The Tigray conflict that began around midnight of 3-4 November 2020 in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has all the paradoxes that one can think of – the triple irony if you like. First, you have the man who is waging the war. Secondly, you have the headquarters of the African Union which is based in the very country where the war is being waged and thirdly you have Eritrea fighting on the side of the mighty Ethiopian military.
“War makes bitter men. Heartless and savage men,” Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that when he received the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year ago - only for him to now wage a military operation in his own country. Over about a three-week period, his troops fought their way through Tigray, right up in the north of Ethiopia, to oust the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing it of attacking a federal military base. PM Abiy Ahmed had previously removed the TPLF from the cabinet [in 2019]. He then postponed the elections citing corona restrictions. The TPLF then went ahead with an election in Tigray. They said they don’t recognise him [as prime minister]. He said he doesn’t recognise them, and that is what led to the war.
A senior law lecturer at England’s Keele University, Awol Allo said ‘the issue was not who fired the first shot, but the fact that PM Abiy Ahmed had rebuffed calls for mediation, including from the African Union (AU) that is headquartered in his own country’. At its meeting in Niamey, Niger in July 2019, ministers of the African Union (AU) Executive Council decided that the AU theme of the year for 2020 would be ‘Silencing the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development’. As a flagship project of Agenda 2063, ‘Silencing the guns by 2020’ was adopted by the AU heads of state during the 50th anniversary of the OAU/AU in 2013.
Their vision ‘to achieve the goal of a conflict-free Africa, to make peace a reality for all our people and to rid the continent of wars, civil conflicts, human rights violations, humanitarian disasters and violent conflicts and to prevent genocide’ within seven years.
Was this an unrealistic goal right from the outset? Yes, in hindsight I think it was judging by ongoing violent conflicts on the continent – as an aside Mozambique for example.
The other paradox to the Tigray conflict is the involvement of the Eritrean Defence Force in this civil conflict. In December 2020, Reuters reported that “a US government source and five regional diplomats” told them the US believes Eritrean soldiers have crossed into Ethiopia. In the last few days, a top-ranking Ethiopian general confirmed that Eritrean troops have been in Tigray, Mesfin Hagos, and a former Eritrean minister of defence living in exile, has claimed that Eritrean troops provided intelligence and cover from heavy weapons to advancing Ethiopian troops and later took an active part in combat.
During a session in parliament on March 23, 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed publicly acknowledged Eritrean involvement in his country’s ongoing civil war in Tigray. Some political commentators argue that Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray war was not a total surprise. Given the vindictive nature of the Eritrean leader and the long animosity, the nation had with Tigray, that the Isaias Afwerki President of Eritrea regime to use any opportunity to inflict heavy damage on Tigray was not unexpected. But despite this long-standing animosity, the Eritreans seem to have forgotten the war they fought with the Ethiopians.
From 1961 until 1991, Eritrea had fought a long war of independence against Ethiopia. Also, the Eritrean-Ethiopian War was a conflict that took place between Ethiopia and Eritrea from May 1998 to June 2000, with the final peace only agreed to in 2018, 20 years after the initial confrontation. However, here they are supporting the Ethiopians against the Tigrayan people quest for autonomy.
The 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia states in Article 39.1, «Every Nation, Nationality, and People in Ethiopia have an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” Is Abiy Ahmed in violation of the Ethiopian Constitution then? For Mr Abiy’s critics, the abolition of ethnic federalism would herald a return to the time of “imperial rule”, when emperors - from Menelik II to Haile Selaisse - forced other communities to “assimilate” into their Amhara culture.
In 2019, Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize over a peace agreement with Eritrea. Ethiopia invited Eritrean forces to attack Tigray, a decision that forced TPLF to retreat into the mountainous areas. The catalogue of war-mongering decisions and human rights violations under Abiy Ahmed’s watch has been recorded. This prompted the Puntland Post’s editorial to conclude that Abiy Ahmed has desecrated the Nobel Peace Prize.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Prize because of his efforts to democratize Ethiopia, but primarily for the peace deal, he reached with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki to finally end the two countries’ 1998-2000 border war. Let’s put our ‘triple irony’ that is defining the conflict in the Tigray region together.
First, was the Nobel Prize prematurely given? Was it a double-edged sword? The Nobel Laureate has now unleashed the mighty Ethiopian military against his own people’s quest for autonomy as guaranteed under the country’s federalist system.
Secondly, Eritrea that fought a protracted war for independence against Ethiopia and then again, a border war is now fighting along with the Ethiopian forces. But perhaps as the late and prolific Moses Katjiuongua would remind us: there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends in politics. Thirdly, the AU whose theme is “Silencing the Guns” by 2020 with its headquarters based in the very capital – Addis Ababa – where the war is being planned and carried out in its own backyard has been unable to silence the guns.
How can guns be silenced in Africa once and for all? Mahatma Gandhi once said that there were two kinds of peace. ‘The one that silences the guns and the other that makes the guns irrelevant.’ Johan Galtung, one of the pioneers of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, asserts: “You will never reach peace through security; you will reach security through peace.” That is the challenge for African peacemakers.