The conflict in Ethiopia, where the majority of my extended family lives, continues to escalate. For the first time in my life, I fully comprehend the threat of destabilization of a place I hold dear to me.
In describing the situation to others who were not familiar, I reiterate the same points.
The first is that Ethiopia is Africa’s second-largest country by population, a fact many of my friends are surprised to hear. I feel this is likely because Ethiopia does not have much socio-cultural hegemony in the Western, English-speaking world, so the weight of that population is not often felt. But the sheer size of Ethiopia means that this conflict has far-reaching, world-altering consequences.
The second is that this conflict is between a government and armed militias, but these are not to be equated with ordinary citizens. The two biggest players are the sitting Ethiopian government, run by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the TPLF. In most mainstream reporting the TPLF is described as a “rebel” group, however, I feel that a key point is often missed: the TPLF and its key leadership effectively controlled the government for the last 30 years. You can read a general summary of the conflict here that covers the main points. However, many more atrocities have been committed, by all militias involved and the Ethiopian government, including attacks in the Amhara region that have received much less attention, and attacks on ethnic minorities that receive even less attention. Chaos and violence have given bad actors cover for heinous actions of all kinds. It’s important to understand that all armed parties involved have committed atrocities, and that we should not really be fighting over which armed political actors are the least or most evil. What’s important is to uplift and protect ordinary citizens, all of whom are innocent regardless of ethnicity. It pains me to say that not all Ethiopians, and not all members of the Ethiopian diaspora, think this way, sometimes seeing their ordinary neighbors as the enemy.
The general Ethiopian public is divided, and this polarization has been brewing for the last decade. The seeds of division were sown in many ways by the previous administration, led primarily by the TPLF, especially due to the expansion of the capital Addis Ababa which led to internal displacement of people from their homes, and sometimes from their ethnic regions. In addition, the previous administration established an ID system that included ethnic identity as a required field, and other policies that furthered division under the guise of following the “ethnic federalism” model of governance. Furthermore, various social media platforms also had a role in accelerating or exacerbating this division. Similar to the conversation being had in the United States about social media platforms and politics, the spread of misinformation and a lack of foreign-language moderation, along with algorithmic bias toward inflammatory or “angry” content as the most engaging, stoked division in Ethiopia just as in the United States. In many ways it was worse, because the lack of moderation meant that posts violating Facebook’s own policies could be further algorithmically promoted as they received engagement and went viral.
Regardless, US intervention will make this conflict worse. There is no doubt in my mind that any future where the US intervenes in this conflict, especially via military actions or sanctions, will end poorly. Sanctions have been proven time and time again not to work, and punish ordinary citizens and the poor much more than they punish powerful leaders, who always have access to black market back channels for the goods they want or need. Multilateral humanitarian aid should be allowed to continue, rather than restrictions on the availability of goods for everyday life in Ethiopia.
This past weekend I attended a Justice for Sudan protest in Copley Square, Boston. Sudan’s conflict is very different from Ethiopia’s, because the people are united against a military coup. I have been exhausted by Ethiopia’s conflict and exhausted by the fact that it feels like no one cares about it. Furthermore, at a time like now when average Americans are fighting COVID problems and economic struggles and striking for better wages, I felt I couldn’t blame them for not caring about a struggle in a distant country they may never visit. It is a lonely feeling. But it made me want to show up to support our neighbors, Sudan. How odd that the geographic boundary of countries thousands of miles away would invoke that feeling in me, but it was because I felt I knew what it was like to be in the US and have everyone too busy to pay attention to a similarly important, existential moment. I thought, too, about how the countries were intertwined at their border, each with a length of the Nile. Ethiopian refugees have fled to eastern Sudan.
I felt almost jealous of the unity I observed in Sudanese people, in Sudanese diaspora, though of course I wish the conflicts we both witness unfold never began. Now, even Ethiopian diaspora are fractured. I can never, from my position of faraway privilege, tell citizens of Ethiopia what to do or how to think. But I can at least shame my fellow diasporans. I wish desperately that people would see that their ordinary neighbors were not the enemy, that Ethiopians, similar to Sudanese, could see it is the military, the armed militias, the government which failed them. It is true that violence against innocent civilians in Tigray, by the Ethiopian government, has been occurring over the last year. It is true that violence against innocent Amhara civilians, by the TPLF, has been occurring also. No one should paint over this truth, just because aligning under a leader or group feels easier, and denying or ignoring the truth makes that easier. We should demand and expect better from political leaders and parties of all kinds.
Violence against innocents, and all who would commit it, is the enemy. Ordinary civilians are always innocent, must not be displaced from their homes, must not be subject to violence. I don’t see these simple truths reflected in the diaspora community online. It is becoming an existential issue for all of us, who have our identities rooted in Ethiopia. We all know for a fact that Ethiopian diaspora politics and online influence makes its way back to the homeland; it was all too apparent in 2018, when the current prime minister was first installed.
My family is an ethnic minority; we are Kaffa people, from a very rural southern area, in a state that is simply just called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). There, it’s almost like a microcosm of Ethiopia, with at least 45 different indigenous groups in just one area, a smaller area than many other Ethiopian states. We have had to all figure out how to live with each other, to champion our collective needs as one voice. Ethiopia has always had impressive diversity of people, languages. It’s a rich, multifaceted place with so much to offer, and a proud national history, with the only African phonetic alphabet, the only African nation that remained uncolonized. I am sure there is a different way forward, a united way forward.
We can choose unity, and choose humanity.