Within days of the Ethiopian parliament confirming incumbent Abiy Ahmed as prime minister for a second, five-year term, humanitarian organisations reported that Ethiopian troops had launched yet another wave of air and ground raids on Tigray rebels in the northern region of Amhara.
The bombardments seemed to reflect speculations about a major push by Ethiopian government forces against the rebels, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The two sides have been locked in a brutal conflict for nearly a year, pushing thousands of refugees into Sudan, displacing over two million people and leaving up to seven million in Tigray, Amhara and Afar in need of food and other emergency aid. This includes more than five million people in Tigray, where an estimated 400,000 people are “living in famine-like conditions,” according to UN officials. The UN humanitarian chief told the Associated Press last week that the situation in Ethiopia is a “stain on our conscience.”
In his inaugural speech on 4 October, Abiy vowed to “stand strong” and defend “Ethiopia’s honour” despite mounting international criticism of the conflict and alarm about the humanitarian crisis it has triggered. Only a handful of visiting African leaders – those from Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda and neighbouring Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and South Sudan – attended the inauguration, in which Abiy bristled at international pressure aimed at changing his confrontational and many would say arrogant policies.
Yet the misery on the ground and massive humanitarian suffering will not be solved with populist, defiant speeches. When the war broke out in November, Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, promised a swift victory as government forces quickly took control of Tigray’s cities and towns. However, only a few months later, the TPLF recaptured most of the region including the capital Mekele.
However, Abiy’s wars in Tigray and other Ethiopian regions are not the only challenges he needs to face. Due to his intransigent stands and refusal to listen even to nations and world organisations known to maintain friendly ties with Addis Ababa, Abiy is facing deteriorating ties with the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and African allies.
The ongoing dispute with Egypt and Sudan, reflecting Abiy’s insistence on disregarding the drastic damage the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will cause to their shares of the Nile waters, is one more example of how the Ethiopian prime minister seems to be triggering conflicts with historic neighbours in a bid to distract observers from his own internal difficult challenges.
During his visit to Cairo this week, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir revealed that Ethiopia would have started the GERD negotiations this month, but has so far delayed them due to the war in the Tigray region.
After meeting President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on Sunday, Kiir said the Ethiopian prime minister is not in a good position now to move forward despite all his capabilities, adding that Ethiopia is facing two problems with Egypt and Sudan in addition to its problem with the Tigray.
Yet, Egypt and Sudan should not be expected to continue waiting for Premier Abiy to solve his endless internal problems. President Al-Sisi reiterated in his talks with his South Sudanese counterpart the necessity of reaching a legally binding agreement on the operation and filing policies of the GERD. “Reaching a legally binding agreement on the GERD will boost stability in the region for all and will open new ways of cooperation between the Nile basin’s countries,” Sisi said.
The ongoing wave of fighting in Tigray, worsening humanitarian conditions, and the delay in restarting GERD talks are a further blow to Abiy’s international standing and a test to his new government from day one.
While preparations were underway to launch the new wave of fighting against Tigray rebels last week, Abiy’s government sparked global outrage when it expelled seven senior UN officials from Ethiopia for “meddling” in its affairs, exacerbating concerns about the humanitarian response in Tigray.
UN Chief Antonio Guterres was clearly shocked with the Ethiopian decision, which surpassed all measures nations in similar conflict situations have taken against UN officials. He added that Ethiopia had no right to expel UN staff and it was violating international law in doing so. Guterres confirmed that the UN “has only one agenda in Ethiopia, and that agenda is the people of Ethiopia – Tigrayans, Amharans, Afaris, Somalis, the people of Ethiopia.”
Similarly, a month ago, US President Joe Biden threatened to impose sanctions on Ethiopian officials and rebel leaders in Tigray unless they stopped fighting and opened up humanitarian access to the region. The US State Department also announced that access to essential supplies and services to refugees and the displaced was being denied by the Ethiopian government.
A senior Biden administration official warned in statements to The New York Times last week that if the conflict continues on its current trajectory, it could cause the collapse of Ethiopia, a country of over 110 million people, with “disastrous” consequences for the Horn of Africa region and beyond.
As he begins his second term, the Ethiopian leader can either reconsider his policies and cooperate with his country’s neighbours to solve their differences peacefully, or maintain his policy of responding to mounting international pressure with anger and defiance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly