Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
The civil war that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began on Nov. 4 to bring the separatist Tigray region back under national authority could easily engulf all of Ethiopia, involve neighbouring Eritrea and spark a conflagration in the Horn of Africa that could readily become a threat to global peace. Preventing such a calamity demands urgent action by the world’s peacemakers.
Already, Ethiopia’s civil conflict approximates ethnic cleansing, with soldiers from Ethiopia’s Oromo and Amhara ethnicities rooting out their Tigrayan fellow nationals. Tigrayans have been purged from the civil service and arrested in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa; they’ve also been furloughed from posts in international organizations and the national airline. The war itself has already propelled more than 21,000 Tigrayans to flee across the nearby national border into Sudan, turning an ethnic conflict into a cascading refugee crisis.
Because Ethiopia has cut off the internet and mobile telephone service in Tigray, the actual number of fatalities and those otherwise afflicted cannot be known. But reports filtering out of the Tigrayan region, which is nestled against the Eritrean border and is home to only 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, indicate that Mr. Abiy and his army will not stop until Tigray submits to rule from Addis Ababa.
This fratricidal conflict has its antecedents in the liberation guerrilla war that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) fought in the late 1980s and won in 1991 against the cruel Soviet-backed Derg regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The EPRDF was a predominantly Tigrayan force of insurgents led by Meles Zenawi who, after usurping the Derg and freeing Ethiopia from Marxist despotism, governed Ethiopia with a firm hand. He restored democracy but rigged elections, jailed political opponents but greatly upgraded the country’s infrastructure, developed neglected sections of the nation’s south, enhanced educational opportunity and presided over an increasingly prominent and respected African nation, with an administration dominated by Tigrayans.
Mr. Meles' ultimate error was in his repression of political opponents, his failure to nurture a political culture of democratic values and – perhaps counterintuitively – his 2005 decision to grant autonomy to 10 ethnic regions.
After Mr. Meles died in 2012, dominance over the state stayed in Tigrayan hands. His successor, southern Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn, was completely beholden to Tigrayans close to Mr. Meles, but he was unable to stanch the waves of disaffection in places such as Oromo, the region home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group (there are 37.5 million Oromos, comprising 34 per cent of the population). In 2018, the EPRDF government gave the prime ministership to the young Oromo politician Abiy Ahmed, who had fought in the war against the Derg and was trusted by the Tigrayans, who still controlled Ethiopia’s destiny.
But once he was in power – and after forging a peaceful settlement with Eritrea 20 years after a destructive war between both countries, a campaign that led him to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 – Mr. Abiy slowly consolidated his personal power and reduced Tigrayan influence. They largely retreated to Tigray from Addis Ababa, established a power base in the Tigrayan regional government and sought to create an autonomous bubble within which they could regain some of their lost mastery.
The decision by Tigray to hold local legislative elections in September in defiance of Mr. Abiy’s orders, as well as an attack on an Ethiopian military base, presumably precipitated the Prime Minister’s decision to launch a punitive and pre-emptive attack to end Tigray’s autonomy.
Bringing Tigray to heel seems simple, but the regional government has missiles, some of which were fired late last week at Eritrea, accused of harbouring Ethiopian troops, and into the nearby Amhara region to Tigray’s south. Tigray has a fighting force said to number as many as 250,000 troops in well-disciplined militias, and the Ethiopian army’s best battalions had many Tigrayan members – meaning the national army and air force’s loyalties could be compromised.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has threatened to bomb the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam because its retention lake is filling up rapidly, and Cairo fears the loss of downstream Nile River water as a result of Mr. Abiy’s refusal to negotiate a water-sharing agreement favourable to Egypt. Egypt – and the U.S., which has sided with Cairo – might look to fan the flames in Ethiopia.
For all of these reasons – but mostly, to save lives and spare Tigray from mayhem – the UN Security Council and the African Union, supported by France and other European powers, need urgently to curb Mr. Abiy’s appetite for revenge. Fratricide has no place in today’s troubled world – and no one, much less a Nobel laureate like Mr. Abiy, should be permitted to light perilous fires in a parlous land.
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