Ethiopia Stands on the Cusp of Civil War
Ethiopia is facing a humanitarian crisis after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the country’s federal government fell out. In the past two weeks, hundreds of people from Tigray have been killed and over 30,000 people forced to flee their homes to the neighbouring Sudan. Sudan has now closed its borders, only letting in refugees, which puts Ethiopian citizens that wanted to flee due to the fighting that escalated in November in more trouble and dire need of humanitarian.
The TPLF is an armed outfit which controls the Northern Region of Ethiopia called Tigray, one of the countries breakaway provinces that has up to six million people. Trouble began to brew in September 2020 when TPLF held a regional election which Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said was illegitimate – he accuses TPLF for holding power illegally. The federal government had issued a postponement of the August 2020 election due to COVID-19 pandemic but Tigray region, in September, went ahead with its elections, in defiance of the government’s orders. The friction heightened on Wednesday, November 4 when Abiy accused TPLF of attacking Ethiopian Military base. “The TPLF old guards have continued to mount both covert and overt attempts to undermine the people of Ethiopia in our new administration,” Abiy said in his public address on the matter.
On Saturday, November 14, Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael did not make the situation better after confirming that his forces fired missiles targeted at an Airport in Asmara, the capital city of the neighbouring Eritrea. Debretsion claimed Ethiopia was using the airport to attack Tigray territory. Asked if Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia was also a target of the missiles, Debtretsion refused to rule out the claim. “I don’t want to tell you, but the missiles are long range as well,” he responded.
The current situation in Ethiopia is not what the citizens and neighbouring East African countries expected at this moment. Two years ago, in April 2018, when Abiy took over power after TPLF political domination in over two decades, there was hope for a peaceful Ethiopia. The country had experienced unending anti-government protests, economic troubles and widespread unrest. According to the United Nations, at least one million people were internally displaced in 2017 as a result of protests from Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who together make up nearly two-thirds of the Ethiopian population. However, when Abiy was elected in 2018, many Ethiopians saw in him a reformer and a unifying leader who would avert the worst of the country’s longstanding problems. It all began well, two months after he became prime minister in April 2018, he lifted the state of emergency in June and released thousands of political prisoners, including journalists and key opposition leaders such as Eskinder Nega and Merera Gudina from lengthy detentions. Under Abiy’s leadership, the federal Attorney General’s Office dropped all pending charges against bloggers, journalists and diaspora-based media organisations, including the Zone 9 bloggers, Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and Oromia Media Network (OMN). The media houses had been accused of incitement to violence courtesy of their criticism of the government. Abiy’s peace agenda continued on a right footing as the PM went ahead to successfully broker peace with Eritrea’s President Isaias Aferwerki ending decades of bloodshed.
Abiy’s efforts in ending the feud with Eritrea never went unnoticed by the world, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The peace deal saw Abiy’s friendship with Aferwerki grow but on the flip side, Tigray territory felt the prime minister’s reform agenda had sidelined them and their resolve was to defy Ethiopia’s leadership. Besides the deaths and displacement of people, internet and phone link services have been cut in the Tigray region. Basic human rights and freedoms for the citizens and the media have been severely compromised even as an end to the fighting looks to be far away, at least for now. This is because the United Nations (UN) has offered to reconcile the two factions but Abiy has rejected international efforts to quell the fighting, for reasons well known to him. And while the situation is volatile and uncertainty looming, freedom of expression, civil liberties and due process are at risk because of the ongoing militarism and repression. Reports of abuses and acts of violence against journalists, independent media, human right defenders and perceived opposition political activists are emerging to be widespread – a reminiscence of the last three decades where freedom of expression remained severely restricted, with frequent threats, arbitrary arrests and long detentions of journalists. Ethiopia’s apparatus of civil liberties including media censorship, appear to be back and tainting Abiy’s reform agenda. On Friday, November 20, Addis Standard, one of Ethiopia’s credible media houses reported that the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA) had cancelled the license of Reuters Correspondent in the country. EBA also stated that it had issued warning letters to BBC and German’s DW, accusing the media houses of false and biased reporting on current affairs to mislead the world with an intention to cause international pressure on Ethiopia. EBA was categorical that similar actions would continue. This is a similar action that was meted on Kenyan Journalist Collins Juma Osemo, alias Yassin Juma in 2009 when the Ethiopian government tried to compel private media house NTV to stop airing a documentary about Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The OLF was dubbed a terrorism group by the Ethiopian government then. Yassin Juma who was in 2010 detained in Ethiopia for over 49 days, was in 2009 banned from Ethiopia for ten years over the four part documentary titled Inside Rebel Territory: Oromo Liberation Front. “I was banned for ten years over the documentary. On my return recently, I was arrested and charged with several serious crimes. The prosecution sought extended detentions for me and spent over 40 days in jail,” he said in an exclusive interview. He told this writer that he was accused of killing a police officer, planning assassination of a party of political party, blocking the body of musician Hachalu Hundessa who was shot in Addis Ababa from being buried, and planning protests in Addis. “Arbitrary arrest have resurfaced in the last few weeks. In the last two weeks about four journalists. It is worse during this state of emergency season. If you see Reuters has been banned and BBC and DW warned it has gotten serious,” Yassin said. According to the reporter who also plies his trade in Mogadishu, expressed a different opinion with EBA saying that the international media had portrayed high levels standards in covering the stalemate. “If you follow up on how international media have been covering this story you will find out they are very professional and basing on facts. It’s only that that some of the issues reported are rubbing the administration the wrong way,” he opined.
On Saturday, November 7 police arrested Medihane Ekubamichael, product editor at Addis Standard publication accusing him of attempting to dismantle the constitution. He was released after uproar by his media house, human rights activists and social media users. Since imposing a state of emergency in the Tigray region internet and telephone networks, media stations have been shut down and bridges connecting regional Capital Mekelle destroyed. Whether or not the unfolding events escalate into a civil war, it will leave an indelible mark on Ethiopian political reform agenda that had seen the country open up to avalanche of changes institutionally and sector specific. Ethiopia was on its way to reform its legal apparatus that for decades had chilling effect of civil liberties and freedom of expression. Among the laws that were being amended to conform with the international human rights standards included the anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the Criminal Code, the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation of 2009, Ethiopia Broadcasting Authority law, criminal defamation statute and the provisions shielding public officials from criticism. Surveillance on dissidents, use of anti-terrorism laws, intimidation and administrative coercion such as limiting advertising revenues, restricting access to information, maintaining high costs for printing, blocking websites and social media platforms as well as complete internet shutdown had been relaxed since Abiy rose to power. Many blog sites and websites that previously managed by Ethiopians in the diaspora had been allowed to operate. The country’s broadcasting and telecommunications sectors that were once exclusively dominated by the state, and the minimal private media sector heavily regulated and frequently censored, had begun to thrive again. While the state’s tightly controlled media, and the few surviving private media self-censored their coverage of politically sensitive issues for fear of being shut down for decades, under the prime minister, they were getting bold and independent. According to the World Press Freedom ranking, Ethiopia moved up from position 110 in 2019 to 99 place in 2020 according to Reporters without Borders -RSF. Despite this significant improvement, abuses and acts of violence against journalists, independent media, human right defenders and perceived opposition political activists have become sever severe in the on-going flare ups in northern Tigray region.
The future for the promised new Ethiopia is now uncertain flowing the deeply polarised country. The hopes for a democratic transition is crushing very fast unless the international community intervenes.
Michael Ollinga is a Kenyan journalist coordinating local journalism desk at TUKO.co.ke and former Correspondent at Standard Group PLC.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.