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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As pointed out above, Tigray has been the main attraction for this mass exodus. Not only has it been accommodating hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees in camps and cities, but most of the refugees that eventually landed in foreign lands have also passed through it. Abiy started to work on this problem long before the war started.
First, he tried to close two refugee camps, by crowding them in other camps and even moving them to Ethiopian towns, with eventually phasing out the refugee camps in mind. When there was stiff resistance to this, the Prime Minister drastically curtailed the acceptance of asylum seekers, forcing most newcomers to skip the camps and settle in towns and cities across Tigray instead.
What Abiy failed to accomplish during peacetime is now being openly conducted on the ground: the overall emerging picture is that of Ethiopia actively involved in handing over the refugees to Eritrea, be it by providing Eritrean troops free access to the camps to do whatever they want or returning refugees from as far as Addis Ababa for the same purpose.
If so, imagine what would happen if Abiy succeeds in winning this war: Ethiopia would not only stop being a haven for Eritrean refugees, it would actively work with the Isaias regime in apprehending and sending them back to the very nation they have escaped from. That would go a long way to stem, if not to entirely stop, the mass exodus.
And then there is the national economy, if one can call it that, given that it is the ruling party, Shaebia (the popular name for the ruling Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), that monopolizes it.
It is this monopolization that was terminally threatened by opening the border to free trade, rendering the two advantages it had over the civilian sector obsolete: the total control it had over hard currency and the rest of the economy. With cross border trade flourishing, the artificially manipulated Nakfa was about to have a meltdown. With the hard currency Eritrean families receive from the diaspora fetching more in Tigray (when exchanged in Birr), the downward spiral of the Nakfa was inevitable.
Shaebia’s control over the rest of the economy (ownership of commercial farms, factories, businesses, banks, shops, etc.) was achieved by fiat: eliminating competition through expropriation, manipulated bankruptcies, forced closures and unfair competition (such as using free slave labour and having exclusive access to hard currency). With the opening of the border, competition was coming from outside, something it was unable to control. Left on its own, Shaebia as a competitor in an open market wouldn’t have lasted for long.
We can now easily see wherein comes this picture of ‘Tigray as an enemy’ if we focus on that brief time of a few months when the border was opened to allow free movement of people and goods.
First, tens of thousands stampeded to get out of the hellhole called Eritrea, with tens of thousands more readying themselves to leave the nation for good. If the border had remained open for a year or so, the nation would have been entirely emptied of its young population, and the inevitable collapse would have followed.
Second, when thousands of those who visited Tigray returned to Eritrea, they came back with ‘dangerous ideas’ in their heads. They have seen a Tigray that was relatively free, somewhat democratic, peaceful, developing at a good pace and its people living the kind of normal lives that Eritreans crave. Not only did this add to the tension within the country, but it also became a further reason for the exodus.
And, third, Shaebia’s monopoly over the economy was about to come to an abrupt end, and since it was the only economy that mattered, the nation was about to experience economic disaster. By not objecting when Isaias quickly closed the border, Abiy was trying to preserve these three essential components of the war preparations: manpower, ideology (anti-Tigray), and resources.
The biggest clue that the two leaders were preparing for war long before the triggering event that Abiy mentions (‘the attack on the Northern Command’) or that Debretsion Gebremichael mentions (the elections) is how Eritrea used the COVID-19 pandemic to cover its war preparations.
Here is how this puzzle goes: why is Eritrea, an impoverished nation that has had the fewest number of cases in the region, having the longest lockdown in the world (ten months and counting)? This puzzle is compounded by the fact that it was not only the longest but also the strictest lockdown: no vehicles except for government-owned ones were allowed to move through the duration of this extended lockdown, only when the massive looting of Tigray started were trucks allowed to move. In its latest version, there were even days it has totally prevented residents of Asmara from going out of their homes.
All of this has been ruthlessly undertaken despite the fact that most of the people have been enduring it at almost semi-starvation level, with desperate robberies reaching an epidemic level. (It is believed that only when the regime rounded up the young men of Asmara and sent them to the Tigray war did the robberies subside.) Besides, this seemingly overcautious approach doesn’t comport with the recklessness in which tens of thousands of soldiers are exposed to the virus in the Tigray war they have been forced to join. In fact, the latest spike in COVID-19 cases is attributed to the war.
Nor does it comport with the way the city residents have replaced car transportation: horse-driven carriages that take much longer time to reach destination points, hence greater exposure. Thus, this cannot be explained by looking at it either epidemiologically or economically, but it can be readily explained as a military tactic.
What the Asmara regime actually did was to use COVID-19 pandemic as a cover to conduct its final preparations for the war: massive troop buildups and irregular troop movements (both its own and Ethiopia’s), hasty deployment of reserves and Sawa-graduates, and massive armament hauls from the seaports and airport – all done in a total information blackout. Given that the regime is still denying its involvement in the war, it was necessary that all the preparations be done in the dark – that is, besides the military surprise element.
Mesfin Hagos, the former Defense Minister of Eritrea, provides us with an additional piece of information in this regard: that specially trained Ethiopian troops were being stealthily stationed (incrementally) in a totally secluded area in Eritrea (known as Gergera) long before the elections were conducted and the Northern Command was neutered. Their presence was in fact reported as early as June, although nobody figured out that they were being readied for war.
Thus, the regime’s main concern was the spread of information if people are allowed to freely move around. It was no wonder then that the strictest version of the lockdown took place soon after the start of the war when a large number of Ethiopian soldiers were brought to Eritrea through the Asmara airport and the seaports (through Massawa, via Assab).
In addition, this cover was used to prevent the movement of young people, who are prone to desert the army and evade conscription at times of war. As the war continued, and the death of beloved ones began to filter its way to Eritrea, this lockdown would be further used to monitor and prevent any open grievances or any form of dissent.
Above, we have seen how Eritrea was preparing for war for the last two years, with and without the helping hands of Abiy. Now let’s look at what the Prime Minister did on his own turf to prepare for this war.
Abiy’s first move in his war against Tigray was how to alienate it from the rest of Ethiopia. First, he made sure that Tigrayans and the TPLF became interchangeable in people’s minds, for example through the documentary about state abuses that framed “Tigrinya speakers”. Second, he blamed TPLF for every imaginable ill that afflicts the nation, including all those that have been taking place under his watch: corruption, murky assassinations, ethnic conflicts, economic downturn, etc.
Similarly, he refused to give any credit to the TPLF for any positive developments that had occurred in the country, including the solid economic growth, partly from critical public investments the nation registered during the latter half of EPRDF’s rule.
Even the fact that Tigray was the only kilil in Ethiopia that had no internal strife was eventually spun as some kind of nefarious plot to preserve peace in its own turf at the expense of others. Somehow Abiy was trying to convince the rest of Ethiopia that peace and prosperity in Tigray were inversely related to their peace and prosperity.
And now, this perverse logic is extended to include life itself: that the death of Tigray would mean life for the rest of Ethiopia – a logic that is now interpreted on the ground by the tripartite armies in their systematic destruction of Tigray (factories, companies, farms, banks, hospitals, schools and all other types of institution and infrastructure) and, of course, accompanied by ongoing massacres.
As a result of Abiy’s sustained campaign, the image of Tigrayans that gradually evolved among Ethiopians in general, and the Amhara in particular, was that of an alien and treasonous people, undeserving to be considered fully Ethiopian. Thus, the frame of mind necessary to conduct genocide was accomplished.
While President Isaias, having finished his war preparations, was ready and waiting, Abiy had one particular problem to resolve before he would make his final move.
After two years in power, his political and physical hold over Ethiopia remained tenuous: many opposition groups were actively against him, and various parts of Ethiopia were out of his orbit of control. He needed to consolidate his power first before he could embark on such a major adventure as the Tigray war.
It is not that he had not been using force before. In fact, he had used his army to quell dissents in various regions before in Amhara, Metekel, Oromia, Somali, Sidama, Wolayta, etc. It is only that he didn’t need the kind of massive firepower and unconventional alliances that he ended up using against Tigray.
The one problem that he was unable to quickly resolve was the political dissent of many parties. The creation of the Prosperity Party went halfway to resolving that problem. It required a more draconian move to eliminate it. This came with the assassination of Hachalu Hundesa, the perfect excuse Abiy needed to make this last move: he detained more than ten thousand in the opposition, including top leaders.
It is surprising and disappointing that the world never focused on that egregious crime, given that it marks the time the Abiy regime went fully authoritarian, openly shedding its democratic pretensions. Besides, this move has all the hallmarks of Isaias’ tactics: an assassination, the search for ‘assassins’ that fit the agenda, the search for a ‘crime’ big enough to include many of the opposition, and the totality of it all, in that it marks a point of no return. With one masterstroke, the mentee was catching up with the mentor; it was the first significant step to shape Ethiopia in the image of Isaias’ craven autocracy.
Once the Prime Minister consolidated his power, his next move was to remove the only obstacle remaining to his complete control: Tigray.
With that in mind, he was ready to move much of the national army to the north in coordination with his two allies. Both Eritrea and Amhara were waiting ready for him to catch up: Eritrea has mobilized its entire population and Amhara has amassed a large force made up of Special Forces and various types of militias on its northwestern border with Tigray.
Again, all of these were ready long before the so-called trigger events – the neutralization of the Northern Command or the Tigray elections. What the former actually did was to set back the preparations on Abiy’s side, and made him more dependent on Eritrea and Amhara for the success of the mission, further cementing the tripartite alliance.
Another of Isaias’ signature tactics has also been used in the preparations for this war: timing. In 2001, Isaias used the terrorist attack on 9/11 as cover to make his lethal move to crush all opposition in the land: former comrades, generals, senior officials, journalists, religious groups and many others who were perceived as dissenters were imprisoned. As in Hachalu’s case, it marked Eritrea’s totalitarian turn.
The war was set to start at the time of the US elections for three reasons:
- First, as in the case of 9/11, all the eyes of the world were focused on the US elections, especially since this one was unusual given the consequences it carried not only for the US but also for the world at large.
- Second, the two leaders figured out that if Joe Biden comes to power, they would likely face an administration opposing their war, or at minimum how it is conducted. With total war planned to subdue Tigray and its people, no wonder they dreaded the arrival of a Democrat president. They felt that the Trump administration was more sympathetic to their cause and unwilling to take punitive measures against them (it is also possible that Abiy was counting on his Evangelical connections in the White House), and more so if it is preoccupied in its election. Looking at the initial reactions of the US – it was supporting the Abiy government, and with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Tibor Nagy, both using similar terms to attack the TPLF for “internationalizing” the war – I don’t think the two leaders were wrong in their assessments.
- And, third, they believed that the three months long interregnum – in between the elections and handing over power – would give them enough time to finish the war. After that, they believed that the Biden administration would have no choice but to take the situation as fait accompli and start from the default position of the US under any administration: the indispensability of Ethiopia’s stability to the neighbourhood.
Thus, the timing of the war as set by Isaias and Abiy provides additional evidence that the preparations for it were long in the making. Triggering points are excuses that they were looking for, if not those, others would have been invented. But the timing of the war could not be changed, it was what had to remain constant.
Moreover, those who believe that the so-called triggering events are the cause of the war always fail to include Isaias’ role, as if he arrived late to supplement Abiy’s war. They seem to miss that all the preparations he had made were with a certainty of war coming. Anything short of delivering that war would be considered as Abiy’s betrayal of him.
If we cannot say, had Hachalu not been assassinated, Abiy wouldn’t have turned authoritarian, we cannot also say that had the triggering events not taken place, this war could have been avoided. In both instances, other events (manufactured or not) would have been found to fill in the role within the already set timeframe.
But it is not just a regular war that they are conducting, as pointed out before, it is total war with genocide the result of total subjugation.
Genocide in the making
People who commit genocide not only think in totality, they also do it in unanimity, as if they share a single mind. This is something that peasants are incapable of doing on their own. The total mind is the invention of the elite. The idea of ethnically cleansing an area to match a map is an alien concept to a peasant’s mind. That is why almost all forms of genocide are elite-driven.
Having done all the preparations – both physical and mental – by the Ethiopian elite (especially the Amhara elite), the nation is now on the verge of committing a massive genocide in Tigray. To prepare a people to commit genocide means that you present genocide to them as an acceptable solution for a given problem; the elimination of the other becomes not only desirable but also pragmatically doable.
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Tigrayans have been rendered the other by Ethiopians in general, and by the Amhara in particular. Mentally, they have been pushed out of the borders of Ethiopia, and almost every Tigrayan is now experiencing this strange feeling of alienation, of being the other, i.e. of being unceremoniously evicted from the Ethiopian body. This strangeness comes precisely because for much of their lives they had felt like the core of what makes Ethiopia throughout history.
Even if we confine ourselves to recent history, they had valiantly fought against Egyptians, Sudanese and Italian forces in the latter half of the 19th century. Now, they find themselves outside of the very entity they helped to secure for centuries. Whatever happens in this war, Ethiopia will never find a place in the heart of Tigrayans again, in no small measure thanks to the Amhara elite, who have failed dismally in their nation’s hour of need.
Right now, even with the scattered information coming out of Tigray, we are witnessing genocide in the making in real-time, partly thanks to social media. Famine is emerging as the biggest weapon the Abiy government is willing to wield in the process of subjugating Tigray. Tigray has always been prone to extensive droughts and millions need partial or full aid even in good times. This year the food problem has been exacerbated by multiple invasions of locusts in the south. The war has added millions more to this figure. In addition, UNICEF claims that there are more than two million children in need of help.
The first step taken by the government in its systematic famine policy against Tigray is to let the famine run its course, that is, not to intervene in any way, other than to block access.
That includes outside intervention – the UN, UNICEF, USAID, NGOs, etc. Its refusal to let any of these humanitarian organizations have free access comes directly from this policy. The Amhara elite has been the primary sponsors of this policy, reminding the government that a well-fed population breeds resistance. Their reference point has been the global aid in the 1984 famine, which they claim helped the Woyane win the war against the Derg. The government has been scrupulously listening to their advice.
Second, not only is the Abiy regime letting the famine run its course unhindered, but it is also actively inducing it. With the war, it has successfully displaced more than two million people within Tigray, mainly peasants who have been forced to flee their homes, leaving behind their farm animals and harvests. Some of that has also been burned by troops on the ground and by drones and fighter jets from above. In one satellite image, experts have identified thousands of burned homes and plots.
In the western part of Tigray, where half of the internally displaced people have fled from, the assault by Amhara militias is more systematic: massive ethnic cleansing accompanied with the expropriation of homes, farm plots, harvests and livestock, with the explicit intention of settling the land with Amhara peasants. The displaced Tigrayan peasants and those who have stayed but have lost their crops and livestock are living on borrowed time, with the certainty of famine around the corner.
And this policy to starve the Tigrayan masses to submission is not limited to peasants; the urban population too is facing the same fate. First, the government has deliberately frozen bank accounts of the entire population across Tigray. Second, hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have been made to disappear by the relentless and vicious destruction that is being carried out by the tripartite armies.
In Adwa alone, more than 5,300 mostly low-income women have lost their jobs because Eritrean troops completely destroyed the Almeda Textile Factory. In some towns, the entire food supply of the residents has been looted. The insecurity in the villages has added to this plight, in that the regular supply of food products is being interrupted. In Mekelle, for instance, the prices of food have shot up. All of this has created a precarious condition, not unlike the beginning of famine.
And, last, the information blackout over Tigray is meant to provide this unfolding genocide through famine and war a necessary cover.
Abiy’s government has adamantly refused almost any independent media from the outside world to enter Tigray. And, second, it has cut off telephone and Internet services.
Recently, limited telephone service has started in Mekelle and in the west and south, and that is because Abiy feels he can control it. He is dreading the Internet though, for obvious reasons: the images of the carnage taking place all over Tigray – abandoned villages, burned-out buildings, looted universities and factories, the widespread presence of Eritrean troops, etc. But the last thing that Abiy wants is the image of emaciated starving people making the headlines of the media in the world; he knows what the consequences of such exposures have been to his predecessors Haile Selassie and Mengistu Hailemariam.
The three odd partners of the tripartite alliance against Tigray are actively working their way to what amounts to genocide. Recently, famine as an additional weapon to subdue Tigray has gained urgency among these three partners because their goal to finish the war quickly has failed.
The longer the war, the more the world would discover what is really going on inside Tigray. The looting army of Eritrea would find it hard to explain its extended presence. The ethnic cleansing that Amhara forces are conducting cannot continue in stealth given that, sooner or later, the armed conflict will likely revisit those areas. But, above all, there is fear among the three partners that time could only benefit the TPLF; the fact that outraged Tigrayan youth are flocking to the mountains to join the resistance is an ominous indicator of what is coming. That is why famine is now emerging as a war strategy.
Ironically, the Maikadra massacre has played a disproportionate role in minimizing the overall massacres that have been going on all over Tigray.
Given that Maikadra is to be found near the border with Sudan, with many of its inhabitants now living in refugee camps, it is understandable that it is getting the publicity other massacres deep inside Tigray are not getting.
It also used to be inhabited by a sizeable population from both ethnic groups (Tigrayans and Amharas), which is not the case in most Tigrayan villages and towns, which has provided conflicting narratives that the Abiy regime is exploiting. It is notable that Abiy has so far not attributed any civilian massacre in Tigray, except for Maikadra, to the TPLF. All that he is attempting to do is prevent the news of those massacres from reaching the outside world; the information blackout is meant to help in that process.
Despite all the efforts, the information is slowly but steadily filtering out of Tigray. Through words of mouth of witnesses, family members, relatives and images through pictures and videos, the true picture is emerging. So far, here are some of the villages, towns, cities and districts (in alphabetical order) where massacres, ranging from few individuals to dozens to over a hundred, have happened. I have compiled from social media:
Abiadi, Abraha-Atsbaha, Adiabun, Adidaero, Adigrat, Adihageray, Adihano, Adikeyih, Adinebried, Adiqeweylo, Adiaweshi Adwa, Agula’e, Ahferom, Ala’isa Alitena, Axum, Ba’eker, Beles, Bizet, Chercher, Dahwan, Dibdibo, Digum, Edagahamus, Endabaguna, Finariwa, Gebezya, Gijet, Guya, Halah, Hawzien, Hiwane, Hitsats, Humera, Koraro, Maikadra, Maitsebri, Mariam-Dengelat, Mekelle, Menji, Mekhoni, Nebelet, Negash, Rawyani, Raya, Seharti, Semema, Shire, Tembien, Tashi, Welkait, Werkamba, Wukro, Wushti-Gulti, Zalambesa, Zara, etc.
In all these areas, the massacres are being conducted by the Ethiopian army, Amhara forces, and Eritrean troops. The most horrendous massacres are being conducted by the latter two. Yet the world remains focused on Maikadra, where the consensus of the media seems to be that both parties are involved. But the latest one points the finger at Ethiopia: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights suggests that evidence is pointing that Fano and Amhara militias conducted the massacre while the army stood by, allowing it.
But even if the former happens to be true, the narrative that ‘both sides are to be blamed’ by the media is very deceptive, given that all the massacres in the rest of Tigray – amounting to thousands killed, at a minimum, and still counting – are being done by the tripartite partners. There is no sense of proportion in such reporting.
Yet, in the end, these massacres will be only a small part of the emerging genocide. What is needed is a means that would deliver in huge numbers and in a short time, one that is not as messy as these ongoing massacres and one that could also be blamed on nature. That means is famine, that the protagonists have not only decided to let run its course by denying any help from reaching the starving millions, but are also actively inducing it through massive displacements and relentless war.
While from above (the government), the overarching famine policy is to deny, obstruct and prevent any aid from reaching Tigray accompanied with information blackout, from below (the tripartite armies), the facilitation of the famine is accomplished by the total destruction of Tigray.
The relevance factor
Let me end this essay by focusing on Eritrea’s involvement in this war. If there is anything surprising in this war, it is the way the outside world has reacted to Eritrea’s involvement: from silence, to doubting it, to minimizing it, to ignoring it or even to supporting it. The US has been the worst: from notoriously praising Eritrea for its patience to reluctantly admitting its presence in Tigray, with no desire to restrain the Isaias regime.
But even the EU, which is the only body that has somewhat reacted to the crisis in a substantive way by withholding $109 million of aid to Ethiopia, has so far remained unresponsive to Eritrea’s involvement. Given that the Eritrean army is the backbone of the tripartite army, it remains a puzzle why the EU is unwilling to punish the nation, especially since it is well cognizant of the horrendous crimes the regime has been committing against its own people.
Besides, from the news that has been coming out from Tigray, the Eritrean soldiers happen to be involved in the most gruesome way: massive lootings, gang-raping, burning harvests and homes, dismantling of factories, destruction of public buildings, attacks on refugee camps, and, above all, killing civilians wherever they pass through or are stationed.
If Eritrea deserves the name “the North Korea of Africa”, then its troops should be called “the Khmer Rouge of Africa” for the sheer brutality and cruelty they have displayed in Tigray. In the span of less than two months, they have already massacred thousands of Tigrayans (more than Ethiopia had killed in the entire 30 years long of the liberation war in Eritrea). What is the world waiting for? In fact, the world ought to have focused more on Eritrea than Ethiopia for various reasons.
First, the huge humanitarian crisis the Eritrean occupation has generated – from massive lootings to wanton destruction to mass killings – would come to an abrupt end. Second, the presence of Eritrea everywhere in Tigray has become a further reason why the Addis Ababa government doesn’t want to allow foreign entities – from humanitarian organizations to journalists – into Tigray. Third, if Eritrea is forced to withdraw from Ethiopia, there is little chance that the war campaign will succeed and its end, and that of the terror it has unleashed, might come sooner than later.
These are all reasons that would immediately benefit the terrorized people of Tigray, and by extension, Ethiopians. But Eritreans too would be beneficiaries. First, the terrorizing of the Eritrean refugees by Eritrean troops would come to an end. And, second, the needless loss of lives in the Eritrean army engaged in Tigray would also come to an end.
This focus on Eritrea should also have a long-range aspect to it since much of the problem in the region is instigated by its vindictive leader. In this war – his latest among the many confrontations he had ignited – what remains constant is his perennial quest to remain the most relevant player in the region. Eritrea has neither resource nor soft power by which it could stay relevant, let alone the most relevant, in the region. It is a tiny, impoverished nation known for its brutal administration that no nation wants to be associated with, let alone emulate.
In light of this, Isaias’ great fear has always been that he would remain irrelevant in the region. For a long time now, he has found out the only way he could remain relevant is by involving the nation in multiple confrontations. He happens to be the main architect of this war, and you cannot help but admire in the way he has made himself (or Eritrea) indispensable, and hence the most relevant, in this war game. In this arrangement, he has made the Eritrean army the most indispensable element upon which the tripartite alliance rests; if you remove it, the rest starts to crumble.
The tentacles of this alliance go even further, in that the proxy beneficiaries are made to pass through Asmara in order to strengthen that indispensability phenomenon. The presumed United Arab Emirates drones that many suspect have been so effective in determining the course of the war and in terrorizing the people of Tigray happened to fly from Eritrean soil, namely Assab.
Even the US seems to acknowledge that: “Cameron Hudson, a former director of African affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, stated that there is division in the US government on speaking publicly about Eritrea’s involvement in Tigray, due to strategic and tactical considerations.”
In layman’s language, it means Eritrea’s involvement has been found indispensable to the stability of Ethiopia, which has always been the US’ priority in the region.
The US was willing to let this go on so far as the allies were able to wrap their campaign as soon as possible. Only when the war seemed to drag on, and the involvement of Eritrea could no longer remain hidden, did the US government issue a half-hearted warning to Eritrea to withdraw its troops. But the critical point here is how Isaias positioned himself as indispensable to the self-interest not only of Ethiopia, but also the US, through the war he architected.
If the above makes sense, then it is essential the evil man of Asmara be denied the relevance he actively seeks through endless confrontations – against Djibouti, Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia, and now, Tigray – in the neighbourhood. It would be the beginning of his downfall. And with that, Eritrea would also be delivered from decades of totalitarian horror.
With that, the possibility of sandwiching Tigray, a phenomenon that has been tempting genocidal elements from Ethiopia, would come to an end. It has to be made clear that Abiy would have never attempted to conduct total war against Tigray without having Eritrea on his side. Thus, removing Eritrea from this unholy alliance is the beginning of the return to peace in the region.
We have seen how the world at large has been wittingly or unwittingly complicit in this unfolding tragedy. What should be done now? Let’s start with the redressing part.
There are already people calling out the Norwegian Nobel Committee to revoke Abiy’s prize – precedence shouldn’t be in the way of preventing genocide. The UN should reimpose sanctions on Eritrea, this time one that targets the economy too. The EU should also cut the aid it provides to Eritrea. Similarly, the West should drastically cut the aid it provides to Ethiopia, and whatever it provides should be done on the condition that it opens a humanitarian corridor to Tigray.
Another rogue party in this war seems to be the United Arab Emirates, which reportedly has been devastating Tigray with its drones. Neither the EU nor the US is saying much on this new phenomenon that has already devastated Yemen and Libya. It would be of tremendous relief to the region if the Biden administration acts on this as soon as he occupies the White House.
Above all, the world should come together in providing relief to needy Tigrayans before they are eliminated as part of the tripartite alliance’s total war on Tigray.
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