Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s lead mediator in the civil war in Ethiopia (Picture: WEF/Flickr)

The two-year civil war in northern Ethiopia may have killed as many as 600,000 people, making it one of the world’s deadliest conflicts of recent times. That’s according to the African Union’s lead mediator in the peace talks that ended the war at the end of last year.

“The number of people killed was about 600,000,” former Nigerian president and African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo told the Financial Times newspaper in a recent interview.

Others confirm such figures. “Based on reports from the field, the number of dead could be somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 civilian casualties only—from atrocities, starvation, and lack of healthcare,” said Vanden Bempt. He is part of a research group at the University of Ghent, which is investigating civilian atrocities in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray. 

In addition, he said there were unofficial estimates of between 200,000 and 300,000 battlefield deaths.

The figure is disputed by some other accounts. But even if it is half as large as this estimate, it underlines the horrendous toll of the fighting. It was largely ignored by imperialist powers and their proxies. Or it was made worse by arms shipments and diplomatic backing for one side or the other in a war between elites.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute analysts found that Russia was the largest supplier of major arms to Ethiopia over the last two decades, accounting for 50 percent. Second was Ukraine, which supplied 33 percent of Ethiopia’s military imports in 2001-2020. 

Much of this happened under pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine’s contribution to the slaughter included an estimated 215 T-72B tanks between 2011 and 2015. This was under pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Other merchants of death included the Czech Republic, Portugal, France, Germany—and Britain.

Ethiopia’s national government declared war on Tigray in November 2020. Tigray is one of ten semi-autonomous federal states and home to around six million people. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed ordered air strikes and a ground invasion after the area’s rulers bucked his authority by holding a regional election.

Before this Tigrayans had been at the centre of the Ethiopian government for 27 years. This was a legacy of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) war against the Derg military regime. Meles Zenawi, a leading member of the TPLF, was prime minister from 1995 until 2012.

He became a favourite of the West. Ethiopia was one of only two African countries named as part of the US’s “coalition of the willing” supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But Abiy pushed out the Tigrayans soon after he came to power in 2018. The agreement signed in November represented a victory for Abiy. His forces, which at one time seemed on the verge of collapse, had starved and blasted the Tigrayans into retreat.

The deal was overseen by scoundrels such as Obasanjo. He is a former Nigerian ruler who had earlier been part of a military regime, and a senior soldier who helped crush the Biafran secession in the 1960s.

The war in Tigray has stopped for now, and a trickle of the desperately needed aid has begun to flow. But none of the divisions that fuelled it have gone. At some point it is likely to burst out again—and vast numbers of ordinary people will be victims. 

Hope lies only in ordinary people overcoming ethnic divisions and returning to the powerful protests of 2016-18. These saw demonstrations, strikes and road blockades by ordinary people that defeated Abiy’s predecessor.

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