“The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation”, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office remarked on November 4th. With that announcement, in response to an attack by forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on a federal garrison in the Tigray province, Ahmed’s war on the Tigrayan separatists began. For weeks now, Ethiopian forces have laid siege to the province, with accusations of “mass killings” of civilians by Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) troops, according to Amnesty International.
From TPLF To Abiy Ahmed
The struggle with the TPLF is nothing new for Ahmed, although this is the first violent explosion of the conflict. Once, before Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018, the TPLF ruled Ethiopia. In 1991, an alliance between the TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), brought down the government in Addis Ababa. Shortly thereafter, the TPLF became the dominant political force in country, and the Eritreans seceded from Ethiopia, gaining independence in 1993. For Twenty years, until his death in 2012, Meles Zenawi ruled the country as the TPLF’s first Prime Minister.
In the period of Zenawi’s rule, the TPLF completely overturned the Ethiopian political system. The military was completely disbanded and replaced by the TPLF military wing. The TPLF political authorities rewrote the constitution in 1994, allowing public land ownership—giving the government the ability to plunder the country’s resources, and lease land to foreign investors. Throughout the period, the TPLF even started the country’s largest conglomerate, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). Through EFFORT, and control of state-owned banks, the TPLF was able to control various sectors of the economy.
TPLF control even seeped into private life. The party selected leaders for the country’s Orthodox Church, and Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. Religious leaders of the country were overwhelmingly from Tigray, and loyal to the party. But, while party control over the everyday lives of Ethiopians was marked, the party did deliver on economic development. With massive foreign investment, the TPLF delivered great infrastructure projects, a massive overhaul of the education system, and a strengthening of the health sector.
Despite their abysmal human rights record, the TPLF-led government was a key partner in the country’s fight against al-Shabab in Somalia. Despite US and EU-led efforts to pressure the country to make reforms, the TPLF remained in power until 2018. In 2018, mass protests in the regions of Oromia and Amhara could not be violently put down by the authorities. Ethnic Oromo and Amharas (the country’s two largest ethnic groups) joined forces to oppose the government. In their bid to unseat the TPLF government, they supported the electoral bid of Abiy Ahmed (an ethnic Oromo). With his victory in 2018, Ahmed has sought to undo the TPLF system, limiting the party’s influence to the Tigray region, and has embarked on a massive privatization campaign to break up Tigrayan dominance in the economy. He has reformed the military, purging it of TPLF loyalists, making it more representative to the country’s diverse ethnic makeup.
An Ethnic Time Bomb
Many of Ethiopia’s political grievances run along ethnic lines. Ethiopia’s system of ‘ethnic federalism’ was modeled off Yugoslavia’s system. According to Florian Bieber in Foreign Policy Magazine, “by imperfectly aligning ethnicity to territory, it sought to address competing ethnic group interests but also controlled them through an authoritarian system.” Despite authoritarian rule unraveling in 2018, the newly-minted liberal political parties were organized on ethnic lines, which lent to ethnic competition. Much like in Yugoslavia, competition between ethnically based political parties reinforced extremism, which has exploded into ethnic violence.
Prior to liberalization, TPLF rule meant Tigrayan dominance of the economic, political, and security sectors. Tigrayan dominance, though, brought about minority-rule in Ethiopia. According to a 2016 estimate from the CIA World Factbook, Tigrayans make up around 7% of the population, while the Oromo and Amhara make up nearly 63% of the populace. Tigrayans, despite making up less than 10% of the populace during TPLF rule, wielded nearly unlimited economic and political power. The TPLF preyed on the ethnic divisions of Ethiopia and twisted them to their benefit.
Now, years of minority rule has been brought down by a cross-ethnic alliance creating unparalleled ethnic violence. Political liberalization, which has set Ethiopia on the right path, has now brought the possibility of the same nightmare Yugoslavia birthed—genocide.
Is this Genocide?
Outlined first in Raphael Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Genocide comes from Greek genos, meaning race, and the Latin cide, meaning killing. Genocide is ‘race killing’ in its simplest definition. Under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it is defined as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
This can be efforts to “kill members of the group”, cause “serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”, “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”, or “forcibly transferring children of the group to the another group.” According to the Convention’s second article, it composes of a mental element, the intent, and the physical element of ‘race killing’.
While it may not be clear that Abiy Ahmed’s government seeks the destruction of the Tigrayans, their actions will surely bring about their destruction. The history of the conflict, and the nature of ethnic conflict in Ethiopia, makes the intent seemingly clear, even if impossible to prove.
Surely, the Tigrayans were unwise to attack government forces preemptively. The TPLF was forced, under Ahmed, to retreat to Tigray, but they’ve maintained a strong base of power there. This remaining political power will undoubtedly be undone by their attack on the government. The foolishness of the TPLF does not justify the government of Ethiopia treatment of the Tigrayan people, arguably tantamount to genocide.
This Must Be Stopped
The international community must come down hard on Ahmed’s government, and in conjunction with the African Union, they must go further than just forceful denunciations. In the West, we cannot stand idly by as we did during the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, and Nuer in South Sudan. The International Community, must isolate Ethiopia: ensuring an arms embargo, cutting off the flow of international aid and assistance, and using that leverage to force a diplomatic resolution.
Ahmed must understand that in the absence of a diplomatic resolution, that the global and regional powers will use force to stop their campaign. Conflict in Ethiopia will not stay in Ethiopia if it is to continue. The influx of refugees escaping Ahmed’s genocidal campaign will destabilize an already tenuous situation in the Horn of Africa.
As Ahmed’s forces close in on the TPLF, the clock is running out. War has been brought to the doorstep of the average Ethiopian, and if not stopped it will beget more. While thousands may have already been killed, action by the international community can save many more from that same fate. With action, we can ensure the people of Tigray don’t become yet another victim of history.