People hold candles and Ethiopian flags during a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organised by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

Age-old issues over ethnic identity and autonomy must be settled

The Editorial Board

November 8, 2021

The UN Security Council has finally woken up to the tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country. On Friday, it called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to “inflammatory hate speech” after China and Russia dropped their opposition to issuing a statement.

Unfortunately, neither Abiy Ahmed, the increasingly isolated prime minister, nor the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which ran the country until 2018, are likely to heed the call. For both, anything short of total victory could spell their end.

Abiy, the 2019 recipient of what now looks like one of the most unfortunate awards in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, has staked his future on crushing the TPLF. His government has made disastrous miscalculations in seeking to destroy what he insists is a terrorist organisation.

Not only did Abiy underestimate the fighting capacity of the TPLF, which controlled the army when it ran the country for 27 years until 2018. He has also cobbled together a mishmash of undisciplined forces, including armed militia from Tigray’s neighbour, Amhara, and soldiers from Eritrea who have committed some of the worst atrocities of the war.

Crimes, including mass rape and civilian massacres, have probably been committed by all sides, including the TPLF, as a recent report indicates. But as head of state, Abiy bears responsibility for dispatching forces that are so obviously out of control.

After unleashing the whirlwind last November, the prime minister looks increasingly likely to be levelled by his own tempest. The year-long conflict — which has cost thousands of lives, pushed 400,000 people towards famine and 2m more from their homes — has reached a yet-more perilous stage.

After looking like it was losing, the TPLF has staged a dramatic comeback. It is now within roughly 200 miles of Addis Ababa, raising fervent speculation that it intends to push on to the capital.

The city’s authorities have told citizens to arm themselves. Unlike in 1991, when Tigrayan forces overthrew the Marxist Derg and marched into Addis triumphant, few this time will welcome them as conquering heroes. Any hint that the TPLF is back in charge after almost three decades in power risks nationwide rebellion, particularly in Amhara, a bitter regional rival of Tigray.

Abiy has poured oil on the fire. On the first anniversary of the conflict, he spoke of digging a pit and said: “We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones.” Even in the midst of war, such remarks are unconscionable, particularly in a conflict with such a strong ethnic element.

The government insists it is targeting the TPLF and not Tigrayans. But the distinction is foggy. Authorities have told citizens to hunt for the enemy within. In an atmosphere in which hate speech has proliferated, Tigrayans in Addis say they are being rounded up.

A ceasefire built around a transitional government may be the only way out of this corpse strewn cul-de-sac. Abiy, though his party won a landslide in flawed elections last June, has lost all credibility to lead such a process.

Any interim government would have, as a matter of urgency, to try to settle the issue that has eaten away at Ethiopia at least since the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. That is how to reconcile the claims for autonomy by different ethnic nationalities within the structure of an Ethiopian state. Abiy’s attempt to resolve that issue has gone irreparably wrong. The next must succeed if Ethiopia is to avoid the fate of Yugoslavia.

Source: Financial Times