What is behind the war in Tigray?

One thing stands out clearly from the last few decades of privatisation and war: capitalism is not working in Ethiopia.

On 4 November last year, the Ethiopian government sent its army into the Tigray area of the country to quell an armed rebellion led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

On 28 November, the army had taken control of the regional capital, Mekele. Thousands of ordinary people had fled the area into neighbouring Sudan in order to get out of the way of the fighting, while the Ethiopian government imposed a news blackout on the area, as a result of which little information has emerged of what exactly is the state of affairs, although it is known that there has been a heavy death toll, among government troops as well as rebels.

Given that not so long ago Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel peace prize for bringing to an end a state of hostility that had existed for years between Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, the bourgeois media were soon complaining that the peace prize is so often given to people who prove to be richly undeserving of it:

“You could call it the curse of the Nobel peace prize,” wrote David Pilling in the Financial Times of 11 November 2020. “Barack Obama was awarded the honour in 2009, just nine months into his presidency and before his grandiloquent plans to bring peace to the middle east turned to verbiage.

“Aung San Suu Kyi, now de facto leader of Myanmar, won it back in 1991 when she was under house arrest and almost universally acknowledged as a defender of freedom and democracy. Later she revealed herself to be a steely pragmatist and Burmese nationalist with no discernible will to stop the persecution of the Rohingya muslim minority.

“Now it is the turn of Abiy Ahmed.” (The curse of the premature Nobel Peace Prize)

He might have mentioned, though he didn’t, such worthies as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, or the Colombian leader Juan Manuel Santos. There was also the Vietnam warmonger Henry Kissinger, who was awarded the prize alongside Vietnamese communist leader Le Duc Tho, who unsurprisingly rejected it in disgust.

Although the bourgeois media all expressed shock and horror at the Ethiopian government’s actions, it only reflects their ingrown hypocrisy, since there is no country in the world that is going to tolerate armed insurrection against the central government, as they very well know.

Abiy Ahmed has spent most of his life in the army, and it is only natural that he should take the view that, in the short term at least, the only way to keep the peace is to be intolerant of armed uprisings and to squash them flat. He and his government have been at great pains to stress that they have no quarrel with ordinary Tigrayan people and mean them no harm, but they are determined to root out the leadership of the uprising and neutralise it.

Background to the latest hostilities

Needless to say, there is a whole history behind the question of why the TPLF took arms against the central government, in particular by attacking a military barracks after holding unilateral elections in the region when the central government had decided to delay them in the country because of coronavirus.

The TPLF was formerly the leading force in the country, even though the population of Tigray constitutes only 6 percent of the country’s population. The reason for this is that it adopted the armed struggle very early on, enabling it to lead the armed opposition to the Soviet-backed government of Haile Mariam Mengistu, whose reforming zeal had swept away the foundations of feudalism in the country, opening the path of economic development.

However, Mengistu’s government faced too much external and internal opposition, including from the TPLF, which joined with neighbouring Eritrea to wage a secessionist war, to be able to get very far with the economic development of the country, as a result of which all the anticommunist and anti-Soviet forces rallied against it, including, regrettably, much of the communist youth who, following the split in the international communist movement between China and the USSR, allowed themselves to believe that of the two superpowers, the Soviet Union was the more dangerous.

The most potent ideological weapon in the hands of these forces was ethnic nationalism, which was encouraged as the best means of undermining strong central government.

Once Mengistu was overthrown by forces led by the TPLF, which professed a Maoist ideology, a Tigrayan leader, Meles Zenawi, led the country for 27 years. He very soon showed he was certainly no communist but just a bourgeois dictator, repressing his opponents ruthlessly. However, he opened the country to overseas investment and its economic growth went ahead at a very strong pace, even if the benefit to ordinary people was not great:

The ‘development model’ pursued by Meles Zenawi, a previous prime minister, “led to annual growth of 10 percent for more than a decade until 2017, according to official statistics, but ran into capacity constraints and chronic shortages of foreign exchange”. (My model is capitalism’: Ethiopia’s prime minister plans telecoms privatisation by Lionel Barber and David Pilling, Financial Times, 24 February 2019)

Although Ethiopia’s debt is not very high in relation to its GDP, the cost of servicing the debt takes up a large percentage of its income. In some years, this percentage has risen above 40 percent, although it is usually more in the region of 10 percent. Debt servicing, like mortgage repayments, reduces the income available either for saving or for consumption, as a result of which ordinary Ethiopian people did not benefit very much in terms of their standard of living throughout all the years of 10 percent GDP growth.

According to Mohammad Hassan, interviewed by Investig’Action in 2015: “In Ethiopia, with the TPLF, only poverty has grown rapidly. GDP statistics mask a sad reality. One-third of the population still lives below the poverty line. More than half of young people are illiterate. The under-five mortality rate is 41 percent, with malnutrition remaining the leading cause of death.

“Addis Ababa, the capital, has become an open-air brothel. Prostitution has grown considerably, more than in any other African city. And it even touches the kids. Aids is wreaking havoc. The few health progress that the country has seen is mainly due to western NGOs, as the government is unable to meet the needs of its population.

“So yes, economic growth has exploded. But it is far from benefiting the Ethiopian people. A rather telling phenomenon of this mirage is the land grabbing by multinational agribusiness. To attract investors, the government leases the most fertile land to foreign companies. They grow products for export while Ethiopia has not achieved food security and famine regularly wreaks havoc there.

“Farmers, if they are not exploited for a bite of bread by these multinationals, are simply expelled and condemned to penury. This is how the Ethiopian government attracts capital and boosts growth. It sells the country’s wealth instead of investing in it to develop a national economy, health, education and food security. Ethiopia has thus become an Eldorado for foreign companies.”

In addition, the economy is very vulnerable indeed to ‘export shocks’, since it relies on exports to raise foreign exchange to service the debts. The coronavirus epidemic has seen a drastic reduction in the country’s income, such that it has been obliged to apply to its various international creditors for debt relief.

The TPLF-dominated regime survived partly on the basis of US imperialist support. For many years, the TPLF played the role of gendarme in the Horn of Africa for Washington. It intervened militarily in countries hostile to its imperialist master such as Somalia, Eritrea or Sudan.

And it survived partly on the basis of ‘divide and rule’, with every ethnic group in Ethiopia allowed to manage its own affairs, to have its own armed force, and being accorded its own territory (even though most had previously shared territories, leading to constant bitter squabbles).

The party Zenawi led, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, was in fact formed on a federal basis comprising Ethiopia’s three largest ethnic groups – the Amhara (27 percent of population), the Oromo (34 percent), and the Tigrayans, together with a coalition organisation of disparate southern Ethiopian nationalities much divided among themselves (especially on the question of the division of land that had previously been shared by people of different nationalities).

The Somalis (6 percent of the population) did not feature at all. However, it was the Tigrayans who ruled the roost, and the Tigrayan leadership who benefited themselves most from the opportunities for influence, graft and corruption that their position afforded them. Eventually in 2016, the TPLF leadership was brought down by the ethnic nationalism that it itself had encouraged.

For years there had been protests, strikes, and various kinds of serious disruption against the government because of perceived discrimination against non-Tigrayans. “After years of persistent anti-government protests, economic troubles and widespread unrest, Mr Abiy took over a country on the brink of collapse.

“At least one million people were internally displaced in 2017, according to the United Nations, as the country was shaken by protests from Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who together make up nearly two-thirds of the population.” (What’s happening in Ethiopia is a tragedy by Tsedale Lemma, New York Times, 11 November 2020)

As a result, the EPRDF decided it had no choice but to overturn Tigrayan domination of the government and elected to its own leadership Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo. Tigrayans then found themselves without a single cabinet post and also culled from certain influential posts, eg in the army.

To put this is context, it is worth recalling that up until then, “in the army … the hegemony of the TPLF [had been] evident. The lack of diversity was even more challenging than in the armies of Selassie or Mengistu … In total, the Ethiopian army had sixty-four generals. Forty-nine of them were Tiger.” (Mohammad Hassan, op cit)

Nevertheless the TPLF had every reason to hope that Abiy’s initial popularity would wane, since he too had taken over a country that, besides being seriously challenged economically, was riven by the ethnic rivalries that his predecessors had fostered. In his bid to unite the country, for instance, he forcefully reined back his own Oromo compatriots when they went on the rampage against Tigrayans after they suspected that some Tigrayan or Tigrayans had been responsible for killing a much-beloved Oromo pop singer, thereby considerably losing popularity among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest nationality.

In these circumstances, the TPLF had every hope that the presidential elections promised for 2020 would help them back in the saddle. Then there came coronavirus, and then came the postponement of the elections. Hence their ill-advised uprising.

Abiy Ahmed is no revolutionary. In order to attract yet more foreign investment, he is keen to privatise everything in sight, even though public ownership of much of the economy was undoubtedly important in assisting Ethiopia’s economic rise.

Nevertheless, his replacement of the EPRDF by a unified party in which all Ethiopians would be able to participate directly, and his understanding that in order to succeed in the world it is essential for Ethiopia to be more effectively united, rather than being goaded towards division and conflict, as well as his interest in preserving peace with Ethiopia’s neighbours, Eritrea in particular (whom the TPLF regard as an eternal mortal enemy), do suggest that his government is very much the lesser evil.

It is clear, however, that capitalism is not working for Ethiopia; moves towards sacrificing the state-owned enterprises that have been the powerhouses of its significant development is more than likely in the long run to make things much worse.

At the time of the overthrow of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia had a vibrant Marxist movement whose influence, unfortunately, waned because of internal division and sectarianism. It is time for that movement to be restored on a more secure footing. With a good Marxist leadership. Ethiopia is a country that has everything it needs to build a prosperous and sovereign society.