It never ceases to amaze that some of the very people who receive Nobel Peace Prizes turn around and sanction just the types of atrocities they would have been expected to condemn.
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most obvious who comes to mind. Her defence of the Myanmar military’s treatment of the country’s Rohingya minority, and her failure to condemn the gross abuses of human rights committed against them, led to calls for her prize to be withdrawn.
More recently, the atrocities committed in Tigray by members of Ethiopia’s armed forces who were operating under the command of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, are equally concerning.
Abiy was touted as the new beacon of hope for democracy and good governance on the continent at the time he won the peace prize. He had made peace with Eritrea after years of hostilities, released political prisoners from jail, and ushered in an era of reconciliation. That may explain why his military’s intervention into Tigray was not as robustly condemned as one would have expected.
There had also been legitimate concerns on the part of the federal government about the build up of a significant arsenal of sophisticated weaponry by Tigrayan leaders in the north who were prepared to go to war with the government. After the TPLF called its own elections last year and then attacked a federal military base, the federal government had considered the provocation to constitute an insurrection, and launched what it promised to be a short-lived operation in Tigray.
But the foray into Tigray turned into a brutal eight-month civil war. While some in the north may have seen the TPLF as a party that was authoritarian and corrupt, the gross human rights abuses committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops quickly swayed public opinion against the forces they saw as invaders.
Eritrea has had a long-running enmity with the TPLF and wanted to see them militarily defeated, and so, Eritrean troops engaged in scorched-earth tactics, compelling millions to flee their homes. Amhara militias also entered the fray and seized territory they claimed was theirs.
The initial military successes of the Ethiopian forces was largely due to the success of the drone campaign in November and December last year, which took out much of Tigray’s armaments and vehicles. In what was dubbed a “victory speech” on December 1 last year, Abiy boasted that the TPLF did not know what was going to hit it. Ethiopia’s drone capacity had been built covertly and once the drone campaign was unleashed, the Tigray Defence Forces had to retreat to the countryside and were on the back foot.
What resulted was a bloodbath in Tigray. A communications blackout prevented much of the carnage from being broadcast across the world, but the massacres, ethnic cleansing and sexual violence was abhorrent, to say the least. Looting and robbery were pervasive, and thousands of Tigrayan homes and crops were burnt. The Ethiopian forces had launched devastating airstrikes on crowded markets and in civilian areas.
The brutality of the military operations against the Tigrayans is what led the local people to support the Tigray Defence Force in their droves. Thousands of highly motivated young men and women lined up in columns to join the ranks of the rebels and oust the outside forces. Even doctors, professors, professionals, and members of the diaspora had joined the rebels in their assault on government troops. This ultimately turned the tide of the war and enabled what was, in effect, a guerilla army to defeat one of Africa’s most powerful militaries.
Within three weeks, the TDF had capture wide swathes of territory and had retaken the regional capital Mekelle. Not only had they reportedly imprisoned 6 600 Ethiopian soldiers, but had killed three times as many. The Ethiopian federal military suffered huge losses, and many of their soldiers lay dead and scattered in dry fields. This led to Abiy announcing what he called a “strategic withdrawal” and a unilateral ceasefire. To save face, Abiy claimed that the federal government had achieved its strategic objectives, and that the TPLF was no longer a threat to national security.
Abiy won a landslide election victory on June 21, but the results did not reflect the will of the whole nation as the Tigray region in the north, and the Harar and Ogaden regions in the East were not allowed to vote. The country is as polarised as it perhaps has ever been, and an estimated one million civilians in Tigray are facing starvation.
It is difficult to understand how a leader who had channelled all the hopes and dreams of his nation into such tangible positive reforms at the beginning of his term in office, could preside over such a brutal military campaign in the north of the country.
Perhaps the very idea of Nobel Peace Prizes are flawed, as in the end human beings are fallible, and often end up doing the opposite of what we expect them to.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.