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In 2020, whilst the events in the US rode roughshod over everything else, political or otherwise, around the globe, there was a conflict brewing in the East of Africa, the horn of the continent, in Ethiopia, between the Tigray tribe and its federal government.
So what is happening in Tigray? Let’s take a short walk down history lane.
The Ethiopian civil war ended in 1991 and the political landscape created a system for a dominant party rule encompassing the multi-ethnicities that make up Ethiopia, under the umbrella of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Within the EPRDF, the dominant party and its founding member was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) made even more influential under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, who was also Prime minister of Ethiopia until his death in 2012. Zenawi’s political principle was based on ethno-federalism; a controversial system of governing that relies heavily on segregation of people by their ethnicity and adopting redlining tactics and partitioning which harkens back to Colonial times when the west divvied up Africa for its own gains. Whilst prima-facie ethno-federalism aims to be inclusive and provide a degree of autonomy to the local enclaves, in practice it is more problematic. Ethiopia has long struggled with ethnic conflicts, going as far back as the Solomonic dynasty that culminated in the ruling of Emperor Haile Selassie whose dynasty was overthrown by the Derg in 1974, further eliminating imperial rule and forming a military junta as an interim government. With the help of the government of Eritrea, TPLF was able to overthrow the Derg and became the more dominant political movement in Ethiopia until very recently.
Ethno-federalism affords local government the right to self-govern with a representation in the central government. It also gave tribes the right to secession with a view to improving lives at a more regional level.
Does this sound like Texas?
In practice however, the zoning of a country on ethnic grounds makes it more prone to regional conflicts that threaten the stability of the country as a whole. See Eritrea.
Okay, maybe a not so brief jaunt down history lane, but it goes to the heart of where Tigray is today.
On April 2018, the TPLF was ousted from the position of power it enjoyed within the federal coalition for twenty-seven years, with the election of Abiy Ahmed from the Oromo tribe; this move saw the power dynamic shift. The TPLF relocated its seat to Tigray where it carried on governing and clashing with the federal government. In 2019, Abiy formed the Prosperity party; consisting of the other regional parties that were a part of the EDRPF but TPLF refused to join the new party and by extension recognise Abiy as its leader. In turn, the federal government refused to acknowledged September 2020 election held by the TPLF under its own electoral board.
Tensions between the federal government in Ethiopia and the regional government in Tigray, who make up 6% of the population but for twenty-seven years made up the dominant power in the coalition, reached boiling point and tipped into a full-blown military conflict into which Eritrea, once a friend to Tigray, has now waded.
In the most simplistic terms, it was widely held that there was a need to redress the narrative of the domestic components of the political landscape; understandably, it is unfair that a government with a minority population should hold so much power and sway in the political arena; (or is it?- Those who would argue in favour of a change would rather another state with a bigger percentage of the population be in charge but such instances is where we have rather more partisan political tactics that favour tribes with the lion share of the population to the detriment of the smaller tribes. On the other hand, the TPLF has been a dominant force for twenty-seven years and it was time for a change) However, and more important, there was a need to do this in a way that did not ostracise a party that, for twenty-seven years, has been a driving force of the government. Especially when said party was instrumental in the liberation of the country. In other words, egos needed to be stroked and bringing Eritrea into matters only stoked raging fires.
All of politics is really aggression and begrudging but the people end up paying the price; not the men in power, but people with a lot to lose from what little they have.
This conflict will only weaken an incredibly important country; politically, diplomatically, and otherwise, not least when you consider its geographic proximity to Sudan and Somalia, two countries going through their own political turmoil. There is also the wider problem of the benefit conflicts in this region serves for those to whom war in Africa especially, is profitable. The history of Ethiopia is littered with interference from the Soviet Union, Italy and Britain although it was never colonised, which makes it even more unique.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans have fled their homes, displaced by the conflict, and this reads, on paper and in reports, like another humanitarian crisis with war crimes being perpetuated. Access to basic amenities for the Tigrayans has been cut off by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces on ground. Without access to media, due to black outs from the government, information is not free flowing.
At worst, this is a genocide. Where soldiers use rape as a threat of wiping out the Tigrayan lineage, and safe passage to neighbouring camp in Hamdayet Sudan is denied.
As one of the countries that gives Africa standing on the world stage, a peaceful Ethiopia is better for all. Another inter-African war, especially in a country in such close proximity to volatile regions, only risks exploitation from fringe militant factions because of the weakness an escalation would, no question, present. See Boko Haram.
Peace- a simple construct with a difficult process that involves the powerful being humble, and putting aside the partisan gains for the greater good- is what is needed. Now more than ever, even if it means stroking a few egos.