“Sovereignty”: The Shield for Committing Atrocities in Tigray, Ethiopia
A long tradition of self-governance and the bitter fight against Italy’s invasion in the late 19th century, which ended in the defeat of the colonizing forces at the renowned Battle of Adwa in Tigray, is at the core of the pride Ethiopia has in its sovereignty. The notions of societal dignity and territorial integrity, stemming from the mythologized historical depiction of the Battle of Adwa, is deeply seated in the minds of Ethiopians. Ironically, this deep-rooted belief in Ethiopia’s sovereignty is being used as a shield and justification for committing dreadful atrocities and manipulating the masses during the war on Tigray.
To fully grasp how the concept of “saving Ethiopia” is used by the Ethiopian government to legitimize acting with impunity by committing atrocities in Tigray, let’s look back to the construction of the narrative and how the Ethiopian public bought into it.
After Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as interim Prime Minister in 2018, he worked hard to win the hearts of Ethiopians and the world by telling all sides what they wanted to hear and implementing eye-catching reforms, including opening up political space and economic possibilities in Ethiopia. In retrospect, these reforms that were met with euphoria were superficial and failed to live up to the expectations of the local and international community. The reforms were nothing less than strategic, pre-calculated moves to gain public trust and popularity. Most of Abiy’s initial reforms were followed by actions contrary to what he had promised.
With the aim of centralizing power and establishing a popular cult-like leadership, Abiy made demagogic speeches and turned to empty “pan-Ethiopian” rhetoric, labeling anyone against him as anti-unity and anti-Ethiopia.
In doing so, it became easy to categorize, sideline, or imprison his opponents. Such political oppression was difficult to do when it came to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who became Abiy’s main obstacle in completely consolidating his power. Unlike other rivals, the TPLF had a well-structured organization, institutional knowledge, and strong roots in Tigray. Eliminating such a threat was Abiy’s objective from his first day in office.
Antagonistic Narration: Why the Ethiopian public complied with the war on Tigray
Before Abiy’s premiership, officials from the TPLF were accused by the public of being involved in large-scale state-led corruption, ethnic division of the nation in the interest of hegemony, and suppression of other ethnic groups. Abiy was expeditious in using and leveraging this fermented hate in his rhetoric every opportunity he had.
The very unfortunate reality is that Abiy’s previously described propaganda was not just directed at TPLF officials but at the people of Tigray. The hate transcended the Tigrayan political party to all Tigrayans. Abiy’s accusations and inflammatory rhetoric began after a hand grenade was thrown at the prime minister at a pro-government rally organized days after Abiy assumed office. Abiy was quick to use a vulgar expression addressing the perpetrators, implicitly telling the public that former TPLF intelligence officers could be behind the assasination attempt before any investigation was launched. His supporters began blaming the TPLF for all of the political instabilities across the country, which quickly developed into the demonization of Tigrayans.
Moreover, in an emotionally triggering documentary on terrorism that was streamed on state television, not only were TPLF officials scapegoated for every ill that occurred during the rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democtratic Front (EPRDF), but they were described as “Tigrigna speaking,” which implied that those who speak Tigrigna, and therefore Tigrayans, are collectively responsible for the social, political, and economic critiques of the EPRDF’s rule. Tigrayans were also dehumanized and degraded by being called “day-time hyenas,” as coined by Abiy himself. Tigrayans who voiced their support for the TPLF, an elected party in Tigray, were portrayed as enemies of Ethiopia.
In a series of other events, the government boldly preached the ideal, unitary state of “Ethiopianism,” depicting TPLF as the antithesis to it and a divisive force. Ethnic based violence throughout the country was often blamed on the EPRDF’s ethnic federalist state formation and constitution. Abiy presented the public with a mystified idea of greatness that Ethiopia could assume only if the TPLF were eliminated. Thus, it became easy for Abiy to effectively alienate Tigray and Tigrayans from the rest of Ethiopia.
The few outliers that challenged or criticized Abiy’s new Ethiopia were quickly labeled treasonous and against Ethiopia’s unity and sovereignty. This discourse and framing laid the groundwork for Abiy’s war on Tigray. As a result, the average Ethiopian became indifferent to the announcement of the war on Tigray on November 4, 2020. Some went as far as celebrating the war as a step toward a “greater Ethiopia,” as Abiy portrayed it.
To showcase this “greater Ethiopia” vision, Abiy knew he needed symbolic projects that would appeal to the public. For example, Abiy gave the public lavishly designed public parks. Despite little to no relevance in addressing the chronic structural malfunction of the economy or political instability in the country, the average Ethiopian saw these new parks as a sign of growth and prosperity. The government has already started calling these projects “mega.” These glamorous projects are presented as gifts to the public, generating the feeling and appearance that the administration is working for the good of the people and progressing the nation. However, Abiy was not working behind doors to maintain Ethiopia’s economic growth, nor was he concerned about the reforms he promised when he came to power. So he gave the public something flashy that they could see and point to as tangible changes taking place in this new “greater Ethiopia.” Abiy’s parks are an example of how Ethiopian sovereignty, in this case through the creation of recreational spaces that symbolize beauty and progress, is used as a strategy to convince Ethiopians of Abiy’s agenda for “greater Ethiopia,” even when waging a war on Tigray.
Heinous atrocities under the cover of sovereignty
At the outset of the war on Tigray, the Ethiopian government propagated a narrative of the war as an attack on Ethiopia’s sovereignty, thereby circumventing the potential for any negotiations and creating a facade for the international community, portraying the military operation as one to protect the country’s sovereignty from internal forces. At the end of November 2020, when Abiy addressed Ethiopia’s parliament, he said, “My message to friends of Ethiopia is that we may be poor, but we are not a country that will negotiate our sovereignty.”
The federal government characterized international requests for peace talks and public condemnation of the atrocities committed in Tigray against innocent civilians, and the humanitarian crisis as foreign interference and unjust external pressure on the federal government. On May 26, 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen, using the same rhetorical strategy, said that, “We will not bow to external pressures on our sovereignty.”
With sovereignty as a shield, the Ethiopian government has committed heinous atrocities. In reality, however, the Ethiopian government has jeopardized its sovereignty by inviting foreign forces to invade Tigrayan lands and kill, rape, and starve civilians in the name of destroying the TPLF.
Abiy and his supporters fail to realize that sovereignty implies that the sovereign state has the responsibility to protect the basic rights of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. The Ethiopian government has not only failed to up meet this basic responsibility inherent to sovereignty, it has persistently worked against it by waging the war on Tigray and allowing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide to take place.
As U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield said, “[…] Sovereignty does not come into play when you have foreign troops in your country, when your people are crossing borders into other countries, and we’re watching on national TV your people starve to death.” Sovereignty is no cover for unleashing atrocities on your people, and the world, as Ethiopians, should understand that as we seek to uphold the principle of humanity and protect innocent civilians in war-torn Tigray.
Ethiopian Maverick, External Contributor, July 2021