Abiy Ahmed when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Photo:
The War in Ethiopia has alarmed many in Africa and Africans in the Diaspora as well as the international community. There is a global call for cessation of the hostilities.
Escalation of “Intrastate or interstate conflict would be catastrophic for Ethiopia’s people and for the region and would pose a direct threat to international peace and security” says a statement issued by the senior study group on peace and security in the Red Sea Arena (United States Institute of Peace), referring to the declaration of war on Tigray Regional State by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. It goes on to add that “the fragmentation of Ethiopia would be the largest state collapse in modern history”.
The statement may sound hyperbolic and alarmist but a look at Ethiopia’s strategic position and its role in maintaining the peace in the region puts the urgency of the statement in proper context. Ethiopia with a population of 110 million and a strong military force has been the anchor of peace and stability in a volatile region. It is also the leading contributor of troops to the UN and the African Union (AU) Peacekeeping missions in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, all three sharing borders with Ethiopia. The collapse of Ethiopia therefore would have repercussions far beyond its borders. It is not too late to prevent a wider war if “Ethiopian PM Abiy and Ethiopia’s federal states exercise responsible leadership” concludes the statement putting the onus on Abiy to seek peaceful resolution.
The International Crisis Group sounds similar alarm cautioning that a prolonged conflict would “test the integrity of the Ethiopian state and its armed forces.”
This armed conflict could not have come at a worse time for Ethiopia, racked by a slew of seemingly insurmountable problems. The recent massacre of Amharas in Oromia region, coming on the heels of similar massacre and the burning of orthodox churches in Shasheme, Oromia in July, preceded by burning of several mosques in Amhara state, all add to a toxic mix of ethnic and religious flash-points. The economy is in a tailspin due to the unrest of the past two years. Foreign currency has dried up as tourism which attracted a million visitors in the past is down to a trickle. Topping this is the pandemic which is wrecking havoc on the livelihood of an impoverished populace. As if these challenges were not enough, northern Ethiopia and especially Tigray have been hit by a swarm of locusts laying waste to crops. Famine could not be far behind.
The country’s general election as stipulated in the federal constitution was to have been held this year but citing COVID 19, the Prime Minister Abiy postponed it to next year. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and some other regional federalist parties cried foul and consider Abiy’s government no longer having a mandate and therefore illegitimate. Tigray state carried out its own elections defying the federal election commission. The PM has imposed punitive measures on the regional state which has been under virtual embargo for some time and is now under total communication blackout.
Looming large over all these problems is also the threat of war between Egypt and Ethiopia over the country’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The bromance between the Eritrean dictator Issayas Afeworki an avowed enemy of the TPLF and PM Abiy is of concern to the Tigrayans. The two leaders hold unannounced frequent meetings in each other’s capital. The purpose of these meetings and agreements are not made public to their respective people. TPLF suspects it is aimed against them. Afeworki has openly declared his desire to see the total annihilation of TPLF, a sentiment shared by PM Abiy.
Prior to the current offensive there have been reports of joint maneuvers of Eritrean security forces with their Ethiopian counterparts near Western Tigray bordering with the Amhara state. It is from here that the military offensive was launched supported by Amhara militia known as Special Forces. Airstrikes were carried out on Mikelle, capital of Tigray supposedly targeting military installations. Abiy spoke yesterday in Tigrinya—the language in Tigray— warning civilians not to be out on the streets as more air strikes in Mikelle and other major cities in Tigray would be carried out. Abiy expects this war to take three to six months. Tigray state is said to have a well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened military, supplemented by well-armed militia numbering some 250,000 fighters. There are reports of defections from the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces to the Tigray side. The federal government is seeking reinforcements from other regional states. Oromia State is reported to have refused to comply. Now comes word the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), the Chief of National Intelligence and the country’s Foreign Minister were sacked on Twitter and replaced by loyalists of the PM. The war of choice may not be going Abiy’s way.
The picture that emerges from this is an ugly one. A country at war with itself hurtling precipitously to a full scale civil war that may end up fragmenting Ethiopia into mini states under heavily armed warlords. Protracted war may also draw in neighboring countries such as Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, South Sudan and even Kenya. Al Shebab may find an opportunity to deploy beyond its borders in a splintered Ethiopia. Casualties are mounting according to reports from Amhara region.
The humanitarian crisis that may follow the carnage would eclipse in scope that seen in Yemen and Syria. Ethiopia is already home to the world’s largest number of internally displaced people.
The African Union through its Peace and Security commission needs to be involved immediately for the larger good of peace and security in the Horn of Africa. The UN Security Council may also have a role to play in seeking an immediate ceasefire.
Only a national dialogue between the various stake holders in Ethiopia is the way out. There will be no winners in this conflict but only guaranteed losers. Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel laureate needs to live up to the promise the Peace Prize conferred on him. He has a responsibility to peoples of Ethiopia, the region and Africa to seek a peaceful resolution of what is essentially a political problem.