IT IS extraordinary how effective a news blackout can be. For the past six months, a hidden civil war has been raging inside Ethiopia. Thousands have been slaughtered. Starvation, rape, and execution have been deployed as weapons of war. A million people have been displaced from their homes. Tens of thousands are refugees in neighbouring Sudan (News, 5 February, 1 January). Some 5.2 million people are going hungry. All this out of sight of the international media.
At last, this week, the Biden administration announced sanctions against Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Tigrayan officials who have been blocking moves to end the conflict. But why has all this happened out of the international spotlight?
When Abiy Ahmed was elected as Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018, he was seen as the potential saviour of a country that had been riven by factionalism for half a century — exacerbating problems caused by drought and famine. Dr Abiy ended Ethiopia’s decades-long war with neighbouring Eritrea — and won the Nobel Peace Prize for it. He freed hundreds of political prisoners. And he sought to bring Ethiopia’s ethnic factions together in a new coalition.
Some 60 per cent of Ethiopians are from either the Amhara ruling class — from which Emperor Haile Selassie was drawn — or from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, to which Dr Abiy belongs. Tigrayans make up only six per cent. So, to balance the coalition, he removed some Tigrayans who had served in the previous government. When the Tigrayans kicked back, Dr Abiy began — like so many Ethiopian leaders before him — to arrest opponents, detain journalists, and shut down the internet. Fighting broke out when Dr Abiy sent troops to detain and disarm Tigray’s leaders.
It became a full-blown civil war when Dr Abiy ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in November (News, 20 November 2020). But, because he banned reporters, academics, and even aid workers from Tigray, it has taken months for news to seep out of the widespread burning of crops and villages, the slaughter of farmers, the rape of women, including nuns, and the execution of priests. Soldiers from the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies — now in alliance — have been blamed, along with axe-wielding Amhara militia.
Evidence of the massacres has come from the Ethiopian Church, the United Nations, Amnesty International, and researchers from the University of Ghent. Atrocities follow a pattern to such an extent that they appear planned. Patriarch Mathias Abune, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has even spoken of “genocide”. This week, there are reports that white phosphorus — a chemical that burns at 2700ºC and is impossible to put out once it touches human skin — has been dropped on civilians, which is a war crime under international law.
The international community has been slow to act. But now the United States has intervened, and the European Union has suspended aid to Ethiopia and imposed sanctions on Eritrea. International pressure must be stepped up to bring the fighting to an end, so that aid can get through to the starving. Once the fighting has ended, the dialogue must begin.
Whether Ethiopia should be a federal state, divided on ethnic lines, or a unitary multi-party democracy is a matter for the people of Ethiopia. But, for outsiders, to exert political, economic, and moral pressure for a ceasefire is entirely proper.