Robert Rotberg is the author of Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness in the Twenty-first Century and the editor of Mass Atrocity Crimes: Preventing Future Outrages.
Ethiopia is killing its own citizens, wantonly. That is chilling, but true: By attempting to extirpate Ethiopians of Tigrayan ethnicity and heritage, Ethiopia’s military and government stands accused of purposeful ethnic cleansing, a precursor to all-out genocide, as outlawed by the UN convention against genocide.
Upholders of world order, such as Canada, should immediately refer the atrocities in the Tigrayan region of Ethiopia to the International Criminal Court so that its investigators can examine the massacres and prepare prosecutions. Additionally, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, championed by a Canadian-instigated commission and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 to end a slaughter of the innocents, should now be invoked.
Late last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided that leaders from the Tigray region – and apparently, by extension, all Tigrayans – had undermined his authority by defying the central government and holding a vote for its local legislative assembly. As punishment, Mr. Abiy sent the military to invade the small northern region of Tigray.
Only 6 per cent of Ethiopians are Tigrayans, but Mr. Abiy – whose Oromo ethnic group is the largest in the country, comprising 34 per cent of the population – had seemingly decided that their very existence threatened his control of 110 million Ethiopians.
Mr. Abiy promised that the campaign would be short and surgical, but that’s not how events have played out. Because telephone service and the internet have been mostly cut off since November in Tigray, no one really knows how many Tigrayans have been maimed or killed by the Ethiopian army and how much of Tigray has been destroyed. However, smuggled reports indicate that thousands have died in combat and collaterally; despite Mr. Abiy’s claims to the contrary, doctors in the main hospital in Mekelle, Tigray’s provincial capital, have said that indiscriminate shelling has killed civilians. At least 50,000 Tigrayans have fled across the Sudanese border into squalid refugee camps. About 4.5 million of Tigray’s six million inhabitants desperately need emergency food aid, and some will soon starve.
Two weeks ago, the military executed Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s former long-time foreign minister; at least 47 of 167 prominent Tigrayans on a most-wanted list have also been killed or captured. About 750 civilians huddling in a cathedral in the historic town of Aksum were reportedly massacred. Widespread raping is alleged, especially in Mekelle. Troops are still scouring the jagged Tembien mountains for remaining Tigrayan leaders, taking no prisoners.
Tigrayans, who were once mainstays of the country’s army, air force, sections of the civil service and Ethiopian Airlines (which was headed by a Tigrayan who has since been refused permission to fly), have been marginalized even beyond Tigray’s borders. It has the appearance of a pogrom.
The underlying cause of Mr. Abiy’s sudden hostility to Tigrayans stems from the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 by a Marxist military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a vicious dictator who drove Ethiopian deeper into poverty than ever before with a Stalinist-inspired agricultural program.
Meles Zenawi, a charismatic Tigrayan, created a revolutionary guerrilla force in the Sudan and, in 1991, led the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to a series of striking military victories against Mr. Mengistu’s army. After Mr. Mengistu eventually fled to Zimbabwe, Mr. Meles and a cabal mostly made up of Tigrayans ruled Ethiopia in a quasi-democratic fashion, rigging elections (especially in 2005) but also gradually uplifting the lives of many Ethiopians, including those who are Oromo and Amhara, the largest two ethnic groups in the country.
The Oromo and other ethnic groups felt discriminated against by Tigrayans under Mr. Meles. After he died unexpectedly in 2012, he was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn, an Ethiopian from the southern Wolayta ethnic group. He ruled on behalf of the Tigrayans who had assisted Mr. Meles.
After protests by Oromo erupted in 2017, Mr. Hailemariam transferred power in 2018 to Mr. Abiy, an Oromo who had fought with Mr. Meles and the EPRDF against Mr. Mengistu and who was a trusted ally in the Tigrayan-led government. Now, he has abruptly turned against Tigray.
In 2019, Mr. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the country’s 19-year diplomatic standoff with Eritrea and for releasing political prisoners and adopting liberal governance within Ethiopia. Mr. Abiy was lauded across Africa, Europe and the Americas as a welcome new democratic leader. Now he has exposed his true colours, besmirching the very name and ideals behind the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is past time to stop the slaughter in Tigray and to bring Mr. Abiy to justice.
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