Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.
Until recently, there was a real sense that Ethiopia had turned a corner.
Despite the country’s tragic past, which has seen its people experience the vile deprivations of the communist Derg junta, intractable and bloody feuds with its neighbours and multiple coup d’états, the country has always had a spirit and verve unlike any other in Africa.
The pace of economic development in recent years has been staggering.
Where choking traffic had once paralysed the city, a sparkling new mass transit system rose above the streets to connect those living in formerly isolated suburbs. The new rail link from Addis through the eastern city of Dire Dawa and onto the port of Djibouti – and on to the rest of the world – gave new hope that Ethiopia may finally live up to its potential as Eastern Africa’s manufacturing powerhouse. The city’s myriad jazz bars were packed to the rafters with tourists and locals revelling in the benefits of growing salaries.
Tuesday evening’s plea by the Foreign Office for British citizens to evacuate the country at the earliest opportunity is therefore a painful one for those that know the country well.
Ethiopia’s wholly avoidable collapse into anarchy, just two years after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on improving neighbourly relations with Eritrea, is a stark reminder of the challenges fragile states face.
The roots of this avoidable conflict began last year when the central government authorised what was initially presented as a necessary law enforcement operation against separatist terrorist elements loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north of the country. The operation won widespread support from supporters of the government.
Since then, and with the world distracted by the Coronavirus pandemic, the conflict has grown as an exponential rate. It has ceased to be a battle between the TPLF and central government and mutated into an alliance of nine other restive ethnic groups who, through a marriage of convenience, wish to topple the Abiy government.
Early this month, the Ethiopian Parliament imposed a six-month state of emergency which has handed the central government increasing powers to crack down on terrorism – perceived or imagined – in increasingly heavy-handed ways. Rather than calm the situation, this mechanism has effectively thrown fuel on the fire, with the UN Human Rights Commissioner expressing concern about mass killings of civilians and military personnel on both sides of the conflict.
As I write, the city of Addis Ababa is now at imminent risk of falling to opposition forces whose strength and durability has been underestimated by the central government.
Nobody doubts that the Abiy government has overstepped the mark and surrendered the moral leadership to run a country of more than eighty different ethnicities with a diverse range of culture and religious beliefs. But the opposition’s agenda, in particular that of the TPLF, risks the permanent division of Ethiopia, the permanent displacement of millions of people from their homes and the opening of tribal and ethnic conflicts that could have repercussions far beyond Ethiopia’s borders.
In her excellent article in The Times earlier this week about the element, Alicia Kearns MP highlighted the efforts of the Bosnian Serb to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to serve sectarian agendas. The same is true for the Ethiopian opposition alliance.
Despite some valiant efforts on the part of local political leaders to force dialogue between opposing factions, domestic solutions to the crisis have failed.
It is now time for the international community to take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed.
There are a number of practical steps that should be taken.
First, it is crucial that urgent humanitarian aid is allowed to reach those that need it most urgently. Across northern Ethiopia, acute food shortages and the looming risk of famine is now impacting an up to seven million people – roughly one in fifteen Ethiopians. Pressure must be placed both the Abiy government and opposition, both of whom have clear lines of communication with bodies like the Red Cross, to allow them carry out their work unimpeded. This aid must extend to neighbouring Sudan where the UN projects more than 500,000 Ethiopian refugees will flee in the coming weeks.
Second, immediate pressure must be placed upon the Turkish government to cease its sale of military equipment to the Abiy government. In particular, the sale of Bayraktar drone systems, whose use by Azerbaijan in its recent war with Armenia saw entire battalions of troops liquidated at the press of a button, must end. The use of “drones of mass destruction” is not an appropriate application of military force on Abiy’s government – it has the potential to be a war crime. Unless the supply of these weapons is limited, one can expect the death toll to rise by tens of thousands in the coming weeks.
Third, the issue of Ethiopia’s preferential access to international trade accord should also be urgently examined. President Biden has already made steps to exclude Ethiopia from the terms of the US African Grown and Opportunity Act processes which gives the country duty-free access to most goods it exports to America – a move which has caused fury among Abey loyalists that have sought to frame the US as a hostile power with sympathies for the opposition.
Given the sensitivities regarding the US’s role in the country, the support of China – which recently dropped its opposition to a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of conflict – in blocking the export of supply and export routes controlled by both the government and opposition forces via the port of Doraleh (which is de facto controlled by Beijing) will be crucial.
Fourth, it is important that a constitutional settlement is found that allows for the integrity of the Ethiopian state to be maintained while granting appropriate rights of self-government to minorities. The African Union’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo is well placed to lead such an effort given his successful efforts to lead a multi-ethnic government while serving as Nigerian President.
Fifth and finally, it is incumbent on governments globally and international institutions to put in place a solid plan to prevent the conflict spilling over from Ethiopia into neighbouring states. This will involve the provision of aid on the ground and an intensification of support for peacekeeping efforts.
Kenya, which shares long border with Ethiopia has long had its own domestic problems with separatist movements and is experiencing a devastating drought. Sudan, which only gained independence in 2011 after a protracted civil war, has long looked to Ethiopia as the guarantor of its own peace process. Instability in Ethiopia, the region’s largest economy, risks crippling South Sudan’s already-fragile supply chains of everything from oil to basic foodstuffs and empowering rebel forces. Sudan, which has already taken in thousands of Ethiopian refugees, is struggling to navigate the fallout of its own military coup last month.
We are all aware of the impact of impact of ethnic conflicts and the mass loss of lives they have wrought on Eastern Africa in the past forty years. The images of barbarity in Rwanda and Sudan should rightly continue to haunt an international community that was too slow to act to prevent genocide.
In international relations, though, the price of delays and indecision in heading off genocide and famine is widely known – but often forgotten.
Rather than risk sleepwalking into another catastrophe, now is the time for the international community to force the country’s warring factions to the negotiating table and draw this latest tragic chapter in Ethiopian history to a close.