War and Repression in Ethiopia Make National Dialogue Ever More Pressing
War and Repression in Ethiopia Make National Dialogue Ever More Pressing
Commentary / Africa 9 minutes

War and Repression in Ethiopia Make National Dialogue Ever More Pressing

With ongoing fighting in the Tigray region, Ethiopia’s chronic instability is set to worsen unless the federal government adopts a conciliatory approach toward opponents. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press federal authorities to allow access for humanitarian aid and support dialogue to address the country’s most divisive fault lines.

After five years of protests and a tumultuous transition, Ethiopia faces its toughest challenge yet in 2021 as conflict continues in the northern Tigray region and opposition parties threaten to boycott elections. Unless the federal government adopts a conciliatory approach toward opponents, the country’s chronic instability is set to worsen. Following weeks of fighting, federal forces took Tigray’s capital Mekelle on 28 November 2020 and declared victory over its regional leadership. Tigrayans continue to mount armed resistance, although federal authorities recently announced that they have killed or detained some high-profile figures from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ousted regional ruling party. The war to date has killed thousands of people, forcing 50,000 refugees into Sudan and displacing up to two million people internally, many of whom are now bereft of food and shelter. Worryingly, border tensions with Sudan are escalating; relations between the two countries were already strained due to the dispute over Ethiopia’s dam on the Nile. Elections, delayed due to COVID-19, pose another challenge. Those polls are set for 5 June, but not, at present, in Tigray. Opposition parties in another key region, Oromia, may well sit out the vote, complaining of state repression, including their leaders’ detention. Addis Ababa promises a fair and competitive ballot, but that prospect is diminishing.

The war to date has killed thousands of people, forcing 50,000 refugees into Sudan and displacing up to two million people internally.

To forestall further fragmentation and address Ethiopia’s deep divisions, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his allies will have to address anger among Tigrayans who fear for their self-determination rights and believe that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have committed atrocities against civilians in Tigray. Prior to the election, Addis Ababa should also convene an inclusive national dialogue, offering an amnesty to key jailed opposition leaders.

The EU has suspended €88.5 million of planned direct budgetary support to Ethiopia and linked its resumption to the cessation of hostilities, follow-up on allegations of human rights abuse, and full access for humanitarian aid agencies and media outlets to all areas of Tigray. Building on this step, Brussels and European governments should:

  • Continue to press federal authorities to allow untrammelled access for aid agencies and media outlets to all of Tigray. To date, movement restrictions and a telecommunications blackout have prevented vulnerable populations from receiving assistance and rendered claims of atrocities by both sides hard to verify.
  • Push, in conjunction with key international partners, for independent probes of all sides’ claims of atrocities. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) could conduct investigations, perhaps with support from the UN high commissioner for human rights. 
  • To help calm widespread Tigrayan anger at the intervention, the EU should urge the federal government to roll back Amhara occupation of parts of Tigray and curtail Eritrea’s involvement. The Amhara claims to parts of Tigray should instead be addressed via a federal boundary commission. 
  • Encourage the federal government to offer amnesty to jailed Ethiopian opposition leaders from major political parties to give the June election a chance of proceeding without boycotts or other disruptions. Once free, those opponents should then be part of a national dialogue that will first discuss how to create conditions for a fair vote. After the election, the dialogue should take on questions underpinning the country’s most divisive fault lines, notably the schism between pan-Ethiopian forces and ethno-nationalists.

War Entrenches Divisions

Ethiopia ended 2020 with a bloody conflict ongoing in Tigray. On 3 November, Tigray’s forces, in alliance with some of the Tigrayan officers in the national army, forcibly took over some of the units stationed in the region, fearing, Tigrayan leaders claimed, an imminent federal assault. They killed or detained federal troops who did not surrender. The federal government responded with an armed campaign, which included drone attacks and support from Amhara region regular and irregular forces and Eritrea’s military – though both Addis Ababa and Asmara deny Eritrean involvement. These combined forces swept across Tigray, taking major towns and seizing Mekelle less than a month later. 

Gains came at a high cost. Thousands died, millions fled their homes, and reports suggest mass killings and rape. Tigrayans who escaped to Sudanese refugee camps report abuses by Amhara militias, especially in the parts of west Tigray that Amhara factions have de facto annexed. Accusations of atrocities and looting by Eritrean troops are also stacking up. The EHRC, a body accountable to parliament, said a Tigrayan militia massacred hundreds of mostly Amhara civilians in west Tigray in the first week of the war. 

If the Tigrayan takeover of military bases was the final trigger, the war’s roots lie primarily in bitter divisions over power sharing. When Abiy took office in 2018, Tigray’s leaders lost the disproportionate federal influence they had long exercised, along with coalition partners from other regions, with an iron fist. Acrimony grew as Abiy’s tenure went on. Tigrayan leaders distrusted Abiy’s rapprochement with their old foe, Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki. They and other supporters of Ethiopia’s ethnic federal constitutional order that, on paper, devolves power to its regions, feared that Abiy planned to dismantle that system. Abiy’s allies accuse TPLF elites of obstructing reform and stoking trouble through violence. When federal authorities delayed elections due to COVID-19 and, in June 2020, extended the federal and regional governments’ terms, Tigray baulked and, in defiance of federal rulings, went ahead with its regional poll. Addis Ababa classified Tigray’s new executive as unconstitutional. Mekelle rejected the federal government’s authority after its term expired in early October. The mutual delegitimisation put the two sides on a collision course. 

With Abiy set on military victory, the struggle is a matter of survival for Tigray’s leaders. Some of these leaders have already been killed in battle, but those who are still at large are likely to continue to resist unless defeated. They appear to have significant popular backing. Despite the federal gains, Tigrayan political and military leaders are still claiming battlefield victories, despite having been overpowered by the ground incursion and aerial bombardment and having lost control of the regional government apparatus. Addis Ababa now faces a fundamental political challenge, as many Tigrayans appear to view the ousted TPLF leaders as legitimately elected and the federal intervention as illegal. Atrocities during the war have also heightened Tigrayan outrage, which makes a political settlement harder to achieve.

If Abiy’s administration is to have any hope of assuaging Tigrayans, it must act fast. Amhara nationalists claim parts of Tigray’s west and south as historically belonging to their people, suggesting that they intend to stay. The federal government should put disputed areas under the interim Tigray government’s writ, push Amhara leaders to withdraw their forces and expedite a federal boundary commission’s work assessing Amhara claims. Addis Ababa also must ensure that Eritrea’s troops leave Tigray immediately. Without these measures, hope seems slim of convincing Tigrayans, including the lower echelons of the formerly TPLF-run administration, to work with a federally imposed transitional government, as is Addis Ababa’s wish. 

Absent such steps, the federal government may well face a protracted crisis in Tigray that will sap its resources and further alienate the Tigrayan population, thereby making a political settlement even harder to reach. Sustained resistance with popular support would also pose a threat to the lives of millions of Tigrayans who are dependent on aid. So far, the federal government has shown no inclination to allow deliveries of food and other essential items to areas outside its control. International appeals, including from the EU commissioner for crisis management, for unrestricted access to all areas affected by fighting have gone unheeded to date. The EU should maintain its principled stance on this issue and keep insisting that its delivery of development assistance to Ethiopia is linked to the federal government allowing humanitarian and media access to all of Tigray.

A lengthy federal campaign in Tigray could also trigger unrest elsewhere. It might embolden other ethno-nationalist Abiy opponents who are concerned that federal policy in Tigray violates constitutional principles of regional autonomy and self-determination. There are already escalating ethnically targeted attacks in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, which borders Sudan, reportedly by ethnic Gumuz militia who say their community has been marginalised. The Tigray conflict came after the federal government had responded to intercommunal violence in Oromia and Addis Ababa by arresting top Oromo opposition leaders, such as Jawar Mohammed and those from the Oromo Liberation Front, and also the likes of Eskinder Nega, who campaigns against ethno-nationalism. These moves threaten prospects for a credible election, as they target rivals of Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party. For now, the crackdown appears to have cowed Oromia’s youthful protest movement that helped usher in Abiy’s rule and hope for political liberalisation in 2018. But Oromo nationalist rebels have stepped up attacks and attracted more support, bringing a stern response from regional and federal security forces, involving mass arrests and killings. There is a real risk that the country is returning to the exclusionary violent politics of the past rather than moving toward the more inclusive democratic future that Abiy promised.

Pathways to Peace and National Dialogue

One way to break a counterproductive cycle of claim and counter-claim is to mount independent investigations of reports of atrocities committed by different parties in Tigray. Ethiopia’s opposition puts no stock in state investigators and the private press is weak and intimidated, so those entities cannot do the job. The EHRC, on the other hand, looks capable of winning the public’s trust. Accountable to parliament, the EHRC has made important contributions under the leadership of former activist Daniel Bekele, including a report on the violence in Oromia, which found evidence that state security forces killed protesters and that protesters committed crimes against humanity. Thus far, the body has probed alleged atrocities in Tigray on only one occasion, despite countless reports of rights violations. Building on the position it has already taken, the EU should strongly back the EHRC in probing the claims of atrocities across Tigray, perhaps with assistance from the UN high commissioner for human rights, as well as the events in other regions.

One way to break a counterproductive cycle of claim and counter-claim is to mount independent investigations of reports of atrocities committed by different parties in Tigray.

Equally importantly, European leaders should impress on Abiy’s government that it should be more tolerant of dissent from activists and journalists. Abiy should stop punishing dissidents with legal measures that will likely breed further instability. Recent examples are the trial of politician Lidetu Ayalew for promoting the idea of a transitional government and the arrest of Tigrayan journalists in Addis Ababa. 

While investigations can help establish facts and lay the foundations for a new political settlement, in themselves they are insufficient to bring Ethiopia’s polarised political camps closer together. To achieve that end, sparring elites will need to resolve the core dispute over the balance between federal and ethno-regional power. That needs the participation of all key players. 

Some form of inclusive national dialogue appears ever more critical. Prime Minister Abiy doubtless views the war as having strengthened his hand domestically. Many Ethiopians supported the federal war effort and, in quickly ending the TPLF’s formal control of Tigray’s regional political apparatus, he took out a key opponent and ideological rival. Ethiopia’s deep fault lines are fundamentally political, however; they cannot be resolved on the battlefield. In the spirit of Abiy’s forgiving medemer philosophy, which stresses national unity and cooperation of diverse entities for the common good, the EU should first urge a comprehensive political amnesty. That would serve as a precursor to a national dialogue, which would seek first to reach agreement on how to get to a credible election in June. After the vote, it would resume to address festering schisms, notably the split between supporters and opponents of ethnic federalism.

Ethiopia’s deep fault lines are fundamentally political, however; they cannot be resolved on the battlefield.

While European actors, such as NGOs that are present with financial support from the EU and its member states, have been doing important preparatory work for such a dialogue, it is also vital that the process be homegrown. The EU can play an important role in ensuring that all organisations it and member states support are well coordinated and backing national efforts. The EU should also encourage the federal government and ruling Prosperity Party to participate sincerely and give space to other participants. Its abstention or, alternatively, attempts to dominate proceedings would increase risks to Ethiopia’s ailing democratic transition.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.