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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The Ethiopian crisis needs urgent resolution

Gurjit Singh writes: It is best to allow Africa to solve this problem, with the rest of the world helping overcome stumbling blocks and setting up humanitarian corridors

Written by Gurjit Singh |
Updated: November 11, 2021 7:29:06 am
People gather behind a placard showing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (AP)

The civilisational country of Ethiopia is in an unhappy state. The only country in Africa never to have been colonised is suffering brutal divisiveness. One year after the start of the civil war, the forces of Tigray (TDF) have paused away from Addis Ababa. They have linked up with their arch enemy, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), to counter the Ethiopian government led by PM Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party. The Ethiopian government engaged Ethiopia’s old enemy, Eritrea, to jointly attack the Tigray region, which is the fulcrum of many problems in the country today.

Both sets of strange bedfellows are proof that the churning in Ethiopia is severe. A joint human rights report by the Ethiopian and UN Commissions for Tigray shows the abhorrent brutality by parties to the conflict. The Ethiopia-Eritrea coalition is determined to diminish Tigrayan power with finality. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leader of the 1991 liberation, is resisting to survive and retaliate.

There are five facets to note at present.

First, undoubtedly, a ceasefire respected by all sides is required. Calls by the UN, African Union (AU), EU and the US have fallen on deaf ears. There is no military solution to the Ethiopian imbroglio. However, the failure of negotiations and efforts through special representatives led to the belief that Abiy and his party will not negotiate with the TPLF leadership but are ready to negotiate with other Tigrayans. The TPLF leadership seems ready to negotiate with anybody but Abiy.

This impasse leads to the quest for military domination. In the desperate clash of arms, the military situation has turned away from the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) appears demoralised. Regional militias, particularly from Amhara, are involved in the conflict. The TDF and OLA seem to believe that only a military push can bring Abiy to negotiate.

The fundamental issue is ethnic federalism, which was invoked by the 1995 constitution. It held the peace in Ethiopia, allowed periodic elections, though both were considered inadequate. The stability allowed Ethiopia to grow rapidly at about 10 per cent per annum for several years and become a leader in Africa. All that is in disarray. Efforts to undo the ethnic federal principle and move towards a centralised Prosperity Party cause concern in Tigray, and among other ethnic groups, some of whose representatives did not participate in the elections. Any discussion would have to include this debate between more or less federalism.

Third, with the election victory of the Prosperity Party, the convening of a new parliament and cabinet, it could have reached out to rebellious groups all over Ethiopia. The effort, however, seems to be to push for “burying them in blood”, as Abiy said in a post, which Facebook took down. The attitude of fighting to the death on both sides is causing immense harm to Ethiopia. Both leaderships must take responsibility, cease violence and allow talks to take place. The toxic propaganda war too must cease.

Four, nearly 25 million people in Ethiopia need assistance, 2.7 million are displaced. There are charges from both sides that aid is weaponised. The reality is that people are suffering. Humanitarian access needs to be secured and civil society organisations and the UN must be allowed to operate without hindrance.

Fifth, the UN Security Council has held 12 meetings on the Ethiopian civil war but not passed a single resolution. They put faith in the AU. The US is deeply concerned now that the Biden administration found the time to focus on the issue and the consequences. US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman continues engagement. Sanctions have been introduced. These consist of suspending AGOA benefits for Ethiopia within two months. Ethiopian exports to the US were $525 million in 2020. Half had AGOA benefits, mainly textiles and leather. If these benefits are withdrawn, nearly 2,00,000 Ethiopians could have their employment curtailed. The disinvestment of Ethiopian telecom involves a Kenyan company Safaricom. The US IDFC decided to keep on hold the $450 million loan to Safaricom. This signals an economic sanction and creates leverage for a US-led mediation. The help of the UAE may be involved

The people of Ethiopia wait with bated breath for a resolution. The 2018 transition within the EPRDF ruling coalition, by drafting Abiy Ahmed to lead a new generation of leaders and provide political reforms, began optimistically. Neither the Nobel Peace Prize nor the Prosperity Party election victory brought relief.

In this situation, it is best to allow Africa to resolve the Ethiopia problem. Help to overcome stumbling blocks can be provided. Its friends must guarantee peace and a ceasefire. Thereafter, the group of Elders of Ethiopia who have often undertaken quiet, civil society diplomacy should be allowed to work with various groups to set talks to decide on the agenda. The Ethiopian Interfaith Council and its associated academics and former diplomats could be the facilitators.

During this period, humanitarian corridors should be established. A ceasefire and a status quo on the position of forces should be maintained. That may allow Addis Ababa to remain in its cocoon of stability.

A return to the pre-2018 TPLF-led position will not be acceptable since the anger against the Tigrayans has been stoked to a high level. To several groups, the Prosperity Party is not the way forward. Nine of them have signed an alliance in Washington. By excluding the hardline leaders from the talks, some points of discussion could be identified. The way forward is not easy.

The decent and hardworking people of Ethiopia, who have often been the beacon of hope in Africa have withstood travails before. They are now asked to stand up for themselves again.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 10, 2021 under the title ‘Unquiet in Ethiopia’. The writer is a former ambassador to Ethiopia and Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa

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