Ethnic polarisation in Ethiopia raises serious concerns

Newly appointed US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman returned from his first trip to the region on Thursday, where he visited Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia
Sunday 16/05/2021
Sudan’s prime minister Abdalla Hamdok (R) meets with the US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman (C-R) in the capital Khartoum on May 9, 2021. (AFP)
Sudan’s prime minister Abdalla Hamdok (R) meets with the US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman (C-R) in the capital Khartoum on May 9, 2021. (AFP)

WASHINGTON--The United States is deeply concerned about increasing political and ethnic polarisation throughout Ethiopia, the US State Department said on Friday, adding that Washington will work with allies to secure a ceasefire in the Tigray region, provide assistance and hold human rights abusers accountable.

Newly appointed US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman returned from his first trip to the region on Thursday, where he visited Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.

On Friday, Ethiopia’s army said that a large group of fighters, allegedly members of the former ruling party of the conflict-torn Tigray region, had been “destroyed” attempting to enter the country from neighbouring Sudan.

Brigadier General Tesfaye Ayalew told the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate on Friday that a force of some 320 had tried to enter Ethiopia via the town of Humera in northern Tigray.

“Some of them perished by thirst on the road, a portion was captured, and those who refused to surrender were destroyed by the army,” he said.

Tigray was plunged into conflict in November last year when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the country’s politics for decades.

While he promised a brief military campaign, fighting continues with no end in sight, with evidence of massacres, brutal sexual violence and fears of humanitarian catastrophe.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled into neighbouring Sudan, with whom Ethiopia is locked in multiple disputes over a contentious border zone, and the construction of a massive hydro-electric project on the Blue Nile.

The longer the military campaign goes on, the more probable that instability will spread within Ethiopia and beyond its borders.

 Unacceptable atrocities 

Ethiopia says it is committed to investigating human rights violations and both countries have promised a withdrawal of Eritrean troops.

“The atrocities being perpetrated in Tigray and the scale of the humanitarian emergency are unacceptable,” the State Department said in a statement, adding that Feltman underscored to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki the imperative that Eritrean troops withdraw from Ethiopia immediately.

“The crisis in Tigray is also symptomatic of a broader set of national challenges that have imperilled meaningful reforms,” the statement said.

The office of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The government’s efforts to crush the TPLF rebellion have unleashed an ethnic witch hunt across the country, according to an investigation this month, which found Tigrayans have been arrested, harassed, sacked or suspended from their jobs, or had their bank accounts temporarily frozen.

Feltman discussed with Abiy and other Ethiopian leaders the need for “an inclusive effort to build national consensus on the country’s future that is based on respect for the human and political rights of all Ethiopians,” the State Department said.

 Aid blockades 

The European Union on Friday condemned the ongoing blocking of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region and warned that those responsible would be “held to account”.

“The reality on the ground shows that blockades by military forces are severely impeding the ability for assistance to reach rural areas, where the humanitarian crisis is at the worst level,” a statement from foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic said.

“At least 5.2 million people out of 5.7 million in Tigray are in need of emergency food assistance. According to the UN, only about 12 percent of the three million people in need of emergency shelter and non-food items have been reached since 3 May.”

The statement said “the use of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war is a grave violation of international humanitarian law and is putting at risk the lives of millions of people.”

“Those responsible for deliberately preventing timely access will be held to account,” it concluded.