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Ethiopia:International community can, and should, do more to help and heal

Ethiopia:International community can, and should, do more to help and heal

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I first went to Ethiopia in 1989 to attend an international conference on soil conservation, and the country was and still is probably the best open-air laboratory for soil conservation work. Many years after my first visit, I travelled to Ethiopia numerous times to attend conferences and on consulting assignments. I have grown fonder of the country, and my appreciation and respect for what they have been through and are trying to achieve has increased.

Ethiopia is a unique African country, and all Africans should feel blessed to call them brethren. First, Addis Abba has often been referred to as the “diplomatic capital of Africa” because it is headquarters of the African Union (formerly Organisation of African Unity), as well as the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and the UNDP Regional Service Centre for Africa, to name a few. Ethiopia is not only a OAU founding member, the former Emperor Haile Selassie donated land for the establishment of its headquarters, and was the organisation’s first chairman.

With a population of 112.1 million in 2019, Ethiopia is the continent’s second most populous country. Like almost all African countries, Ethiopia is multi-ethnic, with 85 ethnic groups who speak 88 languages. The Oromo and Amhara are the main ethnic groups, with 34.4 percent and 27 percent of the population, respectively, followed by the Somali (6.2 percent), and Tigray (6.1 percent).

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Ethiopians have excelled at the continental and global levels in various fields. In sports, Ethiopian long-distance runners such as Haile Gebreselassie and Kenenisa Bekele have made their mark at the highest level. Similarly, Teddy Afro, Aster Aweke, Ejigayehu Shibabaw (better known as Gigi) and Mulatu Astatke (seen by many as the father of Ethio-Jazz) are globally recognized for their contributions to World Music. In science and technology, Ethiopians have contributed to various fields, including plant breeding and genetics (Gebisa Ejeta), aerospace engineering (Kitaw Ejigu), artificial intelligence (Timnit Gebru), and paleontology (Berhane Asfaw).

Ethiopia has had very strong ties with the three Abrahamic religions (Christian, Islam, and Judaism) for hundreds of years. Thus, the Kingdom of Axum was one of the first nations to accept Christianity when its King was converted to Christianity in the 4th Century AD. In addition, Ethiopia (called Kush in Hebrew) is mentioned several times in the Bible and Menelik I, King Solomon’s son with the Queen of Sheba, is the patriarch of the Ethiopian royal family.

Although Muslims accounted for 33.9 percent of the population in 2007 (compared to 62.8 percent Christians, almost 70 percent of whom are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians), Ethiopia has played a significant role in Islam from the earliest days of the religion. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) sent the first two migrations or Hijrah (in 613 and 616 CE) of Muslims who were persecuted in Mecca to Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia) for protection by their Christian King (called Negus). Ethiopia is also important because Harar Jugol is Islam’s fourth holiest city, not to mention that many of the Prophet’s closest aides such as Bilal were of Abyssinian descent.

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Ethiopia is also the only African country that was never colonised and, after Liberia, is the only sub-Saharan African country that was a member of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. Ethiopia is also a founding member of the UN, and has since the early 1950s contributed over 80,000 military and police personnel in over 10 UN peacekeeping missions around the world.

Ethiopia has promoted and supported African interests on global forums, and supported anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles in Africa. In the same vein, Ethiopia has been a trusted peace broker during the 1963 Algerian-Moroccan border conflict (the so-called Sand War), as well as the civil wars in Nigeria (1967–1970), and Sudan (1993–2005), and South Sudan (2013–2020).

Alas, this incredible African country, which is so unique it has its own system of time, and has 13 months in a year, and is the birthplace of coffee, is at war with itself. Almost exactly a year ago to the day (November 6, 2020), the Ethiopian government attacked the forces of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the Tigray Region of this highly decentralised federal country. The Ethiopian government’s attack was in response to an earlier attack by the TPLF on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital. The ENDF fight against the TPLF was also supported by the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) of neighboring Eritrea, which only admitted its involvement in April 2021, and pulled out that month.

The Ethiopian government initially had the upper hand in the conflict, after driving out the TPLF out of Mekelle, and appointing a new regional administration in its place. On 26 November 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed said that TPLF forces had surrendered to the ENDF, that the conflict in Tigray had entered its “final phase,” and refused to accept any efforts to mediate and end it.

Fast forward a year, and the tables have been turned on Prime Minister Ahmed. After regrouping and fighting back, the TPLF re-took Mekelle on 28 June 2021, and expanded the war by entering Afar in July, and capturing territory in Amhara in August. Last week, it was reported that TPLF forces were within 400 Km of Addis Ababa. In addition, eight anti-government groups, including some from Oromia (Ethiopia’s largest and most populous Region) announced in Washington, DC that they had formed a coalition with the TPLF to oust Prime Minister Ahmed’s government.

The conflict in Tigray forced over 50,000 people to seek refuge in Sudan, and by August 2021, over 1.7 million were internally displaced in Tigray. Recently, a UN report said all parties to the conflict in Tigray (including the EDF) have committed gross violations of “international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law.”

The conflict between the TPLF and the government of Ethiopia threatens the country’s development agenda. Although Ethiopia had a per capita income of US$850 in 2019, its economy has experienced a strong, broad-based average annual growth of 9.4 percent from 2010/11 to 2019/20. Ethiopia also launched its Ten Years [sic] Perspective Plan (2021–2030) which aims to transform Ethiopia into a “an African beacon of prosperity”.

Despite the escalation of the conflict, its devastating impact, and prospects for more disaster for Ethiopia if it continues, the international community has so far had a weak, un-coordinated and ineffective response to it. The AU, which appointed the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to help resolve the conflict, has been accused of siding with the government of Ethiopia. Besides, one wonders whether Obasanjo, who is 84 years old, has the stamina to effectively do his job.

The US could have been an effective partner in helping Ethiopia and Tigray resolve their conflict. Unfortunately, recent actions by the US government point to a more sinister motivation for whatever role they have decided to play. Last week, President Biden announced that because of gross human rights violations by Ethiopia, the US will end its participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act programme, which enables beneficiary countries to export products duty-free to the US.

Furthermore, the US authorised voluntary departure of some of US government staff and their families, advised US citizens in Ethiopia to leave the country, and formed a task force to oversee these departures. The visit of the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa to Addis Ababa will probably be remembered not for his peace efforts, but his pleading with the TPLF not to move into or besiege Addis Ababa. “With friends like these, who needs enemies,” as the former EU president Donald Tusk said of former US president Donald Trump.

It is clear Ethiopia is at a critical juncture in its history. It is clear a breakup of or instability in Ethiopia will have grave consequences for the country, Africa and indeed the whole world. It is clear the international community can do better at ending the conflict. They should. They owe it to the people of Ethiopia (who humanity owes a lot), and humanity.

Katim S Touray is a soil scientist and an international development consultant.

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