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A bit of history to understand the Ethiopian war in Tigray

2020-11-08 | Horn of Africa


In the middle of the imperialist partition of Africa between the European powers, Italy turns Ethiopia into a de facto protectorate by signing a collaboration treaty handing over to Rome the diplomatic and commercial representation of the Ethiopian empire. Ethiopia is then a classical feudal agrarian empire without any apparent defense capability over its own territory against a European imperialist power. The Negus (Emperor) Menelik II hopes with the agreement with the Italians to stop the momentum of the French and British, who are conquering the continent, and to arm himself to defeat his main rival to the throne, a bastard of his father turned feudal lord of the Tigré, the small region in the North of the country on the border with Eritrea.

The Italian move will involve trying to do the emperor a favor by conquering Eritrea and Tigray single-handedly in 1895 to win a position of strength that would allow them to gain dominance over the Negus' court. But against the Italian conqueror, the Negus and his brother, armed for the occasion by the French and the British, unite, confront and defeat the Italian expeditionary army. In the peace accords, Italy obtains Eritrea but recognizes full Ethiopian independence, and from now on it will be the only African state recognized as such by the imperialist powers.


The European imperialist game is centered on dismantling the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul, which ruled all the African coast from the confines of Morocco to Eritrea, has already lost Algeria and Tunisia to the French, and Egypt and part of Sudan to the English. Italy sends expeditions to the two provinces closest to its coasts: Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The new colonial territory was named Italian Libya.

The Horn of Africa in 1930. Map by Di Ruthven in Wiki Commons.


Nothing has changed in Ethiopia except the Negus, who is already Haile Selassie I. There is no industrial structure capable of fighting a modern war. The Ethiopian war becomes the first and only military success of Fascist Italy. Mussolini's Italy has as a strategic objective to expand its exiguous and disjointed colonial empire. His idea is to unite Libya and Eritrea through the creation of an Italian corridor from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Raw material imports and exports to Asia would thus have an alternative route independent of Franco-British control of communications with the Indian Ocean. This orientation led Italy, which had been aligned with France and Great Britain during the First World War, to confront its former allies.


After the defeat, one of the greatest colonial massacres in the history of Africa, the Negus went into exile in Great Britain. Their hosts organize a hypocritical campaign presenting the feudal tyrant as the representative of the resistance of the African peoples against the oppression of the Axis powers. The imperialist powers are already preparing their ideological weapons for a new world war. The campaign will only succeed in one eccentric corner of the British Empire. A delusional Jamaican cultist group, the rastafari, will present the Negus as the african messiah.


The British army expelled the Italian from the Horn of Africa in the middle of the World War and returned Haile Selassie to power. Ethiopia abolishes slavery, integrates into the nascent allied bloc as a founder of the UN, and ends up annexing Eritrea as an autonomous region in 1950 with US approval. Selassie will send troops to the Korean War (1951) and to the Congo (1960), and in general will be a loyal regional bloc leader... which placed the regime, still based on the feudal nobility and the clergy, in the sights of the US imperialist rival, Russia.


Student and petty bourgeois groups in the capital are attempting a coup d'état to put the apparent heir to the throne in place of the Negus. The coup fails to attract the chieftains and feudal lords of the countryside and is immediately reduced by the army. The gamble against Ethiopia is then to force Eritrea's independence. The Eritrean Liberation Front was created under Russian auspices in 1961, and led a war of independence that lasted for almost thirty years, with a surprising turnaround in the 1970s.




The Derg is above all a movement for the creation of a pan-Ethiopian national capital, so it is against Eritrean independence. And having taken the biggest bite, neither is stalinist Russia for Eritrean independence. As a result, the Eritrean movement is left without an imperialist patron. The obvious candidate as an alternative would be China, which, already separated from Russia, was trying to compete with the latter by promoting friendly regimes from Equatorial Guinea to Nyerere's Tanzania. But in the mid-1970s China was in no position to wage war with Russia through proxies in Africa. The only power willing would be Enver Hoxha's Albania, a sudden B-side heir to the Mussolini's imperialist dream. Consequently, in 1977 the group that will go on to lead the Eritrean war of independence will be an ultra-stalinist group dependent on Albania: Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

Ethiopia will mobilize Russian resources and those of its entire bloc, including Cuba, which will send expeditionary forces, to assert itself on its own territory (against the Eritreans in the first place) and against its neighbors (the Ogaden war with Somalia). The Eritreans will set up ethnic pro-Albanian parties all over Ethiopia, trying to exacerbate the pre-capitalist ethnic divisions in their favor. The first of these groups will be founded in Tigray and will end up promoting a Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray under the Eritrean model.


Gorbachev communicates to the dictator Mengistu that Russia can no longer sustain the expense of the endless Ethiopian war. The Cuban army withdraws. The Eritreans and pro-Albanians of Tigray already have a similar group among the Oromo -the majority ethnicity- that is beginning to attract a part of the hitherto pro-Soviet apparatus which is trying to realign itself at full speed with the US, reform the constitution and enter the new post-Berlin wall international order.


The regime collapses. Rebel forces occupy and dominate practically all the territory of Eritrea and Tigray. The front that groups the different pro-Albanian movements, led by that of Tigray, forms a government and recognizes Eritrean independence. Meanwhile, in Albania the ultra-stalinist Hoxhaite regime has collapsed as well. And the new Ethiopia, landlocked, is trying to consolidate a system of ethnic power sharing -that is, among the chieftains of the majority ethnic groups in each region.

Ethiopian troops marching into Somalia.


Ethiopia is trying to reposition itself on the imperialist map as an ally in Africa of the war against jihadism... invading what was left of the former Somalia after the independence of Puntland and Somaliland, whose territory was already mostly controlled by Al Shabaab, the local branch of AlQaeda. The war abroad, which lasted until 2009, only multiplied Ethiopian internal contradictions, making it difficult for Ethiopian Somalis to fit into the ethnic-tribal map.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian Prime Minister.


The tensions between various local chiefdoms, heirs of the popular fronts erupt in a confrontation between the Oromo and the Somalis. With 400,000 refugees and IDPs, the situation soon becomes politically untenable and the Ethiopian political apparatus sacrifices its leadership. The prospect is none other than a new war between factions.

And yet, a phase of recomposition of the political apparatus began. The leaders of the Tigray and their allies in the Oromo Liberation Front disappear from the new government. A new prime minister comes to power: Abiy Ahmed. But instead of giving way to an accelerated deterioration, the so-called Ethiopian miracle begins.

In reality, this miracle, celebrated with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, was nothing but a retrenchment of the new imperialist positions in East Africa. Ethiopia was once again at the heart of the chain of conflicts ranging from the Sahel to Pakistan. With China opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti and Turkey returning to the Red Sea alongside Sudan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia bet on playing the big game, offering access to their markets and capital to Ethiopia as a way to ensure a stable and hopefully profitable rearguard.


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Abiy Ahmed announces this past Wednesday the beginning of military actions in Tigray.


The tension with Egypt increases on account of the Renaissance Dam. Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, has however a long history of promoting Ethiopia's destabilization as a way of defending its southern flank. The failure of the last round of negotiations without being accompanied by open pressure made the attitude of Cairo' s diplomacy very suspicious. But Egypt was waiting, attentive to the evolution in Tigray of a process that had been taking place since the departure of the Tigrayans from the government and that had been radicalized during the last six months.

A process similar in form to that of Catalan independentism, including elections classified as illegal by the central state.

Under the government of Abiy Ahmed, the political system had not changed, only its internal balances did. Ethiopia continues to be a one-party state and the single party remains a front for the feuding groups of ex-pro-Albanians in each region. In principle, the Tigrayans, the creators of the system, agreed to be removed from power along with the Oromo because they expected new elections - which would have been held this year - and with them negotiations to rebalance the weight of the different factions.

But Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister, proposed and obtained from the Parliament to postpone all the elections with the excuse of the Covid pandemic. Tigray announced its own elections and carried them out in spite of everything, later declaring the government -and implicitly the rest of the regional governments- illegitimate for not having held elections when the Constitution obliged it to do so. The escalation of declarations between the central and regional governments ended in a pitched battle between the regional militias and the Ethiopian army when the regional authorities sent their troops to expel the Ethiopian army troops from their main base.

The national Parliament then approved the dismissal of the regional government giving extraordinary powers to the executive over the territory. The Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Laureate in hand, immediately announced military actions and asserted that these would carry on until the Tigray Junta is held accountable to the law. Just yesterday, the air strikes began.