Rape and Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray

Photograph Source: Kches16414 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Victims have told investigators that when Ethiopian federal regular soldiers and militia inflict infertility on Tigrayan women with burning metal rods, after gang-raping them, they tell the women that this is to stop them having ‘Woyene’ children (the Amharans’ derogatory term for ‘Tigrayans’).

Unleashing this kind of sentiment is a dangerous tactic in a country as ethnically diverse and restive as Ethiopia. The several hundred reported rapes must be an underestimate, though by how much is impossible to tell: many parts of Tigray are even now still impossible to access.

Abiy Ahmed’s government is overseeing ethnic cleansing, which partly explains the prevalence of rape allegations in the western part of Tigray. A chunk of the region was granted to the Tigrayans by the then Tigrayan-dominated government, which instituted a more decentralized ethno-federalism through its 1995 constitution. The new federal regions, which have the right to secede, were granted revenue-raising powers. This Tigrayan insurance against future federal domination also helped the coalition government they led until 2018 divide and rule Ethiopia according to ethnic groupings, a strategy which may now be unravelling spectacularly in a country where inter-ethnic violence is always looking for a walk-on part.

Ahmed, an ethnic Oroman, was seen as a new broom in a country where Amharans and Tigrayans had for decades gripped the levers of power, yet his national unity rhetoric failed to draw in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which refused to join his Prosperity Party coalition.

Ethiopia is a concoction of around 80 ethnic groupings. The Oroma account for a third, the Amhara 27 per cent, and the Tigrayans just six per cent of the population. For more than two decades after the ousting of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led the coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and maintained the Marxist-Leninist tradition for grand-sounding monikers. Yet the TPLF’s dominance was also assured through state brutality and dividing and ruling the other ethnic populations. When Abiy Ahmed became prime minister, releasing many of the thousands of political prisoners was an easy win-win decision to make, and he was ready to end the state of war with Eritrea which had continued for years. Yet now the political capital he acquired in his first two years in power has evaporated, and even his fellow Oromans are questioning Ahmed’s motivations, concerned that his message of national unity may be doublespeak for the precise opposite.

The Nobel Committee has form when it comes to naïve and premature enthusiasms. Awarding Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed its peace prize in 2019 now looks slightly ill-advised, adding substance to criticism of the Committee for rewarding aspirations rather than concrete achievements. Their citation said: ‘As Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed has sought to promote reconciliation, solidarity and social justice.’

The TPLF have fled to the mountains. They have tens of thousands of well-trained fighters at their disposal, and the criminal brutality of the federal intervention has ensured they won’t be short of future volunteers.

John Clamp writes for Maqshosh.