American diplomats and journalists interested in the Tigray conflict deny any favouritism for the TPLF. They assert their concern is for the people of Ethiopia and have pushed parties to the conflict to find a solution through peaceful means.
Ethiopians generally believe that this diplomatic approach treats a terrorist group as a legitimate negotiating partner deserving of sympathy and even an outsized share of power. That Western evenhandedness is what confuses Ethiopians and alienates them from their international partners today.
Such foreign attitudes, which influence the war, rest on misunderstanding what the fight is really about. Clarifying its real causes may help facilitate a resolution by helping international interlocutors focus on the real issues.
The real causes of the fighting
Despite media reports to the contrary, the cause of the Tigray conflict is not the merger of the previous ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition into the Prosperity Party (PP). It is not the controversial election the Tigray regional state conducted on September 9, 2020 which the federal government declared null and void.
It also is not, as TPLF Ambassador Berhane Gebrekristos claims, due to a personal obsession by Prime Minister Abiy with amassing power. The real drivers of the conflict are (1) the desire of the TPLF’s leaders to regain control of national power and the economy for corrupt purposes and (2) their desire to avoid accountability for years of TPLF human rights violations and embezzlement.
Ethiopia’s secret former ruler
After coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy implemented several key reforms. He freed thousands of political prisoners, lifted restrictions on the independent media, and invited the country’s once-banned opposition groups back to the country from exile.
Though Abiy had overwhelming popular support when he took office in 2018, the Ethiopian public was skeptical about whether he could contend with the TPLF leaders’ lingering influence, especially over the security forces. But in July 2019, Abiy fired Getachew Assefa, the intelligence chief.
Getachew had been the behind-the-scenes, de facto leader of the nation since the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012. He and other senior TPLF leaders enjoyed impunity for years while they presided over extrajudicial killings, torture, illegal imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and corruption. But Getachew, with his powerful intelligence portfolio, was perhaps the worst offender among them.
The Ethiopian public, which had suffered under Getachew’s iron fist for many years, was overjoyed by his firing because Abiy proved that he was not a TPLF puppet and it marked the end of the TPLF’s hegemony in Ethiopia. Some people compare the nation’s sense of relief to the moment Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974.
Getachew’s firing came as a surprise because it had been almost impossible to act against the interests of the TPLF since 1991. As soon as he was removed, Getachew fled to Tigray. He took official documents, devices, and every tangible and intangible intelligence asset he could into hiding with him. No one knows exactly what he stole because he was in charge of the country’s secrets.
Getachew and other senior TPLF leaders promptly began using the substantial intelligence assets he still controlled to carry out a destabilization campaign to sow chaos throughout Ethiopia so they could regain national power.
Motivated by public outrage over the TPLF’s human rights abuses and corruption, one of Abiy’s promised reforms was to bring about accountability for crimes committed by government officials during the 27 years of EPRDF misrule. Arrest warrants for dozens of TPLF leaders responsible for international crimes were drawn up with Getachew high on the list. Other panicked TPLF leaders bolted to Tigray to avoid arrest on corruption or human rights charges.
Abiy sent federal police to Tigray to apprehend Getachew, but they were arrested at Mekelle airport by the Tigray regional government according to TPLF Ambassador Berhane Gebrekiristos. The federal government accused the Tigray regional government of shielding Getachew and tried him in absentia.
Frightened TPLF leaders who had retreated to Mekelle prepared to resist arrest, and that is when the countdown to war really began. The establishment of the Prosperity Party and the voided regional election thus only worsened an already-fraught relationship between the federal and Tigray regional governments.
TPLF opposition to the EPRDF merger into the Prosperity Party and its defiant holding of elections against federal dictates were mere pretexts to justify its leaders’ planned armed resistance to criminal prosecution. The 4 November 2020 attacks on the Ethiopian National Defence Force’s Northern Command by TPLF that triggered the Tigray War were simply the spark that ignited the combustible situation.
Unconfirmed rumors say Getachew is dead. The federal government must presume he is alive until proven otherwise. Ethiopia will not know peace until he is brought to justice if he is still alive.
EPRDF officials from the other three coalition partners: OPDO, ANDM and SPDM, who acted as accomplices during the TPLF’s reign of terror, should be held accountable along with the TPLF’s top officials.
Especially, the West needs a new policy that takes these foregoing facts into consideration. The TPLF’s victims, who still resent their abuse, obviously see accountability by the TPLF’s leaders as more important than do Westerners who, after all, don’t harbour the same personal grievances. Perhaps that’s why the war’s true cause is more obvious to many Ethiopians. In any case, influential Westerners’ failure to see the conflict’s origins keeps them from addressing the root cause of the conflict.
Western diplomats, perhaps swayed by long-standing personal relationships with TPLF representatives, all too readily swallow the false excuses peddled by the TPLF propaganda machine. Thus, instead of helping to develop realistic solutions to the drivers of the conflict that take the fugitive TPLF leaders’ fears and ambitions for national control into greater account, they are busy developing proposals centred on ethnic-based empowerment in which the TPLF has no genuine interest other than for propaganda reasons.
Those westerners mean well when they press Abiy to end the federal government’s blockade of Tigray. Food aid should reach those in need. However, those apprehensions must be balanced against those of the federal government which fears the TPLF wants to repeat the history of 1984-85 when it used foreign aid money to import weapons through Sudanese humanitarian supply routes. The TPLF’s attempt to open the Sudan corridor again poses the risk that humanitarian relief for Tigray will be misused to lengthen the conflict.
Ethiopia’s foreign partners need to incorporate this new analysis into their peacemaking attempts. Once the war ends, the South African model Truth and Reconciliation process could help establish stability. Ethiopia already has one, but it is not highly regarded and needs revamping. The process could even include Getachew and other senior TPLF leaders if they are prepared to admit wrongdoing. The Prosperity Party’s initiative to hold an inclusive national dialogue is a good idea too.
In the meantime, an American policy that continues to ignore the real causes of the war and relies on false premises will not secure unity, peace or stability in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian public harbours bitter memories of TPLF rule. If that gangster clique succeeds in avoiding accountability for its crimes and leverages its undeserved international legitimacy to shoot its way back into power, Ethiopia is almost certain to fragment into warring ethnic factions. The country will become a scene of even worse destruction and suffering
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