A survivor of a massacre of 600 people, allegedly orchestrated by the TPLF,  which the government has cited as the reason for its military assault on Tigray
A survivor of a massacre of 600 people, allegedly orchestrated by the TPLF, which the government has cited as the reason for its military assault on Tigray © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

In 200AD, the Aksumite empire in modern-day Tigray was considered one of the world’s four great civilisations, together with Rome, Persia and China. It had a written language, Ge’ez; it had adopted Christianity; and it was renowned for its towering stone obelisks, some of which are still standing. Its borders, which waxed and waned over the empire’s 1,000-year history, stretched to the Red Sea in what is now Eritrea and to Meroe, an ancient desert kingdom in modern-day Sudan.

Today, Aksum, the capital of that former empire, is a battle zone. Ethiopian troops last week captured the town from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the regional party (and army) now at war with the central government. The TPLF responded by bombing the town’s airport.

Some 200 miles to the south, today’s Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, is also under siege. Federal forces threatened to bombard it on Thursday after the expiry of a 72-hour deadline and to capture the TPLF leadership. A federal military spokesman had earlier warned Mekelle’s 500,000 civilians: “Save yourself [and] dissociate yourself from this [TPLF] junta; after that there will be no mercy.”

The UN says any military assault in which civilians are collateral damage could constitute a war crime. The Ethiopian government has asked foreigners to butt out. The fighting in Tigray, it insists, is not a war but a law-enforcement operation, rendered necessary by the TPLF’s sneak attack this month on federal troops and its alleged orchestration of a massacre in which some 600 civilians were macheted and knifed to death. Most of those victims were from Amhara, the regional rival that took over as the centre of Ethiopian power when the Aksumite empire faltered in the 10th century.

The tragedy unspooling in Ethiopia does not make sense without some appreciation of the country’s elongated history. Many of the regions that make up modern Ethiopia, including Tigray, Oromia and to some extent Amhara, consider themselves distinct nations or peoples, part of an entity called “Ethiopia” only because they choose to be.

That concept is central to the 1995 constitution, introduced by the TPLF, which dominated national politics for almost three decades until Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018. The preamble states, “We the nations, nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia” in a document that gives equal rights to Ethiopia’s 80-plus languages, confers autonomy on nine ethnically defined regions, and allows any of the peoples of Ethiopia the theoretical right to secede.

That constitutional arrangement, a pragmatic attempt to hold the country together and a figleaf for TPLF rule, was accompanied by a strong developmental push. Modelled on successful Asian economies, the reasoning was that people of whatever nationality would want to belong to a fast-growing economy. Led by Meles Zenawi, TPLF chairman and prime minister from 1995 until his sudden death in 2012, Ethiopia racked up years of nearly double-digit growth and palpable grassroots progress.

But the constitution is now at the heart of an ideological turf war. To its supporters, it is an inviolable article of faith, one that protects the cultural, linguistic and political rights of “nations” like Oromia from the assimilationist instincts of leaders at the centre. Oromia’s people make up one-third of Ethiopia’s 110m population against just 6 per cent for Tigrayans. From 2015, the Oromo rose up against the TPLF’s increasingly brutal rule. Ethno-nationalism was the political rallying cry that propelled Mr Abiy, himself an Oromo, to power.

For critics, the 1995 constitution is not Ethiopia’s salvation but its damnation. Rather than liberating Ethiopians, they say, it has imprisoned them by pitting one ethnicity against another. Bloody disputes over land, language and political representation multiplied, allegedly stirred up by a divide-to-rule TPLF. According to Gabriel Negatu, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the TPLF’s biggest legacy has been to “divide the country along ethnic lines”, transforming ethnicity from “a source of pride, self-fulfilment and self-actualisation [to] a source of conflict”.

As prime minister, Mr Abiy has sketched a pan-Ethiopian vista that, to his critics, threatens the constitutional principle of “nations and peoples”. Some fellow Oromo regard it as a betrayal of Oromo nationalism.

The war in what was once the heart of the Aksumite empire can be seen through this prism. In a narrow sense, the TPLF’s bloody stand-off with Mr Abiy is the last stand of a party expelled from power. In the space of three years, the TPLF has gone from running the country to “criminal clique”.

But the fighting is also part of a bigger constitutional tug of war between those pushing to devolve more authority and those pulling power towards the centre. Unless that question can be resolved, it is hard to see the return of a stable peace.


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Letter in response to this column:

Why Ethiopia’s rivers offer the best hope for peace / From Michael Street Noto, Sicily, Italy

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