Ethiopia showed so much promise and yet has regressed into civil war. Here's why

The stories of brutality of the Civil War have reopened the cleavages between different ethnic groups. The TPLF, representing the Tigray minority, which has been in power since 1991, is paying the price for its inability to open Ethiopia to reform at a faster pace

Gurjit Singh December 04, 2021 22:47:56 IST
Ethiopia showed so much promise and yet has regressed into civil war. Here's why

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which for 30 years dominated the EPRDF coalition, and was the saviour of Ethiopia, is today part of the process of destructive, violent and brutal rivalry. AFP

There is something terribly wrong in Ethiopia. It is astounding how a country which overcame so much devastation to aim becoming a middle-income country and increase the livelihood of its people has suddenly regressed. The stories of brutality of the Civil War have reopened the cleavages between different ethnic groups. The TPLF, representing the Tigray minority which governed Ethiopia since 1991, is paying the price for its inability to open Ethiopia to reform at a faster pace.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power on the strength of his reform credentials. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, but is today leading his country personally in the worsening Civil War. The Prosperity Party that he created to overcome the 30-year-old Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which drafted him to power, is having difficulty in achieving its goals despite an election victory.

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which for 30 years dominated the EPRDF coalition, and was the saviour of Ethiopia, is today part of the process of destructive, violent and brutal rivalry.

There are numerous sad tales of the brutality of the Civil War. A joint report by the Ethiopian and UN Human Rights Commission has drawn attention to these issues in Tigray. This report makes sad reading. Humanitarian access despite an initial ceasefire in June has not taken place. The government in Addis Ababa believes that humanitarian assistance is misused by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). The TDF believes their people are being starved. The weaponisation of humanitarian aid is the manifestation of the brutality in which Ethiopia finds itself.

There are five issues which currently need urgent attention. First, a ceasefire and an end to violence are imperative. The TDF has linked up with its arch enemies in Oromia under the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and are attempting a pincer by laying a siege to Addis Ababa. They aim to gain control of the road from Djibouti to facilitate unimpeded supplies to Tigray and restrict them to Addis. Land-locked Ethiopia is dependent on Djibouti ports.

The rebel forces are not close to Addis Ababa. It is unlikely that Tigrayan forces would enter Addis Ababa because they know that there is strong antipathy against them. The forces of the OLA, however, could enter Addis Ababa. It is important for the TDF, the OLF, and for the government to realise that there is no victory in sight for any of them. Unfortunately, all sides are trying for a fight to the finish before engaging in any discussions as they believe their view will emerge only from a victory. This is self-defeating.

Second, the civilian casualties need to be stopped. Last month, an emergency was declared in Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission raised concerns that there was disproportionate ethnic profiling of Tigrayans leading to their arrests, ghettoisation and deportation to distant parts of the country.

Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister and UNDP head, and others have asked for an end to what they termed "genocide in Ethiopia". They blame all sides but say that the government has greater responsibility. This is echoed by most Western countries that are now taking their citizens out of Addis Ababa. The killings are also done by local militias. All these need to cease so that a solution can be found. The Ethiopian people have suffered enough.

Third, the entire question of ethnic federalism, on which the Ethiopian constitution is based, is now a subject of debate. The Prosperity Party, which replaced the EPRDF, has a dual policy. On the one hand, it centralised political power away from a federal structure; on the other hand, it created two new regional states through referenda. Interlocutors say that the TPLF creates a false binary between their federalism and the PP’s unitary stance. They believe the issue is what kind of federalism.

The ferment in Ethiopia even before the Civil War started would have led to a new debate on the nature of federalism and whether it should be based on ethnicity or not. Today, the added dimension is whether Ethiopia should be a federation at all, or become a more centralised state with federal features.

The fourth issue is hate speech, and demonisation of former neighbours and friends. In most parts of Ethiopia, the anger against the Tigrayans has been marshalled and they have been treated like the enemy. The level of hate speech is so high that Twitter and Facebook have had to limit the use of hashtags and increase the removal of posts. Originally, the cleavage was largely between the Oromos who felt the Tigrayans had suppressed them. Today the more vocal Oromia parties that came into their own only since Abiy's assumption of power, are opposed to Abiy and willing to support the TDF. The Amhara, which traditionally ruled Ethiopia during the time of the Emperor Haile Selassie, feels that some of their territories adjoining Tigray were annexed by Tigray and have moved to occupy them particularly in western Tigray. Amhara militias were in the forefront of attacking Tigray to crush the Civil War but suffered reverses. TDF entered into the Amhara and Afar regional states to relieve pressure on their capital, Mekelle. Amhara gained territories in western Tigray but some of its towns are under TDF threat.

To crush the TDF, the government invited Eritrean troops, who are now accused of brutal destruction in Tigray. Eritrea, since 1998, has been in a state of war with Ethiopia. However, the interpretation by the new government in Addis Ababa since 2018 was that Eritrea can be a friend of Ethiopia, minus Tigray. The manner in which the Civil War was conducted leads to this conclusion. Most interlocutors, including at the UN, call for a departure of foreign troops from Ethiopia.

Real peace can be achieved only after an end to war. The government, TPLF, OLF and others need to recognise each other’s role. The TPLF has to operate within the constitution. The government will have to lift the terrorist tag at an opportune time. Humanitarian relief needs to flow; the AU-led mediation of President Obasanjo must be promoted, backed by a monitoring group to observe the ceasefire. All efforts must support African solutions for African problems, however difficult they may appear.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Ethiopia. Views expressed are personal.

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