In Ethiopia, Peace Requires Domestic Reconciliation

In Ethiopia, Peace Requires Domestic Reconciliation

By Michelle Gavin, May 7, 2021

A bus carrying displaced people arrives at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 14, 2021. Baz Ratner / REUTERS

(Council on Foreign Relations) — Ethiopia has the world’s attention. The United Nations Security Council finally found its voice to call for improved humanitarian access and express concern over reports of sexual violence in Tigray. The crisis made it onto the crowded agenda of the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. The United States’ new special envoy for the Horn of Africa has headed out to the region to add diplomatic heft to Washington’s efforts. While meetings and statements of concern provide neither security nor justice to the Ethiopian people, the international community does appear to be grasping just how dangerous the country’s turmoil is for international peace and security.

But Ethiopia’s crisis, which is fundamentally about unresolved internal political questions (though greatly complicated by other states in the region), shows no sign of abating. Desperately needed aid still is not reaching vast numbers of people in Tigray, and experts increasingly warn of famine. Violent conflict, sometimes rising to the level of ethnic cleansing, is occurring in multiple parts of the country. Eritrean troops remain active on Ethiopian soil.

Meanwhile, the avenues to work through Ethiopia’s political tensions are being closed off. Over the past week the Ethiopian government formally designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front-Shene as terrorist organizations, erecting a barrier to the kind of dialogue that seems essential to end the violence and move all of Ethiopia’s political factions into a peaceful and rule-governed process for resolving their differences. One need not defend the tactics or objectives of these organizations to worry about steps that could make peace talks more difficult.

Perhaps Prime Minister Abiy and his allies are banking on the elections slated for early June to provide definitive answers to Ethiopia’s most pressing political questions and to shore up their legitimacy. But given pre-election conditions, including martial law in some areas, opposition party boycotts, and a lagging voter registration process, those elections will resolve very little. On May 3, the European Union canceled its plans to send an observation mission, citing concerns about the independence of its mission and the security of its communications.

Holding up the results of what will be deeply flawed elections as evidence of a popular consensus about the direction of the country risks pushing more actors out of purely political competition and into the kind of violence the Ethiopian government aims to delegitimize. It is difficult to see a path out of Ethiopia’s political and security crisis that does not feature inclusive dialogue and reforms that can create conditions for the genuinely representative elections that the Ethiopian people deserve.

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