Op-Ed: The true picture of the war in Tigray

ERUPTING onto the global media scene at the beginning of November, the war in the Ethiopian region is unconventional but still recognisable as part of the country’s convoluted history, writes Alemu Misbah

Most of the media coverage of the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has been erroneous to the extent that it has added little new and in fact has been a distraction from the real issues. Much of what has been going on in that armed conflict is essentially different.

That is not to say that the events described have no relation to reality though, as was bound to happen in such a complex scenario. Many major errors of fact inevitably turn up; but the evidence is rather different and full of paradoxes. Attempts will be made to sequence the events explained as ironies.

Surely the greatest irony in a history full of ironies of the war is the role of the Nobel Committee. The Committee conned itself into conferring an honour on a military deal as a peace agreement. I doubt that all the advisers and researchers, supported by a network of diplomatic services, are unaware of the irony.

Undoubtedly, there has never been any semblance of peace and the land border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has remained closed. Or was the Committee working from a strange definition of peace?


The comic element in the Nobel Committee’s selection of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the prize was the so-called peace deal with Eritrea. Well, now Eritrea is not only heavily involved in a war in Tigray but practically leading it.

Now is not the time to dwell on the sizable number of Eritrean mechanised and infantry divisions roaming in Tigray but rather to muse over the extent of the systematic destruction of property. The associated reason for the Nobel Prize was the possibility that it would bolster regional peace. In actual terms it has led to an armed conflict with the potential of becoming a regional war. Indeed, the apex of the irony is that the peace deal and peace prize have turned out to be the direct causes of the war. They have only emboldened the warring camp to engage in widespread violence across many regions of Ethiopia.

It was no coincidence then when Abiy started his crackdown in Oromia upon his return from Oslo. There is no definite case of it ever happening at any time. But, as the crisis in the region points, it finally has occurred.


Another paradox is the fact that the immediate precursor of the violent conflict is the regional election in Tigray, challenging the postponement of the election at the Federal level. Abiy postponed the election and then threatened Tigray for holding its own election, as stipulated in the Constitution.

As such, the war is against constitutionalism and democracy. What can be established, and isn’t often enough pointed out, is that even holding elections can lead to war, probably the first of its kind. But that wasn’t even the real issue: the real issue, given the opposing trajectories of state building in Ethiopia, was which model of governance would be most effective in maintaining the federation of nations and nationalities.

The Tigray war is probably the first known case in which a leader of a big country allowed a small neighbour to invade and occupy one of its regions while toughening the tone of sovereignty and internal matters. Or is Abiy implying that his political opponents are more criminal than those coming from the outside to make war?


The main issue surrounding his position on the war is full of irony. But most ironic of all is Abiy’s statement that the war is an internal matter. How the country arrived at this position is a long story, full of ironies that other written sources, including a recent book on the 2018 deal between the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia, narrates with extraordinary objectivity and insight.

Ethiopia is a country where there is a Ministry of Peace mobilising donations for war.

It looks slightly foolish, but both the ministry and the Office of the President are occupied by women banging the war drums. Perhaps it only gains its full irony when the ministry pledges in discussions with UN envoys that it will allow humanitarian support but this never materialises.

What this means is that at the most they were not ready to back it, and at the least were merely being polite. The next day the officials of the ministry appear on all airwaves to continue the war effort, much too cheerfully.

AU’s role

Similarly, it is also a country where the African Union is based but its role and principles of peace-making are duly rejected. But what troubles many is the conduct and remarks by the Chairperson of the AU, Moussa Faki. Nobody familiar with the organisation (or merely with the practices of the Chairperson) should be puzzled by the phenomenon.

The statement of the Chairperson at the recent Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) meeting in Djibouti that the Ethiopian government was engaged in ‘law enforcement’ is neither imaginative nor moral. This might be the first law enforcement exercise, or Silencing the Guns in Africa 2020, focusing on showering civilians with armed drones, artillery and fighter bomb attacks.

This is also the only conflict in which a neighbouring state has been tolerated to conduct massive looting on an industrial scale. For the first time in the memory of most of us, the neighbouring country was allowed to move in to loot and raze entire buildings.

Without indulging in the theory of what a ‘looting state’ is and ought to be, this is unprecedented in Africa. What ranks close to this, is the act of pillaging when Uganda, under Idi Amin, invaded Tanzania. However, Amin was not invited to do that by the country’s leader.

Besides the Tigray case has been on an enormous in scale. That being the case, then Amin must be running a close second to Isaias Afwerki.

The way the Eritrean leader is acting is quite staggering to his contemporaries. And it is still breath taking even according to the worst standards of war. At the same time, the region is effectively sealed off from the outside world, another irony of a 21st century war, that is, happening in the midst of a communication frenzy of an interconnected world.

War booty

The international media can have a cursory view of what is happening even in North Korea. But the Ethiopian government has succeeded – clearly an amazing feat – to lock the people of a region into gated communities, policed by the military and waiting to die.

The Federal government is also transferring assets from TPLF-controlled companies (such as Trans Ethiopia and Sur Construction) to Addis Ababa as war booty. But for Abiy this is fine as it is within one country, at least legally.

Who will rebuild the destroyed buildings and infrastructure after the war or in the event of a lengthy brutal stalemate? The international community for its indifference or the attacking armies in the form of war reparations? This will definitely become a major point of contention in the near future.

War crimes

The Tigray war is also where one can find a government, which accuses its adversary of war crimes, deeply opposing calls for an independent investigation of those crimes, while refusing to investigate the cases of the thousands of people who continue to die due to the sustained escalation of the war. But it is odd that nothing about the current practices quite justifies that call for bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Will there be a willingness to forget after this level of brutality, another critical issue for the future of Ethiopia? This is the more so because the perpetrators don’t seem to feel embarrassed by leaving behind documentary traces of their crimes.

Orchestrated outcome

Then finally where in the world will one declare the war is over while large scale military conflict involving tens of thousands of combatants and modern armaments continues on all fronts? The full tragic irony of this claim flies in the face of the increasing escalation and full-time engagement of the warring parties.

Whatever the purpose of such a declaration, anyone who accepts this statement believes that a temporary cessation has taken place, and that is exactly the spirit in which the announcement has been made. It was, in fact, a carefully prearranged and orchestrated outcome.

No contemporary African leader has been more vociferous in telling the world the war is behind us while calling for massive remobilisation attended by the slogan ‘everything to the war front’ in the national media.

Irony of ironies, indeed.


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