What are the major wars of our time? Ukraine and Gaza, of course. But what about Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Sudan? Most of these are civil wars with very large numbers of fatalities. But they inspire much less interest than Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine or Israel’s attack on Gaza. The war in Syria received years of diligent consideration, if only because the principal crimes were carried out by designated enemies of the US and UK. On the few occasions when the British government was forced to defend its co-sponsorship with the US of the catastrophic Saudi intervention in Yemen (including its supply of at least £23 billion worth of arms), it offered up paper-thin arguments but was met with little criticism. The attitude to Yemen has been affected ignorance, but the conflicts in Myanmar, Sudan and especially Ethiopia have been greeted with something closer to indifference. None of them greatly increases the risk of global thermonuclear war, so the stakes are lower than in Ukraine. But that alone can’t explain the almost complete lack of interest.
The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region began in November 2020, and featured a long list of massacres interspersed with bloody battles. In the periods when the battlefields were quiet, Ethiopian forces were busy blockading the Tigray region as part of a deliberate strategy to induce famine. One might have expected, given the 1980s famine that gave rise to Live Aid, that man-made famine in Ethiopia would have a special poignancy. Yet no one paid much attention. In October 2022, just before the peace accord was signed, a team at the University of Ghent estimated that between 385,000 and 600,000 civilians had been killed over the two years of war, most as a result of famine – figures comparable to or higher than the death toll over a decade of war in Syria. The facts were known. But wasn’t Ethiopia the land of famines? What were a few more corpses floating down the Tekeze?
With the exception of a brief threat to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in November 2021, the war was only of interest to a few specialist staff at foreign ministries. The idea that there are ‘forgotten’ wars raises the question of who is doing the forgetting. Certainly not the participants or their civilian victims. The conflict was made easier for the world to ignore by the Ethiopian government’s refusal to grant access to the media or aid workers; the UN repeatedly requested access and was usually denied. This was a strategy clearly intended to limit international scrutiny. What was, on the ground, a tremendous din of atrocities was transformed into a quiet war, out of sight and out of mind.
Until war broke out, the big story in Ethiopia had been the remarkable rise to power of its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. In 2018, the ‘reformist from Oromia’ suddenly came on the scene, a champion of freedom of expression, a well-dressed peacemaker leading a democratic awakening. After three decades of rule by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), most of it under the formidable former leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Meles Zenawi, Abiy appeared to represent a decisive break with the old order. The international reception was glowing: media reports spoke of ‘Abiymania’ and in 2019 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Within three months he had signed a tripartite agreement with Eritrea and Somalia, an agreement that would help him prosecute the coming war.
Abiy’s government disingenuously claimed that the war began when Tigrayan regional leaders – enraged by their loss of influence and power – launched an assault on the integrity of the state in September 2020 by refusing to abide by the decision to postpone regional elections, ostensibly in the interests of pandemic management. On 3 November, TPLF forces attacked federal army outposts in Tigray. The TPLF leadership insisted that it was responding to an attempt by Ethiopian special forces to remove the regional government by coup de main. The government story that the TPLF started the war out of the blue is unconvincing: the TPLF’s decision to press ahead with regional elections was clearly an act of defiance, but it was also clear that the dispute was a pretext for war. Since July, Ethiopian satellite television stations had been calling for a joint Ethiopian and Eritrean military operation in Tigray. That is precisely what happened, and too quickly to be a response to the TPLF seizure of army outposts. Rather than starting the conflict, Tigray’s regional government correctly perceived that war had begun.
The question of how and why the war broke out goes far beyond the events of a few days in early November 2020. Sarah Vaughan and Martin Plaut’s book represents the first serious attempt at an account of the conflict. They show that the war, which is mostly described in the later chapters written by Plaut, can’t be explained without an account of Ethiopia’s recent political history, which is principally provided by Vaughan. Together they make an overwhelming case that the Ethiopian government’s description of the war as a ‘law and order’ operation against a disobedient and jilted political party is simply false. In fact, it represented something much more significant: a power struggle over the nature of the Ethiopian state, driven to near genocidal heights by ‘calls to erase even the memory of the TPLF and “those who resemble them”’.
The state founded by Menelik II in the late 19th century, and dominated in the early 20th by Haile Selassie, was run as a hereditary empire in which emperor and church owned a majority of land. Political power was mostly held by a caste of Amhara, from the north-west highlands. But did this represent the dramatic resurgence of a historical Abyssinia made whole by the reincorporation of truculent highlanders, or was it just another repressive modern empire? Competing versions of this political-regional conflict would play out on 21st-century battlefields.
The question was confounded by the two major Italian invasions of the 1890s and the 1930s. The first invasion led to Italian defeat; the second, which ended in the Italian occupation of Tigray and Eritrea between 1935 and 1941, was justified on the basis that it aimed to liberate Oromo, Tigrayans and Muslims from Amharic-speaking Christian domination – a line of thinking familiar from more recent Anglo-American claims about the liberation of Hazaras and women in Afghanistan. With this excuse, the Grenadiers of Savoy massacred hundreds of Ethiopians in caves using arsine shells and mustard gas. For Selassie, the lack of a powerful national centre meant that Ethiopia risked predation by outside powers. His solution was to adopt Amharic as the national administrative language and to attempt to suppress sub-national identities. This was particularly difficult in the northern areas of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1943 he put down a Tigrayan peasant uprising, the Woyane rebellion, with some help from RAF bombers strafing Mekele. But Selassie’s project also provoked a reaction in favour of what Vaughan describes as ‘the reconstitution of the imperial state along more decentralised lines’, class and ethnicity chief among them.
Resistance to centralisation was most acute in Eritrea, which was formally incorporated into the Ethiopian state in 1962. Its near constant struggle for independence resulted in perhaps a quarter of a million deaths over thirty years. But beyond Eritrea, the nations remained enduring facts in Ethiopian society. In 1974, Selassie was overthrown after a major drought-induced famine by the Derg, officially the Provisional Military Administrative Council – derg means ‘committee’ – a small group of army officers adhering to Marxist-Leninist principles. In theory nationalities were better tolerated under the Derg than in the Selassie period. But it was no coincidence that the best organised resistance to the Derg, which held power between 1974 and 1991, came from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the TPLF, which was founded in 1975. In 1991, the TPLF’s victory began a new era in Ethiopian history.
Its triumph was the result of battlefield acumen, political nous and luck. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which had provided uneven support for the Derg, certainly helped. But the TPLF had secured important allies: the EPLF, which seized Asmara and declared an independent Eritrea in 1993, and the groups that would come, with the TPLF, to make up the EPRDF: the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Amhara Democratic Party. Given the nature of this coalition, it was unsurprising that the new political settlement was based on federal power-sharing. The charter signed in 1991 sought to establish a settlement among the country’s ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’. But drawing the internal boundaries was fraught. As in 1974, political rupture in Addis Ababa resurrected regional insurgencies. The new government pursued a repressive campaign against the nationalist Oromo Liberation Front. The Somali region was prevented from holding a referendum on secession despite a clear democratic mandate. The EPRDF’s detractors, whether pan-Ethiopian or regional nationalists, saw it as a front for Tigrayan domination.
While multinational federations were disintegrating in Europe during this period, in Ethiopia a new system of ethno-regional federalism was established. The EPRDF system stressed autonomy, regional government and self-determination, and lasted for almost three decades. Its executive committee was composed of 36 members, with equal representation from the four parties, though the TPLF held the balance of power. The impetus for the federal system came principally from Tigray, and for the bulk of this period the TPLF held the prime ministership under Meles Zenawi, who was of Tigrayan and Eritrean heritage. Other TPLF figures held many of the key national security and military positions, but the multinational character of Ethiopia was at least nominally reflected in its government and constitution.
The post-1991 Ethiopian state was politically repressive but development-minded. Elections were non-competitive (and in 2005 fraudulent) but public works spending – especially on roads, railways and electrification – led to GDP growth of 11 per cent year on year between 2004 and 2014. Child mortality fell dramatically. Life expectancy went from a miserable 45 to 65. There were no famines of the kind seen in the 1970s and 1980s. But a federalism premised on ethnicity rather than regional geography alone was bound to produce problems. Significantly, the government failed to establish cordial post-secession relations with Eritrea. In 1998 this culminated in a bloody border dispute which, though the fighting ended two years later, was never completely settled. Vaughan’s assessment is that Meles was a ‘remarkably astute’ leader who delivered an economic boom and alleviated poverty, but at the cost of all the contradictions of vanguardism.
Like any multinational federation, the EPRDF was susceptible to the criticism that its focus on ethno-regional autonomy stymied the development of a national identity. Meles claimed to be creating ‘a democratic developmental state’, but the reality was quite different. After the 2005 elections, the EPRDF’s political opponents, some of whom had based their campaigns on ethnic slurs, were jailed and protesters rounded up or killed. When the dust settled, Meles doubled down on public works and set about greatly expanding the reach of the party into local neighbourhoods. EPRDF membership grew to more than six million (in Tigray almost a fifth of the population joined). Sometimes party cadres were parachuted into remote areas where they were received as overbearing outsiders. But Ethiopia’s overt rejection of Washington consensus economics in favour of public investment-led growth had its advantages.
When Meles died in 2012, the premiership passed to Hailemariam Desalegn, a civil engineer from Welaiyta, in the south of the country. Desalegn was a compromise candidate whose tenure saw a series of splits in the party and its wholesale loss of authority. The EPRDF was challenged at national level by both Pan-Ethiopianists and ethnonationalist forces, notably the National Movement of Amhara. Local politics began to be dominated by ethnic partisanship as regions raised their own militias. The 2015 elections were farcical, even compared to those in 2005. There was widespread civil unrest. Sustained protests in Oromia led to a state of emergency being declared there in 2016. By 2017, the Oromo and Somali regional militias were skirmishing on the inter-state border. The Amhara regional government renewed its claims to Western Tigray. Most significant, in November 2017, the leaders of the Oromo and Amhara parties held a party conference without the TPLF, at which the president of the Oromia region, Lemma Megersa, called for a new ‘Ethiopianism’. Criticism of the TPLF became more ethnically tinged. In effect, the EPRDF had fragmented. And because the party was integral to the functioning of the state, the political crisis that arrived in 2018 was unavoidable.
The 2016 Oromo uprisings had posed a major challenge to the existing distribution of power, but they were also a reaction to the imbalances in Ethiopia’s development. The EPRDF had imposed a market economy with a developmental state on a predominantly agrarian society. In the 2010s, Meles had made attempts at industrialisation, but with little success. In its place, the EPRDF relied on infrastructural mega-projects, which required the expropriation of large amounts of land. The growth of Addis Ababa led to the ravenous consumption of what had been rural land, creating a constituency of disgruntled former landowners, most of them Oromo. The state of emergency suppressed the protest movement for a while. When it re-emerged in late 2017 the situation became uncontrollable, and in February 2018 Desalegn resigned.
Abiy Ahmed portrayed himself as an insurgent, even though he had been prominent in the new generation of EPRDF leaders. But he was Oromo, and had come out early in support of the protest movement. In March 2018 he won election as EPRDF chairman partly on the strength of that record. His charisma, along with his commitment to Pentecostal Christianity, meant he had plenty of support. Once in office, Abiy needed to present himself as a break with the past while keeping enough of the political class onside to allow him to govern. He lit on two solutions. The first was to adopt something close to the pan-Ethiopianist position on the configuration of power between central government and the regions. In place of decentralisation the watchword would be medemer, or ‘synergy’. The second was to target the TPLF as an illegitimate force that had to be excised from political life. The EPRDF would be reformed, but without the TPLF, which was held responsible for all of its past failings.
Many of Abiy’s early initiatives were popular. The state of emergency was ended and political prisoners were released (though some would soon end up back in prison). Dissidents including the leaders of the 2005 protests and of the militant party Ginbot 7, were offered amnesty and returned from exile in Eritrea. Among the educated middle class, support for the Abiy project was strong. The establishment of a new Republican Guard signalled a more centralised political order. In November 2019, the EPRDF was rebranded as the Prosperity Party. Abiy brought in former World Bank officials as advisers and began to privatise state-owned industries (the latest target is Ethio Telecom). The IMF declared that he had ‘created space for a more inclusive political dialogue and … taken steps to bring stability to the region’. Exaggerated stories that the new Ethiopia was planting billions of trees to save the climate were lapped up in Washington and Brussels.
The Tigrayan political elite was represented as an insidious ethnic dictatorship, and opposition to Abiy’s ‘reforms’ framed as Tigrayan plotting. But Abiy’s ambitions weren’t limited to eliminating the TPLF as a political force. In 2018 he removed the presidents of the Somali, Gambela and Afar regions. There were outbreaks of ethnic violence from the Somali/Afar border all the way to Benishangul-Gumuz in the west. The (Tigrayan) former head of the army, General Se’are Mekonnen, was assassinated. Abiy also turned on the Oromo movement that had supported his rise. Military operations in the west of the region stretched to extrajudicial executions. The killing of the Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa sparked riots; the government’s response was an internet blackout and a round of arrests. The icon of the 2016 protests, the Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, was hauled into court on terrorism charges. In 2019 considerable intercommunal violence in the Amhara region resulted in at least 130 deaths.
Outside Ethiopia, Abiy was still being treated as a liberal reformer, the toast of the World Economic Forum. The Ethiopian ambassador to Washington explained in April 2019 that any problems were merely ‘side effects’ of Abiy’s vision. But as Vaughan writes, ‘beneath the attractive veneer of speedy reforms’ Ethiopian politics had become poisonous. By 2020, any remaining senior Tigrayan political figures had left Addis for what they believed was the safety of Mekele, where the TPLF still had strong support. Invited to write an essay in the Economist in September 2020, Abiy talked of democracy and the need for a ‘pluralistic political order’. Before the end of the year he had launched the country into a full-scale war.
The assault on the Tigray region came from the Ethiopian army to the south and the Eritrean army (with some Somali reinforcements) to the north, assisted by regional security forces from Amhara province to the south-west. Two million people were forcibly displaced in the first few weeks. Systematic looting was widespread and the UN recorded more than two thousand cases of sexual violence in the first eight months. Doctors without Borders documented attacks on hospitals and health facilities across Tigray, some of which were occupied by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. In June 2021, an Ethiopian government airstrike on the village of Togoga killed 64 people. In the historic city of Aksum, the Eritrean army massacred as many as four hundred people, whose bodies were transported for burial ‘five to ten at a time’ in carts driven by local volunteers. Refugee camps at Hitsats and Shimelba were destroyed in fighting between Eritrean and Tigrayan forces and then razed by the Eritrean army. A UN building was burned to the ground.
Within months, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network reported that most of Tigray was experiencing a food emergency, as it still is. Tigray’s three rivers (the Tekeze, Giba and Mereb) ought to provide more than enough water, but more than half the delivery infrastructure – wells, pumps, dams – was destroyed in the fighting. The hydropower station on the Tekeze was attacked. Phone lines and electricity supplies were cut. A fuel shortage paralysed Mekele, where dregs traded at $60 a litre. Foreign journalists were expelled. Abiy attempted to defund the UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, set up to investigate human rights violations. It was thanks to the few local journalists who were able to report from Mekele during the war that any information reached the outside world.
Abiy’s reputation abroad held up in part because he knew what American and European leaders wanted to hear. But they had also been impressed by the normalisation of relations with Eritrea – which won Abiy the Nobel. After twenty years of conflict, it was understandable that a peace deal would be well received. Yet there was little analysis of how and why the diplomatic breakthrough had come about. The deal had been helped along by the US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Donald Yamamoto, who conducted shuttle diplomacy between Asmara and Addis in the spring of 2018. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, had made it clear that UN sanctions on Eritrea could be lifted if a peace deal were achieved. Under the deal Ethiopia ceded its territorial claims against Eritrea and hostilities were formally ended. Was the simple fact that the TPLF wasn’t in power enough to end decades of conflict?
There’s a strong possibility that the deal with Eritrea and the subsequent war in Tigray prosecuted by Addis Ababa and Asmara weren’t unrelated. Abiy and Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s president, began to meet regularly – more than a dozen times in two years. In January 2019 they travelled together to Humera-Omhajer, the triple border crossing between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, for a meeting with the Tigrayan leader, Debretsion Gebremichael. What happened at the meeting is unclear, but Isaias later admitted that after the Humera-Omhajer summit he began preparations for the war in Tigray. Plaut tracks meetings in early 2020 between Abiy, Isaias and the president of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, which he argues were the basis for a military alliance. Farmaajo sent between five and ten thousand Somali troops to Eritrea in advance of the war.
Unlike Ethiopia, Eritrea experienced economic stagnation after 1991, as well as comprehensive political repression. In an earlier book, Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State (2017), Plaut tried to explain why the EPLF and TPLF, which came to power in the same year, took such different paths. The critical factor, he suggested, was the character of Isaias, who has led the EPLF since 1987 and been president since 1993. Under him, Eritrea became an autocratic martial state. It seems clear that he wanted to settle scores with the Tigrayans: in Asmara the memories of the 1998 border war had never faded and Isaias blamed the TPLF for the UN sanctions imposed on Eritrea in 2009. When Desalegn resigned in 2018, he gloated that it was ‘game over’ for the TPLF. By 2020, Tigray was sandwiched between the government in Addis, Eritrea and Amhara – which didn’t hide its desire to relitigate its claims to the regional border area in western Tigray. In July 2020 Abiy visited Eritrea’s main military training facility in Sawa. Isaias inspected the troops at Ethiopia’s air force base south-east of Addis. Abiy’s claim that the war was a messy security operation caused by the TPLF attack on northern command posts is laughable.
For the first five months of the conflict neither the Ethiopian nor Eritrean governments admitted that the Eritrean army was involved. Yet it moved en masse, cutting off access to Sudan to the west and annexing some territory for good measure. With their Somali reinforcements, Eritrean forces advanced from the border towards Adwa. Amhara militia entered Tigray from the south-west. Tigrayan forces were surrounded. The Ethiopian assault on Mekele on 28 November met with little resistance and within 24 hours the city had been taken. Tigray’s regional government opted for a strategic retreat to the hills. There was a high cost in civilian casualties, with systemic sexual violence perpetrated by the advancing forces.
Tigrayan military action was at first limited to taking pot shots at Eritrea and Amhara using missiles seized from the Ethiopian army’s northern command. When Mekele fell, Ethiopian forces installed a puppet governor. But the war spread across the entire region, with Tigrayan forces continuing to operate out of towns and villages. From the constellation of towns south and west of Mekele their forces could ambush government troops moving along the main roads. There seems little doubt that Tigrayan forces conducted massacres of their own in the west of the province. In Mai Kadra hundreds of civilians were killed with machetes and small arms. Plaut expresses doubts about these events, noting the difficulty of investigating the site, but the evidence that exists all points in the same direction. Village massacres, not only perpetrated by the government, became a grim feature of the war.
The TPLF had retreated, but it had not capitulated. Ethiopian government forces entrenched themselves in Mekele, but by the spring of 2021, TPLF forces were organised enough to contest pitched battles across Tigray. They were also able to strike at Amhara militia positions across the regional border. These small successes aided the general mobilisation announced by the TPLF leadership at the beginning of the year. Tigrayan forces were suddenly reinforced by large numbers of volunteers to the newly formed Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). The initial assault was primarily carried out by Ethiopian infantry in ill-fitting fatigues, now the Tigrayan response would be fought by a popular army of hastily trained civilian recruits: tanners and shopkeepers, peasants and doctors, whipped into shape in the hills west of Mekele.
By the end of May, the tide had begun to turn in Tigray’s favour. Its first major victories over the Ethiopian army took place in June, when the TDF repeatedly routed the Ethiopian army on the road between Agbe and Yechila, capturing large amounts of artillery. This was hard fighting but it made attacks on larger towns in central Tigray possible. Ethiopian forces in Mekele and the interim regional government there began to plan an exit, burning documents and withdrawing security forces from the city. Within a week the TDF had taken control of much of the highway north and south of Mekele. On 28 June they triumphantly re-entered the capital, marching captured Ethiopian soldiers through the central streets to jeering crowds.
Retaking Tigray was a great victory, but the region remained surrounded and the humanitarian situation dire. Cut off from essential supplies and services, their only option was to try to break the siege. Tigrayan forces headed south and won battles against tired Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. After capturing Alamata, the TDF crossed the Tekeze into Amhara. Another detachment headed east into the Afar flatlands. By the end of July they were fighting across north-central Ethiopia. Buoyed by their successes, the TDF headed south towards Addis, winning battle after battle. Again the fighting was hard: in Chenna, Tigrayan forces massacred civilians, executing many who were already held in custody. They blew through Ethiopian federal and Amhara forces at Weldiya and captured the airport at Lalibela. In Addis there was panic. Among the Tigrayan leadership the talk was of overthrowing the government and trying for a repeat of 1991.
With the TDF bearing down on the town of Dessie north of Addis, the capture of which had led to the fall of the Derg in 1991, there appeared to be a real threat to Abiy’s government. In late November, the TDF surged towards Debre Sina, 75 miles from the capital, but it would go no further. Plaut endorses the view that drones supplied to the Ethiopian government by China, Iran and Turkey were critical in halting the advance. Most of the Tigrayan troops were approaching Addis down a single road, the A2, and it was easy for Ethiopian forces to strike them from the air with Mohajer-6, Bayraktar TB2 and Chinese Wing Loong drones. But there are other possible explanations. The TDF advance forced the Ethiopian army into a mobilisation of its own, significantly increasing its numbers. The Tigrayans were overstretched. Ethiopian forces were now able to counter-attack from Afar in the east. It’s possible that old DshK machine guns were just as important as drones. And the balance of forces was not in the Tigrayans’ favour. The TDF was forced into a full retreat.
The Ethiopian government re-established the siege to devastating effect. The level of destruction was already considerable. Hospitals and clinics had been destroyed or looted. Tigrayan forces had sabotaged the airport at Aksum by digging trenches in the runway. In Tigray itself food became scarce even for the most privileged; doctors tried to keep the hospitals running while having to queue for food parcels. The UN kept complaining that the famine was a ‘stain on our conscience’ which could easily be remedied if the Ethiopian government lifted the blockade. Instead, Abiy expelled UN workers. Flights by the UN’s airline, UNHAS, were suspended in October 2021. In March 2022 the Ethiopian government finally announced a ‘humanitarian truce’, but according to the Tigray regional government only a small amount of food aid actually came through. At least 400,000 people were facing famine.
While the blockade continued, the Ethiopian government was preparing for another major assault. In August 2022 Abiy tried to bring the war to a conclusive end. One Ethiopian general claimed that more than 130,000 were killed in battle over the next ten weeks. Plaut says the Eritrean forces adopted ‘a scorched earth policy of comprehensive destruction and looting’. Heavy artillery was used to bombard Tigrayan towns indiscriminately. Ethiopia’s sixth and eighth commands, together with three divisions of Amhara special forces and thousands of Amhara militia, attempted to overrun the southern front. In September, government forces launched a full-scale offensive in the south of Tigray. The city of Shire was taken by government forces with ground forces and Soviet-made field artillery. The TDF was beaten back from Adwa and Aksum and into a full retreat. Plaut says the losses on both sides were ‘extraordinary, with tens of thousands killed and wounded’.
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces did not occupy Mekele again, but the Tigrayans were forced to sue for peace. In the usual fashion, warring factions went quickly from claiming that negotiation with the enemy was treachery to admitting its necessity. On 2 November 2022, representatives of the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan political leadership signed a ‘permanent cessation of hostilities agreement’ in Pretoria. The TPLF had to accept unfavourable terms. It was forced into a symbolic acknowledgment that it had had no right to call regional elections. Federal military forces would return to Tigray, and the TPLF agreed to surrender its heavy weapons, acquiescing on condition that Eritrean and Amhara forces withdrew from the region, but Eritrean soldiers were still in northern Tigray months after the Pretoria agreement was signed. All the same, there was no new puppet government in Mekele. And, despite Abiy’s wishes, the TPLF leadership didn’t end up in prison.
During the Tigrayan war, neither side had access to what military analysts call Group 1-3 UAVs, the class of reconnaissance drones that has proved so effective in Ukraine, allowing troop positions and artillery batteries to be quickly located and targeted, resulting in slow-moving advances and stalemate. In Ethiopia, things moved much faster. Massed armies met in major battles along shifting fronts. Militia raided freely. Civilians in captured villages and towns were exposed to the excesses of armed divisions. It’s still impossible to know exactly how many people were killed.
In December 2021, the UN commissioned a team – Kaari Betty Murungi, Steven Ratner and Radhika Coomaraswamy – to investigate violations of international humanitarian law during the war. But the Ethiopian government refused them access to anywhere except Addis Ababa, and the Eritrean government refused to engage at all. Tigray was subject to a communications blackout, which made it difficult even to conduct remote interviews. The UN team nonetheless found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In Amhara, Tigrayan forces had executed civilians (Human Rights Watch found that Amhara militia members had systematically killed or evicted hundreds of thousands of people in western Tigray). After an Ethiopian airstrike on the marketplace in Togoga in June 2021, the army had prevented ambulances from reaching the area. The residents of Humera and the surrounding area had been forcibly displaced to a refugee camp in Dedebit. In January 2022 a drone strike on the camp had killed about sixty refugees, leaving ‘dismembered bodies and human flesh hanging from trees’. These were just a few of the atrocities found by a circumscribed investigation.
The UN Security Council had for the most part been uninterested in what was going on until the Tigrayan advance on Addis Ababa in November 2021, when it called for a cessation of hostilities. China and Russia backed Abiy. The US was very supportive of Abiy at first. In the early days of the war, when the Eritrean army was rampaging across the north, it condemned the Tigrayans for trying to ‘internationalise the conflict’. The UAE, over which the US has influence, supported and armed Ethiopia and Eritrea through the war’s critical phases. Under Biden, minor sanctions were imposed on some Ethiopian, Eritrean and TPLF officials. But the war was never a priority for the US government. In September 2021, Abiy published an open letter to Biden complaining about the world’s failure ‘to openly and sternly reprimand the terrorist group [the TPLF] in the same manner it has been chastising my government’. Meanwhile, one of his advisers was giving speeches calling for the ground in Tigray to be made incapable of sustaining ‘weeds’.
The EU appointed a special envoy, the Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, but Europe for the most part confined itself to boilerplate statements of concern; its attention was focused on the war in Ukraine. The British government’s special envoy for famine prevention, Nick Dyer, visited Tigray in May 2021. Laudable – but it did nothing to prevent the blockade. Plaut is wrong to describe these limited moves by the international community as constituting a full-blown ‘attempt to halt the war’. The African Union dispatched observers to Ethiopia’s 2021 elections even though they were being held during a civil war. In the middle of the war the US State Department published its country strategy for Ethiopia, which declared that the conflict had ‘not altered the strategic logic of a healthy and vibrant US-Ethiopia partnership’. In March last year, Antony Blinken visited Addis to reaffirm relations with Abiy now that the dust had settled. There was, Blinken said, to be a new ‘commitment to partnership’. This month Ethiopia joined BRICS.
In Tigray, the damage has been deep. More atrocities have been covered up than investigated. Farmers lost cattle and crops. The power supply to the region remains unreliable. In its final report before the investigation was unceremoniously terminated, the UN noted that ‘the conflict in Tigray has not ended, with Eritrean troops and Amhara militias engaging in ongoing violations.’ Getachew Reda, who signed the armistice agreement in Pretoria, heads Tigray’s interim administration. During the war, exigency tempered discontent with the politically exhausted TPLF, but now it is being challenged by other Tigrayan political groups, which hold Reda and the TPLF partly responsible for the destruction. Federal government security forces have returned to Tigray, and international media are still largely prevented from reporting. There are restrictions on Tigrayans travelling out of the region. Last May, the World Food Programme suspended food aid to Tigray after disbursements were stolen. Hundreds have died of starvation since then.
A central argument in Vaughan and Plaut’s account is that Eritrea’s role in the conflict has been underestimated. That’s true – but we should not underplay the extent to which this was Abiy’s war. Plaut writes that Eritrea gained ‘a remarkable level of influence over the Ethiopian domestic political sphere’. What neither he nor Vaughan appears to have anticipated was that Abiy would spread the war across the rest of Ethiopia. Without help or prodding from Eritrea, Abiy has since conducted major campaigns in Oromia, Afar and Amhara. On 4 August 2023, he declared a six-month national state of emergency. After fighting with Amharan militia against the Tigrayans, Ethiopian government forces have now turned on them. Abiy is trying to incorporate regional military forces into the national security apparatus, but this has proved impossible without violence.
The Abiy project has disinterred old antinomies that have their own destructive logic. Rather than a balanced multinational federation, or a recentralised federal state, Ethiopia has become the site of a series of regional conflicts. Abiy emerged from the war emboldened. Last summer he announced plans for a new $10 billion presidential complex, intended to fulfil a prophecy, made by his mother, that he would become the seventh king of Ethiopia. On 13 October he declared that the country had a right to port access to the Red Sea. By 2030, he said, Ethiopia’s population would be 150 million, 25 per cent more than it is now; it wouldn’t do for them to live in a ‘geographic prison’. What he had in mind was unclear: a port access agreement, or a slice of land leading to the sea? On 1 January, he signed a memorandum with the breakaway regime in Somaliland, trading diplomatic recognition for ‘access’ to the port of Berbera. The Somalian government, which had supported Abiy in Tigray, recalled its ambassador and on 8 January its president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, travelled to Asmara for discussions with Isaias. Neither of them was happy about Abiy’s talk of ‘geographic prisons’. Not satisfied by continuous conflict within Ethiopia, Abiy seems to want a regional crisis.
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