As Ethiopia continues its deadly military campaign and humanitarian onslaught in the Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would do well to understand that the near-term political benefits of a military victory are sure to be outstripped by crippling punitive measures that could well set back Ethiopia’s reform and growth trajectory for years to come. He need only look to Ethiopia’s neighbor Sudan to realize what’s at stake for the country and its people and to understand the consequences of history repeating itself.
In February 2002, a newly formed a group of rebels in Sudan’s far western Darfur province, who called themselves the Darfur Liberation Front, launched the first of a succession of surprise, insurgency attacks on Sudanese military garrisons, police stations, and army convoys.
By the next year, a proliferation of rebel groups had succeeded in a brazen, coordinated attack on the regional capital of el Fasher, handing the Islamist government in Khartoum its first and most ignominious defeat and setting in motion a scorched earth response by the Sudanese government so brutal and complete that by 2004 then-Secretary of State Colin Powell would term the conflict a genocide.
In the intervening years, President Omar al-Bashir’s decision to prosecute that war cost the country and its people dearly. Six U.S. special envoys to Sudan, an engaged U.S. Congress, and a robust activist community all helped to put in place one of the most biting and comprehensive sanctions regimes in the world whose effects sadly reverberated beyond Khartoum’s Presidential Palace to the markets, schools, and hospitals serving average Sudanese citizens across every corner of the country.
At the time, the largest ever United Nations peacekeeping force was also deployed, robbing many Sudanese of a sense of sovereignty, a feeling that lingers today. Choked off from the international financial system and denied basic access to the global community, Sudan became an international pariah whose growth was stunted and whose population’s prospects were put on hold.
Only in the last 18 months has a light at the end of that tunnel of isolation and deprivation begun to emerge. The popular revolution that overthrew the Bashir regime has at last given way to a new government that is slowly setting about the painful task of dismantling 30 years of dictatorial and genocidal rule.
With the help of Washington, the interlocking web of congressional and executive branch sanctions is slowly being unwound, as demonstrated by this month’s first private bank wire transfer in more than 20 years between Washington and Khartoum.
And six months ago — with former president Bashir imprisoned in the same Khartoum jail where he locked up his political opponents, awaiting possible transfer to the Hague for his crimes — a civilian-led transitional government signed a peace deal with the successors to those original Darfur rebel groups. Several of those rebel leaders have recently earned ministerial positions in the civilian government. And the region as a whole is slated to receive more than $1 billion in reconstruction aid as well as the federal autonomy it originally demanded at the start of the war.
While the region is still beset by incidents of intercommunal violence, the roots of which pre-date Bashir’s divisive rule, there is now at least some measure of hope that the ethnic and tribal differences that unleashed so much violence will finally be addressed through social change, meaningful public policy, and enhanced security.
It did not have to be this way for Sudan and its people. But now the country’s painful experience can hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to Sudan’s much larger and more powerful neighbor, Ethiopia, which today finds itself in the throes of a civil conflict and convulsed by a similar scorched-earth response.
Like in Darfur, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front — which went from insurgent rebel group to ruling party to being sidelined once again — launched a gruesome surprise attack on the Ethiopian military’s Northern Command outpost on the night Nov. 4—handing the government an embarrassing black eye and unleashing a blitzkrieg counterassault on the region, the magnitude of which is only now being fully understood.
Unlike in Darfur, the devastation in Ethiopia’s western Tigray state has escalated rapidly and after only four months the impact is astounding. More than 75,000 Tigrayans have fled into neighboring Sudan — this time playing host to a refugee population rather than creating one. More than 2 million people have been internally displaced and in its most recent report, the U.N. Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs again warned, “Despite ongoing efforts, the overall humanitarian response remains deeply inadequate compared to the needs on the ground. Limited access due to both increasing insecurity and bureaucratic obstacles continue to hamper humanitarian operations.”
But what is most painfully similar, at least to anyone who was a part of the diplomatic and humanitarian response in Darfur all those many years ago, is the government’s obfuscation and attitude toward the atrocities they and their allies from neighboring Amhara state and Eritrea are committing.
Just as Bashir claimed legal authority in putting down a treasonous rebellion and later denied responsibility for the crimes committed by his forces, so too does Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy argue that the military’s action in Tigray represents “a legitimate law and order operation… to save the country and the region.” And as recently as March 9, Abiy argued to the African Union that, “Claims of deliberate mistreatment of citizens in the region are baseless and aimed at sowing seeds of discord.”
He makes these claims despite what has emerged as an avalanche of evidence and survivor testimonies, credibly documented through satellite imagery and international human rights investigations, of widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and atrocities carried out at the hands of Ethiopian forces and their proxies.
In his own congressional testimony last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that, “We are seeing very credible reports of human rights abuses and atrocities that are ongoing,” and “acts of ethnic cleansing, which we’ve seen in Western Tigray.” He stopped short of calling the conflict a genocide, though most ethnic Tigrayans have applied the label since the government’s first counter assault against them.
But such labels, while important to victims, can often obscure the practical steps required to alleviate suffering. Powell was right in 2004 when he argued, “Call it civil war. Call it ethnic cleansing. Call it genocide. Call it `none of the above.’ The reality is the same. There are people … who desperately need the help of the international community.” The same argument can today be applied to Tigray.
Unlike the lost years in Sudan, however, there is still a chance to slow down the carnage and for Addis to walk back from the precipice before Washington, and the rest of the international community, are forced to pursue the same kinds of punitive measures that did not just punish the Sudanese government, but punished 40 million Sudanese citizens by denying them access to the outside world for the better part of two decades.
Already, the European Union last week floated the idea of an initial round of sanctions as a result of Addis’ humanitarian access denials, coming on top of more than $350 million in U.S. and EU development assistance to Ethiopia already suspended.
Washington’s calls for what it hopes to see in Tigray are clear: a cessation of hostilities, unfettered humanitarian access, the removal of foreign troops, a process of justice and accountability for crimes committed, and for political reconciliation to occur.
But as these pleas are largely rebuffed, pressure is mounting for punitive measures that will target those most responsible for the commission of atrocities and the denial of humanitarian access. The logic goes that the move might also force a fundamental change in approach by Abiy and his allies, ending the violence and bringing them to the negotiating table.
As this standoff continues, Abiy has only to look toward Sudan to understand the consequences of continuing along his current path. For the sake of all his people, let’s hope he learns that lesson.