In 2019, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed Ali, received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a 20-year border dispute with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s long-term, regional rival. By the 19th November 2020, Ethiopian and Eritrean state forces had joined together to occupy the city of Aksum in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. They carried out a series of atrocities including door-to-door extrajudicial killings, looting of food stores and pharmacies, sexual violence and indiscriminate shelling, culminating in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians on the 28th-29th. Aside from the horrifying testimonies of survivors, the only imagery able to puncture the state-enforced communications blackout are satellite shots of disturbed earth—evidence of recent graves—around the churches and up the roadsides. It is a genocide with the lights turned off.
Since then, the massacres have continued unabated, with humanitarian aid blocked off and MSF hospitals routinely destroyed. As in the Yemen, ongoing environmental degradation and the intentional destruction of food and water supplies have exacerbated already existing scarcities and deprivation. A full-scale famine looms—a UN estimate puts the number of Tigrayans requiring urgent, live-saving assistance at 4.5 million, with 2.5 million children malnourished. 2 million Tigrayans have been internally displaced and over 60,000 have fled to refugee camps in Sudan. For many, this has meant returning to the same camps they found refuge in during the civil war which ended 30 years ago.
Nations, Nationalities and Peoples
The seeds of the central government’s war on the region of Tigray may be found in the first lines of the 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia, the founding document of the modern Ethiopian state. The document begins ’we, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.’ This emphasis on the horizontality of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic makeup is irreconcilable to the modern nation state’s desire for top-down vertical power and capitalism’s conceptual need for individual financial actors.
The result, as student activist Walleligne Mekonnen wrote in the 1960s, is a ‘fake Ethiopian Nationalism advanced by the ruling class.’ For Mekonnen, this nationalism was fake because it privileged the Amhara and Amhara-Tigray people above Ethiopia’s many other ethnic groups. Now, this fake nationalism smuggles in the supremacy of the state under the guise of preserving the universality of its own self-conception.
Abiy Ahmed Ali became Prime Minister in 2018. While initially from the Oromo Democratic Party, a party in favour of Oromo nationalism, in 2019 he formed and became leader of the new Prosperity Party, a merger of every existing political party except one—the TPLF, a formerly Marxist-Leninist party which is the regional authority in Tigray and was the dominant party in Ethiopian politics from 1989 to 2018. They support the current federalist arrangement, while Abiy's Prosperity Party aim to bring Ethiopia beyond that ethno-federalism and closer to a citizen-based model of the state. In short, they wish to scrub out the “nations and nationalities” part of the constitution.
Because of this, the Prosperity Party has won the respect of some liberals in the Global North, despite the potential misgivings they may have about the slogan which is becoming associated with Abiy—”የኢትዮጵያ ከፍታ,” or “Make Ethiopia Great Again.“ Their platform posits itself (in opposition to the TPLF) as unideological and rational, folding every ethnic-oriented political tendency into their neo-liberal, individualist conception of a pan-Ethiopian politics.
This model is more friendly to capital. The dissolution of old hierarchies onto a purportedly horizontal plane of individuals makes the country more amenable to investment and wealth extraction by Imperial hegemons such as the US and China. What’s more, the state-owned railway, maritime, air transport, logistics, electricity, and telecommunications sectors are all slated for privatisation and foreign capital will be hoping ethnic divisions don’t get in the way of the coming energy windfall from the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which sees Ethiopia gain access to the hydro-electric goldmine of the river Nile.
In response to the flattening of the political landscape into the single Prosperity Party, the TPLF cried illegality and, in a second affront to Abiy, continued to hold elections in the Tigray region last summer, ignoring Abiy’s postponement of them until an undisclosed date, an act which echoed Viktor Orbán’s fascist government in Hungary by citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification. The government declared the TPLF’s elections illegal at the same time as the TPLF were declaring Abiy’s leadership illegitimate.
On the 4th of November, the TPLF put several military bases under siege, claiming to be acting in self-defense. In the days that followed, a mere month after the disputed elections, tanks arrived in Tigray and set about, in the words of an internal report by the US government, “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”
It is obvious how the state-enforced imposition of a politic based on individualism is not only internally paradoxical, but also in tension with the diverse ethnic makeup of the country. Trying to scrub out the “Nations and Nationalities” inevitably has precisely the opposite effect—ethnic divides become further entrenched. Accounts from Tigrayans in wider Ethiopia talk of landlords using their ethnicity as a pretext for evictions, of illegal detentions by the state, of being fired from jobs and of not being able to speak their own language in public for fear of recriminations from fascists or state actors. The war on Tigray has inevitably become a war on Tigrayans.
A Secular, Holy War
As his political project comes more and more to resemble the bloodthirsty, hyper-partisan regime that it purports to be against, Abiy is at pains to show the world that this is a mere law enforcement operation.
Domestically, the TPLF are designated as a threat to the nominal horizontality of the Ethiopian state, when in reality the inciting threat is to Abiy’s position at the top of the vertical hierarchy of that state. Scenes from the Mai Kadra massacre, the perpetrators of which are, like many others, highly disputed, play on the news, while massacres by Eritrean and Ethiopian state forces, like the one in Aksum, are ignored.
Internationally, Abiy will hope that deceived Western eyes will view the peace deal with Eritrea as the object-cause of the conflict—if the TPLF are seen as a threat to that peace, the international community will be more amenable to state repression of the region. As it is though, the deal already looks rancid, a cynical way to leverage condescending and performative Western prize-politics to squeeze out political rivals and engage in extreme oppression (here, Abiy’s fellow traveler is the now-coup-d'état-ed leader of Myanmar, the Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and her genocide of the Rohingya people). On signing the deal, Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki made this cynicism explicit by calling it ‘game over’ for the TPLF.
What we are left with trying to analyse Abiy’s politics is an abstraction of political maneuvering and ethnic cleansing onto the plane of universal values—war for the sake of peace.
On the 30th of November 2020, as survivors of the Aksum massacre were digging the mass graves which were soon to be picked up by satellite, Abiy’s address to parliament amplified this paradox. ‘After all,’ said Abiy, ‘we would like to tell them [the TPLF]—please, understand us, we need peace and it is necessary to know that we don’t compromise anything which comes against our honour.’ In effect: we need peace and we won’t compromise on our need for peace even if that means going to war and compromising on our need for peace.
In Strategy of Deception, Paul Virilio uses the term ‘secular, holy wars’ to describe conflicts which are persecuted with the crusader’s fervour and the human rights lawyer’s moral framework. We might think of how China’s insistence on the “harmonious society” apparently necessitates the repression of the Uighurs or how Western nation state’s offer humanitarian justifications for genocidal interventions in the Middle East.
The war in Ethiopia is a secular, holy war. Unlike territorial wars (though secular, holy wars may initially be territorial in nature), these wars leave no recourse to diplomacy, nor even victory, as the values they are fought under are always already undermined by the sheer brutality of the engagement, the meaning of the conflict immediately lost in a mire of senseless violence.
It is easy to label such wars as ordinarily bloody conflicts decorated with ordinarily misleading state propaganda, but it is not a case of whether any given war is actually being persecuted in the name of peace or not. The point more specifically is that such wars in their contradiction lay bare the continuity between state-determined peace and state-sponsored violence. The two are inextricable—what the state deems “peace,” “harmony,” or a “humanitarian intervention” is a managed violence of which an uncontrolled escalation must always be left possible in order to substantiate the qualifier “managed.”
It is not simply that the state has a monopoly on violence, then. It has a monopoly on violence which posits its very non-monopolisation as the premise of its monopoly. Any violent act, such as Abiy’s continued embargo on international aid and humanitarian groups in Tigray or the Ethiopian army’s destruction of MSF hospitals or any of the numerous crimes against humanity his regime has committed, may be justified in the name of preserving the monopoly on that violence, which trickles from the state, through the ruling class—the landlords who evict Tigrayan tenants, the bosses who suspend Tigrayan workers.
Ethiopian Anarchisms and International Solidarity
In many ways, the situation in Tigray is not only devastatingly sad, but completely disheartening. Aid still can’t get through. The communications blackout is a conscious attempt to foreclose on solidarity, a war without photos. Reports emerge of massacres a month after they have taken place, compounding the sense of uncertainty for those who have loved ones at risk.
Meanwhile, disinformation is rife on both sides. Almost every claim in this article is disputed by the group opposite the one making the claim. In a further paradox and a further Trumpism, Abiy has called for sympathetic Ethiopians in the country and in the diaspora to combat “TPLF fake news” with social media support—you will see photos of Abiy in camouflage as if on the front line, but zoom in and the uniform will turn out to be a Ukrainian soldier’s, an Abiy-esque goatee shopped onto his face; you will find many single-issue accounts parroting various pro-government or pro-TPLF lines of attack, as the distinction between sock-puppetry and genuine political action becomes blurry.
Virilio, writing at the dawn of the internet, quotes the Whig historian Alexander Kinglake’s assessment of 19th Century warfare: “insofar as the battlefield presented itself to the bare eyesight of men, it had no entirety, no length, no breadth, no size, no shape and was made up of nothing.” Although magpied from an entirely different era, this remains an accurate and depressing summation of the experience of post-modern information warfare, where the excluded voices of those human beings at the heart of the conflict are replaced by the cold work of bots filling their absence with long copy-and-paste comment chains, interrupted occasionally by video footage of extreme, casual violence, rotting corpses and weaponised rape (though you wouldn’t find these in any state-sanctioned media).
It is an intentionally hard war to access from the outside, made harder by the indifference of a Western media hamstrung by their need to locate a bogeyman, such as they do with China. Abiy, with his Nobel Peace Prize, unremarkable dress sense, his individualist governmentality and supplantation of the Marxist-Leninist TPLF, makes for a poor Third World despot to journalists that traffic in spectacle and Orientalism.
In this fog, Abiy will try to get away with everything he can. It is incredibly important therefore that our eyes remain firmly on the region. The MapEthiopia project has been tracking the conflict since the 4th of November and is a good way to stay up to date with the changing situation.
Calls should also be made and actions taken to ensure that the UN investigates the situation independently. This can be done through protests and admonitions to whatever member state you reside in. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a state body that will almost certainly sterilise its findings to be more sympathetic to the government, cannot be allowed to handle the investigation.
Anarchism has historically been succoured by the puncture wounds of state-on-state violence. This was the case with the CNT in Spain and the Makhnovists in Huliaipole. Both those places already had an underlying anarchist presence which Ethiopia lacks, but it's not unreasonable to imagine necessity creating the need for collective interventions which organise into an anarchism under a different name, such as has happened in Rojava and Chiapas. In the last year, for example, Horn Anarchists have emerged as an anarchist project in the region and are aiming to medical aid and supplies to refugees stranded in Sudan (their Mutual Aid fund can be found here).
Finally, I have been at pains throughout this article to make the situation comparable to other contemporary instances of state violence. Although the violence in Tigray is extreme, it is unexceptional—China, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar are all executing similar genocides and this violence is in potentiate everywhere that state control exists. What I have tried to do is show how a 21st Century genocide looks like—it doesn’t come in jackboots, but is cossetted in the applauding hands of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. It lies in potentiate everywhere. It talks of citizenship and rationality (soon, it may also talk of preserving the environment). It won’t involve a takeover of state power, but will already be continuous with the normative aims of the state that executes it. ■
For Further reading check out Omna Tigray and Horn Anarchists, the latter of whom spoke to The Final Straw radio broadcast earlier this month. Ethiopia Map is also a usful account to understand the topography and ongoing issues.