- Interview by
- Doug Henwood
The miserably bloody war in Ethiopia has been going on for the last couple of years, largely out of view of the outside world. It’s the latest chapter in decades of factional and ethnic conflict in that country.
In this latest round, which began in November 2020 and appears to have paused somewhat following a peace agreement late last year, at least half a million civilians have died and five million have been displaced.
Some background: Emperor Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia for much of the twentieth century until he was overthrown in 1974 by the Derg, a brutally authoritarian group. The Derg was, in turn, deposed after a fifteen-year war by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled through 2018.
Ethiopia is now led by Abiy Ahmed, who assembled a coalition of the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara. (The Amhara account for about a quarter of Ethiopia’s population and dominated the country’s politics for centuries, a period that ended along with Haile Selassie’s rule; the Oromo comprise over a third of the population, and Tigrayans about 6 percent.)
After losing power, the TPLF retreated to Tigray, the northernmost state in the country. It chafed at the demotion, apparently initiating an attack on federal military bases in the region, and Abiy’s government — in cooperation with Eritrea’s army — launched a full-scale war on Tigray in November 2020.
Journalist Ann Neumann has a piece in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine about the brutal conflict. On a recent episode of Jacobin Radio’s Behind the News, she spoke with host Doug Henwood about the difficulties of gaining information about the war (Abiy has effectively closed off Tigray), the complex historical roots of the conflict, and the vicious toll the violence has taken on civilians — particularly, but by no means exclusively, on Tigrayans. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Before we get into the details of the conflict, tell us how you reported this story. What went into it?
I flew to Addis Ababa [the capital of Ethiopia] under a tourist visa, but I went to Cairo first, as you’ll see in the latter half of the piece, where I’m talking to Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees who found themselves in this little neighborhood in the west of the city. I found witnesses to massacres during the early stages of the war. It was pretty shocking.
Then I carried on to Addis Ababa and met up with my guide, Mario, who got the trip together and introduced me to everyone. We flew to Lalibela [in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region, just below Tigray], which is probably the holiest city after Aksum in the entire country. It had been occupied by TPLF soldiers for five months, with a brief interlude of about eleven days. Lalibela had suffered very much. Individuals couldn’t leave their homes, they had no food (soldiers were taking the food), women had been raped, livestock had been killed, and of course the electricity was out.
We happened across a training of Fano, which is this storied militant group among the Amhara. And it was hundreds of Lalibelans, who were afraid for their lives. I wanted to see what this militia looked like from the inside, because it was accused of some of the more gruesome atrocities of this incredibly deadly war.
The challenge of reporting the story, in part, was that I could not get into Tigray, which is that northern province that the federal government unleashed all of its forces onto along with those of Eritrea, the country just north of the Ethiopian border. So it was the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces that poured into Tigray at the start of the war in November of 2020; it was Fano (it knew what was coming and wanted to reclaim these territories that it believed had traditionally belonged to it); and it was also the Amhara Special Forces (from the Amhara region).
All of these forces piled into Tigray. The entire state was under siege. People were slaughtered and driven from their homes; refugees were sent into Sudan or other parts of Ethiopia, or even into Eritrea, one of the most authoritarian countries in the world. The majority of the violence and atrocities, we can assume, have taken place in Tigray.
Genocidal language was used up to the start of the war. The violent rhetoric among the federal government was over the top, this demonizing of the TPLF, which had ruled the country prior to Abiy’s rise. It became a scapegoat for him and a way to solidify his support.
But there’s no good guy here. Whatever took place at the hands of the federal government and its allies in Tigray, Tigrayan forces then — when they had the military upper hand in 2021 — took out into other parts of Ethiopia.
The division politically is astounding, not only in the country but among the diaspora. It’s reflected on social media. Indeed, two Tigrayans have sued Meta for inciting violence, and one’s father was killed.
This is one of those horrific conflicts that the outside world, meaning Western opinion leaders, have paid very little attention to. What is it all about? What is being fought over?
The number of dead is just atrocious — [the five hundred thousand] is civilians dead. That’s not even counting the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were poured into this from either side.
To answer your question more directly, the cause of the war depends on who you talk to, but these are old alliances, old frustrations that ultimately come down to who wants to be the great power in the Horn of Africa.
Eritrea received its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, but a few years later fell into a gruesome war with Ethiopia. The TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, and the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, had been allies in overthrowing the Derg and gaining Eritrea’s independence, but they fell out quickly, and many people were killed in that border dispute.
Abiy [who came to power in 2018] then did what no one thought was possible and went to Eritrea and signed a peace accord after thirty years of bitter disputes, and thirty years of Eritrea being increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. And many have speculated that that peace deal included this conversation of war, because both hated the TPLF.
The TPLF, when pushed out of leadership, retreated to Tigray, and that began to fester. The TPLF didn’t like the demotion, and Abiy was using a lot of rhetoric against former TPLF leaders. And here was Eritrea, which would love nothing more than a destabilized Ethiopia.
The TPLF decided to host elections, and the federal government delayed them.
Most everyone agrees that the TPLF did the first fighting — it went into federal military bases in Tigray and attacked the individuals there, although there have been rumors that Ethiopian Airlines planes were being used to take soldiers into Tigray. So even how the war began is still murky.
Abiy took to the violence. He is former military; he wanted to be a strongman. And the TPLF had all of this experience — it had overseen the military for twenty-seven years, and had a lot of military equipment. No one was willing to back down.
And the stakes are high. The Western Tigray and Raya territories are enormous. Tigray, without that territory — which Fano and the Amhara Special Services now hold — has no outlet. It’s locked between Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia, and it doesn’t have an outlet through Sudan.
These animosities are old and, in many cases, fall along ethnic lines, or ethnicity is used as a tool in the conflict. And real lives are at stake. If the federal forces want to starve out Tigrayan people from this territory — and they have — the Tigrayans are left fighting to live.
Tigrayans are 6 percent of the population, yet they ruled the country for thirty years. How did they pull that off?
They did it with a coalition. They formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was a coalition of the Oromo, Tigrayans, Amhara, and the southern states. And while they ruled the country under the auspices of this coalition, they pretty much ran the show.
Meles Zenawi [the Tigrayan leader of Ethiopia from 1991 to 2012] was charismatic, shrewd, smart, did a lot to develop the country, had a lot of international contacts, and I think at the beginning certainly believed in moving the country toward democracy. But that dissipated quite quickly.
When Abiy came to power, he did so under the [EPRDF] coalition, but the Tigrayans refused to participate and pulled out of it in the most recent election. Abiy decided to form his own party, which is called, interestingly, the Prosperity Party. So he’s left the coalition behind, Tigray is not a part of it, and he’s using this party to espouse a lot of unity language — all of which seems hollow in the face of this hideous war.
Who is Abiy? Where’d he come from?
One of his parents is Oromo, and one is Amhara. He seemed like a great compromise candidate when the EPRDF was looking around for someone. He had served in the TPLF Army when the TPLF ruled the country and apparently has a lot of leftover resentments against the TPLF.
But he’s a good talker. He’s got a PhD. He’s young. I find him quite postured, but he’s beloved in some parts of the country, particularly among Amhara, who see finally they can get their just desserts after the TPLF is gone. And the diaspora has fallen in love with him. I think the West was very much in love with him at the very beginning. He got a Nobel Peace Prize, and he’s used that prize as a helpful mask as he’s launched this war.
He did communications work in the military, and he’s pretty savvy about his messaging and his use of internet and social media. The cutoff of Tigray, in a gruesome way, was brilliant. No news could get in or out. Even today, it’s limited who can enter or leave the state. We’re several months now after peace agreements were signed, and Abiy’s proven very effective at keeping that information in his own pocket.
These kinds of ethnic divisions are a classic heritage of colonialism. Is there a colonial history here?
I wouldn’t say colonial, but there is an imperial history. Ethiopia was never colonized. Italy colonized Eritrea and did it up, you know — built infrastructure, etc. The Americans took over Kagnew Station, which is in Eritrea.
When the British ran the Italians off the continent close to the end of World War II, there was a discussion of what to do with Eritrea — because, apparently, Eritreans weren’t to be trusted to rule themselves. Haile Selassie wanted that access to the Red Sea, to ports, since Ethiopia is a landlocked country. He was very close to the American government and persuaded the Americans and the British to give Eritrea to the Ethiopian government.
Haile Selassie was an imperial dictator. He was the king. And the way that kingdoms worked in Ethiopia was imperial governance through power. Any cohesion that we see, like the current borders of Ethiopia today, come from Menelik II [emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to 1913]. He established the capital Addis Ababa at the turn of the twentieth century, which had been nomadic up until then, and conquered all of these different ethnic groups and ruled over them in imperial fashion.
Does Washington have any interests in this conflict?
There are so many. We were talking about the enormous diaspora of Eritreans and Ethiopians. We’ve mentioned this base that Americans were on and the role that the United States played in surveillance from Kagnew Station in Eritrea. The surveillance is what ties the United States to Ethiopia, over time. Nick Turse has done a lot of reporting on the National Security Agency’s surveillance network that has developed there since the start of the “war on terror.” Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of aid from the United States — it’s always in the top ten.
But I would say that we should have compassion for what individual Ethiopians are experiencing. When we think of Ethiopia, we think of Feed the World and the 1980s during the Derg and this enormous famine, when hunger was used as a weapon of war.
Very much the same thing is taking place right now in Tigray, where for two years the federal government has prevented aid from reaching Tigrayans who are already in famine-like conditions because of the famine that’s spread across the Horn of Africa.
So I would argue that we should pay attention to the Horn of Africa. We should be compelled to fear for this kind of starvation, unspeakable violence, rape, torture, and displacement that the war has brought.
It’s a real tragedy to me that the Western media on the whole has not at least attempted to witness the atrocities there.
Finally is there any hope for a way out of this? You mentioned there was a brief ceasefire. Is there any way out?
There was a ceasefire in 2021, when I was there in the spring. Then fighting resumed, and it was more brutal than the first phase.
By the fall of last year, the Tigrayan forces had been nearly decimated. They were out of resources, and it’s still shocking to see how long they did carry on, given their inability to muster forces as a small state.
In November, peace deals were signed in Nairobi and Pretoria, negotiated by the African Union. The violence continued, sadly, after that peace deal was signed, and today there are still reports of Eritrean soldiers all across Tigray.
There are large questions that the peace deal did not address, like the case of Western Tigray. It’s an enormous swath of territory that’s coveted because it’s so fecund and would allow Tigray access to Sudan. But that’s currently held by Fano, Amhara Secret Services, and federal forces. And we have no idea how that’s going to shake out in any peace deal. There’s a lot of violence taking place in Oromia, with the Oromo population wanting independence.
And so the country is just much less stable than it was before the war. I’m hopeful that peace will hold, but there are so many factors that have an influence on that stability that just aren’t resolved by the peace accords. The war has just been so devastating that it’s hard to be hopeful.
And even if there were a peace today, there would still be a huge humanitarian catastrophe to contend with.
Undoubtedly — hospitals with no medicine, women who have experienced mass rape and sexual violence who have no access to services, incredible famine, people completely displaced, people who are able to get out of Tigray but are afraid to go home. Communication is still spotty. Internet and cell phone access are still limited. Banking is still limited. All these services have been shut down since the beginning of the war.
So just finding out what has taken place is going to be a yearslong process, and there’s no way forward until international parties have open access to bring aid and medical assistance into the country.