Translated article

Ethiopia: “The Tigrayans are brought to their knees and dispossessed of the means to get up”

English translation of an opinion piece by René Lefort published on Lemonde (French):

Researcher René Lefort denounces the “scorched earth policy” that has been affecting the province since the federal government declared war on local authorities.

Posted on June 03, 2021

Un char abandonné par les forces tigréennes près de Mehoni, dans le nord de l’Ethiopie, en décembre 2020.
A tank abandoned by Tigrayan forces near Mehoni, in northern Ethiopia, in December 2020. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

Opinion. From the beginning of the war in Ethiopia, on November 4, 2020, the province of Tigray was cut off from the rest of the world. Addis Ababa had a stated objective: to eliminate officials from the ranks of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), accused of rebellion for demanding the province’s self-government, as stipulated in the Constitution, and of abuses during their twenty-seven years of national hegemony.

Under pressure from the army and its allies, the Amhara militias and Eritrean forces, the Tigrayan political and military apparatus was swept away. The conventional war ended with the capture of the regional capital, Mekele, on 28 November. But the vast majority of Tigrayans, civilians or members of the local armed forces, did not sign their surrender: they organized themselves to fight the “invasion”  with their secular weapon, the guerrillas.

Despite very difficult access to this region in northern Ethiopia, reliable information has ended up leaking, corroborated by international media, the United Nations system, leading NGOs and major Western powers. We know that the war was extremely violent from the outset. Eritrean troops, Amhara regional forces and the federal army have multiplied the bombing of population centres and massacres, including of religious leaders.

The last known, on May 8, saw 19 civilians executed just north of Mekele, according to The Guardian. An Ethiopian site states, with names in support, that among them, nine children were under 10 years old and a baby 1 month old. In addition, there have been summary executions and rapes, often collectively and in the face of family members, used as a weapon of war. The UN estimates that more than 20,000 victims will come out to seek treatment in the coming months. Camps housing 100,000 Eritrean refugees have been razed to the ground.

In this first phase of conventional warfare, the Tigrayan regional troops continued to retreat. Apart from an early massacre of Amhara in the city of May-Kadra (ed. there are no evidences confirming this allegation), no tangible evidence of major abuses by Tigrayans has been received.

Systematic looting

This uncoated terror was accompanied by systematic looting: entire factories were dismantled and transported out of Tigray; working vehicles, just like house windows and even kitchen utensils, were taken away; 80% of crops were looted or stolen, according to a UN official; and 90% of livestock were slaughtered or taken away, including oxen, irreplaceable for ploughing.

The federal government’s official goal remains to sideline the TPLF, but few observers see it as possible. For want of anything better, it makes every Tigrayan, in Tigray and outside, pay for the guerrillas and the national domination of their elite for nearly three decades. The Tigrayans are brought to their knees and even dispossessed of the means to get up. The war is at the same time a civil, revanchist, inter-ethnic, territorial and international war. A war that its barbarity takes out of the ordinary.

A scorched earth policy hits Tigray. Some 87 per cent of health infrastructure has been looted, deliberately ransacked or demolished, according to Médecins sans frontières (MSF). Of the 296 ambulances in Tigray, 31 remained in working order at the beginning of January. Schools have suffered the same fate. Water supply facilities have been rendered irreparable. Agricultural implements have been destroyed. In short, vital means of subsistence and production have been deliberately destroyed.

Finally, the Amhara authorities annexed the western and southern extremes of Tigray, without any legal basis, on the grounds that they had been improperly incorporated into this region after the TPLF came to power. They imposed “ethnic cleansing”. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, whether they have lived there for ages or have settled there more recently.

The humanitarian crisis worsens

The insecurity resulting from the continuation of the war obviously thwarts humanitarian action. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), more than 90 per cent of the 6 million Tigreans are in need of emergency food aid. Internally displaced persons number between 1.7 and 2 million. Most importantly, military forces are blocking the distribution of aid, according to the UN. Rehabilitated health centres are again being looted. The Tigrayan interim authorities, appointed by Addis Ababa, confirm that farmers are knowingly prevented from cultivating and receiving fertilizer and seeds.

The European Union (EU) denounces the use of humanitarian aid as a “weapon of war”. Governments and donors have been relentless in demanding “unhindered access”  to affected populations. Far from regressing, the humanitarian crisis is worsening, as are human rights violations. Any independent investigation will attest to war crimes and crimes against humanity. While Ethiopians use the term  “genocide”,  for which they have a much broader definition than is commonly accepted, some foreigners refer to  “genocidal acts”.

Ethiopia is disintegrating. For example, in Oromia, the most populous and wealthy region, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is advancing. Not a day without informations on “clashes between communities”  – in fact pogroms – here or there. In this context, the elections scheduled for 21 June, which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expects to be legitimised, will not be credible. Addis Ababa stubbornly retorts with surreal denials. At most, it is privately admitted that the  “difficulties”  in Tigray are the inevitable  “collateral damage”  of any war.

But in reality, the federal power is paralyzed. Abiy Ahmed is locked into a messianic vision that detaches him from reality. He has just declared that he would overcome all obstacles to lead Ethiopia to prosperity, just as Moses had led the Jews to the promised land despite the Red Sea. He is hostage to the forces that are supposed to support him: Amhara extremists, revanchists or expansionists; the part of the Oromo elite that wants to get its hands on federal power and the benefits to be derived from it; the Eritrean power in Asmara. All have tactically allied themselves to bring down the TPLF but diverge strategically more and more.

Ethnic polarization

The most worrying thing is that reason seems to be anesthetized, including within the intelligentsia. The intensity of ethnic polarization is such that no force emerges that is credible and powerful enough to be listened to if it sounds the alarm, and followed if it looks for a way out by overcoming ethnic hatreds.

In the face of external pressure, Addis Ababa and Asmara are posing as paragons of national sovereignty. In fact, the requirement for foreign investment to revive growth, Ethiopia’s elites’ close relations with the Western world, starting with the US, and their oligarchic nature make those responsible vulnerable to external pressure. These must be stepped up.

René Lefort is an independent researcher specializing in the Horn of Africa

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