Ethiopia’s Civil Conflict Won’t Heal Easily

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“Pray for us and tell the world that this guy is bombing us.”

My friend Mubarak’s What’s App message arrived at 4:13 a.m. on November 11. I was surprised. For over a week, phone and internet lines had been down in Tigray, the northern-most Ethiopian state, as it faced a siege from the Ethiopian government. Mubarak had downloaded an IP address changer app before Ethiopian government warplanes started bombing Tigray. A precautionary measure many smart-phone users living in Ethiopia, including me, took over the last two years.

Communication lines in Tigray, which were cut off intermittently since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s accession to power in April 2018, are now severed. The Tigray population is still cut off from humanitarian relief, banking services, and health supplies. Since the bloody seizure of Mai Kadra, over 43,000 Tigray peoples fled to Sudanese border where the UNHCR has assembled humanitarian aid. Mubarak, however, remains pinned down in Tigray.

“Eritrean soldiers are attacking us,” he texted. “It’s like we don’t belong in Ethiopia.”

The bitterness between Tigray and other Ethiopians precedes Abiy Ahmed’s election. Over the past five years, Tigray people living in neighboring state, Amhara, and central Oromia returned to Tigray as refugees. Some Amhara and Oromia towns are threatening, even attacking ethnically Tigray residents. The assailants cite past grievances from living under the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led government.

The TPLF gained power following the collapse of Ethiopia’s brutal communist government in the late 1980s. Ethnically Tigray Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was the country’s leader until his death in 2012. Under his autocratic rule, the TPLF founded an ethnic-coalition party called Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which held power for nearly three decades. Over the years the TPLF, and subsequently the Tigray people, gained a reputation as privileged and corrupt.

In 2018, PM Abiy was elected as a new progressive voice. A move that cut deeply into the TPLF’s political power. Abiy founded the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP) which disbanded the EPRDF. He referred to the previous party’s period of control as “27 years of darkness.”

PM Abiy’s condemnations of the TPLF reflect the murky overlap between party politics and ethnic loyalties, which now tears at the fabric of the Ethiopian republic. In June 2019, police arrested Amhara university students accused of beating a Tigray student to death. The same month, in apparent retaliation, another Tigray student killed an Amhara student. Now, Amhara’s militia has joined the federal military attacks on Tigray.

Prime Minister Abiy’s dispute with the TPLF is cementing divisions between Ethiopian ethnic groups. “There is no camaraderie between the Tigray people and the other Ethiopian ethnic groups,” said Dr. Rishan Tesfay, a Tigray citizen.  She says TPLF leaders benefited from power, but the Tigray people still live in poverty. “I cannot tell you any special benefit I got from growing up under the TPLF,” she explained. “And now, Abiy Ahmed got rid of any empathy for the Tigray people.”

Last week, the UN Security Council held informal talks on the Tigray conflict. But international mediations have been torpedoed by PM Abiy and he will likely reject further calls for a sit-down negotiation. A government spokesperson was unequivocal in his response to an African Union peace envoy: “There could be several scenarios in which the issue of a lasting peace could be discussed, but not with the TPLF.”

Sudan, Ethiopia’s greatest export partner, holds the greatest leverage over the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia has been pushing for a revision of Sudan and Egypt’s Nile’s water allocation agreement. Sudan could join Egypt in blocking the construction of the long-awaited Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to pressure for a mediated peace. For now, Sudan is sheltering the brunt of Tigray’s refugees.

The unfortunate truth is that there is little outsiders can do to stem the violence. Outsiders cannot reconcile decades of distrust. Only Ethiopians can do that. But as TPLF leaders reject Prime Minister Abiy’s victory declaration, peace seems a long way off.

Anna Leah Lande is Master of Global Affairs student at Notre Dame’s Keough School. She specializes in Conflict Transformation. Lande was formerly an Agriculture Nutrition Specialist with Peace Corps Ethiopia where she served in South Tigray. 

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