On March 25 hundreds of Tigray people and their supporters marched through Wellington to demonstrate at Parliament. They called on New Zealand to condemn the atrocities being carried out in the name of the Ethiopian government in the northern province of Tigray.
Ethiopia, an East African country of over 100 million people, a federal state peopled by multiple religions and ethnicities, stands on the brink of catastrophe. Credible reports have reached human rights NGOs and the international media of a massacre of churchgoers at Dengelat in Tigray that took place last November, and further killings in the city of Axum, in the west of the province, at about the same time. These terrible events came in the midst of an undeclared war between the central government and regional Tigray forces. Despite international disquiet, the Ethiopian government and its leader Abiy Ahmed has until now sheltered behind the tired rubric of non-interference in a sovereign country’s affairs.
What lies behind these events and how can further tragedies be averted?
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated the EPDRF, but hailed from a region representing only six per cent of Ethiopia’s population, was sidelined. Ethiopia would become a genuinely federal democratic state. The TPLF was angry but isolated; the rest of Ethiopia was relieved.
But the dream has soured. Abiy is increasingly seen as the standard bearer of centralism and of Amhara hegemony (Amhara being the dominant ethnicity of Ethiopia until the TPLF-led revolution in the early 1990s).
Oromo, the single largest ethnic group, with a lengthy history of oppression by Amhara, have seen their leaders imprisoned and their most popular and charismatic singer struck down in what is widely regarded as an assassination.
And while the TPLF was ousted from the central government, it retained the capacity to mobilize in its home region. Relations between Tigray and the capital collapsed after Tigray conducted unsanctioned elections last September. The election was disallowed and lawmakers in the capital slashed funding to the region. Tigrayan activists called for a federal tax boycott. On 4 November, the TPLF attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian military and seized military equipment.
The central government in effect declared war on the region. The UN has estimated more than two million people have been displaced since the conflict began; at least 60,000 have fled to Sudan. Compounding intra-Ethiopian tensions, Amhara regional security forces also deployed in Tigray. Then, in a highly problematic move (one not acknowledged at the time), the central government invited forces from neighbouring Eritrea to help re-impose control. In a continent jealous of state sovereignty, this presented the bizarre picture of a government outsourcing a war on its own citizens to a foreign army.
The perpetrators of the massacres are widely thought to be Eritreans. There has never been any love lost between long-serving Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, and the TPLF (ironically, Afwerki himself is a Tigrinya-speaker, as is the population of Tigray and about half the population of Eritrea). In 1998-2000, when TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s central government, the two countries waged a bloody border war that cost the lives of more than 70,000 people.
The current struggle in Tigray has been murderously exacerbated by Eritrean intervention, but is at root the continuation of a century-old struggle in Ethiopia over culture and identity, between hegemony and autonomy, empire and democracy, one which is now playing out between Abiy’s centralism, shaped in part by a new, centralist Prosperity Party, on the one hand, and a multiplicity of Ethiopian nations and nationalities on the other. Abiy may win the war (with or without the Eritreans) but not the peace.
In response to international criticism, on March 4, the government stated that the country’s Human Rights Commission was investigating allegations of atrocities and human rights abuses in Axum and elsewhere in Tigray. Further, the government finally admitted the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, although Abiy's recent statement that widespread rapes could be excused by the humiliation of Ethiopian military defeat, has provoked outrage.
The forthcoming investigation by the Human Rights Commission offers a glimmer of hope. Ethiopia must solve its problems through round table talks and the ballot box, not tanks and bullets, through giving its citizens, not foreign armies, a voice. This is not a matter of exonerating the TPLF, which also has blood on its hands from its own time in government. But then Abiy and leading figures in his government were themselves accomplices to many crimes from the days of EPDRF rule.
What should New Zealand do? In her first speech as foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta talked about how she wanted to build closer ties with Africa, where she said there is “great scope for mutually beneficial partnerships”. She stressed the importance of values serving as a “compass” for New Zealand foreign policy. Chief among those values was being a “champion for human rights".
It's great that Minister Mahuta tweeted a call for an end to human rights violations in Tigray a month ago. But New Zealand could do more.
New Zealand has an embassy in Addis Ababa accredited to both Ethiopia and the African Union. In 2013 and 2014 New Zealand lobbied African governments for support for its successful campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Now it must lobby again, calling on African governments to condemn the actions of the Abiy government, and to support calls for negotiation and accountability, not to be silent in the face of obliteration and denial.
The struggle is about the future of Ethiopia, the country at the heart of Africa. The state’s war against its own citizens must cease. All Ethiopians, of whatever ethnicity, faith, or region, must have a voice in that future. They deserve nothing less.
Nureddin Abdurahman is an Ethiopian of Oromo ethnicity. He has lived in New Zealand since 2008 and has a master’s degree in international relations from Victoria University of Wellington.