Tensions in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have gone from talking about the potential for conflict into what is now the aftermath of a war between the country’s federal government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in Tigray. An estimated six million people live in the Tigray region.
Since fighting began on November 4, a United Nations (UN) report on November 30 says an estimated 100,000 Tigrayans have fled the region into neighboring Sudan. The UN says that many Eritreans, already refugees in the Tigray region, are caught up in the conflict as well. The UN is appealing for $147 million to assist these refugees. Fighting intensified in recent days and hundreds are feared missing or killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Communications to the region were cut off by the government.
Ethiopia is considered the African continent’s second-most populous nation with more than 110 million people. Elliot Smith of the American business channel CNBC wrote on November 17:
“Africa’s second-most populous nation has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world so far this century, consistently posting double-digit percentage annual growth in GDP (gross domestic product). However, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the IMF has slashed Ethiopia’s 2020 growth forecast to 1.9% from 6.2% — and this was before the unfolding events in Tigray.”
At the center of this conflict is the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) which is seeking autonomy from the government in Addis Ababa. The region is led by Debretsion Gebremichael, a former rebel leader. The organization was formed in 1975. It eventually morphed from an armed resistance against the authoritarian leadership of Haile Selassie, whom they helped depose, into the political leadership of Ethiopia for almost 30 years. That struggle to establish a foothold, the rise to power, left in its wake much destruction, suffering, and anguish. This includes the famines of the 1980s. That’s according to Jason Burke, writing for The Guardian.
With support from Eritrean forces, we are told by The New York Times, that the TPLF seized control of the government in Addis Ababa, on May 28, 1991. Through a combination of successful tactics and coalition forming, the TPLF, along with other parties, established the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ensured their long stay in power. The government was dominated by Tigrayans.
The TPLF was displayed from power when Abiy Ahmed, of a mixed Oromo and Amhara background, was appointed prime minister in 2018. The powerful influence of the Tigrayans on Ethiopian life was quickly curtailed after Ahmed became prime minister. Before then, it was the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as well as his successor, Halemariam Desalegn, both of the EPRDF coalition of parties, that ruled the country from 1995 until 2018.
The Media Loves Bad News — It’s Good for Business
Just as fighting escalated, with the bombing of the Tigray capital Mekelle by the government, the news coverage quickly increased, eclipsing coverage of presidential elections in Ghana, as well as reports of a surge in coronavirus cases in the continent.
At a local level, Ethiopians in the diaspora, many unable to connect with family back home, came out to demonstrate and plead for help about what was taking place. This happened in many US cities, including Denver, Colorado, and Seattle, Washington. Reports about what was taking place, and its impact on the local populations quickly gained entry into the nightly routine of American TV stations. The reporting of a demonstration in Denver on November 23 became a point of controversy after leaders of the Colorado Ethiopian Community filed a complaint with the station manager of Denver-based CBS affiliate, KCNC, to question what they said was the “inaccurate” reporting of the November 23 protest held in Denver. On their Facebook page, the group the Colorado Ethiopian Community says they are different from the Ethiopian Community of Colorado, whose members they say carried out the demonstration. In their news report, KCNC Denver did not make this distinction.
Other Africa Stories Ignored by US Media
In the timeframe when tensions began building, culminating in war in Tigray, presidential elections occurred, and results were announced in Ivory Coast and Ghana. While these elections had their own issues, the opposition boycott in Ivory Coast and alleged irregularities in Ghana, the specter of large-scale hostilities following these events was minimal. But for a journalistic enterprise that sees no benefits in what just happened, this wasn’t news at all. Yet the continent took much beating and bad rap following the Kenya election crisis in 2007 and 2008.
The Tigrayan Diaspora Pushing for Action
The Tigrayan community in America, when combined with the greater Ethiopian community, is perhaps one of the largest and most vocal African diaspora groups anywhere around the world. Their influence on American business, media and political life is beyond measure.
The people with power in Washington and in US state capitals understand how this can impact them, for better or for worse. This is why many in Washington have been quick to call on the government in Addis Ababa to resolve the situation quickly. The incoming Biden administration already has issued a warning to the Abiy government about the humanitarian situation and the need to protect civilians. The call to action from the Tigryan community, directed at US elected officials, has also flooded social media since these tensions began building.
Abiy Ahmed — From Nobel Laureate to Criminal Leader
When Ahmed ascended to the pinnacle of leadership in Ethiopia, he quickly won many friends in Washington. He was young, charismatic, and ready for change.
After consolidating his power, he quickly mended some fences, such as resolving a long dispute with the neighboring country Eritrea. The move was praised around the world. My colleague, Joshua White wrote about Ethiopia’s détente with Eritrea when it happened.
Meanwhile, Eyder Peralta, National Public Radio (NPR) Africa correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya, did not waste any time casting Abiy in this light as he did with this November 29 story. The Tigray debacle was the subject of his broadcast on All Things Considered, the much-beloved drive-time American network radio program. Peralta is a consistent critic of many African leaders he likes to frame as “dictators” and who he says have been in power for too long. He often uses his reports on NPR to criticize them for failing their own people.
A History of War, Famine, and Starvation
The images of Ethiopian and Eritrean children on the streets, unable to fend for themselves, oftentimes without clothes and eating out of empty bowls, adorned the covers of Newsweek and Time magazine during the 1970s and ’80s. The civilian casualties in the current conflict and the flood of refugees streaming into neighboring nations bring back the memories.
The Tigray conflict is the subject of much discussion not just in American policy forums, but also on the minds of ordinary Tigrayans, Eritreans, who themselves suffered the consequences of drought, war, and starvation during the years when fighting in their homeland was the norm. A lot of them left Ethiopia. They are now leaders in other nations around the world. Many of them do not want to see this repeated again.