Ethiopia arguments

16 November 2021 – Mukesh Kapila

Photo by Fuad Tesfaye on

This argument started via private messaging from “Nardy” on Twitter when she sent me some questions to answer. Here they are….

NARDY: Your compassionate tweets for Tigray are absolutely commendable.  Do you also feel empathy for Amhara suffering due to this war or, like the rest of the Western world, you celebrate their demise? You never mention the suffering of Amhara or Afar people; do you see them as less human?

Personally, I tweet more around the genocide angle because of my personal  experiences with genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Srebrenica, and visits/observations with regard to Cambodia,  Myanmar/Rohingya, Iraq/Yazidis  and China/Uyghurs. Thus I am primarily committed to prevent, stop, and rectify any genocide, anywhere.

My experience-based assessment is that  genocide has happened in Tigray. Because genocide is always a state act,  the Ethiopian government is culpable with support from Eritrea and regional Amhara militia.

I am sure that Amhara and Afar people are also badly affected as the original conflict has expanded, and it is deplorable where-ever civilians hurt and suffer. But there is a big difference between genocide in Tigray and the suffering in other parts of Ethiopia. The two cannot be equated.  Just as the pain and suffering of the Jews who were under extermination from Nazi genocidaires cannot be equated to that of all other Europeans who got caught in World War II.

Furthermore, the Ethiopian authorities have blockaded humanitarian aid to Tigray; we may call this continued genocide-by-attrition. There is no such aid block to Amhara and Afar regions, although, of course, war has disrupted assistance provision in many places.  

I don’t see “the rest of the Western world celebrating (Amhara) demise”, as you claim.  No one wishes to see Ethiopians slaughter each other.  Anyway, what do you want me to tweet about?

NARDY: There has been gruesome killings of Amhara in Oromia, in Benishangul, in bordering towns with Tigray. The fact that no reputable media writes about that is a dis-service to the people. Are you telling us that unless we are Tigrayans, our death, suffering, humiliation, starvation and abuse are justified because we don’t fit in the narrative of genocide in Tigray?  And the media has successfully vilified a whole region of Amhara as genocidaires  so the people in it should bear the burden?

I respect you for taking the time to reply. If what you said is true and you tweet because you care about what’s happening in Tigray, I’m sure you also have the heart to care for others too. Millions of people in Amhara region under  TPLF control now have the exact fate as Tigrayans. The only difference is no one wants to write about that. You should ask why?

I am not an activist; I’m just a person whose family have been affected by this just like most of us here, and I apologize if I have bothered you.

I am very sorry if your family is affected like everyone else’s families in Ethiopia. The “death, suffering, humiliation, starvation and abuseof any community is heart-breaking and to be strongly condemned.  

But you are wrong to think that there is some Western media conspiracy to ignore Amhara suffering.  The unfortunate reality is that the repressive Ethiopian government – that placed the country under emergency military rule – has banned and harassed independent journalists to enter and report. It has also expelled or blocked other international observers such as humanitarian agencies including the United Nations. 

The best way to draw attention to the suffering of Amhara and others is to allow independent witnesses to do their work in safety. Only then will fuller information come out and ensure that not all Amhara are vilified, and that those who incite or commit hate crimes are identified. Meanwhile, the Addis-sponsored controlled media and Amhara narrative including from their troll factories are simply not credible.  

You say that you are “not an activist”. Why not? Being a bystander is even worse because it is when good people like you avert their eyes, the worst happens to their neighbours. That is what took place when the Nazis came for the Jews: read-up on “Kristallnacht” (The Night of Broken Glass), whose anniversary was commemorated last week.

NARDY: No one wants to report on how bad we feel that our Tigrayan  brothers and sisters are suffering; the media  make it sound like we are some sort of evil celebrating their hunger and distraught. But all we need is an end to this war so that we can help each other recover from this mess.

I sympathise with your sentiments. And there must be many good Ethiopians of all ethnic identities appalled by what is going on. But unfortunately most seem to defend their own ethnic kin by projecting aggressive emotion onto other groups. Hence, there is a lot of hate speech emanating from Amhara and also hate speech from others targeting the Amhara.

In contrast, I don’t see, hear, or read about concerned voices taking a stand against evil, across ethnic and political divides. Perhaps they are afraid to do so as they get trolled or worse, especially nowadays where Ethiopian security is busy rounding-up  people just because they are Tigrayans. Presumably, any non-Tigrayan sympathisers would suffer the same fate, and so they say nothing.

You say that you want to “help each other”. But you hide behind your own silence. Perhaps because you worry that you may lose your job or will be harassed.  I presume that you are a good person but remember  that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (wo)men to do nothing”; (attributed to philosophers Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill).  

But please also know that standing-up against evil takes courage and extracts a price. It is not for the faint-hearted. For example, hundreds of Hutus protected their Tutsi neighbours in Rwanda as did Europeans who hid Jews in WWII. Many of them paid with their own lives. So if you do decide to emerge from your cocoon “to help”, I hope you will get strength from your own belief in what you think is right. However, be warned that  this means accepting any accompanying risks. In my case, after my Darfur experiences, it has been death threats that continued for many years, as I recount in my first book, “Against A Tide Of Evil”.  

NARDY: Do you verify information provided to you (including via DM)  before you post them on your platform?

I do my best to use information only from reputable sources i.e. well-known journalists and media outlets, international organisations, researchers, and so on. I also try and ‘triangulate’ the data by cross-checking against other sources or channels.  It helps that I have a naturally ‘sceptical mindset’. 

It also helps to have a ’science’ background with training in epidemiology and extensive experience of complex and fractious contexts. And nowadays we have many more verification  tools and technologies. They are useful when puzzling over what is true or fake. I find it is somewhat like when I was a clinical doctor: figuring out whether the patient in front of me was genuinely sick or faking symptoms (to get time off work or, in the case of a child, a day off school!). [By the way, you may be amused to learn that COVID-generation youngsters have figured out that if they suddenly develop a cough on the way to school, there is a good chance they will be sent home!]

In my other work around global health, I have to spend a lot of time assessing claims of cures and breakthroughs, and countering dangerous myths and misinformation, COVID-19 vaccination being just one such topic.

All of that is useful training in examining what I hear around the Ethiopian situation. Of course, that is not to say that one can’t  be duped by clever propagandists, and erroneous claims can thereby receive propagation. When that happens, retraction is the only responsible and honourable thing to do.  

NARDY: What exactly is your understanding of the cause of the conflict and why has it evolved from a fight between armies to people?

In analysing any armed conflict, think about underlying issues, enabling factors, and immediate triggers. They must all be considered separately and then their inter-relationship understood. An analogy is with a “fire”: to make it, you need fuel, a match to light it, and oxygen to fan the flames. Which is, therefore, more responsible for a conflagration when all these elements must come together?  To understand my point more practically, read about the Beirut port blast. 

Thus, there is no ‘one cause’ of the current Ethiopian civil war. And scapegoating one side or other as part of political manoeuvring is not helpful. That is why I don’t buy the Addis narrative that it was the TPLF attack on federal forces that was responsible. Conceivably, that was a trigger (“match”) with the disproportionate federal response a co-trigger (also a “match”).  But recent constitutional disagreements and increasing mis- governance by Abiy Ahmed was an enabling factor (“oxygen”), with Ethiopia’s very long and violent  history providing many underlying grievances (“fuel”).

It follows that conflict resolution has to reverse this process.  However that is not easy as global history teaches that wars only end when one side or other wins or both sides stalemate each other to the point that there is sufficient mutual pain as to make the conflict ‘ripe for solution’.  It is doubtful if Ethiopia is at that stage yet because the pain is still asymmetrical: both sides have not yet hurt equally.  Of course, an external intervention, such as an inept peace mediation can ‘freeze’ a conflict. That is what  happened 26 years ago in post-genocide Bosnia-Hercegovina and why the war drums are rumbling again there.

You ask why the fight has evolved “from between armies to (between) people”. This is because the Ethiopian government forces lost on the military front, and federal leaders widened the war by mobilising the general population through hate speech, fear-mongering, and nationalistic chauvinism. That has been highly effective in fomenting violence among Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. These tactics are straight out of the copybook of authoritarian regimes.  

The additional complication in this case is the genocidal dimension. Once that red line is crossed, the experience of post-WWII history is that only armed force works to get rid of a genocidal regime and to create the conditions for a new, durable peace. Even that can take generations in societies that have tasted genocide, and it is easy to go backwards too (as currently now in Sudan).

NARDY: Where is all this HATE towards Ethiopians coming from?  What is the Western media doing to ordinary Ethiopians making us ashamed of calling ourselves Ethiopians.

They have made sure Ethiopia is a synonym for a genocidal country, just like few decades back they put Ethiopia in the dictionaries as a synonym for hunger and famine. Couldn’t they single out the perpetrators and leave us be? Why do we have to bow in shame for what our leaders are doing? Why do we, as people, bear the burden?

You are wrong about the  Western media. They have nothing to gain from Ethiopia’s problems. On the contrary, it makes their job of holding up the mirror to society even more difficult and dangerous. Please note that nearly 2000 journalists have been killed in Ethiopia since the 1990s, and also 23 aid workers since this crisis started. 

Hate is coming from among Ethiopians themselves – both in the vocal worldwide diaspora with access to communication tools, and domestically.  It is a deliberate weapon in this genocidal war.

Yes, Ethiopia is now a genocidal state – and should be ashamed of itself. Just like when Germany turned into Nazi Germany, or Sudan started gouging on its borderlands in what is now South Sudan, and in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains. 

There are many good Ethiopians out there but there is no getting away from the fact that while the genocide is orchestrated by its leaders, it is executed though the backing of millions of followers who ‘elected’ Abiy and enthusiastically endorsed his policies.  That is why the whole country has to take collective responsibility for unleashing these heinous crimes.

If Ethiopians wish to move on, they will have to accept – regardless of which side of the many ethnic and political divides they are on – that the institutions of the state are committing great evils in their name.  These need to be independently investigated. Then, accountability and justice must follow. As well as a new mutually-agreed constitutional dispensation that respects the equal rights of all groups who still wish to stay together as a federal state. Only then can genuine reconciliation occur and a durable peace emerge. That may also include Tigrayans and other groups exercising their right to self-determination to secede – peacefully – from the federation, if they so wish. What is to be avoided is the example of Eritrea which left after a long and bloody conflict, the legacy of which is still working out.

Meanwhile, no, Ethiopia cannot be left alone – by the media or the wider world. That is because when the authorities started devouring their own people, they broke the sacred contract between state and citizen. The state became a predator and lost its sovereignty which comes from the deal that rulers care for their people. By committing crimes against humanity, they gave licence to the rest of the world to intervene because they lost all legitimacy among the community of decent nations. Besides, as the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov observed, “repression at home is invariably exported as instability broad”. It means that as Ethiopian problems destabilise the Horn and wider Africa, international interference is unavoidable.

Even if you don’t like it, it is good that you are feeling the shame of your country. It is better than denial. Because then, if enough people feel that shame, there is hope for eventual  change towards the better.

NARDY: Why do you think, genocide, happening since 2018 in Oromia by OLF, is being overlooked?

Oromia seems to have a complicated history since the late 19th century. There have, indeed, been well-documented ethnic atrocities in recent years. Whether they satisfy the strict criteria of the 1948 Genocide Convention is debated by analysts who know much more about this specific region than I do. That is, of course, a fairly theoretical point because any atrocity is awful as it causes terrible suffering, whether that is part of a genocidal strategy or not.

The reality is that once genocidal violence emerges in one place in a country, it acts like an infectious ailment, and eventually also becomes part of a nation’s wider “DNA”. It implies that piecemeal solutions – whether in Oromia, or in Amhara or in Tigray – are unlikely to succeed.

NARDY: Do you think economic pressure will force the government to change the path its leading currently?

No, I don’t think economic pressure will force Abiy Ahmed to change course. That is because, after having talked with genocidal personalities even as they committed  their horrible crimes, and afterwards when some were in prison, I understood that their logic is different from that of ordinary people. 

A genocidal mindset is all-consumed by the mission to annihilate and is prepared to pay any price while being impervious to counter arguments. If genocidaires were open to compassion or rationality, they would not commit genocide in the first place. Hence, the disincentive of economic sanctions doesn’t work on them.

The other problem is that economic sanctions take a long time – often years – to work. That does not help to relieve the acute distress of the millions of starved and displaced under humanitarian blockade in Tigray, and the increased suffering of neighbouring Amhara, Afar, Oromos, and other groups.

Nevertheless, economic sanctions are still very worthwhile because creating and running a killing machine is costly. So, sanctioning the productive and trading capacity of a genocidal nation squeezes its means of extreme aggression, especially if it depends on hard currencies like dollars for military imports. Reducing Ethiopia government’s war-making capabilities is very necessary.

How widely should Ethiopia sanctions be targetted? Usually,  the principle is to consider ‘smart’ sanctions i.e. targetting elites – like Abiy’s coterie and military – who are responsible for commissioning the atrocities. However, the genocidal war in Ethiopia has now been transformed by Abiy Ahmed into a people-on-people war. It includes the setting-up of vigilante groups and turning neighbour against neighbour, especially if they are Tigrayans. Thus people who elected this government  and support its policies – even if they are gullible or misguided – must now take their share of responsibility of being co-opted actors in the genocidal project.

(In genocide history, we know that it is not just authorities who commit these mass scale crimes. Millions of Germans connived with Nazis, and when I visited the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, I understand how ordinary French officials aided and abetted the largescale deportation of Jews to concentration camps. I also saw for myself in Rwanda how the fast rate of killings was only achieved by ordinary people turning on neighbours; I spoke to many of these killers – who were just ordinary farmers, shop keepers, teachers, and even priests and nuns).

Thus, now that many ordinary Ethiopians are complicit in the genocidal conflict in Ethiopia, the sanctions need to be generalised. Only then will it hurt Abiy’s cheer-leading supporters  sufficiently for them to remove the regime or sue for peace. That will only happen when the pain and cost of the war is felt personally by them – and becomes unbearable – in the same way that the pain and suffering of blockaded, arrested, disappeared Tigrayans has become too much.

The sanctions debate has raised an issue for me: should I boycott Ethiopian coffee which I adore? While the coffee is grown by many poor farmers making a modest living, the tax revenue from exports accrues to the government to sustain its murderous regime. Perhaps you can advise me on that.

NARDY: You believe that Tigray/OLF forces should hurry and control Addis Ababa. Please explain how this will affect the fate of Amhara. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen to Amhara: they will drag them from their houses, slaughter them, take their properties (they will say it’s their “grandfathers’ land” , rape, violate every bit of dignity that they have. Doesn’t this bother you? 

As blockaded people in Tigray starve to death or die of disease due to malnutrition, medicines lack, and interrupted public health (including vaccination) programmes, it is of utmost urgency to get the blockade lifted and unfettered humanitarian supply routes opened. That is unlikely to happen without militarily overcoming the Ethiopian federal forces and associated Amhara militia.  

It is also clear that even if alternative humanitarian routes are opened up, international agencies such as from the UN – which must operate within the law of a nation – will not use them because the government in Addis will prohibit them. That means the regime in Addis has to be replaced. That is unlikely to happen without military action.

There is a further urgency to control Addis because of reports that thousands of Tigrayans are being harassed, arbitrarily detained, and disappeared to concentration camps.

Thus, for a combination of these reasons, there is a strong life-saving humanitarian imperative on the  armed opposition forces to get to Addis. This is comparable to the armed interventions that stopped the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, and the East Pakistan, Ugandan , Sierra Leone and countless other massacres, as well as the NATO intervention in Kosovo. 

Your concern is that TPLF/OLF forces will misbehave and slaughter Amhara and others in Addis. The best way to prevent or reduce that risk is to try and counter the current hate speech coming out of Amhara leaders and stop committing human rights abuses on Tigrayans in Addis and elsewhere – thereby reducing the motivation for revenge (wrong as that would be).

Also, it is never too early to change the nature of the future discourse by starting to discuss what a post- Abiy administration will look like, and how an inclusive transition will be handled. One of the key questions to be tackled will be to agree the process for independent adjudication of land/border disputes among Tigray, Oromia, and Amhara that have triggered a lot of violence.

Foreign observers under the UN umbrella (as the African Union has failed even worse) will also be useful to restrain possible excesses, as well as independent journalists to report on any misdeeds. 

None of this can be guaranteed to prevent revenge atrocities in Addis. But if the new coalition of opposition forces commit such abuses, they will lose  a great deal of support and weaken their moral case for change. There will then be need to hold them accountable – in the same way that all egregious abusers – from any side – need to be held accountable. Without that Ethiopia will continue to descend into failure.     

NARDY: The logic you used to label Ethiopia as genocidal state could be applied elsewhere.  It is hard to find a country without acts of killings in their history.

One definition of a ‘state’ is that of an entity with a legalised monopoly of violence. State formation and maintenance has been usually accompanied by coercive use of force, especially against minorities who did not wish to be incorporated into a unitary state. Colonialism also contributed by creating ‘artificial’ states and boundaries. In the case of Ethiopia, its imperial past created its own regional colonisation of different peoples that has created long-term disgruntlement.

However, the general trend in world affairs is towards peace based on democracy, human rights, and co-existence of different peoples. It may not look like that at the current time with the erosion of democratic values and growing authoritarianism worldwide, and many smouldering crises that generate huge suffering.

But in the grand sweep of history,  these are hiccups; and the world, as a whole, has been getting more peaceful as nations mature and progress in their own ways.  All this is not surprising because evolutionary biologists tell us that humans are wired more towards co-operation and kindness rather than towards competition and cruelty, because that is more effective for our survival and propagation. 

Meanwhile, while there have been numerous bloody conflicts in history, there are  remarkably few genocides.  Thus, it is not usual or necessary for armed contestations to result in genocide.

Thus,  when nations such as Ethiopia show aberrant conduct, it becomes a serious matter for the whole world because a crime against humanity in one place is a crime against all humanity everywhere. And genocide is the greatest of all such crimes.

NARDY: Why are you prejudiced in favour of one out 82 Ethiopian ‘tribes’ (Tigrayans)?

I have visited Ethiopia several times but never gone to Tigray (nor Amhara or Afar). I have also worked professionally with many Ethiopians over many decades in many international settings. I never asked, knew, or could tell the difference between different ethnic groups.

(By the way, I hope you know that ethnicity is a social, cultural and political self-construct, not a biological one.  Thanks to the landmark Human Genome Project, we have learnt that there are no major variations between so-called races or ethnic groups.  Thus, the notion of ethnicity has been created and manipulated for dubious reasons).

I have no particular affinity for any Ethiopian group and am not involved in any political grouping of any side. However, I am unequivocally on the side of Tigrayans for one simple reason: they are the only group threatened with genocidal extinction. Other groups are also suffering a lot, but they are not under genocidal threat.

While I instinctively empathise with all suffering people, I always prioritise the side facing genocide, be they Tigrayans, Rohingya, Uyghur, Yazidi or, in the past, Tutsi in Rwanda, black African  Darfuris in Sudan, and Muslims in Bosnia. For me, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ – no grey areas – in this regard. It is my uncompromising conviction that genocidal situations compel us to take sides, preferably with the victims. If you don’t,  you are, by default, on the side of genocidaires.

From my experience of numerous situations, I have learnt  that preventing and stopping genocides requires crystal clear moral clarity, and not the relativity or ambiguity behind which genocidal acts are often perpetrated. If you consider that being ‘prejudiced’ then I am indeed guilty as charged.

DEAR NARDY: You may not agree with many of my answers, but thank you for asking the questions.

Published by Mukesh Kapila


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: