Ethiopia: 'The Unfolding Conflict in Ethiopia' - Rep. Smith's hearing statement on Ethiopian crisis

Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region cross the border into Hamdayet, Sudan.

Washington, DC — Excerpts of remarks by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) at a hearing of the House Africa Subcommittee on the crisis in Ethiopia held on December 3, 2020:

I’d like to thank Chairwoman Bass for once again convening a hearing on an extremely important topic–the unfolding conflict in Ethiopia, centered around the Tigray region, but one which impacts the entire country.

Indeed, it is my belief that Ethiopia is one of the two most strategically significant countries in Africa–Nigeria being the other one–and what happens there is amplified throughout the region.

And while I am hopeful that the Ethiopian government’s capturing of the regional Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, coupled with an announcement that the government will allow United Nations humanitarian assistance to flow in the region, signals an end to armed conflict, nonetheless my concern is that the fall of the capital marks simply the end to one stage of an armed civil conflict and signals the beginning of a protracted civil war characterized by guerilla tactics.  This concern is based in part on the history of the Tigray People Liberation Front, or TPLF, and the geography of the Tigray region and Ethiopia.

The TPLF, of course, came to rule all of Ethiopia following a successful guerrilla campaign against the Derg – a case of a Marxist-inspired movement overthrowing a Marxist government–in the early 1990s.  As guerillas, the TPLF used the highland terrain of Ethiopia, including Tigray, to their advantage.

During the years of TPLF rule, this subcommittee was at the forefront of raising concern about human rights abuses.  Following a critical hearing I chaired in the Spring of 2005, I traveled to Ethiopia and met Prime Minister Meles that August, as well as with human rights leaders.  I raised concerns directly with him, especially the egregiously flawed election and the killing of dissidents by his forces, and the next year introduced the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act.

Following the passing of Prime Minister Meles, domination by the TPLF continued, and this subcommittee held another critical hearing  on Ethiopia after Meles, and The Future of Democracy and Human Rights.  And it was a resolution which I introduced along with Chairwoman Bass, H. Res. 128, Supporting Respect for Human Rights and Encouraging Inclusive Governance in Ethiopia, that passed the House on April 10, 2018, which laid out milestones for a transition from rule by the TPLF.

Following Prime Minister Abiy’s ascension, Chairwoman Bass and I met with him in August 2018, and were encouraged by his words and actions, including the release of thousands of political prisoners.

The removal of the TPLF as the dominant power in Ethiopia, however, which had brought a reform-minded Prime Minister Abiy to leadership in 2018, also unleashed protracted jockeying between other ethnic groups, most notably the two largest, the Oromo and the Amhara, as well as intra-ethnic conflict.  Indeed, Prime Minister Abiy’s position among his own Oromo group is not solidified, and his pan-Ethiopian vision is being challenged by Oromo separatists, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, and a now-jailed firebrand, Jawar Mohammed.

These ethnic tensions are further exacerbated by a constitutional order bequeathed by the TPLF commonly called “ethnic federalism,” which has led to the pitting of one group against another and fueled regional separatism and the desire to “cleanse” regions of other ethnicities.

Though it may not be considered polite to discuss issues such as ethnicity and religion, one cannot understand the current crisis in Ethiopia without reference to the ethnic tensions which are often overlaid with religious ones. We in Congress must be careful, however, to not inadvertently stir up further ethnicity-based division by taking the side of one group over another, but rather, urge a path of reconciliation and negotiation which will likely lead to no one being fully satisfied, but will help reduce tensions.

Many individuals and groups can point to grievances, whether historical or ongoing, which are quite real.  The war in Tigray threatens to exacerbate an already severe humanitarian problem.

We have seen crisis upon crisis upon crisis beset Ethiopia in this year alone.  Not only did COVID impact Ethiopia, as it did so many countries, but on top of that there was a major locust plague which has created major food insecurity throughout Ethiopia, the Horn, East Africa and beyond.  And now, armed conflict.

There needs to be a time for justice and accountability, for the atrocities committed by all sides.  No matter what the exigent circumstances, civil liberties–which Prime Minister Abiy to his credit helped restore in 2018–cannot be curtailed indefinitely.

But first, we need to stop the bloodshed and address the humanitarian needs.  And the anti-ethnic violence and hateful rhetoric must end.

As Secretary Mike Pompeo related in his call with Prime Minister Abiy on November 30, there should be a complete end to the fighting and constructive dialogue to resolve the crisis.  He also stressed the need to protect civilians from further harm, including those fleeing the conflict crossing the border into Sudan, and respect for the human rights of all ethnic groups, including Tigrayans.

Fortunately, it looks like an agreement has been reached between the Ethiopian government and the United Nations to allow for “unimpeded” humanitarian access to areas of Tigray under government control.  I hope that at a minimum the basic needs of those who have been displaced in the fighting–which some estimate to be a million people–can now be addressed, even while political issues still remain to be resolved.

Ethiopia is a great country, a proud nation whose roots reach back to the Old Testament.  It retained its independence where others didn’t.  It is the seat of the African Union, and a world leader.  Its soldiers help keep peace in other countries in conflict, and its cultural and artistic influence is widespread.

It is therefore absolutely imperative that Ethiopia not succumb to internal division and ethnic hatred.  Ethiopia is far too important, not just for the Ethiopian people, but for the entire Horn and Africa as a whole.  It must overcome this year of crises, and return to being an example to be followed.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.  Thank you.

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