Africa’s urgency to end the Ethiopian war

A moral lesson from the lack of intervention in the Rwanda genocide helps push the continent’s leaders to prevent atrocities in Ethiopia.

A man walks on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nov. 5.

The war in Ethiopia, which for a year has largely been contained in one region, Tigray, has escalated into a “nationwide social convulsion” with “open warfare that now engulfs the nation,” warned Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta this week. “The fighting must stop!”

Another neighbor of Ethiopia, Uganda, has called for East African leaders to attend a summit Nov. 16 to address the spreading warfare that might soon reach the capital, Addis Ababa, with the rapid advance of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces.

Meanwhile, the 55-nation African Union has called on the warring parties to allow former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to mediate a political solution. The AU also reminded Ethiopian fighters to abide by humanitarian law.

These calls for peace in Ethiopia reflect an Africa that has learned a lesson from the genocide in Rwanda 27 years ago: The continent must intervene early in places when ethnic strife could result in mass violence. Today’s African leaders are better poised to raise alarms when a country like Ethiopia, with more than 100 million people and 80 ethnic groups, has the potential for large-scale atrocities.

Already in Tigray, thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes. At the heart of the dispute lies different visions for Ethiopia. The minority Tigrayans want power distributed to Ethiopia’s different ethnic regions while Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power three years ago, has sought to centralize power and to create a national identity, centered on his new Prosperity Party.

Outsiders like Mr. Kenyatta know that only Ethiopians can resolve the competing visions for a unified country. Africa wants to see peace in Ethiopia, says the Kenyan president. “We all stand ready to assist the process that the Ethiopians themselves see fit.”

The tragedy of the Rwanda genocide, which tarnished Africa’s image for years, has pushed its current leaders to show moral backbone in preventing similar tragedies. Ethiopia’s war could be their biggest test yet. Their sense of urgency shows a key lesson of history is not being forgotten.

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