Ethiopia: In Ethiopia-Tigray War, Abiy Is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

analysis

There has been consternation that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, eventually went to war with the Tigray regional state.

I took my own sense of horror at the bloody confrontation to a thoughtful and level-headed Ethiopian political analyst, himself a Tigrayan, and vowed I would be orderly and listen patiently -- only if he told me things that I could not get from the media.

Quickly he got down to, as Ugandans would say, giving me 'bwino' (ink).

"Actually, Abiy sent several emissaries to Tigray after they decided to go ahead with the elections in September, and the crisis started to build up," he said.

"Several people, including the marathon icon Haile Gebrselassie to the highly patriarch of the influential Ethiopian Orthodox Church, were dispatched to Mekele (the Tigray capital)."

"So why did it all come to nothing?" I asked.

He went through the immediate grievances of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that had dominated Ethiopia since 1991, until Abiy came to power in April 2018.

"However, there is something else about the Ethiopian highland people like the Tigrayan (and Amhara). Traditionally, they don't negotiate. It is considered weakness. In ancient times, if you went back to the Amhara and Tigrayans with a peace settlement, they'd kill you.

"Abiy, he's a lowland Oromo. The lowland people negotiate and cut deals, which partly explains his overtures, but he was always bound to run into highland hard-headedness," he said.

"What happened at the federal army base in Mekele that was overrun by Tigray forces, which Abiy said was the red line," I asked.

"It was shocking. The way the soldiers were killed, their hands bound behind their backs, and then they were slaughtered in gruesome ways", he said. "If I showed you the photos and videos, you can't look at them."

"The real tragedy with that, is that though they are not highly paid, in places like Tigray a small portion of that small soldiers' pay is contributed to support the poor local communities. It was inconceivable that they could be killed that way by fellow Ethiopians in what was still peacetime," he said.

He continued: "In many ways, there is a sense in which if Abiy didn't act, he would have faced the wrath of the military. It would have been total capitulation, so he was really between a rock and a hard place."

"How does it end," I asked.

"This will be a fight to the death now. One problem for the Tigray leadership is that while they were in power, they neglected Mekele and their region, as happens in most of Africa," he said.

"Mekele might have some beautiful buildings, but it is a backward city in several respects; for example, it gets water only once a week to this day," he said, adding, "these factors explain why, so far, this isn't a general Tigrayan rebellion. It is still largely the old power elite driving this, and if the federal government doesn't make some terrible mistakes, they might prevail militarily. Winning the political war, is another story," he said.

Thank God for Ethiopians and Africans like him.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans".

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