In Ethiopia’s war, a retreat worthy of African ideals

A leader’s admission of atrocities in Tigray fulfills a principle of accountability.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks with lawmakers in Addis Ababa last November.

Over the past quarter century, Africa’s leaders have steadily erected standards to better manage their own affairs. These are meant to strengthen the rule of law through fair elections, safeguard human rights, and promote prosperity through economic cooperation and joint peacekeeping. The African Union, the continent’s loose alliance of nations, even established a peer review process to hold politicians accountable to their new principles.

Those efforts seeded expectations. An Afrobarometer survey across 34 countries found 68% of Africans think democracy is the best system of government. The poll showed 74% oppose one-party rule and 72% oppose military rule. But moving democracy from paper to practice remains unsteady. The same year that survey was published, 2019, the Economist Intelligence Unit found nearly half of Africa’s 54 countries were becoming less free.

Nowhere are the impediments to democratic reform in Africa more evident or consequential today than in Ethiopia. The country’s young prime minster, Abiy Ahmed, rose to power three years ago vowing to transform the country from a tense federation of ethnic states into a more united multiethnic democracy. His inauguration ended the 27-year reign of a small minority from Tigray province that achieved notable economic progress but trampled on civil and political rights.

Mr. Abiy’s agenda tracked well with the principles his fellow African leaders have endorsed. He dismantled the former ruling coalition, built a new and more inclusive political party, ended a 20-year military stalemate with neighboring Eritrea, and vowed a new era based on a philosophy of “coming together.” His efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

But there were perils in moving so fast. Last November the ethnic Tigrayan officials he swept from national power pushed back. They attacked a federal military installation in their province after Mr. Abiy called for a delay in a regional election due to the pandemic. He vowed to quash the rebellion and round up its leaders. Instead the conflict intensified and now threatens stability in the broader Horn of Africa. The fighting sent tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring Sudan.

The government sealed Tigray’s borders and shut off communications. Based on evidence from photos, videos, and eyewitness reports, the United States, United Nations, and Amnesty International have alleged that Tigrayan militias, the Ethiopian National Defense Force, and troops from neighboring Eritrea have committed massacres and campaigns of sexual violence against civilians. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the violence ethnic cleansing.

The government initially denied the accusations. In a statement issued March 13, the Foreign Ministry claimed that “nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation in Tigray can be identified or defined by any standards as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region.” Ten days later, Mr. Abiy bowed to international pressure following a visit by U.S. Sen. Chris Coons on behalf of the Biden administration. On March 23, he admitted to parliament the facts he had steadfastly denied for months: firstly, that Eritrean troops had crossed the border and, secondly, that atrocities had occurred.

“We know the destruction this war has caused,” he said, and vowed that soldiers who committed violence against civilians would be held responsible.

Abiy’s statement was a rare public reversal. African leaders seldom admit when their policies have gone wrong or a crisis has spun beyond their control. The prime minister’s contrition, even if compelled, may mark more than a turning point in the war in Tigray.

Declaring victory prematurely in February, Mr. Abiy wrote, “Only an Ethiopia at peace, with a government bound by humane norms of conduct, can play a constructive role across the Horn of Africa and beyond.” National elections in June will determine what impact the conflict has on Abiy’s dream of forging a new Ethiopian identity of national unity. His attempts to flush out the remnants of a repressive former regime have resulted in humanitarian harm. But on a continent where leaders have too often called for “African solutions to African problems” as a way to excuse bad behavior and resist foreign influence, Abiy’s honesty before parliament showed the courage to put Africa’s ideals of democracy and accountability into practice.

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