The Deadliest Conflict of the 21st Century…So Far
Not even the long-running Syrian Civil War or the currently unfolding Russo-Ukraine War can top the list. The Tigray War has instead seen death and destruction on an unprecedented scale within the 21st century, and it is a conflict the world simply forgot about. Far more damning is the fact that the war started and ended recently, from November 2020 to November 2022, and everyone simply looked away.
A shocking article by the Spanish newspaper El País in late January 2023, alongside an interview taken by Financial Times of Olusegun Obasanjo, who is an African Union representative and the main mediator of the conflict both report the same figure.
War in Tigray may have killed 600,000 people. Civilian and military deaths combined. This went on for over two years focused within a population of 6 million in the region of Tigray in Ethiopia. It was first brought to attention by researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium, who were among the first ever to successfully process available information.
The reports are nothing short of horrifying and sickening.
Sexual violence and rape were prominently used as a weapon of war by all sides involved. A UN press release in 2021 detailed:
“There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence. Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities.”
One particular survivor interviewed by BBC in 2021 was shot in her hand after attempting to defend herself from a rapist belonging to the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, who had previously tried to force her grandfather to rape her. Atrocities of the same kind were inflicted by Tigrayan forces upon Amhara and Afar populations during their counter-offensive in 2022 in a truly senseless unleashing of monstrous violence.
Famine was also used by the Ethiopian federal government to completely break the will of the Tigrayan opposition as a brutal back-breaking assault. They directly blockaded humanitarian aid from reaching Tigrayan civilians, putting 5.2 million Tigrayans at direct risk of starvation.
Genocide and ethnic cleansing were obvious allegations as ethnic Tigrayans in the capital Addis Ababa were subject to profiling and even forced disappearance on accusations of supporting the rebels.
What could have led to such death and destruction within such a small area? Why was it so hard for researchers and journalists to gain access? And most importantly, what does the Tigray War mean for the rest of the world going forward?
The Tigrayan ethnic group is one of the many ethnic groups that have constituted Ethiopia for centuries. In modern Ethiopia, they constituted 6% of the country thereby making them a minority.
Following the overthrow of the brutal communist rule of the Derg in 1991 through the Ethiopian Civil War, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led a coalition government in Ethiopia’s transition to a free-market democracy. At the head of this government and all branches of power were ethnic Tigrayans, with Meles Zenawi, also an ethnic Tigrayan ruling for 17 years as Prime Minister.
It was an interesting case of near-total minority domination of a country, over the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who collectively make up over 60% of the population. Despite the fact that Zenawi’s government oversaw rapid economic growth, it was also criticized heavily for the deadly suppression of dissent and authoritarianism.
Ethiopian scholar Dr Tefera Negash Gebregziabher argued in various publications that the TPLF and the Tigrayan ruling cadre would be guided by ‘ethnonationalism’ and that an oligarchy of powerful Tigrayans would be formed under Meles Zenawi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe who while not being Tigrayan, was nonetheless a powerful member of the TPLF-led coalition.
It was perhaps these circumstances that led to the series of political conflicts and a national crisis that emerged after the victory of Abiy Ahmed in the 2018 Ethiopian parliamentary elections. Abiy Ahmed is an ethnic Oromo and an astute politician who grew up among the TPLF following the end of the war to overthrow the Derg. He was able to grow his own powerful support bloc for this victory to work, and for his government to remain free of TPLF pressure.
Initial reactions to Abiy Ahmed’s taking of power seemed to have been lukewarm but soon after coming to power, Ahmed took the decision to improve relations with Eritrea, a country that broke away from Ethiopia in 1991. Eritrea had been in border conflicts with Ethiopia ever since then, with violence particularly turning very critical in 1998, and the TPLF was at the forefront of combat against Eritrean forces.
As a reaction to this, many TPLF members harshly criticized it, claiming that it was an insult to fallen Tigrayans in the 1998 conflict and that the TPLF was not consulted. The next round of escalation occurred in December 2019 when Abiy Ahmed reformed the TPLF-established coalition into a pan-Ethiopian party called Prosperity Party.
The TPLF refused to join this initiative and responded by retreating to the Tigray region to administer it. Among a series of conflicts, one of the most egregious was an instance in which the TPLF refused to allow the police to arrest Ethiopia’s former intelligence chief, an ethnic Tigrayan and a party member of the TPLF.
Elections slated for 2020 were delayed as a result of COVID-19 and the TPLF responded by holding its own regional elections without authorization from the federal government. In turn, the federal government cut down state funding for the region, which the TPLF claimed was a ‘declaration of war’.
Tensions would reach a boiling point when the TPLF began demanding a caretaker government to oversee elections while claiming the constitution to be illegitimate.
Soon enough, on Nov. 3, 2020, armed TPLF militia formations attacked the federal armed forces bases in the Tigray region. The response was immediate and harsh, with the Ethiopian National Defence Forces launching an-all out assault into the Tigray region, driving the TPLF into the mountain regions.
The first massacre of civilian populations was reported within the first week of armed conflict, carried out by the TPLF, in what came to be known as the Mai Kadra Massacre. Regional and international players made their involvement in this conflict obvious, with Eritrea joining directly on the side of Abiy Ahmed’s government, and Somalia, Egypt, UAE, and Turkiye supplying weapons and intelligence.
The whole country itself with its various ethnic groups got involved as deals were made and alliances shifted. Mid-2021 saw the TPLF launch a large counter-offensive that rolled back government progress, even invading the Afar and Amhara regions. It was at this point that Olusegun Obasanjo and the wider African Union got closely involved in trying to negotiate peace.
Ethiopian and Eritrean joint offensives sought to break the momentum, which was achieved by mid-2022 following a ceasefire. The fighting eventually died down with another ceasefire currently in effect, although there are allegations of Amhara and Eritrean forces continuing to attack Tigrayans sporadically.
A peace deal and disarmament of the TPLF is in progress as part of the peace deal brokered by Obasanjo and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, a clear victory for Abiy Ahmed’s government in a vicious and brutal civil war.
The most terrifying implications for future events based on the Tigray War sadly do not include the uses of sexual violence and famine as weapons of war. Instead, it is the total mastery of media blackout measures enacted by Abiy Ahmed’s government, as described by Slate.
After initially claiming that no civilians were killed by government forces in combat operations, the Ethiopian state apparatus completely shut off electricity, water, telecommunications, and internet in the Tigray region in November 2020. Not only that, journalists were also not allowed into the region. Sporadic arrests of those that were able to enter did occur, and the University of Ghent group were reduced to working remotely and using projections to the best of their abilities.
Coinciding with the worldwide COVID-19 crisis, Abiy Ahmed’s measures in cutting the Tigrayan homeland off from the rest of the world represent the most damning indictment of the wonders of the Information Age. Headlines about the war were not run and social media saw next to zero activity about the atrocities. It is only recently that we are gradually getting to know exactly what happened in two years of hell on Earth in Ethiopia.
We are seeing a similar apathy towards the atrocities currently being committed in the Myanmar Civil War even among citizens of neighboring countries and similar information blackouts were carried out in Kenya and Tanzania during their elections.
The precedent set by these efforts is extremely worrying for anyone who cares about freedom, the right to information, and the right to receive international aid.
With the backdrop of exceptionally brutal and animalistic ethnic bloodshed happening so recently, we have some serious reckoning to do for the future.
[Photo by Yan Boechat/VOA]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Fatin Anwar is a student of Geography at the University of Dhaka and a freelance writer/researcher.