As a humanitarian crisis threatens to spiral out of control in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ignored the conflict to open a new highway in the south of the country.
Ahmed won huge praise and a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating peace agreements for long-standing conflicts against internal rebel forces in Ethiopia and against their neighbours Eritrea.
International praise of him has made way for criticism since the beginning of November however. His heavy-handed response to tensions with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has led to an outbreak of violence.
The last month has seen almost 1 million displaced Tigrayans, multiple reports of massacres, UN aid staffers being shot at and arrested and a reported increase in persecution of ethnic Tigrayans across Ethiopia. Gatekeeping of areas by government forces and the shutdown of internet and other communication forms has made accusations hard to verify.
Tensions started accelerating when the TPLF, who held power in Ethiopia for almost 30 years, claimed Abiy’s government to have outstayed its mandate after it postponed elections, citing the COVID pandemic.
Stability and unity hasn’t come easily to Ethiopian states in modern times. The mountainous landscape and ethnic disparities make state-building complex, whilst also having proved a valuable tool in the resistance to colonialism. The East African country proudly claims itself to be the only on the continent to have never been successfully colonised.
Abiy has used this rhetoric to reject attempts at humanitarian aid and independent investigations from international groups. Simultaneously, his actions over the last several weeks appear primarily concerned with foreign business. Some critics have remained sceptical of his initial intentions regarding the Tigray region, pointing to the increasing attention on the important industrial park being constructed in Mekelle.
This project is expected to be one of the main drivers of foreign investment to Ethiopia over the coming years. Government forces wasted little time in capturing the region from the TPLF and have claimed a cessation of hostilities since.
Abiy’s recent decision to travel to the opposite side of the country to present the new international highway connecting to Kenya whilst his forces engage in violence and fuel a refugee crisis is a hard pill to swallow for those who awarded him a Nobel Peace Prize only two years ago.
Awol Allo from the Keele University School of Law nominated him from the prize but now worries the country is heading towards “a total civil war that threatens to destabilize not only the country but also the broader Horn of Africa region.”
Mali Kakembo, is a member of the Welsh YCL