The Guardian view on Ethiopia’s war: from very bad to worse

Show caption New military recruits in Addis Ababa wave the Ethiopian flag. Photograph: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP/Getty Images Opinion The Guardian view on Ethiopia’s war: from very bad to worse Editorial Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has urged civilians to join the war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The nation needs peace Wed 11 Aug 2021 19.08 BST Share on Facebook

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Ceasefires are normally cause for hope, bringing respite and perhaps even peace, if not a full resolution. In Ethiopia there has been no such relief. Just as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel peace prize was soon followed by war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), so it seems that the ceasefire will be succeeded, as many had predicted, by an intensification of the conflict. On Tuesday, Mr Abiy urged all eligible civilians to join the war.

Nine months of conflict have resulted in thousands of deaths, created tens of thousands of refugees, and led to famine conditions for hundreds of thousands. They have seen war crimes committed by all parties, including massacres of civilians and widespread sexual violence; a report by Amnesty International alleges the systematic rape and abuse of women and girls by forces belonging or allied to the Ethiopian government. The prospect of an escalation is truly frightening.

The TPLF dominated politics in Ethiopia for decades before Mr Abiy’s rise. A political dispute – in which the regional Tigray leadership and federal government declared each other illegitimate – turned into a military struggle when Mr Abiy said he was launching a strike on the TPLF because it had attacked a federal army base. He expected a swift victory. But in June, Tigrayan forces recaptured the regional capital, Mekelle. The federal government unilaterally declared a ceasefire and withdrew troops from most of the region, but aid and services remained blocked, and a spokesman recently declared that the Tigrayan leadership would be driven “out of each and every city”. Humanitarian supplies have only just been allowed in. Electricity and communications have yet to be restored.

For its part, the TPLF has carried the war east into neighbouring Afar (where it may hope to cut off a key trade route) and south into the Amhara region, and is refusing to withdraw. It says it is reclaiming Tigrayan land which Amhara forces occupied when the federal government launched its attack, but it may also hope to open up a supply line from Sudan. TPLF-aligned forces and Tigrayan militias have also been accused of attacks on Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia; Eritrean government forces have fought for Mr Abiy.

If the human toll were not sufficient, this conflict threatens to tear the country apart. Tigray’s leadership is determined to restore the region’s prewar boundaries, while Amhara forces will not cede their claim to the land they seized. The TPLF also needs to reestablish external supply lines – which the federal government cannot afford them to have – and wants to oust Mr Abiy. But the prime minister has just won a landslide victory in elections (albeit with a partial opposition boycott and without voting in some areas), and the TPLF’s actions may bolster his support. At the same time, the conduct of pro-government troops has galvanised previously apolitical Tigrayans into backing the TPLF; many now see this as a fight for survival and feel independence is their only prospect of living in peace. The conflict is hitting external relations too; Sudan has withdrawn its ambassador.

As the situation threatens to deteriorate further, international pressure on all parties is essential. Ensuring the unhindered flow of humanitarian supplies and seeking a real ceasefire must be the priorities. It is hard to see how a proper deal can be reached when neither side appears to want it. But Ethiopia, and the region, desperately need one.

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