One of the several under-represented conflicts in the world of today is the so-called Tigray War, a conflict plaguing the East African country of Ethiopia. According to official statistics, thousands of people have died and over 2.5 million have been displaced by the conflict.
The war, which started in November 2020, has since spiralled out of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia towards the neighbouring provinces of Amhara and Afar. Reports of ethnic violence, war crimes and massacres have been carried by the international media. Despite some attempts by Western pundits and news conglomerates to frame the conflict much in the same way as they have been doing with the war in Syria, generally speaking the issue has remained out of the public eye in the imperial core. However, this does not mean that there are no imperialist interests at play in the conflict that has befallen the ancient Abyssinian realm.
Ethiopia is the second most populous country on the African continent, ranking below Nigeria with a total population of over 117 million according to latest estimates. It was one of the only two African countries to survive the onslaught of European colonialism in the 19th century (the other being US-backed Liberia), inflicting a major defeat on an Italian invasion in the 1896 Battle of Adwa. The battle catapulted Ethiopia to the forefront of African anticolonial sentiment worldwide, with the colours of its banner becoming the inspiration for many newly independent African nations’ flags following the 1960s decolonisation wave.
The modern and well-developed Empire of Ethiopia spoke to the imagination of millions. The awe inspired by the Ethiopian imperial family, which claims descendancy from the Prophet Solomon himself, even indirectly caused the establishment of the religious movement of rastafarianism as far away as Jamaica. Ethiopia was one of the founding members of the United Nations, and a member of the international community in full standing long before the European colonists finally left the African continent.
Ethiopia also deserves an honourable mention in any history of the Abrahamic faiths, as it is one of the world’s earliest Christian realms with a history dating back to the year 324 CE. The historical kingdom of Aksum was furthermore the first nation that welcomed the followers of Islam during the Migration to Abyssinia of the year 613 CE, laying the foundations for the present-day over 33% of the population being Muslim. And of course, Ethiopia is the homeland of the so-called Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews whose origins are still subject to debate amongst rabbinical and scholarly circles alike.
However, in recent decades the country has been plagued by poverty, inequality and the looming threat of internal conflict. In 1974, a Communist coup put an end to the monarchy and led to the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, but this proved to be only the beginning of a long period of civil war. Meanwhile, an earlier conflict between Ethiopia and the independence movement of Eritrea continued to cut a bloody swath through the region up until the separatist victory in 1991, turning Ethiopia into a landlocked country. Famines in 1984-1985 and 2003 took a further heavy toll of the population.
After the Communist military council known as the Derg took over power in the country in 1974, a series of regional opposition movements organised into armed rebel groups, the most notable of which was the so-called Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). While this umbrella organisation of anti-communist forces was made up of various militias and movements organised on ethnic basis, the leading one turned out to the the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After the rebel victory in 1991, Ethiopia was turned into a federal republic based on the principle of “ethnic federalism”, a term coined by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled the country from 1995 until his death in 2012.
For much of the next 30 years, Ethiopian politics was dominated by the TPLF, despite the Tigrayan ethnicity only making up just over 6% of the country’s population. Contested elections in both 2005 and 2009 cemented the power of the EPRDF coalition under Tigrayan domination, despite many reports of fraud, intimidation and irregularities during ballot counting. Massive protests in 2016, caused by the country’s huge wealth inequality and widespread poverty, were met with heavy-handed crackdowns in which hundreds were reportedly killed. Popular unrest continued however, leading to a state of emergency and resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018.
An internal power shuffle within the EPRDF followed, resulting in the appointment of Abiy Ahmed to the position of Prime Minister. Ahmed is ethnically Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and is also the first member of the ethnic majority to rise to the highest political position in the federal republic. Abiy Ahmed immediately started reversing long-term EPRDF policies, signing an official peace treaty with Eritrea and releasing thousands of political prisoners.
The new government repealed some of the strict anti-terrorism laws in the country, condemning them as draconian. Even the West was forced to recognise Abiy Ahmed’s contributions to peace in the region, which resulted in him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
As part of his new policy of international outreach, the Abiy Ahmed government concluded an agreement with the autonomous region of Somaliland in Somalia, giving Ethiopia 19% stake in the port of Berbera, as well as with the Republic of Djibouti for a similar arrangement in their capital city. Likewise, Addis Ababa made a deal with Sudan for joint ownership of the Port Sudan harbour and an Ethiopian logistics port at the Kenyan city of Lamu. The Kenyan deal came as part of the reboot of an ambitious joint highway, railway and oil pipeline infrastructure project known as the Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) which was originally conceived in 1975.
The sudden surge of Ethiopian sea access and rapprochement between Addis Ababa and neighbouring countries, and especially the infrastructure projects along with it, are similar to the Belt and Road Initiative planned and carried out by Beijing and Moscow. And like in Asia, the development of an alternative and domestic economic power aside from the hegemonic ones were always likely to raise eyebrows in Europe and North America. Although the prime minister himself has a political past embedded within the EPRDF, and was perhaps even originally chosen as a compromise candidate within the ruling coalition, the Abiy Ahmed administration seemingly has an agenda for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as a whole that can be considered revolutionary.
The supporters of the Addis Ababa government make no secret of their Pan-African sympathies, and the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) openly espouses Pan-African ideals when reporting on the new path Ethiopia is taking. Protests against US and European interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs have also seen portraits of Kwameh Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba held up high. Abiy Ahmed himself has made his position on African unity clear through his historic peace treaty with Eritrea and the various agreements with the wider East African region. Perhaps more notably, the premier has openly called for a permanent representation of the African continent in the United Nations Security Council.
In an article published by ENA, Professor Getachew Metaferia explained the leading role of Ethiopia as megaphone for Africa on the international scale as follows: “Despite its dark episode under terrorist TPLF, Ethiopia is still a pride of Africa for its successful resistance against imperialism and colonial domination. Its long and enduring history and rich African culture, whose national tapestry is also woven with the three Abrahamic religions, makes it one of the jewels of Africa. (...) Ethiopia predates most countries of the world and has a long history of nation building. It has triumphed over several internal and external threats to its sovereignty.”
The very concept of African unity, especially in a region bordering the Red Sea and the crucial Bab el-Mandeb Strait, is sure to have set alarm bells ringing in the halls of Washington and London. The narrow strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s most important economic corridors, with billions in merchandize passing through the waters aboard ships every year.
Yet, this region is also one of the poorest in the world, with often fractured nations, corrupt governments, ever looming threats of civil war and internal conflict always on the horizon. As long as nations such as Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia are bogged down bickering among themselves, or torn apart by civil strife, there is little chance for them to assert their natural right to reap the rewards of their geographical location. However, a strong government in a major country like Ethiopia, which could succeed in uniting the vast population across ethnic and religious boundaries, would be a whole other story altogether.
We have seen strategic interests in regards to the waterways take precedence already in Yemen, where the US and various European powers have been all too happy to close their eyes to the horrible human cost of the Saudi-led invasion. Anything to prevent an anti-imperialist government from demanding their fair share of the spoils. In Ethiopia, this situation is very similar, but with a different approach.
When imperialist powers look at the Global South and try to shape it to suit their ambitions, they generally pick one of two options: a strongman ruler or the strategy of chaos. We have seen strongman rulers, often military officers, in much of the West Asian and African regions over the past years. From Saddam Husain to Hosni Mubarak, the concept is simple yet deadly: a tyrannical leader who imposes the will of his backers upon his country’s population, often significantly enriching himself in the process. When such a ruler steps out of line, again Saddam Husain comes to mind, he can always be removed in the name of “humanitarian intervention” and replaced.
The strategy of chaos, on the other hand, is an indirect way of influencing and controlling the Global South. It’s a principle based on denying any truly independent power from rising up, taking control of natural resources and geographical benefits, and being able to defy the hegemonic powers on the international stage. For decades, much of Sub-Saharan Africa, but also West Asia, has been affected by this chaos strategy perpetrated by the Anglo-American empire as well as the French neocolonialists. Countries as diverse as Somalia and Afghanistan have been torn apart over and over again for precisely this reason.
Of course, certain combinations of both strategies are possible. A fusion of dictatorial power exercised by an autocrat whose sphere of influence is at the same time greatly limited by the imperialist powers, has been employed numerous times. Ethiopia itself, under TPLF Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was typified by cronyism favouring in particular the ethnic Tigrayan clique around Zenawi and harsh crackdowns on any form of dissent, and at the time by a near total collapse of Ethiopian influence in East Africa or even domestic self-sufficiency.
One of the most intriguing analyses on the ongoing influence of the TPLF in Ethiopian politics is that of Mohamed Hassan, former diplomat and member of the transitional government in the 1990s. In an interview with Breakthrough News, Hassan recounts a 1994 meeting with the National Security Advisor to the Bill Clinton regime, Anthony Lake, during which the advisor spoke on US policy of “anchor states” in Africa. According to Mohammed Hassan, the US plan was to establish firm footholds in the four corners of the African continent: Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt as the key to the north, Nigeria as the anchor state in West Africa, South Africa under the neoliberal rule of Thabo Mbeki in the south, and the TPLF-dominated new government of Ethiopia as the main entryway into the east and the Horn of Africa.
Taking all these matters into consideration, it was perhaps no surprise that the TPLF attempted to take back power they lost in 2018, especially when Abiy Ahmed reformed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front into a united political party that transcends ethnic boundaries. The Prosperity Party, as the new organisation was called, went on to win a landslide victory in the elections of June 21, 2021. The TPLF did not even await the election result before taking action, as it attacked Ethiopian military positions on November 3, 2020 and went on to seize the provincial capital of Mekelle until an Ethiopian counter-offensive drove them back.
It was definitely not counter to expectations when the United States already condemned the electoral process before it even started, and doubled down on this after the election. In typical American fashion, this was followed by an array of sanctions and accusations of human rights abuses. The US is reportedly even toying with the idea of officially terming the conflict a ‘Tigrayan genocide’, another often used term to justify intervention. On December 17, the United Nations Human Rights Council pushed in particular by its European members, passed a motion demanding an “international investigation mechanism” to be set up in Ethiopia, with 21 votes in favour, 15 against (including China and Russia) and 11 abstentions.
It is unclear what the future may hold for the Tigray War and Ethiopia in general. Large-scale protests by Ethiopians and Eritreans alike, including their diaspora in America and Europe, have gathered in support of Abiy Ahmed’s administration and in opposition to foreign meddling under the slogan “No More”. It remains to be seen if the anti-imperialist and anti-war movement will be sufficiently strong to ensure that the victors of Adwa will not again be subjected to imperialist attempts to subjugate them.