ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Widespread conflict in Ethiopia that has driven tens of thousands of refugees from their homes, killed hundreds — possibly thousands — and dragged in neighbouring countries is prompting questions in Europe about whether to hold back tens of millions of euros in aid to the country.
On Tuesday, Europe’s crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarčič will fly to Ethiopia where he hopes to convince the country’s Peace Minister, Muferiat Kamil, to end a weeks-old blockade for international aid organizations to Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. He will then fly to Sudan on Wednesday where he will meet Sudanese government officials before visiting refugees in Kassala and Gedarif states on Thursday. Sudan is a temporary home for approximately 45,000 refugees who have fled the conflict.
“I wish to urge the Ethiopian authorities one more time to enable full and unrestricted access of humanitarian workers and humanitarian aid to all areas affected by fighting,” Lenarčič told POLITICO on Monday, recalling that Ethiopia hosts the second largest refugee population in Africa. “I intend to raise this issue with the Ethiopian Minister for Peace whom I hope to meet in Addis Ababa en route to Sudan.”
For its part, Ethiopia’s government rejects any suggestion that the security crackdown was illegitimate or that it should be financially punished. “My message to friends of #Ethiopia is that we may be poor but we are not a country that will negotiate our sovereignty. Threatening Ethiopia for coins will not work,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted on Monday.
Following months of political tension, the conflict in Ethiopia began on November 4 when Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, declared war on the dissident leadership of Tigray, accusing them of attacking a military base. The eruption of violence came after roughly two years of growing tensions between the government and the country’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who ran Ethiopia for almost three decades.
What was supposed to be a quick, clinical affair targeting what the government has described as a corrupt criminal clique has turned into a sprawling conflict with thousands of deaths, according to several foreign diplomats, and rockets fired across international borders.
Both sides have been accused of committing war crimes. Reports that scores of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia have been abducted led the U.N.’s refugee agency to raise the prospect of “major violations of international norms” in the country. And last week, two Eritrean refugees were killed and four others seriously injured when fighting broke out close to a camp in northern Tigray, according to two senior U.N. officials and a humanitarian worker briefed on the incident.
Some warn the death toll could be much higher than has been reported. One diplomat based in the capital Addis Ababa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had received reports of “a horrific smell” in the hills behind Alamata town south of the regional capital Mekelle where truck-loads of Amhara militia have joined government forces to fight Tigrayan forces. The International Committee for the Red Cross has reported massive shortages of medical supplies in hospitals in the region.
“The situation in Tigray is analogous to the one in post-Saddam Iraq with members of the armed forces going into opposition after being purged,” said Dan Connell, a visiting researcher specializing in Ethiopia and Eritrea at Boston University. “It’s an understandable move at some levels, but extremely dangerous and it is coming back to haunt Abiy.”
The Ethiopian government says it has begun targeting aid to areas of the Tigray region it controls. “Regarding the next step of the government, it is made clear that rehabilitation and reconstruction works have already started, displaced people are being returned to their villages and administrations in all levels are being restored,” said Ayele Lire Jijamo, minister plenipotentiary at the Ethiopian embassy to Belgium.
Still, apart from the risk that violence spreads to other parts of Ethiopia, Abiy’s personal reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate has taken a battering with the Nobel Committee taking the rare step of publicly expressing deep concern and calling on all parties to “end the escalating violence.”
Europe’s mediation role has been elevated due to the political void in the U.S. as a new administration prepares to take office. Last week, Commissioner Lenarčič met with Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen in Brussels, telling him the conflict in Ethiopia could no longer be considered as an internal affair as Abiy has continuously asserted, according to an EU official present in the room. The commissioner said that the risk the conflict could destabilise the entire region coupled with the risk Ethiopia could break international humanitarian law meant the conflict had taken on an international significance.
The EU has provided Ethiopia with €815 million for the 2014-2020 budgetary period, plus more than €400 million from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, and senior officials in Brussels hope to use the EU’s financial weight as leverage to de-escalate the conflict.
One EU official said a political decision would be made in the coming weeks on whether or not Addis Ababa should continue to qualify for budgetary support from Brussels. “We are keen to have a common EU position on this,” the official said. “There will be consultation between the capitals and there could be a decision to stop budgetary support.”
Last week the European Parliament raised the prospect of implementing “individual targeted measures,” including sanctions, should human rights abuses be uncovered.
Ethiopia’s international partners are unlikely to withdraw their assistance completely, but they will probably take some concrete measures to demonstrate their concerns about the government’s hard-handed response to the situation in Tigray, including its impact on civilian populations, say analysts.
For Brussels, the political transition in Washington cannot come soon enough to help share the diplomatic load. “One of the larger problems, is that, like the Middle East, the United States is not playing a helpful role,” said Connell at Boston University. “That will change in January. And perhaps the conflict will not be over until then.”