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The Belligerents in the Ethiopian Conflict have Failed the Moral Test – a rejoinder

Protagonists seem to be locked into actions that defeat the logic of their stated objectives and everything they claim to stand for.
Leiti and her daughter are tired from sleeping out in the open after fleeing their home in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad

I read with interest the article by my colleague on this platform titled “Efforts to end the Ethiopian conflict must involve Eritrea.” The article is as pragmatic as any coverage of the Ethiopian conflict to date. Indeed, pragmatism is important in a world that, at times, operates like an open jungle. However, as we discuss possible solutions to the conflict, we ought to keep an eye on another world, one of the ideals we want to bequeath future generations. This is especially important in conversations about “the Africa we want”. In the realm of ideals, moral considerations must factor in the search for a path out of the current conflict in Ethiopia if the country is to retrace itself to the inspiration that it has been for Africa for much of the past two decades.

When Abiy Ahmed rose to power in 2018, Ethiopia was a reference point for Africa’s inspiration. An Ethiopian Prime Minister commanded the kind of respect and influence in Africa and in global settings that many leaders would envy. This is the kind of leverage that can steer a country to any vision a leader wishes for his society. Ethiopian leaders had recognised that they could leverage this asset (the standing of an Ethiopian leader) to influence decisions in Africa and elsewhere. So much has been at stake in the war in Ethiopia, not only for Ethiopians but for all of us Africans. Ethiopians have lost themselves – but so have we.

When, in November 2020, the Federal government launched its “law and order operation,” many observers warned that the conflict could have unintended consequences, urging the belligerents to show restraint. Brushing those concerns aside, the authorities in Addis Ababa assured that the operation would last only a few weeks. We are now close to 15 months into the conflict, with no end in sight. Instead, Abebaw Tadesse the Deputy army chief of staff of the national army (ENDF) has announced an imminent second military phase that is aimed at retaking Mekelle in order to “destroy the enemy,” as he put it.

In the prevailing context of the war in Ethiopia, the word “destroy” is frightening, considering the fact that “the Federal government has entertained ambiguity between the targets of its law and order operation and ordinary Tigrayans.” Moreover, in such a context that’s widely acknowledged as a “siege” where ordinary Tigrayans are dying of hunger, succumbing to preventable diseases for lack of access to medicines, and being subjected to all kinds of atrocities – ranging from rape, ethnic cleansing, drone strikes, to mass incarceration – the objective of “destroying the enemy” has frightening implications. If the aim of Ethiopia’s federal government was to convince the world that this war had a legitimate cause, then the manner in which it has pursued this cause has undermined its case. This was obvious the moment it could not link the cause, the methods of its pursuit, and the targeted enemy for destroying.  This ambiguity is just too costly even for some of us who were otherwise attracted to the idea of “One Ethiopia”. As a result of the war and despite its stated aims, the prospects of “One Ethiopia” have been pointing in the opposite direction. This means that the war is achieving the opposite of what was intended as it destroys the social fabric of Ethiopian society.

Moreover, a confluence of factors assures the demise of the “One Ethiopia” project: the resistance of the Ethiopian society, the diminishing power of the federal government, and the latter’s increasing reliance on regional forces. This is not surprising since one can be opposed to the TPLF without embracing the revocation of the current ethnic-based federalism. For instance, many in the Oromo community, a historically marginalised group whose resistance mainly drove the TPLF out of power in 2018, are opposed to these attempts to reengineer the constitution. Their apprehension is mainly driven by suspicions that those behind the project are simply clothing the return of Amhara political, economic, military, and cultural domination in the garb of lofty-sounding ideals. This explains, in part, Oromo sympathy for Tigray’s cause. They are willing to put aside their grievances against the TPLF because they view these attempts to change the constitution as a threat to their interests.  

Further, as the Federal Government directs state resources to the war effort, its ability to provide services to regional governments diminishes, and so does its ability to impose its authority there. This begs the question: was the war intended to subdue Tigray to the authority of the Federal government worth it if, ultimately, it leads to the emergence of other defiant regions? On this measure, again, the war appears to be achieving the opposite of its aims.

Eritrea’s vengeance

On its part, Eritrea has also forfeited its right to pursue its security interests beyond its claims on Badme. By insisting that Ethiopia needs a new constitution, Eritrea is overstepping the bounds of the sovereignty of a neighbouring country. This defeats the very precept of self-determination on which Eritrea itself is built. Eritreans would never allow foreigners to interfere in their sovereign matters – and rightly so.

Numerous accounts recall Meles Zenawi’s decision not to pursue the war against Eritrea in 2000, even when his generals believed they could win and insisted on marching on Asmara to achieve regime change. Such accounts give insights into statesmanship that is guided by the principle that holds that every people have the right to determine who their leaders should be and what their political organisation should look like. Similarly, as Asmara would agree on matters to do with Eritrea, Ethiopians must be allowed the space to resolve their internal issues without any foreign interference. The same applies to Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and China. If their cries against interference into their domestic matters are to carry any moral weight and win solidarity, then they ought to do the same for other countries.

They – bar none – have played a destructive role in the Ethiopian conflict by fuelling the conflict and emboldening belligerents in the belief that they could achieve victory regardless of the humanitarian cost. Whatever the outcome of the war, the belligerents will be harshly judged by history.

Amhara and Tigray forces

In this regard, Amhara regional leaders have many questions to answer. The overzealousness with which the Amhara elite are pursuing the war only serves to confirm the fears of those who are suggesting that the war is about the return of their dominance. They have ordered the forcible occupation of western Tigray. Border disputes between regional states of the same country are ridiculous, to say the least, at a moment where African countries are discussing ways of removing these colonially-imposed physical barriers. Furthermore, even if their claims on this territory were legitimate, these leaders have abysmally failed to reign in anti-Tigrayans sentiments, and the atrocities committed by their forces and militias in western Tigray speak to a failure of leadership, a dereliction of duty. This failure will not persuade other Ethiopians that the proposed centralised federal system is not a return of the old oppressive empire in which Amhara elites enjoyed all the privileges associated with dominance over state power. It is also worrying that all accounts suggest that these leaders are the most reluctant to a negotiated settlement of the conflict. If that is indeed true, the future of Ethiopia, a once admired country, hangs on their next decisions. What they have won is the legitimation of the concept of Amhara chauvinism as an acceptable lexicon, when in fact it is a term that denigrates a people and suggests that they are narcissistic and irrational.

The onslaught on Tigray united the Tigrayans in ways that Addis could not have imagined. It prompted them into forming the TDF, which proved its worth on the battlefront. Its successes, however, attracted it to the same error that had been committed against Tigray.  The decision to march onto Addis was as misconceived as the decision of the Federal government to march onto Mekelle. While TPLF might have had a legitimate cause for self-defence and breaking the siege, the moment it considered marching onto Addis to impose itself – knowing that the majority of Ethiopians don’t want it back in power – it proved to be no different from those who had marched onto Mekelle to impose themselves on a people who didn’t want them there.

All this is to say that the moral cause has collapsed in the war in Ethiopia since all protagonists seem to be locked into actions that defeat the logic of their stated objectives and everything they claim to stand for. Only dialogue can rescue them from this contradiction.


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