Ethiopia’s hidden war

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa CorrespondentWednesday 31 March 2021

The war in Ethiopia raged largely unnoticed for months due to an information blackout. As reports of atrocities emerge, Global Insight assesses the extent of the crisis.

Header pic: An Ethiopian boy, who fled the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, stands in Hamdayet village, Kassala, Sudan, 15 December 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

It has been several months since the war in Ethiopia began in Tigray in November with an attack by Tigrayan forces, which attracted swift and brutal attention from Ethiopia’s military. At the time, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed no civilians had been killed, which has since been proven to be extremely inaccurate.

Despite the continuing human catastrophe, little is being done to stem the deaths, massacres, hunger and depressing array of atrocities, including the use of rape as a weapon of war and the killing of boys and young men of military age.

Eritrean troops, Ethiopian troops and militias of various ethnic groups have been involved in the conflict: thousands have lost their lives, hundreds of thousands have been displaced and hunger has once again taken hold in Ethiopia.

There are multiple reports from many sources of boys and men over the age of fourteen being singled out and deliberately killed

Mark Lowcock
UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

Abiy originally sought to bring Tigray’s political and military grouping, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), to heel late last year when troops were dispatched to the region. The TPLF, now rebels, were previously holed up in the mountains with no communications to the outside world, and is also the Prime Minister’s former political group.

The conflict, initially scarcely reported because of an effective information blackout, has been the subject of discussions at the United Nations Security Council, but members were unable to agree on a statement. The Security Council were fully briefed in a closed session by Mark Lowcock, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

‘There are multiple reports from many sources of boys and men over the age of fourteen being singled out and deliberately killed,’ he told the meeting. ‘When massacres occur, family members have sometimes been prevented from burying the bodies of their dead.’

The United States, in a government report, has described the conflict as ‘a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing’ and has sent a delegation to Addis Ababa to meet the Prime Minister. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, together with the Ethiopian government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), agreed to investigate the claims of human rights and sexual abuse. In late March, the Prime Minister said troops found to have raped women will be made to account for their actions and has admitted Eritrean troops were involved in the conflict.

Sternford Moyo, President of the International Bar Association, has added his voice to the calls for action. ‘The massacre of unarmed children, the use of rape as a weapon of war, indiscriminate shelling, widespread pillage by the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are reminiscent of armed violence against unarmed civilians which led to investigations by the International Criminal Court in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Central African Republic and the Darfur Region of Sudan’, he says. ‘The reported activities have all the hallmarks of war crimes and meet the gravity threshold of crimes against humanity. They deserve clear and unequivocal condemnation together with intervention by the international community.’

Scorched earth policy

The war in Tigray has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being displaced, either as refugees within Ethiopia or in Sudan. Tens of thousands have lost their lives in extreme violence and food is now scarce after what has been described as a ‘scorched earth policy’ in the region. Accusations of genocide have been made as much of this war involves ethnic groups and ethnic militias.

While the focus has been on Tigray in the north of the country and the unfolding humanitarian disaster there, ‘brutal’ attacks have taken place in the Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz regional state in Western Ethiopa, according to Tsega Etefa, Associate Professor of History and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University in New York. He says attacks have come from Amhara Region which, it is claimed, wants to administer the region.

Massacre of unarmed children, use of rape as a weapon of war, indiscriminate shelling… are reminiscent of armed violence against unarmed civilians, which led to investigations by the International Criminal Court in the DRC

Sternford Moyo
IBA President

Amhara is home to the Amhara people who are one of the larger ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Claims have been made of both Amharas as victims of alleged genocide and of their role as perpetrators of some of the horrific incidents in Tigray.

Tigray, which borders on the Amhara Region, is the main area of conflict. An Amnesty International Report, which gathered information from survivors and witnesses to the attacks, states Eritrean troops have massacred hundreds of civilians in Axum and the attacks may constitute crimes against humanity.

The witnesses and survivors ‘consistently described extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and widespread looting, after Ethiopian and Eritrean troops led an offensive to take control of the city amid the conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in mid-November’, states the report.

‘This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum’s residents were plunged into days of collective trauma amid violence, mourning and mass burials,’ says Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.

Using satellite imagery, Amnesty International says the evidence ‘corroborates reports of indiscriminate shelling and mass looting, as well as identifying signs of new mass burials near two of the city’s churches’. This has all been aimed at civilians.

Determining whether there have been ‘war crimes’, says Justice Richard Goldstone, Honorary President of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, would require there to be a ‘state of war’ – and then it is a matter of degree. Goldstone is the Former Chief Prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Reacting to the claims of genocide, Professor Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, who is an expert in issues in the Horn of Africa where he has worked for several years, and who teaches at the Fletcher Graduate School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, says: ‘It could become genocide – but a genocide in which everybody is against everybody else.’

He says that one of the problems has been land seizure, with tens of thousands displaced and many killed. That could be seen as a genocidal act. ‘There has been a coordinated campaign of Eritrea with mass starvation and killing as many as they can of men and boys of military age’, he says.

He states that most of the extreme violence in Tigray has come from the Eritreans, with significant action by the Ethiopian army, Amhara militias and Tigrayan forces. ‘My analysis would be that the long-standing antipathy of Eritrea wanting to eradicate Tigray’ accounts for the presence and extreme action of the Eritrean forces. ‘There is a very effective concerted military extermination in Tigray’, says de Waal.

It could become genocide – but a genocide in which everybody is against everybody else

Professor Alex de Waal
Executive Director, World Peace Foundation

At least some of the problem began with elections scheduled for last year which were postponed to later this year with Covid-19 cited as a reason. Tigray, however, went ahead and had an election anyway, provoking anger from the Prime Minister. De Waal notes that any election would be open to criticism as the media was under the control of the government and was heavily censored. ‘Almost all political parties have been deregistered or banned’, he says.

Accusations of sexual assault being used as a weapon of war have been levelled at Eritrean forces, as well as Ethiopian government forces. Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa have noted that the rules of war have been broken with attacks on civilians.

But this war, despite having raged since early November, is only now surfacing in the world’s media and its details are murky, despite the fact that some television journalists have had access to parts of Tigray. That, in turn, is happening because there has been a near complete blackout of information.

The Ethiopian government has drastically restricted the work of journalists and other groups, with allegations of journalists being detained; the internet, telecommunications and social media blocked; many non-governmental organisations stopped from operating and the blocking of desperately needed aid deliveries. Independent observers have not been allowed to go into the areas where conflict has been reported, and the UN has not been given access to the areas where conflict is most intense.

This may now change as the Nobel Prize Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister has said he would allow the UN World Food Programme to supply aid to those suffering in the war, as hunger allegations have surfaced, echoing the region’s past.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled to Sudan followed by the Ethiopians who then closed the border. Much of the information that had at first leaked from the region, came via the refugees.

Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa region has also produced a detailed account of several attacks on civilians. The Prime Minister had previously assured the world that these would not happen and then also claimed he had regained control of Tigray with no civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch’s detailed report is further illustrated with satellite photographs of the region showing the destruction in some areas.

According to Matt Bryden, a political analyst based in Nairobi who has worked in the Ethiopian area for the UN and has been a part of the Horn of Africa International Crisis Group, there is a great deal of disinformation on the part of the Ethiopian government. The Prime Minister, when announcing the foray into Tigray, said there would be no civilian casualties.

According to Bryden, this has been far from the truth. Information blackouts have made the task of understanding exactly what has happened very difficult. Bryden points out that one of the government’s claims is that no women and children have fled to Sudan, suggesting that no harm has come to them. This is patently untrue: ‘I’m afraid that the campaign in Tigray is at best a scorched earth policy and at worst it is genocidal in terms of tactics and intentions’, he says. And notes that, while assurances had been given that aid would be allowed, it has not in fact been getting through.

He believes it is an anti-Tigrayan campaign and cites the removal of passports from Tigrayans in Addis Ababa – the country’s capital. This has been accompanied by arrests of Tigrayans.

Accusations of the rape of women in the region produced an unexpected reaction from the Ethiopian Federal Minister of Women, Children and Youth, Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed. Reputable news outlets quoted her statement posted on social media: ‘We have received the report back from our Taskforce team on the ground in the Tigray region, they have unfortunately established rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt.’

The EHRC have also reported the rapes, as well saying many rapes will have gone unreported. It is this Commission which will now work with the UN to examine what exactly happened in Tigray.

While the government has stated it had control of the capital of Tigray, reports have surfaced of fighting in the mountainous areas of the province where information continues to be systematically blocked.

The war has engaged groups fearful of the loss of ancient artifacts. Close to 1000 people were killed in a raid on The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum, believed by some to house the Ark of the Covenant – though this claim is contested.

A mosque which is believed to be one of the oldest in Africa – the Al Nejashi Mosque – also in Tigray, has been severely damaged in the fighting according to Bryden and the Middle East Eye. The damage was apparently inflicted in November last year when Ethiopian troops first entered Tigray but took weeks to surface because of the information blackout.

While the war continues, another major issue has redeveloped between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the damming of waters of the Nile river in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Nile is the lifeblood of the people of Egypt and Sudan, supplying water to all, and tensions are rising once more over the river.

Ethiopia’s hidden war, ongoing human catastrophes and dam disputes, along with growing debt issues, are combining to destroy the reputation of the region and its hopes of a thriving and growing economy.

Pat Sidley is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at pattykate@icon.co.za