Is Ethiopia moving towards peace?

Uncertainty persists as the strife-torn East African country stumbles towards a fragile accord between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the north and the federal government.

Ethiopians are hopeful that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s moves to reconcile the war-torn country will bring about peace. But many feel uncertain about his post-conflict stance, which seems to have come about too quickly.

It has been a difficult 15 months for Ethiopia after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, in November 2020. The country’s defence force retaliated, but what was meant to be a short operation devolved into a continuing conflict between the TPLF and the defence force.

In an attempt to stop the conflict that is causing untold misery, Abiy recently released a number of prominent political prisoners, including TPLF officials. But opposition parties say that while the TPLF are still attacking pockets of the country it is too early to begin the work of reconciliation. One of these parties, the National Movement of Amhara, said Abiy’s post-conflict stance was a “historical mistake” that devalued the sacrifices made by Ethiopians.

Established in 1975, the TPLF led a political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which fought and overthrew the Derg regime in 1991. Under this coalition, the TPLF held power for decades, often allocating power based on ethnic lines. When Abiy came into power in 2018, he accused officials of corruption and human rights abuses and removed many from key positions. He also unified the coalition, forming the Prosperity Party, a merger in which the TPLF did not participate. When the federal government postponed elections because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tigray region held its own vote, which the government declared illegal. 

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When it was formed, the TPLF’s initial political aspiration was to attain independence for landlocked Tigray in the north. Now the region seeks secession once again, and hundreds have been killed since fighting began. Atrocities have been committed on both sides. Recent airstrikes carried out by the Ethiopian government have killed and injured several people since the beginning of the new year, and Tigrayans as well as those in neighbouring regions have all been suffering. 

In December, the TPLF withdrew its forces from Afar and Amhara, which it had occupied since July. The chairperson of the party, Debretsion Gebremichael, said in a CNN interview in early January that the TPLF had to consider political understanding and not only military advancements. He said it was looking for a negotiated settlement of all political issues, adding that the independence of the Tigrayans from Ethiopia will not come immediately. 

What was needed from outside facilitators, Gebremichael said, was humanitarian help and aid in lifting the “siege” on banking, telecommunications, transport and electricity. The Tigray region has effectively been under a communications and humanitarian blockade for months.

Fleeing violence

Though things seem hopeful, for some Ethiopians in the diaspora, peace is not synonymous with the TPLF, which the Ethiopian federal government declared a terrorist group in May 2021. John Tesfaye*, 35, says that in the TPLF’s almost three decades in power many Ethiopians fled the country. 

Tesfaye was 19 when he, along with many others, left Ethiopia after protesting against the outcome of the 2005 elections, which many still believe were rigged. Born in Hosaena in southern Ethiopia, Tesfaye was raised in Addis Ababa and is now self-employed in South Africa.

After the elections, Tesfaye says, “they started killing us. So many of my friends are dead. I ran away first to Kenya then to South Africa to survive,” he says, adding that he lost family back home as well. 

Tesfaye maintains that he does not want the TPLF to return to power because the party was oppressive during its rule. There was widespread theft, bribery, corruption and killings. According to a Global Financial Integrity Report, between 2000 and 2009 Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to corruption, a figure estimated in 2017 to have gone up to $30 billion. 

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Tesfaye says he does not want a return to ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, and he supports the prime minister’s efforts. “He wants unity of Africa and Ethiopians because those people [the TPLF] divide us by ethnics. We are fighting each other. A brother fighting his brother because they [the TPLF] want their power to stay long?” he asks, incredulous. 

Teddy Wakjira* is from the Amhara region and has been in South Africa for 20 years. He owns several spaza shops. He believes the TPLF gets help from outside forces that want to replace Ethiopia’s democratically elected leader for their own agenda. 

“[The United States] must support the people, not the terrorists. We are united. We are Ethiopians. We don’t want to die. We want our freedom. The people of Ethiopia don’t want the TPLF. America, stop supporting terrorists. If you are supporting the TPLF, you are supporting Isis, you are supporting Al-Shabaab. America must respect the will of Ethiopians,” says Wakjira.

He is referring to a rumour that the US, along with Egypt, are supplying the TPLF with satellite intelligence. This supposedly has to do with the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydroelectric power plant project under construction on the border with Sudan. 

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Tesfaye says African independence should not be traded for aid. “We cannot sell our freedom for bread. Africa is an independent and proud people. [America] disrespects our sovereignty … they support rebels at the cost of the people, innocent lives taken.” 

Nebiyu Ejeta*, who is originally from the Hosaena region, moved to South Africa 10 years ago. He says the TPLF forces children as young as five to fight a war they know nothing about. Many Tigrayans in South Africa are afraid to speak, even anonymously. Most of them fled home to avoid involuntary recruitment to the TPLF. Their families back home suffered the consequences. “They are not scared of other Ethiopians. They are scared of their own people. They attack their own people back home,” says Ejeta, claiming that the majority of Tigrayans do not support the TPLF. 

Tesfaye agrees, stressing that the TPLF does not represent all Tigrayans. “It’s a few politicians that are destroying our country,” he says. 

In solidarity

As of this month, Ethiopia has been removed from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, curtailing its ability to trade duty-free with the US. Unilateral sanctions have had limited success in bringing about stability and peace and often had dire consequences for the economies and lives of those affected, yet they have been used against Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea. The TPLF has yet to have any sanctions placed against it. 

As the seat of the African Union and holding strategic importance for the stability of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has a lot of power in the region. It is also a vital part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government. Countries such as the US have a national security interest in fighting “terrorism” in the Horn of Africa, specifically in neighbouring Somalia where it sees Al-Shabaab as a threat. There is also much interest in the Red Sea corridor. 

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The Ethiopian Media Authority issued a warning against a number of international media for how they were characterising the conflict, including reporting the government’s law enforcement operations in the north as genocide and accusing it of using rape and famine as weapons. Numerous demonstrations have taken place globally against the purported media bias.

In South Africa, demonstrations have been held in solidarity with the Ethiopian government, while Ethiopians at home and throughout the diaspora wait to see if this fragile peace holds.

*Names have been changed. 

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