Street trader Nigusu Mahari, an ethnnic Tigrayan, was arrested last year. REUTERS/Stringer
Across Ethiopia, Tigrayans are being fired and jailed since fighting erupted in their home region. The tensions are complicating efforts to end one of the world’s bitterest civil conflicts and threatening the unity of the country.
Filed May 7, 2021, 11 a.m. GMT
Police arrested Tigrayan street trader Nigusu Mahari last year as he strolled along the traffic-clogged streets of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. He says he was speaking on the phone in the language of his homeland, a distant region in the north.
Officers accused the broom hawker of planning a bombing, trying to overturn the constitution and working with Tigrayan rebel fighters. Nigusu professed his innocence. Six weeks later, a judge released him on bail without charge, court records show, after Reuters began inquiring about his case.
Nigusu is among thousands of Tigrayans swept up in a nationwide crackdown that started last November, when fighting erupted in Tigray between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that dominated the national government until three years ago. Tigrayans themselves are a small minority in Ethiopia’s mosaic of more than 90 ethnic groups and nationalities.
“They arrested me from the street because I spoke Tigrinya,” Nigusu, 25, told Reuters. He said he was just one of three dozen from his home region in the same jail. “I saw 35 Tigrayans, and I told myself that this is not about the TPLF. It’s about the Tigrayan people.”
Authorities did not respond to questions about Nigusu’s case. Federal police spokesman Jeylan Abdi told Reuters that if innocent people are detained, they are swiftly released. Police have caught many TPLF supporters “red-handed with firearms and ammunition,” he wrote in a text message.
The proportion of Ethiopia’s population that is Tigrayan
Tigrayans say the government’s efforts to crush a TPLF rebellion have unleashed an ethnic witch hunt against them. Across the country, Tigrayans have been arrested, harassed, sacked or suspended from their jobs, or had their bank accounts temporarily frozen, according to bank records, letters from employers and interviews with government officials, rights groups and lawyers.
Reuters spoke to more than two dozen Tigrayans who said their careers and personal lives have been upended because of their ethnicity. They included families of Tigrayan soldiers who’ve been rounded up and put in detention camps; Tigrayan diplomats dismissed or suspended from their postings; academics barred by their universities from lecturing; Tigrayan civilians who say they were arbitrarily detained, and Tigrayan peacekeepers who sought asylum in South Sudan, fearing arrest if they returned home. Most spoke on condition of anonymity, citing concerns over their safety.
The allegations come in the wake of reports of major rights abuses in Tigray – including mass killings of civilians and gang rapes of Tigrayan women. In April, Reuters detailed accounts of women tortured and raped in conditions that a regional official described for the first time as “sexual slavery.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose parents are from Ethiopia’s two biggest ethnic communities, has stressed that his government’s fight is with the TPLF and has called on his countrymen not to discriminate against Tigrayans as a group. His spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters the prime minister “spearheads a vision of a united Ethiopia with zero tolerance for discrimination based on ethnic identity.” To insinuate that suspects are arrested because of their ethnicity “is interfering in upholding the rule of law and purposely fomenting divisions,” she added.
Attorney General Gedion Timothewos said there was no government policy to “purge” Tigrayan officials. He conceded, however, that some state organizations “may have overestimated their exposure or vulnerability” to penetration by the TPLF.
“The TPLF had a huge network in Addis, so we had to err on the side of caution,” Gedion said. “I would not rule out that innocent people might be caught up in this situation.”
The at times heavy-handed response is fueling Tigrayan anger and complicating Abiy’s efforts to end the conflict in Tigray. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.7 million displaced.
Fighting started on Nov. 4 when, according to the government, forces loyal to the TPLF, the then-governing party in Tigray, attacked army bases in the region. The violence followed months of deteriorating relations between the TPLF and the federal government over what the party sees as discrimination against Tigrayans and attempts to centralise power – accusations the government rejects. A TPLF spokesman has denied that the group made the first strike.
Tigray is the most dramatic example of ethnic and regional tensions that are surfacing across Ethiopia, imperilling the multiethnic democracy of Africa’s second-most populous nation and a regional linchpin. Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters. Its security services work closely with Western intelligence against Islamist extremists. And its peacekeepers serve in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. More than 60,000 Tigrayan refugees have fled into neighbouring Sudan, where a long-simmering border dispute is heating up.
“With the conflict in Tigray set to continue, and many people there supporting armed resistance and even secession, the pressing challenge for the prime minister is holding the country together rather than how to further unify it,” said William Davison, an Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a research organization that seeks to prevent deadly conflicts.
Although a minority of nearly 6 million in the country of 109 million, Tigrayans used to dominate Ethiopia’s government, armed forces and economy. Over nearly three decades, the TPLF ruled with an iron grip. Surveillance was all pervasive – there was said to be a government informer in every street – and dissidents lived with the constant threat of arrest.
When Abiy became prime minister in 2018, he pledged democratic change and released tens of thousands of political prisoners. The intelligence apparatus was an early target for reform. Former intelligence chief Getachew Assefa, a Tigrayan, was charged with torture and killings. He has evaded capture and hasn’t publicly addressed the accusations. His whereabouts are unknown.
Other Tigrayan intelligence agents faced similar charges or were fired. Many more left the agency. Most of the few Tigrayan intelligence officers who remained were suspended in November when the fighting broke out, said two sources familiar with the agency. The intelligence agency didn’t comment for this article.
There are no national statistics on the number of Tigrayans detained on suspicion of supporting the TPLF. Gedion, the attorney general, said the number in custody in Addis Ababa peaked at around 700 in November but fell to around 300 by mid-December. He didn’t respond to a request for a more recent figure.
Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity
Ethiopia’s population is made up of more than 90 ethnicities and nationalities. According to the most recent census, more than a third are from the Oromo ethnic group and 27% are Amhara. Tigrayans make up 6%.
TOP 10 MOST POPULOUS ETHNIC GROUPS
Tigrayans interviewed by Reuters said there was a new wave of arrests in the capital in April this year. Around 300 Tigrayans were held in a warehouse-style building on the southern outskirts of Addis Ababa, according to a health worker who said he was detained there and a lawyer with friends and family inside.
A priest, two women with small children and a beggar were among the detainees, the health worker said. They were arrested after showing police an identity card issued by Tigray authorities.
Conditions were miserable, the health worker said, with 28 to 30 people in a room. The only food was brought in by the prisoners’ relatives or by guards in return for payment. Detainees were allowed to use the bathroom only twice a day, he said, and “had to pee inside the empty plastic container of water we used.”
The health worker said he was released without charge after eight days, on April 22, along with more than 100 others. They walked free hours after Reuters sent the attorney general an email asking about the arrests and conditions inside the building. The attorney general and police didn’t respond to a request for comment about the facility.
Reuters couldn’t determine the number of people detained in Tigray itself. Regional officials said they don’t know because many people are being held by the federal police or military. The military and police didn’t respond to requests for comment.
One flashpoint for violence is the western part of Tigray, which neighbouring Amhara region claims as its own. West Tigray residents described roundups that continued into this year, in which Amhara gunmen searched for people with Tigrayan IDs and imprisoned unknown numbers of them. Amhara sent regional forces into Tigray in November to help the military fight the TPLF. Amhara authorities didn’t comment for this article. The Amhara-appointed administrator of western Tigray, Yabsira Eshetie, has said previously only criminals were detained.
Thousands of Tigrayan soldiers have been suspended from the Ethiopian military, amid accusations that some participated in the Nov. 4 attack. Redwan Hussein, the head of a government taskforce on the Tigray crisis, said that the suspensions were to prevent sabotage and to protect Tigrayan “brothers and sisters” from possible revenge attacks.
“Because there is that mutual suspicion, it is good to let these Tigrayan forces and soldiers stay at home – for their own safety” and “for the safety of the entire esprit de corps,” he told Reuters in November. He didn’t comment on the matter further when approached for this article.
Some Tigrayan servicemen were ordered to report to camps at locations across the country, where their phones were confiscated, half a dozen soldiers and military families told Reuters.
One man told Reuters his cousin is being held at a camp in southern Ethiopia along with more than 1,500 other Tigrayan soldiers. He showed Reuters a copy of his cousin’s military identification card and a list of 12 other camps where he said soldiers are being detained. Conditions in the camps are poor and there is little food, according to relatives. The army and the government didn’t respond to requests for comment about the camps.
Brigadier General Kiddu Alemu, a Tigrayan military attache at Ethiopia’s embassy in Nairobi, was caught up in a sweep that netted 162 senior Tigrayan officers, said his lawyer, Desta Mesfin.
When the fighting erupted in Tigray, the 62-year-old general was summoned back to Addis Ababa.
“I advised him against coming back,” said Desta, “but he told me, ‘I am old, and I did nothing wrong, so I don’t have anything to hide.’”
Kiddu flew home from Kenya on Nov. 10 and was immediately put under house arrest by members of the Ethiopian military, Desta said. No explanation was given.
Then, one night in early December, six soldiers turned up at the general’s home, the lawyer said. They took Kiddu to police headquarters, where he was held in solitary confinement. Over the next two months, Kiddu made seven court appearances. On each occasion, police sought, and were granted, permission to extend his detention. Accusations levelled against him by the police included that he participated in the Nov. 4 attacks. That charge was “absurd,” said Desta, because the general was in Nairobi at the time.
On his fifth court appearance, police accused the general, without supplying evidence, of having convinced the European Union (EU) to stop funding Ethiopia and having persuaded the Ethiopian diaspora not to donate money to law enforcement operations in Tigray. The EU suspended budget support to Ethiopia worth 88 million euros ($107 million) in January over the Tigray crisis. An EU official with direct knowledge of the matter dismissed the allegations as “bizarre.”
“I would not rule out that innocent people might be caught up in this situation.”
Attorney General Gedion Timothewos
Finally, on Feb. 18, a judge ruled there was no prima facie evidence against the general and granted bail for 50,000 birr ($1,237). The general’s wife paid the bail the same day. But instead of walking free, the general was transferred into military detention, at a facility outside Addis Ababa. There he remains, with the 161 other high-ranking Tigrayan military officers, according to Desta.
“I haven’t been allowed to see him or to talk to him,” said Desta. “He hasn’t appeared in a military court, even though by law he should have been brought before a judge within 48 hours of his transfer.”
None of the Tigrayan prisoners in the jail had been brought before a judge, he added. “The aim is not really to prosecute them but to prolong their detention indefinitely.”
Ethiopian authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment about Kiddu or the other officers.
A high-ranking Tigrayan military officer, with three decades of service, told Reuters he had gone into hiding to escape arrest. He said that on the day after the TPLF attack on government forces in Tigray, his superior called him to tell him he was suspended. Reuters was unable to independently confirm his account. He said similar instructions were relayed to the around 20,000 Tigrayans serving in Ethiopia’s military.
The officer said he became increasingly alarmed in the days that followed. He was disarmed, his military-issued vehicles were taken away, and Tigrayan friends began to disappear, without explanation. He was told to report to a camp on the outskirts of the capital. Afraid, he moved his family and began sleeping at a different location every night.
On Feb. 22, 15 Tigrayan peacekeepers serving in a United Nations mission in South Sudan refused to board a flight to Ethiopia when their unit’s rotation ended and requested asylum in South Sudan, according to the U.N. One of the peacekeepers told Reuters he’d served in the military for 33 years and had never been a member of the TPLF. “I feared that would happen to me if I went back. I feared for my life.” Reuters couldn’t determine whether he was granted asylum.
The peacekeeper said he’d refused to board the plane, but 17 of his colleagues had been pushed aboard. Some of them were beaten, he said; it was unclear by whom. The U.N. confirmed there had been a “scuffle” but didn’t elaborate. Ethiopia’s government and military didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A U.N. spokesman told Reuters that a further 120 Ethiopian peacekeepers with a joint African Union-United Nations mission in Sudan’s Darfur region sought international protection earlier this month before they were due to be repatriated. Most are Tigrayan, he said.
The crackdown is not limited to soldiers. Tigrayan diplomats, professors, journalists and business people said they too are feeling the backlash. Some said the crackdown predates the outbreak of fighting in November.
Yohannes Abraha, an ethnic Tigrayan and former director of southern and western European affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he was dismissed several months before, part of what he described as broader moves to sideline Tigrayans. He provided a list with the names of 54 Tigrayans who he said were suspended or fired by the foreign ministry since the conflict erupted. Reuters reached three people on the list who confirmed they had been dismissed.
Redwan, the head of the government taskforce on the Tigray crisis, is also the state minister for foreign affairs. He told Reuters many Tigrayans still work for the government. Other Tigrayans hold senior posts in the judiciary and in state run enterprise.
“If there are TPLF individuals whose story seems to have a grain of truth, it won’t be because their ethnicity is from Tigray. It must be because they were suspected or found guilty of colluding with the criminal gang,” he said, referring to the TPLF.
The list of 54 Tigrayans includes Kassa Gebreyohannes Gebremichael, former deputy head of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Moscow. Kassa showed Reuters a Dec. 21 letter from the foreign ministry informing him he was being dismissed after failing to respond to three summons to return to Addis Ababa and present himself at the ministry. He told Reuters he feared arrest if he went home.
Kassa said he had a disagreement with the Ethiopian ambassador to Moscow over the war in Tigray, and was suspended after sharing on the embassy’s Facebook page a Russian government post calling for a peaceful solution to the conflict. The deputy military attache in Moscow and a Tigrayan driver at the embassy were also suspended, Kassa said. Reuters confirmed the suspensions with both men, neither of whom was on the list. The embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Another diplomat on the list said he and two Tigrayan colleagues were suspended from the consular section of an Ethiopian embassy in a Western nation. The diplomat, who asked that neither he nor his embassy be identified, shared bank records showing he had not been paid since Oct. 30. A diplomat in Europe said he was fired after refusing a summons to return to Addis Ababa days after the conflict broke out. He showed Reuters a letter that said his contract ran until 2023.
Even some Tigrayans who actively opposed the TPLF lost their jobs. A university lecturer said he was fired by his supervisor despite having stood as a candidate against the TPLF in local elections in Tigray last year. Education officials didn’t comment.
Tigrayans working at state-run agencies — including the tourist board, state-affiliated media and local municipalities — were also suspended or dismissed from their jobs, said a Tigrayan lawyer. He told Reuters a dozen such people had sought his advice. He shared documentation connected to two of these cases that supported his account.
Despite the TPLF’s former dominance, many Tigrayans are poor. Among them is Nigusu, the young broom-seller. An eighth-grade dropout, he left the family farm in Tigray three years ago to eke out a living in Addis Ababa.
He sold handmade brooms amid the traffic fumes in a market neighbourhood, where ancient Lada taxis nicknamed “Blue Donkeys” inch past men hawking bundles of mildly narcotic qat leaves.
Police stopped Nigusu on Nov. 7, three days after the fighting started in Tigray. Nigusu said he was frantic with worry about his family back home. All phone and internet connections were down. He told Reuters that when he was arrested, he was speaking to a relative who also lives outside Tigray. He said officers seized the 2,000 birr ($50) cash he was carrying and beat him.
The police accused him of being a terrorist, court documents show. They said he was overheard discussing planting bombs.
“I told them I know nothing about bombs, and everything is a fabrication,” Nigusu said.
He tried to put on a brave front. During one of seven brief court appearances, Nigusu waved to his elder brother, Berhe Hadera, then put his hands over his heart.
Berhe borrowed 6,000 birr to pay for bail, according to a receipt seen by Reuters. But the police refused to free Nigusu, who said he was held in a small cell without a window. He said he saw three dozen other Tigrayans in custody at the same time.
Nigusu was freed in December. He has since left Addis Ababa to stay with family in Tigray, preferring to take his chances in a war zone than remain in the capital.
“I came here (to Addis Ababa) to beat poverty and change my life,” Nigusu said. “But now I would rather lose my hand than live here. After this, I am not an Ethiopian.”
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York
Ethiopia at War
By Giulia Paravicini, Dawit Endeshaw and Katharine Houreld
Graphics: Aditi Bhandari
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Alexandra Zavis and Janet McBride