Ethiopia’s Tigray rebels must be held accountable

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Appeasement of a radical ethnic based rebel group is not a recipe for peace in the Horn of Africa.

The third round of war instigated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an insurgent group in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been contained from spreading.

Contrary to preoccupation by certain observers who portray the rebels as victimized, underdog Spartans destined for swift victory, the TPLF were in fact better armed than the government of Ethiopia (GoE) at the start of this conflict on November 4th, 2020. The group which once ruled Ethiopia high-handedly for twenty-seven years had used its control of the country’s resources to amass armaments within its own ethnic enclave. By using the former standoff with Eritrea as pretext, TPLF had essentially turned Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region into a garrisoned ethnic reserve, one it calculated, could allow it to one day wage war on Ethiopia in case it was ousted from power. That long planned war is now reality.

Certainly, news about Ethiopia’s northern conflict has been hard to verify due to broad disinformation as well as communication outages in conflict zones. However, fresh plans by TPLF generals to rapidly seize strategic areas in northern Amhara fell apart due to stiff resistance by joint forces of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) as well as local Amhara fighters. To divert attention from battlefield frustrations, TPLF has typically accused Eritrea, and its support for Ethiopia. More of the same is happening now.

By reigniting this third round of conflict, Tigray’s rebel warlords have exacerbated the flow of humanitarian aid to the regions. To mask this apparent wrongdoing, the rebels’ adept propaganda campaigners incessantly accuse the GoE of a “siege” on Tigray. This sort of play on hot button words is not new to the TPLF.  As recently as six months ago, baseless allegations of “Genocide” were relentlessly applied by the group to intimidate and silence critics. Canadian professor Ann Fitzgerald was one such victim of this sort of bullying.

Given these continued deceptions, taking the rebels as serious interlocutors in any negotiated settlement has become bleak. Global power brokers, such as the U.S. seem to be re-assessing their position vis-à-vis TPLF’s renegade leaders. Many in Ethiopia had hoped the Americans would change course and engage more positively with the GoE. This is perhaps the best way to end the conflict, reigning in TPLF’s belligerent warlords and providing amnesty and a reintegration for lower ranking members of the group.

Recently, in a speech made at the UN general assembly, President Biden mentioned the need for an African Union-led peace initiative regarding the conflict, a position long held by Ethiopia, but one the rebels disparaged, with their spokesman accusing the AU assigned chief mediator, Olusegun Obasanjo as being too close to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Contrary to democratic political bargaining, TPLF does not know how to cut its losses and find amicable ways to secure its interests. During the last ceasefire when glimmers of hope for peace appeared ever so slightly, it assumed it could score surprising military gains and spent months amassing and training more fighters. It purposely put forth unproductive preconditions to stymie peace efforts and went the distance to ridicule the AU and chief mediator Olusegun Obasanjo as too friendly with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The recent shift in tone by the U.S. is noticeable. Whether it will be sustained is yet to be seen. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer did not mince his words in a recent press briefing when he spoke of “strategic partnership” with Ethiopia. These words which did not go well with the rebel leaders in Tigray attest to growing realization by the U.S that placing undue pressure on Ethiopia had been wrong. Annette Webber, who is the EU’s Envoy to the Horn of Africa shared similar opinions in an official communication to all the EU member states, presented as a mission report. TPLF is using similar demeaning tactics that were applied to the AU’s Obasanjo on U.S officials deemed to be correcting coarse. In his recent article, Alex De Waal tirades U.S diplomats for failing to continue indulging the TPLF as they had recently done.

Having stalled and exhausted many opportunities towards peace, TPLF’s continued disdain for an armistice is emboldened by some policy makers in Western capitals who continue to readily ignore some of its most egregious crimes against humanity. These include the heinous act of deploying child conscripts into battle, often drugged to make them fearless and the use of civilians as human shields. Recently, in the city of Mekelle, the group had plastered the letters UN on rooftops of several buildings suspected of storing armaments. It is now universally acknowledged the group readily loots humanitarian supplies and uses food aid as bait to conscript more fighter per household in Tigray. The food-for-work scheme employed in Tigray in the early 2000s has now become food for fighters.

Child soldiers of the Tigray People’s Liberation front on the road to the town of Waja 2021.

These most serious allegations against the TPLF were not mentioned in the recent Report of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. Instead, the commission leaned heavily towards accusing Ethiopian forces of crimes against humanity. The report which was researched remotely by interviewing faceless and nameless victims has been highly criticized by the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the UN office at Geneva. In addition to deficiencies in methodology, one of the report’s chief creators also compromised her position. A recent search through her Twitter timeline revealed just how much Kaari Betty Murungi had been in cahoots with proponents of TPLF. Murungi had personally concluded that crimes against humanity were committed by Ethiopian forces long before the report’s completion. More on this can be gleaned from a recent Report by Abren.

Contrary to vindicating the rebels’ image of victimhood, gaping holes in the UN’s report validate Annet Weber’s recent U-turn when she said, “EU is perceived as promoting bias through … exclusive condemnation of one side” and the Ethiopian government “may close [EU] access to its key interlocutors” if it did not change its tune. A very real concern given the impending and unfortunate scramble for Africa by global powers.

The other problem is that the insurgents have tried but failed to dictate the rhythm of the peace process. Whenever they sensed a military advantage, they blocked peace efforts by putting forth endless preconditions while obscuring the facts. The times they engaged in diplomacy or peace have been preceded by military losses, as in the past few weeks when the group’s call for peace increased despite being the instigator of clashes. This suggests things are not going as planned for the rebels.

TPLF’s conventional wisdom is that calling for a ceasefire signals military weakness. The group’s spokesman, Getachew Reda, called Ethiopia’s unilateral ceasefire in June 2021, “a sick joke. Supporters the group celebrated as its fighters went on a senseless rampage through parts of Amhara and Afar from July 2021 to October of that year. The United States did nothing to disabuse the rebels of this. In fact, the environment of mass hysteria of impending doom was spewed by largely Western mainstream media, seemingly to sow more chaos, which clearly favors the insurgents.

Rooftops in Mekelle plastered with the letter UN recently. Many of these facilities actually do not belong to the UN and are decoy used by the TPLF to store weapons near civilian areas.

That was a mistake. Ethiopia’ government did not crumble in panic. Even when some western governments shuttered their embassies in what seemed to be organized fear mongering, and of looming war in the capital, not one Ethiopian official abandoned their post. In fact, Prime Minster Abiy joined the troops to repel the rebels, who had chosen all-out war, and overstretched their supply lines. The counter offensive would take less than three weeks to push back TPLF’s army.

The current third round of offensive war has not gone as planned for the warlords. Their irritation reflects better prepared defenses by joint Ethiopian forces, composed of ENDF as well as local forces. This much was demonstrated by rebel General Tadesse Worede during this press briefing in Amharic. Furthermore, rebel leaders were caught off-guard by the extent of ENDF staged along their northern flank near the border with Eritrea. Some of these troops have already captured the town of Shiraro. For TPLF, a repeat of last year’s easy march down the A2 highway towards Dessie is doubtful. The best they can achieve now is defend their position, and hope to get the International Community to intervene on their behalf by crying foul.

The dismal outlook for the rebels naturally lends them to scapegoating Eritrea, which is clearly allied with Ethiopia, but no credible evidence has been provided for the outlandish claims made by the likes of Alex De Waal, who attests that “Some 50,000 Ethiopian soldiers are now Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s cannon fodder, and only the most naïve believes that he would let the survivors go home”. Indeed, passionate supporters of TPLF cannot fathom genuine cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea because they assumed they had accomplished their decades long work of pitting  the two countries and peoples against each other.

Everyone is up in arms about Eritrean support for Ethiopia except the Ethiopians, who claim they have a right to seek help from a neighbor to quell a terrorist insurrection. After all, it is within the bounds of the UN charter for countries to seek the support of their allies during war. The United States’ invasion of Iraq, alongside its many dozen allies comes to mind. By any measure the resulting level of carnage and length of that war was exponentially worse than northern Ethiopia’s Tigray.

The timeline of events in northern Ethiopia repeatedly proves TPLF was the first to fire, and the last to sit for peace. The simple logic of this war is the group’s zero-sum attitude, a mindset it honed as a dogged, self-described Marxist-Leninist guerrilla force throughout the 1970s and 80s. However, those idealistic days are now gone, exchanged for opportunism, ethno-fascism and a proclivity towards brutality. Such traits make it the favorite proxy for foreign actors who seek to destabilize Ethiopia.

Nearly six million people in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region are held hostage, as bargaining chips by warlords in control of the region. No one talks about the cruel tyranny of the TPLF that existed in Tigray long before this war began. To this day it is the only region in Ethiopia where no credible opposition discourse or media is tolerated. A good example of TPLF’s brutality is when Ethiopian forces exited the region in June 2021, thousands who were deemed to be collaborators of the GoE were disappeared, with hundreds conscripted and even more executed.  

When it comes to food insecurity, regrettably, endemic lack of food has been a common feature in this part of the word. Long before the coming to power of Ethiopia’s current government, 15% of Tigray’s population depended on some form of international food assistance contributed by the likes of USAID and World Food Program. In the same period, less than 50% of the population had access to reliable clean drinking water, including in cities like Axum and Mekelle. Clearly this conflict does not help. Those in favor of ending it would be wise to stop drawing false equivalency between the warring parties. Continued indulgence of the rebels is exacerbating the human cost. This is a critical moment to hold Tigray’s rebel leaders accountable.

World Food Program humanitarian aid warehouses forcibly entered and looted on August 24, 2022. Prior to that USAID warehouses were also looted in the similar way by the rebels.

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