, for Isaias and the Ultra-Unitarist Camp. They clearly, and at once, saw Abiy’s political naivety and immaturity. They found a man that could be easily ‘straightened or crooked’ as per their will.

Having prepared for some two and more years, Abiy declared war on Tigray - in the name of ‘law enforcement,’ for the mere reason - at least the ostensible and immediate reason, that Tigray had conducted ‘illegal’ regional election, though it was legal as per the FDRE Constitution. Abiy postponed the fifth national election for Covid-19 reasons.

Abiy blocked all roads that connect Tigray to the rest of the country (in fact, the main road that connects Tigray to Addis has been blocked for almost two years even before the military engagement). The federal government blocked Tigray’s annual budget.

He even made a deal with Sudan for the latter to close its border with Tigray. The government has also cut-off telecommunication networks, access to internet, and all means of communication, as well as electricity and water supply and everything.

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So there were both the psychological and economic warfare before the military engagement.

Abiy’s accusation of the TPLF for attacking the Northern Command is simply a pretext to garner support both from the public, and especially from the military, and was irrelevant while the war on Tigray had already been tacitly declared some time ago. Moreover, given the military experience of the TPLF leadership, it would be naïve to imagine that they would begin the war with an insignificant regional police force. They know better than anybody else the strength and military might of the ENDF and the strength of the other regional armed forces as well. One can only defeat the ENDF, or any other force for that matter, if and only if one has a just cause to fight back - that is exactly what has happened, and is still happening, in Tigray.

In such a complete and total communication blackout, Abiy and its partners in crime, have committed unimaginable atrocities: massacres of civilians, mass killings, beheadings, extra-judicial killings, indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardments of densely populated areas, mass starvation, of over 6.2 million people who need urgent humanitarian aid, and mass rape, of young girls and women, inter alia.

Also, arbitrary arrests, forced conscription, vandalism, arson and lootings of religious heritages, private and public properties, among others, were ubiquitous

Hence, the true intention of the architects of the war was not only to destroy the TPLF but also to wipe out the people of Tigray, the social base of the TPLF - it is a carbon copy of the terrifying policy of the previous military Derg regime against Tigray: drying up the sea to catch the fish.

The war on Tigray, rightly called, is genocide.

Abiy’s Military Humiliation in Tigray and Beyond – Tigray like a Phoenix

The TDF has risen from the ashes; and its military comeback and victory - something close to a miracle!

Abiy Ahmed’s so-called unilateral ceasefire, following the humiliating military defeat the ENDF and its regional allies as well as the EDF have sustained from the gallant TDF, under the extraordinary Alula Operation, is nothing, but a fool’s diplomatic garb to hide his politico-military humiliation. It, obviously, was to buy time to mobilize more resources, train more troops, reorganize and reinforce its armies.

His government has had neither the willingness to cease fire nor the readiness to solve the Tigray crisis through political means. Even worse, Abiy’s ultimate goal, along with his partner in crime, Eritrea’s Isaias, is still to raze Tigray to the ground.  

The TDF is now marching in all directions, and it has controlled Dessie, a major town in Amhara region, some 330 kms from Addis.

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Now, after what has happened in Tigray – genocide, what must Tigray demand?

The legitimate Tigray government, and also the international community, must demand, if a comprehensive ceasefire and political settlement is to be made, the following:

Abiy Ahmed must take the full responsibility for the genocidal war on Tigray. He must order the full withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara armed forces from parts of western Tigray. He must allow unhindered access to humanitarian aid in Tigray. He must allow an independent and prompt investigation to the crimes committed, which does not include the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. But most importantly, the people of Tigray must decide on its destiny through democratic manner, i.e referendum! These MUST be the pre-requisites and co-requisites that must be on the table.

Also, Fears and Prognosis

 If the ongoing war is not meticulously managed, more importantly, through political negotiations, it may, or more likely, be very costly, having unprecedented humanitarian crisis throughout the region. So what should be done? Abiy must resign! Those who are responsible must face justice. All political prisoners must be released and there should be a comprehensive national dialogue that includes all political groupings in Ethiopia.

An all-inclusive national dialogue between and among the various political groupings in Ethiopia is the only panacea, if at all, to save the country from a complete fiasco.

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