Tigray Conflict: Homework Not Done by Western Countries Has Led to Wrong Policy Action

Simo-Pekka Parviainen 18.5.2021

Conflicts Don’t Just Happen, Somebody Starts Them

In 1991 the Soviet backed dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu fell and the rebel movements fighting against it took power in Ethiopia. Since then elections have been held, which have so far not been fully neither free nor fair. The current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has led a process, which can be characterized by nothing other than peaceful revolution towards genuine democracy in a country, which is a civilization unto itself with over 4000 years of independent history.

Historians will eventually find out fully why one of the key movements — the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — decided to self-isolate, reject all peaceful political tracks and start armed struggle after being a key part of a coalition that was firmly in power in the country for almost three decades. These decades gave it considerable political strength in peaceful political struggle well beyond its weight. Instead they chose to repeat the same nauseating dynamic of so many African rebel movements before by going back to the bush, when facing a peaceful challenge to their power position. This kind of backward mentality is a major stumbling block towards better democracy everywhere. After all this you can question how committed TPLF was for democracy all these years in the first place.

Things culminated in a TPLF sneak attack in November 2020 against their own country’s armed forces, which had been guarding the same very people against foreign aggression for decades. These soldiers, from different parts of this vast country, had often fought and died together, now faced cowardly attack from their former and current comrades, who murdered some of them in their sleep. Bad news, especially from Africa, is a staple diet for media corporations and this ensured that the situation rose like a rocket to global media consciousness. This is the very moment, when for many reasons, but mainly for lack of real knowledge of the Ethiopian situation, things started to go towards bias against Ethiopia in a major way.

Murky way of operating has been the hallmark of TPLF since its early days. As a resistance movement to cruel dictatorship it had to adapt to work in the shadows to survive and win. Western media, NGOs, policy makers and parts of academia swallowed the hook of the TPLF propaganda apparatus hook, line and sinker. This has led to biased media reporting and policy decisions towards Ethiopia, characterized by ignorance of background facts and naiveté. TPLF also conducts propaganda operations among Tigrinian diaspora to demonize other Ethiopians using for example made up grievances and lies mainly by means of social media. Bogus TPLF genocide claim has likely stoked strong feelings just by throwing the word in the public domain without any proof, as the word itself brings into mind Rwanda immediately when used in African context. We can see many powerful influencers, acting as TPLF’s useful idiots, spreading false propaganda narratives. Most egregious example of this is the current director-general of WHO Tedros Adhanom who, instead of concentrating on his day job fighting the pandemic, spends his time spreading propaganda.

We can see in the media some disingenuous claims, that many Tigrinians support the TPLF — a mistake we often make in the West when judging the popularity of authoritarian regimes. The region has been in the grip of TPLF for decades and decades, but there is no reliable way to measure support if the civil society is not free.

Significant part of Ethiopian National Defence Forces is based in Tigray under the Northern Command to protect the Tigray population and ensure national defence objectives in this volatile and unpredictable part in Horn of Africa. The Northern Command zone is also a major location for warehousing military stockpiles. TPLF’s objective was to obtain these stockpiles to bolster their military objectives. From a purely military sense this objective was foolish. Ethiopia is a country of more than 110 m. people covering more than 1,1 m. sq. km., most of which is very challenging highlands. However, this sudden sneak attack made the situation extremely serious after months and months of simmering tension between Addis Ababa and Mekele. So serious, that Ethiopia had to request help from Eritrea. Eritreans quickly moved against their arch-enemy TPLF and helped to turn the tide favourable to the government.

Modern conflicts are usually internal and rarely direct between states anymore, where rebel movements conduct politics by all means including armed insurgency, and where neighbouring countries and countries outside interfere. Like a textbook example of this Egypt saw a weak spot and together with Sudan immediately meddled in the conflict for example by occupying a contested border area. Egyptian actions are of course connected to the Nile question, where Egyptian obstructionism, baseless paranoia and contemptuous attitude towards Sub-Saharan Africans is visible, despite the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that the Grand Renaissance Dam would affect the water supply downstream.

Failure to contain this Egyptian unacceptable belligerence is tied to wider geopolitics of the Middle-East, where the US supports the current military dictatorship in Cairo as part of wider US security posture to secure its interests in the region including protection of Israel. Manifestations of this were most crudely in display in September 2020, when Trump Administration tried to pressure Ethiopia in Nile issue clearly taking Cairo side and trying unsuccessfully to pressure its main ally in Horn of Africa: Ethiopia. Now during the Biden Administration these core US geopolitical objectives are the same, but the actions and rhetoric is different, akin to somewhat imperial sanctimony. The US is now demanding withdrawal of Amhara militias from territory they currently secure for example. Prime Minister Abiy in March 2021 compared the situation by saying that it would have been the same if Ethiopia would have demanded Maryland National Guard to withdraw from Washington DC during riots. Statements emanating from the US Congress condemning Ethiopia have also been hypocritical, as politicians making these statements have been willing to give a pass to completely undemocratic countries if they happen to be US geopolitical allies.

So TPLF started its nightly sneak attack on November 3rd 2020 against armed forces of its own country simultaneously in several locations in Tigray. Hundreds of soldiers, former comrades in arms, were cowardly murdered in their sleep. After this all bets were completely off, the government had to counter-attack and defeat TPLF completely. Before November 2020 Abiy government had offered several occasions to peacefully negotiate the political stalemate, but TPLF had rejected all these initiatives.

Between November 9th and 10th TPLF supporters conducted ethnic cleansing in Mai Kadra, murdering approximately 800 people. After this massacre they fled across the border to Sudan. Armed insurrection was quickly defeated by government forces and Eritreans by the end of November 2020. Currently remnants of TPLF conduct guerilla warfare sabotaging electricity lines, civilian administration, IT infrastructure and distribution of humanitarian aid. TPLF has killed drivers of humanitarian convoys and students, and released approximately 30000 prisoners.

Meeting with Gen. Hassan Ibrahim in the FDRE MoND, Addis Ababa 2009. Photo: Simo-Pekka Parviainen

EU, US and other Western Countries Have Entered Their Exams on Ethiopia Without Studying

Some members of the international community, mainly from the developing Western world have raised concern about humanitarian access. It is however good to remember, that no sovereign country in practice grants totally unrestricted access in its territory. First of all this is because of security reasons and secondly it cannot be ruled out that using humanitarian aid somebody will try to support the opposite side. This concern is particularly pertinent as the history of conflicts is full of examples of how humanitarian aid is diverted from civilians to armed groups. It is also a dirty secret of humanitarian action, that many times access is obtained by making payments, donations or services to parties to the conflict and therefore in fact fueling ongoing conflict. TPLF has vast experience in manipulating this humanitarian action to its favour after being a significant part of the government for almost three decades and before that fighting Mengistu’s dictatorship during 1975 -1991.

In their interactions with Ethiopian government many senior interlocutors have gotten familiar with TPLF members as they held key positions. Cooperation in security and intelligence has been deep over the years, and people have had time to get to know each other. Now all of a sudden these people have disappeared, and it is a difficult mental process to let go of a partner, who has changed sides and become a rebel or refugee. On an emotional level You feel empathy perhaps towards them since You know them, and that can lead your brain to wrong track thinking maybe they had good reasons for what they did, even as You very well know they don’t.

Many were absolutely shocked and surprised when they heard that the former foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin and former intelligence chief Getachew Assefa had both died. From corridors of power going all the way back to a dusty cave in the middle of nowhere is quite a journey. From giving a proud speech in national costume in the UN General Assembly to that. What were they thinking? To do this after all achievements gradually over the years and yes, significant mistakes, since 1991.

Decision making on Tigray conflict is marred by lack of understanding of the background to the conflict and bypassing key facts. Due to these shortcomings in the decision making, the default option, understanding more the allegedly weaker — the TPLF side — is preferred without proper analysis. It has been absolutely stunning to observe how the party starting the conflict receives understanding in the media and among decision makers in Europe and elsewhere in the Western world. Conclusions have been drawn too fast and they have been wrong. This will most probably lead to Ethiopia seeking more cooperation with authoritarian countries like China and Russia, not because that would be the preferred option, but because actions of EU and US will not leave Ethiopia other options. This international dynamic was clearly visible, when the situation was raised to the agenda of the UN Security Council in April 2021.

When Olof Palme was prime minister in Sweden there was talk of so-called Stockholm disease, in which it was easier to talk about human rights problems the farther from Stockholm they occured. Is this situation a new mutation of this disease? When talking about human rights in China, decision makers choose their words carefully, because they know how much is at stake. Perhaps it feels easier for some to make these kinds of statements towards Ethiopia, but if this is the case people thinking like this are mistaken. Statements from Europe or US are listened carefully and precisely because where they are coming from.

It is impossible to get a proper picture of the situation in Ethiopia just by following the media. One of the most egregious examples was when the Washington Post Editorial in January 2021 blamed Ethiopia of “occupying” Tigray. EU and US homework is clearly not done, and in policy decisions this is manifested best by endless demands for cease-fire. Pushing for dialogue with TPLF in this situation demonstrates how unaware or ignorant the EU or US is of attitudes inside Ethiopia. Ethiopia does not have any willingness to negotiate with TPLF dead-enders and TPLF has been designated as a terrorist organization by the country’s parliament. The country has clearly signaled, actually in government social media, that matter is internal and calls from abroad to do this are unacceptable. This should be respected by foreigners, but I suspect there is always someone in the international community who thinks he knows better than Ethiopians themselves and might push for this anyway. Groups like TPLF, who embrace separatism and reject peaceful political struggle, will remain for the time being a significant obstacle for progress in Ethiopia. Rejecting the unity agenda will only lead to prolonged suffering in the near future.

What Happened to Do No Harm -Principle?

Holistic supporters of development cooperation hold on to Do No Harm -principle, which is actually something to remember in these days. You cannot go over and beyond what the society and government are willing and genuinely able to do. And if you do something, you should always think, what kind of damage your action actually might do to a situation, which is usually in many ways extremely fragile. This kind of thinking has been absent in the Euro-Atlantic reactions to the crisis in Tigray. EU foreign affairs chief Borrell could do well if he would pontificate less against Ethiopia using statements like: “Ethiopia is using blood and sword in Tigray”. He should remember what is the situation in Catalonia, where the law and order operation of Spain there is so divisive, that foreigners took notice. With this background he, however, feels himself able to advise Ethiopians what to do.

Ethiopia is committed to investigate allegations of human rights violations during the conflict. It is however realistic to mention that even modern Western armies don’t seem to be immune from human rights violations if we look at for example the evidence collected during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no room for hypocrisy, and it would be a mistake to assume that this hypocrisy would not be detected outside the EU or US, where there is criticism towards EU and US even in the best of days warranted or unwarranted. In this situation criticism is warranted, and there is for the US and for the EU all the possibilities to modify their positions if they choose to do so. In terms of media, I would prefer investigative journalism and documentaries as the context and the background is not often familiar even to otherwise sophisticated consumers of media.

For the EU not to observe elections in 2021 is an unfriendly and misguided decision. These decisions in the EU are made at the political level and readiness to observe seeks to signal that the EU is happy with the state of democracy in that particular country. Taking into account this fact, the decision now not to observe makes the EU look more bad. The fact is, that the state of democracy is far better than previous elections which the EU observed happily back then. To refer to technical reasons as an excuse is disingenuous and it is easy to see through this as an excuse. For example, the current chair of NEBE was persecuted under Meles regime and had to seek refuge abroad. She has now subsequently returned and assumed this position of responsibility. Does global media report this in their coverage?

International Affairs Expert