The civil war brewing in Ethiopia escalated dangerously on Sunday when the insurgent Tigray region fired rockets across the border at the airport in Asmara, the capital of neighboring Eritrea.
The most prominent member of the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) since 2017, has so far been silent about the conflict. At press time, Tedros has not made any public statements about the situation in Ethiopia, even though he is the most internationally recognizable TPLF official and was one of its top leaders, having served as Ethiopia’s foreign minister while representing the party.
The Tigray are a minority in Ethiopia — one of about eighty distinct ethnic groups — that comprises roughly six percent of the national population of 110 million but wields outsized political influence over the entire Ethiopian federation, thanks in part to the leadership role played by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in overthrowing Ethiopia’s communist military dictatorship in 1991. The TPLF itself has Marxist roots and has been monitored for terrorist activity, both before and after the long rebellion against Ethiopia’s dictatorship.
The first Ethiopian leader after the fall of the dictatorship, President and later Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was a Tigray. He died in office in 2012, facing some unrest over his protracted term in office and suspicions of fraud in his re-election campaigns.
The current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, hails from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, which is home to the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. He has a resume as a fighter during the long war against Ethiopia’s military dictatorship and served in the Ethiopian National Defense Forces after the dictatorship fell.
Abiy was elected prime minister in 2018 on a platform of political and economic reforms and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to end the longstanding border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
Abiy’s reform program brought him into conflict with the TPLF, as he displaced several Tigray officials from positions of power and launched corruption and human rights investigations against them. The human rights complaints stemmed largely from the abuse of prisoners by Tigray officials, including allegations of rape and torture.
Many Tigray felt Abiy was conducting a political purge disguised as an anti-corruption crusade and accused him of disproportionately blaming Ethiopia’s abundant human rights issues on Tigray officials. The TPLF was unhappy with Abiy’s resolution of the border conflict with Eritrea, accusing Abiy of teaming up with the Eritreans to subdue Tigray, which comprises about half of the border territory between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Eritreans, for their part, return Tigray’s animosity.
TPLF President Debretsion Gebremichael charged in November 2018 that the “pretext of corruption and human rights are being used to attack Tigrayans,” and darkly insinuated there was a “foreign involvement in the process.”
Abiy supporters responded that since the Tigray have such oversized influence on Ethiopia’s federal government, it was inevitable that Abiy’s reforms would affect them more than any other group. Abiy also wants to remodel Ethiopia to have a stronger central government, a plan that would inevitably reduce the influence wielded by the Tigray region.
As in so many other quarters of the globe, the Wuhan coronavirus played a role in Ethiopia’s mounting political crisis. Ethiopia’s 2020 national and regional elections were originally scheduled for August 29 but postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic. Tigray politicians denounced the order as another scheme by Abiy to extend his power and reduce theirs. The Tigray region defied Abiy’s orders and held its own elections in early September, claiming turnout of over 97 percent by “jubilant and peaceful” residents eager to protect their independence and autonomy.
Abiy denounced the election as illegal and compared Tigray politicians to illegal squatters who take over land by living in crude shanty dwellings. This was not taken well by the Tigray, who said Abiy was the one ruling illegally because he refused to allow timely elections. Opposition politicians in the Tigray region said local security forces harassed them and the TPLF pressured them to drop out of the election.
On November 4, tensions between Abiy and the Tigray erupted into violence. Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking and occupying a federal military base. The TPLF claimed many of the troops at the base voluntarily defected to join the Tigray cause.
The national government cut off power and communications to the Tigray region and launched a military offensive that continues to the present day. The Ethiopian parliament voted to designate the TPLF as a terrorist organization, stripping it of all political legitimacy. Abiy’s officials denounced the TPLF as a “criminal junta.” The National Bank of Ethiopia shut down all of its branches in Tigray to protect depositors from “robbery by the armed group, Tigray People’s Liberation Front.” Tigrayans living in other parts of the country, especially the capital, are complaining of harassment and ethnic discrimination by the police.
Abiy’s operation against Tigray, involving both airstrikes and ground forces, has resulted in hundreds of casualties and displaced at least 20,000 refugees into Sudan. Government military commanders claim to have “liberated” several key cities from the TPLF and taken thousands of prisoners — claims which are difficult for outside observers to verify because the government cut off communications into the region at the beginning of the conflict.
Outside observers fear the conflict could tear Ethiopia apart and spread to other countries, a concern highlighted by the weekend’s Tigray rocket attacks against Eritrea’s capital. Uganda is attempting to intervene as a mediator, but so far the Abiy administration has refused to negotiate with the “terrorist” TPLF, insisting the situation can only be resolved with military force.
The TPLF is one of those political entities that has a militant or terrorist “wing” plus a mainstream political front office, like Hezbollah in Lebanon; it seized a hefty inventory of weapons from the federal military base it took over two weeks ago; and many Ethiopian military officers are ethnic Tigrayans who are either reluctant to fight the TPLF or willing to defect. The TPLF is therefore capable of putting up a stiff resistance. Some analysts believe almost half of Ethiopia’s military strength is controlled by the TPLF, setting the stage for a protracted civil war.
TPLF President Debretsion on Sunday accused Abiy of “treason” by attacking Tigray with help from Eritrea, an allegation the Eritrean government denies.
The U.S. State Department responded by condemning the TPLF for attacking Eritrea and denounced their “efforts to internationalize the conflict” by calling for the United Nations and African Union to get involved on their behalf.
Ethiopia is no stranger to vicious ethnic conflicts and this one has been marked by allegations of human rights abuses on both sides. Amnesty International reported last week that “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death” in the Tigray town of Mai-Kadra on November 9 in a massacre of civilian day laborers by forces loyal to the TPLF. Survivors of the massacre rescued by federal troops say they were attacked with “machetes, axes, and knives.”
Gebremichael on Sunday defended attacking Eritrea’s airport, as well as airports in Ethiopia, by claiming the TPLF is fighting against “16 divisions” of invading Eritrean troops plus Abiy’s federal forces.
“As long as troops are here fighting, we will take any legitimate military target and we will fire,” Gebremichael said, suggesting the TPLF has missiles that can hit the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa and is prepared to use them.
All of this makes the silence by the most internationally prominent member of the TPLF notable. When the Ethiopian parliament declared the TPLF a terrorist organization and stripped its officials of their immunity from prosecution on November 12, exceptions were made for two members of parliament: Roman Gebresilassie, who recently resigned as head of the national construction council, and Tedros, whose seat in the Ethiopian House of People’s Representatives has been kept open ever since he became director-general of the World Health Organization.
Tedro’s membership in the TPLF became an issue after he and W.H.O. were accused of spreading Chinese misinformation on the Wuhan coronavirus. His critics accused him of covering up at least three cholera outbreaks as an Ethiopian official.
Tedros was born in Asmara, the capital city of what is now Eritrea, but he was raised in the Tigray region and joined the TPLF before the 1991 overthrow of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. In a May 2020 profile of Tedros, the BBC noted that his rise to prominence in Ethiopia was thanks in part to him being “more approachable and friendly than some of his more austere TPLF comrades.”
Some Ethiopians who support Abiy or distrust the TPLF do not have fond memories of Tedros’ tenure in various government offices.
“Tigrayans, who’re six million in a nation of 110 million population, were so self-absorbed during their rule in Ethiopia that their then-Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — who’s now the Director-General of the World Health Organization — dared to brazenly ask Somali officials in a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to remove the five-pointed star of unity from their national flag,” Ethiopia’s Tesfa News editorialized last week.
Tesfa News wholeheartedly supported Abiy’s “push to eliminate TPLF criminals” and predicted the downfall of the organization would both “restore sanity and sobriety in Ethiopia” and stabilize the entire region.
An unsuccessful petition at Change.org to halt Tedros’ appointment as W.H.O. director-general cited not only the often-mentioned cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia, but also corruption and human rights abuses by the Ethiopian government during the period when Tedros was among the highest-ranking members of the TPLF.
A lengthy broadside against Tedro’s appointment written by the Amhara Professionals Union of Ethiopia made similar points in greater detail, linking the prospective WHO director to human rights abuses, misallocation of funds, and ethnic discrimination perpetrated by the TPLF and the larger Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition it belongs to.
The Amhara are another of Ethiopia’s many ethnic subgroups. In 2010, Human Rights Watch accused the EPRDF and its TPLF leaders of withholding humanitarian aid from the Amhara to repress them politically.
The W.H.O. director certainly has a lot on his plate at the moment, and he has made efforts to separate himself from Ethiopian politics, but he clearly still has a presence in the country, complete with what appears to be an honorary seat in the legislature. The political organization he has belonged to for most of his adult life just fired rockets across the Eritrean border at the international airport in the city he was born in.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s admirers are dismayed that the Nobel Peace Prize winner would launch a major military offensive against part of his own country. Admirers of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus might hope he could put in a few words to help de-escalate the conflict before it spreads beyond Ethiopia, and perhaps even beyond Eritrea.