WOSEN MELAKU: TPLF's obsession with genocide and how to end it

The TPLF has studied post-genocide Rwanda particularly closely

In Summary

•The ethnic-based divisions and animosity cultivated in Ethiopian society over the years provided the ideal setting for the TPLF to pursue its evil agenda.

•Every time an individual or group demanded for their rights to be respected, TPLF rebranded them as acts of incitement for genocidal violence against Tigrayans

The war in Tigray has caused widespread destruction and displaced nearly two million people
The war in Tigray has caused widespread destruction and displaced nearly two million people
Image: AFP

It is counterintuitive but true. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) worked hard to have genocide committed against the innocent people of Tigray that it has taken hostage. But Ethiopia has denied them that opportunity at enormous cost.

Ethiopians now need to focus on disabling and disbanding the hostage-takers once and for all, lest they might not be as lucky next time.Being able to do as one pleases internally and escape scrutiny externally are the two cardinal manifestations of a successful dictatorship. Only a handful of countries may have truly mastered this feat.

Israel and Rwanda achieved them because their societies live in the shadow of a history of genocidal cruelty. Saudi Arabia and a few other petrostates may have secured them in exchange for keeping the international oil market adequately supplied.

TPLF does not own a region or country blessed with a plentiful supply of oil, so Israel and Rwanda seem to provide the only potentially viable model for TPLF to try to emulate. There is evidence that the TPLF has closely studied post-genocide Rwanda.

There is a deceptive simplicity in the way TPLF thinking goes. If a minority, constituting 14 per cent of the national population, could be threatened with near extermination in Rwanda, then with manipulation, incitement, persistent and systematic provocation, and sinister propaganda, TPLF could find it relatively easy to get a few Tigrayans killed and build a plausible case of genocide.

The TPLF journey to reach here had several distinct steps. First, the TPLF anointed itself as the sole representative of the people of Tigray.

Secondly, TPLF re-wrote the history of Tigray as one of victimhood that dates at least to 1889 when Emperor Menelik II moved the Ethiopian capital to its current location and purportedly deprived Tigrayans of their rightful place as the centre of political power in Ethiopian history.

Thirdly, TPLF singled out the Amhara community as the enemy, the group that brought centuries of poverty, oppression and misery on the people of Tigray, and built a narrative centred around its victimhood to mobilize its tribesmen to fight a war of liberation against the Amhara.

Fourthly, on taking power in Addis Ababa in 1991, it introduced ethnicity as the defining source of identity for all Ethiopians, repartitioned the country along linguistic lines and elevated ethnic identity over and above national Ethiopian identity.

Fifthly, it established a quasi-Apartheid system in which ethnic Tigrayans systematically controlled the political, security and economic sectors in the country. Finally, every time an individual or group demanded their rights to be respected, TPLF rebranded them as acts of incitement for genocidal violence against Tigrayans, thereby justifying resort to extreme violence in the name of averting it.

It does not matter that the TPLF were almost always the only perpetrators of extreme violence – for instance when hundreds of ethnic Anuak were killed in 2003, or the hundreds of unarmed protesters were allegedly shot, beaten and strangled to death by the security forces following the 2005 elections in Addis Ababa, or the Ireecha massacre of 2016 in Bishoftu against the Oromos – but they typically alleged being the victims of genocide- any measures they took would then be sold as good-faith attempts to avert genocide.

Genocide, the epitome of human evil, was reduced to a propagandist’s and spin-doctor’s term of convenience that can be bandied around to justify all governmental wrongdoing. During its time in office, TPLF’s reference to genocide against Tigrayans always seemed to go up or down depending on its perception of political control over the country – the shakier its hold of power seemed, the more violent its reactions became.

The period around the 2005 general elections and their contested aftermath stands out in this respect. The Voice of America, for example, quoted election observers who came across ruling party officials comparing the Ethiopian opposition forces to Rwanda’s Interahamwe militia and its role during the 1994 genocide and civil war. According to the Carter Centre, on 9 November 2005, “the government announced that the political and civil society leaders would be charged with treason and genocide.”

Likewise, Terence Lyons reported that then Information Minister Bereket Simon described the violent crackdown against unarmed protesters, which left scores dead and wounded from 6 to 8 June 2005, as necessary to prevent “strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide looks like child’s play.”

Obsession with the word genocide.

Finally, Berhanu Nega, a key leader of the opposition during the 2005 elections who was later sent to jail by the regime, also noted the TPLF’s particular obsession with the word genocide. In short, the TPLF playbook has been to throw the genocidaire label at anyone who dared to challenge them politically, even through the ballot box.

When TPLF finally lost its iron grip on power in 2018, it redeployed the know-how, skills, resources, and networks it had built over 27 years in office to make Ethiopia ungovernable for the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed.

The ethnic-based divisions and animosity it had cultivated in Ethiopian society over the years provided the ideal setting for the TPLF to pursue its agenda. TPLF tried to mobilize every community against every other community – the Sidama against the Wolayta, the Oromo against the Somali, the Guji Oromo against the Gedeo, the Gumuz against the Amhara, the Oromo against the Amhara, the Amhara against the Qemant, the Afar against the Somali and vice versa.

For about two years, TPLF played arsonist and fire brigade, making Tigray an oasis of stability inside a country kept constantly under fire. Allegations of genocide, particularly against the Amhara people in Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, and Southern regional states, became commonplace.

On 4 November 2020, within hours of launching its long-planned operation against the Northern Command of the ENDF, the TPLF digital propaganda machine went on overdrive and filled the social and mainstream media with well-rehearsed narratives about the Tigray genocide.

The fake propaganda campaign reached ecclesiastical heights when, in May 2021, Abune Mathias, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a Tigrayan himself, publicly denounced the genocide in Tigray.

Throughout this period, the goal of the genocide propaganda has evolved while the means has remained the same. Until 2018, prolonging TPLF’s time in office was the goal, but today it is about regaining power. It is about achieving these goals by occupying the proverbial moral high ground that would accompany a genocide, presenting themselves as the saviours of a community threatened with extinction.

If it takes the massacre of several Tigrayans to lend plausibility and credibility for such a narrative, TPLF seemed willing to facilitate it, albeit indirectly, by engaging in ethnically selective killing of other Ethiopians in the expectation of retaliation in kind.

The systematic massacre of hundreds of Amhara civilians, most of them wage labourers, at Mai Kadra in November 2020 by TPLF forces appeared calculated to provoke reprisals in kind.

From June 2021, similar massacres were carried out following TPLF’s advance to Amhara and Afar regions against poor peasants and villagers in Chena Teklehaymanot, Kobo, Woldiya, Gashena, Kombolcha, Galicoma, among others.

Over time, the provocations gained in sophistication. In Dessie town, for example, TPLF sleeping cells within the community, made up of Tigrayan residents who had lived there for decades, were successfully deployed to attack Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) forces.

In Addis Ababa, tens of thousands of Tigrayans were reportedly caught with unregistered, unlicensed and illegal weapons hidden in their homes and offices, some of them complete with explosive devices, radio communication equipment, and military fatigues.

With their notoriety for savage brutality against Amhara and Oromo civilians in western Ethiopia over the past two years, TPLF’s announcement of plans to join hands with the Oromo Liberation Front/Army sent shockwaves through Ethiopia.

Ironically, the more TPLF killed innocent Amhara and Afar people, the louder it screamed about Tigrayans being victims of genocide. Everything the TPLF did fits into a pattern, implying centralized guidance and direction from the top of a rebel movement. No act of a TPLF fighter or unit could be dismissed as the work of renegades or wayward actors.

Writing on the anniversary of the conflict on 4 November 2021, the Financial Times observed that “ethnically charged hate speech is at levels reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda”.

The genocide that the TPLF had been goading over decades was looking increasingly inevitable. Yet, thankfully, and despite all the methodical, systematic, and persistent provocations, Ethiopians refused to take the bait, they refused to give the gift of genocide to the TPLF.

Atrocities have been committed by all sides throughout this tragic conflict. The joint investigation carried out by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported a case involving “the killing of more than 100 people in Axum on 28 November 2020 by the EDF”.

There have also been several incidents of death and physical harm against the Tigrayan community. However, the measures taken by the Government so far involve only individual suspects that have been detained and subjected to asset freezes.

Ethiopians have ensured that no trace of systematic harm against the people of Tigray. Genocide is a term to be feared, and the acts constituting it – which are committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group – to be shunned.

According to a handful of senior TPLF leaders, no Ethiopian could contemplate acts of genocide against their Tigrayan brothers and sisters as a group. Even then, there can be no space for complacency or celebrations yet. Thanks to the work of the TPLF over nearly half a century, an atmosphere of mutual suspicion prevails between different communities in Ethiopia today.

What needs to be done

A durable solution requires systematic efforts to rebuild confidence between these communities, sustained over several years, if not decades. The priority should be to ensure Ethiopia’s refusal to give TPLF the gift of genocide is irreversible, which requires a lot more work going forward.

Community and religious leaders have proven their worth. They need to do more, and we must support them. The government needs to roll out a strategy for national reconciliation to undergird its military victory with a win over the hearts and minds of the people of Tigray and elsewhere.

Users of social and mainstream media need to be encouraged to tone down their rhetoric, act responsibly, and use safe content. And if they fail to do so, they should be held accountable for the wilful dissemination of wrong, misleading or otherwise malicious information.

Next, we need to restore the term genocide to its rightful place – as denoting the most heinous act that must not be allowed to join our standard vocabulary.

When Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1944, he meant it to signify an act that “shocks the conscience of mankind”, evokes the memory of what Hitler did to the Jews, and sends “shudders down the spines of those who heard it".

Let’s not cheapen or normalize this word. Let us not make it part of our lexicon. Let us fear it, for nothing can inspire more fear than the term genocide.

Once we sanitize our language, let’s then confront the reality that, while we do not have genocide and genocidaires in our midst, we still live in a state of mindless political violence against one another – violence imposed on us by a group of people determined to rule over us without our consent.

Let us rededicate ourselves to a system where the only source of political power is the consent of the Ethiopian people. In conclusion, all of us Ethiopians have suffered too much, albeit not to the same degree, nor with an equal degree of culpability. To this extent, all of us may have justified reasons to want to exact vengeance on one another.

But, once we allow ourselves time to grieve and reflect, all of us Ethiopians need to take a deep breath and ask one critical question, what do we want to bequeath to our children? Do we want grievance and a commitment to an endless cycle of revenge or wisdom and a commitment to a peaceful society based on truth, justice, compassion, and forgiveness?

The answer is clear. We have just shown to the world that we are better than what our adversaries wanted or expected us to be. Let’s build on it.

Melaku is an Ethiopian political analyst and researcher

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