While the world’s attention is currently focused on Afghanistan, whose American-sponsored government collapsed spectacularly on the eve of America’s departure from the country, a much graver situation, with potentially huge consequences for global peace and security, is playing out, removed from global attention, in Ethiopia, a country of 112 million people and Africa’s second most populous country.
The fresh-faced, Nobel laureate-winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed’s shocking belligerence has unsettled Ethiopia’s fragile ethnic federation and is threatening to tear apart one of Africa’s. Since coming to power in 2018, Abiy has been battling to contain discontent among Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups and was engaged in a bitter power tussle with the erstwhile senior partner in the ruling coalition – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The dispute reached a head over elections in Tigray in September 2020, held in defiance of the federal government. On November 4 2020, Abiy claimed the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian military facility and launched what he called a two weeks’ “law enforcement operation”, in response, to dislodge the TPLF. Of course, the “law enforcement operation” was only a pretext to launch a full-scale military invasion of the region, in cohort with Eritrean troops, to dislodge a common foe.
In 2019, the world was wowed at the speed with which Abiy struck a peace deal with Eritrea’s brutal dictator, Isaias Afwerki, and swiftly brought an end to the “no-peace-no-war” situation, restoring diplomatic relations and travels between the two neighbours. The Nobel Committee was also impressed and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019. The rapprochement between Abiy and Afwerki, rather than a genuine search for peace, was an opportunistic realignment of forces against a common foe – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The government ordered a total communications and internet blackout of the region during the operation. Aid agencies, medics and journalists were prevented from accessing the region. After a month, Abiy declared victory. But as reports started filtering out, the reasons for the communications and internet blackout of the region became clearer. Besides the thousands that have been killed and over 2 million Tigrayans displaced, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers were involved in a whole range of war crimes and crimes against humanity such as deliberate killings of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread looting and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
“It’s clear that rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war to inflict lasting physical and psychological damage on women and girls in Tigray. Hundreds have been subjected to brutal treatment aimed at degrading and dehumanizing them,” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said in a report “I Don’t Know If They Realized I Was A Person’: Rape and Other Sexual Violence in the Conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia” released August 11. Worse, the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops were actively trying to manufacture famine in the region by blocking food aid and stopping farmers from planting, ploughing or harvesting crops, killing livestock and looting farm equipment.
But in a stunning reversal, On June 28, after 8 months of heavy fighting, Mr Abiy declared an immediate and unilateral ceasefire to “enable farmers to till their land, aid groups to operate without any military movement around and engage with remnants (of Tigray’s former ruling party) who seek peace.” It later emerged that the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) had fought back courageously, inflicting one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the Ethiopian armed forces. The TDF killed, captured or put out of action more than half of Ethiopia’s army’s combat capabilities. It annihilated five full army divisions on June 22 and repeated the same feat on three more reinforcement divisions sent in by Abiy shortly after. Eritrean troops also withdrew from the towns they occupied.
To confirm the total route of Ethiopian troops, the TDF, on Friday, July 2, paraded over 6000 captured Ethiopian prisoners of war through the regional capital, Mekele.
To put a lie to Abiy’s ceasefire claims, Tigray continues to experience electricity, telecommunications and internet blackouts. Retreating Ethiopian troops even dismantled telecommunications equipment and looted banks and food stocks. Worse, the central government has continued to maintain a blockade of the region forcing the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) to continue fighting its way through other regions to end the siege. In recent weeks, it has made forays into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions and vows to continue fighting its way even if it leads to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, if that is what it will take to end the blockade and avert the looming famine in Tigray.
Sadly, Abiy Ahmed has continued with his belligerent rhetoric, threatening to unleash the “entire defensive capability” of Ethiopia on the rebels in Tigray and summoning all capable citizens to enlist in the armed forces to stop the rebels “once and for all”. Rousing rallies have been organized in the past weeks in various parts of the country calling for enlistment.
Meanwhile, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a popular armed group in the fighting for self-determination for the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in the country, has announced that it has agreed a military alliance with the TPLF to fight the central government. Abiy, an Oromo himself, has been unable to pacify his Oromo people and make them into genuine stakeholders in the Ethiopian project. Although the OLA has had limited military successes, it’s alliance with the more battle-hardened TDF could further complicate matters for Abiy and the badly weakened and demoralised military.
This is besides the border skirmishes with Sudan and the looming threat of war with Egypt and Sudan over the filling of the massive hydropower dam on the Nile. Fortunately, the TPLF has continued to restate that its objective is not to break the country but secure its region. This should normally be the ideal time for the African Union to step in to bring the warring parties together for a workable solution. But trust the AU to bungle its chances. It is no longer an honest arbiter in the conflict since it has always sided with Abiy and supported his aggression in Tigray.
Now, only the United Nations, the United States, United Kingdom and other aid donors can nudge the warring parties to the negotiation table. Ethiopia tops the list of African countries receiving development aid with an average of $3.5 billion, representing between 50 to 60 percent of its national budget. Surely, a threat to cut off the aid will be enough to bring the recalcitrant Abiy back to senses.