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Ethiopia’s peace laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sees a reversal of fortune as war and atrocities tarnish reputation

The Globe & Mail | Less than a year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strolled through a verdant garden in Addis Ababa with the world’s newest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

As they enjoyed a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in Unity Park, on the site of a former imperial palace, Mr. Trudeau must have seen Mr. Abiy as a wise choice for an African partner. The young leader had been praised for freeing political prisoners and lifting the ban on opposition parties, and he was a Nobel prize winner for his peace deal with his former Eritrean enemies.

In a tweet soon after, Mr. Trudeau described Unity Park as “a symbol of Prime Minister Abiy’s democratic reforms” and the “positive transformation” of the country. The site was designed to showcase Mr. Abiy’s new national narrative, in which Ethiopia’s diverse ethnicities would be woven into a single harmonious and unified people.

A year later, Mr. Abiy’s dream is in tatters. The former hero of peace and democracy is instead facing blame for a shocking list of alleged atrocities by his military and its allies in the Tigray region: massacres, sexual assaults, ethnic cleansing, the kidnapping of refugees, the destruction of refugee camps, a humanitarian blockade and the deliberate starvation of civilians.

The atrocities have heightened the spectre of escalating conflict across the entire Horn of Africa, with tensions rising between Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Somalia.

The Western leaders who once heaped praise on Mr. Abiy are now voicing their alarm. Many are calling on the Abiy government to end its blockade of Tigray. Even the Trudeau government has expressed its concern at the “continued barriers to humanitarian access” – an implicit criticism of Mr. Abiy, whose forces control access to the region.

One of the most horrific reports was issued by Pramila Patten, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict. She described “a high number of alleged rapes” in Tigray’s capital – a city that was captured by Mr. Abiy’s military forces in late November.

“I am greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including a high number of alleged rapes in the capital, Mekelle,” Ms. Patten said in her statement last week.

“There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence. Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities. … In addition, there are increasing reports of sexual violence against women and girls in a number of refugee camps.”

The Ethiopian government has banned journalists from entering Tigray, making it difficult to know the full extent of the atrocities. But refugees from Tigray, arriving in Sudan, have given similar accounts of rape by Ethiopian soldiers and their military allies, according to news agency reports. The U.S. State Department, under the new Joe Biden administration, says it is “gravely concerned” by the allegations of sexual violence in Tigray.

Massacres of civilians by armed soldiers, sometimes leaving hundreds of people dead, have been reported in several places in Tigray. Refugee camps have been torched and destroyed, and crops have been burned. And now there are reports of starvation and the looming risk of famine – even as relief agencies are blocked from sending food into many parts of the region.

More than a dozen people, including three children, have died from starvation in Tigray in recent days, according to an Ethiopian news site, Addis Standard, which attributed the information to a senior official in Tigray’s interim government, Abraha Desta. He estimated that 4.5 million people in Tigray – almost the whole population – are in need of emergency food assistance.

None of this was envisioned in Mr. Abiy’s official promises at the beginning of the war. On Nov. 9, five days after sending troops into the region to subdue the rebellious Tigray government, Mr. Abiy tweeted that his military offensive was merely a “law enforcement operation” that would “wrap up soon.” Any fears of chaos were “unfounded,” he assured the world.

If there was any hope of a brief and limited conflict, it was soon destroyed by one of Mr. Abiy’s most troubling decisions: his tactical alliance with the repressive regime of neighbouring Eritrea, one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, a government that has banned all opposition parties, outlawed all independent media, refused to hold any elections and imposed a harsh form of long-term national conscription on most of the adult population.

Officially, the Abiy government has denied Eritrea’s involvement in the war. But the presence of thousands of Eritrean troops in Tigray has been confirmed by Western governments, civilian eyewitnesses, photos and videos on social media, and even by a senior Ethiopian military commander, Major-General Belay Seyoum, who told a meeting in Tigray that the Eritrean military presence was a “painful” reality.

Eritrean troops have been at war with Tigrayan forces for most of the past 25 years, beginning with a border war in the late 1990s that killed tens of thousands of people. When the Abiy government allowed the Eritreans into Tigray to reinforce the military operation in November, they took their revenge on the people of the region.

Eritrean troops have been identified as the perpetrators of many of the worst atrocities in Tigray, including the massacre of civilians, the destruction of refugee camps and the kidnapping of Eritrean refugees, who were forced back to the country they had fled.

Human Rights Watch said this week that it is investigating “credible reports of extrajudicial executions of civilians [and] widespread looting and damage of property, including hospitals, by Eritrean forces in Tigray.”

The UN’s high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said he had received “many reliable reports” of refugees being kidnapped and forced back to Eritrea.

The Tigray conflict is not the only one where Mr. Abiy’s military forces have been accused of excesses. In the Oromo region, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has identified Ethiopian security forces as being responsible for 76 of the 123 deaths that occurred during protests last June and July. In a recent report, the human-rights commission said the security forces had been responsible for killing people who had no involvement in the protests. Some of the victims were shot in the back or the head, it said.

And while the violence and killings in Tigray are showing no sign of ending soon, Mr. Abiy is also facing criticism for conflicts with Sudan and Egypt that have grown worse under his rule. Ethiopia has been embroiled in deadly border clashes with Sudan, and it has exchanged threats with Egypt over a controversial Ethiopian hydro dam that reduces the flow of water on the Nile.

The Tigray war has also fuelled tensions with Somalia, following reports that Somali soldiers – sent to Eritrea for training – had been ordered into Tigray to fight in the war.

The new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a glimpse of the growing international worries about the Abiy government when he spoke at his Senate confirmation hearing last week. He cited a number of “deeply, deeply concerning” actions in Ethiopia, including “atrocities” directed at Tigrayan civilians and Eritrean refugees.

Mr. Blinken then gave a much broader warning. The war in Tigray, he said, could spark a wider conflagration. “What started there has the potential to be destabilizing throughout the Horn of Africa.”

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