Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is set to form a new government, following a landslide victory for his Prosperity Party in the General Election. But the victory is bitter-sweet as he suffers a blot on his international stature over accusations of abetting atrocities in Tigray.
On Thursday, Abiy’s administration twisted the knife into the Tigrayan humanitarian crisis when it expelled key UN officials charged with co-ordinating aid to the displaced. His action was condemned by the UN and the US.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres defended the affected UN officials as law abiding diplomats.
“All UN humanitarian operations are guided by the core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. In Ethiopia, the UN is delivering lifesaving aid — including food, medicine, water and sanitation supplies — to people in desperate need," Mr Guterres said in a statement on Thursday evening.
“I have full confidence in the UN staff who are in Ethiopia doing this work,” he added.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “The US government condemns in the strongest possible terms the government of Ethiopia’s unprecedented action to expel the leadership of all of the UN organisations involved in ongoing humanitarian operations.”
By Thursday evening, Washington said it was engaging UN Security Council members and other international players “to make clear to the government of Ethiopia that impeding humanitarian operations and depriving your own citizens of the basic means of survival is unacceptable.”
Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti issued a statement indicating the seven officials were “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.”
But critics were quick to observe the coincidence between expulsion and the recent demands by UN agencies to have humanitarian corridors opened in Tigray where they warned people were “starving.”
The UN estimates that more than 500,000 people are in danger of starvation after UN trucks were impeded from delivering aid to Tigray.
“What is chilling and revealing about the UN officials' expulsion is that it comes when the UN and other aid agencies are needed most in most parts of Ethiopia, particularly Tigray, Afar and Amhara,” observed Ethiopian academic Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at European University Institute.
Mr Mufti said the seven officials, who had been involved in delivery of relief to those displaced in Tigray, “must leave the country within the next 72 hours,” without elaborating how the officials overstepped the borders.
They are Adele Khodr, the Unicef country representative for Ethiopia; Sonny Onyegbula, the monitoring, reporting and advocacy team leader for the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights; Kwesi Sansculotte, the peace and development advisor for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Others are Saeed Mohamoud Hersi, who has been serving as deputy head of Ethiopia office for UNOCHA, Grant Leaity, the deputy humanitarian co-ordinator for UNOCHA in Ethiopia, Ghada Eltahir Mudawi, acting deputy humanitarian co-ordinator for UNOCHA and Marcy Vigoda, a co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs.
At the same time, Ethiopia is being accused of using denial of food supply to the Tigray population as a war weapon against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), once a ruling party but which Addis has since declared a terrorist group.
At a virtual press conference earlier on Thursday, rights lobby Human Rights Watch called on the African Union and its member states to call on Ethiopia to “end the humanitarian blockade.”
Ethiopia’s decision came as US President Joe Biden’s two-week ultimatum to lay arms and choose dialogue neared an end, signalling imminent targeted sanctions on violators.
When he announced an executive order 10 days ago, Biden said those perpetrating violence or impeding humanitarian access will be sanctioned.
“The Ethiopian government’s actions, including the destruction of critical access routes as famine takes hold, are hampering efforts to keep civilians safe and deliver humanitarian assistance.
Humanitarians must be given unhindered access to provide lifesaving aid to all in need,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Ambassador to the UN.
“The Ethiopian government’s plan to expel UN leadership, including from UNICEF and UNOCHA is an affront to humanitarian principles.”
Ethiopia has been fighting what it calls fake news on Tigray conflict. In November last year, it declared a ‘law enforcement’ operation on the TPLF, which it accused of defying Addis Ababa to hold elections, when the rest of the country had postponed it, and later attacked a northern command of the national forces.
The operation has since turned into a full-blown humanitarian crisis as both sides are accused of atrocities, hundreds of thousands displaced and property worth $3 billion destroyed already.
Abiy who dissolved the former ruling coalition to form the Prosperity Party recently won most of the seats when elections were held, although his critics charge that he was a lone ranger having jailed his biggest opponents.
Facing a wave of critical portrayal, Addis Ababa had hired lobbyists in the US to push through its narrative. The humanitarian crisis appears to be undercutting that image cleaning bid.
On Thursday, Washington lobbyists Von Batten-Montague-York indicated they had prevailed on “key members of the Senate Foreign Committee that the expulsion of seven UN officials is Abiy directly interfering with humanitarian aid and attempting to prevent the discovery of facts relating to atrocities in Tigray.”