The struggle for control over the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray has escalated into a bloody conflict. The fighting has now spilled over into the neighbouring country of Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had made peace after a decade of armed conflicts. Observers warn of a new humanitarian catastrophe on the Horn of Africa. The UN Refugee Agency reported that 11,000 people alone had fled to neighbouring Sudan to escape the fighting in Ethiopia.
Tobias Lehner of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke with Prince Dr Asfa-Wossen Asserate about why conflict has broken out and what chances there are for a peaceful resolution. He is the great-nephew of Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia, and came to Germany in 1974 as a political refugee. Prince Asserate is a management consultant for the Middle East and Africa, a bestselling author and political analyst.
Prince Asserate, in the shadows of the US elections, the long smouldering ethnic conflict has escalated into a military conflict. How could this happen?
The ones to blame for this conflict are the militias of the TPLF (editor’s note: Tigray People’s Liberation Front), who, in early November, attacked a military base of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force in Tigray at night, killing a large number of soldiers. Ethiopia had to react. That was what triggered this war.
And what are the underlying reasons?
I have been warning that this could happen for over 30 years, that the ethnicization of politics would inevitably lead to an ethnic cleansing. That is what is happening right now. Ethiopia is the only nation in the world that calls itself an “ethnic federation”.
Responsible for the current catastrophe is the constitution that was forced upon the Ethiopians in the early 1990s by the TPLF. It is imperative that this apartheid constitution is replaced by a new one, which finally will turn Ethiopia into the country that most Ethiopians have wanted for at least 50 years: a democratic federalist state.
Therefore, this conflict is not about the Tigray people as a whole, but specifically about the TPLF?
It is only about the TPLF, a Marxist group whose role model before the fall of the Iron Curtain was the regime in Albania. Their central viewpoints have not changed.
For 27 years, the TPLF ruled Ethiopia with an iron hand and in adherence to racist criteria. Two years ago, the group fell from power in the capital city. Its followers then retreated to their homeland of Tigray, where they supported and furthered anything that targeted the Ethiopian state – including the killings of Christians in the southern part of the country.
Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state. The Tigray are one of about 120 ethnicities. Could this turn into a maelstrom that could potentially destabilise all of Ethiopia – and with it the entire region?
That is what is being reported by western media. I don’t agree. If the TPLF and their allies no longer hold any influence, then the greatest enemy of the Ethiopian union has been conquered. We Ethiopians can then live in peaceful coexistence, as we have been doing for thousands of years.
Is this conflict purely an ethnic one or does it also have a religious component?
The fighting going on at the moment is not motivated by religion. Tigray is the most Christian of all the Ethiopian provinces. Aksum (editor’s note: the historic capital of the Aksumite Empire, which later gave rise to Ethiopia) is particularly important as the root of Ethiopian culture and its entire civilisation. Both the country’s first church and first mosque were built in Aksum.
However, you did just mention attacks against Christians that also involved the TPLF, today’s warring faction. What happened?
The incident happened during the summer in the homeland of the Oromo people (editor’s note: the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia; the group is majority Muslim). The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia and the OLF-Shene (editor’s note: Oromo Liberation Front) targeted Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and downright slaughtered them. Today we know that the TPLF supports both of these groups financially, politically and with weapons. The TPLF has no interest whatsoever in Ethiopian culture or in religion. For them, these are reactionary phenomena.
Many people had pinned their hopes on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who himself is an ethnic Oromo and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in establishing peace with Eritrea. Has he failed at handling the ethnic tensions in his country?
No. Abiy Ahmed is doing what is necessary to protect the integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia. Ultimately, that is also his duty. Every state has the right to use any means necessary to maintain its territorial integrity and national sovereignty.
The conflict is also affecting Eritrea. The TPLF confirmed that missiles were fired into the neighbouring country from Tigray. How will this affect the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea?
Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting the TPLF together. Who would have believed this would ever be possible? The old problems between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been overcome. This peace will last.
The majority of Ethiopians are Christians; the country is one of the oldest Christian states in the world. Which role can or should the Church play in this conflict?
When thousands of Ethiopian Christians were killed in the summer, the Orthodox Churches in Europe were the most vocal in condemning what had happened. By contrast, the western Churches were very reserved in their reaction. I very much hope that western Church leaders will not follow in the lead of the secular governments, who apply a so-called “Realpolitik” in their dealings with Africa and bend their knees even to authoritarian regimes. That cannot be the path chosen by the Christian Churches. Instead, it is imperative that they raise their voices in criticism wherever the laws of Christ are not being followed – and help wherever possible.
For many years, Aid to the Church in Need has supported numerous projects, particularly those benefitting the small Catholic minority in Ethiopia. The primary focus has been on the construction and renovation of churches, the education and further training of priests and religious, the training of catechists and the realisation of pastoral programmes in the communities, particularly pastoral care for young people.