When writing about the Tigray-Ethiopia conflict or any other war in Africa, one of the first facts that should be highlighted is that around 85 per cent of Africa’s 54 countries are at peace. Africa is not a continent at war. But it is also true that almost all the ongoing wars, that are killing more than 1,000 people a month, are in Africa, while only one out of six people lives in the continent. Although the biggest of Africa’s current wars is supposed to end soon, it is not ending well.
Despite having only seven million of Ethiopia’s total population of 120 million, the rebel province of Tigray waged a three-year struggle against Abiy Ahmed, the federal prime minister. At one time the Tigrayian army even threatened to reach Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. But now the war is ending for the Tigrayans in famine, fire and defeat. The federal troops did badly in the early days of the war but turned the tide after Abiy Ahmed acquired military drones from abroad. In the end, numbers, technology and a ruthless food blockade are overwhelming the rebels.
Ahmed has also found a useful ally in Eritrea, a brutal dictatorship that borders on Tigray and has now invaded it with Ahmed’s blessing. (Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for signing a peace treaty with Eritrea.) The war will probably end soon with an Ethiopian victory and, of course, more massacres.
There is nothing particularly ‘African’ in this pattern of conflict. There are parallels with Japan’s history in the 16th century (‘the age of the country at war’), France’s in the 17th century (eight civil wars of religion), or even that of the United States of America in the 19th century (the Civil War, the ‘taming’ of the West, and expansionist wars with Britain, Mexico and Spain.)
The wars are part of the process of State formation, in which various religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, clans and tribes are gradually hammered together into something resembling a shared identity. The process is often violent and never completely successful. Most African countries only got their independence around 60 years ago, so the process is still underway today.
What’s surprising is not the fact of Africa’s wars but how few of them there are. The states in Europe — less than 50 countries in a continent with only half of Africa’s population — dwelled in the cockpit of war for three centuries before the borders finally settled down. Some borders still haven’t, particularly in eastern Europe.
There is only one thing special about Africa’s wars: how little attention everybody pays to them. The war in Ethiopia is many times worse than that in Ukraine — an estimated 90,000 casualties a month on each side — and, yet, it is almost entirely ignored. Why? Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, who is a Tigrayan, has a dog in this fight. At a recent media briefing, he speculated that the lack of global engagement with the war in Tigray could be linked to “the colour of the skin of the people”. Ghebreyesus asked whether “the world really gives equal attention to Black and white lives” given that ongoing wars in Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria have garnered only a “fraction” of the concern for the war in Ukraine.
His thesis would have been more convincing if most Yemenis and Afghans and almost all Syrians were not white. These are all Muslim countries, so their wars are fought mainly on the basis of religion, national identity as well as State formation. But the rest of the world dismisses them as just more wars among Muslims.
It is a pity that most countries seem condemned to go through such a horrible process on their way to a post-tribal future, but that is the way it is. It’s happening in Africa and the Muslim world at present simply because European empires prevented them from doing it earlier.