The world’s first conflict triggered by COVID-19 exploded on November 4 in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray. Before your eyes glaze over at news of fresh African horrors — hundreds dead in battles and air strikes, ethnic massacres, civilians fleeing, charities calling for food aid — consider this frightening new reality. For the first time in modern history, wars and insecurity now ravage a continuous line of African states from Mauritania’s Atlantic shores to the Red Sea — a 6,000km Sahelian suicide belt of jihadis, state failure and starvation. Intervene too hard in this mess and you get then-British PM David Cameron’s ill-conceived 2011 Libyan bombing raids. Gaddafi gets butchered in a storm drain, the arsenals are pillaged and weapons flood the Sahara. Ignore Africa’s suffering and it comes back to bite us all, as we have seen with waves of migrants heading north on the perilous sea passage to Europe.
The Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael is not your typical African rebel. Thirty years ago he was a radio intelligence officer, who kindly agreed to transmit my Reuters reports in Morse while I was covering the guerrilla war against Ethiopia’s communist government. I was the only foreign correspondent accompanying the rebels as they advanced through a land of obelisks, inselbergs and hilltop monasteries. I saw the Tigrayans as Africa’s Afghans — impossible to beat in their highland redoubts, ascetic, xenophobic and obsessed with how badly they’d been oppressed.
After we all roared into Addis Ababa on tanks for the final battle, Debretsion and his boss Meles Zenawi, a ruthless Tigrayan ideologue, swapped their bush fatigues for lounge suits. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton praised Meles as a new type of leader in an ‘African Renaissance’. Debretsion laid down his rifle and took a string of degrees in IT. But Meles and his Tigrayan comrades were like matryoshka dolls. In Washington they discussed GDP growth and anti-al-Qaeda Predator drones. In Addis, as Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles lectured adoring westerners bearing gifts about ‘ethnic democracy’, in which Ethiopia’s many peoples supposedly had devolved powers, so long as the Tigrayans stayed in charge. Under the Hugo Boss city threads, the former rebels were all mentally still in their Tigrayan battle gear, chanting slogans under Marxist-Leninist banners.
During the 1980s, Meles and Isaias Afwerki, an equally brutal leader of separatist rebels in neighboring Eritrea, had fallen out over conflicting interpretations of an obscure treatise by Mao Tse-Tung. Many died in the ensuing feud. In 1998, Meles and Isaias — by this time president of an independent Eritrea — quarreled again, this time over who controlled a hamlet called Badme. Some 80,000 soldiers died in trench warfare, and when you gazed over the parched, eroded lands of the disputed territory, it was as if two bald men were fighting over a comb. Tigray and Eritrea had been at the heart of the 1984 famine, when due to the war one million out of a 40 million population starved to death. By the turn of the century, Ethiopia was still among the world’s poorest nations but the population had hit nearly 70 million. Today it’s 110 million.
Meles died in 2012, his guts eaten away by years of surviving in the bush, but the Orthodox Christian Tigrayans still lorded it over Ethiopia’s disparate ethnic factions. As a long-serving minister, the new supremo Debretsion oversaw the rollout of mobile telephone masts, fibre-optic cabling and high-speed broadband. The authoritarian Tigrayan mindset did not relax one bit, but eventually mass demonstrations against the regime brought Abiy Ahmed to power. A Pentecostal from the populous, downtrodden and largely Muslim Oromo people, Abiy swiftly won the outside world’s praises for making peace with Isaias and Eritrea. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which, as we know from the subsequent record of Myanmar’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi, does not stop a recipient from being a warmonger. But westerners rewarded Abiy with lashings of aid, while Chinese engineers drove capital investments that helped the economy grow by 9 percent or more. Until recently Ethiopia looked like a rare example of what people used to call ‘Africa rising’ — a regional engine of economic opportunity. Addis was transformed, with overhead railways zooming above Orthodox churches, Boeings taking off across oxen-plowed fields, and tarmac highways leading down to new oil fields and potash mines.
On the eve of Abiy’s ascent I visited Tigray’s capital Mekelle, where Debretsion’s chums had built themselves large villas. Outside town, the Tigrayan farmers still lived in grinding poverty, the people swathed in flowing white robes, harvesting golden stooks of wheat with sickles and praying in rock-hewn churches. The majority of people here, it seemed to me, had not benefited from decades of Tigrayan rule — and yet these days many other Ethiopians loathed them as if they had. Down in Addis Ababa, Abiy began concentrating his power in a new political party. Tigrayan leaders were pushed out — or they jumped — and Debretsion withdrew back up into the northern mountains to sulk.
Early this year the Tigrayans celebrated the anniversary of their former guerrilla movement’s founding, and the parades of ‘special forces’ soldiers and heavy armor showed how much military kit they still boasted, decades after the end of civil war. A collision seemed inevitable, and when Abiy delayed national elections in August on the excuse that the pandemic made polls impossible, the countdown to conflict began. Tigray held its own elections two months ago and, astonishingly, Debretsion’s ruling faction won nearly 100 percent of the votes.
It’s unclear exactly when Abiy began maneuvering his army towards Tigray, but fighting began after Debretsion’s forces launched a November raid on a weapons depot in Mekelle. Abiy describes the current onslaught against the rebels as a ‘law enforcement’ action, and some Ethiopians object to it being called a civil war yet, despite the slaughter of civilians and bombing raids by Sukhoi planes. After the Tigrayans fired rockets at Asmara airport, it appears Isaias’s Eritrean forces are also being drawn into the battle. Ethiopians who make up a global diaspora are stoking hatred on social media, while the usual suspects from the human rights groups — think tanks, charities, UN agencies — are issuing calls for restraint while competing for donations. The Ethiopians don’t want outside interference, but if the West fails to act on some level then others might: the Arabs, Turks, Russians and Chinese.