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27 February 2024

The forgotten wars

This century’s deadliest conflicts aren’t taking place in Ukraine or Gaza.

By Lawrence Freedman

Not long after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, when I found it difficult to talk about much else, I attended an international conference. There, I got into conversation with a woman who worked for one of the large charities providing relief to war zones in Africa. Politely but firmly she complained that the consequence of the fixation on Ukraine was that Africa’s many, ongoing, disastrous wars were once again being ignored. She particularly had in mind the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray province.

A few months after this conversation, in November 2022, it apparently came to an end with a ceasefire agreement signed in the South African capital of Pretoria. Having briefly paid attention I continued to concentrate on Ukraine. But that conversation continued to bother me. Recently I looked again at the Tigray conflict and what had happened since the ceasefire. As I did so I came across a recent article by Katie Burton in Geographical Magazine, entitled “Tigray: the war the world forgot”.

Before the ceasefire, the death toll in Tigray, a war that lasted two years, was horrendous. Accurate counting is impossible in these conditions, and the numbers for Africa’s wars are notoriously unreliable. The top estimate is that some 600,000 died because of the war, with a lower estimate a third that number, with at least half of this number being civilians who were lost to “atrocities, starvation, and lack of healthcare”, the FT was told by Tim Vanden Bempt, who is part of a research group investigating atrocities there. Whatever the exact number, it’s by far the worst war anywhere in 2022 in terms of casualties, with regular reports of war crimes, including massacres of whole villages and widespread sexual abuse, as well as the inevitable consequences of the spread of famine and disease. It was described by the New York Times at the time of the ceasefire as “one of the world’s bloodiest contemporary conflicts”. Unsurprisingly, though the situation improved after the agreement in Pretoria, the violence did not end.

Ethiopia is the second-largest country in Africa (by population), and one which, apart from a brief Italian occupation, avoided colonisation. Its politics have been shaped by the complex relations between its three main ethnic groups – Oromos, Amharas and Tigrayans. From 1974 a ruthless socialist junta, known as the Derg, governed Ethiopia. They ran the country into the ground, then were overthrown by a coalition led by Tigrayans in 1991. A new constitutional arrangement was introduced, based on ethno-nationalism. At this point Eritrea, which had been fighting a bitter war for independence against the Derg, was allowed to secede.

The dominant role of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) post-1991 caused resentments, however. Eventually, the Oromos and Amharas combined to put a non-Tigrayan in charge in the federal capital of Addis Ababa. In 2018 an Oromo, Abiy Ahmed, became prime minister and began to implement a democratising and modernising agenda. Abiy worked to end a long and violent border dispute with Eritrea that had led to a full-scale war in 1998-2000. For this he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. On its receipt he described it as “a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia, and I can imagine how the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on the peace-building process in our continent”.

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But one peace was followed by another war. The disgruntled Tigrayans detached themselves from the federal government and in November 2020 there was a TPLF attack on the Ethiopian Army headquarters in the Tigrayan capital, Mekele. The Oromos and Amharas supported the federal government, as did the Eritreans, and they moved to crush the rebellion. The TPLF however survived and managed to mobilise and reorganise itself sufficiently to go on the offensive the next June with a coalition of disaffected groups. This time they were more successful, taking towns and threatening to march on Addis Ababa. But they were forced back to Mekele in November 2021, and then all the anti-TPLF groups moved against them in Tigray province. This led to an increasingly desperate situation until the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) of 2 November 2022.

The war had been fought without mercy. Civilians and their livelihoods were considered fair game from the start. The province was put under a total blockade. No relief supplies could get in and communications, including the internet, became impossible. A UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia reported in October 2023 that it had found “evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on a staggering scale”. Nobody has been called to account for these crimes. Many Tigrayans became refugees, pushed out of their homes through violence and pillage, and the inability of humanitarian organisations to reach them. More than a million people remain internally displaced, while other refugees are now stuck in Sudan.

CoHA brought relief to the province but not enough to deal with extreme food shortages and an end to tensions and misery in Ethiopia. The agreement was accepted by neither the Eritreans nor the Amharas who felt that Prime Minister Abiy had allowed international pressure to get to him just as the TPLF were in full retreat. Eritrea continued to occupy Tigrayan territory bordering its country. The Amharas now suspect Abiy of promoting Oromo interests and have begun to contest federal control. For a while last year they held some major towns, and their insurgency continues from rural bases. So far another full civil war has been avoided, but this cannot be taken for granted.

There is currently no political process to resolve the conflict. Even in Oromia there are signs of discontent, with an insurgency led by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). Reuters recently published a major investigation into the “extra-judicial killings and illegal detentions” that have been used to crush an insurgency there. The attempt by the federal government to hold the country together with a centralising programme is under severe strain. But because Abiy is in charge in Addis Ababa, Western and African governments have worked to normalise relations with his government, which means that there will be little accounting for past war crimes. Plus, he will decide how to manage the various conflicts still afflicting Ethiopia. He also has to manage a potential famine.

Tigray reminds us how the consequences of war linger long after the fighting has officially stopped. Marauding soldiers would kill local livestock, plough up the fields, and wreck the farms. The farmers fled. Continuing fighting, as in Amhara, aggravates the problem. And to cap it all, the region is suffering from drought. Natural and man-made disasters combine. Up to three million people may be facing starvation.

The Ethiopian government insists that the situation is not as bad as the catastrophe of 1983-85, which inspired the Live Aid Concert of 1985. Then, in a pre-internet age, it was remarkable reporting by Michael Buerk of the BBC which alerted the world to a developing catastrophe. Although the role of the Ethiopian government, then fighting against Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels, in helping to create the conditions and then misappropriating aid tended to get played down. Last year, food deliveries were suspended for months by the UN’s World Food Programme and the US government because assistance was being diverted away from its intended recipients to feed soldiers or to be sold on for profit.

In a recent visit to Tigray, the UK’s development minister Andrew Mitchell compared the situation to a football heading straight for a glass window. “If we don’t head the ball away, it’s going to smash the glass.” Somewhat ironically, as this crisis gets worse, another UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, was presenting Abiy Ahmed with an award to mark his country’s advances in agricultural production and its aspiration to achieve “zero hunger”.

Next door in Sudan, a country of 45 million people, things are also moving from bad to worse. It is another example of the members of a temporary coalition, which came together to oust one leader, turning on themselves. But also of a country with a history of internal violence being unable to shake off the legacies.

Sudan, which gained independence from the UK in 1956, has already suffered two civil wars, largely resulting from the country’s division between the majority Arab and Muslim north and the poorer Christian and animist south. The second of these wars, which lasted from 1983 to 2005, led to the deaths of two million people, and an eventual split, as South Sudan seceded in 2011. (The subsequent story of South Sudan is not a happy one, as it has suffered from political instability and human rights abuses.)

From 1989 to 2019, Omar al-Bashir presided over much of this mayhem. He imposed a strict Islamist regime and suppressed all dissent. The “dirty war” in Darfur in the west of the country, which he unleashed, lasted from 2003 until a ceasefire in 2010, and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. The International Criminal Court charged Al-Bashir with multiple crimes, including genocide against non-Arab populations.

The Janjaweed militia, funded by Al-Bashir to fight in Darfur and in southern Sudan, was guilty of numerous war crimes. A child of the Janjaweed is the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the control of Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo. This became one of the most powerful armed groups in the country. It was given independent status by Al-Bashir in 2017. The RSF was a bit like Russia’s Wagner Group, as a mercenary business with multiple roles. In the past, these have included guarding the border, supporting the Saudis in its intervention in Yemen, and suppressing popular uprisings on behalf of Al-Bashir. Like Wagner’s late boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Hemedti became rich in this role, with much of his wealth the result of seizing control of gold mines.

Instead of protecting Al-Bashir from coups he led one against him. After 30 years of rule Al-Bashir was deeply unpopular. In April 2019 Hemedti joined with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, heading the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), to oust Al-Bashir from power. The two worked together to run the country, including a couple of years when a civilian prime minister tried to deal with multilateral agencies to sort out Sudan’s chaotic finances. That ended at the start of 2022. New plans by Al-Burhan and Hemedti for a return to civilian leadership and national elections seemed to be making progress by the end of the year. There were popular protests about how much power would be retained by the security sector, but the main problem was one of how to integrate the RSF into the Sudanese Armed Forces’s chain of command and subordinate it to an elected government.

The slide into war came suddenly, a direct result of the power struggle between the two men. After both the SAF and RSF deployed forces to the capital Khartoum fighting broke out between the two on 15 April 2023. Up to this point, Khartoum, a city of eight million people, had been more of a sanctuary than a war zone. This is how the International Crisis Group (whose reports on these conflicts are invaluable) describes the situation in January, after nine months of war:

“Infrastructure is extensively damaged, schools and health care facilities are shuttered, and banks are closed. The toll on civilians has been enormous. Without a central state authority to impose order, the country is sliding into new rounds of violence, often along ethnic lines. The RSF’s unruly troops and other opportunists sack cities and villages, committing rampant abuses, depopulating neighbourhoods and driving Sudan’s elite and middle classes to flee, many with little or nothing to return home to.”

The UN estimates that up to 12,000 Sudanese have been killed in the fighting, while eight million are displaced, and 19 million children are out of school. Widespread hunger looms. Both sides engage in indiscriminate violence against civilians.

The army, backed by Egypt and possibly Iran, largely controls the east, while the RSF, at least until recently, controlled Khartoum and much of the west. The militia seemed to be gaining ground against the struggling SAF. However, the Sudanese army mobilised more civilians and took advantage of superior air power and drones to achieve breakthroughs in Khartoum and elsewhere. It now has the initiative and is taking the fight to the RSF.

Both sides have drawn in external supporters. The RSF is deeply feared and unpopular within Sudan, with its record of atrocities (it has picked up where the Janjaweed left off in Darfur), and a set of partners motivated, as the International Crisis Group puts it, by “loot, pay or local ambitions” and so inherently unstable as a coalition. The RSF has been backed by the United Arab Emirates, along with Islamist militias left over from Al-Bashir’s time. Other states in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, are nervous about the implications of an RSF victory because of its potentially destabilising effects on neighbouring countries, should militias start to move back and forth across borders. They are also sceptical about the UAE’s regional power plays. Western governments also would prefer to see the RSF defeated, worried about how jihadists might prosper during an extended conflict and force more Sudanese to flee, potentially creating yet another refugee crisis for Europe.

It is not surprising that there have been suggestions Wagner Group was supplying the RSF with surface-to-air missiles to blunt the impact of the Sudanese air force. The mercenary group has reportedly provided support from neighbouring Libya, where Wagner backs the warlord Khalifa Haftar. Perhaps more surprising are the reports of Ukrainian special forces acting with the SAF, with claims that they have provided snipers and drones. One of their objectives appears to be stopping gold from Wagner-operated facilities in Sudan (Africa’s third-largest producer of bullion). Another might be to getting hold of weapons that can be moved into Sudan from neighbouring countries for use at home. It also demonstrates that Ukraine is prepared to hunt down its enemies wherever they may be found.

There have been attempts to resolve the crisis, but the fighting has continued. They have progressed under the auspices of the US and the Saudis, but the two disagree about the role of the UAE and how much a political settlement can be imposed. More recently, Kenya and Djibouti have led efforts by the Horn of Africa’s regional organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). This proposed an immediate ceasefire and direct talks between the leaders of the SAF and RSF. So far this has made little progress, and now that the army appears to be gaining strength, Al-Burhan might lose interest.

All these initiatives are caught up in a complex web of regional rivalries and tensions. Ethiopia, which as we have seen has its own problems, has long-standing differences with Egypt and Somalia. The UAE and Saudi Arabia compete for regional influence. The Saudis would prefer to lead the peace-keeping and resents IGAD’s intrusion. Its mediation is in turn complicated by Kenya and Ethiopia’s rivalry about who should lead it. Most of the US diplomatic bandwidth at the moment is taken up with the Hamas-Israel war. It is also wary about dealing too directly with the RSF.

Yet the consequences of a continuing war are horrific. As with Ethiopia, so with Sudan. Well over six million people have been displaced, joining over three and half million who have not been able to get home after previous bouts of fighting. Millions of people are on the verge of starvation. A blockade here is being used as a weapon of war. The SAF controls Port Sudan and prevents aid getting to RSF-controlled territory.

There are actions that could be taken to help: funding the aid agencies to move quickly, greater diplomatic efforts, warnings that war crimes will be prosecuted vigorously. But recent experience is not encouraging. Plenty of evidence was gathered on war crimes in Tigray but there has been no follow-through.

According to the Economist, part of Sudan’s affliction is “the wider world’s utter indifference”. The great powers barely pay attention. The UN Security Council has done little even though this is not an issue that divides its members like Ukraine. Even in Africa there is a reluctance to engage too deeply.

“The African Union appears to be unmoved by the catastrophe and is retreating to a policy of ‘non-interference’ in the affairs of its members,” the Economist article continues, “having previously sat idle while 385,000-600,000 people died during a civil war over the Tigray region in Ethiopia.”

In her article on Tigray, Katie Burton asked why this war, which in terms of deaths was one of the worst of this century, gained so little attention. There are a number of reasons.

There are always conflicts happening. They are not all viewed equally. In some cases the violence has taken on a routine quality. The drug wars in Mexico and Colombia come over as gang warfare. In Africa, there have become so many different types of conflicts, from terrorist insurgencies to full-blown civil wars, that it can be hard to keep track. Barton quotes Jan Nyssen of Ghent University in Belgium: “There is a mentality that it’s only Africa, they’re always fighting. That’s commonplace in Europe at least.”

Then there is the problem of media coverage. For much of this war Tigray was completely blocked off, so there was no media access. And even if media had access, the fighting would not lend itself to the sort of dramatic images that would convey its character.

In the end, Tigray is not that important a place. What happens there may be awful for its population but of little relevance to the wider world. It is neither economically nor strategically significant enough. And even if, as with Sudan, the location is potentially extremely important, there is a hierarchy of attention – and for now, Ukraine and Gaza dominate. There are very good reasons why this is the case. They both have jolted the international system, and both excite passions in Western countries in ways that a quarrel between two Sudanese warlords that has got completely out of hand does not.

How does one compare the wars in Gaza and Ukraine with those in Ethiopia and Sudan, or for that matter the civil war in Myanmar or the regular fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which may be close to taking off again) and the multi-faceted violence in West Africa, with its Islamist insurgencies and recent series of coups? It is no comfort to individuals caught up in any of these wars to know that somebody else’s war, measured by cumulative casualties, is even more vicious than your own. As we have seen in all these examples it is not good enough to deplore violence and wish for it to stop without some understanding of the political, social and economic conditions that have caused and sustained these conflicts.

The West has an interest in these conflicts, beyond the humanitarian, if only because of the potential for wider destabilisation and refugee flows. The US and its allies have the diplomatic clout and the resources to do more. But there are limits on what they can do. If, as we are regularly told, many non-Western countries find Western countries over-censorious, meddling and hypocritical, then they have plenty of opportunities to take their own initiatives. Some are trying to do this in both Africa and the Middle East, although local rivalries and their own security threats also limit what they can achieve. But even if some of these conflicts appear to be tragically intractable, at the very least, we can pay them some attention.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: This heart flies two flags]

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