Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a country that prides itself on being united, Ethiopia’s internal conflict makes it difficult for outsiders to decipher exactly who is trying to help the nation and who is in it for their own gain.

The Tigray region of Ethiopia is the source of this conundrum. Over five million Tigrayans are hoping that food aid sitting on its border will be allowed into the region. According to UNICEF, over 100,000 children are facing life threatening malnutrition. These are numbers not seen since 40 years ago, when famine killed one million Ethiopians. But it’s how Tigray reached this point of incredible human suffering that is up for scrutiny and debate.

Ann Fitz-Gerald, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a professor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s political science department, argues that there are iniquitous players at work behind the scenes. In a recent phone interview, Fitz-Gerald said she sees the United States in a proxy war with China as America lags well behind its global nemesis in greening its economy. The U.S. needs access to green clean metals like niobium, tantalum, zinc and phosphate that can be found around, and locked within, the Arabian-Nubian Shield composed of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The U.S. needs partnerships in this region and the Biden administration has, based on statements and decisions which mirror the propaganda of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), chosen to support the TPLF rather than declaring it a terrorist group.

This, despite the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium listing them as terrorists since 1976 and the Ethiopian parliament declaring this so on May 1, 2021.

The TPLF has held power for 27 years, during which time much of the media was prohibited from entering Ethiopia. At the same time, independent Ethiopian media was silenced. However, the TPLF did eventually allow in journalists and analysts who didn’t question their Marxist theory and gave special attention to the U.S.. Both strategies are now paying off.

Earlier in August, Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, travelled to Ethiopia and her statements eerily mimicked TPLF propaganda. Her recent trip resulted in a call for the TPLF to withdraw from the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara. Following the TPLF’s incursion into the town of Lalibela, the U.S. government chose not to condemn the invasion and violation of its request and instead expressed concern that no damage be done to Lalibela’s cultural heritage sites.

There’s also Alexander de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who has done extensive research on the Horn of Africa and who has deep links with the TPLF. According to Fitz-Gerald: 

“Heads of state have constitutional limits for very good reasons. If we think about the types of influential platforms which former statesmen like Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton stepped into following their 8 year stay in office, one can only think of the influence which a group — the leaders of which remained fairly unchanged — could command following 27 years; particularly with such a well-resourced international propaganda effort supporting them. A privileged social structure emerges from such systems that then also gets transplanted into the international community.”

Fitz-Gerald contends that many Tigrayans are terrified to speak with outsiders for fear of retribution dating back to a network-based intelligence measure put in place in 2005 when one in five people were designated to be the eyes and ears of the TPLF-led EPRDF government in Addis Ababa. The intrusive imposition of this measure comes with grave consequences and, between 2005 and 2018, had a decimating impact on the government’s civil service. This model has been deeply entrenched in Tigray and further emboldened since the TPLF’s departure in 2019 from Abiy’s Prosperity Party.

Despite the TPLF’s criticisms against the Abiy government, and the private wealth commanded by TPLF leaders, the Tigray region has been food insecure since well before the November 2020 conflict began with over 1 million people on food safety nets. The TPLF governance mechanisms outside of the regional capital of Mekelle purposely ensured that local administrators willingly deferred to the centre when substantial issues arise and decisions have to be made.

Abiy Ahmed, the fourth Prime Minister of Ethiopia elected in 2018, has been transforming the government. These changes have prompted senior Tigrayan army officers who remained too long in government to return to Tigray to regroup. Fitz-Gerald says these are the sources of the atrocities happening in Tigray. The people are essentially held hostage and the TPLF demand recruits in return for food aid. This a repeat of the same tactics used in 1984 when food aid was misused and when the same TPLF leaders created a man-made famine and staged cross-border incursions into other regions.

Despite the evidence that has emerged, Canada appears reluctant to rock the U.S. boat right now and is turning a blind eye to TPLF crimes to humanity, including using child soldiers. The U.S. ended 17 years of sanctions on Sudan in 2019. It needs the support of Sudan and Egypt in order to gain access to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which would make Ethiopia Africa’s largest hydro electric power supplier. Egypt and Sudan also have a history with the TPLF and the U.S. appears to be following their lead.

Fitz-Gerald maintains that U.S. policy is destabilizing the region by pitting Sudan against Ethiopia in what comes down to a potential war over water rights. In 1902, the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty between Great Britain representing the colony of Sudan and Ethiopia included among other things, a clause that Ethiopia was forbidden from constructing any structures across the Blue Nile which would prevent the flow of waters into the Nile unless Sudan granted permission. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929, an agreement between Britain representing the colony of Sudan and Egypt, granted Egypt the constitutional right to veto construction projects along the Nile. A third treaty in 1959 divided the rights to the Nile’s water between Egypt (66 per cent), Sudan (22 per cent) and allotted 12 per cent to evaporation leaving Ethiopia rightless despite contributing more than 85 per cent of the water that flows in the Nile.

The Nile in Ethiopia is a national water structure and is not a U.S./United Nations Security Council issue. In fact, discussions surrounding Ethiopia’s water would fall under the African Union and not with Egypt or the U.S.. If the U.S. is to see peace in the Middle East it needs Egypt and in turn, Egypt is using that leverage to get the US to support their claim that their access to water would be affected by the filling of the Ethiopian dam. According to Fitz-Gerald, that is simply not true. The Ethiopian dam would in fact help reduce flooding in Sudan as well as conserving water through lower evaporation rates which would increase Nile water levels.

Fitz-Gerald sees “the potential for mid to longer term regional economic benefit for the three riparian states is also significant.”

Simultaneously, U.S. support for Egypt and the colonial treaties have caused food insecurity in Sudan leading to uprisings. Sudan must exercise its full rights to water in order to meet its agricultural needs. Without a clear African policy, the U.S. is enabling the TPLF to move forward with its agenda.

The TPLF is a non-State terrorist group supported by the international community that adheres to Mao Zedong’s insurgency doctrine to a tee, including the use of guerilla warfare while simultaneously disseminating misinformation about the government culminating in civil war.

The difference between the 1930’s and today is that the TPLF has keyboard warriors on social media and their propaganda has immediate, far-reaching effects.

In late June, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire that would last through the growing season to enable farmers to bring in a harvest and to allow much needed aid into the region. TPLF members and supporters refused to agree to the ceasefire and instead killed 40 interim administrators working in Tigray. The U.S., Europe and other countries continue placating the TPLF for a wide variety of reasons including a fear that civil war in Ethiopia will lead to an influx of refugees landing on European shores.

In an August 2, 2021 interview with the BBC, TPLF Commander Tsadkan Gebretensae outlined some of the demands that need to be implemented before the TPLF will agree to a ceasefire. The list included lifting the blockage so humanitarian assistance could reach Tigray; an end to the persecution of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa; release of political prisoners including thousands of Tigrayan officers who served in the Tigrayan armed forces as well as other major political actors in the Tigrayan political space.

With TPLF demands changing and updating as each week goes by, Fitz-Gerald maintains that “as the TPLF has not communicated any strategic objective or desirable end state as an outcome to the conflict, those who support its agenda are doing so at a considerable risk”. After this ceasefire is reached, the TPLF demand inclusive political dialogue with the major political forces in Ethiopia in order to arrive at a transitional arrangement to decide the political future of Ethiopia.

Historically, the TPLF was a predominant player in Ethiopia holding 25 per cent of the decision-making power while representing a population that made up only five per cent of the population. Over 80 per cent of the region are farmers contributing almost 50 per cent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product. 96 per cent of the population is Christian. The TPLF was a dominant force for 30 years until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected in 2018. Ahmed’s reforms included releasing political prisoners, restoring internet, and working with Eritrea to end the border war with Ethiopia which culminated in Ahmed earning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. It’s reported that during the transition of power, the TPLF took $30 billion cash plus gold which virtually bankrupt Ethiopia. This virtual bankruptcy now forms the financial basis for the propaganda campaigns discrediting Ahmed and the Ethiopian government.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons