The EU has expressed deep concerns about the situation in the Tigray region in Ethiopia and called on the central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former member of the government coalition, to end the hostilities there and return to dialogue on a peaceful solution.
The situation in Tigray – one of Ethiopia’s ten regions with a population of about 6 million – deteriorated in the beginning of November when TPLF forces attacked government military installations in the region.
Asked whether Ethiopia regards the conflict in Tigray as an internal conflict, its ambassador in Brussels, Hirut Zemene, replied that Ethiopia is not an isolated island. "We are part of a multilateral world and need to brief our partners on what is going on,” she said, referring to high-level meetings in Brussels last week.
“That said, we consider the conflict in Tigray as an internal issue and a matter of protecting our constitutional order and territorial integrity. At the current stage, the situation can be handled by our government." That was also what the envoys from the African Union (AU) were told this week by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Commenting on the military situation, she said that, "This brief military operation is going as planned and will be over soon. The government forces are in control of most of Tigray region and are closing in on its capital."
A contributing factor to the outbreak of hostilities was the decision by TPLF to arrange regional elections in September during the coronavirus crisis. "The federal government had decided to postpone national elections due to the COVID-19 crisis which is now slated for late May or early June next year, and consequently no regional administration had the mandate to organize elections on the regional level."
Does Ethiopia need international humanitarian assistance to cope with the refugee crisis in the region and the flow of refugees to Sudan?
Ambassador Zemene replied that this is an important issue for Ethiopia and of grave concern. Up to 40 000 people have fled Tigray and taken refuge in Sudan. "It's natural to flee from conflict, but in this case, people were forced or scared to flee by forces linked to the TPLF.”
“To help and protect the civilian population in the region, the government has started to open a humanitarian corridor in north-western Tigray, and this access will expand as things get under control. Once the mission is complete, it is also discussing with Sudan to repatriate its compatriots.”
She noted that there was already a humanitarian problem before the conflict due to the COVID-19 crisis and the heavy rains this year caused by floods. Some parts of Ethiopia were also hit by locusts, the worst locust invasion in 25 years. "All this has made the situation more challenging, and Ethiopia is grateful for the support of the international partners, including for the recent pledge by the EU provide support to the refugees."
Can Ethiopia remain a unified country while granting some form of autonomy to its regions? She responded by saying that, "Ethiopia is a federal state, made up of 10 regions with equal rights and autonomy."
The Ambassador highlighted Ethiopia's primary focus is improving the lives of its people through development schemes and democratization. She mentioned in this regards the new 10-year development plan to boost the country's economy and a return to two-digits economic growth. The plan focuses, among others, on job creation, gender equality and a green economy.
On the COVID-19, she said that, "At the heights of the coronavirus crisis, the Prime Minister took the initiative with the Jack Ma Foundation to distribute protective kits to African countries. We are now in the middle of an economic slowdown, affecting tourism and other sectors of our economy, but we won't let this derail our reform process."
The Ethiopian Prime Minister wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times at the beginning of the pandemic that what developing countries needed the most is debt relief or debt reconstruction. "We welcomed EU's position on this at G20 Leaders' summit in Saudi Arabia last weekend to listen to the needs of developing countries request for debt rescheduling," Ambassador Zemene said.
At the summit, the leaders reconfirmed their support through the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative to provide debt relief and free resources to fight the pandemic. The initiative was extended through June 2021. EU stressed that additional steps might be needed, and the summit endorsed a common multilateral framework for further debt treatments.
During the week, High Representative Josep Borrell met the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, Demeke Mekonnen, in Brussels to discuss the situation in Tigray. In a statement following the meeting, Borrell warned against the humanitarian crisis and the risk of destabilization of the whole region.
Mekonnen also met Sophie Wilmès, the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Wilmès expressed similar concerns as the EU foreign policy chief and stressed that "dialogue is the only possible way to ensure a lasting exit from this conflict".
Mekonnen on his part conveyed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s message that the military operation will be concluded shortly by bringing the responsible in TPLF to justice and will be handled with the utmost care to protect civilians. He also shared the international community's concern that humanitarian support needs to be expedited and noted in this regard's measures being taken in collaboration with international humanitarian organizations.
The outbreak of hostilities in Tigray came as a surprise to the EU. In 2019, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the border dispute with Eritrea. EU has long-standing relations with Ethiopia, where the AU has its seat, and it was the first country the newly elected European Commission President von der Leyen visited in December last year.
Update: The Ethiopian Prime Minister tweeted on Saturday evening (28 November) that the federal government is now fully in control of the city of Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, and that the main military operation in the region has been successfully completed.
The Brussels Times