Ethiopia’s political crisis: War and ethnic cleansing jolt Tigray


Reports in the bourgeois press are coming out daily describing the human tragedy that is unfolding in Tigray on the orders of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Responding with a swift and brutal military response to an attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on a military installation in Sero in November, Abiy sent his military into Tigray, supported by ethnic militias and Eritrean forces, to hunt down the TPLF and carry out what has been reported widely as massacres of civilians and ethnic cleansing, resulting in massive displacement of Tigrayan people. (Massacres are happening simultaneously in Metekel, in Ethiopia’s western border region.)

The U.S. media has reported that at least 1 million, and likely closer to 2 million, people have been displaced since Ethiopia’s military (ENDF) invaded Tigray in pursuit of the TPLF and estimates that thousands have perished from the shelling of cities by the ENDF. The UN Refugee Agency is cited as estimating that 56,000 have fled the country, many of whom are in refugee camps in neighboring Sudan.

Aggravating the refugee crisis are reports of ethnic cleansing. According to an internal United States government report that was acquired by the New York Times, pro-government forces are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation,” the report states, “whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased.” Not only is the Ethiopian military actively hunting the TPLF, but according to a strongly worded editorial in February by Asayehgn Desta for Tigrai Online, “Abiy has teamed up with the most hideous human rights violator, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, extremist Amhara militias, the genocidal Fano youth squad, United Arabia Emirates’ (UAE) drones, and Somalia fighters, and embarked on a full blown preemptive strike to overthrow Tigray’s elected government from power.”

The political crisis in Ethiopia

While the TPLF’s attack on the Serro base sparked the government’s invasion of Tigray, there is an underlying political explanation for the violence. The regional government in Tigray defied Abiy by holding regional elections over his government’s objections (which the TPLF won by a large majority), which Tigray’s state government carried out in response to his decision to postpone federal elections due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. By postponing the elections, the TPLF argued, Abiy was unconstitutionally extending his term as president.

Making the situation worse, Abiy has tolerated Eritrea’s armed forces, currently under the command of President Isaias Afwerki (with whom he forged a historic peace accord ending the decades long conflict between the two countries), which has acted as an auxiliary force in the fight against the TPLF. Both the Associated Press and Amnesty International have reported that Eritrean forces were responsible for mass killings of civilians at Axum and Degelat. Although initially denying reports that Eritrean forces were present in Tigray, Abiy’s government, under international pressure, now admits that they were but insists they have been withdrawn since. The status of Eritrean forces in Tigray has been difficult to verify due to the restrictions the Ethiopian government has placed on NGOs and journalists covering the conflict.

The political dispute between the TPLF and the government has been simmering for some time. An Africa Report article in December of last year identifies the origin of the conflict to a realignment of political forces within the governing party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which culminated in the purging of the TPLF—and ultimate dissolution of the EPRDF—by the current prime minister, who then replaced it with the Prosperity Party.

The author of the Africa Report article points out that the extension of Abiy’s term, implicit in his decision to postpone elections, provoked a constitutional crisis since there is nothing in it that articulated what is to be done when a term ends and requires extension. The national parliament requested clarification from another agency of parliament, the House of Federation, which voted to extend the term of office. By granting the House this power combined with the outcome of its vote, the parliament provoked vociferous opposition in Tigray. The Tigray regional government created its own regional Electoral Board, declared the federal government illegitimate, and held elections anyway.

The Africa Report article points out that although the decision might be controversial, the House has a constitutionally granted power to interpret the Constitution and even to remove the leadership of a state government. However, it should also be noted that the state government of Tigray and its TPLF leaders did agree to negotiate, but not directly with the federal government. It wanted multi-party talks. Abiy rejected this out of concern that he would be ganged up on and even ousted from power, although some reports claim that it was the TPLF who refused to negotiate with a willing Abiy. At any rate, any attempt by the federal government to intervene in Tigray risked provoking a response by its militia, which was estimated to be 250,000 strong.

The unresolved nationalities question in Ethiopia

The national question in Ethiopia is a long-standing one that has stubbornly persisted to this day. Part of the problem lies with the current Constitution’s solution to Ethiopia’s national question, which failed to create a framework for equality among nationalities despite its original intent to create a more equitable arrangement than existed under both the Emperor and the military regime that followed.

It is an ironic twist of fate that the TPLF have become victims of a system of their own creation. After all, it was the TPLF and Prime Minister Zenawi who were responsible for drafting the 1994 Constitution that created the federalist system, which was intended to be an alternative to the centralized state model that had prevailed under Emperor Selassie and the Derg (literally means “council” and references the so-called “Marxist” and pro-Soviet military government that reigned from 1974 until 1991). The Constitution established a federation of nine ethnic states and two federally administered city-states, which includes the capital. The Constitution also bases key rights—to land, government jobs, political representation in local and federal bodies—on ethnicity rather than Ethiopian nationality.

In a New York Times editorial in 2019, a Columbia University academic, Mahmood Mamdani, asserted that the ethnic federalism outlined in the 1994 Constitution actually produced a power struggle among the three main ethnic groups: Tigray, Amhara & Oromo. Although smaller than the other two, the Tigrayan TPLF, which was the dominant party in the EPRDF, has been accused of violating the constitutional rights of the other ethnic groups.

Mamdani pointed out that at the time of the Constitution’s implementation, many believed that the TPLF had divided Ethiopia into ethnic states in order to dissolve ethnic identity by creating many minority ethnic groups that could then be forged into a nation. In practice, however, the federalist constitutional system established an “ethno-territorial federalism” that, he argues, was similar to the Soviet Union. Under this system a permanent majority, in this case the three main ethnic groups, ruled at the expense of smaller permanent minorities that were excluded from power and, thus, felt alienated by the system. Thus, the creation of ethnic states within Ethiopia under a federalist constitution presented a problem from the beginning, as the TPLF scheme failed to create an Ethiopia based on any substantive notion of equality among its many nationalities.

By 2015, the constitutional arrangement was openly showing signs of unraveling. In that year, the EPRDF government ordered the expansion of the territory of the federally administered capital of Addis Ababa at the expense of Oromo lands. The government’s land grab sparked protests among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, which was later joined by the Amhara, both of whom demanded land reform, equal rights and political representation.

Writing on the TPLF for The Guardian in an article of late last year, Jason Burke characterized the failures of the TPLF as emanating from a repressive security apparatus that aroused the discontent of Ethiopia’s coalition parties, whose respective bases of support were drawn from Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, the Amhara and the Oromo. He points out that shortly after Abiy’s appointment in 2018, the new prime minister swiftly removed TPLF officials from key security and military posts, among which many were arrested on corruption charges.

Abiy has since begun to capitalize on mistrust among ethnic groups, particularly summering resentment from among the Amhara, to garner support for his assault on Tigray.

Returning to Asayehgn Desta’s editorial from Tigrai Online, he argues that Abiy has been leveling charges against the TPLF for exploiting ethnic divisions among the various nationalities to disenfranchise the Amhara. He believes that Abiy’s ultimate aim is to wipe out the TPLF, dismantle the economic and cultural infrastructure in Tigray, ruin its agriculture to cause famine, and seize areas of its territory for inclusion in the Amhara homeland (specifically Welkatie, Humara, Tsegade, and Raya).

These are serious charges, but evidence from myriad sources appears to affirm that the entire region of Tigray is being treated as the enemy of Ethiopia’s other nationalities. Al Jazeera reported in an article of March 31 that a land grab is being waged against Tigrayans by Amhara militias on the basis of repatriating lands taken by the TPLF from the Amhara during their time in power. These land grabs are fueling much of the internal displacement in Tigray and the exodus of tens of thousands from Ethiopia into Sudan. The Amhara militias deny that they are carrying out any expulsions of the Tigray from their lands, and Ethiopia’s government too denies any intent to stoke ethnic violence.

Somalia is taking advantage of the chaotic situation in Ethiopia to violate its border and seize land from the Afar region. A report from Al Jazeera estimates that 100 civilians from Afar have been killed and quotes Ahmed Humed, the deputy police commissioner for the Afar region, as blaming the violence on Somali security forces—which predated Abiy’s invasion of Tigray but has intensified during the course of the intervention.

Whatever legal cover Abiy’s government uses to support its assault on the people of Tigray, anyone who respects human life and fundamental democratic rights, such as the right of nations to self-determination, must demand the immediate and complete withdrawal of all Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces from Tigray soil! Tigray for the Tigrayans! This demand is fundamental to any solution in the near term for what is happening in Tigray. After that, it becomes more complicated to foresee a solution to Ethiopia’s complex nationalities question.

Looking back to the future on the national question

In November 1969, Wallelign Mekonnen dropped a literary bomb on the radical student milieu in Addis Ababa, when the journal, Struggle, published his essay, “On the question of nationalities in Ethiopia.” The gist of his argument was that the Ethiopia of his time was not a nation but rather a patchwork of disparate nationalities and that an Ethiopian nation must be built on a foundation in which the right of self-determination, in other words, the right to succeed, was respected. The specter of Mekonnen’s thesis haunts Ethiopia today as it faces the unraveling of the state in the face of an unresolved nationalities question.

Central to Mekonnen’s thesis then was that the various nationalities that comprised Ethiopia had no basis for forming a Ethiopian nation on what he termed “fake nationalism”—a concept grounded in the domination of the Amhara or perhaps Amhara and Tigray culture. His conception of a “genuine national-state” in Ethiopia was one where each nationality “is given equal opportunity to preserve and develop its language, its music and its history… it is a state where no nation dominates another nation be it economically or culturally.” The current “Balkanization” of Ethiopia reflects the failure of Mekonnen’s prognosis from coming to fruition as the tragic events now unfolding illustrate.

One criticism Mekonnen articulated in his essay and that foreshadowed the situation today is that social movements motivated by nationalism, in order to avoid the dead end of reactionary nationalism, must be rooted in a mass movement of workers and peasants, who take up a socialist and internationalist program—in other words, who seek ultimately to unite oppressed nationalities under a democratic and socialist federation that respects the right of all nationalities to self-determination. The program of the TPLF as adopted by its Second Congress in 1983 recognized both the right of nationalities to self-determination and proclaimed the aim of constructing a planned economy based on the nationalization of land and major industries under state control and with direct participation of the workers and peasants.

The current situation in Ethiopia exemplifies the consequences of the nation-building project that Ethiopia’s revolutionaries like Mekonnen and, later the TPLF, attempted but ultimately failed to realize. It is apparent that in spite of the attempts by the TPLF in the 1994 Constitution to solve the national question, the framework that document created, including its provisions allowing for Ethiopia’s states to secede, fell short of creating a strong federation of peoples based on a national economy that did not marginalize any national group or prevent the development of economic ties with one another to the benefit of all. Consequently, Tigray’s plight is not merely a result of constitutional flaws but it is also a question of how Ethiopia’s economic development fits into the global economy, and its international division of labor, that developed rapidly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The TPLF sought to develop Ethiopia’s productive forces based on a national-socialist model that was incapable of escaping the contradictions that invariably emerged in the context of globalization and the neoliberal economic model that has enveloped the developing world.

The TPLF’s industrialization policy provides a case in point. Once the TPLF gained power through the EPRDF coalition, the EPRDF’s economic policy from 1991 to 2005, known as the Agriculture Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) expressed the goal of elevating the incomes of subsistence farmers, thus increasing demand for basic commodities, which in turn would spur industrialization, including goods that would benefit agricultural productivity. According to the academic Rene Lefort, there were several problems that the ADLI encountered: (1) Industry remained level at about 13% of GDP in that period; (2) as monopoly land owner, the state remained dependent on rent collection from the poor farmers, which which did not result in improving the productive forces in agriculture, and instead led to more corruption and a lack of transparency and accountability, and ultimately undermined the democracy the EPRDF sought to promote.

By 2005—largely due to the success of two opposition parties in the elections of that year, which produced significant losses for the EPRDF—Lefort argues that in order to to prevent defections to opposition parties, EPRDF policy shifted in the direction of introducing market reforms in agriculture, which benefited the rural elite at the expense of the poor farmers. The new policy also opened the rent of public—i.e., state-owned—lands to foreign capital, although the EPRDF preserved state control over nationalized industries. This scheme shifted substantially in the direction of pro-market reforms once Abiy was appointed as prime minister, at which point parties representing the Oromo ethnic group, along with the Amhara, led him to abandon the EPRDF entirely and openly embrace a neoliberal development model and reassert Oromo and especially Amhara dominance over Ethiopia’s minority ethnic groups.

Although the TPLF waged a heroic struggle against the Derg, supported Eritrean independence, and implemented a fairly successful program for Ethiopia’s development, the EPRDF government ultimately failed to industrialize Ethiopia and facilitate the growth of its industrial working class. Ethiopia also lacked the presence of a vanguard party equipped with a revolutionary and internationalist program that could forge a class-conscious proletariat capable of uniting and leading the poor peasantry and oppressed nationalities toward socialist revolution. While the TPLF was certainly in the vanguard of Ethiopia’s struggle against the brutal Derg regime and whose program was grounded in the interests of the poor peasantry and oppressed nationalities, ultimately the EPRDF that governed the country was a popular front coalition, whose program for socialism never exceeded the limitations of its national-socialist economic model and reliance on the political parties and the state, not the workers and peasants, to advance the socialist revolution.

Today, the TPLF struggles for its survival, and the survival of all Tigrayans, through armed resistance to Abiy’s government. Socialists everywhere should support their struggle and demand that Ethopian forces and their auxiliaries leave the region immediately! We must also recognize that the struggle of the Tigrayans is the struggle of all oppressed nationalities in the region and elsewhere in Africa, and only through a socialist federation of nationalities throughout the Horn of Africa and beyond can the national question find its ultimate solution.

Photo: Refugees from Tigray.

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