by Frank Arango, Seattle Workers’ Voice
In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched full-scale war on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which governed Ethiopia’s Tigray regional state. He claimed this was a mere police operation against terrorists, and lied that no troops from the neighboring country of Eritrea were involved. And he shut down all communications with the region, and banned journalists. But since then the truth has increasingly come out: Thousands of soldiers on both sides have been killed. Large numbers of civilians have been killed. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its allies—principally, the Amhara regional state militia and the Eritrean Defense Force—have attacked the Tigrayan people as a whole by looting farms, factories and hospitals, burning crops and food supplies, and raping women. Forces associated with the TPLF have also been accused of atrocities. The results are that some 60,000 Tigrayans fled to Sudan as refugees during the initial stage of the war, and more than two million Ethiopians are now internally displaced, large numbers of them Tigrayans. Furthermore, Abiy has used mass starvation as an instrument of war, which has left some 900,000 Tigrayans haunted by famine.
Abiy was the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner for formally ending the war with Eritrea, but since launching this new war on Tigray he has rejected all calls for a ceasefire, peace talks, dialogue or reconciliation that have repeatedly been raised by anti-war Ethiopians, foreign governments, the UN and the TPLF. He has called on every able-bodied Ethiopian to join the ENDF. He has ordered the governments of other Ethiopian regional states to send their militia forces to fight the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF, military arm of the TPLF). He has shopped on the international market for more drones and other weapons. And he has now declared a state of emergency that strips Ethiopian citizens of all rights, especially if they’re Tigrayan. Indeed, from the beginning of the war Tigrayans living elsewhere in Ethiopia have been subjected to chauvinist arrests, firings and even murder. But last August, Abiy gave an explicit call for vigilantism: “Every Ethiopian must work closely with the security forces in being the eyes and ears of the country in order to track down and expose spies and agents of the terrorist TPLF.”
Since last November’s declaration of the state of emergency, with vigilante involvement, many thousands of Tigrayans are being hauled off to undisclosed locations and concentration camps simply because of their nationality. This is Hitlerism.
How has small Tigray stood up to the Ethiopian-Eritrean-Amhara alliance?
Tigray has a population of only 5-to-6 million people out of Ethiopia’s 115 million. It is largely sandwiched between Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia. (1) The central government has all the advantages in terms of jet bombers, drones, heavy armor and the ability to resupply its armed forces. Yet while the TPLF’s armed forces had to retreat to the mountains more than a year ago, by early summer they had retaken most of Tigray from the ENDF, Amhara militias and invading Eritrean troops. Then, knowing that it was suicide to hole up in Tigray while sandwiched between two regular armies, they carried an offensive into the regions of Afar and Amhara, and even threatened the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in November 2021. How could this be?
* The TDF has many experienced commanders and troops who were either purged from the ENDF after Abiy was appointed prime minister or who defected at the beginning of the war. (One source says that Tigrayans previously made up about 18% of the whole Ethiopian army, and about 36% of the officer corps.) This weakened the ENDF and strengthened the Tigrayan side.
* Knowing that war was imminent, in early November 2020, the Tigrayan Special Forces launched a preemptive raid on the ENDF’s huge Northern Command facilities in Tigray. In this raid, they seized a large stockpile of weaponry and captured around 1,000 soldiers, including officers. This weakened what was supposed to be the vanguard of the ENDF in the coming war, while strengthening the Tigrayan side in terms of weapons.
* After retreating to the mountains from the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, the TPLF reorganized its military forces into the broader TDF, and the Tigrayan youth flocked to join it by the thousands. With the mass atrocities being committed against their people, they saw no other viable way to resist. Thus, on the Tigrayan side this rapidly became a popular war despite whatever previous views the participants had about the TPLF.
On the other side, the young soldiers pressed into the ENDF are fighting for an unjust cause, and Abiy’s propaganda about fighting against “terrorists,” a “cancer,” and people bent on “destroying Ethiopia” is not convincing to many of them. So along with battlefield defeats, this has resulted in the ENDF becoming a demoralized army, with thousands of young soldiers surrendering to the TDF and others deserting.
* The TDF and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) formalized a military alliance in August, and by November seven other national liberation fronts and armies joined them to form a United Front of Ethiopian Federalist & Confederalist Forces with the aim of removing Abiy. Most of the armies in this front are small, but their activities force the ENDF and allied regional special forces to spread their already thin forces.
Yet for all this, in December the TDF was stymied in its offensive toward Addis Ababa, where armed drones that Abiy has purchased from the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Turkey played a significant role in the fighting. So the TDF has now withdrawn back to Tigray intact, and Tigrayan president Debretsion Gebremichael sent a letter to the UN Security Council demanding United Nations intervention on Dec. 19. But this hasn’t stopped Abiy’s war crimes. For example, close to 50 Tigrayan civilians were slaughtered in armed drone attacks on a market and a public transport bus the day after delivery of Debretsion’s letter.
The Ethiopian empire and the national question
The origin of the above-mentioned liberation fronts and regional armies lies in the reality that modern Ethiopia is the product of an expansionist feudal empire centered in the north and led by Amhara emperors. Most notoriously, Emperor Menelik II led the brutal conquest of the peoples to the south and east in the late 19th century. Probably well over 100,000 people were massacred, and atrocities were widespread—captive women had their breasts cut off, men and boys had their right hand cut off. Although they resisted, the masses of these subject peoples were eventually turned into serfs and often sold into slavery. Emperor Haile Selassie continued this expansionism in the second half of the 20th century by annexing Eritrea and waging all-out war to crush the Eritrean liberation movement.
As well, the fascist military junta, the Derg, that stole the fruits of the 1974 democratic uprising that toppled Haile Selassie and feudalism, continued the Amhara chauvinists’ war to dominate Eritrea and continued the chauvinist oppression of Ethiopia’s 80 other nationalities and peoples.
Moreover, under the slogan “Ethiopia First,” the Derg in effect continued the old centralized imperial system with Amhara domination of politics, but it disguised this with Marxist-Leninist phrases. (2) And as we shall see below, with a different phraseology the TPLF during its own period in power would continue a modified form of this unitary system, while Abiy is fighting to return to it.
Prime Minister Abiy knows this ugly history, but he covers it up with talk about returning Ethiopia “to its former national glory.” In fact, he originates from an Oromian political party, with the 35 million Oromos constituting the largest oppressed nationality in the country, as well as being the largest nationality in the country. (3) Nonetheless, Abiy has erected statues of the feudal butchers Menelik II and Haile Selassie in the Imperial Grand Palace–which he has renamed Unity Park. And if that weren’t enough, like a true megalomaniac, Abiy blurted out a story about his mother predicting that he would grow up to be the Seventh King of Ethiopia at his inauguration. During the current war, Abiy’s main domestic supporters, the Amhara regional leaders, have organized a Menelik Brigade that has slaughtered Oromo and other civilians as well as ethnically “cleansed” areas in western Tigray.
The federal vs unitary state systems
The unitary state system of the feudal monarchs and Derg was formally ended after the TPLF, smaller Ethiopian allies, and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front overthrew the Derg in 1991. In its place the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) set up a federation of regional states based on their nationality and language, with each having a great deal of autonomy, including over their security forces. What is more, the constitution promulgated by the EPRDF stated that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” (Article 39)
But the TPLF often didn’t live up to these democratic words written on paper. For example, while standing for the right to secede, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had also fought the Derg, had popular support, and it was part of the new post-Derg government. But the TPLF leaders maneuvered to undermine its influence, and in 1992 the OLF withdrew from the government citing “harassment and assassinations of its members.” The TPLF/EPRDF then arrested many thousands of OLF members and fighters, killed perhaps thousands more in raids on troop camps, and banned the organization. During this period the TPLF-dominated EPRDF also violently suppressed and banned the Ogaden National Liberation Front in the Somali region. Another example was the TPLF/EPRDF’s 2014 dictatorial master plan for the expansion of Addis Ababa onto Oromo farmland. When mass protests broke out against this, the government answered by declaring a state of emergency, unleashing its security forces to kill 669 people (officially), detain 25,000 more, and shut down the internet.
Despite all this, the situation of Ethiopia’s oppressed nationalities and peoples under the TPLF-dominated EPRDF was better than before. Furthermore, the crimes it committed against the people were not caused by the federal system, but in violation of its promises. For example, the old Amhara domination was reduced, but besides the TPLF, an Amhara party was one of only three other regional parties in the EPRDF. And, as already mentioned, the TPLF packed the key instrument of the state–the military-intelligence apparatus–with loyal Tigrayans. The root reason why the TPLF violated its democratic words was that—just like the Derg and the monarchy but now in the name of federalism—it too was following unitarist practices. This is why various members or supporters of today’s wartime federalist united front publicly declare that they’re fighting for a real federalism, not the “federalism” practiced by the TPLF for 27 years.
Today, Prime Minister Abiy and the section of the ruling class (4) behind him—especially the revanchist Amhara leaders—are at war against the democratic right to self-determination and federalism. Certainly, there are many Ethiopians of mixed heritage, people living in fairly integrated cities and working in integrated workplaces, and others who look at themselves as simply being Ethiopian, and who might prefer a unitary state system. But imposing such a system by force will only result in interminable conflicts and oppression. Instead, whether to join into such a system has to democratically decided by the majority of each nationality.
Both the TPLF and Abiy and his Prosperity Party are anti-democratic
After years of rule by the Derg’s military dictatorship, large numbers of Ethiopians welcomed the TPLF and its allies 1991 victory. But democratic rights and peace were not to be, as the TPLF/EPRDF gradually turned Ethiopia into a virtual police state over the next 27 years. From 1998 to 2000 they told mountains of lies in order to justify sending scores of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers to die in a war to roll back Eritrean independence. An important turning point concerning democratic rights was the 2005 national election, in which the EPRDF allowed the freest debate ever, and which its opponents claimed it lost. After announcing that it had won, the EPRDF went on a campaign of killing some 200 opposition leaders and demonstrators on the streets. By years end it had arrested some 90,000 protesters and others. Then came the 2014 protests mentioned above, which spread from Oromia into the Amhara region—where hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets, with many of them not only denouncing TPLF/EPRDF repression and corruption, but also raising solidarity slogans like “the pouring of blood in Oromia is our blood” and “the killings of our brothers in Oromia needs to stop.”
By 2018 this protest movement had forced a split in the EPRDF, with the TPLF’s previously subordinate partners rebelling by appointing Abiy—a former lieutenant-colonel in military intelligence and then a politician in one of the four EPRDF parties, the Oromo Democratic Party—as prime minister.
Abiy was charged to lead a transition to democracy, and during his first year in office he released thousands of political prisoners, lifted restrictions on the independent media, and invited once-banned opposition groups back into the country from exile. He was popular among the masses as a result. But by early 2020 Abiy’s government began arresting thousands of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) members and closing their offices, as well as arresting journalists who were held for weeks without charges. Unexplained political assassinations also increased, including the slaying of popular Oromo protest singer Hachalu Hundessa in June. And when the latter sparked weeks of protests by Oromian and other youths, the Abiy authorities killed at least 166 people, jailed thousands, and cut off internet and phone lines.
Additionally, in July 2020, the Abiy government stepped up arrests of members and leaders of the OFC and OLF, the largest opposition parties in the country outside Tigray. This included OLF leaders who Abiy had previously let return to the country, and who had been welcomed by rallies of 100,000 or more people. These leaders remain in prison.
Elections? Originally scheduled for September 2020, Abiy postponed them, ostensibly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tigray held its own regional elections that month in defiance of the postponement. The war broke out two months later.
Abiy finally held Ethiopia’s general election on June 21, 2021, and it was a sham: the OLF and OFC boycotted because their leaders were imprisoned and their offices often forcibly closed; other parties joined the boycot; the people of Tigray were not allowed to vote; there were many “irregularities.” And, naturally, Abiy went farther with his attacks on civil liberties after he launched the war on Tigray. An instructive one of these is that in December his judicial lackeys issued international arrest warrants for eight Ethiopian academics living abroad for writing or speaking against the war, which was twisted into “using a variety of media outlets to destroy the country.” Four of these people were Oromos, and one of them, Awol Allo, had even co-nominated Abiy for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize!
Thus, with mass arrests, arrests of political leaders, and murders, Abiy was already waging low-level warfare against the Oromo people before attacking Tigray. This war has now been stepped up with murders-by-drone of civilians accused of helping the Oromo Liberation Army. Overall, in three years Abiy and his Prosperity Party have probably committed as many crimes against the Ethiopian people as the TPLF/EPRDF did in twenty-seven years, and Abiy is not done.
Thus, only the struggles of the peoples of all nationalities will bring democracy to Ethiopia. This struggle is made doubly difficult by the fact that 80-to-85% of Ethiopians are small farmers living on the land, and who like peasants everywhere often tend to see what goes on in their locale as being the only important thing. Nevertheless they share many common interests. Among them are that it is their sons and daughters who are being killed and maimed in Abiy’s reactionary war, and it is they who are being squeezed to pay for it, while nothing is seriously being done to mitigate the effects of climate change (droughts, floods, soil erosion) that they constantly face.
A victory by the federalist forces would seem to provide the best conditions for the democratic masses to organize in. One reason is that the Ethiopian people have suffered through TPLF-dominated rule before, and they would be en garde against renewed anti-democratic measures. Another is that since the TDF couldn’t control and pacify the entire country all at once, there would be an opening for independent organizing. Adding to pressure on the TPLF to not go back to its old ways are various statements from its allies in the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist & Confederalist Forces. The most important of these is an OLA leader’s denunciation of the atrocities committed against the Oromo people during the TPLF’s time in power, and his warning that Ethiopia could collapse as a state if the TPLF again committed such “mistakes.” (5)
There were Ethiopians who rightly opposed invading Tigray, and more joined them to call for Abiy to end his aggression once it was started. But Abiy has only recognized the power of the gun. Thus, the protracted fight against the forced unity of the Ethiopian nationalities and peoples that has gone on from the times of the feudal emperors must continue. Forced unity is the path to interminable wars. The various nationalities must have the right to democratically decide for themselves whether to be in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government must have respect for the rights of the nationalities, be a real federal system, and also protect the rights of people of all nationalities wherever they live in Ethiopia—because people of the various nationalities often live in different regions, or in one of the chartered cities. Otherwise, Ethiopia will either divide or, at least, be consumed in continual conflict.
Meanwhile, led by Tigrayans and Oromos, there have been many demonstrations in the United States and around the world under slogans like “Stop the genocide in Tigray,” and demanding that humanitarian aid convoys be let through. Common to all these protests is the determined slogan ABIY MUST GO! The workers and democratic masses of all countries should support this standpoint, and the protracted struggle of the Ethiopian nationalities and peoples for a democratic future.
(1) See map.
(2) After first seizing power, the junior military officers leading the Derg sought to continue Haile Selassie’s close relations with Washington, but they fairly soon opted for close relations with the Soviet Union instead. Moreover, in making this Cold War switch of sides they suddenly declared themselves to be Marxist-Leninists at a time when Marxism-Leninism was very popular among the democratic masses who had risen against Haile Selassie. So while the Derg’s “Marxism-Leninism” was fraudulent (revisionist), this had the effect of splitting the revolutionary democratic movement between those who didn’t see its fraudulence and those who did. Furthermore, the Derg’s revisionism was proven by more than its continuation of the war to crush the anti-colonial uprising of the Eritrean people. Most dramatic domestically was its “red terror” campaign in which it murdered over 100,000 people—perhaps hundreds of thousands, no one really knows. In this terror the Derg slandered its victims as “anarchists,” but they were really the best of a revolutionary generation the likes of which Ethiopia has yet to see again. Among them were many thousands of members and supporters of the then revolutionary Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party, who the Derg had singled out because of their organizing abilities and because they exposed revisionism.
(3) Ethiopian regional states with their 2017 populations:
35,467,000 – Oromia
21,135,000 – Amhara
15,970,000 – Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples
5,749,000 – Somali
5,247,000 – Tigray
3,200,000 – Sidama
1,812,000 – Afar
1,066,000 – Benishangul-Gumuz
436,000 – Gambela
246,000 – Harar
There are also two autonomous Chartered Cities that have representation in the Federal Parliamentary Assembly:
3,434,000 Addis Ababa
466,000 Dire Dawa
(4) Ethiopia obviously has a capitalist class, but in contrast to the monopoly capitalists of the United States and other industrially developed countries, it is small, often divided by nationality, and its control the government and state appears weak. Thus, the Ethiopian bourgeoisie seems to be mainly a ruling class that keeps basing itself in sheer administration over Ethiopia, on domination of the state.
(5) Cara Anna, “Ethiopia: Major Oromo Group Strikes Alliance with TPLF,” Aug. 12, 2021, AP via SomTribune.
This text first appeared Jan. 3 in Detroit/Seattle Workers’ Voice.
Photo of Oromo fighters via Twitter
From our Daily Report:
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Reprinted by CounterVortex, Jan. 7, 2022