War and Truth in Ethiopia: Joint United Nations-Ethiopia Human Rights Investigation Contradicts Mainstream War Commentary About the Genesis of the Ongoing Conflict

undernourished child in Ethiopia
Image credit: UNICEF/Christine Nesbit

“The first casualty when war comes is truth,” said US Senator Hiram Johnson in the midst of World War I. It appears that is what happened in the raging war in Ethiopia, according to the much anticipated report of the joint investigation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into allegation of human rights violations by the warring parties in the east African country, which was released on Nov. 3, 2021, the one year anniversary of the conflict.

The joint investigation team concluded that all parties in the conflict have committed gross human rights violations which may amount to war crimes. Nonetheless, the investigation — characterized as “impartial and transparent” by the US and its allies — did not find evidence confirming allegations of genocide against Tigrayans nor the use of starvation as a weapon of war by the Ethiopian government. Furthermore, contrary to widespread media reports, the investigation team concluded that it is not the federal government but forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — the governing party in Tigray which had been most dominant political force in the federal government before the current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, came to power in 2018 —who started one of the most brutal wars in the history of the country.

The investigation shows that the Ethiopian federal government counter-offensive against the TPLF came after the Tigray Special Forces and allied militia launched an attack against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, took control of the bases and the weapons on Nov. 3, 2020. Following the attack by Tigrayan regional forces, the Amhara Special Forces (ASF) and Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) joined the war alongside the Ethiopian army.

This account of events is corroborated  by Tibor Nagy, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the time, who likened TPLF’s attack with that of South Carolina militia on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter that triggered the American civil war. As Nagy said, history would tell if TPLF’s claim that it launched the attacks because the federal government was planning to attack Tigray is true, but subsequent events show the federal government was caught by surprise by the attacks.; after the TPLF had taken control of Ethiopia’s largest military command, Abiy announced major changes to his military and intelligence leaders and recalled retired generals who are now leading the war effort.

The finding delivers a mortal blow to the major hypotheses forwarded by analysts to explain why the Abiy-led government decided to start the war. Among these is the view that the war started when the federal government launched an offensive to subdue a rebellious region where the TPLF conducted a regional election and declared landslide victory, in defiance to the postponement of the national and regional elections by the Ethiopian parliament — due to the Covid-19 outbreak — and without approval of the national election board, which has the sole authority to conduct elections in the country.

Moreover, the investigation discredits a related hypothesis that presents Abiy’s desire to increase the powers of the federal government to be a major motivation behind his  “miscalculated attack”. The miscalculated attack was in fact orchestrated by the TPLF leadership, and there is no evidence of increased centralization under Abiy’s administration as two more regional states were formed since he came to power and his Prosperity Party neither proposed nor made changes to the constitution the TPLF and its allies introduced in 1994.

Debunked by investigation is also the war commentary that identifies the border conflict between Tigray and Amhara regions as the fundamental cause of war, in which it was alleged that leaders in the larger Amhara region instigated the attack to return disputed areas the TPLF incorporated into Tigray when it came to power in 1991. Not only had the disputed areas been administered by the TPLF before the war broke out, the investigation shows the Amhara regional forces joined the federal troops only after the TPLF took control of federal army bases. (This, however, does not imply the border dispute will not prove a major challenge to resolve the conflict through negotiation.)

The confirmation that the TPLF started the devastating war and its current advance to the capital city shows the war is a consequence of TPLF’s attempt to regain control of the federal government and thereby the Ethiopian economy, after its influence was confined to Tigray since Abiy came to office.

The recent alliance the TPLF formed with much weaker armed groups indicates how the group plans to govern the country if it were to succeed to topple the federal government: through an ostensibly multi-ethnic party it controls, similar to the TPLF-dominated Ethiopia People Revolutionary Democratic Front which ruled the country for nearly three decades.

The attempt by the TPLF to govern Ethiopia once again, however, will be catastrophic as it will inevitably face fierce resistance by a majority of Ethiopians who do not want to see the return of its authoritarian rule. Although there are ongoing efforts to avert the potential tragedy through negotiation by US Special Envoy  Jeffrey Feltman and the African Union envoy for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, it is unlikely that any arrangement short of  a full  disarmament of the TPLF would convince the Ethiopian government and its allies that peace is possible without victory.

Kassahun Melesse is an Assistant Professor of Applied Economics at Oregon State University. He was born in Ethiopia and lived in the country for over 25 years. He holds graduate degrees in economics and public administration/international development from Addis Ababa University, UC Davis, and Harvard University. The author has published articles on the ongoing Ethiopian conflict on major outlets including Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera.