Politicians urged to heed academics and end Tigray war

A group of more than 55 African academics and intellectuals have called for peace in Ethiopia, demanding the country’s growing number of warring parties lay down arms for dialogue to reach a peaceful solution.

But they also voiced concern at the failure of politicians to listen to the analysis and advice of academic experts.

“We write this letter as concerned African intellectuals on the continent and in the diaspora. Many of us have dedicated our professional lives to understanding the causes and potential solutions to intra- and inter-African conflicts,” they said.

“We are appalled and dismayed by the steadily deteriorating situation in Ethiopia – so tragically illustrative of the continued lack of uptake of the abundant commentary produced by African intellectuals on how to resolve African conflicts.”

The open letter, published on 26 August, was signed by more than 55 African academics and Africa experts based around the world. University World News spoke to some of signatories to find out more about their motive behind the call.

Awet Weldemichael, professor and Queen’s National Scholar in African History at Queen’s University, Canada, told University World News: “The call was prompted by the worsening situation in Ethiopia. These conflicts oftentimes involve African intellectuals after the fact – to study and analyse them. We are calling for African intellectual capital to be put to use to help resolve them.”

Jok Madut Jok, professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of United States-based Syracuse University, told University World News what prompted him to sign the call was to “advise the Ethiopians to know that most African wars often end only when the people or the leaders sit around the table to negotiate settlement”.

“Ethiopians need to give credence to Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance, African solutions to African problems, as the sooner the Ethiopians seek political settlement, the sooner they can rescue their country from further ruin,” Jok said.

Elleni Centime Zeleke, assistant professor of African studies at Columbia University, USA, told University World News: “When civil war erupted in Ethiopia in early November 2020, the old Organisation of African Unity principle of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of member states trumped all efforts the African Union (AU) could have made to address the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia.”

Zeleke said: “Dismayed by the lack of action on the part of the AU and the escalating conflict in Ethiopia, we felt it necessary to now call for urgent dialogue and mediation.”

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, told University World News: “My main reason for joining the call is to manifest the current attempts at mediation from countries and organisations such as the US or the African Union in this conflict.”

Diagne added: “Besides those institutional mediations, there is also the concern and consciousness of pan-African civil societies (in this particular case from the academic world in general) concerning a country that is a symbol of Pan-Africanism thanks to its history, the significance of Addis Ababa as the ‘capital’ of the AU, and the promise it represents of Africa as ‘a rising continent’.”

“I considered it a duty to join like-minded pan-Africanist intellectuals calling for dialogue to end a conflict that nobody can win and that could only endlessly add destruction to destruction and fragmentation,” Diagne indicated.

Seye Abimbola, senior lecturer and research fellow at the School of Public Health of the University of Sydney in Australia, told University World News: “I signed the statement because I, as a global health researcher, and the others involved, recognise the link between peace and health – or put differently, the link between war and ill health.”

“I study how to reduce inequalities in the circumstances that create health, and so working together to prevent war and achieve peace is an essential part of my work,” indicated Abimbola, who is also a research fellow at the National Primary Health Care Development Agency in Nigeria.

Condemnation and a call for dialogue

In the open letter, the African academics and intellectuals said: “We condemn the fact that the conflict is affecting ever-increasing numbers of civilians – the deaths, the sexual violence, the refugee outflows, the documented hunger and unmet medical and psychosocial needs, the reports of widespread and targeted illegal detentions (especially because of ethnicity), the enforced disappearances and torture in captivity.”

They also condemned the “destruction of hard-earned physical and metaphysical infrastructure across Tigray, as well as other regions of Ethiopia, including institutions of higher learning”.

“All Ethiopians must recognise that a political rather than military solution is what is now called for, regardless of the claims and counterclaims, legitimate and otherwise, as to how Ethiopia has come to this place.

“We, therefore, call on the Ethiopian government and the national regional government of Tigray to respond positively to the repeated calls for political dialogue, including with the affected and implicated groups in the Amhara and Oromia regions,” the letter concluded.

Academics’ response to the call

Yohannes Woldemariam, a political economist who has taught and worked in universities and research centres worldwide including Africa – and co-author of an 8 April article in Foreign Affairs on “Ethiopia’s perilous propaganda war” – told University World News: “I wholeheartedly support the initiative of African intellectuals for peace.”

Responding to the call, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, told University World News: “When the horrific coronavirus pandemic hit the world, it was the virologists that helped us to contain the problem. Intellectuals and scholars are the ‘virologists’ of world politics as they have the tools at hand to vaccinate the world against war and destruction.”

Adib-Moghaddam added: “In this sense, the African authors of the open letter are absolutely right to demand the inclusion of African intellectuals and scholars into a dialogue of reconciliation.

“I have called for a global peace council of philosophers for a long time now, exactly because of that reason.

“We study and teach about those war zones, and yet politicians don’t listen, exactly because they don’t like the public to hear the truth.”

Ethiopian reaction to the call

In response, on 29 August the Board of Directors of the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative issued a statement saying: “As scholars, we do respect the academic freedom of intellectuals to express honest views and opinions with unfettered freedom. However, the statement, which reads like a page borrowed from the propaganda playbook of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, appears to be another futile attempt by the terrorist group to camouflage its ugly crimes in the shadow of African intellectuals.”

But Zeleke, one of the signatories of the intellectual African call, told University World News: “What should worry us all is when intellectuals find it difficult to take a critical distance vis-à-vis ‘official’ positions and narratives, or when intellectuals become uncritically supportive of one side in a conflict.”

“As African intellectuals, we should always condemn atrocities. We should always call for the de-escalation and prevention of conflict, war and killing,” Zeleke emphasised.

The academic way forward

Nicholas Bariyo, Africa correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, told University World News: “The African intellectuals can help solve this conflict by studying its root causes, the main motivations driving the warring factions and advise policy-makers accordingly.”

“Detailed studies and research would not only unearth the root causes of this deadly conflict but also help guide the current and future generations,” added Bariyo, a graduate of Uganda’s Makerere University, who has written several articles about the current Tigray war.

Adib-Moghaddam said: “Scholars and intellectuals in Africa who have spent their whole life studying such conflicts have repeatedly indicated that the Tigray war can only be resolved as a part of a wider pan-African dialogue.

“There is also the emphasis on a bottom-up process that appreciates the demands and grievances of communities.”

“These are tried and tested methods in peace studies and the African continent has a long and proud tradition overcoming the most devastating crises of recent human history,” Adib-Moghaddam pointed out.

For academics to work on unpacking the conflict between all the parties involved in the Tigray war would help encourage politicians to take the right measures to ensure that the communities, in particular the most vulnerable strata of society, are included and protected.

“As in any other conflict, it is crucial for academics to mobilise public opinion to end the war,” Adib-Moghaddam added.

Adib-Moghaddam said: “Give interviews, draft petitions, mobilise the global cast of intellectuals and draft them into a movement for peace and reconciliation driven by truth and justice, rather than power politics and ideology.

“Despite the adverse environment for many academics all around the world, in particular in the social sciences and the humanities, we are still the ones who can speak truth to power in order to foster understanding and empathy.

“We are the ultimate good guys of history, after all.”