All Lives Are Equally Valuable:
Wars in Ukraine and Tigray
University of St Andrews
[T]here is nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Geneva, 16 March 2022
At the world’s opposite ends two genocidal-scale 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 the fateful Tuesday of 3 November 2020. A year and a half later, on the Thursday of 24 February 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine. Seemingly these two conflicts have nothing to do with each other.
So differently alike wars
It is a myth. The West’s myopia and the European Union’s overconcentration on its own interests that blind decision-makers and the world public opinion to the obvious commonalities, which these two conflicts share. First of all, in both wars it is civilians who do most of the dying at hands of the attacking armies. Second, the underlying causes and the ‘logic’ of ethnolinguistic nationalism that prompted the Ethiopian prime minister and the Russian president to order the respective onslaughts have more in common than immediately meets the eye.
Russia’s neoimperial ideology of the Russian world (Russkii mir) proposes that due to their historical, religious and linguistic closeness the Belarusians and Ukrainians constitute ‘minor regional branches’ of the (Great) Russian nation. Hence, Belarus and Ukraine with their Slavic-speaking and Orthodox populations – until recently, mostly under the Moscow Patriarchate – must be thus ‘reunited’ with Russia. It does not matter that the majority of Ukrainians and most Belarusians disagree. 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 the Belarusian soil. The Kremlin decided to show all the world who ‘really rules’ both countries, seen as ‘stray’ Russian provinces from Moscow’s vantage of observation.
Like Russia, Ethiopia is a former empire that now has chosen neoimperialism as a path to the future. Both countries have excelled at concealing their persistently imperial character in the wake of the respective communist revolutions in 1917 and 1974. The former overthrew the tsar and the latter the atse, which are the respective Russian and Amharic words for ‘emperor.’ The Soviet Union posed 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, because the ideology of communism supposedly made all the huge state’s multiethnic population into one happy family of equal Soviet citizens, or a classless society, as promised in marxism-leninism.
The historical and almost homogenously Christian Ethiopia corresponds only to the northern quarter of today’s state. Between 1879 and 1904, the country’s armies fanned south, west and east. They conquered the vast territories with multiple ethnic groups from which contemporary Ethiopia is composed. Beginning in the late 1890s, the tsarist government sent Russian military experts to assist this ‘fellow Orthodox’ ruler in this task. Meanwhile, a third to half of the enlarged country’s population perished. It was not so much the fighting alone that killed them, but the genocidal-scale starvation and malnutrition-induced epidemics brought about by the long decades of warfare.
The north’s Amharas became the new empire’s ruling nation, like the Russians in the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Thanks to the shared past and religion, the ethnolinguistically close – that is, Semitic-speaking and Christian – nations of Tigrayans and Tigres supported or even partook in the Amharas’ imperial endeavor. If we equate the Amharas with the Russians, then going by the yardstick of population size and proportions, the Tigrayans correspond to the Ukrainians and the Tigres to the Belarusians.
In imperial Russia, the languages of Belarusian and Ukrainian were banned in 1863, favoring of the exclusive use of Russian 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 the cultural empowerment of Russia’s colonized nations was abruptly over in the 1930s. Afterward, all the Soviet Union’s ‘classless’ and multiethnic population was to acquire the ‘truly communist’ language of the Soviet future, namely, Russian.
The 1989 breakup of the Soviet Union reverted this russifying trend. Outside the Russian Federation, Russian was replaced with Belarusian, Ukrainian and other languages in the newly independent post-Soviet states. Yet, shortly, in 1995, the dominant role of Russian was reaffirmed in Belarus, which the Kremlin now keeps firmly in the sphere of its political, economic, military and cultural influence.
In post-Soviet Ukraine, Moscow almost achieved a similar feat, but for the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. This powerful grassroots opposition movement that brought down the pro-Russian puppet government, among others, reconfirmed the constitutionally guaranteed position of Ukrainian as the country’s exclusive state and national language. In Moscow’s narrowly ethnolinguistic vision of its neoimperial policy of the Russian world, Kyiv left Russia no choice. The Russian armies had to attack Ukraine in order to ‘reunite’ this ‘stray province’ with Russia by occupying it and by liquidating Ukrainian language, culture and history. The very name ‘Ukraine’ is to be erased from – at least Russian – maps, encyclopedias and school textbooks.
In the case of the Ethiopian Empire, during the 1860s, Amharic replaced the antiquated religious language of Ge’ez (that is, an ‘Ethiopian Latin’) of Coptic (Tewahedo) Christianity. Yet, the written use of this country’s other languages was banned, including the Tigrayans’ language of Tigrinya and the Tigres’ language of Tigre. Elementary education was available only through the medium of Amharic to which a European language could be added in middle school.
During the brutal Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941), the colonial administration suppressed Amharic in favor of some other Ethiopian languages, including Tigrinya. 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 World War II and the liberation of this country by British armies, English became the sole medium of education at Ethiopia’s universities, which were then began to be established. The English language also remains the preferred medium of instruction in secondary schools.
In communist Ethiopia (1974-1991) the Soviet example was closely emulated, including 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 languages (including Tigrinya) in communist Ethiopia by the turn of the 1980s. In addition, when the People’s Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed in 1987, five ethnolinguistically defined autonomous regions were granted autonomy, including Tigray for the Tigrayans. There was no need 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, they chose to identify as the Eritreans, who fought for and eventually won their own independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Also like in the Soviet Union, a system of totalitarian repression was built in communist Ethiopia for enforcing compliance with the government’s policies. Collectivization of the countryside (officially known as ‘villagization’) brought about genocidal-scale mass death by starvation. Any opposition to this murderous ‘modernization’ was summarily crushed with the rise of an Ethiopian gulag. Each ‘modernized’ (collectivized) 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, adding to sufferings visited on inmates. Yet, a dense network of such mini-concentration camps covered all the country.
However, in the mountain and desert areas outside the communist government’s effective control, opposition grew toward this red regime that was so fond the Soviet emblem of the hammer and sickle. The Kremlin gradually ceased its support for communist Ethiopia during the latter 1980s, when the imperial overstretch and the late cold war spiral of armaments almost collapsed the Soviet economy. What at present remains of Moscow’s effort to expand the Soviet bloc to Africa is the no-frills cheap make of the Soviet Lada. To this day, it is the most ubiquitous kind of automobile that faithfully plies the streets of Addis Ababa.
After the 1974 revolution, for over two decades, the non-Amhara ethnic guerrilla movements fought a bitter civil war against Ethiopia’s communist authorities. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) proved to be militarily the most successful of all these movements. So, when the tide started changing in the favor of the anticommunist guerrillas, in 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 with Addis Ababa’s communist government the ideology of marxism-leninism, including the TPLF. The bone of contention was not communism itself, but the centralized character of the state and the privileged position of the Amharas in it, like it had been under the atse’s imperial rule. After the winding down of the campaign for combatting Great Amharic chauvinism, neoimperial Amharic nationalism was soon back to the fore, like in the case of Russian imperial nationalism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.
In contrast to the communist regime, the multiethnic EPRDF rule in postcommunist Ethiopia led to the introduction of genuine ethnoterritorial federalism in emulation of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The postcommunist constitution of 1995 officially overhauled Ethiopia into an ethnoterritorial federation. By 2020, forty of Ethiopia’s over 80 ‘nations, nationalities and peoples’ (as the constitution officially refers to the country’s ethnic groups without legally privileging any of them) received their own ethnolinguistically defined autonomous territories. In most of these autonomous ethnic homelands, the titular nations’ ethnic languages fulfil the role of the leading languages of administration and elementary education. Amharic remains the language of contacts with the federal government, though in reality now English often plays this role without any legal provision to this end.
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 Amahars 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.
The 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 the place of this Tigrayan-led federal ‘supra-party’ of monoethnic parties, he founded a new centralist Prosperity Party (PP). The unitary PP is modelled on Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s similarly named Party of Justice and Development. Officially it is disinterested in ethnicity, but in practice Amharic is the party’s language of politics and communication. In no time did the PP part with the multiethnic EPRDF’s moderation. As a result, Amharic nationalism was again elevated to the state’s main unifying ideology, despite Ethiopia’s constitutionally guaranteed system of ethnoterritorial federalism.
The TPLF withdrew from the Ethiopian machinery of governance to its ethnically defined autonomous region of Tigray. But cohabitation with Ethiopia’s PP government was short-lived. The country’s resurgent Amharic neoimperialism also entails that all Ethiopia’s regions must be ruled by PP-led governments. Prime Minister Abiy delayed by one year the scheduled parliamentary and regional elections, ostensibly to manage the covid epidemic, but in reality to consolidate his hold on administration at all the levels.
The TPLF decided not to wait and conducted the regional elections in Tigray on the constitutionally approved date in 2020. Addis Ababa refused to recognize the results, that is, the TPLF’s resounding victory in Tigray. The TPLF reciprocated by withdrawing its recognition of the federal government that had failed to conduct the state-wide parliamentary elections on the scheduled date in the apparent breach of the constitution.
The conflict between the federal government and Tigray grew tenser by the day. The Tigrayan government in the Tigray’s capital of Mekele repeatedly requested negotiations with Addis Ababa, but to no avail. Instead, the Ethiopian army struck on Tigray with all its military 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 in the case of its onslaught on Ukraine, the PP government – with its unprovoked attack on Tigray – showed that it would not be hindered by the rule of law, or for that matter, by the negotiated logic of Ethiopian federalism. Yet, in October 2021, the TPLF’s experienced military cadres almost got an upper hand in the war and were close to capturing Addis Ababa. But the fighting drones that Turkey timely supplied allowed the federal army to roll back the Tigrayan offensive, leading to the capture of the strategic areas across Tigray region.
For the time being, the Ethiopian-Tigrayan war stalemated. The TPLF is entrenched in the hard-to-conquer mountain 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 – like Belarus in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war – acts on behalf of Addis Ababa. As a result, the TPLF-controlled part of Tigray is on all sides under tight blockade.
In stark contrast to the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, almost no images and information emerge on the situation and atrocities committed in Tigray. Addis Ababa simply switched off the region’s internet and mobile telephony. Not only are journalists barred from entering Tigray, but also UN aid workers are denied access. The federal government keeps the world public opinion in the dark on the situation in the region. Instead, on the social medias they pump propaganda that supposedly the Ethiopian military bravely protects civilians and combats ‘rebels’ in Tigray. In a nutshell, the Ethiopian soldiers ‘liberated’ the Tigrayans, like Russia wants to ‘liberate’ the Ukrainians from themselves.
Meanwhile, on the sly, Prime Minister Abiy pays the Eritrean army to rough up and squeeze the Tigrayans in the north, but sternly denies the wide presence of Eritrean soldiers across northern Ethiopia. Ironically, the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 was given to Abiy for establishing peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018. Now the time came that Eritrea joined Abiy in the fight against their mutual enemy, the TPLF and Tigrayans.
Tigray has the population of 7 million, a bit more than Slovakia (5.5 million), while both countries’ territories are of the same size, that is, 50,000 square kilometers. By now at least 100,000 Tigrayans died in fighting, 200,000 due to starvation, while 100,000 wounded and sick perished because of lack of basic health care. In total this means the staggering number of half a million casualties and counting, or 7 percent of all the Tigrayans. In addition, the fighting displaced at least 2.5 million people (or 36 percent), while 4.5 million (64 percent) are in dire need of food assistance. Acts of ethnic cleansing and even of genocide are commonplace. Large massacres claimed lives of hundreds and even thousands of victims at a time. So many mass killings have taken place that now a designated category page is devoted to recording them in the Wikipedia.
Extrajudicial killings of Tigray activists and ordinary Tigrayans due to their ethnicity alone are widespread. Tigrayans are repressed across Ethiopia, dismissed from civil service, robbed of their bank accounts, tortured, abducted and arbitrarily detained in de facto concentration camps. Rape has become a normalized weapon of war in Tigray, while the 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 the wake.
Due to their language and culture, there is no safe place left for Tigrayans, be it in Ethiopia or Tigray. Repressions are commonplace in these parts of Tigray that are in the federal government’s hands, while starvation is the norm in the areas where the TPLF remains in control. Given the size of Tigray and its population, the war has had a much more devastating effect there than, in comparison, the Russian onslaught on Ukraine. Can we imagine that 8 percent of the Slovaks get killed, a third have to escape their country for their dear lives, while the remaining two-thirds face malnutrition-induced epidemics and slow death by starvation? Wouldn’t the European Union and United Nations 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 question that the European Union or a concerned Western country would send weapons and military advisors to help the starving Tigrayans to defend themselves. After 100 days of the full blockade of Tigray, the first aid convoy with food was allowed in Tigray at the turn of April 2022. A mere 100 trucks, while Addis Ababa does its best to slow down this humanitarian effort and make it ineffective. After all, to lift the man-made famine, at least 200 trucks like that should be rolling into Tigray each and every day. No surprise that at present the main hospital in the Tigrayan capital of Mekele runs out of food.
During the covid pandemic, we learned well that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus talked in simple but hard words about the real toll of this pandemic and measures necessary for halting it. He is not given to flights of emotion or flurries of ornamental rhetoric. Hence, his straightforward and down-to-earth statement about his fellow Tigrayans, used as the article’s motto, should make us all stop and ponder. But nothing of this kind 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. Why isn’t the same, or at least a similar, treatment extended to the Tigrayans? Do they deserve it 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 with its population of 120 million is more of a goliath vis-à-vis the 7 million Tigrayans than Russia with its 140 million inhabitants who now pounced on 40-million strong Ukraine.
I sense that to the WHO director-general’s despair the explanation of 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 not. Different standards of the observance of human rights are employed in these two cases, despite protestations to the contrary. Scratch the surface more, and you can hear that Ukrainians are ‘like us Westerners, white,’ while on the other hand, the Ethiopians, Tigrayans included, are ‘black.’ Nothing else than racism, this early modern Western invention, decides who is saved and who is abandoned, who lives and who dies.
Coming to Ukraine’s succor, but not extending a helping hand to the Tigrayans will leave an indelible black spot of shame on the West’s 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 what has been happening there all the time for the past two years, namely, mass death by starvation. Survivors shall remember. And future generations of Europeans will pose their parents and grandparents with the hard question on why they did not help Tigray, too, given they were in position to buttress Ukraine without too much of a disturbance to prosperous everyday life in the European Union.
Jena, April 2022