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Standing on the Bones of the Past: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Ethiopia Crisis

Standing on the Bones of the Past: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Ethiopia Crisis


Elias Dawit 08-13-21


“We are preaching hope, standing on the bones of the past.”

Rwanda’s Bishop John Rucyahana


During the summer of 1994, at least 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered with machetes by their fellow Rwandans. The oft repeated “never again” following the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people was a lie. It happened again. Following a government-led targeted campaign of hate speech and extremist propaganda against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, Rwanda’s Hutu armed themselves with machetes and went house to house in a macabre killing spree that wiped out almost a million people over three months. In the time before smart phones, a lone general from Canada, Romeo Dallaire, leading a small contingent of UN troops with a limited mandate, sounded the alarm to the international community that the Tutsi people were being targeted for genocide. He was ignored and we all know the end of the story. 


Today, as the absence of a live audience at the Tokyo Olympics was regarded as a “tragedy,” the Ethiopian government continues to inflict genocidal acts on the people of Tigray—a small region home to about six percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million total population. Like in Rwanda, the campaign against the Tigrayan people began with hate speech and extremist propaganda that came first out of the mouth of Ethiopia’s leader, Abiy Ahmed. Calling his former Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) colleagues “daytime hyenas,” “criminals,” and “a cancer,” to name a few, and the people of Tigray “weeds” and a people who must be “destroyed and eliminated,” Abiy Ahmed has been the leading voice in the demonization of the TPLF and the people of Tigray. It all sounds familiar—think Nazi Germany and the government of Juvenal Habyarimana.


Unlike Nazi Germany and Rwanda under Habyarimana, the atrocities against the Tigrayan people have taken place in full view of the world thanks to today’s information technology. As one writer put it, “this genocide is being livestreamed.” The massacres, rapes and destruction have been recorded on mobile phones by both victims and perpetrators. Even so, it took months of atrocities to occur before our very eyes before the international community took notice. It took even more months before the international community tried to get the story right.


The U.S. government, as in the case of Rwanda, once again is attempting to show a balanced response to the conflict in head-spinning messages intended to avoid using the word “genocide” and focusing on humanitarian issues. And as in the case of Rwanda, the U.S. government, despite Abiy Ahmed himself making the case for exterminating the people of Tigray, confines itself to making public statements, diplomatic demarches, and calls for a bilateral ceasefire--his while the government of Abiy Ahmed continues its genocidal campaign against Tigray in plain sight.


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The U.S. needs to stop playing its role as a “neutral” or “honest” broker in its foreign policy towards the Ethiopian government. The U.S. needs to publicly acknowledge the perpetrators of genocide, confronting the role it has played in supporting the genocidal regime of Abiy Ahmed and, equally important, carry out an open, transparent engagement with the Government of Tigray. Here are three very basic facts that should drive the paradigm shift.  


Abiy Ahmed is a genocidaire. Before any shots were fired, he had planned a genocidal campaign to wipe out Tigrayans “for the next hundred years” —his words famously said to the Foreign Minister of Finland. The incident at the Northern Command was simply a pretext. The world has witnessed the incalculable death and destruction of his attempt to exterminate the people of Tigray through conflict and starvation, leaving no one untouched by the callous brutality of his armed forces. To accomplish this, he invited a foreign military into Ethiopia to assist him and is now mobilizing armed regional militias to take up where the defense forces failed. Why is the U.S. continuing to indulge a leader so deficient of human decency?


Although it is clear that the U.S. is talking to the TPLF leadership, it is crucial to engage with them openly and intensely. The people of Ethiopia need to understand that the TPLF—the party that won the election is Tigray—represents the people of Tigray. There is no ambiguity despite the narrative promoted by the Ethiopian government.


Finally, the U.S. needs to stop pretending that this war is some kind of political disagreement between the Ethiopian government and the government of Tigray. This war goes beyond political conflict. It is a war conducted by a government fully intent on exterminating an entire people. The TPLF and its Tigrayan allies are defending the survival of the Tigrayan people. While the world continues to watch ethnic cleansing throughout Ethiopia and, since the defeat of the Ethiopian Defense Forces and the Eritrean military inside Tigray, extermination through starvation, it is only the TPLF that is responding in any significant way to the genocide.


U.S. foreign policy is standing on the bones of the past. By not acknowledging fully the genocidal intent of its former ally, Abiy Ahmed, by continuing to treat the TPLF and the Tigrayan government as “rebels” and “insurrectionists”, and by viewing the conflict as some sort of political disagreement by the two combatants, the U.S. will not be able to play a meaningful role in bringing about change. Peace, although a first order priority, is not enough. Change is the operative word here.


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