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On Ethiopia, Ukraine and the problem of the color line

| Monday, April 11, 2022

The war has gone on too long. It has caused a lot of suffering, death and destruction. No, I am not talking about the war in Ukraine. I am talking about the civil war in Ethiopia that has raged since November 2020 and has pitted the regional government of the Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front against the Federal government of Ethiopia led by Prime Minister Ahmed Ali. More than 500,000 people have died and many more have been displaced and left helpless because of this brutal conflict. While Tigrayans starve away under siege with only scanty help from the international community in a conflict that has lasted more than two years, last week the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen hosted a fundraiser for Ukraine at which over 9 billion Euros were raised for Ukrainian refugees. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is reported that more than 100 rebel groups and the Eastern part of the country has known no peace for several decades. In the Sahel region of West-Africa, countries there are battling the Islamic State and the lives of citizens have been destroyed. More than a decade after NATO aided the overthrow of Col. Muammar Gadhafi, Libya has been in endless turmoil. In all these conflicts there has been nothing more than limited involvement to decisively bring these conflicts to an end.

It is not difficult to understand why the international community has been scarcely bothered by the protracted conflicts in Africa. For certain it is not for a lack of resources but for a lack of sufficient interest as these areas are of no significant strategic value. Unlike the Ukrainian conflict that spells danger for Europe, the conflicts in Africa are of no serious direct consequence. So, the commitment is not to peace and protection of life but to the protection of white lives. And there we have it, the racism that underlies the little interest in these other conflicts. It is not that the suffering of non-white peoples has been ignored. To add salt to the wound, statements have been made to the effect that non-white peoples are more accustomed, even more deserving of living in conditions of war and conflict. I will not speak for them; I will let them speak for themselves.

As civilians scampered to safety in the initial phase of the Ukrainian conflict, the world witnessed with great horror scenes of non-white people, particularly black people being turned back at border points in favor of white Ukrainians. It was not just the soldiers at the border points, it was also the leaders and reporters in this conflict. Talking to the BBC, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor stated that it was really emotional for him because “I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” Peter Dobie of Aljazeera, describing the refugees fleeing the conflict stated that “…what is compelling is just looking at them the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. They are obviously not refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like the European family that you would live next door to.” Charlie D’Agata, a CBS News senior correspondent, stated that “with all due respect, this is not a place like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European…where you would not expect that or hope that it’s not going to happen.” The message is clear: their lives did not matter. Their only crime? Being black.

Thus, when one compares the attention that has been given to the Ukrainian conflict to the scanty attention given to the Ethiopian conflict, one cannot help but recall the incisive assessment of W.E.B DuBois who wrote at the dawn of the 20th century that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line. More than a century later, DuBois’s assessment rings truer in our day. I am certainly no DuBois but dare I say that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the color line. Steve Biko knew better when he said, “Black man, you are on your own.”

Trevor Lwere is a senior from Kampala, Uganda, studying economics and global affairs with a minor in PPE. He is a dee-jay in his free time and can be reached at [email protected] or @LwereTrevor on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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