Commentary

Getting It Wrong in Ethiopia’s Tigray

Firmly siding with Abiy’s government and making the TPLF see its cause is hopeless will give the West a chance to end Ethiopia’s conflict sooner.

The Defense Post’s August 18 op-ed by Elizabeth Hume and Leslie Mitchell What Happened to ‘We Are the World?’ Ethiopia’s Escalating Conflict warns that the notorious Tigray famine that inspired the Live Aid concert series in the 1980s is at risk of repeating itself.

According to the authors, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, at war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), created the crisis.

While short of specific solutions to the problem, the piece echoes Western policy that calls for an immediate ceasefire, greater humanitarian access into Tigray, prosecution of war crimes, and talks between Ethiopia’s federal government and the TPLF.

However, that approach is failing and making things worse. Like Western policy, the op-ed assumes the TPLF is a viable negotiating partner. The article even implies the TPLF was a constructive force that could “squash” drivers of conflict when it held national power.

Most Ethiopians don’t see it that way. They are still grieving and traumatized by the TPLF’s homicidal former rule and its ethnic-based destabilization campaign to maintain its corrupt grip on the national economy. They fear the TPLF as genocidaires, murderers, child torturers, rapists, and terrorists — and justifiably so according to most human rights groups.

They remember, apparently better than the op-ed’s authors and Western policymakers, that the TPLF did not squash conflict drivers but deliberately instigated and promoted them. They will not contemplate, no matter the cost, any proposal that leaves the senior TPLF leadership at liberty to continue plunging Ethiopia into turmoil.

Thousands of Ethiopians have fled to neighboring Sudan to escape the conflict in Tigray.
Thousands of Ethiopians have fled to neighboring Sudan to escape the conflict in Tigray. Photo: AFP

What Actually Happened to ‘We Are the World’

What happened to “We Are the World” is that the Western powers helped turn the TPLF, which started the conflict with an unprovoked attack on federal military installations, into the monstrosity it is today by countenancing and enabling its crimes against humanity for years.

Now, when Abiy is struggling to contain this existential threat to his country’s security, the West is making his task more difficult by treating the two sides as if they were morally equivalent when they are not.

Mss. Hume and Mitchell contend correctly that the conflict is escalating to new and dangerous levels. But the international community’s evenhanded response to TPLF aggression against an ally has signaled again to friends and foes worldwide that the West is an unreliable partner and fueled that escalation by encouraging and emboldening the TPLF. The longer the war is thus perpetuated, the greater the attendant human suffering.

When the fabricated economic data is stripped away from the TPLF’s governance history, it’s clear that the TPLF’s return to national governance, which is its ultimate aim, would likely lead to even greater deprivation than the current crisis.

In light of such concerns, and given the implausibility of a negotiated settlement any time soon, incentivizing Abiy with a transactional solution to his problem is more likely to feed Tigrayans before aid cuts and sanctions do.

Supporting Abiy

The international community should offer Abiy logistical, intelligence, financial, diplomatic, and moral support of his war in return for greater humanitarian access. If accepted, mechanisms should be implemented to prevent the relief aid from being diverted to TPLF fighters. TPLF senior leaders should pay for the food and emergency supplies with their embezzled billions.

Stepped-up Western military aid to Ethiopia could even be conditioned on additional concessions to Egypt in the Nile waters dispute. That would help stabilize the region more than merely kicking the TPLF can down the road as the West has already done for the past three decades.

Human rights are important and should be defended as much as possible in these circumstances. Still, with Ethiopia’s survival on the line, to subordinate the bilateral relationship to human rights at this time would be like downgrading the US-Soviet alliance in the final days of World War II because of the Soviet rapes of German women.

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Photo: AFP

Abiy is already willing to cooperate on human rights and could do a better job with the right support.

Furthermore, the TPLF’s leaders have more innocent blood on their hands than their federal or Amhara opponents when their full track record is considered. Raising the specter of human rights trials right now will only make them fight harder. The promise of a safe exile where they can enjoy their stolen wealth under supervision, however unjust, is more likely to hasten peace.

Ending Ethiopia’s Conflict

Pressuring an increasingly resistant and resentful Ethiopia to commit what it sees as national suicide will only bring marginal short-term gains for Western strategic and humanitarian regional goals and is ultimately counterproductive.

Instead, by firmly siding with Abiy’s government and making the TPLF see its cause is hopeless, the West has a chance to end the conflict sooner.

The war will still be hell for many innocent people on all sides, but an unequivocal pro-Ethiopia tilt in exchange for greater humanitarian access will shorten their suffering and speed the day when that access is completely restored.


Headshot David SteinmanDavid Steinman (@OpConscience) is the author of Money, Blood and Conscience, a historical novel about the TPLF dictatorship. Its nonfiction afterword formed the basis of a complaint to the International Criminal Court about WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom’s responsibility for crimes against humanity as an Ethiopian official.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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