Africa cannot sit on its hands and let this great and ancient nation tear itself to pieces while we fiddle with protocols, says Anver Versi. Where are the continent’s Wise People when we need them to defuse the situation?
Two years ago at this time we were celebrating the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia; today, he is fully embroiled in what is developing into one of the nastiest and most brutal conflicts in Africa.
Late in November, Abiy said he was personally leading an “existentialist war to save Ethiopia” against forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). He called for everybody in the country (except Tigrayans, who have now become public enemy number one) to join the battle.
Both sides have encouraged vigilante groups and formed civilian militias. “Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let’s meet at the front,” Abiy said as he set out to join his fighting forces. Olympic gold medallist Haile Gebrselassie and silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa have already responded to the call and enlisted with the army.
According to NGOs working in the country, some 30,000 Tigrayans have been detained in Addis and unknown numbers elsewhere. The government says the people detained are suspected of supporting the Tigrayan forces advancing on the capital, but the detainees include small children and old people.
Meanwhile, non-Tigrayans from that region have also been fleeing in their thousands. As the TPLF forces march towards Addis, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are fleeing to safer zones in Addis and other Ethiopian towns. They have accused the TPLF of mass executions, rapes, torture and other atrocities.
As the stories of atrocities committed by both sides circulate, they generate hate-filled frenzies that lead to further atrocities and ever-hardening polarisation. Those who talk of finding a middle ground are being dismissed as ‘fence-sitters’, ‘traitors’, ‘fifth columnists’.
The propaganda war by both sides is being ramped up – each attempting to paint its side of the story as just and rational and laying the entire blame for the conflagration on the other side, who are being labelled as irrational, power-hungry and unspeakably cruel.
Domestically, there has been an escalation of ethnically targeted hate speech. Words like “cancer”, “weeds”, “rats” and “terrorists” to describe the other side are being freely bandied about. The aim is to dehumanise people – a necessary step before setting out to kill people on a mass scale.
Ethiopia has a unique system where the country is divided into ethnically based provinces, although overall power is held by the Federal Government based in Addis, and laws are made by the National Assembly, also based in Addis. The provinces were created following the overthrow of the military dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
Since then until 2018, the government was dominated by the TPLF as the strongest of a coalition of four parties and many resented what they saw as the overlordship of Tigray over the country. When Abiy Ahmed, who is from the majority Oromo
ethnic group, came to power and following a series of rapid reforms, Tigray felt it was being marginalised and tensions began to surface.
In November 2020, the TPLF’s armed forces attacked Federal army camps and in response, Abiy Ahmed sent in troops, ostensibly to bring Tigray to heel in the new dispensation. He said at the time that the conflict would be over soon. Instead it has escalated beyond all expectation.
The most worrying aspect of this conflict is that it is based on identifying an entire ethnic group as the enemy. In ethnic conflicts, as in racial conflicts, it does not matter what anyone believes, or what policies they have or indeed what they do – they are seen as evil simply for being what they are. Since one cannot change one’s race or ethnicity, there is no room for manoeuvre.
Such conflicts can quickly degenerate into all-out battles, including involving civilians, all believing they are engaged in existential struggles against an implacable enemy. The terrible logical outcome, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia and later Rwanda, is genocide.
Already observers are warning that all the ominous tell-tale signs of a situation heading towards genocide are manifesting themselves in Ethiopia.
The rest of the world does not seem particularly interested in doing anything about this situation but Africa cannot sit on its hands. Ethiopia is at the heart of Africa, it is the ‘mother nation’. We cannot allow this great and ancient nation to tear itself to pieces while we fiddle with protocols. Where are the continent’s Wise People when we need them to defuse the situation?