The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia continues to deteriorate, as the international community considers more economic sanctions against the Ethiopian government. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an estimated 7.5 million people in the Afar, Tigray, and Amhara regions are facing acute food insecurity as a result of the conflict, some 2.1 million people have been internally displaced in Ethiopia, while 50,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring countries such as Sudan. From the White House to the Vatican, international pressure and punitive measures have failed to yield any progress by way of peace.
An elusive national identity
Ethiopia is a demographically complex country with a particularly diverse ethnic history. Situated in East Africa, between the Gulf of Aden and the rest of the African continent, Ethiopia is made up of nine different sub-regions that roughly represent an equal number of ethnic groups. This ethnic and linguistic complexity has historically been a catalyst for inter-group and intra-group violence in Ethiopia; primarily fuelled by territorial disputes, as well as religious, political, and gendered motives.
This problem has been compounded by the proliferation of small arms within the country. State policy and nation-building broadly, in Ethiopia has continuously failed to strike the right balance between embracing the country’s ethnic diversity and attaining political unification, and the present conflict is further evidence of this failure.
For 30 years, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), under the leadership of the Tigrayan People Liberation Forces (TPLF), wielded an authoritarianism through which it was able to imprison political opponents, exile dissidents, restrict freedom of speech and critically, pursue a bloody war with neighbouring Eritrea. The TPLF’s rule was underpinned by a separatist ethnic agenda, pursuing policies that upheld regional autonomy over federalist unity. Despite this, or because of it, Ethiopia enjoyed economic growth, becoming a regional symbol of stability and a key strategic ally of the U.S. and the West.
A face for change, Enter Abiy Ahmed
Current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rose to power in this context. A charismatic, unifying, and articulate political voice, Abiy Ahmed’s leadership embodied the political antithesis of the last 30 years and signified what many saw as a paradigm shift in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Ahmed met these expectations by working to remove the ethnic separatist agenda of the TPLF, as well as by freeing political prisoners and ending the long war with Eritrea.
From the podium of the 2019 Nobel ceremony, delivering his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Abiy Ahmed alluded to his first-hand experience of the horrors of the Eritrean war and the indispensable value of peace in building a prosperous Ethiopia. Three years on, Prime Minister Ahmed’s language has significantly shifted; mirroring a quickly deteriorating humanitarian crisis in his country.
A tipping point in his administration was his pursuit of accountability for the suffering caused during the TPLF’s rule, as well as the correction of the disproportionate political power held by the ousted political group. The TPLF, armed with a significant stockpile of weapons and military equipment, saw the delay of the 2020 election as an ideal pretext to renounce the federal Ethiopian government and elude restorative legal measures against them. They held their own elections in Tigray and soon after fighting ensued.
At present, the armed conflict involves Ethiopian Government Forces, the TPLF, the Oromo Liberation Army in the south, Eritrean Military Forces in the north, and a variety of scattered radicalised armed groups. The Oromo Liberation Army, for example, has long sought political autonomy for its ethnic population from the federal government
Other smaller armed groups have pledged their respective allegiances, referencing historical and ethnic grievances and creating a murkier picture on the ground. All parties have been accused of perpetrating crimes such as mass unlawful killings, torture, and gender-based violence.
An uncoordinated and narrow international response
Peacebuilding in Ethiopia and punitive economic sanctions against it, should be viewed as mutually exclusive enterprises by the international community. If not leveraged to encourage dialogue between the warring parties, further international sanctions will only serve to deteriorate the humanitarian situation for those least culpable and most in need. A more targeted and deliberate approach is needed to ensure that dialogue, political reform, and peace can be achieved in Ethiopia.
International sanctions have failed to recognise the non-binary complexity of the violence in Ethiopia and, by extension, failed to achieve meaningful and sustainable military de-escalation. Sanctions have been a blunt tool that has led to further destabilization of the fragile Ethiopian economy, which in turn has exacerbated social and ethnic violence. The West must look at long-term diplomatic solutions that, whilst coming short of direct military interference, diligently encourage dialogue and political reform.
To that end, establishing an objective international peacekeeping mission in the country must be a priority for the international community. Information and disinformation have been a huge obstacle in obtaining an objective and timely picture of the conflict. All warring actors obfuscate their culpability by shifting the blame for the atrocities committed. The recent report by Amnesty International on Ethiopia alleges atrocities ranging from rape as a tool of warfare, to ethnic cleansing, torture, and other horrific crimes against humanity. Due to a lack of access and security, forensic analysis of these claims has been difficult; a permanent peacekeeping mission could corroborate allegations such as these in real-time and help bring the guilty to justice.
A peacekeeping mission, endorsed by the Ethiopian Government, the TPLF, and other parties involved, could also help mitigate situations where the inaccessibility of roads due to blockades by military groups has hampered the provision of humanitarian aid where it is most needed. This was the situation in Tigray for example, where a humanitarian convoy was denied access to a region plagued by famine as a result of continuous military presence. All parties must work together to alleviate the burden and costs of war on the masses.