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Making sense of the Tigray war
Credible research puts the Tigray conflict’s death toll—from violence and famine—at 500,000, a number that eclipses the death toll from the war in Ukraine by many multiples. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported recently that conflict and violence displaced more than 5.1 million people within Ethiopia in 2021, triple the number reported in 2020 and the highest figure ever recorded for any country in any given year. (The previous record was 3.5 million in Syria in 2013.) If newspaper column inches were assigned in proportion to human suffering, Ethiopia would be all you ever read about. But like most of Africa, the conflict receives little news coverage.
Every year, the Norwegian Refugee Council analyzes crises that have caused more than 200,000 people to be displaced from their homes, then publishes a list of the world’s ten most neglected displacement crises. This year, for the first time, all ten of the most neglected crises were on the African continent. As they write, “Most international media outlets rarely cover these countries beyond ad hoc reporting on new outbreaks of violence or disease.” Many African countries, they add, “are deemed to be of limited geopolitical interest.”
News editors may think African countries of limited geopolitical interest, but this doesn’t mean they’re right to think so. Even if you have no human fellow-feeling at all toward the 1,402,186,072 people—median age 19.7—who live on the African continent, you would be forced to concede on reflection that their fate is of considerable geopolitical significance.
But human fellow-feeling is grounds sufficient to be curious about what’s causing these conflicts and how they might be resolved. That they occupy so little space in the print and broadcast media is less a function of our indifference as it is a symptom of the larger crisis in journalism.
The point of the Cosmopolitan Globalist is to rectify these gaps in foreign news coverage. I’ve been unhappy with the paucity of our coverage of Africa for some time, not least because, by virtue of demography, Africa’s story will within this century be the heart of the human story.
But before asking people in Africa to write for us, I wanted to learn more about the stories we’ll be asking them to cover. I have no expertise in any African country or aspect of African politics. I’ve never even taken a solid survey course in comparative African politics or African history, and I have no more than a vague sense of its drama from the emergence of hominids to the present.
So I’ve spent the past week trying to learn more about the large contours of recent African history and its major conflicts and travails. You may be in the same position as I am. If you are, learn with me: Over the coming days, I’ll share some of the reading I’ve been doing in the hope of becoming a better editor. It’s helped me to make more sense of recent items I’ve seen in the news. I hope it helps you, too.
You’ll receive Global Eyes as usual later today or first thing tomorrow.
🇪🇹 Ethiopia and the Tigray War
The other day, I asked for help understanding this conflict on Twitter:
I received dozens upon dozens of responses from Ethiopians and Tigrayans in Ethiopia and the diaspora. Everyone who wrote deplored Western media coverage of the conflict as absent, above all—but when present, simplistic and poorly informed.
And everyone denounced everyone else as a terrorist apologist, a génocidaire, or a vile propagandist to whom I shouldn’t for a moment listen.
In my experience, when people tell you this sort of thing, one side—and only one—is right. It’s not that everyone is telling the truth or some plausible version of the truth. One side is lying. Crimes, generally, have a perpetrator and a victim. The perpetrator, generally, pretends to be the victim.
So experience tells me that yes, some of the people who wrote to me must indeed be terrorist apologists, génocidaires, or vile propagandists. And I’d be doing a grave disservice to their victims by giving them an opportunity to apologize for their crimes, or the crimes of the regime or the group they support, in the pages of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
Furthermore—again, going by my experience—yes, it’s possible the dominant media narrative about Tigray is largely wrong. It happens quite often. I wrote this article about my experience of this in Turkey. During the decade I lived there, more or less the whole Western media, along with countless prominent think tanks and politicians, was just wrong:
The West’s collective assessment of Turkey throughout that time, displayed in official diplomatic statements, the mainstream press, and just as often in the specialized media, was notably weird and notably wrong. It was either the cause or the consequence of an exceptionally poor understanding of Turkey by Western publics and their policymakers. It resulted in the crafting of policies toward Turkey that were neither in Turkey’s interests nor the West’s, and helped, at least to some extent, to usher in the disaster before us today.
So when Ethiopians tell me that the foreign media—to the extent it covers Ethiopia at all—gets everything wrong, I’m open to the possibility. I don’t dismiss it out of hand. I’ve seen that phenomenon at work.
The problem is that I don’t have the ability, sitting here in Paris, to adjudicate. I can’t possibly know who’s telling the truth. There’s a real risk that an uninformed outsider like me will be convinced by the wrong people and wind up giving succor to genocide apologists.
So in posting the links below, I offer a caveat. I’ve chosen what seem to me reputable outlets and voices. But I just don’t know that they are, for sure.
To all of the Ethiopians and Tigrayans who wrote to me, I’m so sorry if I’ve misunderstood and given a voice to people who don’t deserve it. One thing I discerned plainly was the howl of pain that question elicited. I understand full well the emotion you were conveying to me.
Perhaps one day I can visit and find out for myself exactly what the truth is. Until then, I can only say that I know that this is important, and I’m doing my best to understand it.
Among the people who repied to me were Meron Gebreananaye and Saba Mah’derom. Meron is a P.hD. student at the University of Durham and an editor and contributor to Tghat Media. Saba is a Master’s student based in the US and a member of the board of Women of Tigray. They sent me this introduction to the conflict, along with many links to reports from NGOs and journalists, which I’ve interleaved. I thank them both.
The Tigray War is the world’s deadliest—
But what is it?
By Meron Gebreananaye and Saba Mah’derom
With an estimated 500,000 casualties due to fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe triggered by an ongoing blockade, the Tigray War has been described as the deadliest war in the world today.
This brutal toll has been characterized by grave war crimes and crimes against humanity, including scores of massacres, weaponized sexual violence, starvation, and ethnic cleansing.
Despite the considerable documentation of the brutal toll of the Tigray War by international human rights organizations, there is, however, very little awareness of this ongoing conflict across the world.
WHERE AND WHEN
Tigray is in the north of Ethiopia and is one of the ten self-administering states that constitute the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
The Tigray War began on November 4, 2020, when allied forces from Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea launched an attack against the regional government of Tigray.
WHO AND WHAT
In the nineteen months since the start of the war, a diverse set of actors have been involved.
The Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been directly responsible not only for launching the attack but for inviting other domestic and foreign actors to ally with it in fighting:
Ethiopian forces have been credibly accused of war crimes including massacres and unprecedented atrocities such as burning Tigrayan civilians alive:
The Ethiopian government has also imposed a draconian siege and humanitarian blockade that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths from starvation and the total collapse of the health care system in Tigray:
The exact toll of the conflict remains unknown because of the regime’s media and communications blackout. To maintain this blackout, the Ethiopian government has unleashed a campaign against members of the press and humanitarian workers. State-led disinformation campaigns have also involved dangerous hate rhetoric fueling and justifying ethnic persecution:
The Eritrean government, led by President Isaias Afewerki, has been an equal partner with the Ethiopian regime and continues to occupy parts of Tigray:
Eritrean involvement in the Tigray War is continuation of hostilities extending at least back to the Ethio-Eritrean war:
Eritrean dictator Afewerki is also renowned for kindling instability in the region and for maintaining despotic one-man rule at home:
Eritrean forces have committed some of the worst documented atrocities in Tigray with dozens of recorded massacres, sexual violence on an industrial scale, looting and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Kunama and Irob minority communities brought to the edge of extinction:
The Amhara regional government, Amhara militia, and vigilante groups (such as Fano) joined the war in Tigray to annex territories. These forces have perpetrated brutal and large-scale ethnic cleansing in western Tigray aimed at erasing Tigrayan identity in the occupied part of Tigray. As noted in a recent comprehensive investigation by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Amhara forces have “systematically expelled several hundred thousand Tigrayan civilians from their homes using threats, unlawful killings, sexual violence, mass arbitrary detention, pillage, forcible transfer, and the denial of humanitarian assistance.”
Open source investigations have revealed that China, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have supplied Ethiopia with high-tech weaponry including armed unmanned aerial vehicles:
This support has been facilitated by military air bridges. Drone attacks targeting heavily populated cities have had a devastating impact on civilians, killing scores of children, women and men:
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front is the ruling party in Tigray. Founded in the 1970s—very much in the ideological Marxist era, when millions of young people across the world were seeking revolutionary change—the TPLF was instrumental in the armed struggle that brought down the brutal military junta that had led Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.
Subsequently, the TPLF became an influential part of the political coalition—the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front—that ruled Ethiopia for more than two decades. The government of Prime Minister Abiy has expressed the intent to eliminate leaders and members of the TPLF who have been designated enemies of the state. The term has been used to target Tigrayans across the country.
Tigray Defense Forces represent the armed resistance to the invasion of Tigray in 2020. Led by seasoned military commanders from the previous struggle against the military junta, it is primarily made up of young men and women who took up arms in the face of the devastation wreaked on their homeland by the combined forces of two sovereign states.
Despite an asymmetrical fight, the TDF liberated large parts of Tigray after only months of occupation. Following excursions by the TDF last year into the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions to break the ongoing siege and humanitarian blockade, members of the TDF have been accused of committing atrocities:
WHY AND HOW
The Tigray War was presaged by almost two years of rising tensions between the federal and regional authorities following the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy as the leader of the The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, in April 2018. His appointment followed long negotiations. All parties in the coalition, including the TPLF, expressed the desire for reforms in the face of widespread protests against the ruling party in large parts of the country.
Abiy Ahmed was welcomed with enthusiasm and he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his decision to pursue a rapprochement with Eritrea:
This initial euphoria, however, soon faded as it became obvious that the new leader was intent on consolidating power at the expense of regional autonomy and by eliminating political opponents. His shadowy deal with the Eritrean dictator was also revealed to be a war pact against Tigray:
GLOBAL RESPONSE AND WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW
The glaring disparity of the international response to the war in Ukraine and other conflicts, including the Tigray War, has attracted some attention:
Thus far, there has been no concerted effort to ensure that the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes adhere to the most basic humanitarian and human rights laws in Tigray. The United Nations Security Council has met many times to discuss the issue but has been unable to deploy mechanisms to counteract the weaponization of starvation (Resolution 2417) and sexual violence (1820) in conflict.
In March 2022, the Ethiopian regime, with the agreement of Tigrayan authorities, declared a humanitarian truce:
But the government continues with its established practices designed to frustrate unfettered access to the region, and it has yet to resume essential services including banking, telecommunications, and transport:
Efforts to draw awareness for the humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray are at this time being led by members of the global Tigrayan diaspora who have organized to advocate for Tigray. These grassroots efforts have included marches, petitions, and fundraising for humanitarian relief and are led by community organizers with diverse backgrounds.
Teklehaymanot Weldemichel—Tekle for short—was also kind enough to write to me. He’s a postdoctoral fellow in geography at the University of Trondheim. His entire family is in Tigray. He’s the author of Inventing hell: how the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes produced famine in Tigray:
It has been a year since a devastating war broke out in the Tigray region, Northern Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan civilians are killed, millions internally displaced and tens of thousands have fled to seek refuge in neighboring Sudan. An alarming development linked to this war is the manmade famine in Tigray that now threatens the lives of the millions of civilians who survived the horrific atrocities during the war. This piece is an attempt to explain why millions of Tigrayans from all walks of life face famine and concludes that famine was from the start an end goal of the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes and they employed different tactics to ensure that it unfolds the way it does now. Among others, the tactics include (1) the systematic looting and destruction of Tigray’s basic economic infrastructures, (2) implementation of different financial measures to deprive people in the region of access to cash, and imposition of a complete siege that hindered access to supplies including lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
Here’s his brief introduction to the conflict:
He also sent me these articles:
🎧 And these podcasts and videos:
I also received many messages like this one:
I hope you are receiving credible sources for the question you bravely ask for. The reason am not using my real name is because, I live in Addis Ababa and I have been incarcerated twice so far the genocidal war in Tigray only due to who I am for nearly six months. My name is xxxxxxxxxxxx —that, you must only keep it to yourself until the situation settles. I had a settled life, like many Tigrayans before the war, but now even we are in a deep agony: We just can’t help risking our lives to reveal the truth. I even learnt only last week my beloved father passed away due to lack of medicine in Tigray. Many have received such a horrific news about their beloved ones. Ask any thing, I will do my best to deliver. Thank you for your time and dedication. Sincerely yours!
Behind every single number in those unfathomable statistics—500,000 killed, nine million in a state of humanitarian crisis—there is a real person suffering real agony. I’ll call this man “Tom.”
Now that you’ve read this, here’s all the recent reporting I could find:
🎥 Journalist Lucy Kassa says she has witnessed the worst of humanity: “I have never imagined that this kind of torture and evil were possible.”
Ethiopia called for tighter controls on aid shipments to the country’s war-stricken Tigray region as it accused aid agencies of delivering banned equipment that could be used by rebels and more fuel than is currently allowed.
On a visit June 4 to the northwestern Afar region, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen said the trucks are carrying equipment which is being transferred to the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Mitiku Kassa Gutile, commissioner for the Ethiopia Disaster Risk management agency, told VOA, “The drivers of the commercial fleet are taking and allowed supply such as extra fuel with barrels, satellite phones and other materials.”
Officials in Tigray state accused Eritrean forces of provoking fresh military attack over the weekend. Commenting on the statement, Ethiopia’s federal government first said it was not aware of the reports by authorities in Tigray, but accused Tigrayan forces of provoking the attack.
While Ukraine grabs the headlines, Ethiopia is in the midst of a civil war that has brought famine and economic crisis in its wake. As public anger grows, the conflict may be heading towards a bloody conclusion. …
The number of Ethiopians who have paid the ultimate price for miscalculations by the TPLF and Abiy governments may already number in the hundreds of thousands. Yet unless the coming conflagration can be averted, that cost will continue to grow. External parties face three broad options. …
The ongoing cycle of violence in western Oromia is driven by a central historical and ideological faultline in Ethiopian politics, one that pits a combination of Ethiopian and Amhara nationalisms against Oromo nationalism.
Abiy has used imperial nostalgia to legitimize his rule and centralize power. High-ranking officials have venerated the old days. The effigies and statues of Menelik II and Haile Selassie were symbolically erected in the imperial palace.
There is, of course, no easy way out, but the federal government can take some productive measures as a starting point. It could repeal the designation of the TPLF and OLA as terrorist organisations. It could end the blockade of services to Tigray. It could release political prisoners and declare a ceasefire in Oromia, as it has done in Tigray. It could also address concerns over the impartiality and inclusivity of the national dialogue to build trust in the process. This would show willingness to listen and an openness to meaningful talks. For their part, rebel movements could express good faith by publicly recognising the legitimacy of Abiy’s government.
The United States, the European Union, and regional powers should also call for credible independent investigations into the abuses in Western Tigray. The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, and the Commission of Inquiry established by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should make it a priority to document human rights abuses in Western Tigray and press for credible justice and redress for serious crimes. As the veil lifts on the atrocities in Western Tigray, the Ethiopian government and international bodies need to stop the abuses and put an end to impunity. At stake is the survival of thousands of detained Tigrayans and hundreds of thousands more who either live in fear or have fled their homes and live under near-siege conditions.
Once a key ally of Ethiopia’s federal government in its deadly war in the country’s northern Tigray region, the neighboring Amhara region is now experiencing government-led mass arrests and disappearances of activists, journalists and other perceived critics.
More than 4,500 people have been arrested in the Amhara region as of May 23, according to officials, but some activists say the real figure could be much higher. They accuse Ethiopia’s government of targeting ethnic Amhara people it considers a threat to its authority as it tries to move on from the Tigray crisis.
Fifteen African civil society organisations have warned that the ongoing war in Ethiopia could equal the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, unless the United Nations immediately puts the conflict on its agenda.
Like the Jews, Tigrayans are dehumanized as worthless burdens and set up as targets of resentment as corrupt and elite at the same time. Regardless of the facts on the ground that point against it, Tigrayans have been portrayed as pagans worse than the devil itself. Social media campaigns, especially on Facebook, called Tigrayans rapists, murderous, thieves, bastards of history, cancers, burdens, settlers, weeds, and beggars. …
The war in Ukraine will shape freedom’s future not only in Ukraine itself but also perhaps in Russia and Eastern Europe. The fight in Tigray will do the same not only in Ethiopia but also in the broader Horn of Africa. It is time Tigrayans receive the same support, including high-profile visits, weaponry, and humanitarian assistance, that Ukrainians do. That the West effectively ignores a slaughter on a scale greater than in Ukraine should cause introspection in every Western capital.
War in Europe is startling to Western audiences, and it carries with it echoes of World War II and Nazi Germany, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the words “never again.” Tigray, meanwhile, is a foreign and unfamiliar land where discerning who the bad guys are can be difficult. Too often for US and European readers, the reaction to conflict in Africa or the Middle East is for many to shrug and say, “Isn’t that region always at war anyway?”
Initially, I thought, maybe it’s because they don’t know. So, I kept posting on the massacres, on the rape, on the hunger. On everything. But I got nothing. I could see they were okay to post about other things but not the children of Tigray who were starving.
Ayder Referral Hospital, the largest and only operating hospital in Ethiopia's war-ravaged Tigray region, said it was forced to suspend providing services over shortages of medical supplies. Speaking to BBC-Amharic, Dr Kibrom Gebresilase, the hospital’s technical director, said the health facility is unable to provide services due to power outages, lack of medicines and fuel shortages.
The region’s heritage sites have been deliberately targeted. To appreciate the weight of these attacks, the role and influence of the church in Ethiopia needs to be understood. Therefore, the bombing and destruction of churches, as well as other religious sites, strikes at traditional power structures. These sites are cherished, multi-functional gathering places and sacred spaces. Looting and attacking them is a grave dishonouring of cultural values.
A report from the Tigray Orthodox Church Diocese three months into the war in February 2021 found 326 members of the priesthood had been killed. There is no clear data on how many members of the clergy have been killed since then. While at least 40 churches and monasteries have had a general assessment of damages, my analysis finds hundreds of such sites have been affected by the war.
Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu told the BBC he had no information about the alleged fighting, but denied that Eritrean forces were capable of carrying out the attack. He told the BBC that the Eritrean army could not carry out the attack and that it could be a case of “TPLF harassing itself.” (In Amharic.)
If you have questions about Ethiopia, Meron Gebreananaye, Saba Mah’derom, Teklehaymanot Weldemichel, and many more Ethiopians have graciously offered to answer them. Send them to me. As soon as I figure out which guests don’t hate each other so much that having them on the same podcast would be a terrible idea, I’ll ask them to join us.
In fact, would there be any interest among our readers in having a live Q&A session with these and other Ethiopian journalists, activists, and academics? I could organize that, too. Let me know.
A final thought. The Washington Post is one of the few remaining US newspapers with foreign correspondents. Here’s where those correspondents are posted:
Rachel Chason was just named The Washington Post’s West Africa bureau chief:
We’re delighted to announce that Rachel Chason will become West Africa bureau chief. She will be one of two Post reporters responsible for covering most of Africa, the world’s fastest-growing continent.
In her nearly five years at The Post, Rachel has epitomized the kind of versatility, determination and drive that animate the very best foreign correspondents. She has excelled in covering the politics of Prince George’s County, Md., with stories that have connected with much broader audiences. Her commitment to holding power to account drove an eye-opening run of pandemic coverage that prompted lawmakers to increase inspections at nursing homes. She writes with depth, nuance and humanity—qualities that make her stories sparkle.
In her new role, Rachel will be based in Dakar, Senegal, with broad responsibilities that will include coverage of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. She will report across a variety of subjects, including the impact of climate change, challenges to democracy, and threats posed by violent extremism as Islamist groups continue to gain traction in countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Rachel joined The Post as a summer intern in 2017 after previous internships at the Raleigh News and Observer, CNN Politics and USA Today. She is a graduate of Duke University, with a BA in political science; she speaks intermediate French. She will move to Senegal in early summer after devoting some time to additional language study and otherwise preparing for her new assignment.
I’ll let that speak for itself.
🇨🇩 Next: Notes on DR Congo and M23.
This is the only source I have for Chinese involvement. I’m not sure whether this is good evidence for it: As noted below, the UAE’s Chinese-made drones have been seen there, too—Claire.