Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed became the first Ethiopian recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the 20-year war between his country and Eritrea. Last week, his government declared a state of emergency after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front took over the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha and threatened to move on to the capital, Addis Ababa. With the T.P.L.F. so close to its capital city, the government has asked citizens to arm themselves to fight against the Tigrayan army if they make it into Addis Ababa.
In 1991, a coalition of political parties, led by the T.P.L.F., established democracy in Ethiopia after taking power from the military. This coalition led the country for 28 years until Prime Minister Ahmed dissolved the coalition and removed the T.P.L.F. from power in 2019. In response, Tigray declared war on the central government last year, leading to the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians and the displacement of 2 million more.
The T.P.L.F.’s recent progress has Ethiopia scared. Prime Minister Ahmed’s call to arms has seen Ethiopians in Addis register firearms to fight against the T.P.L.F. Citizens unable to register their firearms have given those weapons to the army for them to use.
Not all Ethiopian citizens have responded in this way, however. Many have felt that the government’s treatment of Tigrayan citizens has been unacceptable, distraught at “police officers … going from house to house unlawfully detaining ethnic Tigrayans.” “The government was lying to us,” they said. “We are just learning from distant relatives who fled here about the reality. So many of our brothers have died. [Prime Minister] Abiy has lost it.”
In the last year, the U.N. Human Rights Office attempted to assess the state of Tigrayans’ human rights during the war. However, the body was unable to access the region both “logistically and from a security point of view.” Ethiopia had severed flights and communication with the region during the planned investigation. Meanwhile, rumours of gang rape, killing, and starvation in Tigray have been flying.
The U.S. has criticized Ethiopia for avoiding de-escalating the conflict. “[The U.S.] can proceed down one path that inevitably leads to sanctions and other measures or we can go down another path where we can revitalize the partnership that started when Prime Minister [Abiy Ahmed] took office,” U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman said. “The U.S. wants the latter.”
This issue is a complex one, where few actors come out innocent. The citizens of Addis Ababa can be excused for arming themselves against the Tigrayans, as their government has asked them to do so. The T.P.L.F. feels as though it has a just cause for war, and, upon “victory,” wants to create a new coalition. However, its previous period of leadership was cut short due to its constant issues with corruption. But the Abiy government isn’t much better. Abiy is at war because he marginalized Tigray when he took power, completely cutting ties with, and funding for, the region. Despite calls from the international community, both sides have ignored attempts for peace.
Invading Addis Ababa would be disastrous for everyone, no matter who ends up in power. Asking civilians to fight against a military force will lead to an abhorrent number of casualties. Any settling of this war must be through diplomacy. The likelihood of this happening without further international intervention is possibly quite low. However, when the future of a country of 115 million is at stake, nothing is out of the question.
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