The President's Take

Why Crisis Group Calls for Inclusive Dialogue in Ethiopia

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley reflects on our field analysts’ work, Crisis Group’s mandate, and why we call for inclusive dialogue in Ethiopia.

Being a Crisis Group analyst is rarely easy. They constantly need to weigh various and at times competing demands: to promote our core mandate, which is to prevent and resolve deadly conflict; to remain faithful to our main constituency, namely the civilians threatened by war; to maintain channels to all sides and the credibility necessary to persuade them, even when we strongly disagree; and to fairly represent the views of conflict parties, regardless of our own.  

Last week our senior analyst for Ethiopia, Will Davison, was deported from that country. The government offered no formal reason. Officials suggested it was because Will had breached legal work requirements. But the way in which the situation unfolded made clear that Addis Ababa was unhappy with his writings – and thus with Crisis Group’s.

The complaint about our stance was equally plain. From the outset of the crisis, we argued that the conflict between the federal government and the Tigrayan leadership was best resolved politically, through dialogue, and that international actors should press the parties to that end. That was considered by Addis Ababa as reflecting a tendentious perspective, ignoring the history of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the iron-fisted rule it imposed on the Ethiopian people as well as the steps that, in its view, the TPLF had taken to undermine and destabilise the historic transition led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The authorities saw it as treating as equals the federal government and a group of mutinous rebels, and as calling for international involvement in what they considered a purely domestic affair. When the prime minister announced on 28 November that federal forces were in full control of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, those critics also took us to task for having warned of a potential bloodbath, which did not occur,  claiming we did so to justify our calls for international involvement, a ceasefire and dialogue.

Among those who disagreed with our stance was one of our Trustees, former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. In a strongly argued piece, he wrote:

[T]he TPLF leadership designed and is now executing a strategy meant to capitalise on the propensity of the international community to fall into its default mode of bothsidesism and calls for a negotiated settlement. The TPLF’s leaders are savvy operators who know how susceptible the international community is to such manipulation.

One major component of this formula was to trigger an armed confrontation with the federal government so that the TPLF’s current leaders would be able to secure immunity for their past and present misdeeds and a power-sharing scheme through an internationally brokered deal. Such an agreement would enable the TPLF leadership to exercise influence that exceeds the limited support it enjoys in a country with a population of 110 million.

In this light, now seems a good moment to clarify Crisis Group’s approach to its mandate, our analysts’ work and our Trustees’ role. 

First, as to our mandate. Our priority is to avoid deadly conflict, sometimes even when that may clash with other values. There are cases, of course, where violence or military action is justified – for example as a means to avoid greater loss of life. But we place a high bar for making that case, weighing the risks to civilians and the possibility that use of force could lead to escalation, putting a premium on non-military alternatives, and looking beyond the immediate consequences of military action to consider its longer-term effects. In this instance, while we acknowledged the federal government’s legitimate grievances toward the TPLF, we did not believe that bar had been met. 

We are, of course, enormously relieved that the humanitarian catastrophe we feared has not occurred and must acknowledge that we described a potential outcome that thankfully did not materialise. Whether the federal authorities’ swift capture of Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, represents the end of this conflict remains unclear, as do the TPLF’s plans and capability to mount an insurgency, attack elsewhere or attract foreign backing. But even if it does mark the end of serious fighting – which we fervently hope – we feel that it was better to err on the side of caution and to try to resolve through diplomatic means a crisis that a military offensive into urban areas threatened to worsen. If the charge was that we were overly cautious, and overly concerned about risks to civilians, we plead guilty. 

Second, as to the work of our analysts. Their task is to speak to all sides, reflect their arguments and viewpoints as best they can, and then, together with colleagues, develop recommendations most in line with our mandate. They strive not to be partisan nor to express a bias, other than in favour of avoiding loss of life. That is not always easy, and to the extent one party or the other views us as prejudiced, we take great pains to understand why, and check any potential biases in our work. 

But the essential point is this: our writings are designed to express the views not of a single individual, but of Crisis Group as a whole. Right or wrong, Will was conveying our collective analysis and our collective policy recommendations regarding Ethiopia – that of our African program, of our policy team and of me, as Crisis Group’s president. If a government has an issue with our work, as is bound to happen, we hope it takes it up with the organisation, rather than taking it out on our analyst. 

Finally, as to the board. Crisis Group prides itself in having a diverse board, whose members often disagree with one another, and indeed sometimes disagree with the organisation itself. It is one of our strengths. Just as we strive to reflect the views of all sides in a conflict, so too do we want our Trustees to challenge us and question our conclusions, knowing that in the end the positions we take do not commit them in any way, any more than the positions they take commit us. 

We will continue to advocate for an inclusive political dialogue in Ethiopia, even as we take seriously the range of differing views and even if the military confrontation turns out to be over, as the best means to resolve the country’s various political fault lines. We will continue to try to do our work, and hope that Addis Ababa will come to the realisation that we harbour no bad intent toward the government. To the contrary, we have been strong advocates of Ethiopia’s transition under Prime Minister Abiy, recognising its enormous promise, and our work over the past two years has aimed to help him keep that transition on track. We will continue to welcome Trustees who vigorously debate our views, including Hailemariam Desalegn, knowing they will enrich our understanding and sharpen our recommendations.

Two years ago this month, Michael Kovrig was arrested in Beijing. His offence was to be of the wrong nationality, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He was and continues to be a victim of hostage diplomacy, pure and simple. We think of him every day and will persevere in our efforts to secure his release until he is back home. 

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