Deep crisis in Ethiopia - the conflicts are spreading

The war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia continues, the risk of famine increases and the information on ethnic cleansing grows in strength. At the same time, extensive violence is also taking place in several other regions. Since Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, the conflicts in the country have gradually worsened and experts believe that the planned election in June may worsen the situation further. In the worst case, the crisis could lead to civil war and the disintegration of the country. Pierre Frühling provides a comprehensive analysis of the situation in the country.

When Abiy Ahmed was appointed Ethiopia's Prime Minister in April 2018, it was the result of a several-year uprising in which young people from the country's largest ethnic group in particular, worry, had played a leading role. Tens of thousands had been imprisoned and tortured, thousands had been killed.

But with Abiy Ahmed, that would change. He was himself from the Oromo people and spoke several of the country's languages. Abiy seemed to be well placed to unite the country and to lead the transitional government, which was now tasked with organizing Ethiopia's first free elections within two years.

Today, three years later, optimism is gone and the situation in the country is critical. The war and the humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray are accompanied by violent ethnic conflicts in several parts of the country, which this year alone have caused hundreds of deaths and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. The division in the country is increasing and this week, for the first time, large demonstrations were held against the Prime Minister. The general elections in early June have little chance of becoming credible and may increase tensions further.

No end in sight for the war in Tigray

The war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia continues and no end seems to be in sight. Intense fighting has been reported virtually weekly during March and April, affecting large areas of the region. Even Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been forced to admit that the "operation" is far from over. On the side of the central government are the country's federal troops, the ENDF, militia forces from the Amhara region (which borders Tigray) and soldiers from the Eritrean army EDF. On the other side is what is today called the Tigray's armed forces, TDF. After large initial losses and retreats across the board, TDF forces have recently been reinforced by thousands of volunteers and have begun to counterattack.

The existence of warring Eritrean units in Ethiopia has now been officially acknowledged. But the promises made about a speedy withdrawal do not seem to be being fulfilled. On the contrary - both from the United States and from the EU (and also the UN) there are reports that Eritrean soldiers have only been provided with Ethiopian uniforms. At the same time, there are reports of continued troop reinforcements from Eritrea.

Most smaller towns and most of the countryside can still only be reached exceptionally or not at all with humanitarian efforts. Some areas has not been reached with a single aid shipment since the war began almost six months ago. Access is hindered partly by the continued fighting, and partly by the fact that the ENDF and its allies often block the roads. Looting of food that has arrived has also been reported, as well as the fact that already distributed emergency rations have been seized by Eritrean soldiers.

In some areas, Eritrean forces appear to be the real authorities. Aid workers stopped by Eritrean troops on the road between Adigrat and Axum in April were told:

- We do not care that you may work for the UN or for USAID. If you do not turn around, we will burn your cars.

On another, much talked about occasion, the area's Ethiopian general, Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, was appealed to intervene and then got the answer:

- We have sent people to talk to the Eritrean commanders and are now waiting for their response.

Eritrean troops in particular have been reported attacking convoys and have continued to destroy hospitals and health centers. MSF has reported on about how roadblocks manned by EDF on several occasions stopped the transport of important medicine and refused patients with life-threatening conditions from coming to the hospital.

The absence of functioning mobile telephony as well as the authorities' continued blockade of the internet make all needs inventory, planning and coordination of humanitarian efforts extremely difficult and also increase the risks for aid workers. Getting access to the internet again would make a huge difference, points out Alex de Waal, prominent researchers specializing in Africa and humanitarian crises. The only reason the Ethiopian government has not done so, he says, is that they have a lot to hide. The lack of available food in the region (among other things due to the destruction of existing warehouses by the military) further means that nothing can be procured locally but must be transported from outside - which further complicates the work.

Hunger is approaching

The supply of food has become increasingly scarce and in mid-April the UN reported the first deaths due to pure famine. It is currently estimated that at least four of the region's six million inhabitants are in urgent need of food aid. In addition, more than 1,5 million inhabitants are refugees in the region and are therefore particularly vulnerable. Among these are some hundreds of thousands who are not only on the run but have been displaced by amharamilis from their homes in western and southern Tigray. Their houses, livestock and agricultural land have been taken away from them and now they are seeking protection in other parts of the region, completely dependent on the scarce and insecure humanitarian aid.

Today, hunger is a daily occurrence for a majority of Tigray's residents and in more and more places, hunger is a very concrete threat. Margins are disappearingly small and if the security situation continues as it is today, the outlook for the coming months is gloomy. Hunger is approaching and since many have already been malnourished for several months, it can easily become both large-scale and long-lasting.

- Tigray is approaching the breaking point where tens of thousands are at risk of starvation to death as humanitarian aid is still controlled by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, summarizes Kjetil Tronvoll, Norwegian professor and one of the foremost experts on Ethiopia.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many farmers have been prevented by the military from preparing their fields for the coming agricultural season. As a result of looting and destruction, there is an acute shortage of seeds, manure and draft animals. The new local government's own agricultural experts fear that the next three to five years could be "catastrophically difficult" in Tigray if there is not peace very soon and the government quickly launches large investment programs.

The military's (ENDF and their allies) action against the Tigers in making food supplies more difficult is not just "ordinary" war brutality, a number of analysts claim today. It is, in fact, a clear strategy in which hunger and hunger are used as weapons to weaken and subjugate an entire people. This action is thus an example of a kind of war crime which, in accordance with a decision in the UN in 2017, is precisely called 'starvation crime'. This is asserted in a comprehensive report from April this year by the World Peace Foundation.

The abuse continues

Consistent reports also speak of continued, very serious abuses, almost exclusively perpetrated by the Ethiopian army and its allies. Theft, destruction and looting of property to a large extent with regard to the material. Abuse and regular executions seem to be part of everyday life in the areas that many now call "occupied". Every week there are also reports of continued sexual violence and aggravated rape (often committed in gangs and for a long time, sometimes several days) against girls and women - with deaths, serious injuries and trauma as a result.

The many and extremely brutal rapes also seem to be put in place. In the middle of April, stated Mark Lowcock, UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Work:

- There is no doubt that sexual violence is used as a weapon in this conflict, as a way to humiliate, terrorize and traumatize an entire population today and for the next generation.

A similar view has been expressed by representatives of many other humanitarian and humanitarian organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Prime Minister Abiy, who himself has three daughters and has often wanted to present himself as a champion of gender equality, has reluctantly admitted that abuse may have taken place and that the perpetrators will be held accountable. Since then, however, nothing has happened and the abuse continues.

Violent conflicts across the country

During the six months that the war in Tigray has been going on, the number of conflicts has also increased in other parts of the country. Almost every region of Ethiopia today has its own conflict. Since March this year alone, hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes to seek refuge from violence. Thousands of houses have been burnt down and large productive resources have been destroyed.

At the end of last year, before the war in Tigray, the number of internally displaced people in Ethiopia was estimated at just over 1,8 million people. Some of these had left their homes due to crop failure, but the majority had fled violent conflicts. State of emergency prevails today in large parts of the country and as a consequence the local government is subordinate to military commanders.

Behind the violence are not only various rebel groups (sometimes unidentified), local militia forces and the national army, but also armed groups from the local population. Neither the army nor the local police are enough to provide protection - and are often not to be trusted either. The lack of security is today evident in large parts of the country.

Violence strikes bluntly, but usually not blindly. It mostly has a fairly clear ethnic profile. It is one ethnic group against another, we are against them. But for that reason, violence is not primarily ideological or racist. Instead, it concerns such fundamental things as land and agricultural resources.

The dispute over land

Ethiopia is one of Africa's most rural countries. Eighty percent of the country's inhabitants live in rural areas and the majority are small farmers with the right to use minimal plots of land, often in areas with small and uncertain precipitation. Cultivating the land has been done since time immemorial, it is still considered a dignified occupation. Having land gives an identity; it gives affiliation and status and in a country with high unemployment, agriculture is often the only thing that can provide a certain degree of food security.

Every change in where the border between different regions is to be drawn therefore easily gives rise to conflicts. Conflicts that are further exacerbated by the fact that Ethiopia's regionalization mainly follows linguistic and ethnic boundaries. In almost every region there is a clearly dominant ethnic group, with its own identity, its history and its language. Each border conflict therefore concerns both the access to agricultural land and the distribution of power between the various ethnic groups in the area. Due to the rapid population growth in Ethiopia (which amounts to three million a year), there is also a great shortage of land today and more and more of the young generation in rural areas are becoming landless.

The politics behind the conflicts

Historically, conflicts as a result of demarcations have been controlled by the violence and oppression of the central government. This has also been the case in modern times, until this year. Some of today's violent conflicts in the border areas between different regions are probably due to the fact that the central government's power has diminished since Abiy Ahmed took office as Prime Minister in 2018. Thus, old injustices have come to the surface again - and could be exploited by various interests.

But the main explanation for the recent wave of violent ethnic conflicts is in all probability the fact that Abiy himself has used this very weapon to fight not only the former leadership of Tigray's main political party (TPLF) but also for to try to subjugate the inhabitants of Tigray, that is, the Tigranian people. Thus, not only have militias and other armed groups from the Amhara region been allowed to play a prominent role in the war, but they have also been allowed to plunder, destroy and commit systematic atrocities.

As a kind of bizarre reward, Amharic forces have since been given the opportunity to expel residents and seize entire areas of western and northwestern Tigray. Areas that have belonged to the Tigray since 1991 but which are the nationalist forces in Amhara regard as their own. These districts have already been placed under the administration of the state of Amhara, new staff are manning the local offices, Tigranian signs have been replaced with Amharic and new ID cards are about to be issued to the Amharic population. Ethnic cleansing, including the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called this.

Persecution of tigers

At the same time, a systematic process has been underway since November last year cleansing of tigers from the federal administration, from the military (where 17 officers and soldiers of Tigrian origin are said to have been abducted, then often arrested or placed under house arrest), from the nation's proud airline Ethiopian Airlines and many other workplaces. A recent notable case concerns the Ethiopian peacekeeping (!) Force in Darfur, where hundreds of Tigranian soldiers have refused to travel back to Ethiopia and have instead sought political asylum in Sudan. Tigreans in Addis Ababa and other cities also testify to systematic harassment, to how they are imprisoned and beaten - and have to pay bribes not to end up in prison for fictitious crimes or without any charges at all.

Everyone with a Tigranian identity is today blamed for the abuses and oppression that prevailed under the previous government, which since 1991 (then the former military government, the dervish, had been defeated) and until 2018 was dominated by the party TPLF from Tigray. On Twitter pages concerning Ethiopia (also from abroad) there is little compassion for people suffering in the Tigray of war. On the other hand, there is all the more hatred and dehumanizing expression when it comes to tigers, which are called beasts, hyenas, termites and more. Their suffering is self-inflicted, a just punishment, it is the undertone (and is often said outright). A pretty typical one posts on Twitter in early April read:

- I am extremely happy about what happened to the traitors and their supporters. TPLF would have been buried a long time ago. I am forever grateful to the forces that exterminated the colony of TPLF termites.

"We have lost our capacity for normal human empathy" was an equally clear and unusual comment on this post, and René Lefort, a French African expert who has written about Ethiopia for over forty years, added:

- There is only a very small difference: these "termites" were called "cockroaches" in Rwanda

For historical reasons, Ethiopian politics has almost always been closely associated with ethnicity and identity. But the way in which Abiy's government has now used ethnic conflicts and contradictions to subjugate an entire region has made "ethno-politics" a toxic factor - which has spread rapidly.

The promise of peace and freedom

On 15 February 2018, an entire country was shocked when the then Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, submitted his resignation without warning. Such a thing had never happened before in Ethiopia, where dictatorial governments ruled until they were overthrown - or where they remained beautiful until the party decided to leave.

The background to Hailemariam's departure was just over two years of massive protests and unrest in the country, initially limited to the Oromia region but which had later spread to Amhara as well. The government's response had, as always, been violent, but this time not even military rule and a state of emergency had worked. Thousands of civilians, mostly young people, had been murdered and many tens of thousands - perhaps as many as 80 - had been imprisoned, all had been beaten and many had been tortured. But the protests had continued and even foreign investors had begun to listen. In addition, the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, who have historically always been in feud, had begun to show solidarity with each other.

It was then, in the face of the threat of losing everything else, that the ruling governing coalition, the EPRDF, reluctantly decided to try reforms as a way out. After more than a month of protracted meetings and negotiations (always behind closed doors), the coalition, which for 27 years had been led by the TPLF party from the Tigray region, finally appointed a military from the Oromo people, Abiy Ahmed, as the country's prime minister. Suddenly everything seemed possible. Now there would be reconciliation, the country would unite - and become free. Soon, for the first time ever, general and free elections would be held. Ethiopia would combine rapid economic growth with democracy and become an example for the entire continent.

The young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the various regions of the country at a rapid pace, spoke of peace, freedom and reconciliation - and usually began his speeches with a few sentences in the most important language locally. Political prisoners and imprisoned journalists were released, prominent people in exile were invited to return, and negotiations began with the various armed groups that had hitherto been treated as terrorist organizations. "Put down your weapons, welcome back to politics!" was the message. Soon Abiy also visited the arch-enemy Eritrea, and after twenty years of Cold War (with recurring border battles), peace was made and it was decided that diplomatic relations would be re-established and the borders opened. (The fact that this peace agreement probably also meant the beginning of an alliance against TPLF and Tigray was probably something few people then knew.)

The jubilation knew no bounds. Abiy's first months in power were no ordinary honeymoon but rather a kind of collective euphoria, dubbed by the media Abiymania. Most people probably knew that there was also opposition to the reforms, but not even the failed assassination attempt in June 2018 (when a hand grenade killed four people at a meeting where the Prime Minister spoke in front of tens of thousands of people in Addis Ababa) could upset optimism. Barely a year later, in the spring of 2019, when I myself visited Ethiopia again and talked to assessors about the situation in the country, some critical voices could be heard, but most were still clearly optimistic. Towards the end of 2019, when Abiy gave his big speech to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the situation in the country had seriously deteriorated and the clouds were gathering.

Criticism is growing

Much - or perhaps most - of the problems were not directly due to Abiy Ahmed and his government. But many of the difficulties were exacerbated and exacerbated by his way of leading the process. There was little genuine dialogue here, but all the more sermon - and one-sided decisions on many key issues. The task of preparing legislation, institutions and registers for the country's first general and free elections was given low priority and the date for the elections was soon postponed. Thus, the government's legitimacy began to erode. And it got worse. After a short period of openness, critics were again met with repression. Journalists and politicians were imprisoned, and often subjected to ill-treatment or worse. When the Ethiopian academic Awol Allo, who first nominated Abiy for the Nobel Peace Prize, began to criticize the Prime Minister, he too became the subject of police interest - and was forced into exile.

In early July 2020, the incredibly popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was murdered on a street in Addis Ababa. The murder (as yet unsolved) sparked huge protests - to which the government responded with a wave of arrests. Among those imprisoned were prominent political leaders from the largest troubled party, the OFC, all of Abiy's competitors. The party's offices in smaller towns were attacked by the police, local officials were arrested and many offices were closed. Almost a year later, the party's leader is still in prison and the trial - with improbable allegations of serious crimes against the country's security - has only just begun.

In mid-April, something new happened: hundreds of thousands of people in the cities of the Amhara region took to the streets and protested against Abiy. Posters with his image were torn down and some were burned. Representatives of the most ethno-nationalist party in Amhara, the NaMA, violently attacked the prime minister, accusing him of not adequately defending the Amharic people against border abuses and killings and of actually being a traitor and even encouraging these acts of violence.

A choice that can only cause problems

Support for Prime Minister Abiy is currently at a critically low level. His former base in the most populous region, Oromia, is long gone and the Amharic elite, who supported him in exchange for (re) conquering land from Tigray, now seem to want to go their own way. At the same time, the economy has stalled, foreign investors are waiting due to the uncertain situation and one of Abiy's main projects, the sale of telecom licenses to private international companies, have failed. In addition, inflation has soared and dissatisfaction is spreading in broad sections of the population. There is currently no national unifying figure or force, at the same time as in almost every region there are plenty of ethno-fundamentalists who are further blocking the conflicts.

It is in this situation that the country is now said to go to the polls in early June. Despite the war going on in Tigray, despite a state of emergency in several areas, despite the fact that the number of registered voters is still less than half of what it was before, despite the fact that the main opposition parties have declared that they (probably) will not participate and despite in several places there have already been accusations of cheating with the election lengths.

The election that at another time could have played an important role in giving the government stronger legitimacy and in broadening the base for the reform process today lacks the conditions to become free, public and credible - and thus risks exacerbating the conflicts in the country. Some observers say that in the worst case, this could be the trigger for a civil war along several fronts, with the collapse of the state and the collapse of Ethiopia as a result. Something that would have dramatic consequences both for the already unstable Horn of Africa, and indirectly also for Europe.

Ending the war in Tigray is of central importance in this situation, mainly for humanitarian reasons but also for political reasons. The African Union has so far been paralyzed by the issue, and the UN Security Council has only recently been able to agree on a first statement. All the more important then that the USA and the EU, as well as partner countries such as Sweden, put human rights in the forefront. The fact that the EU has recently suspended its participation with election observers must be seen as a step in the right direction. But for a humanitarian catastrophe to be prevented in Tigray, more than that is required. So far, the pressure from the outside world in concrete action has been too modest.

Map: Jfblanc, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ethiopia's regions, population & ethnic groups

By mid-2021, Ethiopia's population is estimated at around 115 million and consists of as many as 90 different ethnic groups who speak some 80 different languages. Of these, 10 groups account for close to 90 percent of all residents in the country. The 5 largest ethnic groups are as follows (with percentage distribution of the population in parentheses, according to the 2007 census):

Oromo (34,5%)
Amharic (27%)
Somali (6%)
Tigray (6%)
Sidama (4%)

During the Ethiopian military dictatorship (1974-1991), the country was divided into a total of 30 regions. This changed rapidly when the coalition EPRDF (led by the Tigranian movement TPLF) took office in 1991, and the following year the country's administrative map had been radically redrawn. Ethiopia was now divided into nine regions, the boundaries of which were determined by ethno-linguistic factors; that is, which language and which ethnicity were dominant in each area. This applied to all regions except the southernmost part of the country, SNNPR, where a large number of different ethnic groups were allowed to belong to one and the same region. In June 2020, the country's tenth region, Sidama, was added after a 2019 referendum in which an overwhelming majority of this ethnic group voted to no longer be included as a district in the SNNPR region.

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