Deputy Current Affairs Editor Tiarnan Ó Ruairc discusses the civil war that nobody is talking about.
A country born out of defiance; the only country in Africa not colonised by a European nation. In fact, to quote an Ethiopian woman during these interviews ”we [Ethiopia] scrambled for Africa too” a reference to the famous book by Thomas Pakenham titled ‘The Scramble for Africa’. After defeating an Italian expeditionary force twice, on both occasions the people of Ethiopia united, acknowledging themselves as a united nation brought together by successive royal lines, and fought for freedom. Many Ethiopians today see themselves as just that, Ethiopians. A nation formed from the great Abyssinian empire of Sheba and her son Menelik. So, a question remains, why in the past few years has this changed? This has become ever more evident following the past two years of civil war between the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front) from the northern mountains of the country and the central federal government based out of the central city of Addis Ababa.
To give a brief background on the parties involved in the conflict, the TPLF –along with other militia such as the OLF, and ALF to name a few; with each militia representing a different ethnic region in the county. These groups fought through the seventies to the early nineties against an oppressive communist military administration called the Derg. It was during this time that Eritrea through the EPRDF (Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front)gained independence with the TPLF (arguably the leading group at the time), beating the oppressive regime and taking control of the central government in Addis Ababa. While elections were held over the years, the TPLF pretty much maintained control of the federal government as part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
In 1991 the new administration began creating the country’s new ethnic-federal system whereby the distinct ethnic regions in the country had control over their own internal administration in their own language, whilst benefiting from the stability of being a united nation with one of the largest as and most populous countries in Africa. The administration vaguely resembled the pre-communist regime in structure where an imperial emperor headed the country from Addis Ababa and smaller kings controlled basically the equivalent of these new ethnic regions. And so, from this point on the Ethiopia people lived happily ever after…!
This ethnic federal state system may have been possibly the beginning of all this trouble, as it had been during the empire. A northern Tigrayans and Amhara elite ruled the country steering her whichever way they deemed fit. Allowing a space for discontent to fester among those not in power. Ancient rivalries among ethnic groups saw the northern semitic peoples dominate the lowland ethnic groups and these senses of superiority persisted to the present time… Additionally unresolved border disputes about the Eritrean border, more specifically along the Tigrayan-Eritrean border, two groups who share ethnic roots and almost identical histories except for a short period of Italian rule in Eritrea. Again, there are a vast number of factors that caused this but still the country’s history as a colonising power and not the colonised could be the reason behind at least some of the troubles.
Without continuing to bore you with an ‘Ethiopian History for Dummies’ it’s time to discuss the current events that have occurred in the northern regions of Ethiopia since November 2021. An unsanctioned election held in Tigray led to an attack on federal installations in the region, from there the violence escalated, as federal troops began to funnel into Tigray. With claims and counterclaims of abuses very quickly violence and chaos engulfed the region, unrest spilling out into neighbouring Gondar.
In particular what became apparent was the wave of anti-Tigrayan sentiment and in this the plan was to get an understanding of why this was. Here are the thoughts of some of the people that were interviewed.
“They were going door to door again, just like in the Derg” one woman commented, born and bred in Ethiopia’s capital, she says her ancestry is Tigrayan with her parents being the first of her family to live in the city of Addis Ababa. Her comments are of course a stark reminder of the claimed genocide and the displacement of the Tigrayan people. “we don’t speak Tigrinya at home now” again much like the Derg regime, the current regime seemed to enforce cultural stigmas that had previously brought about great destruction to the nation. Despite the threat of violence from the people she now lived with there is a common consensus amongst both the Tigrayan community and the wider Ethiopian community that the TPLF were not truly victims.
One interviewee, a young Ethiopian Irish man who has lived in Ireland for most of his life, said that he felt that the Tigrayans who were fighting in the north didn’t understand what they were fighting for, and that they had been misguided by a false sense of nationalism. When pushed further he commented that “we are all Ethiopians”. Something previously mentioned here, the people of each region are of course culturally diverse and in times envious and disgruntled by other ethno-federal groups; but the nation of Ethiopia identity is far greater or at least was supposed to be far greater than any internal dispute. Further interviews revealed similar sentiment regarding the ‘misguided nature of the boys fighting in the north’ there seemed to be a consensus between Tigrayan and non-Tigrayans who were interviewed as to their thoughts on Debretsion Gebremichael.
“…having fought for two years and to pretend it’s all solved now. No one to this day can pinpoint any valid reason as to why this war started. After all the blood spilled and destruction of property on both sides to “kiss and make up” without public participation is disrespectful to the lives lost…”
An older woman commented when asked on their thoughts on the war. Old enough to live through the Derg and see Ethiopia’s golden years during the relative peace over the last government, it seemed like a pathetic attempt to keep young men busy in a state of growing economic fear, much like the young conscripts of Eritrea.
The Eritrean regime is what won president Abiy Ahmed his Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However now that very award is coming into question with papers like The New Yorker publishing headlines like ‘Did a Nobel Peace Laureate Stoke a Civil War?’ some would consider that this peace deal brokered between the most secretive corrupt state in the world, Eritrea and one of Africa’s power houses was a well thought out military deal in which Mr. Ahmed acknowledged the military superiority of the TPLF and sought to suppress or win with external support from Eritrea. Of course, as we saw the deep animosities between the Tigrayan people and the Eritrean government spew into war crimes committed mainly by the invading (Eritrea’s army, comprising of press-ganged young men forced into conscription with no prospects of ever leaving the army but also TPLF fighters who turned to violence at times against their own people.
People seemed even more reluctant to discuss the federal government. As if any sort of wrong move might see a dictatorship-like response and repercussions against their family, despite all these recent events have seen an improvement in relations between the TPLF leadership and the Ahmed government. The TPLF as of the 15th of March has been removed from the state’s terrorist list, a positive move and one that takes away any justification for violence or hate of the Tigrayan people. This followed the appointment a week later of Tigrayan rebel figure Getachew Reda to head the interim government of the northern region, a major step in the implementation of a peace deal signed by the two sides after two years of civil war. Mr. Reda, the former Minister of Government Communication Affairs will hopefully help bring about some semblance of peace but also ensure that atrocities against the Ethiopian people are reprimanded regardless of who the perpetrator was. Reda’s previous appointment as Minister of government in the federal government is also a reflection of the integral part the Tigrayan people and people who identify and hail from the culture are to the Ethiopian state as a whole, and continues to show the inequalities in the system and of course it reveals the risk of further violence that may occur when so many positions have been filled by a people from a smaller ethnic group in the wider Ethiopian context.