Awasaguardian, February 15,2021
By Raymond B.Charles
Raymond B. Charles is South African journalist based in Cape Town
After an insurrection in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray took place in November, the federal government has crackdown on the rebellion and arrested its TPLF rebel leaders. Since then, some parts of Ethiopian social media has spread the #TigrayGenocide hashtag, so what is it all about?
Is it really true?
In this modern world of alternative news and informal media, what is real and fake can sometimes be hard to decipher so let’s dig deep into some of the details.
Is there a humanitarian crisis in Tigray?
Yes, and a significant portion of the local population in Tigray needed food assistance to survive even before the recent fighting began. (Ethiopia is a 3rd world country facing both overpopulation and poverty) But now, the situation has gotten exponentially worse due to the conflict and with Tigray region historically being one of the most food insecure areas of the horn of Africa for centuries.
Have civilians been killed?
Again yes, and as is the case in all vicious conflicts worldwide, civilians became collateral damage. In Tigray, civilians from all ethnic groups, particularly Tigrayan and Amhara, have become victims. The death toll is unknown and there are conflicting reports of who died and how many have died. It is hard to verify and capture the facts since human rights itself has been politicized.
What is the background of this crisis?
One of the first victims of this crisis has been basic historical facts about the region. Many people do not know that the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) was actually the ruling party of the whole Ethiopia for almost 30 years. During that period, the TPLF killed tens of thousands of Ethiopians, imprisoned thousands more and the country went from one crisis to another. Under TPLF, the rich minority (mostly elites of ethnic Tigrayan) got richer and the poor got poorer as millions became more aid dependent. The TPLF party also organized sham elections in which it “won” nearly 99%, even though it represented less than 5% (Tigray) of the whole country. Some TPLF leaders claimed that Tigrayans are “Golden race” as if their ethnic group are special or born to be leaders. Even Ministry of education policies in Ethiopia began to favor Tigray, with research and higher (post-secondary) education being promoted in Tigray, while labor centered workforce as well as technical & vocational education were encouraged in the rest of Ethiopia (even pushing a 10th grade cutoff that angered many). For over two decades, Tigrayans were the uncontested rulers of Ethiopia and being a Tigrayan (or befriending one) alone was enough for economic & political success. This caused resentment nationwide, especially among the Oromo, Somali and the Amhara ethnic groups which make up almost 70% of the nation. Their hopes for democracy and equality were dashed when TPLF signed up for the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” alliance, so the West tolerated and turned a blind eye to TPLF’s abuses even more.
How did TPLF loose power?
As the saying goes, ultimately freedom is stronger than fear and tyranny. In 2018, coordinated nationwide protests supported by activists (especially in Oromia & Amhara regions) who penetrated into the high levels of government started to overwhelm the minority TPLF leaders in 2018. Even though the security apparatus of the government was still dominated by TPLF (again remember Tigrayans-Tigray) a diverse group of rank & file regional leaders became sympathetic to the anti-TPLF protests, until they ultimately broke thru in March 2018. It was a soft coup that created a long and somewhat peaceful transition period that lasted until 2020. The leader of these activists and reform government, Dr Abiy Ahmed, became the Prime Minister. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize for creating peace with the neighboring Eritrea and inside Ethiopia, but of-course this meant the former TPLF rulers were still lingering around. The good thing for TPLF was, they created a system of ethnic-federalism (basically a type of segregation or apartheid) in 1991, so instead of fleeing the country all-together, they found the luxury of retreating into their own region in Ethiopia called “Tigray.”
What motivated TPLF’s resentment in Tigray?
Between 2018-2020, the former TPLF leaders enjoyed living their simple lives in Tigray as Mr Abiy’s new progressive government basically ignored them for the sake of peace. But one big problem was, they lost their business or economic empire at the center of the country in Addis Ababa (especially the big conglomerate they build under the E.F.F.O.R.T multibillion dollar company.) Remember, TPLF represented just 5% (Tigrayans) of the whole country, but dominated the whole economy for a quarter of a century. As the saying goes, “greed is a bottomless pit.”
To regain their disproportional monopoly of wealth, TPLF wanted to use one aspect of power they build up: military. While they lost civilian government power at the center, the TPLF still controlled a significant security portfolio, even outside Tigray. So, according to the federal government, TPLF organized assassination attempts in Addis Ababa and exasperated conflicts nationwide.
Why did TPLF carried out the insurrection?
The climax of this underground warfare was pushed to a spotlight as the nationwide elections approached. For the first time in 30 years, the TPLF was facing the prospect of losing power even in Tigray. Remember, TPLF held fake elections for three decades, in which it “won” almost 100%.
TPLF controlled the NEBE election board for almost 30 years, but now, the NEBE has become independent for the first time in history.
Many outside observers also did not realize that there was another key variable behind this need to maintain power — land. Yes, Tigray region was mostly made of ethnic Tigrayans. But geographically, a large chunk of Western and southern “Tigray” were actually territories annexed by TPLF in 1991 since, well, simply because it can. TPLF was the uncontested military superpower at the time, so it snatched up whatever land it wanted and redrew the maps. The main victims of that land grab by TPLF were mostly a unique clan of Amharas better known as Welkait and a diverse northern community of the former Wollo province.
Fueled by economic greed and Fearing the prospect of losing or at least sharing power thru an election even inside Tigray, TPLF was now left (from their prospective) with no other choice but to rebel. So the insurrection, which the TPLF leaders labeled “a pre-emotive stike,” was official began.
What exactly happened that day?
Remember, some members of the TPLF maintained top security portfolios inside the federal government. The federal army is also multiethnic so ethnic Tigrayans remained in it, well until some of them basically killed their own fellow soldiers. By any standards, it was high treason of epic proportions. Many of those federal soldiers killed by TPLF were actually stationed inside Tigray for 20 years in order to protect Tigray from a potential foreign invasion (because this region of Ethiopia directly borders Eritrea.) Since TPLF controlled Tigray, it was able to do virtually anything it wants against the federal army base stationed there. It was an existential disaster for the new administration of Dr Abiy because a significant majority of the federal government’s military equipment or weaponry was stationed inside Tigray. (Again because most of the Ethiopian army had to be stationed at the northern border for 20 years to prevent a potential invasion from Eritrea). In essence, the whole federal government of Abiy was nearly outgunned by the TPLF who controlled Tigray.
TPLF began to boast and bragged about their outsized military firepower.
The TPLF sent in a regional militia (state troopers) to surround the federal base and sabotaged communications between the federal base in Tigray and rest of the federal military. It was becoming like a cake walk, an easy victory for TPLF, until of-course the whole country said enough and virtually all Ethiopians and police from all regional states volunteered to help the federal government’s operation to end the insurrection by TPLF.
How did the war end?
Through out this conflict, one huge benefit for the federal government was its Air Force which is mostly based in Oromia state. While non-federal armed forces from all states collaborating with the federal government’s army drastically tilted the balance of power in its favor, things also got complicated.
Remember those territories in Western and southern “Tigray” that TPLF snatched up in 1991? Well they became the Achilles hill both for TPLF (present) and the federal government. (Future)
With forces from the Amhara and Afar states helping the federal government, the war took on another dynamic of “regaining land” since Tigray’s Welkait and Wollo/Raya were strategic to the conflict. In essence, the ethnocentrism and sectarianism that TPLF promoted in Ethiopia (to divide & rule) came back to bite TPLF 30 years later. This meant the Amhara state forces basically recaptured “their land” in Western “Tigray,” which was a devastating blow to TPLF because it completely closed down TPLF’s vital Western strategic outlet to Sudan. From then on, TPLF was surrounded gradually and it was simply a matter of time before the war is over. It concluded in about three weeks with the disintegration of TPLF leaders. With the war over, now the battle has just began. And having lost power and with many of its leaders dead or arrested, TPLF and supporters of its insurrection have now started a new form of battle: psychological and propaganda. This is where the hashtag #TigrayGenocide comes into play.
Was there or is there a Genocide in Tigray?
Obviously, when we dig deep into the facts, no, there was and there is no genocide. But some things are in the eyes of the beholder and in many cases, it is more about politics.
Yet, there were some isolated acts that could have been loosely interpreted as genocidal, or rather ethnic cleansing, and Ethiopia has had a lot of those in recent years. As human rights watch and other groups cited, indiscriminate shelling by armed forces have killed civilians. Whenever we hear the word “shelling,” we are reminded of US and other Western forces who unintentionally killed civilians in Iraq and other countries because rebels often use civilians as “human shield.” This is why war should always be of the last resort. Also, one of the most notable events of this conflict was the Maikadra massacre where, not ethnic Tigrayans, but ethnic Amharas were targeted and massacred by a Tigrayan mob/TPLF-militia according to EHRC and Amnesty International. Over 700 of mostly Amharas and other minorities were killed in Tigray. In fact, It was the defining moment of the whole conflict. It is tricky because, as the Attorney General revealed, most of those who committed the crimes in Maikadra have runaway when federal forces arrived. They fled into Sudan and begun telling alternative stories. Since Western media could not access the conflict zone, many fellow journalists went into the Sudanese refugee camps where they basically interviewed these alleged criminals, so we have had inaccurate headlines claiming that it was actually Tigrayans, not Amharas, who were killed in Maikadra. This is why we say human rights has been politicized.
Another reason why some, falsely, claimed “Tigray Genocide” was because crackdown on those who supported the insurrections has a Tigrayan flavor. But since Ethiopian politics has been ethnic-based the last few decades (ironically thanks to the TPLF’s own rule of ethnic based division), this was not a surprise. Though some supporters of TPLF on social media have tried to use that for propaganda. But imagine, White nationalists complaining of White people being arrested by police after a white nationalist insurrection. Or for those of us who lived in South Africa during the end of apartheid, we remember some white politicians who monopolized every part of our segregated society for years, suddenly complaining about “reverse racism” and discrimination at the transition period under Mandela. Thankfully, Nobody took them seriously back then and there was no social media in the 1990s so we never had #WhiteGenocide trending online in South Africa under Mandela.
What about the reports of rape in Tigray?
This is true. Rape is an issue in Tigray and there are many credible reports of regular and irregular army committing rape on women. Though this is a deplorable crisis, this is not targeting only Tigrayans as falsely claimed by some. The breakdown of law & order has also triggered a rise in robbery and petty crimes in Tigray. Remember, the TPLF ruled Tigray for 30 years with an iron fist. There was no civil society to fall back on, because it was just a one-party military clique managing a state.
While the frequency of rape has gotten worse, it is also important to note that rape was widespread in Tigray even before now — in fact during the last quarter of a century since TPLF essentially run a military state.
Were 52,000 Tigrayan civilians killed?
No, and this is perhaps the least controversial “fake news” from the conflict in Tigray. Such claim was made by a fringe group of former TPLF members who created the “Tigray Independence Party.” The TIP are basically TPLF but a more extremist version, with a separatist ideology. In fact, the TIP tried to help TPLF and legitimize a last minute fake election by calling themself an “opposition party.”
Rather than 52,000 civilians dying, it is actually much more likely that the TPLF and other forces have perhaps lost that many armed combatants during the war. But even that is unverifiable and there is no official death toll figure available.
Has the government blocked humanitarian aid to Tigray?
This one is more complex. The answer is yes and no. Reports that the Ethiopian government was trying to starve Tigray into submission have no credibility. Tigray has already become under federal control. But there have been several credible accounts of government blockades on aid groups, mostly due to safety problems.
So called “aid convoys” have been used to protect aid workers because, in some isolated parts of Tigray, the government was initially unable to provide a safe humanitarian corridor. In places government was insecure, it has blocked movement of international NGOs. But that dynamic has improved now, as more and more humanitarian agencies, including the World Food Programmer (WFP), have began delivering aid.
Another issue was trust. Since TPLF ruled the state and its members operated local NGOs, the federal government was previously concerned about money and arm smuggling attempts by TPLF sympathizers.
Has TPLF blocked food aid to Tigray?
This is another complicated matter and the answer is both yes & no (depending on the area and time.) There is no evidence that TPLF blocked humanitarian aid in the beginning of the conflict. However there were credible reports that, as the war progressed, TPLF military virtually stripped down the meager medical resources of hospitals through out Tigray. But this should not be a surprise since TPLF’s retreating military began to suffer casualties at many fronts.
Whether TPLF blocked delivery of aid in rural Tigray has been a subject of many discussion in many corners. Some members of the new Tigray administration actually accused TPLF of ambushing aid workers and drivers. The intention of TPLF fighters hiding in the mountains might be to obstruct, obstruct and obstruct as long as possible! They already lost most of the state so insurgency will likely be their new motto. If they become more desperate, TPLF remnants might even assassinate Tigrayan officials working for the state and federal government.
One undeniable fact that was reported by BBC and other outlets several years ago was that TPLF historically exploited (and perhaps employ) a humanitarian crisis as a tactic to gain fund from and access to the NGO community. Even former TPLF members have previously accused TPLF leadership of stealing western “aid money” thru its Relief Society of Tigray (REST) and other means, to buy weapons, while Tigrayans were starving to death in the 1980s epic famine.
Therefore, TPLF and its supporters will likely use similar schemes in areas they still control, if the federal government fails to secure the peace politically and militarily.
Have Eritrean refugees been killed in Tigray?
Yes and both sides have admitted this. However they blame each other for the crimes. The federal government is accused of allowing the Eritrean army to enter Tigray and kill or abduct Eritrean refugees. Meanwhile, the TPLF has also been accused of killing Eritrean refugee conscripts who refused to fight for TPLF. In some cases, Eritrean refugees were likely used as human shield during battles but it is unknown how many have died. The UN said many of the Eritrean refugees in Tigray have gone missing or left the camps to avoid the conflict.
Is Eritrean army occupying Ethiopian territories?
It is nearly impossible to fact-check this issue since the northern corners of Tigray are even more inaccessible to media than other parts of the state. The Eritrean government has certainly taken over parts of Tigray that were awarded to Eritrea by the UN-led boundary commission. It is to be noted that the TPLF falsely told the Ethiopian public in the early 2000s that the UN awarded Ethiopia the disputed boundaries (at the key town of Badme.)
In reality, the UN commission actually awarded it to Eritrea and TPLF occupied it. One of the reasons why Dr Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize was for accepting the UN commission’s final decision and promising to withdraw. He was unable to do that because TPLF sabotaged his government. Now the key question will be; has Eritrea simply retaken what was awarded to it by the UN in 2002 or has it used this chaotic opportunity to occupy more land than it was supposed to take? The answer to this will determine the future relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Observers should expect TPLF supporters to make this topic a major wedge issue going forward; in order to weaken the alliance between the federal governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea.