Is history repeating itself in Ethiopia?
In 1994, the world stood by and did very little as ethnic conflict in Rwanda caused the killing of over 800,000 people, the majority of them innocent civilians. This left a blot on both the United Nations (UN) and the international community which is yet to be erased. Today, another civil conflict is brewing in Africa, this time in Ethiopia. With multilateralism in a state of apparent paralysis, the international community distracted by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the US caught between what has thus far been a rocky transition between administrations, Ethiopia stands on the brink of a tragic decent to civil war.
Modern Ethiopia is the product of a proud and ancient civilization and many historians agree that Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest countries. In more recent times, when the rest of Africa and many other parts of the world were being carved up by European powers, Ethiopia held the distinction of never being colonized (apart from a 5-year occupation by Italy).
Notwithstanding its storied history, Ethiopia also has a very tragic recent past. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a military junta known as the Derg. However, under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg and by extension the country descended into chaos as a protracted and bloody civil war was fought from 1974 to 1991 which ended in the ouster of Mariam.
In the years after the civil war ended, Ethiopia embarked on a path of economic growth and development which helped to reduce poverty, expand the physical infrastructure, and generally bring about transformation. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s economy experienced strong, broad-based growth averaging 9.8 percent a year from 2008/09 to 2018/19, without doubt a remarkable feat. Notwithstanding these successes, ethno-regional tensions simmered and today, the country stands on the precipice of civil war.
The conflict in Ethiopia today stems from a major falling out between the national government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and a powerful regional government in the country’s north under the banner of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For context, Tigrayans account for roughly 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population. Things came to a head when Abiy postponed democratic elections during the summer, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, a move which the TPLF argued was unconstitutional. In defiance of Abiy, the TPLF formed its own electoral commission and held regional elections, thereby creating a microstate within Ethiopia. Unsurprisingly, this move incensed the Ethiopian Prime Minister. Abiy subsequently accused the TPLF of an attack on the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command, an accusation denied by the TPLF, but an alleged act which Abiy nonetheless retaliated against by authorizing the bombing of targets in many parts of the Tigray region.
Reports have emerged of the targeting of ethnic Tigrayans by government forces and the UN office on genocide prevention has condemned reports of “targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity or religion” in Ethiopia. The UN further warned that against a recent climate of ethnic violence over the past two years, the new developments set a “dangerous trajectory that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” This warning by the UN likely brings back haunting memories of the Rwandan genocide, an atrocity that the world must not allow to be repeated anywhere else.
It is unfortunate, but not surprising that this conflict broke out in the first place and has already escalated. I say unsurprising because as I stated at the beginning, the seeming paralysis of multilateralism, the COVID-19 pandemic and the political shenanigans in America have created the perfect conditions for many other things to go unnoticed.
In closing, I am hoping that international pressure will be brought to bear on all sides in the Ethiopian conflict to bring about an end to the violence and an acceptable political outcome. Twenty-six years on from the Rwandan genocide, the world cannot allow history to repeat itself in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian conflict is also a reminder of why a healthy multilateralism is important for the overall good of the world. It is also a cautionary tale of how people can turn on each other over perceived ethnic, religious and political differences.