The Fleeting Promise of a Peaceful Ethiopia

A new prime minister was met with overwhelming optimism that he would help stem the country’s long-standing tensions. But military violence in the Tigray region dispels any hope of a unified republic.

The euphoria of Abiy Ahmed’s first months in office, when the newly appointed leader vehemently condemned ethnic violence, seems like a distant memory now.
For many Ethiopians, Ahmed became the figurehead of the mythically peaceful multiethnic society that hadn’t previously seemed within reach. (Getty / Adeshola Makinde / The Atlantic)

The morning after the 2020 presidential election, as ballots were still being counted in several battleground states and then-President Donald Trump drummed up dangerous conspiracy theories about the impending results, many Ethiopians in the U.S. woke up to distressing political news from back home, too. The Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had announced a military offensive in Tigray, the northernmost region of the East African country. The six months since then have exacerbated the tensions that existed well before Ahmed’s tenure, but that many had hoped he would assuage. Now the political situation in Ethiopia is playing out with deadly consequences for civilians in the Horn of Africa, and with dire implications for those throughout the diaspora.

Shared minutes after internet and telephone services were shut down in much of Tigray, Ahmed’s Facebook post stated that he’d deployed federal troops to the area in the early hours of November 4 to combat ongoing aggression from the region’s insurgent political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. He accused the TPLF of specific attacks on a federal defense camp, as well as vaguer offenses such as crossing the “final red line” and forcing his government to retain “a policy of extreme patience.” The prime minister characterized the military action as a targeted operation meant only to remove a small cadre of dissidents from power. And despite its clear rebuke of the TPLF, Ahmed’s original post included references to healing the nation and moving its people forward with a “calm spirit.”

But in the months since the prime minister first vowed “to save the country and the region” by ousting TPLF, a more troubling picture has emerged. Witness accounts, reports from human-rights organizations and the U.S. government, and satellite imagery from the embattled areas all point to a much broader campaign of violence—against Tigrayan civilians, hospitals, schools, and places of worship. The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned what he named “acts of ethnic cleansing,” calling for unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray and an independent investigation into the alleged human-rights abuses. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied those charges as “completely unfounded and spurious,” but Ahmed later admitted that “atrocities have been committed in Tigray region” and that troops from neighboring Eritrea had caused “damages” to the people.

Speaking on a Signal call from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, one Tigrayan man, who asked to remain unnamed because of safety concerns, told me that the violence from both countries’ militias hasn’t been confined to strategic locations. It’s overtaken much of the region, he said, citing the factories, homes, and sacred religious sites he’d seen destroyed in his hometown, Aksum. “When you go down the street, you have to walk over so many corpses … Animals aren’t even killed like that.” (The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, and the prime minister’s spokesperson declined to comment. The Eritrean Ministry of Information did not respond to a request for comment.)

Beyond recounting humanitarian abuses and mourning their loved ones, dozens of the people I’ve spoken with in recent weeks—mainly in Ethiopia and the United States—have communicated a quieter kind of devastation: the betrayal they feel upon losing any sanguine vision they had for their country’s future. When Ahmed was first appointed to the premiership in 2018, Addis Ababa seemed consumed by “Abiymania.” That year, bumper stickers bearing his name or face covered nearly every taxi on the city’s roads; Abiy T-shirts came in a wide array of colors and patterns. Within months of his appointment, the energetic young reformist had freed political prisoners and journalists, ended the prior regime’s state of emergency, and coined the term medemer, or “to be added to one another,” to describe the Ethiopia he hoped to lead people toward—one in which all of its citizens and members of its diaspora could solve the country’s problems by uniting.

That August, I reported on his trip to the U.S., including the greater Washington, D.C., area which is home to the largest Ethiopian population center outside Ethiopia. “Today, if you all decide, if you commit to healing, then we as Ethiopia will write a new story,” Ahmed told the thousands gathered at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center that sweltering day. “If you want to be the pride of your generation, then you must decide that Oromos, Amharas, Wolaytas, Gurages, and Siltes are all equally Ethiopian … What Ethiopians need is community.” After decades of political strife, especially among the country’s different provinces, the nation was primed for a leader like him.

The Ethiopian diaspora responded to Ahmed’s plans for the country with overwhelming optimism. Eden Kassa, a Tigrayan woman who has lived in the D.C. area since her teenage years, recalls that response vividly. “I remember … when Abiy Ahmed was elected and he gave us that amazing speech, everyone bought his lie,” she told me in late January, after returning from Tigray. We spoke outside the U.S. Department of State at a protest organized by local Tigrayans. “Everyone was like, Great, we have something new! We thought he was the next Barack Obama of Ethiopia. We were all surely mistaken.”

Tigrayans account for about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of more than 112 million people, but members of the ethnic group held outsize influence in many major public and private sectors, including the federal government, for nearly 30 years. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front was intended as a provisional government when it came to power in 1991 after the overthrow of the country’s brutal military dictatorship, the Derg. In the years since, EPRDF had largely been led by Tigrayans. Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who served in the highest national post until his death in 2012, expanded the central government’s power, sometimes with violent repression of protesters and journalists. His successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, formally introduced the “Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan,” which sought to expand the capital by seizing Oromo land, thereby displacing its indigenous inhabitants. Anti-government protests in response to the proposed plan contributed to Desalegn’s 2018 resignation.

When Ahmed replaced Desalegn, he did so with passionate appeals to all Ethiopians and their desire for peace, justice, and prosperity. Ahmed is an ethnic Oromo, and he was essentially appointed to the position by the Oromo Democratic Party, another political group within the ruling EPRDF coalition that, along with its allies, had won all the parliamentary seats in the 2015 elections. His rise to the forefront of national politics signaled a new chapter for the historically marginalized ethnic group, which is also Ethiopia’s largest. So at the time of his appointment, it wasn’t just Tigrayans such as Kassa who were enthused by Ahmed’s plea for Ethiopia’s populace to celebrate both its diversity and shared values. Her “Obama of Ethiopia” comparison is apt: For many Ethiopians in the country and throughout the diaspora, Ahmed became the figurehead of the mythically peaceful multiethnic society that hadn’t seemed within reach prior to his affirmation of the country’s many cultural groups. Robera Abtew, an Oromo raised primarily in the D.C. area, had been skeptical of the new leader, but he saw the zeal with which many in his community responded to Ahmed. “For a little bit of time,” Abtew told me, “everybody thought things were gonna get better.”

In addition to the fervor it inspired among Ethiopians, Ahmed’s seemingly conciliatory approach to politics attracted attention outside the country and its diaspora: In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for initiating a rapprochement with Isaias Afwerki, the president of Eritrea, which Ethiopia has long had hostile relations with. The two countries fought a brutal 30-year war following Emperor Haile Selassie’s annexation of Eritrea in 1962. Even after Eritrea gained its independence, the country’s border, which abuts Tigray, has remained tense. (Along with its more recent rebellions against the Ethiopian federal government, the TPLF has attacked Eritrea repeatedly over the past several decades, one of the reasons for Afwerki’s continued insistence on compulsory military service for all Eritrean nationals.) Considering the depth of that enmity, a peace agreement had seemed unthinkable prior to Ahmed’s cordiality with Afwerki, who has served as president for the three decades since independence.

Every person in Ethiopia I spoke with confirmed reports that Eritrean soldiers had joined the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s takeover of Tigray well before the prime minister’s late-March admission. The presence of Eritrean soldiers in Aksum, Mekelle, Adwa, and other cities in Tigray suggests a more troubling element of Ahmed’s Nobel win than even the fact of his declaring war on the region. Many concerned members of both diasporas wonder now whether Ahmed and Afwerki’s 2018 détente might have in fact been orchestrated, at least in part, to coordinate the late-2020 attack on their shared enemy, the TPLF—and by extension, the rest of Tigray, including the Eritrean refugees there who had fled Afwerki’s repressive regime before this conflict began.

The euphoria of Ahmed’s first months in office, when the newly appointed leader vehemently condemned the ethnic violence that plagued the country, seems like a distant memory now as Ethiopian public figures, especially those from Tigray, openly denounce his administration’s violence or donate large sums to address the humanitarian crisis it’s created. Last month, Berhane Kidanemariam, then the deputy chief of mission to the United States at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., announced his resignation from the post. “One of the ironies of a prime minister who came to office promising unity is that he has deliberately exacerbated hatred between different groups,” he wrote. “By using Amhara militias to attack Tigray, the government has tried to ensure further animosity between Amharas and Tigrayans. By involving Eritrea in this war and allowing its military to commit atrocities and wanton destruction of Tigray, the Prime Minister has deliberately tried to increase enmity between ordinary Tigrayans and Eritreans.”

The ongoing offensive in Tigray is just the latest—and now most publicized—in a series of ethnically motivated attacks around the country that dispel the illusion of a unified republic. When widespread protests broke out following the killing of the Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa last year, thousands of Oromo people were arrested and hundreds more were killed, according to reports. And in November, days before the attack in Tigray that Ahmed announced, reports emerged of a massacre in Oromia state targeting dozens of people from the country’s second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara. Just last week, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in Amhara following ethnic violence in southern parts of the region, where many Oromos live. Elsewhere in the country, rebel groups have reportedly killed Amhara civilians.

As Ayantu Ayana, an Oromo doctoral student focusing on oral archival traditions and anti-colonial struggles, wrote in August, “With Abiy’s about-face, the glimmer of hope, presented by what was to be a transformative transition to participatory democracy, has now flickered and disappeared.” Like Ayana, Abtew doesn’t have faith that the Ethiopian government will protect its citizens. Still, he said, Ethiopians in the country and abroad can unite around a more somber goal: affirming one another in tragedy when the government is denying the extent of its violence. “If you call yourself Ethiopian, it’s beyond any political group. So what happens in Tigray, if I don’t feel that pain because I’m Oromo, that means I’m fake. I’m not Ethiopian then. Politically, even morally, it doesn’t make sense.”

In its breadth and intensity, the ENDF and Eritrean military’s attack on Tigray far exceeds anything that would make sense as a political gesture meant to intimidate an opposition party. It also strains the limits of national and regional bonds. On social media, a struggle over the country’s narrative echoes the chasms in its diaspora. The prime minister has seen ardent support from some Ethiopians who either deny the atrocities occurring in Tigray or contend that the region’s civilians deserve the violence because of how ruthlessly the TPLF has dominated Ethiopian politics in the past. Some users have been posting with hashtags such as #EthiopiaPrevails and #TPLFIsTheCause. They document the demonstrations in which Ethiopians, and some Eritreans, gather to denounce TPLF and broadcast their allegiance to the national government. Others refute reports, such as those from the day before the initial Tigray offensive, about violence targeting Amhara people. On the social-media app Clubhouse, a lax approach to user-safety protocol has enabled casual debates over the usage of the word genocide and a proliferation of chat rooms that argue, for example, “WHY AMHARAS SHOULD BE EXTINCT.

When they’re able to communicate outside the region, many Tigrayans report feeling abandoned by their friends from other parts of the country. Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie, who runs a website chronicling the war from his home in Amsterdam, said many people he’s known for years have been completely silent as they see him and other Tigrayans openly expressing their sorrow online. Others message him expressing elation that TPLF has been toppled. “They rub salt in our wounds. That is really very painful,” he said. In some parts of the U.S., Tigrayan protesters who belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church told me they are contemplating a split from the rest of the congregation, citing the discomfort they feel upon seeing some clergymen publicly support the government offensive.

Eskinder Negash, the Eritrean American president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, worries that the conflict in Tigray—and the hostility it’s revealed within the diaspora—will have lasting consequences on everyday people no matter what happens with the government or after the national elections scheduled for early June. (No national elections have taken place since Ahmed’s ascension to the post—last year’s were canceled because of the pandemic. But in September, the Tigray Regional Council defied federal advisories by holding its own elections, in which the TPLF won all contested seats.) “I think this bloodshed is becoming acceptable. We’re becoming numb,” Negash, who was raised in Ethiopia, told me. He fears that the crisis has no clear end in sight.

For many, it’s difficult to envision a way of healing the deep fractures that have long characterized the nation and that now feel even harder to ignore. At the root of many intra-community struggles is a persistent desire for recognition: Throughout Ethiopia’s history, those from several ethnic groups have witnessed catastrophes—and then been told that their pain isn’t real, or that they brought it upon themselves. (Consider, for example, the fact that one of the first things visitors see when approaching the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa is a towering statue of Haile Selassie.) Absent any meaningful reckoning with the violence that created modern Ethiopia, and with the horrors wrought upon Eritrea, these newer national traumas may not see sincere reconciliation either. As Negash put it to me, “I think it’s gonna require the soul-searching of the identity issue of being an Ethiopian.”