To anybody who has followed the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region over the past year, the recent statement by Australia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States is likely to be dismissed as representing nothing new. It was not the first time that this axis was issuing a statement, in which they expressed concern over the humanitarian crisis triggered by the conflict in northern Ethiopia.
Sadly, despite the grim reality on the ground, the seeming impotency of such statements and calls for dialogue have created a degree of cynicism that makes them appear designed for consumption by Western audiences. Although foreign meddling has been cited as a factor in the on-and-off clashes, foreign actors alone might not explain everything.
Ethiopia is dealing with legacy issues that the intermittent talks appear to be failing to address. It is no coincidence that the longest period of peace Ethiopia has enjoyed since the deposing of the monarchy came on the back of increased agricultural output and availability of food.
To break the current cycle of violence, solutions must help leaders conquer their fears, set an economic course that maximises the productive potential of the country and lay the foundations for a liberal and inclusive democracy.
A century of economic isolation detached Ethiopia from the global economy, triggering a rat-race, nepotism and repression. Isolation and internal competition also created deep internal mistrust and fear of external influences.
Often brandished as dire consequences for condemned behaviour, sanctions are normally a powerful tool for expressing international displeasure. Yet they tend to be indiscriminate, sometimes hurting the vulnerable people they are meant to protect. In a polarised environment, they can even fail to attain a minimum of target outcomes. The other challenge is that in Ethiopia’s case, they don’t speak to the core of the problem and might simply reinforce long-held fears about external intervention.
In Ethiopia’s case, sanctions can also worsen the economic crisis and the perception that outsiders are set on breaking up a nation with a long and proud heritage. The international community’s failure to speak to this reality and the West’s selective apportioning of blame has resulted in an ideological stalemate that needs to be deconstructed before meaningful progress can be made. Ethiopia can be saved but only if all actors are guided to think beyond the immediate, to see the big picture and embark on the sociopolitical reforms that give all citizens a sense of belonging.
Foreign players need to be part of the solution but what constitutes a foreign player needs to be redefined beyond Eritrean intervention. All proxies must break cover and show their true colours before they can be perceived as neutral to the conflict.
But mediators can only do so much. Blaming foreign forces also takes accountability away from local actors. The combatants need to own up to their role in the conflict as well as their power to end it and commit to its resolution. Above all, restraint and patience need to be exercised. It is unrealistic to expect quick wins but the door to dialogue must remain open.