Ethiopia: How to Build Peace in Ethiopia - 'We Need to Be Brave ... Look at Our Past, And Engage With It Honestly'

11 August 2021

Welcome to allAfrica's Silencing The Guns series where we focus on peacebuilding on the continent. I am Mantsadi Sepheka from allAfrica and today our focus is Ethiopia.
Fisseha Tekle is a researcher for Amnesty International and Zelalem Teferra, Senior legal officer of the African Court on Human and People's Rights are with us today. I'd like to welcome you both and thank you for taking the time to be here with us. As we sit here, Ethiopia is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, as the delivery of much-needed aid to the Tigray region remains extremely challenging, after months of conflicts threatening food security, water, and shelter.
Ethiopia's federal government has been at war with the main Tigrayan political group, the Tigray in the People's Liberation Front, since November 2020 and there hasn't been much peace since.

So Zelalem, just to set the scene, what would you say is driving the war between the Liberation Front and Ethiopian government forces?

Thank you for having me. good morning to everyone. The main reasons I would say for this conflict, are two, one ideological, second unrectified past impunity. When I say ideological, there are groups that want to see a country where there is a kind of autonomous administration, strong, regional government, like a sort of Confederation. And there are groups that wanted to see a more strong government, the central government, and there is a disagreement on that point, ideologically. One, focusing more on ethnic identity, another focusing more on national Ethiopian identity. And the second one is past impunity, as we know, the regional government of Tigray was in power for 27 years driving the seat of the federal government. And many people claim that it was a fact it was reported by many international human rights organisations that there were atrocities, there were oppressive acts and practices, and massive corruption. So there are grievances. There is that impunity, which has never been put to accountability. And if we see the entire context, it could be assessed from these two ideological and past historical grievances. Of course, some of the grievances could go back to centuries, some people in the Tigrayan Liberation Front trace the origin of their grievances back to maybe 100 years. But I think the immediate causes are recent ideological differences, as well as some recent grievances, which come from, say 27 years of rule of the Tigrayan Liberation Front.

You are listening to the allAfrica silencing of the guns podcast series on peacebuilding on the continent. And we are in conversation with Amnesty International's Fisseha Tekle and Senior Legal Officer of the African Court of Human and People's Rights, Zelalem Teferra on the conflict in Ethiopia.

Fisseha let me come to you now, do you believe the recent elections won by Prime Minister Abbey Ahmed, and the ceasefire that followed, which of course, the TPLF have labelled as a joke will do much to help restore peace in the region?

I mean, one of the trigger points for the Tigray conflict was also the disagreement over the conduct of the general elections, which was supposed to happen last year.

But which didn't take place, allegedly for a number of reasons, including the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason. Well, the election was conducted and despite all the expectations that the election will be highly contested, that didn't happen. We have not seen major, major security issues around the election, as the election was able to be conducted in many of the places except Tigray and as a conflict and tension areas in parts of Oromia, some parts of Amhara, and the whole of the Somali region, I think there is a plan to conduct the election in those parts in September, the first week of September, the national election board is preparing itself to hold elections, in those placed. And the ruling party has won the election.

But we have to know the context in which the election was conducted whether there is a major issue is to the Tigray conflict. But in general, there was generally a number of grievances in political tensions in different parts of the country. For instance, there is Oromo Liberation Army, which is operating in Oromia, especially western and southern parts of Oromia and also there are tensions in parts of the Southern region, about autonomy, issues that are not yet resolved around ethnic identity, so this has affected the election, because in some of the places the election did not take place, because of all these uncertainties and insecurity. The same thing in Somalia, the Somali region, the election was not able to take place because of some grievances, especially with grievance issues both those issues in that Afar region. So even if the election was completed successfully without major events in terms of security or unrest, that doesn't mean that it has dealt with underlying problems, which are still outstanding. So what we can see is, well, it's good that the election was peacefully concluded and that is how it should be and as an encouragement for the government to deal with this, underlined and addressed these problems, which are affecting the situation in the country, the political situation is not still good in Ethiopia, there are tensions in different parts of the country.

I mean, there is vertical and horizontal violence in many parts of the country. So the government needs to sit down next agenda should be about issuing security and stopping human rights violations by any actors in different parts of the country. It can be horizontal violence, that means communal violence between different communities, or armed groups, or violations by the government security forces, but they need to be stopped, there needs to be a proper investigation and as our experts from the African Commission has said, that injustice that has piled up for centuries in Ethiopia, potentially for centuries, but from what I know, for decades in Ethiopia needs to be dealt with the grievances that have been simmering, and none of the governments came to power in the last 50 years, they didn't properly deal with them. So if we are committed to making the future of the country peaceful, we need to deal with them head-on without putting them under the rug, that was what they were doing for the last five, six decades. So that should stop, and we need to deal with them honestly and transparently.

Here's a question for the both of you Zelalem, you can start. What challenges have you experienced as peacebuilders while doing your work in the region, especially since sometimes there's a lack of information coming out of Ethiopia?

The main challenges to peacebuilding in Ethiopia is the ethnic polarisation, the moment people know from where you come from then they already form opinions towards you and what you're going to say. So the ethnic polarisation is a big obstacle. In Ethiopia, perception is not just perception, perception itself is a fact. Perception is taken as the truth. So if I know that Takle belongs to a particular ethnic group, it's just immediately I would expect a certain point of view from him and I would foreclose the opportunity for any dialogue. So that is a big obstacle that we are facing. The second one is lack of sympathy. We all have grievances, we all have pains to be heard, grievances to be heard. But since all of us have pains, we always talk about our own pains without showing any sort of sympathy towards the pain of others, Lack of sympathy will result in an automatic dismissal of the other side? like not to give an opportunity for a discussion platform because yeah, no, no, no, I am also, you know, I have my own pain. So you ignore the pains of others. So the fact that people haven't been trained to consider what would it be like if I were in someone's or in the enemy's footsteps that is putting more and more challenges to the discussion, dialogue, and reconciliation. We have to see this from a historical point of view. In Ethiopia, we have a very complex history, even to the extent that one doesn't feel the sense of belongingness to the national identity, another belonging strongly feeling attached to the Ethiopian identity. There is a history of oppression, there is a history of marginalisation. Some of this had ethnic elements, religious elements so the fact that the history itself is very complex, and we haven't reconciled ourselves to the past, is a big challenge to make any strides in building peace in the country.

Fisseha, your point of view on your challenges?

As Zelalem has said, ethnic polarisation is the biggest hurdle and that's why we need to have a conversation in Ethiopia, because we have reached at a point where people are not talking to each other as a person but as ethnic identity. So people see ethnic identity as the communication is defined by that. And just to add to that, what we can also say is that the weaponization of human rights is also a big, big, big problem slated to this. But it's not only from an ethnic point of view, ethnic group point of view, but also from a government institutions, you can see that the government is jumping on any opportunity to accuse others of human rights violations, but rejecting allegations of human rights violations by government or by government entities. So it's a human rights is so weaponized, that it lost its merit. I mean, human rights is supposed to bring together all because it's about humanity. It's not about political views. It's not about ethnicity of the person or the victim or the perpetrator. It's about humanity, but that humanity is now being exploited. To the extent that like, they are weaponizing, to blame the other and to reject one's own failure in terms of human rights. That's one thing but also in terms of communication.

The facility is also a problem, like be the government, especially, is using phones, I mean, telecommunication facilities as a riot control tools. That has happened in in Oromia. Last year, there was a riot and uprising and unrest in Oromia, following the killing of artists Hachalu Hundessa and immediately they closed internet and all form of communication. The same thing in other places where there was unrest or riots, that's was happening and it has history and actually the history of Ethiopia shutting down internet communication goes back to 2014 to 2015 whenever there is a resistance to the government, they switch off all the social media platforms, they block access to internet, they block Facebook or things like that so that is making our work very difficult. And, like verifying allegations of human rights violations, the unrest is becoming very challenging. And that's the same thing which has happened also on the 4th of November, conflict broke and the first victim is the internet for communication and it has remained so spontaneous.

And it was very difficult for us to investigate the Human Rights situations and without investigating them, you cannot think of peace, because people have grievances, the truth has to come out, they cannot talk about negotiate without addressing some serious issues, sexual and gender based violence mass has happened in Tigray and while we are trying to cover it up, how can people really reconcile facts without telling the truth. So, in addition to all this distrust, which has piled up among different communities, we can tell that the government's use of media and telecom facilities is not very helpful for reconciliation and peace.

You are listening to the all Africa silencing of the guns podcast series on peacebuilding on the continent and we are in conversation with Amnesty International's Fisseha Tekle and Senior Legal officer of the African Court on Human and People's Rights' Zelalem Teferra on the conflict in Ethiopia.

Let's move on to the matter of justice, accountability, and truth as a pillar for peacebuilding in Ethiopia. Fisseha, again to you, can you talk us through your thoughts on this?

Thank you. I mean, this is a very important issue. I mean, if we want to really address the growing unrest and conflict in Ethiopia, I think it is time to look back on our history openly because there are so many grievances. And as Zelalem has said already, they might date back to centuries, if not at least one century, if not more. So those grievances need to be addressed and shutting them out is not going to help. I mean, we had a number of opportunities in Ethiopia to address those problems. After the toppling of the Emperor in 1970s. There was an opportunity, but we didn't use that opportunity, rather, the governments, the Derg government, the military governments that took power, have added a pile of other human rights violations like the Red Terror, war crimes have committed, and also after 17 years of rule by Derg ( the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987),  the EPRDF came to power in 1991. That they didn't use that opportunity to address the root cause of violence. Instead what they have unrolled was victor's justice. So just prosecuted some of the high officials of the deck even if grievances are more than that, and the same thing and they stayed in power for close to 28 years, 27 years, and now the Prime Minister and his government has come to power through popular analysts that stayed for more than three years. But what came out of that process is unsatisfactory.

There was no roadmap, there was no strategy to address these underlying problems of Ethiopia, the government established very weak institutions. And they were established without proper consultation and participation of the people. And they have not delivered anything in terms of reconciliation to rules and accountability. For me what is driving all this violent, conflict in Ethiopia is rampant impunity, which has been there for years. And when there is impunity, widespread impunity, people lose hope, and lose confidence in the government. So they take justice to their hands. And that's what's happening. So, like for the last 70 years, border issues, or ethnic identity issues were being addressed.

The existing mechanisms were not used to solve them, for instance, like the problem of what guides Oromo or in Amhara regions, like just people who are claiming that this one belongs to here, or it should belong to Amhara they were there for the last 30 years. But the government has opted to put it to kind of brushed them off instead of raising them in a very transparent way. So now that they're exploding, and that means they're taking lives. People are losing lives because of that because we have not addressed our past, the issue of language, the issue of equality. So we need to ensure proper accountability. We need to come to terms with our past, we need to have a source in a manner that can bring all the Ethiopians to feel that they are Ethiopians because some Ethiopians from some parts of the country feel that they are not equal citizens of Ethiopia, because what happened to them have never been acknowledged in a proper way. So truth, accountability and reconciliation is a way forward for Ethiopia,

But Zelalem to continue with the theme of justice, to what degree have media and people's rights being infringed upon? I mean, I saw a recent report that more journalists were detained in the Afar region. So just to confirmation on that, and to just to follow on to that question.

Let me go back to what my brother was speaking on. In relation to this communication, the government has been putting restrictions on internet and communication facilities. I agree that we need communication facilities, because, as I say, one of the main challenges in Ethiopia is the lack of a platform for people to discuss, to have dialogue. So to have communication facilities is very, very important. At the same time, we should also see the role of media, in building peace in the country. Honestly, if you ask me, social media has been distracting, in the Ethiopian political landscape, like hate speech is openly spread, fake news is openly spread and how can you build a nation? How can you create trust? Because trust is actually the most important ingredient that we have missing in our communications? How do you build that trust, if fake news is the rule, rather than the exception? So for example, last year, I think it was in July when Hachalu was assassinated.

Still, we don't, we don't know, I think, last month, the accused was convicted of murder. But at that time, I recall that social media was used to preach hate speech, a call for genocide, and the government was forced to shut down. And honestly, that was an appropriate measure that they took, I support that not because I want the internet to be shut down. But nothing is bigger than the well-being of the society, nothing is bigger than the existence of the state. So I think we should see it in light of the prevailing context, in Ethiopia, it has been a very serious challenge, really, it's fracturing all century-old ties, social fabrics, social media is playing a very, very negative role. So we should see it, but then we have to come to the issue of accountability we need, we need to have accountability, we need to have truth and reconciliation. That is what has been missing. And for that, the government has a role to play. Individuals, citizens have a role to play. civil societies have a role to play, everyone has a role to play. And of course, the international community also has a role to play. But what we have seen is that the international community is not well informed.

For example, the recent position of the United States is creating anti-U.S. sentiment in Ethiopia, at least in some parts of the country, because some people are saying our pains are not being heard. You're just having a one-sided story. And that is true, whether what people are saying is true or not, that is something else but people's grievances have to be heard. And any policy for any foreign state or an international community takes or any position it adopts should be should taking into account the different voices in the country. So I think we need we need to play our part. Each of us, citizens or government, opposition figures and we have to especially Ethiopians, we have to realise that at least we have to learn from our recent past that no ethnic group, no ethnic group, no religious group will prosper while its neighbour is starving, while its neighbour is impoverished, we need to create that awareness and use the media to create that our future is intertwined. Our destinies are intertwined, we will swim or sink together. And we have to use the media to create this awareness.

Earlier this month, the EU's foreign policy Chief Joseph Burrell urged member states to consider imposing sanctions over the crisis in Tigray, Fisseha, is this helpful for the mission of peacebuilding in the region?

I think the imposed sanctions are their standards because they also have responsibility. In terms of, like, if they are providing aid of financial support for any party who is involved in human rights violations, they might be implicated in that, whether it is going to affect so this or that, that might be an issue that, I would like to look at it from a human rights perspective, because if the state's funds are going to be used in a conflict, that's something they have to be concerned about whether that will kind of hardened government position or its constituency. That's a political judgment to make not as a human rights organisation, but one thing which I will also try and stress out is that access to the internet or communication is a human right and any restriction on human rights like rights, especially right to when we come to freedom of expression, ethical access to information, it needs to follow the rules, there are rules for that, it is the necessary and due process should be followed according to the law of the state. So, any arbitrary closure of the internet may not be may not be necessarily in line with human rights standards. So, it might be some misuse of power or many, which can be many like we have seen that in Ethiopia. So it has to be proportionate. It has to be according to the law, in Ethiopia today, no law governs how the government will address the issue of internet, internet closure access, and things like that. So that is that arbitrary closure is not acceptable by any means.

Egypt's call to the UN Security Council to push for Ethiopia to enter into a binding agreement over the filling and operation of Ethiopia's dam on the Blue Nile. To what extent is this particular issue hampering, peacebuilding efforts?

I mean, unfortunately, the conflict in Tigray is happening simultaneously with other geographic concepts, including support and dispute with Sudan on the alpha shack. So I mean, the geographic, Eastern Africa, the horn of Africa, it is full of tensions and some of these are going to play into the resolution of the conflict into the peace and all those things. But from what I know these might complicate things but we cannot speculate how that GERD issue is going to be resolved. But anyone involved with it should not relate to the Ethiopian human rights situation, they need to settle it according to the processes they have already established. And I think the security council has referred back to the meeting platform to handle the situation. And I think that's the right decision. That's just not something that comes to me not as Amnesty International.

Zelalem, would you like to add your thoughts to that?

Yes, yes. Let me speak on, I think the previous issue on EU sanctions, and I'll come back to the Egypt and Ethiopia disagreements on this GERD issues, the renaissance dam, as we call it. Regarding EU sanctions, it's my personal opinion and by the way, I want to make a disclaimer, I am here on my behalf not on my organization's behalf. So it's my personal opinion. And it doesn't necessarily reflect the opinion of my organisation. So regarding EU sanctions, I think they are misinformed. If you ask me, honestly, because sanctions generally I don't favour sanctions for the reasons that sanctions at the end of the day, cause harm to ordinary citizens, ordinary people, not people in power. We have seen it. In Iran, we have seen it everywhere where it was imposed. So I don't think the EU and the Americans are following the right path, accordingly, taking a constructive role in resolving conflicts or conflict in Ethiopia, by putting sanctions because these sanctions are targeting the government and the government will be pressurized in many ways. And that doesn't necessarily mean that the government will facilitate the peacebuilding process. And now, the context is very bad for all developing countries and the entire world because of the corona.

You know, governments are very stretched, economic resources are scarce. And you, in addition to that, you put sanctions, and I don't think that they will have any positive effect in encouraging peace, at least that's my personal view. So they need to reconsider. And maybe, I don't know, they might not want to give the money directly to the government but maybe use it as a mechanisms to make sure that citizens on the ground are supported, instead of suspending any aid, that they were bringing to the nation. And this is this the sanction issue at least by many Ethiopians, it is now being perceived as not something attached to the human rights situation in Tigray or elsewhere, but it's relating to the GERD negotiations, a dam negotiation. Many Ethiopians are saying that actually, the Europeans and the Americans are not concerned through the concern about human rights, they are concerned about the dam rather.

And yes, when you see it, maybe it has some truth, because the previous administration of Trump that had a clearly biased position against Ethiopia, we recall that Trump said that the Egyptians could even bomb it, bomb the dam. And that, yeah, it was open it's just, it's out there for anyone to see, so many Ethiopians have felt that the west is betraying them, because Ethiopia and the west have been strong allies for I think, over a century. And that relationship is just being side-lined for, to put pressure on Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement concerning the dam. So from many Ethiopian's points of view, to now, all sanctions even, despite the fact that there is a serious humanitarian crisis not on Tigray but everywhere in Ethiopia and by the way, I would like to note that the humanitarian crisis is not only limited to Tigray, of course, Tigray has been the major spotlight, the major epicenter of the humanitarian crisis.

But you see, you see it when you go to Amhara region, there are hundreds of thousands who have been dislocated their homes. You go to Afar, even recently, over the last two last weeks or two weeks thousands have been displaced as a result of the conflict. So there is a humanitarian crisis everywhere, and not to mention the crisis in the south because of inter-communal fighting. So, despite the fact that there is this humanitarian crisis in almost every part of the country, people fear that the current policy of the U.S. and the European Union is more focused not on humanitarian crisis, but the dam issue, because almost in every press release, addressing Ethiopia, they have touched upon the issue of the dam, the message that people get is that these people are not concerned about the humanitarian situation, and their policies are misguided. And their main focus main target is the dam.

So that is how the people are currently perceiving the dam situation. But if you ask me how the dam issue should be resolved, because we are Africans, and I believe that Egyptians are also Africans, we have the African Union, we have our common organization, we have our common platform, and just running to the European Union or to the U.S., in order to resolve an African problem is an insult to our dignity as, as people, African people, and the African Union, the African Union has its platform, it has been trying to resolve the conflict, we need to have good faint from all sides of Ethiopia, Ethiopia has an Ethiopian I don't want to see any Egyptian start, while Ethiopians, you know, enjoying electricity or anything. And Egyptians also should understand that Ethiopians should not continue to live in poverty while they are having like 100% electricity. So we need we need to Africanise the conflict is the solution. The more we internationalize it, the more we put the dam issue as a security issue. It will just complicate it will be a generational conflict. And we should avoid that.

Well, you do make a very good point on that column. So we are reaching the end of our time. And before we go, I'd like to ask you both a final question, what needs to be done to resolve the prevailing crisis? We can start with Zelalem.

Well, as I said, we should understand, first of all, to understand any crisis, we need to understand it, you know, we need to understand what it is it we need to understand its complexities. So, we need to know the underlining causes. And second, we need to create a platform for dialogue. What we are missing in Ethiopia is dialogue, open dialogue, sometimes we need to have blunt discussions if necessary, you know, like you, if you fight, if you are brother, there is no way that you can separate, I don't know if Tigray wanted to separate or to get independence, it cannot go to another planet, it will remain a close neighbour, If one group wants to form its own independent countries, it is still there it will remain at least geographically very close to the other. So since our destinies are very intertwined, we need to have a dialogue to find our modest living, you know, how to coexist, how to live together, despite our differences. So we need to have that that dialogue platform and the international community is, as I said, it's somehow fuelling conflict. So we need to have partners, international partners to create trust. As I said previously, the main problem in Ethiopia is trust, lack of trust. So maybe international actors would assist Ethiopia, Ethiopians to create trust, to promote trust, instead of like bias policies or misinformed one-sided misguided policies.

So I think that if we have international actors which are impartial, which focus more on bringing the different actors together to discuss, we will have a positive outcome. And finally, I think we need to have institutions that are what we are missing in Ethiopia. Even if the government sometimes wanted to enforce certain policies, an institution is not there. We have not built them, we need to have the courage to build good institutions. Currently, we have the Ethiopian Huma Rights Commission which is doing very well compared to the previous human rights commission, the courts in my opinion are doing well, the election board was also good. We see some positive developments in building institutions but this is not true for every organ of the government or every institution, so we need assistance in that regard, the nation needs assistance from international actors. If we combine all of them, I think we can build peace.

Fisseha, your thoughts?

What we need to enphasis is that we might have disagreements but there should be willingness to resolve them instead of going after people who disagree with us or labelling others just because we disagree and also means to people who tell us the truth or the version of the truth even if the truth is not comfortable for us that is missing in Ethiopia not only among individuals but to our institutions, the government is not happy when human rights organisations tell them you have done this and you should rectify it and instead of focusing on the recommendations, they focus on these allegations like this is a western organisation, neoliberals, the people refuse to say that neoliberation, now the government is saying this person is from Tigray, this organisation was supported by TPLF so instead of engaging with the message we always focus on the messenger and that is not the right approach. Listening to the person, their views is very important. There is also this paranoia that the international community's agenda is in Tigray.

Tigray has over 100 million people, the mess will always be a problem for the international community if Ethiopia fails they don't want to deal with that, any failed state is a problem for the whole world. You know that happened in Yemen, that happened in Somalia, Somalians have learned and have taken the lesson we might not agree with the efforts but I do not think that one to disintegrate because these 100 million people are going to be a burden for the whole of other governments and we have seen that with those countries that disintegrated with 30 million or 20 million but kind of problems are created in terms of security , finances and environment, we need to evaluate that and we need to engage with will people in good faith.

The African Commission has established the commission of inquiry to follow on administration in Tigray but the government has rejected that commission of inquiry so there is no willingness to even engage with these mechanisms on entities that are involved in this process  they just weaponize if the commission comes up with anything that can blame army group which is fighting in Tigray.
They will be happy to accept that but since the commission is going to be impartial and hopefully it is going to bring out human rights foundations but those parts, that kind of collaboration is not extended to the commission, its an African mechanism, it was established by following the rules and procedures of the human and people's rights but the government is not willing to listen to that.

So all that kind of readiness has to be there, we need to appreciate that the African Commission is investing in that if we need peace and prosperity to come to the country and I think we have to be open for dialogue, we need to be brave to look at our past and engage with it honestly instead on blaming it on these individuals, entities or anyone. Thank you.

Thank you Fisseha, you do make a very valuable point of political will playing a big role in trying to bring about peace in Ethiopia.

You’ve been listening to the AllAfrica Silencing of the Guns series on Peacebuilding on the continent and we were in conversation with Amnesty International’s Fisseha Tekle and Senior Legal Officer of the African court on Human and Peoples’ Rights Zelalem Teferra on the conflict in Ethiopia.

Thank you to our experts for taking the time to elaborate on issues in Ethiopia and what is being done through peacebuilding.

AllAfrica is grateful to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for supporting our reporting on peacebuilding in Africa.

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