Eritrea and Ethiopia: Some Thoughts on Recent Events in Tigray

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Recent events in Tigray
In war, TRUTH is the first casualty.


Yesterday, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive to subdue the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After the latter’s forces launched an attack on a federal army base, trying “to loot” military assets, he stated that “Our defense forces … have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country. The final point of the red line has been crossed. Force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country.”

In a television address, the PM said that the TPLF attack resulted in “many martyrs, injuries, and property damage.” Internet and telephone services have reportedly been shut down in Tigray, while the Ethiopian cabinet has also declared a six-month state of emergency in the region (to be overseen by a task force led by the head of the army).

These developments are obviously very serious and concerning. War and conflict will increase instability across the Horn of Africa and compound an already difficult situation for a region that is facing an array of considerable issues and crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, tensions related to Ethiopia’s mega-dam on the Nile, and the worst locust outbreak in decades that is threatening food security for millions. As the most recent events have been unfolding (and even long before), some have wrongly and irresponsibly been claiming – and with absolutely no evidence whatsoever – that Eritrean forces and security agents are or have been stationed throughout Ethiopia, intervening, or even a part of attacks. These claims raise several points for consideration.

For one, spreading false information, sharing fake news, and making grandiose or major claims without evidence is not only irresponsible in this case (or any other, for that matter), it is dangerous and can have truly fatal consequences. Restraint and patience should be exercised, now more than ever, as this is a situation that is already tense and does not need further inflaming.

Second, it is highly interesting that so many of those now claiming that Eritrea is intervening and stationing forces in neighboring lands, were actually totally silent (or actually supportive) as large swathes of its territories remained under an illegal foreign military occupation and as it suffered numerous provocations and withstood unrelenting aggression. Where were the calls for non-intervention or removal of military and security forces stationed on foreign lands then?

Third, the fact is that Eritrea is and has always been committed to peace. Contrary to the misguided and misinformed claims and assumptions of some, it does not want war. It has exercised extreme patience and restraint for several decades, even as its lands have been under illegal foreign military occupation. It has loudly and repeatedly called on the international community to shoulder its moral and legal obligations to ensure the rule of law and support peace.

However, the reality is also that while Eritrea, along with most of the region, wants peace, some regard peace as negative and dangerous. When just two short years ago, Eritrea and Ethiopia, longtime bitter foes, courageously decided to end their dark chapter and agree to peace, the Horn of Africa finally began to witness some encouraging developments. Peace and cooperation offered genuine hopes for prosperity and better circumstances for ordinary Eritreans, Ethiopians, and others across the region. Although the peace initiatives were almost universally welcomed and broadly applauded, there were – and, as recent events demonstrate, still continue to be – several deep pockets of discontent.

Unfortunately, almost from the outset, certain elements in the region sought to scuttle the positive developments ushering in the possibility of lasting regional peace, stability, and security. These elements, emanating mainly from the ranks of the TPLF, which was the central core and the most powerful force within the previous ruling coalition government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF], have opposed the winds of peace and progressive change.

Undeniably, this has largely been because the positive developments over the past two years posed a great threat: they would remove their longstanding and tight grip on power and control. No longer would ruling party elites be “top dog” within the coercive, corruption-plagued, kleptocratic system that they had established and overseen for nearly three decades. Thus, deeply bitter and extremely resentful about their loss of power and control over looted state resources, these elements have been unwilling to move in step with the peaceful tide sweeping over the region. Instead, in coordination with several other groups, they have sought to promote conflict, tension, and chaos, hoping that instability and violence would row back developments toward peace and allow them to regain some of their former dominance.

Finally, history can be very useful and highly illuminating. To the discerning, the claims about Eritrea should and will arouse memories of the innumerable past false “reports” and claims about the country, regularly peddled and spread by TPLF military or security officials and their supporters. Remember, for instance, the 2000 troops that Eritrea was falsely accused of dispatching to Somalia over a decade ago?

Only a brief glance at the historical record will also demonstrate that rather than Eritrea, it is the TPLF that has on numerous occasions intervened in lands far beyond its own borders, launched attacks, and then claim that it was actually the victim. In one of the clearest examples, recall how in 2006, after a series of explosions took place in Addis Ababa on 16 September, the TPLF quickly claimed the bombings were “part of a coordinated terror attack by the OLF and [Eritrea].” However, soon after, cables from the US Embassy in Addis Ababa revealed that the attacks likely “may have in fact been the work of the [Government of Ethiopia] security forces”.

Or recall how in 2016, just two years before the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the TPLF regime launched an unprovoked attack on the Tsorona central front. Then, like now, after launching their attack, the TPLF and its supporters could not keep their story straight. First the information minister, Getachew Reda claimed that he “wasn’t aware of fighting with [Eritrea]”, then later described the incident as “a serious offensive, not just a simple skirmish”, and falsely claimed that Ethiopia had responded to an Eritrean attack.

Likewise, now, the TPLF and its supporters claim that it is under attack, while also claiming that the Northern Command is on its side (simply begging the question of why then the attacks this week?). Of course, even before the 2016 attack, Ethiopian forces under the TPLF made regular incursions into and attacks against Eritrea, while the TPLF made persistent calls for the overthrow of the Eritrea government and, through belligerent, threatening statements via government-owned media outlets, proclaimed its intentions to carry out “military action to oust the regime in Eritrea.”

As events continue to unfold and we attempt to get a grasp on things, I am reminded of a passage from historian Alemseged Tesfai’s excellent article, “The March of Folly” (1999), where he comments, “It is an unfortunate situation that defies a decent analysis or explanation. One cannot any longer discuss the Weyane or respond to their allegations without fearing for one’s own reputation and sense of decency. I used to think that pathological lying was an individual psychological illness. We now learn from the Weyane, that governments too can be seized of the malaise. It does not matter if a lie is disproved, it comes back double; two lies become four and four jumps to eight…in arithmetic progression.”