Horn Of Africa Libya The war in Tigray: Abiy, Isaias, and the Amhara...

The war in Tigray: Abiy, Isaias, and the Amhara elite


Peace in the troubled Horn of Africa region supposedly made a spectacular arrival on 5 June 2018 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia agreed to implement the peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea as specified in the Algiers Agreement.

This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight. 

Two weeks later, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea formally reciprocated. Then he went further: he declared that his government’s primary goal would now be “Ethiopia’s stability,” deferring the actual demarcation on the ground to an unspecified time; a reversal of his approach for the previous 16 years.

Within a month or so, the two leaders had visited each other’s capitals, to the delight of residents. In the Millennium Hall, thousands of Addis Ababa elites gathered to give Isaias the reception of his life, with thunderous cries of “Isu! Isu!” resonating in the hall.

READ MORE Eritrea’s involvement in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict ‘is a tragic but explainable option’

Soon thereafter, when the border opened, emotional reunions took place all along the Eritrea-Tigray border. This enthusiasm infected the outside world.

The West welcomed the rapprochement, hoping that the region would now have enduring peace leading to sustainable growth. The EU also hoped the recalcitrant refugee problem that often reaches its shores might now find a lasting solution. Now that peace has been declared, it thought the indefinite national service that has been the main reason for the mass exodus of the Eritrean youth would come to an end. But if the West was pleased, they were not the key third parties.

Not only did Saudi Arabia initially facilitate the peace process between the two leaders, resulting in the Jeddah Peace Accord, it followed it up by giving them its highest medal, “the Order of the King Abdulaziz”, for ending war and bringing peace to the region. Next, Abiy was awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. A year earlier, the UN had already joined the chorus by lifting the sanctions it had imposed on Eritrea after the U.S. dropped its half-hearted protestation.

This seemingly sincere, joyous and hopeful reception of peace in the region, however, had all the makings of what was to unfold into a full-blown war two and a half years after its announcement:

  • The two leaders and the Amhara elite ecstatically welcomed the ‘peace pact’ they understood to remain confined in between themselves only with the sole purpose of creating a tripartite alliance against Tigray (with ‘Ethiopia’s stability’ in their minds);
  • the Gulf States mediators worked hard to promote and maintain ‘peace in the Horn’, primarily with an eye on keeping rivals (Qatar, Iran and Turkey) out of what they have come to increasingly consider their turf of influence (later to be defended with, it seems, United Arab Emirates drones), with the full blessing of the US, who outsourced that job to them, with China as its rival in mind;
  • a clueless Norwegian Nobel Committee facilitated this march to war by providing a sorely needed cover to Abiy;
  • the UN witlessly provided the most vital component for the preparations of war by prematurely lifting the arms embargo on Eritrea;
  • the masses on the ground, the only ones interested in genuine peace, who had no clue of what was coming soon to devastate them—scorched earth war and deliberate mass starvation in what is a genocide in the making.

Below, the three sides of this tragedy will be discussed: first, the structure of the tripartite alliance against Tigray as kept together by the ‘peace pact’; second, the timeline of the war preparations made possible by the ‘years of peace’; and, third, the emerging genocide, with famine used as a war strategy to subdue the people of Tigray.

Towards the end, the Eritrean role will be revisited, with the emphasis on its critical role in the alliance and the surprising absence of retribution from the rest of the world.

Anti-Tigray alliance

There were three entities that saw the ‘peace pact’ for what it really was on day one: as a very rare opportunity – one that has taken place only once in almost 50 years – wherein they could form a strategic alliance to sandwich Tigray between two mortal enemies (Eritrea and Amhara) and then finish it off, with total war in their minds: a war that aims to:

  • wipe out the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its army;
  • destroy Tigray’s developmental structure;
  • obliterate much of its cultural heritage;
  • dismember its domain.

The three entities were Abiy of Ethiopia, Isaias of Eritrea and the Amhara nationalists. They rightly understood this peace as meant to hold between them only, and that it had nothing to do with the main stakeholders, namely, the Eritrean and Tigrayan masses.

READ MORE Is Ethiopia coming together or falling apart?

When Abiy rushed to Asmara right after he came to power, it may well have been with this particular hostile goal in mind. So when the Addis Ababa elite gave Isaias a raucous reception fit for a national hero, all they saw in him was a dependable ally in this hostile bid, not a peacemaker. And Isaias responded with a belligerent language all three perfectly understood, “Game over”.

Obviously, this was not the peace an ignorant, distracted, naive world had in mind.

The Amhara nationalists were ahead of the game: they had already done their part in sandwiching Tigray. It has been almost three years since they blocked all the main direct roads that lead to Tigray, effectively separating it from the rest of Ethiopia. It has to be added that they would have never attempted this had they not been reassured that Tigray would never get access through Eritrea, thereby rendering the ‘sandwiching Tigray’ strategy not only desirable but also doable.

In those ‘years of peace’, they have also prepared their people for the final showdown, both mentally and physically. They have done a successful job of depicting Tigray as enemy number one in the minds of Amhara masses, a campaign that paved the way for today’s all-out assault on Tigray.

They had already started ethnic cleansing of Tigreans from their kilil (region), with tens of thousands forced to eventually reach Tigray, among others, through the Sudan, long before the final assault. Besides the ethnic hate they have carefully nurtured for years (which they accuse the TLF and other ethno-nationalists of harbouring towards them because of the anti-imperial foundations of their ideology), they have also provided the masses with tangible causes they can easily identify with: anti-federalism or centralization (ahudawinet) at the national level and land reclaim at kilil (regional) level.

And, last, as helpfully explained by Amhara’s police commissioner, they have done all the preparations for a military assault, with Special Forces and tens of thousands more militia, all trained, armed and mobilized to move against Tigray, which, while well-prepared itself, was overwhelmed.

The ethnic cleansing that we are witnessing now in West Tigray by Amhara militias is, in part, the result of years of hard work done by the Amhara elite on the ground. In this, they are only matched by the Asmara regime, which has been preparing its troops for this day for more than two decades.

Abiy understood that the almost genocidal hatred of these two factions could be fully harnessed to unleash a very destructive force against Tigray.

Aside from the personal antipathy for Tigray’s elites they happen to share, the two leaders too have had tangible goals they aim to achieve on the graveyard of the TPLF – they have identified Tigray as the sole obstacle to their ambitions as undisputed leaders in their respective domains for years to come.

After moving against the Oromo opposition, Abiy knew Tigray was the only region hindering his project of abolishing multinational federalism and creating a centralized state in Ethiopia. His dream is not unlike that of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda where he will conduct sham elections to endlessly extend his position in power. In that sense, his primary victim is not federalism per se, but democracy.

Similarly, Isaias’ goal is to extend his totalitarian rule in Eritrea as long as he remains breathing. For his autocratic grip over the population to hold, he needs a nation that is sealed off from the rest of the world – that is, both physically and economically. By now, he has found out that he cannot do this on his own; he needs neighbouring nations’ leaders that accommodate him in this critical regard. He found one in Abiy.

Eritrea’s perennial problem has been an extremely porous border and a refugee-welcoming neighbour (Tigray) that made it impossible to retain its young population, depleting its overall population at a rapid rate.

A continuous mass exodus of the young population – so far more than half a million – for more than two decades has resulted in a demographic meltdown, limiting its population to around three million (almost half of what it should have been when compared with the population growth of the neighbourhood).

In addition, if any armed opposition to his totalitarian rule is to materialize, the despot’s fear is that it would come from the refugee camps in Tigray where his opponents congregate. The border dispute comes last in his list of grievances; in fact, a lasting solution to that problem would have expedited the demise of his regime, denying him the excuse he needs for his bloated army and sealed-off state. Thus, a relatively thriving, stable, peaceful neighbour was identified by the Asmara regime as an existential threat.

On the surface, it seems that Isaias, Abiy, and the Amhara elite are against federalism, but that comes from an erroneous understanding of what really motivates them to hold that stand. Isaias is not afraid of federalism in his domain simply because he is twice distanced from it.

Federalism becomes possible only under democracy, and democracy becomes possible only when, at the barest minimum, a nation is considered normal (even by dictatorial standards). Isaias’ primary worry is that the abnormal conditions in Eritrea necessary for the totalitarian system to function would be threatened if the nation is forced to open itself to the outside world. And when it comes to Ethiopia, he is against federalism so far as it allows democracy to hold in the neighbourhood, making it impossible for a totalitarian state to ‘function’ for long.

Abiy, too, is against multinational federalism simply because it helps him to do away with democracy; his alliance with the Amhara elite hinges on that particular understanding: that centralization in Ethiopia cannot be achieved under genuine democracy, given that it would inevitably lead to federalism.

The Amhara elite does not mind federal privileges when confined to their region; their expansionist agenda takes the federalist premise as given. They have a problem with federalism only when those privileges are extended to other regions, making the assimilation project impossible.

Thus, the root problem of the federal arrangement in Ethiopia is a linguistic one, the cartographic problem is secondary to this. If linguistic dominance of one language comes to an end – say, as in South Africa – the centralizing project, with assimilation as its central core, falls apart for lack of a cause. The world is naively pushing for peace through persuasion, failing to grasp that these three partners have entered a suicide pact.

Take, for instance, the hypothetical scenario wherein Abiy is forced to accept peace either because of stiff resistance from Tigray or increasing pressure from the outside world, or both. On that very day, both Isaias and the Amhara nationalists would turn against him, resulting in immediate withdrawals of their troops.

For the Eritrean leader, an unfinished job in Tigray would be the beginning of his end; a wounded but surviving Tigray is the last thing he wants. Not only would he have to explain his recklessness, with another round of ‘martyrs’ soon to be announced, to his ever-traumatized population, he would also have to face the wrath of Tigray for years to come.

More so in the Amhara case, since much of the ‘sacrifice’ – in terms of casualties – has so far been theirs. With the loss of the areas they profess to have reclaimed, the Amhara elite would have a hard time explaining that sacrifice they exacted from their people. And for Abiy, losing the support of Eritrea and Amhara would end up in quick disaster, given that the bulk of his army comes from these two areas.

That is why the peace pact between the three should be understood as structured to result in either the complete conquest of Tigray or the mutual suicide of the three partners – with no alternative in between.

And that is precisely why the peace the world seeks in this region will never be achieved through persuasion only. Tougher measures should be taken; nothing less than economic, diplomatic and arms sanctions and drastic aid cuts against Ethiopia and Eritrea will do. And if genocide – that is, the making of another Rwanda – is to be averted, these measures have to be taken now.

Let’s take one example, the case of Eritrean refugees, to see the tangled nature of this unholy tripartite pact. Lately, we have been looking at the assault on the Eritrean refugees stationed in refugee camps across Tigray: deliberate blockage of food from reaching the camps, forced conscription of refugees by Eritrean forces, abduction of many more that ended up in Eritrea, the scattering of many others all over the place (in Tigray, Ethiopia and even the Sudan), and all kinds of traumas: starvation, disease, torture, killings, separation, exhaustion, terror, etc.

And lately, we have seen the forced return of refugees that had made it all the way to Addis Ababa back to the very camps in war-torn Tigray from which they had escaped in the first place.

The world is understandably outraged and seems at a loss to why Ethiopia would be willing to undertake such a blatant humanitarian crime even as the world’s eyes are focused on it. Taking a closer look at the structure of the tripartite pact though explains why Ethiopia cannot but commit this egregious act even as it ponders its consequences: at this point in time, it cannot afford to say no to Eritrea.

If the world lets it – and, so far, it has – the Asmara regime intends to bring all the refugees in Ethiopia back to Eritrea; for Isaias, this is a one-time bonanza not to be easily bypassed. This happens to be part of the plan to stem the ongoing mass exodus that has been threatening the viability of the nation in general, and that of its army in particular – and, to reiterate the point, that being one of the main reasons why Eritrea decided to go to war against Tigray in the first place.

If Ethiopia doesn’t accommodate Eritrea on this critical demand, nothing less than the peace pact among them would be threatened. So, for Abiy, the threat is crystal clear: if he follows international norms in regard to refugees, he might end up antagonizing Eritrea, with the possibility of losing the war, given that the Eritrean army happens to be the backbone of this alliance, initially reportedly with at least 12 divisions deployed deep inside Tigray, later to be augmented with more divisions.

That Abiy has so far chosen victory over Tigray no matter what shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the refugee crisis is the least of his sins, since he is employing nothing less than total war to achieve his goal.

Besides the ongoing ethnic profiling of Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia, a thorough ethnic cleansing in West Tigray and various massacres along the paths the tripartite armies have passed through, right now the Abiy regime is undertaking widespread bombing of Tigray, targeting villages and towns indiscriminately, all under a complete information blackout.

Above all, denying food and other basic needs – electricity, water, medicine, banking services, etc. – to the needy population has become his primary weapon to subdue Tigray, that is why he is preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the millions that direly need it now.

War path

The main goal of the tripartite alliance – crushing Tigray – is reflected not only in the war itself but also in the martial preparations that took place in the last two years of ‘peace’, unwittingly facilitated by prestigious organizations like the UN and the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Noble ignorance, or duplicity?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has developed a lazy habit, at best, and, at worst, displayed dubious motives when it awards its Peace Prize to distant third-world countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia.

It never adequately does its homework when it throws prizes at leaders who promote their perverted version of ‘peace’ –  always couched in words amenable to Western ears, but always with ulterior priorities in their minds.

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This is especially so when the committee adds other factors than unadulterated peace in its calculation, such as ‘the indispensability of Ethiopia’s stability to the region’ or ‘promoting democracy in the region’ that the West has been peddling with for decades, to the detriment of minor actors in the region. A little bit of vetting would have provided the committee with a complex picture of Abiy, enough to put doubts even on the biased minds, however implicit, of its members.

From the outset, the Prime Minister, as was very clear to those following his speeches and actions, despite some superficially warm rhetoric, demonized the people of Tigray in general, and blamed the TPLF for everything that went wrong in the nation, even under his watch.

But even putting aside his apparent dislike for Tigrayans, he has so many other character flaws that raise doubts about his sincerity and competence.

He readily fulfils all the elements displayed in the toxic cocktail of modern-day despots. He is a shallow thinker, prone to plagiarism. Like other crackpot despots obsessed with his own importance, he has come up with an incoherent ‘bible’ for the nation to follow, with a vaguely articulated ‘philosophy’ of medemer (‘synergy’) devoid of tangible content, a clear mark of a charlatan. Like a Rorschach inkblot, he could make his book say anything he wants to say, depending on the ever-changing context.

Second, this delusion of grandeur has fundamentalist elements in it – messianic and transactional Evangelicalism. He unabashedly believes he was destined to be the “seventh king”, as prophesized by none other than his own mother. The ‘Prosperity’ in the new party he created – Prosperity Party – comes from the controversial Prosperity Church, one that equates riches with virtues, with its apocalyptic aspirations having no room for peace of any kind.

Despite Isaias’ horrendous persecution of Evangelical Christians (their religion prohibited, their churches closed, all members disenfranchised and thousands imprisoned), Abiy, supposedly a devout Pentecostal, has developed a close relationship with him purely for transactional reasons – yet, rationalized as acceptable in his belief system.

Third, he is naively impressed by Arab modernity, a material-obsessed modernity devoid of its liberating aspects. Obsessed with the kitsch architecture in Dubai, he openly flaunts his gaudy taste for the nation to admire and follow. His nonchalant attempt to remake Addis Ababa in that imitative image amidst a humanitarian crisis of millions internally displaced comes from that understanding of modernity detached from its human utility. It took him a year to visit a single camp of Internally Displaced Persons, but even then he displayed no empathy for the victims.

And, last, the man is a pathological liar of the Trumpian mould. As in the case of Trump, one could count a number of lies of various statures within a single speech he delivers any time.

Let me provide one example of Abiy’s delusional grandeur on display. In a speech he gave in what seems to be the parliament building, he claims: “By 2050 the world will have two superpowers and one of them will be Ethiopia.

And this is according to 30 years plan he has drawn, he tells us. Delusional grandeur and a lie big enough to match that grandeur that he has convinced himself to be true, with some nutty religious prophecy sprinkled in it (where you could literally make things/facts happen through your wishes/words, the so-called Law of Attraction), lead to this statement.

This is a man that may need psychiatric help, not someone to be encouraged with a Nobel Peace Prize, which only ended up pushing his delusional grandeur to a stratospheric level.

The clownish character depicted above shouldn’t fool us when it comes to the horrendous damage Abiy is inflicting on the region. Some observers have attributed some high-profile assassinations to his regime: Simegnew Bekele – the chief engineer of the Renaissance Dam, General Se’are Mekonenen – the Army Chief of Staff, Hachalu Hundessa – a popular singer and civil rights activist, etc. But even if the allegations are off the mark, there is little doubt that Abiy has exploited them to serve his own agenda.

In each case, a drama was staged around the assassination to further consolidate the Prime Minister’s power. In the last case, after implausibly attributing the assassination to various opposition groups, he used it as a pretext to detain more around 10,000 – almost every person he imagined would go against his consolidation of power – from opposition party leaders to street protesters to independent journalists.

True to his ability to create ‘facts’, it also sometimes appears he tolerates ethnic clashes, just to prove that federalism is at its root cause, paving the way for the centralization that he craves. And now, we are looking at how he is one of the three main architects of the total war waged against Tigray.

The world also needs to be reminded that Abiy remains an unelected leader, originally put in a position to see the government through transition. Instead, he has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a cover to extend term limits.

One would have given him the benefit of the doubt had it not been that it is within that period of extension that he has been consolidating his power by sidelining, silencing and eliminating his competitors. After imprisoning many opposition leaders, disqualifying many parties and waging war with Tigray, now he is ready to run a sham election where the only serious party will be his own Prosperity Party.

Ignoring all the information that was available then, the Norwegian Nobel Committee nevertheless went ahead to award him their Peace Prize for a cause it had absolutely no understanding of, simply impressed by a headline that announced “peace” between two long-antagonistic nations, not realizing that in this region alliances shift not only by national interests but also by personal and sub-national ones.

Alliances are made within and across borders, making the notion of ‘nationhood’ in this region suspect. A peace pact that doesn’t take account of this elemental fact can never succeed; in this case, a peace pact that didn’t take Tigray as a serious partner. And it was not as if the Committee was caught off guard; its members had a year and a half to figure out their ‘man of peace’.

By then, Ethiopia had had a number of well-publicized ethnic clashes, dubious assassinations, horrendous massacres, and massive displacements. And more relevantly to the issue at hand, more than a year after the peace pact was made, there were no signs at all of its success on the ground – the alarm bells the committee ought to have heeded were already ringing loudly.

Despite all of these facts, this image of a youthful Ethiopian leader working for reform, peace and prosperity in the Horn wouldn’t have been bought by all the relevant players to the degree it was without the Norwegian Nobel Committee endorsing it.

The damage that the award incurred on the region was thus monumental. And when it comes to the ongoing war in Tigray, it provided a perfect cover for the war preparations that were already underway. After all, who would have thought a Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader would use the peace years to secretly create an unholy tripartite alliance with sub-national and outside forces to terrorize his own subjects?

It all started with the rehabilitation of the pariah of the region, none other than President Isaias, in the eyes of the world – a task Abiy undertook from day one with almost religious zeal.

Rehabilitating Isaias Afwerki

Abiy, in a very short time, did a lot more to normalize the Asmara regime than all the others who tried to do so in the last two decades combined – be it its supporters in the diaspora or foreign mining companies with self-interests.

At every opportunity, he hailed the pariah of the region, Isaias, as a great leader who genuinely seeks and works for peace in the neighbourhood and unabashedly romanticized the ghost city of Asmara and the traumatized Eritrean nation (sometimes referred as “the North Korea of Africa”). He sold this sanitized image so successfully to his people that when Isaias arrived in Addis Ababa, he was met with euphoric adulation that he had not found among his own people for a long time now.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Understanding Oromia’s mayhem after Hachalu’s murder

And worse yet, Abiy’s normalizing task was not confined to Ethiopia, he has taken this mission with irrepressible zeal to the outside world. He has been selling Eritrea to the neighbourhood, IGAD, AU, UN, EU, US, etc. All of this was being done without the Isaias regime undertaking the slightest bit of humanitarian gesture on its side.

Instead, it coordinated a clever Potemkin show with the Abiy government to convince the world in general, and the UN in particular, that it is genuinely embracing peace: it opened the border with Tigray for few months, allowing emotional reunions with peoples across the border. These carefully managed optics did it. Once the regime got the recognition it wanted which, in turn, allowed the sanctions against it to be lifted, it unceremoniously closed the border for good – with the full intention of trapping Tigray in between two mortal enemies.

When it comes to war preparations, the most important goal in the rehabilitating mission was to convince the UN to lift the sanctions it had imposed on Eritrea, specifically the arms embargo. Abiy successfully convinced the UN, after rallying the neighbourhood. There is no doubt that ever since then the Asmara regime has been on a shopping spree for all kinds of armaments.

Much of its sophisticated armaments (such as fighter jets), which were idle for a long time for lack of spare parts, were reactivated and new weapons were added. Abiy helped Eritrea rearm to the brim, so much so that when the war started it even managed to rearm the Ethiopian soldiers that landed on its side of the border.

Thus, Abiy’s first mission in the preparations for war against Tigray – heavily arming Eritrea – was paradoxically accomplished with the helping hands of the UN. The UN though cannot feign the same innocence as the Norwegian Nobel Committee. It should have known better since it has been dealing with the Isaias regime for more than two decades. Every year, it has been providing the world with a long list of its atrocities. In 2012, with the problem not going away, it even assigned a Special Rapporteur to examine and report annually on human rights in Eritrea.

The US’ half-hearted effort to link the lifting of the sanctions to human rights improvement was dropped quickly, with the ‘regional peace’ mantra getting the upper hand. Besides, in most of the sanctions that the UN lifted before, it took overcoming years of bureaucratic hurdles to materialize. Not so in the case of Eritrea thanks to Abiy’s charm offensive.

Closing the border

Lifting the arms embargo addressed only half of the problem Eritrea was facing with regards to its bloated army. The relentless effort to seal off Eritrea from the rest of the world in the last two decades has been conducted through two means that all totalitarian systems use – physical isolation and self-reliance – which have respectively caused the mass exodus of young people and economic meltdown.

Hundreds of thousands of young people that have left the country in the last two decades are either army deserters or conscription evaders, making it very hard to maintain an army of the magnitude that Eritrea wants to have without draining the manpower of the country. Abiy is again being asked to come to the rescue on how to stem this ongoing mass exodus.

Yosief Ghebrehiwet
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