Originally published on internationalsocialist.net
By Per-Ake Westerlund, Rattvisepartiet Socialisterna (ISA in Sweden)
The New Cold War between the US and China has left its mark on the war and its aftermath. The US actively participated in the peace negotiations and is now open to lifting trade restrictions imposed during the war and resuming aid. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, is visiting Addis Ababa this week to underline the interests of US imperialism.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country (120 million) and a major military and economic power in the region. In March, Ethiopia’s finance minister and central bank governor visited Beijing, a visit that emphasized the countries‘ “strategic cooperation” as a model for China’s relations with African countries. The major Chinese-led railway construction project between Addis Ababa and Djibouti aims to increase exports from Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s government is also among those who, like South Africa and Algeria, have not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For Abiy Ahmed’s regime in Addis Ababa, the war has exacerbated the country’s already very serious crises. Famine, armed conflict, high inflation and a weakened economy are shaking Ethiopia, and together with the war and increased repression of all opposition, Abiy Ahmed has lost the strong support he had when he took power in 2018.
1,000 dead per day
The war between the country’s government and the TPLF in Tigray has caused enormous devastation and more people have died than in any other current war. Between 300,000 and 400,000 civilians are estimated to have lost their lives as a result of military violence, starvation and lack of medical care. In addition, between 200,000 and 300,000 soldiers are estimated to have fallen victims to the war, adding up to 1,000 deaths per day for two years. These figures come from former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was the African Union’s representative in the peace negotiations. Testimonies abound of massacres, rape, torture and military attacks on civilians.
Following the agreement, Tigray’s capital Mekelle has received food and medical supplies and regained banking, electricity and internet services (but not all social media) after a devastating two-year total blockade. But a Save the Children representative reports that schools, hospitals and health centers have not yet reopened. The city has been looted and largely destroyed. The population “testifies to the large-scale violence they suffered from Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amharic troops”, reports Le Monde. More than half of Tigray’s seven million inhabitants need food deliveries to survive.
The peace agreement weighs in favor of Abiy Ahmed’s federal government, which regained the military upper hand in the escalated fighting that started in August 2022 after a ceasefire for part of 2022. To avoid military defeat and lift the blockade, the TPLF leaders accepted the agreement, which calls for them to hand over their heavier weapons and for the federal authorities to resume ruling the region. In follow-up negotiations, it was also promised that the Eritrean troops, as well as the militia from the Amhara region of Ethiopia, would be withdrawn. The Parliament in Addis Ababa will also reverse the decision to label the TPLF as a terrorist organization.
After four months, the agreement is still fragile and much of it has not been implemented. The disarmament of the TPLF within 30 days has not taken place. Eritrea still has troops looting and killing civilians. The systematic rape carried out by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers against women in Tigray have not stopped. The Ethiopian government has not acted against the Amhara militia who during the war took control of areas of fertile farmland in western and southern Tigray that they consider to belong to the Amhara. The federal government authorities have not returned to Mekelle, where the peace plan stipulates a transitional government involving both parties until elections are held (but there is no proposed date for elections). The pre-existing hostility to the federal government in Tigray has, of course, been hugely reinforced by the war.
“Transitional justice”: No solution
The peace agreement opens the way for both for co-rule in Tigray and the possibility for Tigray’s 200,000 soldiers to be integrated into the Ethiopian army. The agreement talks about “transitional justice” to bring out the truth, listen to the victims and achieve reconciliation and healing. The concept of transitional justice emerged in Latin America with the fall of military dictatorships in the 1980s and 1990s and is an attempt to contain and control from above the pressure and demands of the oppressed masses for justice and prevent them from taking a more militant, even revolutionary direction.
In many cases, only a few former oppressors have been held accountable while most have been granted amnesty. Typically, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice is now the author of “justice” in this case. The kind of reconciliation and integration that the agreement talks about will not resolve the contradictions and continues the oppression of the poor and working people in urban and rural areas. This is also the experience of “transitional justice” and “truth commissions” in other countries.
The gap between words and reality is clearly demonstrated by the government’s refusal to allow the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights to conduct an investigation into the war. The report submitted to the UN, which details crimes against humanity by both sides, has been rejected by Abiy Ahmed’s government.
There is a high risk of new fighting or a resumption of the war. Both the Ethiopian army and Eritrean troops are on standby, also to put further pressure on the TPLF. New fighting could also risk the involvement of Sudan, which has taken in many refugees from Tigray and is accused by Ethiopia of transporting weapons to the TPLF.
A power struggle
The war was essentially a power struggle between two ruling elites. Ethiopia’s current government led by Abiy Ahmed was pitted against the TPLF, which ruled the country’s dictatorial regime for almost 30 years, from 1991 to 2018. From 2004 to 2017, the country’s economic growth was perhaps the highest in the world, over 10% per year. The government followed a ‘Chinese’ economic model, based on cooperation between the Ethiopian state, multinationals and imperialist powers. The vast majority of the population, including in Tigray, received no share of the growth, but suffered repression of all forms of opposition, land grabs and high youth unemployment. This led to growing protests, culminating in a three-day general strike in 2018, which brought down the TPLF government.
Abiy Ahmed, from Oromia but with a career in the old regime, came to power with promises of democratic reforms. In 2019, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for the peace agreement with Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afewerki, who later became his ally in the war.
The 2020 war began with the capture of Mekelle by Ethiopian troops backed by Eritrea, but they were soon forced to retreat when the TPLF launched a counter-offensive. The Tigrayan troops took parts of Amhara and appeared to be heading towards Addis Ababa. But just as the federal troops lacked anchorage in Tigray and were forced back, the TPLF faced massive resistance when marching south and were therefore forced to retreat. A lower level of fighting from December 2021 led to a ceasefire in March 2022. When fighting returned to full scale in August, the Ethiopian army had the upper hand, supported by Eritrea and the Amhara militia, and equipped with drones purchased from Turkey.
Fighting and continued crises
The peace agreement does not mean peace in Ethiopia. In Oromia, the largest region with 35 million inhabitants, fighting between government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has escalated. The OLA, long based in Eritrea, says it is fighting for independence for Oromia. Abiy Ahmed’s army has responded with drone attacks that have also targeted civilians. In other regions, ethnic violence is also targeting minorities and inter-regional border areas.
The basis for the escalation of ethnic violence and military conflicts lies in the capitalist and imperialist system. The wealth created is owned and used by a small minority, capitalists in the major imperialist powers and the even smaller group of rulers in countries which, like Ethiopia, are subordinate in the global system. At the other end, 27% of the population in Ethiopia (2021) live in extreme poverty (on less than 1.70 euro a day).
The climate crisis is hitting East Africa hard. In addition to war, Ethiopians have also suffered from drought and poor harvests. The UN estimates that 20 million people in Ethiopia have no access to, or cannot afford, the food they need. Every day, people die of starvation. Lack of suitable drinking water allows cholera to spread, while medical care is very limited. Food prices are skyrocketing; inflation in February was 33.6%.
The government was pressured to end the war for economic reasons. It is now pinning its hopes on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avoid defaulting on its $26 billion foreign debt, most of which is owed to China. Even before the war, Abiy Ahmed began implementing and planning major privatizations that fit well with the IMF’s infamous conditions.
Both China and the US are now ignoring the war’s many abuses in order to make profits in Ethiopia again and, if possible, regain a stable ally in a strategically important part of the world.
Need for a new movement
The massive protest movement of 2014–18 united much of the country. There was solidarity between the people of the two largest regions, Amhara and Oromia. Ethiopians in exile showed their support for the struggle against the dictatorial regime, which remained in power through electoral fraud, support from the EU, the US and China, and widespread repression with thousands of political prisoners.
The old regime fell, but state capture and economic policies continued in the same vein. Abiy Ahmed purged TPLF leaders, but it was all done from the top without real democracy. The protests lacked organization and a clear revolutionary program against the entire old regime, economic injustice and exploitation, i.e. against capitalism and imperialism. Demands for land use, trade union, political and democratic rights, and minority rights are important elements in a program for united struggle. In several articles in 2014–16, International Socialist Alternative warned that it would not be enough to bring down the old regime, as the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia had shown.
These weaknesses of the protests allowed those in power in Addis Ababa and Tigray, as well as other regional leaders and groups, to spread toxic propaganda against ethnic groups and regions. The result was increased division, armed conflicts and war. Leaders on both sides of the war are responsible for death, abuse and destruction, which in turn have increased tensions. The way forward for the working masses of Ethiopia is to assemble a new political force, a democratic, revolutionary socialist movement across ethnic and regional boundaries. New fighting movements are inevitable, which will provide the conditions for such a movement to be built.