Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS: Following our strong critique of the original article on Twitter, an editor of Montreal-based Policy Options, where the article was published, solicited a response from one of us. On receiving the article below, they variously characterized the core points of our critique as ‘bordering on defamation’, ‘a personal attack’, ‘an attack on the integrity of the authors’, and ‘an unfair commentary’ regarding their knowledge of Canadian foreign policy. Given the gravity of the unfolding tragedy, the authors’ choice to ignore it, and the magazine’s regrettable emphasis on our good manners over the original article’s erasure of crimes against humanity, we chose to withdraw our article.
It is with deep concern and disappointment that we read the recent Policy Options article ‘As G7 leaders gather, Canada should not “blindly follow” U.S. lead on Africa’ by Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal. The article is facile about the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, while reflecting an unfamiliarity with the history of Canadian foreign policy in the Global South. The article callously ignores the suffering deliberately inflicted on the civilian population in the Tigray region. Further, it caricatures Black Lives Matter – a grassroots movement by Black people opposing the deadly violence of militarized police and other state institutions – into no more than a slogan to justify its position in support of Ethiopian state violence. Finally, the article erases Canada’s own history of anti-Blackness and systemic racism.
The conflict in Ethiopia
The authors jettison legitimate critiques of the Ethiopian government and its allies as ‘one-sided, diaspora-driven lobbying and media campaigns’, espousing the Ethiopian government position. In the face of United States (US) and European Union (EU) pressure to end the conflict and secure humanitarian access, the article calls on Canada to not follow the US and instead lend unquestioning support to the federal government. In light of the dangerously partisan and incendiary narrative Fitz-Gerald and Segal presented, we consider it imperative to respond with the facts of the war in Tigray.
Following a series of missteps and incendiary rhetoric by all parties involved over the last two years, a conflict broke out in northern Ethiopia between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of the regional state of Tigray and the federal government of Ethiopia in November 2020. The federal government mobilized rival militia forces from the neighbouring Amhara regional state and enlisted the support of Eritrea. TPLF forces could not match these combined forces, who also had use of armed drones – reportedly from United Arab Emirates.
Three weeks after the outbreak of the conflict, federal troops and their allies took the regional capital Mekelle. TPLF forces fled the towns and resorted to guerrilla warfare. As soon as government forces exhausted their forward thrust, they became vulnerable to scattered TPLF counterattacks. In the ensuing asymmetrical warfare, Ethiopian federal forces together with Amhara and Eritrean soldiers have been targeting civilians for nearly six months since their declared victory in late November 2020.
Rape as a weapon
In a largely rural, conservative society where rape stigmatizes victims, over 800 women reported to have been raped by either federal, Eritrean or Amhara forces. The harrowing details of the victims’ experiences should have awakened the conscience of the international community into action. The actual number of victims is likely higher, given that large parts of Tigray remain inaccessible and without medical and other services. In his March 23rd address to the Ethiopian House of Representatives, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed remarked: ‘Women [in Tigray] are now violated by men, but our soldiers were violated with bayonets.’
Starvation as strategy
Beyond shortages of supplies in war situations especially in an impoverished region, Tigrayans are being starved by design in a famine that evokes that of the 1980s. Their granaries were looted or burned, farmers were prevented from farming, access to farming implements and fertilizers were compromised and humanitarian access has been denied to many parts of the region. In Tigray, journalists, the World Food Program (WFP), humanitarians and even officials appointed by the federal government have warned of the dire situation. The United Nations has declared a famine in some parts of Tigray and other parts are on the brink. Over 90 per cent of the population is in need of food aid.
Massacres and other atrocities
Human rights and humanitarian organizations have documented several massacres of civilians. The Ethiopian government itself has acknowledged this. The government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission documented some of them and the attorney general is reportedly prosecuting some perpetrators. There are at least two videos (both verified and geolocated) showing uniformed soldiers shooting scores of Tigrayan civilians at close range. Wanton destruction of civilian property, infrastructure and places of worship, including ancient monasteries and a historic seventh century mosque, have been documented.
Before the outbreak of conflict, more than 90,000 Eritrean refugees lived across Tigray including four refugee camps under the care of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The violence that these refugees endured has yet to be fully documented. Within the early weeks of fighting, two camps housing tens-of-thousands of refugees were completely dismantled. The UNHCR declared that it lost track of 20,000 refugees. They are presumed to have been forcibly returned to their native Eritrea, which they fled to escape the brutal dictatorship. Refugees who fled to Sudan, survivors, local and foreign journalists, humanitarians and human rights organizations have been speaking up against the atrocities that continue unabated.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his allies do not distinguish between their political opponents and the civilian population. The Ethiopian government has dismissed the interventions of African leaders, the EU, and US President Joe Biden. No proposed solution stands a chance without an appreciation for the gravity of the problem and redressing the egregious violations. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the warring sides were revving up for yet another ‘final’ bout of fighting – as they have done each time international pressure ramps up.
The Canadian government has been slow to respond to the cascading problem. Canada has the moral responsibility and the wherewithal to do more to help resolve the conflict. Right now, the violence needs to stop, an immediate ceasefire negotiated, Eritrean troops withdrawn, humanitarian access granted, survivors cared for, and services restored. To this end, Canada can and should do more to promote a peaceful end to the war in Tigray.
Fitz-Gerald and Segal’s emphasis on strategic resource exploitation obfuscates the basic facts of the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Their article is nonchalantly mum about the ongoing suffering of innocent civilians, yet they invoke Black Lives Matter in order to galvanize support for the Ethiopian government. Referencing a movement against state-sanctioned violence to legitimize state violence against Black people is deplorable.
The choice the editors of Policy Options made to discipline our thought, edit out our wording and mute our response is consistent with a wider pattern of preferentially treating some as authorities beyond reproach and placing different expectation on those who in fact know better. But that will have to be an issue for a future essay; we cannot afford to indulge in that now while innocent civilians are targeted for rape, massacre and mass starvation. Anyone concerned for Black lives globally should pay attention to the ongoing carnage in Tigray and stand with the innocent civilians subjected to the violence of the Ethiopian state and its allies.