Peter W. Esmonde*May 16, 2021
A girl stands outside her home in the Tigray Region, Ethiopia. Credit: UNICEF/Tanya Bindra
On July 22, 2020 The Minority Rights Group published a press release on ethnic cleansing of minorities in Ethiopia. On October 25, I made a note that there had been almost daily ghastly attacks in the west of Ethiopia over recent months. In some places people were saying they were just waiting to be slaughtered; they felt utterly insecure. By October I had long despaired at the lack of international protest and awareness. In this article I attempt to unearth the flow of logic that lies beneath the surface.
The press release from The Minority Rights Group was a rare exception. For decades I have been at a loss as to how to convince international humanitarian organizations, the international media and governmental aid departments that, if anything, they were feeding the burgeoning crisis in Ethiopia. The deep-seated resistance to acknowledging reality reminded me of the ultimately catastrophic effect of foreign biases on Rwanda during the century leading up to its 1994 genocide. I visited Rwanda many times after the genocide. In local culture genocide had not been conceivable. But it happened. Rwandans were asking ‘How did this happen to us?’ Joseph Tomchak points out that “…colonial powers intentionally stoked or fabricated ethnic tensions and fear as a strategy for continued control.”2 (My emphasis.)
Since the 1980s I have observed what has been festering regarding Ethiopia internationally and inside the country, the fallout of two centuries of foreign bias and negativity. The more I witnessed this prejudice and learned about its history, the more I realized that the attitudes of foreign countries towards Ethiopia was a form of terrorism emanating from European colonial attitudes. In other words, ‘If you cannot divide and rule, then divide and destroy.’ It seems to me that this attitude was absorbed by the so-called liberation fronts in Ethiopia, themselves a product of European influence and support, not least that of the British who were still smarting from having to leave Ethiopia, Eritrea and that part of the Red Sea coast after World War Two. These fronts are un-Ethiopian at their very core, bloated as they are by alien political philosophies.
In parallel with this general foreign bias against Ethiopia, there has been bias against the Amhara, and in favour of the Tigray and, more recently, the Oromo. So international focus on the present suffering in Tigray has mostly eclipsed reports on ‘ethnic cleansing’ elsewhere even though this has steadily increased over the past three years since the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) came to power. There are daily local reports from desperate people of genocidal butchery in Wellega (in western Oromia Regional State), south of the Abbai (or Blue Nile). Similar events have been happening in Beni Shangul Regional State, north of the Abbai. The Amhara minority in Wellega and Beni Shangul are being wiped out and, of course, their land and property, e.g. livestock and crops, are being taken over, mainly by Oromo. (References are given later.) It is ironic that some of these Amhara were brought to the west of the country from Wollo in the 1980s to save them from a devastating famine.
Since the 19th century, foreign authors, including Italian Fascists, have often referred to the Amhara as an exploitative ruling elite, without ever experiencing the hard life of the ordinary Amhara farming family. That fallacious and blanket attitude has persisted up to the present. This has sometimes led the international media outlets, NGOs and governmental organizations to be less focused on the plight of the Amhara. However, the scale of present attacks will, hopefully, encourage such organizations to be more objective, though it is more than sad that it will have taken so many tragedies for this to happen.
It is crucial that such recognition happens very rapidly if international pressure is to be brought on the Ethiopian authorities to curtail the slide further into genocide. In Ethiopia, ethnicity was not a feature of contention before 1991, except within the new liberation fronts. How very different they are from the Ethiopian Resistance to the Italians during 1935-41, when men and women from all over the country fought side-by-side to save it.
The international community has been averse to recognizing that ethnicity in Ethiopia is far more mixed than many choose to admit. There have been many centuries of inter-marriage, as well as child adoption, not least between Amharas and Oromos. Some Oromos have, since at least the late 1700s, been at the top of state administration when they were rulers in the ‘Era of Princes.’ Subsequently they were among leaders, generals and rulers under the monarchy (which lapsed in 1974). Even Emperor Haile Selassie’s paternal grandfather was Oromo, and his maternal grandparents were both Gurage. The imposition of ethnic politics since 1991 has covered all that up. In 1994, when I had to fill in the national census form, there was no category or space for recording a mixed background; one had to choose a specific ethnicity regardless.
On the matter of foreign bias, I have personally seen it rather often. Here are two examples:
1. In the 1980s, while I was working in London for an international NGO, I became aware of the activities of the Relief and Emergency Society of Tigray (REST), which was registered in the UK as a charity. It was the aid wing of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and was conducting various cross-border activities between Sudan and Ethiopia with the help of a number of British NGOs. Its chairperson was a member of the British House of Lords, and its vice-chairperson had been for decades a prominent personality within the British NGO sector. I knew him quite well. Though no one doubted the political ambience of REST, and the British Charity Commissioners normally intervened in such cases, they seem to have left REST alone.
2. In 2001, while I was working in Kenya, the Ethiopian military police fired live rounds into a peaceful demonstration of Addis Ababa University students. A large group of the students reached Nairobi. Some stayed outside the UNHCR’s office there, suffering from cold, rain, hunger and sickness. In the meantime we managed to get them help at the medical facility of the Egyptian Orthodox Church in Nairobi. It was a long time before UNHCR sent them to Kakuma Refugee Camp near the Uganda-Sudan borders. Tigray and Oromo refugees already in Kakuma had been given more opportunities than other Ethiopians. In Nairobi, the other students, saying they were Oromo, were quickly given succour by an international NGO, which provided them with medical help, food and accommodation in a compound within the city. They were resettled in western countries sooner than their colleagues.
In November 2020 I was hoping the top TPLF echelon, who controlled the country from 1991-2018, were being cleared out for the benefit of the impoverished people of Tigray and everyone else. There was much reason up to then to be concerned about the central government, for it too was unnervingly quiet about the various displacements and massacres around the country, but I thought one should give it the benefit of the doubt.
By the time TPLF came to power in 1991, after years of training in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, and with support from the West, they had cobbled together a ‘coalition’ made up of collaborators from many ethnic groups, creating the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Against normal policy in Africa, and against traditional Ethiopia inclusiveness, but as the Italian Fascists did during 1935-41 (see their maps), TPLF/EPRDF then set up tribal-based ‘regional states.’ (See their maps of Ethiopia.) They enforced a constitution to match, and went hell-bent into promoting ethnic exclusiveness. TPLF drastically expanded the borders of their own regional state of Tigray, incorporating large Amhara areas to the west (including Welkait) and south-east (northern Wollo). (Compare pre-1990s maps of Tigray with post-1990s ones.)
In 2008 the Director General of the Central Statistics Agency (CSA) reported to Parliament that the 2007 Census was unable to account for over 2.4 million people in Amhara Regional State (with an Amhara population of 91.48% of the regional state’s 17,214,056 people). In contrast to the more visible atrocities of the Hutu government in Rwanda, an even larger genocide may have been conducted surreptitiously over many years by TPLF/EPRDF, who later massaged the figures and shunted CSA’s Director General to the diplomatic service.
Eventually, having spawned tribal division, TPLF fell into its own trap. Not only that, it’s promotion of tribalism had been dragging down the fabric of Ethiopian national consensus. The present government is not new; it is a section of the erstwhile EPRDF. Prime-Minister Abiy Ahmed and the top leaders are from an EPRDF member party, the OPDO, which they have renamed the Prosperity Party (PP). In 2018 they also invited the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to return to Ethiopia. Much butchery has since been carried out around the country by the OLF/OLA (Oromo Liberation Army[-Shené]) and, from November 2020, in Tigray by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), another of PP’s close allies. Since TPLF began retreating to Tigray three years ago, the so-called Federal Government (i.e. PP), in league with OLF, has been violently expanding Oromo ethnic control into every part of the country that it can. (Already a map of Oromia on OLF’s website shows a significant expansion relative to the current official map of Oromia.) It has now become clear that the political elite do not care about non-Oromos, except for the few who are fully cooperating with them, like the President of Amhara Regional State, whose Amhara militia have to go where PP wants them – convenient cannon-fodder. The new elite have no genuine concern for Ethiopia, nor for anyone but themselves. May God help Oromos who do not agree with them. In Rwanda, Hutu who protected Tutsi were also targeted.
In November 2020, massacres of men, women and children continued in western Oromia, Beni Shangul and elsewhere (e.g. reuters.com, Oct. 09, 2020 (which refers to a similar event in June 2019); apnews.com and amnesty.org, Nov. 2, 2020; addisstandard.com, Dec. 21, 2020; reuters.com, Dec 25, 2020; dailymail.co.uk, Feb 12, 2021; addisstandard.com, Mar 12, 2021; aljazeera.com, Mar 20, 2021). Over 132,000 Konso in southern Ethiopia have been displaced from their home area. But the international media’s attention has been largely focussed on Tigray Regional State, where civilians have also been suffering terribly. The Konso had farmed their land sustainably with stone terracing for at least four hundred years. “You don’t belong here. Go!” they were told. Their houses have been burned, and at least 66 have been killed. (addisstandard.com, Nov 23, Dec. 2, Dec. 25, 2020; telesureenglish.net, Dec. 25, 2020.) A few could not flee because of old age, and are dying from hunger, exposure and beatings, yes, beatings of the elderly.
A similar fate has befallen others in the south, such as in Amaro District(addisstandard.com, Apr. 08, 2021)and in Gemu Gofa. Gurages have also been violently dispossessed in some of their areas. Northern Shewa (in Amhara Regional State) has been suffering waves of displacement, destruction and killings. Towns have been burned and levelled by PP/OLF, and many urban and rural people killed. The killers sometimes use long-range heavy weapons. Survivors have been robbed of their means of livelihood. Many have been told they no longer have the right to farm. Their land and crops are taken, their tools looted, and everything else is destroyed, including long-established, productive orchards. (addisstandard.com: Mar. 26, Apr. 9, 2021; reuters.com, Apr. 20, 2021.)
So many peaceable people around the country are living in fear. On the occasions when PP/OLF report massacres by their forces they re-frame them as ‘clashes’, thereby pretending the victims are not unarmed civilians. The innocent are being overrun by cowards, who make sure potential victims have nothing with which to defend themselves. Ethiopia’s tradition of brave warriors, whose pride and joy was to defend people and country, has been forced into abeyance by the successive impositions of Haile Selassie, the Derg, TPLF/EPRDF and PP/OLF. But perhaps not forever, no matter how many generations may have passed.
Individual human experiences are beyond grim, of course. One of many that touched me deeply is of a little boy in western Ethiopia. He and his mother were running to escape the killers. But he fell in the open after being hit by an arrow. While his mother was hiding nearby with a baby in her arms, she heard him calling her for help, but the killers were coming so she stayed where she was. The killers, instead of looking for her and leaving the boy alone, went directly to him and slit his throat. Male children were also a target in the Rwandan genocide. Many of us were left speechless and very disturbed after Amhara children were put inside a building in Wellega which was then set on fire. There were only charred remains. (ethio360media.info). This is the total opposite to the Ethiopia were have known in the past.
The only apparently decent top leader in the whole country seems to be the President of Somali Regional State. Recently he survived an assassination attempt. Apart from him, Ethiopian authorities have chosen lawlessness – even in Addis Ababa, where a number of citizens going about their daily business have been liquidated by them. In most of the country, by attitude and deed, the government is deliberately ‘absent without leave.’ Meanwhile, it has reportedly brought into the capital a large number of Oromos to alter its demography, partly in preparation for the ‘elections’ still planned for June.
Ethiopians have a long-standing default attitude of trusting governments. These days, federal forces often tell people in advance of an attack that they will protect them. This is clearly to lull them into a false sense of security, for soon afterwards the massacre starts. Even when witnessing the killings, so-called security forces are willing to turn a blind eye, sometimes waving in a friendly manner to the killers. When victims beg the government military to help before they are killed, the response is typically ‘Without orders, we can’t get involved,’ as happened in the Shashamene area in July 2020. (mg.co.za/africa/2020-07-14).
The underlying logic is all too clear; there is a coordinated programme with a persistent target. After it was founded by the EPLF (which also has long involvement with the OLF) the TPLF drew up its own secretive internal constitution, which includes its political agenda. The TPLF and the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray are one and the same, so when Meles Zenawi became TPLF leader he automatically became leader of both – one the armed front, the other its political ‘organ’. Written into that internal constitution and agenda, from the beginning, was the commitment to destroy what they still see as the two forces of ‘anti-revolutionary conservatism’: the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Amhara. They consider these the main enemy to be eliminated.
Hence they attacked Orthodox churches and monasteries, and killed priests and monks. The killing of Tigray clergy happened when the TPLF-led EPRDF came to power, when the killing of Amhara civilians also began. There was sterilization of young female Amharas, who were told they were being vaccinated to prevent disease. These women later visited holy water sites to be cured because they could not understand why they were not becoming pregnant. Schools became empty. That contribution to ethnic cleansing may have been on an even larger scale than the 300,000 native Andean women sterilized in Peru in the 1990s. Amhara men and women below 50 years of age were also given vaccinations under false pretences that caused fever, abortion, impotency and sometimes death.
An almost hidden genocide of the Amhara has been happening for decades. Since the 2018 takeover of EPRDF by OPDO, in which Abiy Ahmed had been a senior official, attacks on the Orthodox Church and ordinary Amhara families eking out a living have become far more visible. Many other non-Oromo have been attacked too; the genocide has been enlarged to include them. Even so, the international media has taken minimum interest. The Orthodox Church hierarchy has tended to be rather silent, perhaps because since from the 1990s it has been infiltrated by party cadres, an insidious onslaught on it. The church proper is more than ever represented by unassuming and honest believers, including impoverished genuine clergy kicked out of their service by these cadres whose loyalty is to party, not church.
However, I should add that religious leaders – one assumes of a genuine type – have been declaring from time to time fasting and prayer periods concerning Ethiopia’s present troubles. Some Ethiopian Orthodox archbishops have complained in person to Abiy Ahmed about the current situation. In a video recorded in April on a mobile phone, and later taken out of Ethiopia, Patriarch Mathias says he has for six months been prevented by the government from putting out his public statements to the faithful on any media. He speaks about barbarism being perpetrated in Tigray, which he also calls genocide, and he refers to the violence in other parts of the country. The video became public on 7th May. On 10th of May the Patriarch was put under house arrest. (The Patriarch of Eritrea has been under house arrest since 2006.) The same day more Amhara civilians were butchered with knives in Wellega; the programme to eliminate Amhara continues. (ethio360media.info). It appears that EPLF is cooperating with PP forces in carrying out the latter’s programme in Tigray, while OLF/OLA is doing likewise elsewhere.
Finally, we have to remember that Abiy’s generation of younger cadres was tutored by TPLF/EPRDF, whose internal constitution and agenda influenced the whole of EPRDF, including each constituent party. So it should not be a surprise that OPDO/PP is pursuing the logic of the same programme against the Orthodox Church and the Amhara, though it is also doing so way beyond just the Orthodox and the Amhara.
For the first time foreign countries, Sudan and Eritrea, have been allowed by an Ethiopian government to loot, burn, kill and occupy Ethiopian sovereign territory, especially where this conveniently means attacking Orthodox Christians. A frightening example of wrong-headed logic that sees the end as justifying the means. And the end of the programme that is already well advanced is genocide. Statistically, it is not impossible that the outcome could be even worse than the Holocaust.
It is not for me to suggest a solution to the above problems; the people of Ethiopia have always been more than capable of deciding for themselves.
*Peter W. Esmonde is a sociologist who has focussed on the interplay between education and development. He worked for many years in rural development and education in Africa, and has written published articles on the local dynamics involved, including in relation to gender. He taught in the Education Faculty, Addis Ababa University, 1989-94. He worked in depth on the planning, monitoring and evaluation of numerous development and rehabilitation projects. The fundamental lesson his career taught him is very simple: All true local development has to come from within the community and its individuals, and this requires an enabling, responsive political environment. His work has taken him to many countries, mainly African. He was a resident of Zambia, Kenya, and, for 12 years, Ethiopia.