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All lives are equally valuable: the wars in Ukraine and Tigray

Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has focused the world’s attention on the struggles of Ukraine and its people. Despite this, a similarly brutal conflict in the Ethiopian region of Tigray has failed to attract almost any attention at all.

May 30, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Tigray Genocide Protest outside Downing Street in London in October 2021. Photo: Loredana Sangiuliano / Shutterstock

[T]here is nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO Director-General

Geneva, March 16th 2022

At the world’s opposite ends two genocidal wars now rage, one in the Global South and the other in the Global North. In Ethiopia, the Amhara-dominated federal government pounced on the country’s autonomous region of Tigray on November 3rd 2020. A year and a half later, on February 24th 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine. These two conflicts seemingly have nothing to do with each other.

Different, yet similar wars

This is a myth. The West’s myopia and the European Union’s focus on its own interests have blinded international decision-makers and world public opinion to the two conflicts’ commonalities. First of all, it is clear that civilians are the main victims of these wars. Second, the underlying causes and “logic” of ethnolinguistic nationalism that motivate both the Ethiopian prime minister and Russian president have more in common than meets the eye.

Russia’s neo-imperial ideology of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) proposes that Ukrainians and Belarusians constitute “minor regional branches” of the (Great) Russian nation. This is due to their historical, religious and linguistic closeness. As a result, the Slavic-speaking and Orthodox populations of these countries – until recently, mostly under the Moscow Patriarchate – ought to be “reunited” with Russia. It does not matter that the majority of Ukrainians and most Belarusians disagree. Indeed, that is exactly why the Kremlin had to attack Ukraine and coax Belarus into complicity. After all, the initial Russian attack on Ukraine was launched from Belarusian soil. The Kremlin decided to show the world who “really rules” both countries, which are seen as “stray” Russian provinces from Moscow’s point of view.

Ethiopian imperialism

Like Russia, Ethiopia is a former empire that now has chosen neo-imperialism as a path to the future. Both countries have excelled at concealing their imperial character in the wake of their respective communist revolutions in 1917 and 1974. Whilst the Russians overthrew their tsar, the Ethiopians got rid of their atse. These are the respective Russian and Amharic words for “emperor”. The Soviet Union portrayed itself as a protector of the world’s oppressed colonial populations, helping them to win independence from Western Europe’s crumbling maritime empires. There was no need to do the same in the case of the Soviet Union, as the ideology of communism supposedly made the huge state’s multi-ethnic population into one happy family of equal Soviet citizens. As promised in marxism-leninism, this was meant to be a classless society free from division.

A homogenous Christian Ethiopia corresponds only with the northern quarter of today’s state. Between 1879 and 1904, the country’s armies fanned south, west and east. They conquered vast territories home to many ethnic groups in order to create what we know as contemporary Ethiopia. Beginning in the late 1890s, the tsarist government sent Russian military experts to assist this “fellow Orthodox” country in this task of empire building. Meanwhile, one third to half of the enlarged country’s population perished. This was not so much a result of the fighting but the genocidal starvation and malnutrition-induced epidemics brought about by long decades of warfare.

The north’s Amharas became the new empire’s ruling nation, much like the Russians in the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Thanks to their shared past and religion, the ethnolinguistically close – that is, Semitic-speaking and often Christian – nations of the Tigrayans and Tigres supported and even partook in the Amharas’ imperial endeavour. If we equate the Amharas with the Russians in terms of power and population, the Tigrayans largely correspond with the Ukrainians and the Tigres with the Belarusians.

In imperial Russia, the languages of Belarusian and Ukrainian were banned in 1863. The exclusive use of Russian was favoured in the administration, army and education (at least across the empire’s European section). After the 1880s, linguistic homogeneity was seen as a necessary foundation for modern Russia. The Soviet Union briefly parted with this assimilationist policy and championed a multitude of languages in these official functions, including Belarusian in Soviet Belarus and Ukrainian in Soviet Ukraine. This policy of cultural empowerment for Russia’s colonised nations came to an abrupt halt in the 1930s. Afterward, all of the Soviet Union’s “classless” and multi-ethnic population was to acquire the “truly communist” single language of the future, namely Russian.

The 1989 breakup of the Soviet Union reversed this trend. Outside the Russian Federation, Russian was replaced with Belarusian, Ukrainian and other languages in the newly independent post-Soviet states. Yet, shortly after this in 1995, the dominant role of Russian was once again reaffirmed in Belarus. The Kremlin now maintains great influence over the country in its political, economic, military and cultural spheres.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, Moscow almost achieved a similar feat. However, this was stopped by the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. This powerful grassroots opposition movement brought down the country’s pro-Russian puppet government and reaffirmed Ukrainian’s position as the exclusive state and national language. In Moscow’s narrow, ethnolinguistic vision of the Russian world, Kyiv left Russia with no choice. The Russian military had to attack Ukraine in order to “reunite” this “stray province” with Russia. This was to be achieved by occupying the country and liquidating Ukraine’s language, culture and history. The very name “Ukraine” was to be erased from – at least Russian – maps, encyclopaedias and school textbooks.

In the case of the Ethiopian Empire, the 1860s saw Amharic replace Ge’ez, an antiquated religious language (“Ethiopian Latin”) closely connected with local “Orthodox” (that is, Tewahedo) Christianity. The written use of the country’s other languages was simultaneously banned, including the Tigrinya (Tigrayan) and Tigre languages. Elementary education was made available only through the medium of Amharic, with a European language optional in middle school.

During the brutal Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936-41), the colonial administration suppressed Amharic in favour of some other Ethiopian languages, including Tigrinya (Tigrayan). Rome strove to replace imperial Ethiopia’s Amharic elite with Italian civil servants in top posts and local bureaucrats of lower ranks who would be drawn from Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups, rather than the Amharas. After the Second World War and the liberation of the country by the British military, English became the sole medium of education at Ethiopia’s young universities. The English language also remains the preferred medium of instruction in secondary schools.

Communist Ethiopia

In communist Ethiopia (1974-91), the Soviet example was closely followed and this included a policy similar to the interwar Soviet Union’s struggle against Great Russian chauvinism. The struggle against “Great Amharic chauvinism” allowed for the codification and empowerment of 15 other languages (including Tigrinya) by the turn of the 1980s. In addition, five ethnolinguistically defined regions were granted autonomy after the creation of the People’s Republic of Ethiopia in 1987. This included the region of Tigray for the Tigrayans. The government did not think it was necessary to provide the Tigres with a separate autonomous region. At this stage, most of them were Muslims. Together with members of some other ethnic groups (including the Tigrinyas, as are known Eritrea’s Tigrayans who constitute over half of the country’s population), they eventually chose to identify as “Eritreans”. These groups then fought for and eventually won their own independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Much like in the Soviet Union, a system of totalitarian repression was built in communist Ethiopia to enforce compliance with the government’s policies. The collectivisation of the countryside (officially known as “villagisation”) brought about mass death by starvation. Any opposition to this murderous “modernisation” was summarily crushed through the creation of Ethiopia’s own gulag system. Each “modernised” (collectivised) village was tasked with building a low-tech prison, more often than not just a deep pit dug in the ground. It offered no protection against the elements, only adding to the suffering of inmates. Despite this, a dense network of these small concentration camps soon covered the whole country.

However, opposition began to grow in the mountain and desert areas outside the communist government’s effective control. The Kremlin gradually ceased its support for communist Ethiopia during the late 1980s. Moscow’s imperial overstretch and focus on the nuclear armaments race with the United States almost collapsed the Soviet economy. All that largely remains of Moscow’s effort to expand the Soviet bloc to Africa is the no-frills and cheap Soviet Lada car. To this day, models can often be seen in the streets of the capital Addis Ababa.

After the 1974 revolution, non-Amhara ethnic guerrilla movements fought a bitter civil war against the communist authorities for over two decades. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) proved to be the most successful of all these movements on the battlefield. When the tide started to turn in favour of the guerrillas around 1988, most decided to join the newly formed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) under the TPLF’s de facto leadership.

Many of these guerrilla movements shared Addis Ababa’s commitment to the ideology of marxism-leninism, including the TPLF. However, disagreement arose regarding the centralised character of the state and the privileged position of the Amharas. This unitary model was similar to that under the atse’s imperial rule. After the campaign against Great Amharic chauvinism started to wind down, a neo-imperial Amharic nationalism soon reappeared in the country. This resembles the resurgence of Russian imperial-style nationalism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Post-communist Ethiopia

In contrast to the communist regime, the multi-ethnic EPRDF’s rule led to the introduction of genuine ethnoterritorial federalism much like in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The post-communist constitution of 1995 officially overhauled Ethiopia into an ethnoterritorial federation. By 2020, forty of Ethiopia’s over 80 “nations, nationalities and peoples” had received their own ethnolinguistically defined autonomous territories. In most of these ethnic homelands, the titular nations’ ethnic languages fulfil the role of the leading languages of administration and elementary education. Amharic remains the language of contact with the federal government, though in reality now English often plays this role without any supporting legal provision.

For almost three decades, the TPLF’s authoritarian rule in federal Ethiopia was enabled and moderated by the EPRDF. This arrangement de facto ensured a privileged position for the Tigrayans. But unlike the Amharas in imperial and communist Ethiopia, the Tigrayans did not (or rather were not able to) impose their Tigrayan language and culture on the country’s population.

This situation became unsustainable in the late 2010s, following the death of the charismatic TPLF leader and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012. The EPRDF was dissolved in 2019 under Ethiopia’s incumbent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In place of this Tigrayan-led federal “supra-party” of monoethnic parties, he founded the new centralist Prosperity Party (PP). The unitary PP is modelled on Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s similarly named Justice and Development Party. Officially, it is disinterested in ethnicity. However, in practice Amharic is the party’s language of politics and communication. In no time the PP began to part with the multi-ethnic EPRDF’s moderation. As a result, Amharic nationalism was again elevated to the state’s main unifying ideology. This is in spite of the fact that Ethiopia’s constitution guarantees a system of ethnoterritorial federalism for all the country’s ethnolinguistically defined nations.

The TPLF withdrew from the Ethiopian machinery of governance to its own autonomous region of Tigray. But cohabitation with Ethiopia’s PP government was short-lived. The country’s resurgent Amharic neo-imperialism is also set on controlling all of Ethiopia’s regional governments. Prime Minister Abiy delayed scheduled parliamentary and regional elections by one year, ostensibly to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. In reality, however, this was designed to help him consolidate his hold on government at all levels.

The TPLF decided not to wait and conducted regional elections in Tigray on the constitutionally approved date in 2020. Addis Ababa refused to recognise the results, which gave the TPLF a resounding victory in Tigray. The TPLF reciprocated by withdrawing its recognition of the federal government, following its failure to conduct state-wide parliamentary elections on the scheduled date.

The conflict between the federal government and Tigray grew tenser by the day. The Tigrayan government in its capital of Mekele repeatedly requested negotiations with Addis Ababa, but to no avail. Instead, the Ethiopian army struck Tigray with all its might. Violence of this kind was unleashed despite the fact that even the Ethiopian constitution gives the country’s regions the right to independence, should they wish to leave the federation. After all, Article 39.1 says that “[e]very Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.”

War on Tigray

Like Russia and its onslaught on Ukraine, the PP government showed that it would not be hindered by the rule of law or the negotiated logic of Ethiopian federalism. Yet, in October 2021, the TPLF’s experienced military cadres almost gained the upper hand in the war and were even close to capturing Addis Ababa. However, Turkish drones allowed the federal army to roll back the Tigrayan offensive, leading to the capture of strategic areas across Tigray region.

For the time being, the Ethiopian-Tigrayan war has reached a stalemate. The TPLF is entrenched in mountainous areas, while the government forces control the fertile lowlands that provide Tigray with essential foodstuffs. The Ethiopian army also occupies the border zone, where Tigray meets Sudan. In the north Eritrea – much like Belarus in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War – is acting on behalf of Addis Ababa. As a result, the TPLF-controlled part of Tigray is faced with a tight blockade on all sides.

In stark contrast to the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, almost no images and information have emerged concerning the situation and atrocities committed in Tigray. Addis Ababa simply switched off the region’s internet and mobile communications. Not only are journalists barred from entering Tigray, but UN aid workers are also denied access. The federal government has kept the world in the dark on the situation in the region. In contrast, Addis Ababa continuously promotes propaganda that supposedly shows the Ethiopian military bravely protecting civilians and combatting “rebels” in Tigray. In a nutshell, the Ethiopian soldiers “liberated” the Tigrayans, much like Russia wants to “liberate” the Ukrainians from themselves.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmed is quietly paying the Eritrean army to rough up and squeeze the Tigrayans in the north. Of course, he strenuously denies the widespread presence of Eritrean soldiers across northern Ethiopia. Ironically, the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 was given to him for establishing peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018. Now, Eritrea has joined Abiy Ahmed in the fight against their mutual enemy, the TPLF and Tigrayans.

Tigray has a population of seven million, a bit more than similarly sized Slovakia (5.5 million). By now, at least 100,000 Tigrayans have died in fighting, while 200,000 have died due to starvation. Around 100,000 wounded and sick have perished due to a lack of basic health care. In total, this means that there have been a staggering half a million casualties. This amounts to seven per cent of all the Tigrayans. In addition, the fighting has displaced at least 2.5 million people (or 36 per cent), while 4.5 million (64 per cent) are in dire need of food assistance. Acts of ethnic cleansing and even genocide are commonplace. Large massacres have claimed the lives of hundreds and even thousands of victims at a time. So many mass killings have taken place that there is now a designated category page devoted to recording them on Wikipedia.

Extrajudicial killings of Tigray activists and ordinary Tigrayans due to their ethnicity alone are widespread. Tigrayans are repressed across Ethiopia, dismissed from the civil service, robbed of their bank accounts, tortured, abducted and arbitrarily detained in de facto concentration camps. Rape has become a normalised weapon of war in Tigray, while health facilities and other vital infrastructure are targeted across the region. Tigray’s cities, towns and villages are systematically flattened, leaving a devastated and hungry landscape in its wake.

Due to their language and culture, there is no safe place left for Tigrayans, be it in Ethiopia or Tigray. Repressions are widespread in those parts of Tigray under federal government control, while starvation is the norm in the areas under the TPLF. Given the size of Tigray and its population, the war has had a much more devastating effect than even the Russian onslaught on Ukraine. Can we imagine eight per cent of the Slovak population being killed, while a third has to escape and the remaining two thirds face malnutrition-induced epidemics and a slow death by starvation? Would the European Union and United Nations not react even more swiftly than in the case of the Kremlin’s unjustified war on Ukraine?

Yet, in the case of Tigray, there is no debate about whether the European Union, or a concerned western country, should send weapons and military advisors to help the starving and dying Tigrayans. After 100 days of full blockade, the first aid convoy with food was allowed into Tigray at the start of April 2022. A mere 100 trucks have arrived, while Addis Ababa does its best to slow down the humanitarian effort and make it ineffective. After all, to lift the man-made famine, at least 200 trucks should be rolling into Tigray each and every day. It is therefore no surprise that the main hospital in Mekele has run out of food.

During the height of the pandemic, we all learned that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (who happens to be an ethnic Tigrayan) talked in simple but hard terms about the problem’s real toll and the measures necessary to halt it. He is not given to flights of emotion or flurries of meaningless rhetoric. As a result, his straightforward and down-to-earth statement about his fellow Tigrayans, seen at the start of this article, should make us all stop and think about the situation in the region. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort has happened.

All lives are equally valuable

We – Europe and the West – lavish attention on Ukraine; give safe haven to millions of Ukrainian refugees; send money, supplies and weapons to the country; and sanction Russia and Belarus. The justified goal is to ensure the survival of the Ukrainians and of Ukraine as an independent country with a prosperous economy. But why is the same, or at least similar, treatment not extended to the Tigrayans? Do they somehow deserve any less? Are they less human? What makes their lives worth less, in the eyes of the Global North, than the lives of Ukrainians? After all, Ethiopia has a population of 120 million and is more of a threat in relation to the seven million Tigrayans than Russia (140 million) is to 40 million strong Ukraine.

Much to the WHO director-general’s despair, I sense that the real explanation for this shocking indifference may be simpler and less palatable than we care to hear. Western, European lives de facto are valued more than their counterparts in the Global South. Ukraine is part of the West, while Ethiopia is not. Different standards with regards to human rights are employed in these two cases, despite protestations to the contrary. Scratch the surface more, and you can hear arguments that Ukrainians are “like us Westerners, white”, while on the other hand the Ethiopians, Tigrayans included, are “black”. This is nothing less than pure racism. This early modern western invention decides who is saved and who is abandoned, who lives and who dies.

Coming to Ukraine’s aid but not extending a helping hand to the Tigrayans will leave an indelible mark of shame on both the West and world’s conscience for decades, if not centuries, to come. Obviously, using the pretext of Addis Ababa’s persistent news blockade on Tigray, we may absentmindedly choose to forget about the mass death by starvation that has been happening there for the past two years. The survivors shall remember. Future generations of Europeans will ask their parents and grandparents the hard question of why they did not help Tigray. After all, they were in a position to help Ukraine without sacrificing their prosperous everyday life in the European Union. 

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He initated and co-authored the monograph Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia: From Ethnolinguistic Nation-State to Multiethnic Federation (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication (https://muse.jhu.edu/book/97875)

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