From the 3rd to the 27th of November 2020, namely until the day in which the federal army entered the Tigrayan main city and overthrew the Government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a curtain fell on Tigray. The impossibility to access its territories, isolated until 2021, and the communication blackout, have made it difficult to reach those sources of information that often need to be anonymous for security reasons. It is not known yet the exact number of deaths and soldiers and civilians injured.
Until February 2021, Ethiopia constantly denied the presence on its lands of Eritrean troops, sided with the regional militia Amhara and Afar, which are traditional Tigrayans’ enemies. Furthermore, Ethiopia denied attacking four UNHCR camps, that were inhabited by Eritrean refugees: the attacks took place between December 2020 and the beginning of 2021, the camps were destroyed and at least 10,000 people were deported to Eritrea. This was the first of a long list of crimes against humanity that were documented: civilians’ massacres and gang rapes were also reported, and all attributed to the Asmara troops by a great number of civil rights’ organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Tigrayans also accused the UAE of bombing them with drones that took off from the city of Assab, Eritrea. Ethiopia always addressed the conflict as an “operation of domestic police”and refused any international mediation. The new American administration asked several times for a ceasefire and the retreat of Eritrean troops, while the EU stopped sending aid to Ethiopia. From a military standpoint, the only documented episodes are the double bombing of Asmara by the TPLF missiles, which was confirmed also by Western embassies, and the deescalation from war to guerrilla after the 27 of November 2020.
In Tigray, a humanitarian crisis emerged in 2020: the situation aggravated progressively due to the difficulties in reaching the humanitarian aids and humanitarian personnel. Reports from the UN, Red Cross and MSF state that in mid-2021 only 27% of the hospitals were operational, several schools had been destroyed and turned into camps for displaced people. 60,000 Tigrayan refugees escaped to Sudan and are displaced in the old UNHCR camps, while the internally displaced people are 2 millions (out of 7 millions of Tigrayans). In May, 90% of the population was in need of emergency aid.
To allow the restart of the sowing, on the 28th of June 2021 Ethiopia announced an unilateral ceasefire, at least officially, by retreating its troops from Macallè. The TPLF has declared it would accept under the condition of, among other requests, the retreat of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops from the entire region, and the establishment of independent investigations on the atrocities perpetrated against the civilians.
At the end of 2021, after 14 months since its beginning, the civil war that opposes Addis Ababa to the Tigrinya regional forces – writes the Italian monthly magazine “Nigrizia” – seems to have “entered a new phase, that of the ‘conflict by attrition’. According to a number of political analysts in the area, the public order operation which, in the intentions of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, should have been concluded in a few days, risks becoming, or perhaps has already become, an element of long-term instability in the region, with an impact on the overall stability of the country itself, the second most populous in Africa and among the first in the continent in terms of economic weight”.
What is being fought for
According to Ethiopia, The TPLF is a terrorist group that undermines the country stability after having robbed it and oppressed it for more than 15 years, and thus needs to be eliminated. The Ethiopian parliament outlawed it in November 2020, and used this reason to apprehend or suspend Tigrayan public employees from their tasks, as well as soldiers who operated as Blue Helmets in Somalia and Sudan. Furthermore, Ethiopians arrested the Tigrayan journalists who collaborated with the few international press agencies allowed in Tigray, but they were released after the protests. Abiy’s goal is to defeat those who are against the centralisation of the power and the re-establishment of the constitutional architecture, in order to fight the ethnic federalism: according to Abiy, this federalism opposes modernisation, stability and development of a country that is divided by ethnic conflicts. He appointed to the Amhara State a piece of Tigray that was taken from TPLF in 1995, while several of its areas are occupied by the Eritreans.
According to the TPLF, Abiy’s attack was planned by the Eritrean leader Afewerki and by the regional Amhara elite, who aim to grab the territory controlled by their great enemies. The Amhara, namely the ethnic group to which the last Negus and the leading group of DERG belong, opposed the Government of the Tigrayan party, which ruled for more than 20 years. Despite being internally divided in several factions, each more or less in favour of conflict, the TPLF joined the nationalist project of independence that has to be fulfilled through war, and it started again to believe in the old dream of the great Tigray, that would include a future incorporation of Eritrea.
Not much is known about the first African war during the pandemic, because of the general blackout of electricity and Internet connection that affected the region. It’s a “dimmed” war between the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF, which controls the Northwestern region; a conflict rooted in a political struggle that originated far before the war that broke out on November 4, 2020.
Flashback to the first months of 2018. After 3 years of protests on the streets, each of which was violently repressed, especially in the federal States of Oromia and Amhara, in April 2018 Abiy Ali Ahmed succeeds the TPLF member Haile Mariam Desaleg. He had been his Minister of Science and Technology during Desaleg’s first Government (2015-2016): he became Prime Minister in the coalition EPRDF that governs the country. Abiy, 41 years old, had been in the army and he’s the leader of the Oromo democratic party, making him the first Prime Minister ever belonging to the Oromo ethnicity (even if his mother is an Amhara). His persona was thus reassuring for the young anti-TPLF protester, who were against the corruption of the party and the plundering it perpetrated in its 25 years of governance.
After freeing some of the political prisoners and inaugurating a season of normalisation of the political situation, by widening the freedom of press and the civil rights, in June 2018 the new Prime Minister surprisingly accepted the peace treaty stipulated in Algiers in 2000 by Eritrea, thus ending a war lasted 20 years. The political-military alliance between Abiy and the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki would be critical for the Tigray’s conflict of three years later, as the TPLF is a great enemy of both of them.
Meanwhile, in 2019, the re-opening of the Ethiopian-Eritrean borders and the de-escalation with Somalia and Djibouti (two developments that strongly contribute to the apparent stabilisation in the Horn of Africa, supported by Saudi Arabia and UAE) led to Abiy winning the Nobel Peace Prize in October. However, the political-institutional, financial and social problems inside the country had not ceased. On the contrary, before the pandemic, Ethiopia was growing by double-digits percentages, although remaining a low-income economy with great percentages of poverty. The country is the second most populated African country, with 110 millions of inhabitants. Abiy had to face the elections, and in order to win them he needed to create hundreds of thousands jobs to hire unemployed and young people, who were starting to protest against him, especially in Oromia. Here, they were led by Jawar Mohammed, founder of the press agency Oromia Media Network, influencer, owner of an American passport, and former supporter of Abiy: he would be arrested the 30th of June 2020, after the homicide in Addis Abeba, still unsolved, of the Oromo rapper and activist Haacaluu Hundessaa. His death gave birth to protests that were repressed by police, with dozens of deaths and arrests. At that point, for the Oromo, Abiy was a traitor.
This social tension explains the Ethiopian determination to start the works for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which at full strength could generate the necessary electricity to meet the whole national needs and support the industrial development in the different districts. This water, however, is also needed to irrigate the Sudanese and Egyptian fields: these two countries are against the mega-project started in 2021 because there isn’t a fixed limit for the quantity of water to be used. The recurrent talks have not yet led to any concrete solutions.
Abiy’s political programme is radical, based on the centralisation of the powers belonging to the 10 federal States. The States, however, can choose to secede and they have their own militia according to the Constitution approved in 1995, that aimed to reduce the eternal ethic-regional tensions in Ethiopia. Moreover, it must be noted that political parties in Ethiopia are mainly based on ethnicity. From the financial standpoint, Abiy accelerated the break with the dirigiste past by supporting a more liberal attitude, confirmed in December 2019 by the reinforcement of the agreement with the IMF: this agreement is modelled on structural adjustment and financial stabilisation, public expenditure restraint, as well as deregulation and liberalisation.
The main opposition to centralisation is posed by the TPLF: the party decided to leave its position in the Government on December 1st 2019, when Abiy established the new Prosperity Party that replaced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The pandemic’s outbreak led the Prime Minister to the postponement of the national elections to June 2021. Tigray, Oromia and other Southern territories were excluded from the electoral occasion. The TPLF thus challenged the Government openly, by opening the ballots in September 2020 despite the Ethiopian bans: it won the elections with 98% of consensus. The tension kept rising, and on the 3rd of November 2020 the assault by the TPLF militia to a federal headquarter in Tigray, with the goal to steal weapons, led to the armed conflict. On the 21st of June 2021 the national elections took place. Abiy’s Prosperity Party won by great advantage: it didn’t have any opposition.
Key figure or organization
A comic strip that was seen all over the web shows Abiy Ahmed as a puppet in the hands of Isaias Afewerki. Afewerki is a never-elected President of a 5 millions people country, where half of the inhabitants have refugee status worldwide; he is the Eritrean dictator who personally gained the most from the peace treaty signed with Ethiopia in 2018. When he was almost 80 years old, “Issù” succeeded in leading Eritrea out of its international isolation, after governing it since its independence in 1991. However, he didn’t change any piece of the repressive policies that caused the exodus of an entire generation: from the mandatory military service of undetermined time to the absence of civil rights and a Constitution, everything is still the same. The opposition members remain in jail without a trial. He “rented” Abiy’s troops that are operating in Yemen, helped by the Saudi’s royal family. He thus kept the promise of vengeance against the woyane, namely the TPLF, that he considers responsible for the Eritrean isolation.
FOCUS 1 – Abiy’s too many lies
From African new man to international pariah in less than 2 years: the sudden falling hyperbole of Abiy Ali Ahmed is a case study. Too many lies from a Nobel Peace Prize winner that declared war on a part of its people, although officially declaring the end of the police operation against them in the middle of November. At the end of June 2020 the war was still raging, and half of Tigray was out of control. Abiy lied several times to the international community, also refusing any attempt of mediation. After denying against every proof the presence of Eritrean soldiers, around the middle of February 2021 he was forced to admit the truth. Then, at the end of March, he announced his troops’ retreat, but he was disproved by witnesses, who were victims of Eritrean soldiers disguised in Ethiopian military clothes. He opposed the entry of humanitarian workers and aid in the country alleging security reasons, subsequently, he made it difficult for aid to be distributed to the population. He thought he would smash the opposition of the small Tigray, but during the era of pandemics and social networks he overrated himself while underrating the communicative capacities of the Tigrayan diaspora in the West.
FOCUS 2 – Massacres and war crimes
In November and December 2020, among the dozens of slaughters perpetrated during this war, the two worst and most infamous massacres of civilians took place, in Axum and Mai Kadra. Despite the initial federal denials, in the Orthodox sacred city of Axum (which hosts a cathedral that, according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, contains the Ark of Covenant) the Eritrean troops attacked by the TPLF killed 800 civilians and buried them in mass graves nearby the churches. In January, reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirmed the slaughter: the report of Human Rights Watch also included aerial photos of the mass graves. The Ethiopian state attorney, in May 2021, confirmed both the massacre and the Eritrean responsibilities. With regards to the events of Mai Kadra, Tigrayans and Amhara accuse each other of the massacre; according to the reports of refugees in the Sudanese camps, both parties perpetrated atrocities.