Each Conflict Brims with Lessons, If Ethiopia Listens

Jan 31 , 2021
By Christian Tesfaye

There is an unintended consequence to armed conflicts and wars - internationalised or not. They can serve as great lessons, especially of the cost of violence and the need for empathy. Sometimes, this lesson does not come as evident, but eventually, it becomes clear as daylight for those sensible enough.

Take World War I. It was a function of stunted diplomacy, fought out of European leaders' delusion that the "balance of power" order of the 19th century could be carried over into the 20th. They were direly mistaken. A prince's assassination led to enough dominos falling that a war in scale hitherto unseen was launched. Close to 22 million people died. There was also the massacre of Jews in Russia and Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire, according to historical sources.

What did the world learn from this?

Surprisingly, it was a racially insensitive Southerner from the United States that was the more clearheaded about it. Woodrow Wilson was a strong supporter of an international order underwritten by a multilateral institution known as the League of Nations. An idealist, if not naive, Wilson introduced his famous Fourteen Points speech, underlining that “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike” should be the order of the world.

It was not to be. The victors moved to humiliate the loser, Germany; the United States, already the most powerful country at that point, shunned the League; and the multilateral institution belied its ineffectiveness after Japan invaded China’s Manchuria and Italy occupied Ethiopia.

By the 1930s, the economic devastation of the Great Depression and national resentment created an environment that served as a cesspool of populism, nationalism and fascism. From Germany, the cruelest of these gave itself the name Nazi, stole the swastika as its icon, declared the Aryan race superior, and established a totalitarian government. The National Socialists in Germany started a war that killed about 70 million people, including the extermination of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews.

This time, thankfully, the atrocity was too deep, too graphic and too global. More than that, it ended with the United States dropping atomic bombs in two cities of Imperial Japan - this was despite a bombing campaign that had burned most cities of Japan to the ground. As cynical as it sounds, it was the possibility of mutually assured destruction that was the main driving force in pushing the superpowers toward agreeing to international order. It was one where conflict-stricken countries are assisted in reconstruction; development was supported through multilateral institutions; and it was declared that “never again” would the world look on idly as atrocities of mass scale are committed.

It was only half successful. Its most tremendous success was avoiding any war between superpowers, which, had they occurred, may have ended human civilization as we know it.

But wars never went away, least of all in Ethiopia. During the Dergue years, civil war raged for 17 years. It stunted our economic growth, saw a genocidal urban campaign (a politicide) in the form of the Red Terror, and allowed one million people to perish from famine in the northern part of the country.

Did we learn a lesson? As we came out of the war in 1991, did we say “never again”? Never again should our people suffer, not just death, but the deprivations of the developmental repercussions as more resources went into buying bullets and tanks instead of food?

We did not. We took a respite for some seven years and fought with a country barely half a decade old, Eritrea. An estimated 70,000 to 100,000 died - the figure is debatable, because life in armed conflict becomes so valueless, it is often hard to account for all of the losses.

This should have taught us a lesson. War is terrible. Unfortunately, it did not. An armed conflict erupted last November between the forces of the federal and Tigray regional governments. Everyone throws around “thousands” as an estimate, but little is known. Atrocities were committed, most notably in Mai-Kadra, and according to refugee testimonials, cities like Adigrat and Axum as well. About 4.5 million people are estimated to need humanitarian aid. The government says it is catering to the need. Humanitarian agencies say that it is not enough.

Have cool heads finally prevailed, considering how vivid and recent this armed conflict has been?

It does not seem to be. Everyone is pointing hands. The political space is not being reconsidered as a culprit for the failures of the past three years. No one is assuming responsibility. Everyone believes that it is everyone else’s fault.

The victors believe that their victory is not decisive enough. The losers believe the problem was that they did not have sufficient arms. Few with voices audible enough are willing to acknowledge that the very use of violence as a means to advance a political agenda is what perpetuates this tragedy.

We have learned nothing.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 31,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1083]

Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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