Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual assault and violence
After many postponements, increased international backlash, and a catastrophic and ongoing genocidal war on the Tigray region the prime minister’s office elections were finally held in Ethiopia in June 2021. Abiy Ahmed Ali, the previous prime minister, was declared the winner of the elections and will begin his second five-year term as Prime Minister. It is crucial to understand and emphasize the distribution of political power throughout the Ethiopian population to comprehend the importance of these elections.
These elections occurred against the backdrop of inter-ethnic conflict and Ethiopia’s recent war in the Tigray region. The war has been receiving increasing international attention and all involved parties have faced condemnation for their human rights violations. This months-long conflict and the recent elections are especially relevant when considering the history of non-competitive elections in the country, where dissent is criminalized, and political arenas are closed off, further marginalizing many of Ethiopia’s minority ethnic populations.
Spheres of Influence had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Mukesh Kapila, currently a Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs professor at the University of Manchester. Dr. Kapila gained extensive experience and knowledge in conflict and security issues through his various roles in humanitarian affairs such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and the Undersecretary-General at the Red Cross. We are also very grateful for the insights and information provided by Jerusalem Girmay, the Chief Communications Officer of Omna Tigray, a non-profit organization that advocates for the human rights of Tigrayans as well as for the economic development of the region.
Background of the Conflict
Due to Ethiopia’s history of indirect colonialism, it is home to more than 78 native ethnic groups, with the Oromo being the largest and accounting for 35% of the country’s population. The Amharas are the second largest group, and the Tigrayans are one of the smallest, accounting for only 5% of the population. Throughout the nation’s history and its various regimes, the relationships between different ethnic groups can be described through similar factors: marginalization, violence, and hegemony.
Following the overthrow of Ethiopia’s military rule in 1991, various organizations, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), collaborated to create the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). This opened an opportunity for the country to become democratic and end the cycle of systemic oppression against different ethnic groups.
However, this progress was short-lived as the TPLF manipulated the electoral process, dismantled independent Oromo organizations, and seized power. The TPLF established a one-party system under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in which the electoral body and parties were separated by ethnicity, further creating a divide in the population.
The EPRDF continued to exert its power through arbitrary arrests and killings, and by rigging elections all the way till the 2000s. A close electoral success by the opposition in 2005 prompted the EPRDF to arrest “most of the major opposition political leaders” and send them into exile. The ruling party kept dissent at bay by restricting civil society and the promotion of human rights and democracy, as well as by controlling job opportunities and humanitarian assistance to serve only its party members. These measures ensured the EPRDF maintained a one-party authoritarian system all the way into 2019 and that the Tigray ethnic minority stayed in a privileged position of power within the government.
The Recent Political Conflict
As of December 26, 2019, the EPRDF ceased to exist and was replaced by the Prosperity Party (PP), with the appointment of a former EPRDF chair member, Abiy Ahmed Ali, as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. His efforts to “resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea” and release political prisoners earned him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. That Ali was internationally honored for his peace efforts is blatantly hypocritical considering his government has now joined forces with Eritrea in a war against Tigrayans, with many human rights groups calling it a genocide.
Abiy’s creation of the Prosperity Party to push for the dismantling of ethnic political factions and the consolidation of power backfired as it increased ethno-nationalism within the country and emphasized ethnic divides. Girmay explains that the TPLF had a different ideological view than Ali, instead with the goal of “seeking to maintain self-determination through the federalist system of government.” In fact, the TPLF was the only one out of the “EPRDF’s four constituent organizations [that] would not join the PP,” as the group claims they do not recognize Abiy to be a legitimate leader.
The root of this ongoing conflict between the PP and the TPLF seems to stem “largely from ideological differences between Abiy Ahmed and [them],” Girmay states. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general elections initially set for August of 2020 were postponed considerably. On July 10, 2021, Abiyi won the elections in a landslide victory, winning “410 out of the 436 contested seats in Ethiopia’s federal parliament.”
Girmay states this election “cannot be seriously considered free, fair, or legitimate” as Tigray was excluded from participating, and tens of thousands of political opposition members have been imprisoned. Additionally, “some of the larger opposition parties in the country withdrew their participation so as not to validate what surely [was] a fraudulent election.”
The decision to postpone the elections in the first place was controversial, and Tigray ‘illegally’ proceeded with its regional elections through the TPLF. Abiyi’s regime viewed this as a provocation and gave them a deadline to surrender. After this deadline was ignored, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki unleashed military forces onto the Tigray region leading over 2.2 million civilians to be displaced. Girmay explains that “Tigray now finds itself on the receiving end of a genocidal war with Eritrean forces heavily involved at the invitation of Abiy.”
War on Tigray
There are multiple reports of mass looting, gender-based violence, killings, famine, and other horrendous conditions being inflicted on Tigrayans. Statistics are alarming, with 91% of individuals in Tigray requiring emergency food and 100,000 children expected to die from malnutrition in the next 12 months. Girmay describes systematic looting of “food aid, hospitals, and health centers,” with 80% of health facilities being looted and destroyed and 99% of ambulances stolen, displaced to Eritrea, or wrecked. In addition, she explains that Eritrean troops in coordination with Ethiopian forces seem to be impeding “humanitarian access and blocking critical aid routes.”
The historical background and current conditions surrounding this conflict “demonstrate that what is happening in Tigray is clearly a genocide,” according to Girmay. By using the UN’s definition, “there is more than enough evidence to determine that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces intend to destroy Tigrayans in part both physically and psychologically.”
Girmay continues to describe other actions being inflicted on Tigrayan people: there have been “indiscriminate bombardment and house-to-house killings which have claimed over 70,000 civilian lives, mass rape and gang rape of women and girls (in the thousands), and the destruction of crops and weaponization of hunger to create starvation conditions.” Victims of these severe crimes, many of which are considered to be crimes against humanity, must immediately receive humanitarian aid both in the form of psychological aid and medical aid, something the militia is preventing today.
Girmay elaborates further: “the dehumanization campaign against Tigrayans implemented by members of the Ethiopian government and media for the past few years has ‘othered’ them and caused many Ethiopians to turn a blind eye to or even justify this genocide.” Dr. Kapila speaks on the topic of dehumanization in his TED Talk on “Courage or Cowardice.” He reiterates during our interview that it is a “well-established and well-practiced technique in previous crimes against humanity of massive nature.”
What can be done?
Upon hearing about the human rights violations that are occurring today, it may be confusing on how to help. Spreading the word so that this conflict can gain more international attention is one way to do it but is it enough? Despite growing condemnation and calls for action from the international community, little to no change has occurred. Girmay explains that “statements of condemnation regarding the ongoing atrocities in Tigray from the U.S., European Union, and UN bodies are welcome but are far from a sufficient response to what has the potential to become one of the most catastrophic humanitarian and human rights crises in modern history. . . International bodies such as the U.S., EU, and the UN should make clear that unless verifiable progress is made, parties attributed to atrocities will be targeted with sanctions, travel bans, etc., to apply more pressure.”
Kapila echoes Girmay’s argument: “spoken words are more effective if they’re accompanied by action.” However, there are many factors to consider, such as the actual ability of foreign powers to intervene and how to intervene effectively so as not to cause more harm. Even so, Kapila explains that “there is still a huge amount of value in speaking up, or by written words,” as it puts a mark on history.
Historically, crimes against humanity and egregious human rights abuses flourish in the darkness and “ […] under the cover of silence by others. Speaking up, even though it isn’t an effective immediate remedy, is extremely important because it provides a degree of protection and a degree of check on extremists.” From personal experience, Kapila explains that by having spoken to victims he understands that “there is nothing worse than dying, living, suffering torture, suffering sexual abuse. . . and then no one even acknowledging it, no one knowing it, no one even registering it. So the spoken word is extremely important; it brings hope.”
Kapila argues genocides have never been successful in completely achieving their aims but that the only thing that can be done now is to mitigate the effects of the violence and suffering being inflicted on people. By keeping track and shedding light on these situations, we as humans stray away from ignorance. Kapila reflects on this and explains that “in the past, many things happened in the silent darkness.”
“Today, we hear about everything. It doesn’t mean more things are happening than in the world of a few hundred years ago; it is just that we know more about them and we know them in much greater detail, and all that is a good thing. The more we hear about things, the gruesome details, the more we dwell in the darkest depths, the greater the chances that we are heading in the right direction. Because if we don’t do that, we will go even deeper into the darkness.”