On a hot June morning, I stood on a ridge along the disputed demarcation line between Ethiopia and Eritrea, looking down on dozens of bodies, dead soldiers from both sides, that had blackened and mummified under the scorching sun. Thinking: This is the stupidest war ever.
Granted, the same can be said of most wars.
That was two decades ago. Over two years, 1998 to 2000, upwards of 100,000 people were killed in the intermittent but savage fighting and a million civilians driven into exile or internal displacement. With staggering amounts of money spent on weaponry by two of the poorest countries in Africa at the time. All to stake claim over narrow slices of land along the shared thousand-kilometre border, coalescing around a humble, dusty market town, Badme, of no apparent political value.
Although that conflict officially ended in 2000, it remained an unfinished war for 18 years — described as “two bald men fighting over a comb” — until Abiy Ahmed came to power in Addis Ababa. The then 41-year-old was appointed head of a coalition government, heralded as a forward-looking statesman, with a vision of peace and prosperity, of democratic ideals and 21st century modernization for the second most populous nation on the continent, with 80 different ethnic groups.
In his first hundred days as prime minister, Ahmed threw himself at breakneck pace into ambitious reforms, lifted the country’s state of emergency, granted amnesty to political prisoners, discontinued media censorship, legalized opposition groups, dismissed military and civilian leaders suspected of corruption, brought women into political life, mediated between Muslims and Christians and, crucially, restarted peace talks with Eritrea, brokering the accord which resulted in normalized relations after a nearly 20-year border standoff.
For his myriad accomplishments, the youngest leader in Africa was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he said war creates savage men.
Six weeks ago, his regular suit and tie replaced with a bomber jacket, the Nobel laureate went on national television to make the startling announcement that he’d ordered troops into the northernmost province of Tigray, following an attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) against a government military base. Addis Ababa, host to the African Union and diplomat-central for the continent, was already seething that Tigray had gone ahead and held regional elections in August after the national election was postponed because of COVID-19.
For a month, Ahmed made war on the restive province. The TPLF, seeking to protect its semiautonomy from the centrist-minded government in Addis Ababa — and doubtless hoping to reassert the political authority it wielded in the ethnic Tigray-dominated coalition that ruled Ethiopia for 27 years, until 2018, despite comprising only six per cent of the country’s 110 million population — had unquestionably triggered the conflict by attacking, “pre-emptively,” Northern Command bases and then launching a missile assault on the airport in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, apparently with a view to internationalizing the crisis.
The TPLF leadership has adamantly denied involvement in a Nov. 9 massacre in Mai Kadra, in southwest Tigray, in which up to 600 civilians were killed. The blame has been placed on a Tigrayan youth group called Samri. Each side has accused the other of atrocities and war crimes.
It’s been impossible, however, to verify anything because telecommunications have been shut down, humanitarian agencies kept at bay and journalists prevented from entering the region.
In a year dominated by a global pandemic, some calling it the biggest story of our lifetime — I beg to differ — scarce attention has been paid to other dramas unfolding around the planet. Armed conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan; few have taken notice. But civil war in Ethiopia grabbed international attention because it erupted so suddenly in one of the most precarious areas of the world, the Horn of Africa.
Alarmed geopolitical analysts are deeply worried the conflict could spill over into surrounding countries, destabilizing the entire region. Already it’s entangled Eritrea. In Somalia, where Ethiopia is part of a peacekeeping force fighting al-Qaeda-linked militants, the military has disarmed several hundred Tigrayans who were part of the deployment. There have been accusations of ethnic cleansing targeting Tigrayans.
Meanwhile, Ahmed has morphed from peace advocate — with a PhD in conflict resolution — to merciless war hawk, unleashing tanks, heavy shelling and relentless aerial bombardment, while claiming with a straight face that not a single civilian had been killed.
Between Nov. 4, when the operation was launched, to Nov. 28, when federal forces took the Tigray capital of Mekelle, not a day went by without the PM crowing about military victories, most of which cannot be independently confirmed. As federal troops surrounded Mekelle, a city of 500,000, Ahmed gave the TPLF 72 hours to surrender. He warned civilians there would be “no mercy” if they didn’t move away in time. When Mekelle fell, Abiy trumpeted triumph — via a tweet.
He’d flatly spurned international urging for dialogue and a diplomatic alternative to warfare, telling “outsiders” to mind their own business. “We reject any interference in our internal affairs.”
Upwards of 50,000 Tigrayans have fled the country, primarily crossing over into Sudan, cramming into refugee camps and overwhelming humanitarian agencies. Not until Saturday was a seven-truck aid convoy allowed to enter Tigray, delivering medicine and relief supplies.
“We are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia and the federal authorities there are making the situation worse,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa.
The bellicose evolution of Ahmed maybe shouldn’t be so surprising. He was a radio operator during the border war with Eritrea, fighting in the trenches, later a peacekeeper in Rwanda, going on to rise through the ranks of military intelligence and running Ethiopia’s cyber-intelligence service, before swapping the army for academia, then politics.
“You don’t come up through the ranks of military intelligence and the ruling coalition in Ethiopia and be Mr. Nice Guy,” Martin Plaut, a regional expert at London University, told The Guardian. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Others see just another in the endless line of African Big Man syndrome, attempting to amass power within Ethiopia’s delicate federation of ethnic groups.
“The narrative of Abiy the reformer is overrated,” said Tsedale Lemma, editor of the independent Addis Standard news magazine. “I am afraid full-fledged authoritarianism is where he is going next.”
Victory declared could easily flip into debacle. Despite every indication the federal government forces have routed the insurgents in Tigray, the guns have not fallen all that silent.
Where Ahmed assured the world that the operation — which he refuses to call a war — was designed as a short surgical strike, it has all the earmarks of a protracted conflict. Fighting has continued unabated around several cities between Tigray and neighbouring Amhara province.
Battle-hardened TPLF forces — they fought for decades to help topple the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam and were on the frontline in the border war with Eritrea — are experts at guerrilla warfare. Founded in 1975 as an armed movement relying on a clandestine network of supporters from the Tigray peasantry, they still retain a powerful ethnic appeal among the citizenry.
Clearly they’ve beaten a tactical retreat to the rugged mountains surrounding Mekelle, where they now appear to be holding out against Ethiopia’s robust military machine. They’re entirely capable of a prolonged guerrilla insurgency.
Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the TPLF, told CNN last week: “We withdrew from Mekelle because we did not want to give them the pretext to bombard the city back to the stone age, to indiscriminately bombard and destroy the town.”