For several months, the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been embroiled in a conflict that has not only sent shock waves throughout much of the Diaspora but sparked debate about U.S. interventionism and the future prospect of Ethiopia’s unity.
Amid efforts by some U.S. lawmakers to label the Ethiopian government’s actions as genocidal, some Ethiopians, like Zemichael Yemane, continue to insist that his fellow countrymen and women, regardless of ethnic background, set their sights on rebuffing foreign influences and raising Ethiopia’s standing in the global community.
“Ethiopia should be getting itself together and getting economic mobility that China and India had to bring their people out of poverty,” said Yemane, a millennial and member of the D.C. metropolitan area’s Ethiopian-Eritrean Diaspora community.
On the morning of Friday, Dec. 10, Yemane counted among several people who marched from the U.S. State Department to the U.S. Capitol in opposition of Section 6464 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
If approved, that portion of the NDAA would compel the U.S. State Department to determine whether the Ethiopian government has committed crimes against humanity for more than a year. However, participants in last Friday’s march, many of whom called for a peaceful resolution, designated TPLF as the primary driver of the conflict.
Yemane, whose extended family includes Ethiopians of Tigrayan, Amhara and Oromo background, characterized TPLF forces as masters of manipulation who have leveraged their rapport with the U.S. government to lead a propaganda campaign against Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The current conflict, Yemane added, arose out of TPLF’s disdain that, after their 27-year rule over Ethiopia, they no longer had a stronghold on its federal government.
“Through struggle, the Ethiopian people brought down an unpopular government and folks embarked on investment [before] the former ruling party plunged the country into conflict and economic loss,” Yemane said.
“We cannot afford to make an enemy of the United States, Europe or any other member of the international community.”
Making Sense of the Ongoing Conflict
Ethiopia’s population consists of 80 ethnic groups. At 43 percent, the Oromo represent the largest, followed by the Amhara which accounts for 27 percent. Somalis and Tigrayan, each of whom represent six percent of the population, come next.
In the 1990s, after helping to oust the Derg communist regime out of power, the TPLF became Ethiopia’s ruling party in an ethnic federalist system under which each ethnic group controlled its own regional government. TPLF maintained power in Ethiopia until 2018 when Ahmed became prime minister in the aftermath of civil unrest and his predecessor’s resignation.
As prime minister, Ahmed repaired diplomatic relations with neighboring Eritrea and, as part of an effort to transition out of the ethnic federalist system, merged the region-based parties into the newly-formed Prosperity Party. TPLF refused to be included in such an arrangement.
In 2020, months into the pandemic, TPLF opposed an order by the Ethiopian government to postpone federal and regional elections scheduled for August of that year. By September, TPLF leaders designated Ahmed an illegitimate leader and, at the urging of its chairman Debretsion Gebremichael, hosted elections in the Tigray region.
On Nov. 3, 2020, what became known as the Tigray War erupted. During the conflict, the Ethiopian government officially designated TPLF as a terrorist organization. Shortly after, Ethiopia hosted its national elections. Ahmed secured a second term and the Prosperity Party won the majority of the parliament seats, albeit without voting taking place in the Tigray region.
While the conflict started in the Tigray region, it has spilled into other parts of the country. On Sunday, Dec. 12, TPLF forces, once again, occupied Lalibela, an historic Ethiopian city that’s a UNESCO heritage site. Days earlier, reports recounted several deaths in the Amhara region at the hands of TPLF soldiers.
In November, the Ethiopian government outlined the terms for a possible ceasefire, including Tigrayan recognition of its legitimacy and TPFL’s exit out of Ethiopia’s Amhara and Afar regions. Weeks later, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing the mass execution of Amhara women, grandparents and farmers who refused to kill livestock for Tigrayan forces.
In issuing those findings, HRW appealed to the United Nations and other international bodies to intervene.
For Kamau Grimes, a District resident who’s traveled to Ethiopia numerous times over the last decade, no form of intervention bodes well for Ethiopia as long as it advances an agenda of benefit to the American empire. Last month, Grimes counted among several people who converged on the White House in criticism of a narrative that painted the Ethiopian government as the aggressor in the conflict.
“The majority of the people in the country and outside of it support the direction of the government, so why is the TPLF being elevated to an equal status?” said Grimes, who lives in Southeast.
“The American public has a simplistic understanding of Africa and there are certain buzzwords – like genocide and famine – that are associated with the continent. When Abiy Ahmed tried to squash internal beef in the county and [along] the borders, he somehow became a dictator.”
A Tigrayan Maintains Genocide Claims
By February, TPLF and related opposition groups reported 52,000 civilian deaths at the hands of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its Eritrean and Amhara allies. TPLF affiliates said they collected those figures by compiling data from administrative stations in the Tigray region after every conflict.
In recent months, Tigrayans in the diaspora reported not being able to contact loved ones back home. As they continue to hear reports of starvation, mass executions and rape of Tigrayns by ENDF soldiers, some people, like Maebel Gebremedhin, have devoted their time and effort to lobbying U.S. lawmakers and bringing attention to what they describe as an ethnic cleansing.
Gebremedhin, a Brooklyn, New York resident who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee decades ago, co-founded the Tigray Action Committee in January after bombs dropped on her mother’s hometown in the Tigray region. Apprehension about the likely extermination of her bloodline, and what she described as the harassment of TIgrayans by Ethiopians of other ethnicities in U.S. cities, compelled the Gebremedhin to spread awareness about the conflict’s human casualties.
Since the Tigray Action Committee’s inception, members have repeatedly told the story of Mona Lisa Abraha, an 18-year-old Tigrayan woman who Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces allegedly shot and left for dead after trying to rape her. As a result of her injuries, Abraha suffered amputation of multiple limbs.
Gebremedhin, who said the prospects of Ethiopian unity look dim, likened Abraha’s experiences to that of several other Tigrayan women who’ve suffered atrocities over the last several months.
“A lot of pro-Ethiopian government supporters are conflating TPLF with Tigrayans. Tigrayans are human beings. The TPLF is a political party,” Gebremedhin said, explaining that TPFL’s election last year sparked what she described as Ahmed’s law-and-order operation.
“They are attaching a political party to the identity of an ethnic minority. All Tigrayans wanted to do was host a local regional election because they constitutionality had the right to do so. The best solution is to allow people their constitutional rights without consequences.”
A Member of Ethiopia’s Largest Ethnic Group Speaks
In the eyes of some people, including Denebo Wario, the international community hasn’t done enough to stop an internal conflict approaching its 14th month. For Wario, the Tigray War represents the latest in centuries of disappointments that members of his ethnic group, the Oromo, have experienced.
The Karrayyu Oromo tribe in particular has been in opposition to the Ethiopian government over the past few months. In early December, discussions between the Karrayyu Oromo tribe and EMDF to join forces against TPLF reportedly faltered when the former said they didn’t have the resources to support such a campaign.
Wario said that not long after, more than two tribespeople, who he referred to as longtime colleagues, had since been killed or gone missing. While there’s been speculation that OLA orchestrated those disappearances and deaths in the region, OLA representatives have come forward to point fingers at the Ethiopian government.
Wario, who doesn’t consider himself an Ethiopian, said he hoped that Ahmed, an Ethiopian of Oromo ancestry, would work in the best interest of the country’s largest ethnic group, but abandoned such expectations upon Ahmed’s embrace of Emperor Menelik II in 2019 when he opened the imperial palace to boost tourism and inspire unity.
But Wario said there can be no unity when it comes to the legacy of Emperor Menelik II who he, in part, blamed for the Oromo’s current standing in Ethiopia. More than a century before Ahmed came into power, Menelik II integrated Oromia into Ethiopia through five years of armed conflict.
In the decades after, during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Amharic increasingly grew in popularity as the mainstream Ethiopian dialect while the Oromo tongue, and other aspects of the culture, went into the margins.
That’s why Wario said maintaining Oromo autonomy comes first.
“The Oromo people have never given consent to be included in the empire,” said Wario, who lives in the United Kingdom. “That’s why we say Ethiopia has been imposed on Oromo. The war is conducted to preserve Ethiopia despite the constitution that guarantees self-determination.”
“What is the history being written about this?”
While she acknowledges the perspectives of Tigrayan and Oromo people who’ve harbored resentment toward the Ethiopian government, Lidia Yemane remained steadfast in her belief that, above all, Ethiopia must remain united.
On Dec. 10, she too marched with several people from the U.S. State Department to the U.S. Capitol. In speaking about the narrative perpetuated about the Ethiopian government by western media, Yemane raised the question of who benefits from continuous ethnic division and the threat of U.S. sanctions.
She then expressed a desire to see stories that addressed the atrocities of TPLF and recognized the Ethiopian government’s legitimacy.
“It’s difficult for us to think logically when innocent civilians are being massacred daily, women are being gang-raped, and hospitals, schools, airports and places of worship are being destroyed by the TPFL and Tigray Defense Forces,” said Yemane, an Adelphi, Maryland resident and sister of Zemichael Yemane, mentioned earlier in this article.
“People are not discussing that [but] just want someone to blame, which is the Ethiopian government.”
“What is the history being written about this? How is the world going to act?” Yemane continued.
“How are we going to come back from this as a country? Most Ethiopians want to come back to being one country [but] there are extremists who want to divide us and they’re being supported by the media.”