What Happened to ‘We Are the World?’ Ethiopia’s Escalating Conflict

Despite the initial political transformation under Abiy’s leadership, his current strategies are creating a humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize Ethiopia.

During the 1980s in Ethiopia, the Mengistu military regime’s counter-insurgency strategies against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) caused a devastating famine in the Tigray and Amhara regions. It left over 1.2 million people dead, caused a massive refugee crisis, and displaced over 2 million internally.

The world saw horrific pictures of human suffering and demanded their governments stop the tragedy. International leaders stepped up to end the crisis, while celebrities created a global charity concert, raising over $63 million in We Are the World.

Today, similar strategies under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are creating yet another manufactured humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa.

Escalating to New Levels

Despite the initial extraordinary political transformation under Abiy’s leadership a few years ago, there were already systemic and long-standing socioeconomic challenges and increasing ethnic violence that kept Ethiopia classified high on fragile state and conflict watch lists for decades.

Conflict experts warned the international community needed to immediately support the nascent democratic reforms and address the conflict drivers that the previous government, the Tigray-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, was able to squash — even if it meant putting people in prison or exile. Unfortunately, the much-needed governance and reconciliation assistance began too late.

The ongoing violent conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) is now escalating to new and dangerous levels. Thousands have been killed, an estimated 1.7 million people are displaced, and 5.5 million people face imminent food insecurity.

The TDF has taken back lost territory and gained strategic control in parts of neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara. While the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire in June, they have not adhered to it. Furthermore, none of the TDF’s demands have been met, including a withdrawal of Eritrean troops accused of committing acts of genocide.

Efforts to End Humanitarian Crisis

The international community has issued multiple statements on ending the violent conflict and humanitarian crisis. The US and EU issued a strong joint statement in June, while the UN Security Council met in July to discuss the increasingly dire situation, ongoing atrocities, and need for a political settlement. However, it failed to adopt a resolution.

Given this paralysis, genocide experts Gregory Stanton and Max Pensky recommend the UN carry out fact-finding missions, deliver large airdrops of food assistance, and leverage the UN General Assembly Uniting for Peace Resolution to spur UN-mandated collective action.

Since the conflict began in November 2020, USAID has already provided more than $600 million for emergency humanitarian assistance. However, to effectively deliver assistance, there must be sufficient access. During a recent trip of USAID Administrator Samantha PowerAbiy snubbed her visit where she discussed the possibility of opening up an aid corridor from Sudan to Tigray.

Not Reenacting We Are the World

While these efforts are laudable and necessary, are they and internationally expressed “concerns” enough?

The conflict continues to escalate, with Abiy recently issuing a plea for “all capable Ethiopians” to join the fight against the TPLF. This mobilization may, in the short term, help the Ethiopian government push back the TDF. However, the longer-term consequences can backfire, potentially unleashing unregulated armed militias in a country that is already experiencing vast ethnic violence, which would cause even greater instability and violence.

Donors need to target long-term assistance and diplomacy that addresses deeply rooted ethnic conflict throughout Ethiopia and regional destabilization, including the dam dispute with Egypt and Sudan.

However, the most critical concern is the international community must end the inaction and do whatever it takes to stop a looming disastrous humanitarian crisis and not to reenact We Are the World.

Elizabeth Hume, JD, MA, is the Vice President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, which represents over 120 of the top conflict prevention and peacebuilding organizations working in 153 countries. She is an expert in conflict analysis, policy, and programming.

Headshot Leslie MitchellLeslie Mitchell is an international development professional who spent over 18 years working in Ethiopia as a Country Director for a non-profit development agency from 1996 to 2014. Focus areas included democracy and governance, conflict management, education, health, OVC, among others. She then served in Kenya and Somalia. She has twin boys who are half Ethiopian.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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