Tigray War: Considering the Tragedy of Collective Responsibility

As the dust settles, for now, many are hopeful that, as stipulated in the recent agreements, a ‘transitional government’ might soon be established and working for the interest of Tigray’s tormented society, while others remain doubtful, refusing to believe that the Abiy regime would ever act or negotiate in good faith.

But however things will turn out, whoever will be proven to have been more in the right; there is one certainty: The Tigray war and its consequences do concern us all – and not because we may consider ourselves ‘pro-Tigray’, politically, culturally, or even just societally; not because we are ‘Tigray’s allies’, but simply because we are human beings. 

We would do well to remember that it was in just such a context – even if on a much larger, incomparable scale – that terms like ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ were first established after the Second World War. 

Indeed, it must be argued that, like in the context of the Holocaust and the Jews of Europe, the suffering and trauma inflicted on Tigrayan and Ethiopian society must not be considered a ‘crime against Tigrayans’, or a ‘crime against Ethiopian society’, but rather a crime against all of humanity.

On closer examination, it turns out that, at this point in the history of Ethiopia, to work for society must, thus, mean to demand and argue for accountability, to call out and discredit those effectively opposed to justice for the survivors, international or UN-led investigations, or identifying perpetrators of atrocities and bringing them before a – national or international – court that would be independent enough to ensure fair trials.

It is undeniable that, when a tragedy of this scale occurs in any society, it cannot escape collective responsibility. It cannot simply plead ignorance, or somehow ‘absolve itself’ from that responsibility. 

Arguments like, “I did not know, and, anyway, there was nothing I could have done, so I cannot be blamed.” or, “I never personally hurt a single Tigrayan; I was just doing my little government job.” are no defence, when, clearly, they should have known, they could have acted, worked against the inhumane, increasingly authoritarian system from within, but chose not to see and not to act, because that was far safer and easier at the time. 

When it was beyond clear that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray – and that the dubious-sounding government claim of ‘TPLF fighters dressing up as Eritrean soldiers, with specially factory-produced uniforms’ had to be considered nothing less than the de facto ‘admission’ that real Eritreans had been involved from the very start – too many remained silent. 

When the genocidal intent – within Ethiopian society and the Eritrean military – became obvious, to the international community and to Ethiopian society, and the regime’s propaganda narrative ever more absurd, the great outcry from within society did not materialise. 

When Aksum was destroyed, many who tried to protect the Ark of the Covenant – that central, most sacred of objects to the Orthodox Tewahedo religion – were massacred, and churches across Tigray were being desecrated, looted and vandalised, too many Orthodox still did not rise, or unite to oppose and fight, not even to condemn, the destruction of their own Church and cultural heritage.

Society is now at a point when it must face this horrific reality; that, over the passed five years, under the leadership of that once so celebrated ‘dynamic young politician’, Abiy Ahmed – erstwhile darling of the West, neoliberal student par excellence, skilled manipulator, duplicitous orator who will tell his audience exactly what they want to hear – there has come into being an autocratic, dictatorial system in Ethiopia which has profoundly damaged society, and allowed this great, unprecedented, unspeakable tragedy to occur. 

And though some might find it difficult to accept, there is no ‘neither nor’ here.

Professing ‘neutrality’ in the face of such a monumental catastrophe is necessarily always tantamount to ‘complicity with the perpetrators’.

Although often considered responsible or wise, a ‘neutral’ position never serves the survivors, and can never be in the short-, medium- or long-term interest of any society, of cultural, institutional and political strengthening and restoration, let alone reconciliation or healing.

And this, it can be categorically stated, applies, generally and specifically. It applies to the Ethiopian context and the rise of Abiy Ahmed, and wherever there are any parallels, be that personality cults, despotic regimes and autocracies, or the destruction of a security apparatus and military; the politicisation of academia, or the degrading of public and private institutions and companies through cronyism and political purging and hand-picking. It applies to the Tigray war, as much as it applies to genocides in general. It applies in this and in any other comparable context, current or historic, passed, present, or future.