I had a two-hour conversation with a well-known Ethiopian theologian a few months after the civil war broke out.
As we talked, he repeatedly insisted that Ethiopia’s civil war was a “just war.” He cited Augustine’s “City of God” and argued that the war was an “existential struggle” for Ethiopia’s survival. I tried to listen patiently and understand his claims.
My PhD advisor Jean Elshtain was one of the world’s leading theorists of just war, and I know the tradition well. In response, I argued that Ethiopia’s civil war was unjust. I built my case on three crucial pillars of the just war’s ethical criteria:
1. Last Resort: For a war to be just, every other option for conflict-resolution must be tested before the use of force can be legitimate.
In Ethiopia’s case, all options for peaceful mediation were NOT exhausted, particularly with the African Union. At the time, this theologian condemned engaging the African Union as a breach of Ethiopian “sovereignty.” Nevertheless, he saw no problem that Eritrea’s military was invading Ethiopian territory. I confess I found this totally self-contradictory and exasperating, but that was his position.
Thankfully, twenty months later, the African Union and other African bodies may still be able to play a role in ending this devastating war. I argued that mediation was the only way the war could end, so why not start with mediation before unleashing hell? Sadly, hell has been unleashed, but there is hope that mediation can end this conflict.
2. Proportionality: For a war to be just, use of force can’t massively exceed the aggression that started the conflict.
In Ethiopia’s case, many point to the TPLF’s attack on a military base and the killing of Ethiopian soldiers as the start of the war on November 3, 2020. This violence is rightly condemned, even if the background story is more complicated.
But the government’s use of force in response has massively exceeded the aggression that precipitated the conflict. We have seen an entire region and millions of people utterly devastated. This includes up to 500,000 deaths, famine for a million Ethiopians, displacement for over five million Ethiopians, and the mass destruction of infrastructure – hospitals, factories, schools, and houses of worship.
This can only be described as collective punishment. It is reminiscent of the United States’ unjust, devastating war on Iraq, which left terrible ruin in its wake and created the Islamic State. Ironically, many Ethiopians have bitterly condemned America’s destruction of Iraq, but they have passionately defended the federal government’s destruction of Tigray.
3. Outcome: For a war to be just, there must be a strong probability of its success. In other words, the use of force must restore peace rather than fueling more conflict and devastation.
In Ethiopia’s case, we know this hasn’t happened, and that was easy to predict from the beginning. What was described as a surgical “law enforcement operation” escalated a brewing conflict into all-out war of cataclysmic proportions.
Rather than succeeding, the war has unleashed catastrophic destruction on Tigray, Afar, Amhara, and other regions of Ethiopia. Sadly, this war has now inflicted generational trauma and sown the seeds for future wars. It is also estimated to have wasted over $3billion in an already impoverished society urgently in need of educational, medical, and business infrastructure.
Thankfully, twenty months later, dialogue may be given a chance. But many fear the worst of this war is still to come.
This was my argument, albeit with less data at the time.
The theologian was totally unconvinced by my argument. In fact, he told me that he felt “judged” and “offended” that I suggested his position was “unChristian.”
In the end, he warned me that if I kept opposing the war, I would lose my “followers,” and that my reputation in Ethiopia would be ruined. I confess that his comment felt like a threat. Between the lines, it seemed like he was saying, “If you want people to like you, defend the war or be silent.”
I told him that I wasn’t trying to become popular and that I was willing to risk my reputation for what I thought was right. And that’s exactly what I’ve done for the last twenty months.
Looking back, I’ve discovered something fascinating and encouraging.
There are various pages and platforms that are condemning me and trying to assassinate my character. But my public platform now has an equal or larger following to many of these pro-war platforms.
What this indicates to me is that many Ethiopians — especially youth — actually don’t want war. Their hearts are broken by the mass violence and terrible cruelty the war has unleashed. They want to see dialogue be given a chance. They want to find a nonmilitary solution and seek healing in Ethiopia.
The hell this war has unleashed is impossible to exaggerate. But in this crucial moment, let us raise our voice for dialogue, accountability, and a peaceful resolution.
Whether this is popular or not, it is right. And it is the only pathway to a hopeful future for Ethiopia’s diverse people.
May God soften hearts, open minds, and extend our hands to seek healing rather than more harm. Peace is possible.