Can Anyone Stop Ethiopia’s Civil War?

Worried about the worsening of the civil conflict in Ethiopia one year after the start of the violence, some experts are proposing a “Dayton peace process” like the one that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. According to the most recent statistics, there are 7 million people in need of humanitarian aid, 400,000 civilians suffering from famine, and an unspecified number of deaths (in the thousands) and injured (in the tens of thousands).

“Dayton was a model of how warring ethnic parties can be brought to the table through intense, coordinated diplomatic efforts on the part of honest brokers”, reads a lengthy opinion piece by Alexander Rondos, EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa until July 2021,  and Mark Medish, a member the Dayton Peace implementation team, published in Politico. “It required steady engagement from the highest levels of the US government including the president, national security adviser, secretary of state and a chief negotiator such as the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The EU and other major powers played critical supporting roles. ” Despite the numerous differences between the contexts of the two countries, in Ethiopia as in Bosnia there was an ethnic side of the conflict. “Ethiopia could disintegrate like Yugoslavia, with far more serious repercussions”, insisted the two experts.


Global praise, local problems

As the second most populated country on the African continent with 115 million inhabitants, over 80 different ethnic groups, and five official languages, Ethiopia plays a major role in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. It has been regarded for years as one of the strongest emerging economies by the whole of Africa. From its capital, Addis Ababa, authorities have been attracting a constant growing number of investment opportunities in “agriculture, horticulture, tourism, textiles and leather, energy production, mining, and construction materials”. Ethiopia’s GDP was rising steadily and was expected to reach USD 110 billion by the end of 2021. “By 2025 we no longer want to be considered a developing country”, boasted Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia since April 2nd 2018. “To do this, our country is opening itself to the global market, mainly by building and operating large industrial parks”.

All seemed to go well until a series of episodes of ethnic violence started to spread in many of the 11 regions. Hundreds of civilians were killed or injured. Each ethnic group had begun to claim its place at the table. Abiy Ahmed became premier due to the sudden resignation of former PM, Hailemariam Desalegn, who had in turn unexpectedly succeeded the authoritarian Meles Zenawi (who died in 2012 after 17 years in government). Since 1991, Ethiopia had been ruled mainly by Tigrayans who represent only 6 percent of the Ethiopian ethnic makeup. A substantial difference compared to the Oromos, 34 percent, and the Amharas, 27 percent. Surrounded by Tigrayan leadership and accused of being a traitor by many Oromos, Abiy Ahmed sought his own independence. After ending the twenty-year war with neighboring Eritrea and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, the Ethiopian premier seemed unassailable before the international community. But the real problems were local.

The Ethiopian leader, with the intention of easing the influence of the Tigrayan community, had begun a reshuffle in the political leadership. In addition, he had implemented reforms, such as the one against corruption. Both moves directly harmed the Tigrayans, who occupied the highest political posts and were involved in major commercial projects. The prime minister had therefore made many enemies. In a large peaceful demonstration organized in Addis Ababa at Meskel Square on 23 June 2018 to show support for Abiy Ahmed, a grenade was thrown and landed just a few meters away from him, two people were killed and over 165 were injured. But other troubles were felt in most of the regions: Amhara, Oromia, Afar, Tigray, and Somali. Ethnic-based attacks became increasingly frequent and severe.


Out of control

The main problem related to this conflict is connected to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The war began shortly after Ethiopia had shown that it did not want to negotiate on this project which would have made the country the main supplier of electricity in the region. Worried about the water shortage due to the dam, Egypt made every effort to obstruct its final construction and operations. GERD will affect the water reserves of several countries besides Egypt, such as Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. To stem the outbreak of violence, Abiy Ahmed became increasingly authoritarian. He imprisoned journalists, fired local government authorities, prohibited access to various areas, and often blocked internet and telephone lines.

Galvanized by this new opposition against the Ethiopian leader, the Tigrayans saw an opportunity to strike him by going ahead with local elections despite being banned and postponed to the following year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. An affront that Abiy Ahmed seemed ready to forgive but which at the same time demonstrated his weakness in the face of the Tigrayan community that was determined to do whatever it wanted. And so, in November 2020, the civil conflict in the Tigray region began. It was supposed to last a few weeks, but after a year the Ethiopian authorities again decreed a state of emergency and the UN Human Rights Office together with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said there could also be evidence of war crimes. Both parties have been accused of recruting child soldiers and committing massacres and sexual abuses during the war.

Like all wars, the Ethiopian conflict is also a propaganda war. And the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has done a better job than the Ethiopian authorities in expressing their view of the war. The rebels have begun to say they will march on the capital, Addis Ababa, in the next few days. After the latest victories in Dessie and Kombolcha, two towns in the Amhara region, the Tigrayans seem unstoppable. During several days between October and November, the Ethiopians bombed several locations in the Tigray region, including the capital Makelle. Military operations were initially denied by the Ethiopian government and then confirmed. The TPLF has shown that it can also occupy areas outside their region. At the beginning of the war they denounced Eritrea’s involvement in support of Addis Ababa. Recently, however, the Ethiopian government denounced the use of “black and white mercenaries who do not speak the local languages [to] assist the Tigrayan rebels”.


No honest broker

Egypt, happy to cause problems for the Ethiopian government due to the construction of the dam, seems to be supporting the rebels in a discreet manner. Many analysts, in fact, are surprised at how, since June, the rebels have managed to advance and progress so much that the Ethiopian government has made an appeal to the population: “Arm yourselves and fight to defend Addis Ababa”, declared Abiy Ahmed in early November. A desperate call to arms that could aggravate the situation even more. The main strategist of the conflict and rebel advance is certainly Tsadkan Gebretensae who joined the TPLF back in 1976, becoming one of its main commanders during the Ethiopian Civil War and when the most recent bout of civil conflict broke out last year, he rejoined the TPLF’s military leadership. “Tsadkan is widely regarded as one of Africa’s best military thinkers and strategists”, says regional analyst Alex DeWaal, and he is not the only one to think so.

On the government side, however, the difficulties are clear. Abiy Ahmed, once one of the most acclaimed African leaders by the international community, is now isolated. His methods are mostly brutal and is not winning any hearts and minds among the population or many foreign powers. He expelled some UN officers for being too close to the rebels and he is supspected of being responsible for crimes that could force him to return the Nobel Peace Prize. After a series of bombings in the Tigray region and a ban on humanitarian organizations accessing certain areas, the Ethiopian leader has been accused of causing famine and starving the population.

Samantha Power, head of the USAID, arrived in Addis Ababa ready to set things straight. She wanted American aid to reach the beneficiaries. In her statement she made it clear that: “The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, providing more than USD 663 million since the crisis began, including more than 26 million in additional humanitarian assistance announced today. The U.S. is committed to continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to all Ethiopians affected by this conflict “. Angered by the current situation, in October she elaborated, saying: “The United States and our donor partners condemned the dangerous vilification of humanitarian workers and spread of misinformation about the realities civilians are experiencing on the ground, and demanded an end to the continued harassment and intimidation of aid workers by various parties to the conflict “. Since then, the conflict has only gotten worse with no end in sight. The European Union (EU), marred by divisions and different interests inside the diplomatic body, does not seem to have a clear message. Because of the European companies involved in the Ethiopian economic development process, from its diplomatic headquarters in Cairo, the EU decided to see this conflict as an economic problem. “Our position is very clear”, said Ambassador Christian Berger in a statement, “we believe that there should be an agreement between the countries that share the River Nile, because the economic potential of the river’s basin is enormous. So, when there is an agreement, there can also be economic development “. The African Union, instead, whose headquarters are in Addis Ababa is almost silent. Their only statements call for “an immediate cessation of hostilities in Ethiopia”, without offering a concrete path about how to resolve the crisis. The conflict will probably continue for years to come.


Cover Photo: A soldier from Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) sits in his dorm in their camp at an undisclosed location in Ethiopia – September 16, 2021 (Amanuel Sileshi / AFP).

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