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April 19, 2021
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Hawks and doves: The great divide over the war in Tigray

Pro- or anti-war, we should all agree that independent access to the conflict zone is a must.

On 3 November, a full-scale war broke out in Ethiopia between the federal government led by Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF-run Tigray regional government.

Addis Ababa declared victory three weeks into the conflict, but the Tigray People’s Liberation Front insists the fighting is ongoing. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure either way because of the lack of independent access to the war front.

Be that as it may, Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia are engaged in an escalating war of words, with social media being the key battleground.

Without delving into why the war started in the first place, we can identify the pro-war and anti-war camps, each having four variations.

Let’s start with the hawks.

The Vengeful

This camp seeks revenge against the TPLF for the human rights violations the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) committed. The EPRDF was a coalition of four parties, among which TPLF was one.

The other three are currently in power under a new name, the Prosperity Party (PP), also led by Prime Minister Abiy. During the 28 years EPRDF was at the helm, many crimes were committed, including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings.

The EPRDF apologised for these, and the vengeful camp forgave Abiy and his PP colleagues—but not TPLF, which was the strongest one in the EPRDF coalition.

The hawks, therefore, cheered for the war as a way of securing drone-justice against TPLF. In a shrewd move, Abiy and PP saw an opportunity to defeat their former friends who had become thorns in their sides.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who sent his troops into Tigray in support of Abiy, also has his own axe to grind with the TPLF after losing the Eritrean-Ethiopian war 20 years ago. He sees the current conflict as payback, a chance to humiliate and vanquish his arch-enemy.

The Irredentists

This camp consists of Amhara nationalists who wanted the war for restoration of territory in northern Ethiopia. They argue those territories were taken from them under duress and incorporated into Tigray region in the 1990s.

EPRDF’s failure to settle the longstanding territorial dispute made war the next option. Beating the drum for it began a while back. When it broke out, the Amhara police, special forces and militias swarmed Tigray. They occupied cities and towns, appointing mayors and administrators on the way.

The One-Ethiopianists

In this camp are the fervent hawks. They see the current multinational federation, which demarcated the country’s regions into nationalities’ blocks, as a danger to Ethiopia’s unity. They argue that the federal system, championed by the likes of the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is destabilizing. They say it has created ‘natives’ versus ‘settler’ tensions within regions, becoming the cause of inter-communal conflict.

For the One-Ethiopianists, removing TPLF will pave the way to discard the multinational federation and replace it with a system that espouses an Ethiopian identity rather than multination identities, which, in their view, don’t exist at all, or at least should be de-emphasized.

The Status Quo Adherents

This camp sees an armed TPLF as another threat just when they thought the country was embarking on a transition into some semblance of stability. For them, the tell-tale signs were there when the TPLF decided to defiantly hold the regional election in Tigray, while Abiy and PP postponed it because of the pandemic.

Tigray’s increased autonomy and TPLF’s strength were seen as signs of a looming conflict with the federal government and perpetual instability. Hence, they see war as a necessary evil to quell TPLF and maintain the status quo.

Let’s now turn to the doves, who also fall into four camps.

The TPLFites

This camp has in it members of the party and its sympathisers. The party members are fighting tooth and nail to win the war and save the TPLF as their own existence is at risk. The sympathisers also include those who enjoyed the patronage of the TPLF and the benefits that came with it. For others, the TPLF is a symbol of Tigrayan resurgence in Ethiopian polity—a liberation movement intertwined with the Tigrayan psyche.

Here, an essential factor is the estimated 60,000 martyrs who lost their lives and the many who got injured in the fight against the Derg. As the Tigrayans would like to say, at least one member in every Tigrayan household is a TPLF fighter.

The Woyanes

In this camp are Tigrayans who aren’t members of the TPLF. Their objection to the war comes from national pride. They see the war as an attack on the people of Tigray. An attempt to subdue them once again whenever they stand up for self-determination.

This has historical undertones to it. Haile Selassie quashed the Woyane movement in the 1940s using the UK Royal Air Force. Then came Mengistu Hailemariam and the Derg who fought hard to eliminate Tigrayan opposition between 1975 and 1991.

For the Woyanes, the recent war that Abiy and PP declared on TPLF, is, therefore, another such attempt to crush Tigrayans’ aspiration for self-rule. The evidence, they say, is that Abiy and PP are allowing Eritrean troops to kill, loot and destroy property; the recent shelling of the Al Nejashi Mosque is cited as just one example.

The Federalists

This camp sees TPLF as the critical ally and architect of the multinational federation. They include the Oromo and other nationalities who consider the current federal system as the sine qua non of self-rule at the regional level.

The anti-war federalists campaigned vigorously to stop the war. They fear, with TPLF out of the way, the One-Ethiopianist forces will have a field day to replace the federation with something else, potentially bringing back the centralized hegemony of the past.

The Pacifists

In this last camp belong the classic doves who believe war is unjustifiable to resolve political differences. They are worried about the humanitarian crises already afflicting civilians. They point to the refugee crisis where over 56,000 Tigrayans have crossed the border to Sudan, and to the 2.2 million people displaced internally and the 4.5 million in need of food assistance.

For the pacifists, no amount of political bickering, especially among former comrades, should result in a situation where civilians bear the brunt of the conflict.

Concern has also come from observers who warned about the spillover effect of the war on the entire region and the prospect of a refugee crisis that could have far-reaching consequences beyond Africa.

Wherever you find yourself in the above camps, you must agree that the ban on independent reporting from Tigray and the fettered humanitarian access are indefensible.

At the very least, this should unify all of us.

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Main photo: Dejena Hotel and Spa in Shire, which was damaged during the war; Stijn Vercruysse.

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