Ethiopia's Crisis Needs Urgent Solution – Five Former U.S. Ambassadors Raise Alarm

A seven-month-old baby displaced with his mother due to conflict in Tigray eats a high energy biscuit to boost his nutrition levels.
24 February 2021
guest column

This statement was provided to AllAfrica by five former American ambassadors, all career diplomats, who led U.S. representation in Ethiopia for 13 of the past 25 years. They call for the United States to intensify efforts to address Ethiopia's conflicts and end humanitarian suffering in the Tigray region.

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Since early November 2020, the province of Tigray in the far north of Ethiopia has been at war with the federal government. Death, destruction, looting, and rapes continue to occur.

There are numerous, credible reports of human rights abuses. At least 65,000 residents of Tigray fled as refugees to neighboring Sudan and much larger numbers of Tigrayans are now internally displaced. At least until recently, Tigray was off limits to the domestic and international press and visits by humanitarian aid organizations are still circumscribed.

While information about the situation in Tigray is incomplete and sometimes conflicting, there are reliable reports from visiting UN officials and others that conditions are "extremely alarming." Some fields have reportedly been burned and food stocks, by all accounts, are in exceedingly short supply.

During a visit in early February to Mekelle, capital of Tigray, the executive director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, commended the central government and its partners for the emergency food that has reached 1.7 million people, adding, however, that another 2.5 to 3 million people in Tigray require emergency food assistance.

The office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on 24 February 2021 that 3.1 million people have received humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said that in his forty years of assistance work he had rarely seen "an aid response so impeded."

The situation has been exacerbated by the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray Region. Satellite photography clearly shows that two of the four Eritrean refugee camps that accommodated 95,000 Eritreans before the outbreak of conflict in Tigray have been destroyed, although it is not clear who is responsible for their destruction.

The most urgent requirement is unfettered access to Tigray Region by both domestic and international aid organizations. The European Union issued a statement in early February stating that "humanitarian access needs to be guaranteed and humanitarian assistance allowed to reach all affected areas and people in Tigray, and border areas of Afar and Amhara regions." While the World Food Program recently received permission to distribute food in the vicinity of Mekelle, it is not allowed in most of the rest of Tigray Region.

The next priority is the departure from Tigray of all Eritrean troops. The United Nations, in collaboration with the African Union, should request to oversee this departure, offer to mediate an end to the conflict in Tigray, and, if necessary, establish a formal peacekeeping operation.

The central government should restore internet access to Tigray and allow representatives of the Ethiopian media to visit and report what they find. The Prime Minister's office stated on 24 February that it has granted access to international journalists from seven media agencies. We look forward to their reporting; this should help to dispel any misinformation now coming out of Tigray.

There needs to be an independent investigation of all the allegations of human rights abuses that have occurred in Ethiopia in recent months. This includes the initial November 3 attack on the Northern Command, the numerous reports of attacks on Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia, the massacre of mostly Amhara last November at Mai-Kadra in western Tigray, the civilian atrocity in Axum, and the unrelated killing of minority ethnic group members in Beni Shangul Region.

The Ethiopian government says it is taking steps to do so; a UN Commission of Inquiry might be best placed to conduct these investigations. The results should be followed by serious efforts to assign accountability and bring justice.

While these efforts are underway, a process needs to be established whereby the Abiy Ahmed government, all opposition political groups (including leaders now in jail), and representatives of civil society gather to discuss how Ethiopia can move forward before the next elections. And the Abiy government needs to distinguish between the leadership of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which played the leading role in freeing Ethiopia in 1991 of the Marxist dictatorship, and its many followers. The organization may still have widespread support; alienation of the Tigrayan population would likely result in a long, brutal civil war.

Ethiopia has served as an anchor of stability in the volatile Horn of Africa and it needs to continue in this role as instability there risks wider regional conflicts. Addis Ababa has a long history of close relations with Washington and a large and successful diaspora in the United States.

It is in the interest of the United States to do everything possible to encourage an outcome that results in ending the conflict in Tigray, improving relations among Ethiopia's 85 different ethnic groups, and helping to ensure the unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state. From an American perspective, the balkanization of Ethiopia would be one of the worst possible outcomes.

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Hon. David H. Shinn
Ambassador: July 1996-August 1999

Hon. Tibor P. Nagy
Ambassador: August 1999-July 2002
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: July 2018-January 2021

Hon. Aurelia E. Brazeal
Ambassador: November 2002-September 2005

Hon. Vicki J. Huddleston
Chargé d'Affaires: September 2005-November 2006

Hon. Patricia M. Haslach
Ambassador: September 2013-August 2016

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