Ending a Civil War – The New York Times
For two years, Ethiopia has been at war with itself.
The fighting there has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more in Africa’s second most populous country, a scale of conflict some have compared to that of Ukraine.
But a surprise ceasefire is aimed at ending the violence, and one side said it has withdrawn almost two-thirds of its troops from the front lines in recent weeks. I spoke to Abdi Latif Dahir, the Times East Africa correspondent, who reported on the war, about what the peace deal means for Ethiopia.
Lauren: Ethiopia, which was one of the most prosperous nations in Africa, became the site of a brutal civil war. How did it come to this?
Abdi: The story begins in northern Ethiopia, in a region called Tigray. It is home to an ancient kingdom, filled with jagged mountains and sesame fields.
The Tigrayan ethnic group is a small fraction of the country’s population of almost 120 million people. But in recent decades, Tigrayans have controlled Ethiopian politics. Their party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, dominated the ruling coalition in Ethiopia’s parliament.
Their rule was defined both by immense economic progress, but also by much repression. Authorities imprisoned journalists and cracked down on the opposition. They also made enemies with Eritrea, a neighbor they fought over a disputed border town. In 2018, after nationwide protests demanding political reform, the prime minister of the TPLF-dominated ruling coalition resigned.
After his resignation, Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Ethiopian parliament, came to power and soon won the Nobel Peace Prize. Tell me about him.
I was in a taxi in the Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar after Abiy became prime minister. My driver was so excited that he followed me out of the car after the ride was over, standing in the street to continue telling me Abiy’s story. He was one of the youngest leaders in Africa, at just 41, and everyone thought he was going to change the country. He did.
After Abiy took control, he won a Nobel Peace Prize, in part for brokering a deal with Eritrea. He also removed the Tigrayans from government posts in an effort to weaken their power. Then tensions rose with the group.
In November 2020, Abiy sent troops to Tigray after accusing TPLF forces of attacking a federal military base there. But what started as a quick incursion turned into one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world.
How did the war evolve so quickly?
Abiy wanted to ensure that the Tigrayan forces were defeated. He called the TPLF a “cancer” and a “weed” that needed to be eradicated. This kind of dehumanizing talk came as a shock to many people across the continent.
Other regional actors harboring resentment against the Tigrayans or motivated by other interests quickly joined the fight. The Eritreans have allied themselves with Ethiopian forces. Militias made up of Amharas, the country’s second largest ethnic group, also began killing Tigrayans and were accused of carrying out massacres in several towns. The Tigrayan forces responded violently.
Can you give me an idea of the extent of the devastation?
It’s even sad to talk about it. Tigray was once one of Ethiopia’s most developed regions, filled with universities and bustling businesses. There were bookstores and beekeepers. Everything was destroyed.
The Ethiopian government shut down the internet, cutting the region off from the world. Journalists have had to rely on satellites and limited reporting to understand the conflict. But acts of ethnic cleansing have been well documented, committed not only by the Eritrean government and forces, but also by Tigrayans.
The US government estimates that up to 500,000 people were killed. Allegations have surfaced that children are being recruited as soldiers. The warring parties used starvation and rape as weapons of war. And millions of survivors have been displaced.
Is there a story that stays with you in your reporting?
At the start of the war, I met a Tigrayan refugee in Sudan. He told me how a militiaman tied a noose around his neck and dragged him behind a motorbike for hours, then left him for dead. He woke up later and stumbled to safety. I still think of him.
I also think of the Sudanese city where he found refuge. It is called Hamdayet, on the other side of the Tigray border. When the refugees arrived, people gave them jobs and even their own homes. Often we cover negative stories across Africa. But this city gave me hope.
Last month, Tigrayans and the Ethiopian government reached a ceasefire. How did it happen?
The war was escalating and Ethiopian forces captured several major towns in Tigray. After months of stonewalling, they were now ready to accept pleas to come to the table.
After a few days, the parties finally announced an agreement. The ceasefire called on Tigrayan forces to disarm within a month and Ethiopian forces to take control of airports and government facilities in Tigray. There was a clear winner.
Will this ceasefire hold?
The TPLF said it had withdrawn 65% of its forces from the front lines. Party officials have said they will not fully demobilize until Eritrea pulls out, as Tigrayans worry about ongoing attacks from their northern neighbor. The question of Eritrea therefore hangs over this crisis.
What’s next for Ethiopia?
The Ethiopian government has been trying to defeat the Tigray forces for years, using every tool of war to decimate them. What does justice and reconciliation look like? How is Tigray recovering economically? How can Ethiopia join the rest of the world?
Ethiopia hosts the headquarters of the African Union. It is the only country on the African continent that has never been colonized. Before the war, Ethiopia was hugely important to Africans. It’s still important, but for an entirely different reason.
Abdi Latif Dahir is based in Nairobi and has been covering East Africa for The Times since 2019. He grew up in Mogadishu and has 21 siblings. Together they could field two full football teams.
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THE WEEK AHEAD
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Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of collapsed cryptocurrency exchange FTX, said he will testify before the House Banking Committee on Tuesday.
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