BY REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D-CALIF.)
The year-long civil war in Ethiopia has created a humanitarian catastrophe that will worsen if the war continues. Since hostilities between the breakaway Tigray providence in northern Ethiopia led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government erupted last November, thousands of civilians have died, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and many now face starvation. According to the United Nations, over 400,000 people are now living in famine-like conditions in the Tigray region, where more than 90 percent of the residents need aid.
How is it that Ethiopia has descended into this tragic war when just three years ago Abiy Ahmed became prime minister? He ended the 25-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea, received the Nobel Peace Prize, set a date for a national election, and formed a Cabinet representing the multi-ethnic population of Ethiopia. While the international community heaped praise on Abiy, the Tigray faction lead by the TPLF recognized that their 30-year control of Ethiopia was at risk of ending.
The competitive election set for 2020 was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and finally took place in the summer of 2021. Despite immense challenges and the absence of the participation of the breakaway region of Tigray, the election was a clear win for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party. By most accounts the election did represent the popular will of the Ethiopian people.
On Nov. 4, 2020 the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian National Defense Forces base located in Tigray. The Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa counter attacked in an effort to regain control of Tigray. Eritrea entered the war from the north. The fighting raged on with horrible and inexcusable civilian deaths, rapes, communities destroyed, famine, and refugees fleeing the region. The international community correctly condemned all factions for their atrocities.
On June 28, 2021, the Ethiopian government announced a cease-fire in an attempt to begin negotiations. The TPLF responded by broadening the war into Amhara and Afar regions, and ominously threatening to march south and attack Addis Ababa.
The war and the humanitarian disaster have profound implications for the stability of the entire Horn of Africa — a region of utmost importance for the African continent and the United States. Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa, with strategic geographic importance and a growing economy. Ethiopia’s stability is critical to the region. The war has exposed ethnic and communal fissures across Ethiopia. If the conflict continues, it could catapult the country into a broader civil war with even greater humanitarian consequences. This outcome would be disastrous for the region and create long-lasting global security challenges. Terrorist organizations such as al-Shabab and ISIS affiliates would certainly exploit the chaos in Ethiopia.
The international community has rightly criticized the well-documented human rights abuses committed by all sides and should not turn a blind eye to any atrocities by any of the parties. Yet, a collapse of the elected government in Addis will not serve anyone’s interest. The United States should be mindful of this fact as it contemplates using sanctions and other coercive tools against the Ethiopian government to force an end to the conflict. Likewise, Prime Minister Abiy should recognize that the United States cannot and should not tolerate any humanitarian abuses and the U.S. stands ready to resume its close partnership with the Ethiopian government when the conflict is over.
However, to date, all participants in this conflict — the Ethiopian government, the TPLF, and Eritrea — have not taken necessary steps to end the violence and ease the humanitarian crisis. Rather, their positions appear to be hardening, with the trend lines pointing to an intensified conflict and even greater humanitarian disaster. A clear-eyed review of the war should inform all parties that an effort to achieve a military victory will not succeed, because either side will retreat into a guerrilla war.
Urgent step-by-step measures are required to prevent further deaths. Here are the immediate steps.
- Medical and food aid must be allowed into Tigray and other areas affected by the war. To accomplish this, the UN and international community must assemble the necessary supplies and trucks to transport the medicine and food. Ethiopia must open the checkpoints and TPLF must allow the aid to be properly distributed and the trucks allowed to return. To date, too few shipments have been made and the few trucks that are able to deliver aid are often confiscated by the TPLF for use in their military.
- The Africa Union, with the support of the international community, should expand and accelerate its efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. The United States and other governments should support this effort.
- The Ethiopian government and the TPLF must commit to meaningful negotiations.
- The Ethiopian government should offer a cease-fire if the TPLF renounces any attempt to overthrow the elected Ethiopian government, and the TPLF begins to withdraw its troops from the Afar and Amhara regions that they invaded in July.
There is no easy end to this war. But there are ways for the sides to de-escalate and to avert a worse humanitarian calamity. If the conflict continues its current course, Ethiopia could face extensive famine and a nation-wide civil war. The famine in the 1980s left 1.2 million Ethiopians dead, and without bold action, we may yet again be confronted with this unimaginable horror.
John Garamendi is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Who Served in Ethiopia from 1966-1968 and the current Representative for California’s 3rd District