Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: From Nobel Peace Prize recipient to allegedly encouraging ethnic cleansing in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Image credits: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 13, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

TW: mentions executions, rape, and gender based violence.

The former Nobel Peace Prize winner has capitalised on pre-existing ethnic divisions and past conflicts in an attempt to crack down on anti-government protest and defiance in Tigray. In response to the alleged Tigrayan attack on government bases, Abiy has relied on neighbouring Amhara and Eritrean forces who, in an effort to avenge past grievances, have committed serious human rights violations.

When Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in 2018, he represented an end to the three-decade long Tigray dominance in central government. His liberal political reforms and ability to put an end to the long standing conflict with neighbouring Eritrea earned him international popularity and consequently a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But Tigrayans only viewed Abiy’s reforms as threatening to the democratic, federal political system that Tigray’s leading party, and Abiy’s ruling party’s predecessor, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had played a crucial role in establishing in the first place. Such skepticism was exacerbated in September 2020 when Abiy cancelled regional elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which Tigrayans defied and held their own regional elections anyway, illegally.

But the catalyst that brought the country into a serious civil conflict was the attack on government army bases, which Abiy alleges was conducted by Tigray to steal weapons. This event caused Abiy to mobilise federal forces and rely on militias from the neighbouring Amhara region as well as former-foe Eritrea, in response.

What started as, according to Abiy, a military confrontation against leaders of the TPLF, has actually turned on innocent, ethnic Irob civilians in the Tigray region, with credible reports of mass executions and gender-based violence surfacing.

Telecommunication blackouts and restricted movement of aid workers and journalists means that reports may have only scratched the surface of the true toll of the conflict. But what has been corroborated is already disturbing.

When operations began in October 2020, Amhara militias supporting federal forces entered western Tigray, a disputed area of land that Tigray claimed during its 30-year reign before Abiy came to power, and began to drive tens of thousands of Tigrayans from their homes eastwards. To date, around two million Tigrayans remain internally displaced in Ethiopia, and about 60,000 have fled to neighbouring Sudan.

Those that remain have had their identity cards, displaying their Tigrayan identity, burned and risk being raped or killed for speaking the local Tigrayan language. Thus, the offense aims to exterminate all Tigrayan existence, leading many to regard it to be a genocide.  

Despite Abiy’s denials, Eritrean armed forces have also been involved in the killing of Tigrayans. In March 2021, the UN’s Human Rights Office corroborated reports of mass killings in the Tigrayan towns of Axum and Dengelate from last November, for which Abiy’s Eritrean allies have been blamed. Eyewitnesses claim that Eritrean soldiers opened fire on hundreds of congregants celebrating mass at a church in Dengelate, and among those killed were priests, the elderly, entire families and school children as young as 14. Such events have resulted in economic sanctions placed on Eritrea by the EU for commiting what has amassed to crimes against humanity.

Because the TPLF were in power for 30 years before Abiy, during which Ethiopia was at war with Eritrea, it seems that Abiy’s prize-winning peace deal with Eritrean President, Afwerki, essentially gave Eritrean soldiers the green light to wage war against the TPLF, both Abiy and Efwerki’s mutual enemy. This alliance is important to consider because it was what earned Abiy a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Paradoxically, it has also come to be what has caused Abiy to be accused of being involved in the Tigrayan ethnic cleansing.

Additionally, Médecins sans Frontières, a humanitarian and medical NGO, have reported that most health facilities they have visited across Tigray have been looted, vandalised, and destroyed in a deliberate attack on healthcare, thus causing widespread endangerment especially given the current context of the pandemic. It is thought that nearly one million Tigrayans still remain without access to aid groups, and more than 400,000 are living in famine-like conditions.

Women have borne the brunt of the conflict between Abiy’s government and the TPLF horrifically. Hundreds of rape cases have been reported in clinics across Tigray, but the true figure is thought to be much higher than has been admitted. Wafia Said, Deputy UN Aid Coordinator, stated that women have admitted that they have been raped by armed actors, and they also told stories of “gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the treat of violence”.

Abiy has attempted to assure the international community that the civil conflict in Ethiopia is over since declaring a unilateral ceasefire in June. But recent reports have implied that Tigrayans are being ethnically targeted and thrown into make-shift concentration camps. The ceasefire  essentially enabled resurgent Tigray forces to recapture seized towns, including the Tigray capital, Mekelle. But it was following this advance that police in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, started to detain vast swathes of Tigrayans. Similarly, Amhara militias have reportedly conducted door-to-door searches in a campaign to exterminate ethnic Tigrayans in the western Tigrayan city of Humera. Hence, Abiy’s claims that Tigrayans have stopped being targeted and displaced is far from true.

The TPLF have fought back by crossing the border into Amhara and Afar provinces. This has brought a new phase to the conflict and elicited a counter offensive headed by Amhara forces against the TPLF, who they refer to as a “terrorist group”. Thus, Abiy and his government are increasingly facing pressure to intervene and put an end to the conflict. But despite it being Tigrayan civilians that have fallen victim to brutal human rights abuses, only the recent pushback from the TPLF has “[tested] the federal government’s patience and [pushed] it to change its defensive mood”.

Whilst there are many aspects of the conflict that remain unknown, what can be said is that Abiy’s international reputation as a democratic peace-maker is in grave jeopardy.