Op-Ed – The Tigray Genocide: A Brief Timeline
Ethiopia, a nation often remembered for the famine it experienced in the 1980s and for a border war with its neighbor Eritrea between 1998 and 2000, is back to making the headlines for all the wrong reasons after a period of relative peace for the past 20 years.
By now, people in the West might have heard about the #TigrayGenocide or watched CNN’s reports of the atrocities committed in the northernmost Ethiopian state of Tigray. Here is a brief timeline of how we got here.
The New Political Order
In order to have a full understanding of the conflict in Tigray, one would have to look back to 1991 when a coalition of opposition groups overthrew the then ruling Marxist military junta known as “the Derg.”
Those opposition forces were formed along ethnic lines in a country that is home to over 83 different ethnic groups. The most prominent of these groups were the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) who took on the task of liberating the Tigrayan and Eritrean peoples respectively.
While the word “liberation” had different meanings to the different ethnically based opposition groups, the overwhelming consensus amongst members of the EPLF and indeed the Eritrean people was that it meant total independence from Ethiopia. And this was proven in an independence referendum carried out in 1993 after the fall of the Derg in which over 99% of the voters opted for Eritrea’s independence.
As for the TPLF and the other groups, their consensus was to turn Ethiopia into a federal parliamentary democracy in which each major ethnic group in the country enjoyed relative autonomy from the center and had its own regional state. A coalition of four major parties, including the TPLF, established the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In essence, each major ethnic group was organized under a political party and established its own state to run within the framework of a parliamentary democracy.
Although Eritrea’s independence was overwhelmingly supported by the Eritrean people and accepted by the TPLF, it was not free of points of contention. This later led to the 1998 conflict that would erupt into a full blown war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The 1998 Ethio-Eritrean War
The points of contention laying the foundation for conflict were Eritrea’s introduction of a new currency to replace the Ethiopian Birr, which the two countries couldn’t agree on how to manage, and longstanding border demarcation issues that were still unresolved by the time of Eritrea’s independence.
These issues amplified smearing personal feuds between the leaders of the TPLF and EPLF. The leader of the latter group who is also the first and only president of Eritrea is a man named Isaias Afwerki. Remember his name because he will show up in this story again.
Those personal feuds lead to war in 1998, ostensibly over a small town on the border between Tigray and Eritrea called Badme. That brutal war ended in 2000 with Eritrea’s defeat and Ethiopia keeping control of the town despite a 2002 ruling by a Hague boundary commission that awarded the town to Eritrea. This resulted in a state of no-peace and no-war between the two countries that lasted for two decades.
TPLF Steps Away
Fast forward to 2018 and the TPLF is no longer the prominent ruling party in Ethiopia due to a wave of popular protests in the Oromia and Amhara states, which constitute the two largest ethnic groups in the Ethiopian federation, and pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on the TPLF to reform Ethiopia’s politics.
The Tigrayan people are a minority in Ethiopia, making up only approximately 6 percent of a population of 110 million people. Yet, the TPLF was the most organized and dedicated of the opposition groups during the fight to overthrow the Derg, and as such enjoyed an unbalanced influence in Ethiopian politics.
TPLF was thus accused of undemocratic practices, such as rigging elections, jailing opponents, and a heavy handed crackdown on protests in the country alongside an accusation that it favored Tigray for developmental projects, though there was no evidence presented for the last of the accusations.
While the TPLF was only one party in a ruling coalition that included three other political parties that were former opposition groups, a common perception held that the other parties in the coalition were mere satellite parties, and as such the TPLF took the bulk of the blame for everything that ever went wrong in the country.
The Tigrayan people unjustly shared in that blame because the common belief in the country was that Tigrayans were unfairly benefiting from the TPLF’s status as the dominant political force. Tigayans were often perceived to be economic beneficiaries of the regime when the reality on the ground showed otherwise; Tigrayans were no richer or better off than their countrymen in other parts of Ethiopia.
Abiy Comes to Power
In 2018, EPRDF leaders agreed to the proposed political reforms, and a new Prime Minister named Abiy Ahmed was appointed to be the first Oromo leader of Ethiopia.
Abiy’s selection was down to the United States’ preference and a decision made by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) to make him their new leader, and by extension the new Ethiopian Prime Minister. The OPDO alone controlled the most seats in the parliament because Oromia is the largest state in the federation.
Upon his appointment to the premiership, Abiy embarked on a number of reforms that were widely welcomed by the local and international community. These included releasing political prisoners, inviting opposition groups to negotiate with the government, and most notably signing a so-called “peace deal” with the Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, in which Abiy abdicated the contested town of Badme to Eritrea as well as other contested areas, including one third of Tigray’s Irob region. Abiy was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for his deal with Isaias Afwerki that brought the 18-year-old military standoff at the border to an end.
This is when the latest chapter in this story started.
The Abiy-Isaias Pact and Abiy’s New Party
Having made peace with Abiy and seeing how marginalized the TPLF had become within Ethiopia, Isaias encouraged Abiy to take an increasingly hostile attitude towards the TPLF who by now were limited to ruling just Tigray. They had been systematically ostracized from political life, and it was becoming clear that Abiy’s loyalties were not with the TPLF.
The TPLF found itself sandwiched between a hostile Ethiopian government and an old foe who was itching to avenge his humiliating loss in the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean War.
After becoming friends with the Eritrean dictator, Abiy started turning Ethiopia into a unitary state instead of a multi-party ethnic federation. He and his new friend reckoned it would be easier to control Ethiopians if ethnic differences were suppressed. To this effect, he dissolved all the ethnic political parties in his coalition and merged them into one party, which he named the Prosperity Party (PP).
As seen in Yugoslavia, suppression is not how you deal with diversity, but Abiy is not much of a history buff.
The TPLF refused to join this new party, angering Abiy.
Circumstances reached a boiling point in September of 2020 when the TPLF went ahead with a scheduled election that had Abiy wanted to postpone until he had eliminated all of his opposition, but the TPLF did not want to wait as they rightly assessed the premier’s mandate to be over. Any attempt to postpone the election was a clear effort to eliminate opposition groups, which was mainly down to the TPLF by this point.
The Genocidal War on Tigray
Abiy and Isaias started actively showing their hostility towards the TPLF and the Tigrayan people by amassing their troops on the border. On November 4, 2020, as the Trump administration was busy with the U.S. elections, Eritrean and Ethiopian troops attacked Tigray, prompting the TPLF to defensively disarm an Ethiopian military base inside Tigray, which Abiy used as an excuse to justify his war on Tigray.
Once the war started, the fighting and atrocities committed by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces happened under a media blackout, so Abiy could control the narrative and announce the TPLF attack on the Ethiopian military base first, thus enabling him to claim self-defense. In fact, he described the fighting in Tigray as a “law enforcement operation” against a criminal junta that attacked a military base.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. By the time the TPLF had taken over the stated military base, troops from Eritrea (north of Tigray) and special forces from Ethiopia’s region of Amhara (south of Tigray) were already inside Tigray preparing to invade all of Tigray and attack Tigray’s government in Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle.
Thus, as Eritrean and Amhara forces had already begun their journey to invade Tigray from different directions, it was actually the Tigrayans who were defending themselves.
Over the next months, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops alongside militias from the Amhara state that borders Tigray committed a slew of horrendous crimes against the civilian populace. These crimes included massacres, the use of rape as a weapon of war, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, systemic looting, and wanton murder of civilians by the invading forces.
The atrocities happened under a media blackout, so most of them wouldn’t be known, but those that became known were horrendous; for example, in Axum, a holy city in Tigray, church goers and the city’s citizens were gunned down in the streets by the Eritreans resulting in a death toll ranging from 345 to 800. The exact number was hard to verify as Tigray had remained a combat zone all those months.
In the meantime, the TPLF had been ousted from its regional capital and had been forced to retreat to the mountains and draw on its generational guerilla fighting knowledge. A new military force named the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) was formed by TPLF and other Tigrayan parties who were united by the genocide being committed against their people.
The Fight for Liberation
In June of 2021, that insurgency bore fruit when the Ethiopian army was defeated in a series of military battles and forced to retreat from the regional capital and most of Tigray, while Amhara militias and Isaias Afwerki’s forces remained in control of some parts of Tigray. This is why the TDF has continued its struggle — it is fighting to remove all the invading forces from all of Tigray. Meanwhile, Abiy’s administration has blocked aid from entering Tigray, where over 5.2 million Tigrayans are at risk of starvation.
The war has bankrupted Abiy’s government and destroyed the Ethiopian military, forcing Abiy to resort to recruiting peasant militias.
Ethiopia is in disarray today because of Abiy’s bet on Isaias Afwerki.
The Tigrayan people’s fight for liberation continues.
Daniel Solomon – Omna Tigray External Contributor, August 2021