The Ethiopian government said this Friday (7th) that it will start a dialogue with opposition figures, in what can be considered a first signal sent by leaders in power to seek an end to the civil war that has ravaged the country for more than one year. The conflict has already left hundreds dead and millions homeless and hungry.
The message from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office, however, suggests that the war was won by Addis Ababa. “The key to lasting peace is dialogue,” said the statement released by the government’s communications office. “One of the moral obligations of the victor is mercy.”
The promise of dialogue was followed by the release of some political prisoners, according to state broadcaster EBC. Among them is Sebhat Nega, co-founder of the TPLF (Tiger People’s Liberation Front), a group that disputes power with the central government. Abay Weldu, former president of the Tigray region, the main stronghold of the armed opposition against Ahmed, was also released.
The government also announced the release of the leader of the Balderas opposition party for Genuine Democracy, Eskinder Nega, who has been arrested for a year and a half on charges of terrorism.
The former blogger and dissident journalist was detained after riots in protests over the June 2020 murder of singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in the country’s capital. The artist was revered by many Oromos, the largest of some 80 ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia.
Eskinder, who is of Amhara ethnicity, was convicted along with more than a dozen other activists, including influential media entrepreneur and Oromo politician Jawar Mohammed, who was also amnestied on Friday. Amid the 2020 protests, at least 178 people were killed in Addis Ababa and the Oromiya region, the prime minister’s political heartland.
In August of last year, a more active insurgent group, the Oromo Liberation Army, announced an alliance with the TPLF in the fight against Ahmed’s troops. Months later, in November, the insurgents announced that they had advanced into other regions of the country and considered marching to Addis Ababa, which scared the central government.
Days earlier, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had declared a six-month state of emergency and asked the population to take up arms to defend themselves. The rebel advance, however, did not last long, and the central troops managed to recover part of the territory. Last month, Tigré’s forces withdrew from neighboring regions.
The prime minister has come under fire from the West for leading a conflict months after he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
The TPLF dominated national politics for nearly three decades but lost influence after the current prime minister took office in 2018. Relations with the Tigray front soured after Ahmed was accused of centralizing power at the expense of regional administrations. country — which he denies.
Friday’s sign of reconciliation comes two days after an airstrike hit a refugee camp and killed three people, including two children, in Tigre. According to the United Nations, the attack hit the Mai Aini camp, where mainly Eritrean refugees live. Four other migrants were injured.
It is not known who carried out the attack, but only the central government has air power in the region. Addis Ababa denies involvement in civilian deaths.
Some 150,000 Eritrean refugees live in Ethiopia and some suffer at the hands of troops on both sides of the conflict. A Reuters investigation in November revealed that several refugees were purposefully murdered, while others are gang-raped and looted by both the TPLF and Eritrean forces, which support Ethiopia’s federal government.
According to a survey by humanitarian agencies, at least 146 people died and 213 were injured as a result of air strikes in Tigre since 18 October. The document was based on evidence collected by regional workers, as well as witness statements. The deadliest attack took place on the 16th in Alamata, when 38 died and 86 were wounded.
The international community and non-governmental organizations have also denounced the Ahmed government’s blockade of humanitarian aid in the region. The biggest hospital in Tigre, in Mekelle, lacks basic products such as gauze and intravenous fluids, which has contributed to the deaths of children.
“Signing death certificates has become our main job,” one of the doctors there told international aid agencies on Tuesday.
The practitioner’s presentation included case summaries, lists of lost drugs and medical supplies, and photographs of injured and malnourished patients. Doctors have identified 117 deaths and dozens of complications, including infections, amputations and kidney failure, allegedly related to shortages of essential medicines and equipment.
The central government reiterated on Monday that no blockade had been imposed. “What is happening in Tigré currently is the sole responsibility of the TPLF,” said spokesperson Legesse Tulu. He also accused the insurgents of looting equipment and medicine in more than a dozen hospitals, as well as 100 health centres.
On Friday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the central government’s decision to release political prisoners a “significant confidence-building step” and said he expected improved humanitarian access to all affected areas.
To meet the needs of the local population, according to the United Nations, at least 100 aid trucks should enter Tigré every day. The reality, however, is different: less than 12% of this value has arrived since July.
Meanwhile, the UN warns that more than 90% of the region’s 5.5 million inhabitants are in need of humanitarian assistance and 400,000 live in famine conditions.