Quote card by Opinion. Buy this photo.

In spite of promises from Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders, the grave humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region shows no sign of stopping. Hundreds of rapes, murders and village burnings in Tigray are the vicious byproducts of decades-long ethnic tensions and political turmoil in the Horn of Africa. These systemic afflictions must be met with an equally systemic response: a multilateral humanitarian effort which takes into account the deep-rooted problems of the region. Without it, the region will never see the peace and stability that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised during his rise to power. Abiy is failing his own people, but the international community must not fail Ethiopians. 

In light of international pressure to end the deadly fighting in Tigray, Abiy announced on March 23 that forces from Eritrea had agreed to withdraw from the region. Since then, however, the U.N. has reported no evidence of troop withdrawal, contrary to both Ethiopia and Eritrea’s supposed commitment to addressing the humanitarian disaster in the region. Despite his efforts to project the persona of a progressive African leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Abiy displays the behavior of a power-consolidating autocrat. This is a dark warning signal to Ethiopians that prosperity is only moving further out of reach. Worse yet, conflict continues to spill into the greater region as thousands of Ethiopians flee to Sudan and troops amass at the Ethiopia-Sudan border. 

As it appears increasingly unlikely that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki will follow through on his agreement to remove Eritrean troops from Tigray, the United States is pressing Abiy to end violence and human rights abuses in the Tigray region. In response to the growing humanitarian crisis, on April 26, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Abiy to remove Eritrean troops from Tigray immediately. Even if Abiy responds to international calls for an immediate end to the violence, the aftermath of the conflict risks trapping Ethiopia into a state of perpetual instability and ethnic violence if not properly addressed. The violence in Tigray is not the byproduct of Abiy’s failure alone. It is a clear sign that unresolved ethnic divisions will destroy peace in the region until a multilaterally executed response is effective at decentralizing the political power of Ethiopia’s Amhara ethnic group. 

Ethnic marginalization and the dominance of the Amhara ethnic group lie at the heart of the Tigray conflict. Long before Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution, the Ethiopian empire set its foundation in the political decentralization of all other ethnic groups. Forced assimilation into Amhara culture bred the ethnic animosity that erupted in human rights atrocities during the Ethiopian Civil War. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s guerilla campaign is a result of these unresolved sociopolitical asymmetries, and history repeating itself is a sign that Ethiopia has made little progress in ensuring the equality, liberty and enfranchisement of its diverse ethnic populations.

It is crucial that retributive and restorative justice policies center on community healing across ethnic lines, as well as granting long-marginalized ethnic groups political enfranchisement. However, this ideal stands in opposition to Abiy’s goal to consolidate power, especially under the pressure of upcoming elections. In order for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Abiy’s Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to meaningfully investigate allegations, the elections must be put on hold. This multilateral undertaking is a step in the right direction, as it combines elements of state accountability with international oversight. This will hopefully insulate the process from potential abuse.

The international community should be wary that inter-ethnic dialogue runs the risk of being filtered and homogenized to Abiy’s regime’s liking. This happened in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, a prime example of a bastardized transitional justice process used to control the narrative of human rights abuses and ensure the quieting of dissent. In essence, allowing victims of the atrocities in Tigray to construct their own narratives of the conflict — with utmost respect given to their ethnic experience — must be a priority within the transitional justice process.

Holding perpetrators accountable for human rights violations in the Tigray region, including Abiy’s negligence, is vital in the construction of sustainable, long-term measures to pull the region out of the throes of ethnic division. Humanitarian aid must be dispensed with the wisdom that a months-long regional battle is only a small manifestation of decades, if not centuries, of ethnic power struggles in Ethiopia. The Tigray conflict will certainly not be put to rest at the first call for a ceasefire. Ethiopia will need the U.N. and U.S.’s continued humanitarian presence in the aftermath of the conflict in order to ensure peace and security. This needs to be coupled with a commitment from Abiy to decentralize political power around Amhara. Without a resolution, Ethiopia’s bloody past will only cut deeper into the Horn of Africa’s future.

Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at ahancz@umich.edu.