Selected Analysis

Tigray: One thing the warring parties and outside powers must unite on

by Eskinder Nega, African Arguments

Ethiopia’s internal war has multiple facets which warrant the attention of the international community, but none more so than the looming threat of famine. Already, millions are or soon will be vulnerable to man-made famine of epic proportion, warns the UN.

For the record, this is war was triggered by the TPLF, which runs the regional government of Tigray, when it fired the first shots and launched a bloody attack  on federal army units and seized more than two third’s of the nation’s armaments. The Ethiopian government could do no other but fight back.

If not for the intervention of the Eritrean army at the behest of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who did all he could to avoid war as a Nobel Laureate, the Ethiopian government would have collapsed. While the right of sovereign countries to invite foreign armies in to their territory is not disputed by international law or precedent, whether legal procedures were adhered to in the Ethiopian context remains to be resolved.

In the eleven months which have elapsed since the start of the war, relentless tales of murder, gang rape and wanton destruction of property by all belligerents in Tigray and the two regions where the war has spread to, Amhara and Afar, have been confirmed by independent investigation.

Much to the consternation of the international community, however, not a single party has acknowledged the findings and acceded to a transparent process of accountability. Rather, all sides have opted to peddle theories of conspiracies.

It is in this milieu that the Chinese and Russians have sided with the Ethiopian government, more as great powers rivals of the US rather than for any deep felt convictions, and most of the West with the rebellious TPLF, partly because famine and serious human rights issues, partly as a leverage against Ethiopia in the bitter dispute over the Nile with Egypt. None of the actors in this saga, be they international or Ethiopian, could reasonably claim the moral upper hand.

In terms of religion, history, culture, language, if not race, the Horn of Africa tilts more to the Middle East, albeit as a periphery, than to sub-Saharan Africa. For the thousand years before the late 19th century, Arabs and Ottomans lorded over the region through control of all key ports in the region.

The breakaway of Eritrea from Ethiopia in the early-1990s, an outcome which would not have been possible without Middle Eastern backing, has signalled the return of these traditional powers to the region. The Horn now hosts six Middle Eastern military bases, including that of Turkey. These powers now pose the greatest threat of entrenching the conflict.

The TPLF, the ousted-cum-returned ruling party in Tigray, has no chance of attaining its goals through the force of arms. In fact, it has over-stretched itself already and is risking another round of collapse. Far more gravely, if famine breaks out in the midst of war, it will share the blame even in the eyes of its own people. The sooner the fighting stops the better for it .

The federal army, for its part, can indeed overrun Tigray, capture all its cities, towns and most rural areas, but will still not be able to stamp out a remnant of an insurgency entirely. Like the Taliban, that remnant will most probably grow into a formidable fighting force. The TPLF army has competent commanders and a solid base of stalwart supporters in and outside its region. The sooner the federal government acquiesces to this reality the better.

To be fair, the government has declared a unilateral ceasefire, signalling its desire to negotiate. The failure of the TPLF to give peace a chance by reciprocating is one of its gravest political errors. Famine-prone Ethiopia can ill-afford a war, but the region of Tigray more so than others. This should have been reason enough to stop fighting.

In the event that the fighting does not stop in the coming months, what chance there is to deliver food to those in dire need before it’s too late lies with the international community. This can not be done by the West alone; the cooperation of China and Russia is a necessity which can not be circumscribed.

Great powers rivalry is not an anomaly of our age. It has been a fixture of history since antiquity. But neither in past nor present times has that rivalry precluded cooperation when the need is a humanitarian imperative. Children under the age of five account for more than two-thirds of deaths in a famine. There could be no greater moral cause this year than saving those innocent lives. To this end, the international community, great and small powers alike, can and should unite.

African Arguments
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