Can Addis clear its human rights wrongs using Tigray rebellion?

Tuesday March 09 2021

Women mourn victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers in Dengolat village, North of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on February 26. PHOTO | AFP


Addis Ababa may be a victim of its own history, even as it walks the thin line between handling the Tigray crisis while fighting off pressure from international community.

And historians and political analysts who spoke to The EastAfrican this week say the crisis in Ethiopia’s northern region is very much a result of a mismanaged ethnic diversity in the country, rather than revenge attacks on the Tigray as some rights watchdogs have claimed.

What started as a law enforcement operation, according to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to tame the remnants of former ruling party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, has now become a humanitarian crisis.

Last week, Amnesty International published a damning report, accusing Eritrean troops of misusing a free hand given to them by Ethiopia, to rape, maim and kill civilians.

After speaking to 41 survivors and witnesses, AI reported that there had been extra-judicial executions, indiscriminate shelling and looting by both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.

“The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s director for East and Southern Africa.


Yemane Meskel, Eritrea’s Government Information Minister rejected the report as he accused the rights watchdog of interviewing TPLF members who had fled as refugees, saying, “Amnesty made absolutely no attempt to seek any information from Eritrea.”

Saving face

The problem though, argued Horn of Africa Researcher Rashid Abdi, is that Western governments may be issuing statements against Ethiopia to save their own face.

“As long as the world keeps issuing facile statements of concern and condemnation nothing will change in Tigray,” he argued on Tuesday.

“Let’s see some robust and coercive policy responses targeting senior regime figures in Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

Initially, the Trump government didn’t seem to have a problem with Eritrean troops in Ethiopia.

A diplomat at the African Union told The EastAfrican that Washington wanted a force that could help Ethiopia deal with the Tigray situation without a risk of falling apart. Eritrea was willing.

The Donald Trump Administration would later emphasise humanitarian response and protection of civilians, while leaving decisions on Addis Ababa. But the Joe Biden administration has brought in pressure on Ethiopia, seeking an independent investigation as well as departure of Eritreans.

On Tuesday night, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked PM Abiy to co-operate with international partners to determine veracity of claims, but asked that all militia and Eritrean troops to leave.

“Secretary Blinken also asked that Addis work with the international community to facilitate independent, international, and credible,” said Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson.

PM Abiy rejected US “interference,” saying while his government will take responsibility for security of citizens, it will not accept dictation.

Experts though think the pressure applied by the US and the EU may not be addressing the real problem, which is Ethiopia’s history of ethnic violence.

“Ethiopia, a multi-national country and the Tigray war is a result of mismanaged ethnic diversity. What we are witnessing is revenge against Tigrayans for excluding and marginalising other nationalities,” said a senior official at the African Union, wishing to speak anonymously due to sensitivity of the matter.

“The best history lesson is that the current political arrangement is supposed to be cure of past historical mistakes. The challenge is how to right a past wrong without destroying the nation,” the official added, referring to the country’s loose ethnic federation where some communities have active axes to grind against the TPLF.

Social revolution

Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Kenyan academic and political analyst who authored Ethnicity and Politics in the Horn of Africa says the rivalry between Tigrayans and Amharas has always meant a risk of violence.

Before Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Tigrayans hadn’t tasted power since 1880s when Emperor Yohannes IV, a Tigrayan, was killed in battle. But they have always been brutal in dealing with those who rebel, he told The EastAfrican.

“It is easier to resolve conflict between Tigray and Eritrea because of cultural connections, than Tigray with Amhara,” he said referring to presence of Amhara militia in Tigray.

“Prime Minister Abiy did a social revolution and even Amhara may never take power because they don’t see eye to eye with Tigray. If he left power today, an Oromo or Somali has a bigger chance of taking over than Amhara.  Some observers think a lethargic response by the West when Meles was accused of atrocities could be to blame.

“Ethiopia’s government cannot use 'pride', 'sovereignty' and 'independence' as a plea when it is in the dock of world opinion,” warned Dr Ahmed Hashi, a political analyst in Nairobi.