Day 6·Q&A

Ethiopian PM bears responsibility for escalating conflict in the country, says academic

A year-long war in Ethiopia has escalated in recent weeks with government forces going door-to-door, arresting ethnic Tigrayans. Lecturer Awol Allo says that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed bears the blame for the conflict, which has displaced thousands.

Lecturer Awol Allo says he now regrets nominating Abiy Ahmed for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his work negotiating a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea. (Mulugeta Ayene/The Associated Press)

As Ethiopians face a worsening armed conflict in their country, it's the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister who bears the blame, says an academic who nominated him for the award.

The year-long war has escalated in recent weeks with government forces going door-to-door, arresting ethnic Tigrayans. The UN reported Tuesday that 16 staff and their dependents were also detained in the country's capital, Addis Ababa.

The conflict stems from tensions between the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the federal government. With Tigrayan forces closing in on the capital, it has the potential to take down the government or even sink the country into civil war. Both sides have been accused of human rights violations.

Following the release of a joint investigation by the UN and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission that faulted all parties in the conflict, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said the war was marked by "extreme brutality."

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who rose to prominence in 2019 for his work brokering a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea and helping to restore freedoms, declared a state of emergency earlier this month and encouraged civilians to take up arms to defend the capital. 

In a speech from the military headquarters a day later, Abiy said: "We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again."

A police officer stands guard during a pro-government rally on Nov. 7. The rally organizers denounced the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and claimed that western countries are interfering in the internal affairs of the country. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Samuel Getachew, an Ethiopian Canadian journalist covering the conflict, told The Current that the situation is wearing on people.

"More than 2 million people have been displaced. Many, many people are facing famine," he said. 

"It's a conflict that's defined by sexual violence. Sexual exploitation — rape — is something that we have heard from all sides as something that women, young women are facing at the moment."

Awol Allo, a senior lecturer at Keele University in the U.K., says he now regrets nominating Abiy for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. He speaks with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong about why. Here is part of that conversation.

Back in 2019, Ethiopia was in the grips of Abiy mania. The world was enamoured with the prime minister as well. What was it about Abiy Ahmed that that made you believe he deserved the Nobel Peace prize? 

A lot of things. It's not just the individual and the policy decisions that he was taking and the things that he was saying. It's also the way in which the change in 2018 came about. 

It was a peaceful, democratic movement seeking for the democratization of the federal political projects that existed in Ethiopia.

So Abiy wasn't somebody that was very much known in the Ethiopian political landscape at that time. He was a minister and he was part of that system.... And when the protest movement brought the government under considerable pressure, it was people like him and several other people who came out and said, we need a change of direction. 

An Ethiopian military parade, with national flags attached to troop rifles, at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). (The Associated Press)

So he wasn't alone as an individual. He was with some other pretty strong individuals [with] a much broader movement behind them. And the situation there, the circumstances that existed at the time, seemed like it was impossible for an individual to become an authoritarian government of the sort that he became. 

And he was also taking very progressive, encouraging promising measures on the ground — reforming these nations, for example, appointing a gender balance in cabinet, reaching out to Eritrea, taking political risks for peace. And he was also talking a lot about the way in which the idea of peace is very much linked to economic development and prosperity. 

Let's skip ahead now, 2021. Things are obviously quite different. How do you see him today? 

He is obviously a Nobel Peace laureate who refused to rule out the use of violence as a means of settling political disputes. 

And it's hugely disappointing for people like myself and a lot of people who thought that this is a man who really had the chance, the opportunity to transform Ethiopia and fix Ethiopia's centuries-old problem where you have now such a significant level of violence in the country under his leadership, threatening the very continuity of the Ethiopian state itself. 

So it is hugely disappointing to see somebody who made a promise like that, made people believe in him, turning into an international pariah, using highly violent, genocidal language to incite people against one another to the point that Facebook has to take down his post

The greatest damage that he [Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] did is not just to himself and to people who are suffering now, but also to the future of the Ethiopian state.- Awol Allo, senior lecturer at Keele University

The transformation, though, from somebody who was so sort of rooted in peace and in reconciliation to, in your words, somebody who is distinctly authoritarian, should we have seen the alarm bells long before this? 

We were partly desperate to see change — a positive change, a transformative change. 

There were definitely red flags, but a lot of us have not been very attentive. And we thought that in a highly diverse political landscape where nationalism plays a very central role in terms of how every group conceives its interest, we thought that the prime minister needed some leeway to try and bring people together. 

But, obviously, I think the way we looked at what he was doing, the promises that he was making, the policies that he was putting in place, [they] were problematic, I must say.

With credible reports that both sides of this conflict have engaged in human rights violations, including the Tigrayan forces, is it fair to blame the ongoing conflict entirely on Abiy Ahmed? 

I think so.

So there were reports suggesting that Tigrayans have committed human rights violations in this war, and we have to take those very seriously, in much the same way that we took the reports accusing the government seriously. 

Both sides accused of war crimes in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

3 months ago
Duration 2:01
Human rights organizations have accused both sides of Ethiopia’s civil war of human rights abuses and war crimes, while the prime minister vowed to crush a Tigray invasion. 2:01

But on the issue of making the decision to go to war, to reach out to a neighbouring country to participate in the war, the discussion around the way in which the war started, and also the complete secrecy around the way in which the war is going — so, for example, there was a complete communications blackout that was imposed on Tigray. 

Now you have a humanitarian crisis imposed on Tigray precisely because of the decisions that Abiy Ahmed made. And I think for all of these, it is absolutely legitimate to blame him. 

But obviously he's an individual. There is an entire system around him. Those who are part of the system were complicit in this system in one way or another. They, too, are responsible and blameworthy. 

I think back to that period of hope when he did come in and he rode in on this wave of unity and pluralism and bringing everyone together. What is left of that idea now? 

The greatest damage that Abiy Ahmed [did] to Ethiopia is the deep social division, the polarization that he intensified. 

Those things existed in Ethiopia when he came to power. But Abiy deepened the polarization. He deepened the social division that existed.

And I think the risk now is whether the two Ethiopian states could be held together. Even if Ethiopia could not be held together, whether there could be a peaceful civil separation that doesn't involve bloodshed of the sort that we see now.

So unfortunately, the greatest damage that he did is not just to himself and to people who are suffering now, but also to the future of the Ethiopian state.


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Sameer Chhabra. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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