Abiy pushes against regional intervention as Sudan appeals for help with refugees

Ethiopian migrants

Ethiopian migrants who fled intense fighting in their homeland of Tigray gather at the border reception centre of Hamdiyet in the eastern Sudanese state of Kasala on November 14, 2020.

Photo credit: Ebrahim Hamid | AFP

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday tasked his envoys in a shuttle diplomacy to push against possible regional intervention in the Tigray conflict.

Diplomats were sent to Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia, explaining the crackdown on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the former ruling party of Ethiopia but which Addis Ababa considers a ''junta'' today.

Ethiopian Deputy Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen was in Kampala and Nairobi while his predecessor Gedu Andargachew, now the National Security Adviser to Abiy, was in Djibouti, days after he toured Sudan, all the key countries in the regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

The envoys delivered Ethiopia’s argument against any regional intervention that could grant legitimacy to the group Addis Ababa wants to crush — the Tigray People’s Liberation Movement.

It came as officials in neighbouring Sudan appealed for international help to deal with surging numbers of refugees from Ethiopia.

Refugee inflows

Dr Suleiman Ali Muhammad Musa, the Governor of al-Gadarif state in Sudan, told the media on Monday that the response from donors has so far been slow despite the rise in the volume of refugee inflows into the state.

His region was already hosting 15,500 refugees, with 2,500 harboured at Umm Rakuba camp and another 13,000 staying in village number Eight al-Fasqa, the controversial area where both Sudan and Ethiopia have haggled on the extent of their boundary. Some 9,000 of them were children, 2,700 women, and 13000 men, Dr Musa told journalists.

Yet on the political front, each of those leaders in the region called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But each one had their views on how that should be achieved.

In Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta told Ethiopian Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen of the danger of a “full-blown war” but first advised that the two sides open humanitarian channels for civilians.

“President Uhuru Kenyatta has urged parties to the internal conflict in Ethiopia to find peaceful means to end the crisis,” a statement from State House, Nairobi, said after their meeting on Monday evening.

“While acknowledging the internal efforts being made to end the conflict, President Kenyatta urged the warring parties to prioritise humanitarian needs of local populations by opening up corridors for essential supplies.”

Defence pact

Kenya and Ethiopia have an existing mutual defence pact signed during Emperor Menelik II and Jomo Kenyatta days which often sees Nairobi and Addis Ababa work together to resolve regional security problems. President Kenyatta said both countries remain anchor states to regional peace and cautioned that an unstable Ethiopia could affect the entire Horn of Africa.

Yet under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the TPLF is not an equal entity but a group of criminals wanted to face the law, with 94 of its top officials, including Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael, indicted by the Ethiopia Federal Police.

Ethiopia has argued it is implementing a “law enforcement operation” to tame the ''criminal'' TPLF and its diplomats refuted the tag of ''war'' claiming it had been lost in translation from initial press statements issued in Amharic. Ahead of Mekonnen’s shuttle diplomacy, officials in Addis Ababa had rejected any idea of accepting calls for negotiations with TPLF.

Redwan Hussein, the spokesperson for the taskforce, said Addis Ababa will continue with the crackdown on the errant TPLF members to ensure they face the law.

“The federal government is committed to upholding the rule of law in Tigray region,” he said in a statement, denying initial assertions that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni could mediate between them.

Demeke had earlier met with President Museveni in Entebbe. The Ugandan leader had called for negotiations in a Twitter post, arguing that war would lead to “unnecessary loss of lives and cripple the economy.” The post was later deleted but replaced with a critique of Africa’s record in resolving such crises.

“Africa’s problem is that we never discuss ideology, focusing so much on diplomacy. I totally disagree with politics that focuses on ethnic federalism,” he said, in an indirect jab at Ethiopia’s political system.

Ethnic boundaries

Each of the nine states are demarcated on ethnic boundaries with some form of autonomy and right to self-determination.  It was an idea of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to deal with ethnic problems. The system helped stabilise the country, raise its economy; but it never healed the political problems and marginalised the smaller communities, according to PM Abiy.

“We must emphasise on the issue of oneness and common interests because it’s the only way we can prosper,” the Ugandan leader argued.

If the Ethiopians loved that argument on centralisation, they may have been more pleased with the Djiboutian leader’s view.

Internal matter

A dispatch from the Djibouti Foreign Ministry said the Tigray issue is an internal matter and, while they support a peaceful resolution, they think the guarantor of Ethiopian national unity is Prime Minister Abiy.

“Djibouti fully supports the unity and the territorial integrity of the Federal and Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

“Djibouti calls for a peaceful resolution of this Ethiopian internal crisis under the leadership of HE Mr Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia,” the statement said, indicating Djibouti’s readiness to support a peaceful resolution.

With each calling for peace but Ethiopia largely given the leeway to determine the way forward, it could mean that the TPLF are without allies for now. But as it may turn out, Eritrea and Sudan, which are yet to comment on the goings-on in Addis Ababa, could tilt the direction of this conflict.

Meanwhile, Sudan said it expected more refugees to enter its territory, warning of a possible outbreak of diseases. Tariq Othman, a political analyst and resident of al-Gedaref, agreed with the al-Gadarif state governor’s warning, saying many of those coming in are from urban areas with possible Covid-19 cases and even HIV.

“This may lead to the spread of these diseases in the region, adding to the already weak response from the organisations working in this regard,” Tariq told the Nation.

“The repercussions of the Ethiopian war are not limited only to the humanitarian side in Sudan, but also to the economic aspect, especially agricultural activity, as this is the time for harvesting. It will have a full effect on the harvesting of maize and sesame,” he said, referring to the traditional Ethiopian labour that crosses the border every harvesting time to help on the Sudanese farms. Now they have fled for dear life to refugee camps.

“Even worse is the fact that the Ethiopian labourers have mostly been from the Amhara ethnic tribes, and their presence in the same area, with the Tigrayans, may transfer the battles to the refugee camps,” he warned.