From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Gerry Emmett
Thousands have died—including an undetermined number of civilians—and tens of thousands become refugees in the current conflict between Ethiopia’s central government and the regional government of Tigray. The central government of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is being aided in its war by the Eritrean regime of long-time dictator Isaias Afwerki.
This is a vicious conflict with ethnic undertones. Tigrayan civilians have recounted harrowing stories of murder, mass looting by soldiers, burning of factories, and rape. One young woman who escaped to Sudan said she was told, “Choose, either I kill you or rape you.”
But the war in Tigray has more to do with the decomposition of Stalinism than it does with “ancient hatreds.”
NATIONAL LIBERATION VS. STALINISM
Following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Ethiopia was ruled by a brutal Stalinist military junta, the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. Up to 500,000 men, women and children were murdered in the Derg’s “Red Terror,” and countless more died of starvation as the economy was destroyed. Mengistu was later convicted of the crime of genocide.
The Ethiopian provinces of Tigray and Eritrea both had national liberation movements, which for a time were allied. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front declared allegiance to the Stalinist ideology of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front remained closer to the Soviet Union—which also supported the Derg, as did Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Ultimately Eritrea gained independence. EPLF leader Afwerki became Eritrean dictator. Tigray’s TPLF became the most powerful group in the Ethiopian government that succeeded the Derg. They dropped their Hoxhaite ideology.
Last year, Prime Minister Ahmed—awarded his Nobel for a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea—attempted to unite all Ethiopia’s regional political parties into his new Prosperity Party. The formerly dominant TPLF refused to join this, resulting in the current conflict.