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A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government forces have been fighting against a powerful regional government in the country’s northern region and hundreds are reported to have died. The humanitarian tragedy is already stretching across borders: 27,000 Ethiopians have crossed the frontier into Sudan in two weeks, the largest influx in 20 years. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace laureate, ordered the government offensive after accusing the rival Tigray People’s Liberation Front of launching an attack against Ethiopia’s military last week. 

Thousands of people have been displaced, as government planes bomb targets in the Tigray region. Ethiopia’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party from the northern Tigray region that is battling the central government, has admitted to firing rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea. What we see in Ethiopia might be the last gasps of an empire – akin to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union – for some 115 million people. So, how did we get here?

Ethiopia is a complex mosaic of ethnic groups, including – to use figures from the 2007 census – the Oromo (34%), Amhara (27%), Somalis (6.2%) and Tigray (6%). For most of the 20th century, the country was ruled by an Amhara-dominated monarchy. After almost two decades of vicious military dictatorship, a new coalition government came to power in 1991. The government oversaw a federal system, although critics saw this federalism as a figleaf, behind which the Tigray minority-dominated affairs. Abiy – who is half Oromo, half Amhara – came to power in 2018, promising to hold elections by 2020. His liberal philosophy entailed commitments to privatising industry, freeing some political prisoners (lately, prisons have filled up again) and came packaged in a highly ambitious, messianic aura. The honeymoon period is well and truly over.

Even though the conflict has deep roots, essentially, it’s a power struggle that goes back to 2018, when a popular uprising brought Abiy to power. He ushered in democratic reforms and negotiated an end to what had become a cold war with neighbouring Eritrea. But he also dismantled Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which had run the country for almost 30 years. The EPRDF, which appointed Abiy, was a coalition of ethnically based political parties. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated the coalition and had amassed a lot of power as an ethnic minority. When Abiy sidelined them, TPLF leaders retreated to their home region in northern Ethiopia. Since then, Abiy has accused them of trying to destabilize the country. In a briefing document sent to journalists on Thursday, his office directly accused the TPLF of orchestrating ethnic violence across the country.

“Hidden hands of the TPLF were there in the killings of civilians in many different parts of the country,” the document read. It cited intelligence but did not provide evidence. The TPLF has in the past denied similar accusations. Regardless, that violence has displaced more than 3 million people over the past two years, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

But things worsened once COVID-19 hit Ethiopia, the African continent’s second-largest country by population. Abiy was supposed to guide the country through its first truly democratic elections this summer. But citing the pandemic, he postponed them. The TPLF argued that amounted to an unconstitutional extension of the federal government’s term. So, they defied Abiy’s orders, created their electoral commission and held their regional elections. The federal government declared the Tigray elections unconstitutional and both sides began trading accusations of illegitimacy.

Abiy said the TPLF crossed a red line last week when it allegedly organized a multi-pronged attack on the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command — a “treason that will never be forgotten,” Abiy said.

The TPLF denied the attack. On its television station, after the fighting broke out, the region’s president, Debretsion Gebremichael, called for dialogue. In a letter to the African Union, he accused the government of a power grab and accused Abiy of imprisoning his opponents and trying to turn Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism into a system where the prime minister holds all the power. “Dr Abiy Ahmed’s one-man dictatorial regime has started to unravel the constitutionally-established state institutions,” he wrote. “He is also endangering the unity of this ancient country.”

Considering the seriousness of the fighting, on Thursday, Amnesty International said scores — likely hundreds — of apparent civilians were killed in a town at the western edge of the conflict. Amnesty said it hasn’t been able to confirm who was responsible for the killings, that but witnesses told the group that TPLF-affiliated militias attacked with machetes, axes and knives. NPR has been unable to reach TPLF officials for comment. “Roads are blocked and electricity, phone and internet are down, making communication nearly impossible,” the agency said in its statement. “There is a shortage of fuel, and banking services have halted resulting in a lack of cash.”

The conflict is most likely to descend into a fully-fledged civil war if the military fragments. African political history reveals the central role that the military – and its allegiances – play in political stability. There are already reports of Tigrayan officers leaving the official Ethiopian army and joining the TPLF.

What we are witnessing is a tragedy, make no mistake about it. The political integrity of Africa’s second-most-populous nation is at stake, as are the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of ordinary people – divided from each other by the dangerous allures and false consolations of ethnic absolutism.

By Jumana Jabeer

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