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Preventing Ethiopia From Ripping Itself Apart
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends an inaugural celebration after being sworn in for a second five-year term as prime minister of Ethiopia on October 4, 2021 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Preventing Ethiopia From Ripping Itself Apart

Alsharq Al-Awsat, London, November 14

Thousands of people have been killed, more than two million people have been internally displaced, and nearly one million people are at risk of starvation. The conflict in Ethiopia began a year ago when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the Tigray region, and the situation is quickly getting out of control. The crisis has worsened since last June, when Tigray militants regained control of a large part of the Tigray region, and crossed into neighboring areas after a daring military campaign. After a sudden stop, government forces tried last month to push them back into their original positions, but these fighters repelled the attack and, in a stunning turn of events, took control of strategically important towns on their way to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. In response, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed urged civilians to take up arms, using the language of war and hostility. A massive crackdown has since been launched against the Tigrayan population in the capital and in other parts of the country, and 16 local United Nations staff members have been arrested. An atmosphere of chaos has gripped the city. With good reason, Ethiopia, the continent’s second most populous country, which serves as a bulwark for the strategically important Horn of Africa, is tearing itself apart. The country’s race-based federal system, which has lasted for nearly three decades, is on the brink of collapse. But a negotiated settlement, even peace, is still possible. With the help of the African Union and the United States, the two warring sides can pull the country out of disaster. Few expected it to come this far, not least Abiy himself. When the prime minister ordered military attacks against Tigray in early November of last year, he said the campaign would be a brief surgical operation “with clear, limited and achievable objectives.” According to Abiy and his supporters, Tigray, which is the last obstacle to the prime minister’s unilateral move to rebuild the identity and character of the Ethiopian state, which could be subdued within weeks, was a grave mistake. Instead, what happened was that the conflict dragged on for months, taking a heavy toll. Civilians are bearing the brunt of a brutal campaign that has seen ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, rape and mass murder. These atrocities, often perpetrated by the Ethiopian army, Eritrean forces and allied militias, have stunned society, inflamed divisions and deepened polarization. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and then became the target of international criticism after being condemned for his role in the conflict. Indeed, the elections in June, which were intended to polish his democratic credentials and solidify his rule, did nothing to improve the situation. Then came a series of military setbacks, as the Tigrayan forces launched a major counteroffensive campaign and began coordinating with the Oromo Liberation Army. And last week, they and seven other opposition groups formed an alliance to replace Abiy ‘s government. With Abiy’s military options dwindling and his legitimacy waning, his government has quietly signaled a willingness to negotiate. Diplomats and leaders in the region responded quickly, doubling down on their efforts to secure a cease-fire and lay the groundwork for a negotiated political settlement. US Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met with Ethiopian and Kenyan authorities, and Olusegun Obasanjo, the high representative of the African Union in the Horn of Africa, held talks with Ethiopian authorities and the Tigray leadership. It’s just a start, and more needs to be done. It will take active and concerted efforts by the United States, the African Union, and neighboring countries for an inclusive and credible dialogue that can lead to a sustainable political settlement. The international community must be prepared to use all of the tools available at its disposal to motivate the two sides to reach an agreement. But in the end, the future will depend on the Ethiopian parties themselves. There is currently deep concern about Abiy’s intentions, and many believe that he will simply use the cease-fire to buy time to regroup, arm and strengthen his forces. Moreover, Tigray and Oromo forces seem to believe that they can topple Abiy militarily and form a transitional government. Yet all is not lost. Both sides may hope that they can achieve victory, without resorting to compromise. But the conditions are so dire that neither of them can afford to continue any further. The Abiy government has been widely discredited and no longer hopes to wait for its opponents to fall. As for the Tigray and Oromo leaderships, they risk losing popular support if the humanitarian crisis continues to spread. It is a difficult task, but both sides have to put war aside for the sake of peace. The alternative is total destruction. – Awol Allo (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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