By Marina de Regt While we were all busy watching the US elections in the first week of November, an armed conflict broke out on the other side of the world, in the already turbulent and instable Horn of Africa. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to bring about peace between the almost 20-year stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ordered a military offensive in response to an attack launched by the TPLF (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) on the national defence force. It resulted in hundreds of deaths amongst whom many civilians and thousands of refugees fleeing their homes in the northern part of Ethiopia crossing the border to Sudan. Last week, when the results of the US elections were finally clear, the conflict has caught the attention of the Western media. Within a very short time Abiy Ahmed’s image as a peacemaker is receding in the eyes of the international community, and he is being pressured to stop the military attacks. But what is really going on in Ethiopia, and how can we explain the fact that this young and promising Prime Minister felt forced to use violence?
A short summary of Ethiopia’s recent history is necessary to understand the recent events. In 1991, the socialist regime of Colonel Mengistu was overthrown by the EPRDF (the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front), a coalition led by the TPLF. Between 1991 and 2018 the TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics, including its economy, and accepted very little to no opposition. This became in particularly clear in 2005, when the elections were rigged by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was the mastermind behind a political system called “ethnic federalism”. Under Zenawi, Ethiopia became divided into eleven federations that were based on ethnicity. The Amharas got their own state, and so did the Oromos, the Tigrayans, the Somalis and the people in the South. Ethnic identity became one of the most important identity markers in Ethiopia, with far-reaching consequences. In the past few decades, millions of Amharas, Oromos, Somalis, Gugis, Afars and other ethnic groups have been displaced from their places of residence. In addition, Tigrayans were dominating the political and economic sphere, while other ethnic groups felt marginalized. Widespread corruption, nepotism, and repression were the order of the day, and those that dared to speak out were arrested and imprisoned.
Ethnic federalism was clearly not working, and the call for change from other ethnic groups grew. The appointment of Abiy Ahmed, of mixed Amhara and Oromo descent, as Prime Minister promised the necessary changes many Ethiopians were hoping for. The TPLF was, however, not pleased with the appointment of Abiy Ahmed and has been obstructing his effortsto reform Ethiopian politics from the very beginning (see for more details the recent blog by Jan Abbink). Abiy Ahmed has tried his utmost best to refrain from using violence but the TPLF has clearly crossed a red line in the past few months. When Abiy Ahmed announced that the parliamentary elections, which were planned for May 2020, had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic the TPLF did not accept it and organized its own regional elections in September 2020. But the real trigger for the military action on November 4th was the fact that the TPLF attacked a federal military base to rob equipment, arms and ammunition and killed many people. For Abiy Ahmed this was the point of no return. The events leading up to the open military confrontation between Abiy Ahmed’s national force and Tigray region’s military (including special forces, the police and local militia) were accompanied by misinformation and disinformation, distorting the reality deliberately in order to fit the narrative one wants to spread. The current conflict has further exacerbated that.
In the past week I have been in touch with many Ethiopian friends to get clarifications on the often confusing narratives of the conflict, expressing my concern about the situation and asking them about their views. While some of them denounce any kind of violence, not believing that war can solve any kind of problem, most of them emphasize the prehistory of the recent events, and point to the oppressive regime of the TPLF and the fact that it could not accept its loss of power, and therefore has been obstructing Abiy Ahmed’s reforms from the very beginning. The fact that Western media mainly portray Abiy Ahmed as the aggressor in the conflict, and is the one that should give in to the TPLF in order to reinstall peace and security, is in their eyes flawed and an example of the way in which the TPLF is able to disseminate misinformation. Fake news, a term coined by Trump and very important in the US elections which with I started this blog, plays a major role in Ethiopian politics as well. While I am fully aware that it is very hard to obtain “objective” information and the opinions of my friends are also subjective, we have to be careful in drawing conclusions: things are much more complicated than they look from the outside, and the media cannot always be trusted to present the whole picture. This does not mean that I am in favour of the military attacks by the Ethiopian national forces but the context in which they are taking place is of utmost importance to understand the current situation.
Marina de Regt is assistant professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU, and regularly writes about Yemen and Ethiopia.
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