Ethiopia’s Looming Catastrophe

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed erred disastrously last November in launching a war against his own people in the northern Tigray region. He has a chance to reverse his mistake, and he needs to seize it.  

From the moment Abiy sent federal troops into Tigray, vowing to arrest local leaders who’d defied his authority, it was clear the region would not be easily subdued. Fighters from Eritrea and the neighboring Amhara region joined in the offensive, raping, looting and killing. The ranks of Tigrayan insurgents swelled. Last week a successful counterattack drove Abiy to withdraw his forces and declare a unilateral, two-month cease-fire.

Tigray now faces a looming humanitarian disaster. According to the United Nations, 70% of the region’s population desperately needs food aid. The U.S. puts the number even higher and estimates that close to a million Tigrayans face famine. The government has allegedly cut off electricity, internet and telecommunication links to the area, while Amhara fighters are accused of blowing up a bridge crucial to delivering aid. Humanitarian organizations are trying to fly in supplies.

Ethiopia’s leader won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a long-running conflict with Eritrea. He’s seen his reputation shredded and risks losing control over much of his fractious country. Allowing hundreds of thousands of his countrymen to starve in full view of the world is unlikely to improve his standing.

Abiy should direct his officials to restore power and communications to Tigray, repair transport links, and accelerate — not obstruct — the delivery of food aid. Otherwise, the U.S. and other countries should promise to block future financial support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Abiy and Tigrayan leaders must also agree to talk. Abiy’s foreign minister suggested the government should bypass commanders from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and deal only with “rank-and-file TPLF members who show readiness to choose a peaceful path.” That won’t work. The TPLF should focus its own efforts on preventing famine, not pondering secession and vowing to retake territory seized by Eritrea and Amhara militias. Both sides should allow independent investigations of atrocities committed during the fighting.

Conceivably, cooperation could start a process of reconciliation beyond Tigray. Abiy’s expected victory in recent elections is marred by the suspension of voting in several areas and arrest of opposition leaders. Political frustrations are fueling support for insurgent movements. Abiy can’t hold his sprawling country together by force. Distracting Ethiopians by stoking tensions with Sudan and Egypt risks another conflict the country can ill afford.

A national dialogue will be required to rebalance the powers of Ethiopia’s federal and regional authorities. This should begin with an amnesty that gives opposition leaders a seat at the table. Abiy’s decision to release thousands of political prisoners and legalize opposition groups contributed to his Nobel win. Ethiopia’s leader knew how to reconcile with supposed enemies once. He should strive to do so again.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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