WILL TIGRAY BE ETHIOPIA’S TIPPING POINT?

Ethiopia

By Donnelly McCleland

Forces fighting Ethiopia’s military in the Tigray region laid out eight conditions on Friday [19 February] for beginning peace talks, including the appointment of an international mediator and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered airstrikes and a ground offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the former ruling party in the northern region – after regional forces attacked federal army bases in the region on 4 November 2020. Mr Abiy declared victory less than a month later after the TPLF withdrew from the regional capital, Mekelle, and major towns, but low-level fighting continues. Some senior TPLF members remain at large, though the federal government has captured or killed a number of former officials. (Reuters)

Conflicting reports and propaganda

It is important to understand that the world does not have a complete picture of the situation in Tigray. There are a variety of reasons for this: conflicting reports, a communication blackout, and people with radical views — some of them within the diaspora — who want to influence the mood of the country. Propaganda from both sides has proliferated traditional and social media. Verified information out of Tigray has been in short supply, though first-hand accounts are beginning to trickle out.

The Ethiopian government has been consistently blamed for the communication blackout across Tigray, but government spokespeople have also stated that they have been working tirelessly to restore communication links in the region. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael is no stranger to guerrilla warfare or the importance of communication – in the 70s he abandoned his engineering studies to join the TPLF fighting the brutal communist Derg regime under Mengistu Haile. He headed up a covert bush radio station using portable broadcasting equipment and is quoted (in The Politics of Technology in Africa) as saying: “Communication was central to the struggle: it was the essence of the struggle for us.” His technology skills were also important in eavesdropping on the communications of the Ethiopian troops and jamming their radio signals. Later, as technology and communications minister and chair of the state telecoms monopoly Ethio Telecom, he pushed through massive technology and infrastructure projects, expanding telecommunications coverage across the country.

In contrast to Gebremichael’s experience and exposure, Mr Abiy is a relative novice and some commentators have pointed out that the rampant negative media coverage and rapid deterioration of his image in international circles (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019 and ‘pariah’ in 2020) is an indication of his inexperience and lack of diplomatic ‘credit’ to ride the current storm. Three vastly different INcontext contacts from three countries all confirmed, independently of each other, that the pervasive mainstream media coverage of the Tigray conflict and Mr Abiy’s response has been heavily biased against him, and that internally he has far more support for his actions than has been portrayed in international media coverage.

Regional dynamics and concerns

Michelle Gavin, in an article for DW, summarises Ethiopia’s highly strategic role in the Horn of Africa: “Ethiopia has long been a provider of security in the region, helping to stabilise Somalia and South Sudan and offering important diplomatic support during Sudan’s transition. Already, a border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan has flared up and threatens to escalate, while Sudan continues to teeter uncertainly between the military and civilian elements of its transitional government. Meanwhile, Somalia is in the midst of a constitutional crisis that could undo hard-won gains. The future of both these states will be affected by Ethiopia’s stability and by the example of Eritrea’s ability to flout international law with impunity.”

Numerous sources have raised concern over northern neighbour Eritrea’s role in the Tigray conflict – despite denials from both Eritrea and Ethiopia – many eyewitness accounts are emerging of the presence of Eritrean soldiers and possible atrocities having been perpetrated. Around 100,000 Eritrean refugees who fled oppression and persecution in their country have been living in UN-run camps in Tigray and have subsequently been caught up in the conflict. Eritrea has been at odds with Tigray for decades, and some see the current conflict in the region as an opportunity to enact retribution for past grievances.

Upcoming elections

Ethiopia’s upcoming elections (re-scheduled from August 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic) on 5 June will be a crucial opportunity and possible ‘tipping point’ for the nation.  Annette Weber of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) confirms this: “I believe that the government must now make big offers — not necessarily to the TPLF, but to the population. Offers that show that their interest in elections and in participation are taken seriously.” Gavin speculates: “If Ethiopia fails to consolidate a new political arrangement that accommodates its diverse population of 110 million and ensures basic measures of security and justice, it could be riven by further conflict that prompts a massive and destabilising refugee crisis. An important voice for African interests on the global stage would be lost, and external actors who view the strategically important region as a venue for proxy conflict would be empowered.” Ethiopia is in a critical period.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

The Tigray region in northern Ethiopia is home to some of the oldest church buildings and communities in the world. There have been accounts of war atrocities perpetrated by both sides in the conflict. Communities have been traumatised and displaced. The needs are great. In the ancient city of Axum, where the church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is believed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to host the original Ark of the Covenant, there have been numerous reports of a possible massacre of hundreds of believers who were said to have been protecting the property. For weeks, rumours circulated that something ghastly had occurred in late November 2020, but with the communication blackout, little could be verified. An Associated Press article on 18 February, however, quotes various first-hand testimonies to the massacre. It has been claimed that Eritrean soldiers were responsible, but the Eritrean government subsequently rejected the story as “outrageous lies”. Whatever transpired on that day in Axum and in the three months of conflict across Tigray, there is no escaping the desperate need for healing and restoration. The Ethiopian Church has a huge part to play.

Networks of Christians across Ethiopia are already responding. One church leader expressed his heartache at the conflict but stressed that Mr Abiy (a devout Christian) had little choice in the matter and that he generally has the support of believers. He went on to explain that many Christians and specifically church leaders have access to areas and are not hindered by the government from aiding those in need, particularly if they endeavour to remain neutral.

Edward Brown, national director of World Vision Ethiopia, which has a large presence across the nation explained (in Christianity Today): “In Ethiopian, covenant (kalkidan) is a compound word meaning ‘promised word,’ based on the biblical, relational understanding: ‘I will be Your God and you will be my people.’ There has to be a covenant to keep Ethiopia together. That is much deeper than a negotiation or contract agreement that says, ‘You do this, and I’ll do that.’ A covenant is a mutual commitment to relationship with one another.” Another anonymous Christian expatriate in Tigray concluded: “God’s at work [in Tigray], but it’s going to take a Church that can rise above all this. That’s our prayer for the Church in this time: How are they going to be the body of Christ there, in the midst of such volatile political and ethnic tensions?”

Please pray with us:

  • For a peaceful and just resolution to the Tigray conflict
  • For Ethiopia to maintain its stabilising role in the region
  • For Christians to go beyond ethnicity and political division to be ambassadors of reconciliation and restoration in this critical time

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Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

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