Ethiopia: Give Peace a Chance

A map showing the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

All the warnings to reduce tensions over the last two years are for naught now that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has declared war on the government of Tigray Regional State. Experts and observers, however, note the uncertain nature of war and its ability to injure the economy and the youth, writes FASIKA TADESSE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Senait Mekonnen, a 40-year-old mother of one, suddenly woke up in the middle of the night last Tuesday. She reached for her phone like many who keep it nearby when they sleep. But unlike other nights, the notification she saw jarred her wide awake -- a portal was breaking news on a war that had broken out in the country.

The federal government had launched an offensive against the government of Tigray Regional State, one of the 10 regional states in the country and where Senait's lone daughter works as a medical intern. Senait, who rents out an apartment complex for a living, ran to open her television to confirm what she read.

"The Prime Minister was giving a statement," said Senait. "I felt like the world had flipped upside down."

Though tensions had been escalating between the two factions in the past few months, nothing could have prepared her for this shocking news.

"People go to unstable parts to learn and work in the country all the time," she said. "We never thought it would get to this level."

When her daughter had left to pursue studying medicine seven years ago, Tigray Regional State was one of the most stable ones. She was now in her final year, working at Aider Comprehensive General Hospital in Meqelle, mere months away from graduation.

Communication lines in the region had been shut off, leaving Senait with no means to get in touch with her daughter. But her worry was abated when the lines briefly opened the following day. She managed to talk to her daughter in that gap.

"She told me that she was okay and that civilians were unharmed," said Senait. "I would've been in the hospital by now if she hadn't called me then."

The conversation was brief, but it calmed Senait, who has yet to hear from her daughter since then. She says she has left it all to God now and is praying for a peaceful outcome.

"There are mothers on every side of this," she said. "We need to pray so that our eyes are opened."

The latest war has also left Gonko Yilkal, a father of nine leading life as a farmer in the town of Soroka in North Gonder Zone of Amhara Regional State, in anxiety.

Last Tuesday was a casual day for Gonko, if not a bit tiresome. Since the harvesting season is approaching, he spent the day with his neighbours at their farm. After a long day, he went to bed early. However, he woke up around midnight when a deadly explosion shattered the area.

"I was in a deep sleep," he said. "I thought I was in a dream."

Continuous gunfire followed the huge blast. He then went out of his house, joining his neighbours who were figuring out what was happening in the area.

"I was told that the soldiers from Tigray Regional State had attacked a military base located close to our village," he told Fortune.

The area was completely turned into a battlefield, according to Gonko, who said that bullets started to rain down. The residents of the area started to vacate their family members and livestock.

Gonko sent his nine kids, wife and livestock to a small town in Central Gonder named Ashere. After making sure his family have safely left the area, he fled to another nearby place called Maksegno Gebeya the next morning.

The Ethiopian National Defence Force arrived in the area at Wednesday midday, according to him.

"Before the army arrived, enraged youth marched to defend against the attack, carrying their Kalashnikovs," said Gonko. "We suspect many youth from the area might have died since none have returned to the village. We're in the dark about their situation."

At the end of last week, the situation in the area seemed to be stable, but there are tensions and fears. No activity is taking place, and most of the residents did not return to the village, fearing that there might be another attack.

The war erupted between the federal government and the Tigray Regional State government almost two decades after the country went through armed conflict with Eritrea. The unfortunate two-year bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that was caused by a border dispute had left bitter memories including the loss of thousands of lives, the displacement of a large number of people, and a devastating impact on the two countries' economies.

The Tigray Regional State government and the administration of Prime Minister Abiy have become embroiled in war just two years after Ethiopia and Eritrea restored peace, albeit no one is certain yet about the areas of the two governments' approach. The rapprochement granted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) a Nobel Peace Prize.

One year after winning the award, the Nobel laureate stepped up and ordered Defence Forces to engage militarily with forces in Tigray Regional State after the latter allegedly took control of artillery and military equipment of Northern Command stationed in the region.

"The red line has been crossed," wrote the Prime Minister on his social media accounts.

Before the latest incident that led the two governments to seek war, a series of developments escalated the standoff. The formation of Prosperity Party after the merger of three constituent parties that made up the former EPRDF coalition, the House of Federation's vote to postpone general elections despite a protest from TPLF legislators, the Tigray regional elections, and the upper House's vote in nullifying the Tigray regional election are among them.

TPLF's decision to pull out its representatives in the central government, the House of Federation's order to cut budget subsidies to Tigray Regional Council, and the Tigray regional government blocking the posting by the federal government of a brigadier general to army units in the northern region are among the latest factors leading the two sides to fail to see eye to eye and jump into war.

Communication lines, including the internet and power to the Regional State, have now been cut. Ethiopian Airlines has also suspended flights, and Ethiopian Civil Aviation has fully closed airspace over the Regional State. It is difficult to tell what is happening on the ground since both sides are pushing their own narrative, and there was barely any information coming from Tigray.

"We shouldn't be stricken by the weapons in Tigray," said Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), chairperson of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and president of Tigray Regional State, "rather we must defend ourselves using these weapons."

Last week, the parliament approved legislation that launched a six-month state of emergency in the Regional State. The State of Emergency Taskforce, which is chaired by the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, was also formed with the mandate of reporting to the Prime Minister.

The Taskforce imposed a curfew from 8:00pm to 6:00am, put restrictions on movement in the Regional State, and outlawed organised demonstrations and meetings, as well as holding guns and ammunition in the Regional State.

In calling four retired generals back to duty -- Bacha Debele, Yohannes G. Meskel, Abebaw Tadesse and Alemshet Degefe -- the Prime Minister also announced that the military carried out a round of airstrikes against regional security forces. He also claimed that the operation destroyed rockets and other heavy artillery.

Despite the calls of different governments and international institutions for the de-escalation of tensions by both sides and the urging of amicable resolutions, the House of Federation convened for an emergency meeting on Saturday morning and approved the federal government's intervention in Tigray Regional State and the formation of a transitional administration that will appoint new officials, hold elections and execute orders from the federal government.

There was a good opportunity to solve the differences through dialogue, according to political science experts like Kassahun Berhanu (PhD).

"This was a crucial step," he said. "But it takes two to tango, and now that opportunity has been wasted. The attacks on the defence base that took place on Tuesday night are illegal and as such, necessitate legal accountability."

"Criminal elements cannot escape the rule of law under the guise of seeking reconciliation and a call for dialogue," tweeted Abiy. "Our operation aims to end the impunity that has prevailed for far too long."

Tigray Regional State's government has also stated that it had a desire and dream to resolve the present issues through peace and dialogue.

"Even though the road to peace has been blocked by the defiant terrorizing and warmongering dictatorial unitary group," reads the statement from the Tigray Communications Affairs Bureau, "we're calling again for the enforcement of peace... there's not another better alternative!"

Things have already been bad this year, but now they are getting worse. Desert locusts have covered huge tracts of farmland, violence and instability arise constantly here and there in the country, and the economy is battling to keep its head above water in the pandemic's aftermath.

The impacts of war are far-reaching and long-lasting, according to Wasyhun Belay, an independent senior economic consultant. One lesson we can draw from the Ethio-Eritrean War was that it comes with a hefty price tag, according to him.

"[That war] was mainly funded through printing money," he added. "War is a huge operation, and it requires money for the vehicles, aircraft and ammunition that will be deployed. The longer the war lasts, the more resources it will require."

Printing money has its own repercussions for inflation, but the other alternative of reshuffling resources from project capital is not much better, according to the expert.

Other consequences can be drawn from the restrictions in mobility that war presupposes, he said. If people are not moving, they are not spending, he explained, citing the example of school closures and its impact on the spending curbed by 30 million students staying home.

"Another major consequence of war is the destruction of infrastructure," he said. "In a country where it takes a long time to finish projects, rebuilding will be tough."

Studies have shown that countries like Syria, who have been destroyed by war, will need another 50 years to get back to square one, according to him.

"Countries like Germany have made impressive recoveries, but this doesn't apply to Ethiopia," he said.

Young people, who are so often at the forefront of war, are an essential part of the labour force of the country, according to the expert, who added that the impact here would reach further to the families they had left behind.

"Investments will also be discouraged," said Wasyhun. "Who would be willing to invest in a place that is witnessing continuous destruction?"

He stated that the sense of insecurity that war creates would dash public confidence resulting in the hoarding of goods, insolvency, and cash withdrawals from banks, among other things. This is nothing to say of the precious human lives that will be lost and the psychological trauma that will linger for decades to come.

Gonko is already traumatised.

"I want this thing to be over soon," he said. "We need to harvest before the crops are damaged."

(MAYA MISIKIR has contributed to this story).

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