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It has been one year since war broke out in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. There is no end in sight. The conflict is complex and often emotionally charged. Particularly in the Ethiopian diaspora community, people often disagree on what’s happening, and why it is taking so long to come to a peaceful resolution.
What is both simple to understand and tragic is the suffering of families who didn’t choose to be caught in the middle of a war. Millions have been displaced from the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, and are at risk of starvation. Blockades of humanitarian aid make it hard to bring much-needed supplies to the people most in need. All sides have committed war crimes, according to a joint report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
One way or another this war will end. Ultimately, the rebel leadership must ask itself what its endgame is. The rebels alienated far too many Ethiopians during their decades in power, and must understand that they now face too much opposition to be able to return to power. Soon their internal resources will be depleted, and external support will dry up.
On the other hand, the government must come to terms with the fact that it can’t eliminate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). They are part and parcel of the people of Tigray. It is up to the people of Tigray to press TPLF to become a democratic organization. There are individuals and groups that vehemently disagree with TPLF policies and approach. They should be given support because they are the future of Tigray and the future of Ethiopia.
There also must be a comprehensive, independent investigation bringing to account the perpetrators of indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians, horrific gang rape, and destruction of institutions and property, regardless of which side they were on. The joint U.N.-Ethiopian government report is a good step, but far from complete. Here, particularly, the government bears a heavy responsibility to immediately crack down on offenders in its forces.
Finally, the government has the responsibility to help rebuild and rehabilitate what was destroyed in the war — regardless of which side it is on. Ethiopia holds so much potential. There is an immense power in unity. Ethiopia is a country with a complex history. It wasn’t always just. But now it could be.
How it started
On November 3, 2020, the Tigray Special Forces and allied militia attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and took control of bases and the weaponry. The next day the federal government announced a military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Like so many leaders in history, the government thought the war would be over quickly. Here we are one year later. No closer.
The truth is both sides underestimated each other. The TPLF counted on its own weapons chest, military and intelligence experience, mercenaries planted around the country, and diplomatic muscle — all gained in the previous three decades when it controlled the country with an iron fist. The government went on chipping away at each of its strengths except the diplomatic muscle. TPLF’s western diplomatic arm was much more ferocious and potent than the government had ever imagined.
For all intent and purposes, the government responded out of necessity. It banked on its latest military technology (like drones), the number of soldiers it could mobilize, and friendship with neighboring Eritrea. It scored a big success by capturing Mekele, the capital of Tigray, in three weeks, but with time its efforts were spread thin between security work and humanitarian work. TPLF leaned into its strength, which is guerilla warfare. It forced the government to withdraw from Mekele and declare a unilateral ceasefire in June 2021. The rebels were not only able to hold out longer, but they managed to expand the conflict to the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, taking advantage of the ceasefire.
As we look ahead to an end to this unnecessary war, it is important to note the definition of success is very different for the two groups. For the rebels up to this point, simply not losing is winning. They want to prolong the war until they can depose Abiy and replace him with someone to their liking. For the government, ending the war, winning the hearts and minds of the people of Tigray, healing the community, and rebuilding the region is victory. From that perspective, the government’s victory will be less decisive and less attainable in the short term. The work of healing and building trust can only be achieved in the long term.
Geopolitics of the Horn
The Horn of Africa is an important strategic area that represents vital interest for both regional countries and global powers. The Red Sea is a major business and military center connecting East and West. While Djibouti is the naval base for several global powers, including the United States and China, Ethiopia is the military and economic center of gravity for the Horn of Africa region. What happens here affects literally the whole world.
Ethiopia is doing many things that could potentially transform not just itself, but the Horn of Africa region. Global superpowers are taking note. First, it is moving toward a more democratic system of governance with the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It has experienced its first peaceful transition of power. The former prime minister, Hailemariam Desalign, is living in peace as a private citizen, advising and contributing when called upon. All previous transitions were by force. This is a big step for the country.
Second, despite Egypt’s opposition, Ethiopia is building a major hydroelectric dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River to produce electricity and help lift the nation out of poverty. Third, Ethiopia ended a two-decade long war with neighboring Eritrea, and re-established strong relations with Somalia that are built on mutual respect and interest. The formation of this Horn of Africa coalition, which also includes Djibouti, has effectively outpaced the superpowers’ policy toward the region.
Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States in the region. However, last year President Donald Trump attempted to mediate the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam, and when Ethiopia refused to sign a deal that clearly favored Egypt, Trump threatened to withhold US development aid. There was a sigh of relief last November when President Joe Biden was elected. Many hoped he would reverse the course.
Unfortunately, the Biden team’s Ethiopia policy was on autopilot, and while the new president’s team was still transitioning, the conflict in northern Ethiopia escalated rapidly. But now the U.S. is threatening to sanction the government in many ways including terminating Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA,) which gives preferential trade arrangements to some African countries. These measures would weaken the government (and devastate the thousands of poor women who relied on these jobs) while emboldening the rebels. For these reasons, Ethiopians believe the U.S. lost impartiality in mediating this conflict.
While the situation requires multilateral cooperation, global powers must ultimately recognize that the Horn of Africa coalition has the final say in what is done and not done in their region. Historically, the US and EU relied on humanitarian aid and lending power to influence developing countries like Ethiopia. However, the world is changing. China takes the long view in its investment and lending practices, a tactic that is attractive at least in the short term. The United States cannot afford to be sidelined by China and Russia. The United States must pivot to establish a new kind of relationship, engaging directly with the Ethiopian government instead of using the rebels as leverage.
The new partnership must be structured in a way that actually benefits both countries, moving from aid to investment that will enable self-sufficiency. For example, investment in the manufacturing sector would allow the country to produce and market value added products instead of selling simply raw materials to other countries. Another area partnership could be sharing agricultural technology to enable the country to produce and export food. These kinds of investments will surely yield attractive returns for both countries.
The role of Ethiopian diaspora as the conflict winds down
But first, with or without the help of international players, the war needs to end. While the rebels can prolong the conflict, they eventually will run out of options. That’s when they will have to make hard choices. During their three decades in power, their hostility, harassment and cruelty created enemies of Ethiopia’s neighbors. And they must remember the wounds they inflicted on Ethiopians from all walks of life. They must pursue their own interests and the interests of their people through the ballot — which means they must accept the current elected government of Ethiopia.
If the TPLF rebels accept the government and commit to the rule of law, the government must respond by removing the terrorist designation from their organization. This won’t be an easy sell for many Ethiopians, but it is a necessary condition for forgiveness and healing.
The diaspora can help by making its voice heard.
Ethiopia has been in the world spotlight since Abiy came to power in 2018. While he was lauded for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, many have been startled at the portrayal of the conflict in international media reports. The Ethiopian diaspora in Minnesota is no exception. While not everyone in the diaspora is on the same page, there is a strong, organized effort in support of the government of Abiy Ahmed.
In November Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali-American diaspora decided to claim their own narrative by organizing a twitter campaign (under the #NoMore) to counter what they regard as media disinformation. The campaign was followed by physical protests in 25 cities around the world including in London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and our own St. Paul, Minnesota. The campaign was wildly successful; some claim it is now a Pan-African movement.
The diaspora community can build on this momentum, engaging in local and national politics to influence U.S. policy toward Ethiopia. Historically, like many other immigrant communities, Ethiopian Americans have voted for Democratic candidates because of the party’s openness and because its policies aligned with their concerns. But in this case, many feel U.S. policy is siding with the TPLF, despite their calls and emails to elected officials.
Ethiopian Americans are a small voting bloc. In most circumstances, it is hard to influence an election. But in the close gubernatorial vote in Virginia this fall, they swung to Republican Glen Youngkin, who won by only 63,480 votes.
Partly because they feel Ethiopia is facing internal and external threats at a critical time, the diaspora community is more united than ever. A month ago, the State Department urged U.S citizens in Ethiopia to depart using commercially available options for fear of escalating conflict. The French government did the same. Abiy seized the moment by posing a challenge to the Ethiopian diaspora around the world. He called it the #GreatEthiopianHomeComing challenge, one million Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia to visit Ethiopia by January 7, 2022. If successful the challenge would compensate for foreigners who fled the country and deepen the diaspora connection to the country.
How ironic a country so blessed with natural resources is known globally for its famines. While there are many reasons for this, the biggest is mismanagement. I believe that is about to change. Better days are ahead as soon as the country can get through this conflict. In the coming decades, Ethiopia will be one of the largest bread baskets in the world. The country has the most viable arable farmland in the world along with vast water resources which enables her not only to feed itself but also feed the world. Hopefully it will achieve this development ambition in the most environmentally sustainable approach possible.
The missing elements for a long time were genuine leadership, good governance at all levels, and unity of its citizens. Among these elements by far the chief condition is leadership with vision and willingness to follow through, which also promotes culture of education, hard work, and service of others over nepotism and corruption. An Ethiopia that embraces its diversity and inclusiveness of all its citizens is unstoppable.