Published in partnership with Ethiopia Insight.
It was not an ordinary peace where two adversaries agreed to settle their differences. It had much deeper significance for Eritreans. Eritreans had been at war for the previous six decades.
Generations were born in war, lived in war and breathed war. When the Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared peace in April 2018 and came to Eritrea to deliver peace in person, they received him like a hero of a son they had been waiting on for too long. Tears were flowing down the cheeks of so many. Peace had finally arrived!
For the Eritrean people, this was a new beginning; a period of planning their lives as a normal society. It brought hope and a strong desire to see an end to their children being snatched from them at a tender age.
For the youth, the peace gave hope that they can look forward to a normal life where they can aspire for a career; make a family, live a stable life, heralding a life of no flight from their country; an end to living in inhospitable refugee camps; and dying in the Sahara and Sinai deserts and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
People in Eritrea anticipated this peace to bring respite from the endless wars and suffering that President Isaias Afwerki had put them through. They hoped for change at home and for their country to integrate back into the region as a strong voice for peace, security and stability.
In September 2018, as part of the declaration of peace between the two leaders, the border with Ethiopia was opened. Eritreans felt even more hopeful as they started to travel to Ethiopia, mainly to neighbouring Tigray. What they found astounded them. They saw development, they saw structures and construction rising up, factories working, universities functioning, wealth generating, etc.
It was under these circumstances that Eritreans started hoping Abiy’s brand of reform would influence and encourage Isaias to initiate and implement similar changes and release political prisoners that have been incarcerated for over 18 (now 20) years, their whereabouts still unknown; the journalists and many known and unknowns that have disappeared since; the young that were kept in modern-day slavery-like bondage; cease the sexual abuses and violence practised in Sawa military training camp. Eritrea would once again be a normal country.
The reality of the situation
Alas! This was not to be. Instead of building democracy, Eritrea exported dictatorship; instead of reconciling with former enemies, Eritrea sought new ways to vanquish them. The Eritrean President attempted to carve a new grouping of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea as an axis of autocracies.
Even though the peace agreement was, formally speaking, the fulfilment of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) Algiers Agreement, Isaias snubbed the African Union and flew instead to Abu Dhabi and then to Jeddah to celebrate the deal with Arab states. Instead of rejoining and strengthening the regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, he continues to undermine it, with the aim of making it irrelevant and allowing it to die out.
True to his nature, Isaias, without warning, closed everything down, sealing off all border crossings. If an Eritrean wants to visit relatives in Tigray, they would now have to travel to Addis Ababa first and from there to Mekelle or anywhere in Tigray. If a Tigrayan wants to visit Eritrea, the route is through Addis.
People living in the border areas had to once again resort to smuggling themselves, with all its attendant risks, to see relatives on the other side. Keeping people separated and impoverished seems to suit the design of the Eritrean President.
It is now over two-and-half years since the declaration of peace. In Eritrea, however, no reform occurred, and there is no sign that it ever will. As a matter of fact, more people were put in prison, disappearing into the gulag.
Abiy and Isaias
Why was Abiy tagging along as a junior partner in this destructive plot? Eritreans felt doubly betrayed. The people gave their hearts to Abiy. Mothers blessed him. Fathers felt proud of him. We all believed he was a man of peace; a serious reformer; a person of integrity, with unshakeable principles and inexhaustible energy to eliminate conflicts from the face of Ethiopia and its neighbours; and with a deep commitment to regional integration.
Instead, Abiy sent his army against one of the regions of his own country, claiming to be provoked by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). What is most unkind to Eritreans is his “invitation” of President Isaias to be part of the invasion of Tigray; an invitation that is causing our youth to perish by the thousands while causing immense suffering to the people of Tigray. Eritreans are deeply wounded.
The war presently waged over Tigray has its parallels with those fought by emperor Haile Selassie and the Derg, especially the latter that was viciously waged against Eritrea. This war that went on for 30 years was virtually hidden from ordinary Ethiopians and the world at large until Eritreans were ingenious and strong enough to bring the international media to witness it.
Successive Ethiopian governments dubbed it a war against a small number of outlaws (‘terrorists’ was not yet a catchphrase) that were instigated, armed and supported by the Arabs. This was repeated in the most demonising way by the Ethiopian elite. They reiterated, propagated, believed, and lived with it, oblivious of what this meant to their own country – for, at that time, Eritrea was officially a part of Ethiopia.
The elite never looked back at themselves and asked why such a vicious war, a war where Ethiopian peasants were perishing by the tens and later hundreds of thousands, had to continue.
Once more, Ethiopian leaders are waging war against their own – the people of Tigray. Once more, the great majority of the Ethiopian elite seem to find it convenient to believe the government’s propaganda.
As Eritreans were branded Arab agents bent on destroying Ethiopia, Tigrayans are maligned in a similar manner but more systematically. Under the guise of exposing crimes committed by the TPLF, by no less than the prime minister, hatred against Tigrayans is being cultivated by the political elite, consistently fanned and normalised.
Such sanitised and institutionalised ingraining of hatred against any group can only have a calamitous end. And in Ethiopia today, it has reached a point where Ethiopians on social media express their feelings that Tigrayans were the source of all that ails their country, and getting rid of them, even physically removing them from the face of the earth, is the right thing to do.
History repeating itself
This has the implication of preparing the people for an impending ethnic cleansing – which many average Ethiopians seem to applaud implicitly at least on social media platforms. As a result, war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed as we speak, leaving deep wounds that render reconciliation difficult, if not impossible.
Human Rights Watch reported during the time of the Eritrean armed struggle for independence that the Derg was using starvation as a weapon of war. It restricted food supplies from reaching those in desperate need, exposing the entire population to hunger. It put the population in constant fear by making sure water and fuel were scarce and under firm government control.
International organisations also reported that between December 1974 and January 1975, the Derg junta was strangulating young Eritreans with piano wires and strewing their bodies in the streets of Asmara. They also reported that the Derg was practising systematic, brutal and cold-blooded murder with wide-spread torture, looting, raping and indiscriminate killing of civilians. Eritrea lived under a reign of terror. Tigray is now living under a similar reign of terror.
Indeed, the forces of then president Mengistu Haile Mariam demolished the dwelling places of peaceful Eritrean peasants, burnt their crops, including using napalm, and slaughtered their livestock. It was a war by starvation deliberately waged.
The Ethiopian government then imposed a total blockade on Eritrea while it was destroying it and subjecting its people to hunger; the present war over Tigray reminds me of the 30 years of war in Eritrea that was virtually hidden from the Ethiopian people. Like Tigray now, back then we were officially and formally a part of Ethiopia too.
Tigray has been turned into an active war zone, literally invaded by its own government with the active support of foreign forces; all communications severed for weeks; hunger and disease left to take their own hideous courses.
In Tigray today, the flow of food aid is heavily restricted by Abiy’s government while the United Nations and others’ reports of acute hunger, including news of starvation, are growing louder by the day. Warnings of widespread famine in Tigray are ringing all over.
It reminds me of Mengistu’s infamous statement that exposed his callousness to the loss of human life, about metaphorically draining the sea to kill the fish. The sea being the Eritrean people that gave sustenance to the cause of freedom, and the fish the Eritrean freedom fighters.
In the case of present-day Tigray, in order to weaken the TPLF, Abiy’s government says it has to subdue the civilians, including subjecting them to famine and death. History is repeating itself after 40 years.
It is not only accounts of deliberate famine brought by its own federal government that are coming out of Tigray. Accounts of horrifying atrocities committed on ordinary Tigrayans have begun to come out: children, mothers, the old and young are shot on sight, rape is rampant and there is extensive destruction of property, including health facilities and schools. Abiy and Isaias’ troops are said to be sparing nothing and nobody.
Different sources consistently indicate that Eritrean troops are acting maliciously, not only in the destruction of lives and property but also in looting, packing up war bounties and taking them to Eritrea.
This fills us with agony and helplessness as these are young people brought from all over the country, from all the towns and villages of Eritrea, snatched from their parents and communities at a very young age and given military training to kill and destroy. They are now committing horrendous crimes. They have been indoctrinated with hatred of the TPLF since birth. They are also victims, not just perpetrators.
Abiy’s ruthlessness in Tigray
Abiy’s action over Tigray also reminds me of the US soldier who said during the Vietnam war “to save the village we must destroy it”. This happened in Eritrea under the Derg and it is now happening in Tigray under Abiy. Destroy Tigray to save it. Save it from the TPLF?
Abiy worked in the intelligence units of the Ethiopian army for some time. During the height of this war, he said he was able to see his enemies in one of his several TV screens from his palace/office. It is like children playing video games conducting war operations; it is impersonal; it is unreal; it is ok to continue playing it; and shockingly Abiy thinks it is the same – just a game.
Abiy, however, plays his game by sending the army, deploying tanks, flying warplanes to drop bombs, and like video games players, Abiy believes not a single civilian was killed. He believed in this war game so much that he proudly announced it in parliament – no shame, no feeling.
An ‘enemy’ must perish, cost what it may to Ethiopia. In real-life war, lives are lost, people’s health is compromised, property is destroyed, and civilians, mostly women and children, pay a heavy price.
Abiy invited Eritrea to help him defeat the TPLF and destroy Tigray in the process. Mengistu invited the Soviets, with Cuba and South Yemen playing their parts, not only to supply him with weapons, which they did abundantly, but also to plan his offensives, lead battles and supervise operations.
Though similar in form, in fact, this war has assumed the actualisation of Isaias’s plan to destroy the TPLF, and that has been in the works before the night of 3 November, when the TPLF government and sympathetic military officers disarmed the Northern Command in a “preemptive” move.
It has been the Eritreans doing the bulk of the fighting, with a reported 60,000 troops, organised in more than ten divisions and brigades as reported by the former chief of staff and minister of defence of Eritrea.
Eritrea was totally abandoned by the OAU/AU, the UN and the international community when it was fighting for its right to determine its destiny. We paid a very heavy price as a result of that.
Today, it is worse for Tigray. The Chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is a person mandated to work for peace and stability, to silence the guns across the continent. He not only supports but applauds the war. According to him, the Ethiopian government’s war on Tigray was an act of restoring the “constitutional order” of Ethiopia.
It is not that the Tigray leaders helped the situation. They got into a tug-of-war with Abiy that did not serve the best interest of the people of Tigray. They also totally failed to see the calculations and the conspiracy that was gathering strength against them by Isaias and Abiy.
Abiy’s smiles, conciliatory remarks and charisma have cheated us, but Isaias’s smiles, chest-pounding and endorsement of Abiy as the great leader did not. We now know what we always suspected – it was only to serve his purpose, not his country’s – his personal goals alone. He hated the TPLF so much that he suspended developing his own country to a later date, to a date when the TPLF will be gone.
Now, it is gone. Would he turn his attention to his country’s wellbeing or continue to pursue the TPLF in the mountains, plains, and towns of Tigray at all costs? For he has made defeating the TPLF his raison d’etre.
What if TPLF is the closest and most honest ideological representation of the people’s aspirations? What then? More so, what if the TPLF is no longer a political organisation that can make mistakes and be criticised but an untouchable symbol of self-determination and even independence? What if it becomes the cause for which generations of young Tigrayans may avenge? What then for Isaias, but also Abiy? Should Tigray be made to suffer and even disappear?
Abiy has spent quite a lot of time conferring with Isaias; this reminds me of the time when Isaias and Meles Zenawi were so close that they got the name of ‘new breed of African leaders’. They would meet informally in Asmara, Addis Ababa, and quite often in Mekelle. Their informality was taken as a way of expediting cooperation built on trust. It was not to be.
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The same seems to be going on between Abiy and Isaias; Abiy running to Asmara to discuss with, even get instructions from, Isaias almost certainly to learn how to stay in power at any cost, including destroying his own country, creating havoc in the region.
Wars bring out the worst in people. The wars waged in/on Eritrea had the unfortunate result of creating a monster of a leader. A monster with no conscience, no human feeling; a monster who takes the children of others, a whole generation of a country, to war with no compunction.
I hope it won’t be the same in Ethiopia and I very much hope Ethiopians will ultimately wake up and learn from past experiences – their own and that of their neighbour’s.
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