Oct 21, 2021

Mawazo Writing Africa

Writing about the main

Abiy pledges unity, faces image crisis over Tigray

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in this week and has settled into office for his first proper term in power, following a victory for his Prosperity Party in the June national election.

But even as he pledged to unite the country and cultivate a culture of dialogue, he was already dealing with an image crisis arising from the humanitarian crisis in Tigray.

The PM used the occasion — witnessed by leaders from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti — to vow to foster a “community of inclusivity” and pledged to dialogue with all political parties. His new Cabinet even has leaders from opposition parties.

Now, after nearly a year of the “law enforcement operation’’ in Tigray, the conflict is transcending into an image problem.

This past week, Ethiopia was fighting accusations of using food as a weapon of war, starving Tigrayans. At the same time, US network CNN had an expose on the national flagship Ethiopian Airlines’ covert weapons flights to Asmara, as supplies for government and Eritrean forces. The airline rejected the accusation, which is a violation of the Chicago Convention that forbids commercial airlines from transporting weapons.

For Ethiopia though, it is the continued discussion of the Tigray issue at the UN Security Council (UNSC) that continues to anger its leaders. The Ethiopian conflict was on the Council’s agenda for the second time in a week, the 10th time in the past 10 months. The discussions have resulted in just one presidential statement calling for dialogue.

The UNSC criticised Ethiopia for starving its own people and, on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres railed against Addis Ababa for hindering humanitarian access to Tigray, indicating that Ethiopia had deliberately frustrated the work of UN agencies.

“I now call on Ethiopian authorities to allow us to do this without hindrance and to facilitate and enable our work with the urgency that this situation demands,” Mr Guterres told the UN Security Council, referring to blockades imposed on humanitarian deliveries to Tigray.

“This means ensuring that visas for incoming personnel – from UN entities and from our partners – are issued quickly so that we can augment our capacity.

“The delays we have witnessed in the recent past are another obstacle to effective humanitarian aid.”

Mr Guterres had earlier criticised Addis Ababa for expelling seven senior humanitarian officials working for UN agencies in the country for allegedly meddling in the country’s internal affairs. The UN described the expulsion as “unprecedented”.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UN Taye Selassie said Addis Ababa will not revisit the issue of the expelled officials, saying it was final. “The government of Ethiopia is not under any legal obligations to provide any justifications or explanations for its decisions,” Mr Taye told the UN Security Council.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is the political movement that led Tigray region until last year when Addis Ababa declared it a terrorist group. Once a ruling party, it resisted Mr Abiy’s move to merge parties into the Prosperity Party. Their refusal sowed the seed of the conflict.

Conspiracy claims

“These individuals exuded the conspiracies by the TPLF and its members to generate an image of extreme casualty that warrants ‘humanitarian interrogation’. To use their own words, they were looking to create a ‘Darfur like’ situation’,” Mr Taye said.

He suggested that the UN officials had worked with the TPLF, shielding the group from its atrocities, while exaggerating the crisis, including multiplying numbers of those affected. He also claimed that the UN officials in Ethiopia had added a million people to those affected by hunger, contradicting their own regional office in Nairobi.

“They assisted in the fabrication of false allegations to the United Nations Security Council under a White Paper…which contained allegations on the use of hunger as a weapon.

“The former head of OCHA was made to report to this Council that 152,000 people had died from food shortage, but that had not occurred. They made up the data and went to the extent of misinforming the Council,” Mr Taye said.

None of the seven officials has spoken publicly on the accusations. However the UN rejected the claim, saying the staff had been professional.

It is not unprecedented for UN officials to be expelled. UN representatives were asked to leave in Burundi and Somalia recently. But the Tigray case comes on the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis affecting as many as seven million people, according to UN figures. Some government sources in Addis Ababa suggested an outsider entity had manipulated the UN staff to be biased although Ethiopia itself did not say this in a public statement.

Mr Guteres said as many as 400,000 were living in “famine-like” conditions in Tigray, where more than five million have no guarantee of food every day.

Depending on who you talk to, people are dying of starvation and lack of basic medical supplies in war-torn Tigray State, according to latest reports from the region.

Some officials told The EastAfrican that hunger is spreading throughout Tigray due to lack of food aid.

Currently, a shortage of supplies, fuel, money, telecommunication and electricity are hindering continuation of humanitarian organisations’ operations further exacerbating the crisis in the region.

According to the UN rapid market survey in Tigray, prices of essential commodities spiked dramatically since mid-June, such as the 2,300 per cent increase for benzine in Shire town.

It has been difficult to find out in detail the extent of the humanitarian crisis due to the imposed communication blackout in Tigray.

Increased criticism

The international community has increased its criticism of Addis Ababa. The US described the conflict and the crisis as Ethiopia’s “self-inflicted wound”. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN said Mr Abiy was to blame for overseeing a situation “where Ethiopians are killing Ethiopians, where Ethiopians are raping Ethiopians.

“It is the Ethiopian people who are letting down the Ethiopian people,” she told journalists at a virtual stake-out following the UN Security Council meeting.

“We do have tools at our disposal…it could be that we make a resolution, but also the president signed an executive order a couple of weeks ago that puts us at a possibility of imposing sanctions against individuals for gross violations and blocking of humanitarian assistance. That is available for our use when we need it,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

Washington promised sanctions two weeks ago, but has largely delayed them due to their unpopularity among UNSC members. On Wednesday, China and Russia joined the A3+1, the group of members from Africa and the Caribbean, who oppose sanctions but want humanitarian corridors reopened.

Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN called for “quiet diplomacy” away from the public spat between the UN and Ethiopia, which he said will prevent a deadlock .

“The international community should create a favourable atmosphere for a settlement through dialogue,” he said.

Humanitarian access

Kenya, the current president of the UNSC, along with Tunisia, Niger and St Vincent and Grenadines, called for humanitarian access and urged that Prime Minister Abiy be given enough time to pursue the dialogue promise.

One major decision the parliament must make is to determine whether to remove the ban on TPLF as a terrorist group.

Nairobi had earlier called for the removal, saying it will negate the need for war as each side will be challenged to use only available legal means to pursue their grievances. Ethiopia said at the time that it needed a new parliament sworn in to handle the decision.

On the humanitarian front, EU’s commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarčič, said on Thursday that Ethiopia should permit more air bridges for aid as an alternative to blocked roads. The EU delivered its second humanitarian air bridge to Tigray, co-organised by France and Italy on Wednesday. The bridge landed in Mekelle airport on October 6, delivering an additional 10.6 tonnes of life-saving cargo for the people affected by the conflict in Tigray.

even as he pledged to unite the country and cultivate the culture of dialogue, he was already dealing with an image crisis arising from the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tigray.

The PM used the occasion — witnessed by leaders from Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti — to vow to foster a “community of inclusivity” and pledged to dialogue with all political parties. His new Cabinet even ‘’poached’’ political leaders from opposition parties.

And after nearly a year of ‘’law enforcement operation’’ in Tigray, the burden of the conflict is transcending into that of an image problem.

This week, Ethiopia was fighting accusations of using food as weapon of war, starving Tigrayans, on and at the same time, US network CNN had an expose on the national flagship Ethiopian Airlines covert weapons flights to Asmara, as supplies for government and Eritrean forces. The airline rejected the accusation, because it is tantamount to a violation of the Chicago Convention which forbids commercial airlines from transporting weapons.

For Ethiopia though, it is the continued discussion of the Tigray issue at the UN Security Council that continues to anger it. The Council put on its agenda the Ethiopian conflict for the second time in a week, the tenth time in the past 10 months. All these have produced only one presidential statement calling for dialogue.

The UNSC criticised Ethiopia for starving its own people and on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres railed against Addis Ababa for hindering humanitarian access in Tigray, indicating authorities in Ethiopia had deliberately frustrated the work of UN agencies.

“I now call on Ethiopian authorities to allow us to do this without hindrance and to facilitate and enable our work with the urgency that this situation demands,” Guterres told the UN Security Council, referring to blockades imposed on humanitarian deliveries to Tigray.

“This means ensuring that visas for incoming personnel – from UN entities and from our partners – are issued quickly so that we can augment our capacity.

“The delays we have witnessed in the recent past are another obstacle to effective humanitarian aid.”

Mr Guterres had earlier criticised Addis Ababa for expelling seven senior humanitarian officials working for UN agencies in the country for allegedly meddling in the country’s internal affairs, something the UN described as “unprecedented.”

Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the UN, Taye Selassie, said Addis Ababa will not revisit the issue of the seven, saying it was final. “The government of Ethiopia is not under any legal obligations to provide any justifications or explanations for its decisions,” Mr Taye told the UN Security Council.

“These individuals exuded the conspiracies by the TPLF and its members to generate an image of extreme casualty that warrants ‘humanitarian interrogation.’ To use their own words, they were looking to create a ‘Darfur like’ situation.” The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, is the political movement that led Tigray region until last year when Addis Ababa declared it a terrorist group. Once a ruling party, it resisted PM Abiy’s move to merge parties into the Prosperity Party. That sowed the seed of the conflict.

Mr Taye suggested the UN officials had worked in concert with the TPLF, shielding the group from its atrocities, while exaggerating the crisis, including multiplying numbers of those affected. In one instance, Mr Taye claimed the UN officials in Ethiopia had added a million people to those affected by hunger, contradicting their own regional office in Nairobi.

“They assisted in the fabrication of false allegations to the United Nations Security Council under a White Paper…which contained allegations on the use of hunger as a weapon.

“The former head of OCHA was made to report to this Council that 152,000 people had died from food shortage, which such a number had never occurred. They made up the data and went to an extent of misinforming the Council.”

None of the seven officials has spoken publicly on the accusations, but the UN rejected the claim, saying the staff had been professional.

In fact, it is not unprecedented for UN officials to be expelled. UN representatives have been purged in Burundi and Somalia recently. But the Tigray case comes on the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis affecting as many as seven million people, according to UN figures. Some government sources in Addis Ababa suggested an outsider entity had manipulated the UN staff to be biased although Ethiopia itself did not suggest this in a public statement.

Mr Guteress said as many as 400,000 were living in “famine-like” conditions in Tigray, where more than five million have no guarantee of food every day.

Depending on whom you talk to, people are dying of starvation and lack of basic medical care supplies in war-torn Tigray State, according to latest reports from the war torn region.

Some officials told The EastAfrican that famine is spreading throughout Tigray region due to lack of food aid supply.

Today, a shortage of supplies, fuel, cash and telecommunication and electricity are hindering continuation of humanitarian organisations’ operations further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Tigray.

According to UN rapid market survey in Tigray, prices of essential commodities spiked dramatically since mid-June, such as the incredible 2,300 percent for benzine in Shire town.

It has been difficult to understand in detail the extent of the humanitarian crisis due to imposed communication blackout in Tigray. But the international community was raising its ante of criticism on Addis Ababa this week. The US described the conflict and the crisis as Ethiopia’s “self-inflicted wound.” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Ambassador to the UN said Abiy was to blame for overseeing a situation “where Ethiopians are killing Ethiopians, where Ethiopians are raping Ethiopians.”

“It is the Ethiopian people who are letting down the Ethiopian people,” she told journalists at a virtual stake-out following the UN Security Council meeting.

“We do have tools at our disposal…it could be that we do a resolution, but also the President signed an executive order a couple of weeks ago that puts us at a possibility of imposing sanctions against individuals for gross violations and blocking of humanitarian assistance. That is available for our use when we need it,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

Washington promised sanctions two weeks ago, but has largely delayed them due to their unpopularity among UN Security Council members. ON Wednesday, China and Russia joined the A3+1, the group of members from Africa and the Caribbean, who oppose sanctions but want humanitarian corridors reopened.

Zhang Jun, China’s Permanent Representative to the UN called for “quiet diplomacy” away from the public spat between the UN and Ethiopia which he argued will prevent a deadlock and ensure continuity.

“The international community should create a favorable atmosphere for a settlement through dialogue,” he said.

Kenya, the current President of the UN Security Council, with Tunisia, Niger and St Vincent and Grenadines, called for humanitarian access but urged that prime Minister Abiy be given enough time to pursue the dialogue promise. One major decision the parliament must make is to determine whether to unban TPLF as a terrorist group. Nairobi had earlier called for this, saying it will negate the need for war, as each side will be challenged to use only available legal means to pursue their grievances. Ethiopia had argued at the time it needed a new parliament sworn in to handle the decision.

On the humanitarian front, EU’s Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič, said on Thursday Ethiopia should permit more air bridges for aid as an alternative to blocked roads. The European bloc delivered its second Humanitarian Air Bridge to Tigray, co-organised by the EU, France and Italy on Wednesday. It landed in Mekelle airport on October 6, 2021 delivering an additional 10.6 tonnes of life-saving cargo for the people affected by the conflict in Tigray.