Did Eritrea Commit War Crimes in Ethiopia?
The Ethiopian government is facing mounting allegations that foreign soldiers and Amhara regional forces committed atrocities during the war in Tigray.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: Ethiopia is facing mounting reports of atrocities in Tigray, nearly 300 girls abducted in Nigeria are released, and Ivory Coast heads for elections while throttling its own e-commerce potential.
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Ethiopia Faces Allegations of Atrocities
First came the emaciated refugees, then the satellite images of destruction, and then the witness accounts that seemed to confirm the worst—that atrocities were committed during Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict by many actors.
Charges of mass murder in an ancient city. On Feb. 26, Amnesty International released a report filled with harrowing witness accounts of the violence in Tigray. Witnesses and survivors told of systematic killings carried out by Eritrean troops in the ancient Ethiopian city of Axum.
In wresting control of the city from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last November, the report alleged soldiers mowed down civilians in the street, executing people randomly and shooting at anyone who tried to bury the dead. (An earlier report from Amnesty International alleged other atrocities were committed by forces loyal to the TPLF in November.)
The witnesses in Axum recognized Eritrean soldiers by their fatigues and language and said they went from house to house shooting adult men. They also reportedly rounded up citizens in the city’s cobbled streets, beating and threatening them—and also looted homes, hospitals, and businesses. “This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and southern Africa.
Did Eritrean soldiers commit atrocities on Ethiopian soil? An earlier story by The Associated Press also documented witness accounts of massacres in Axum. The Eritrean government dismissed the story as “outrageous lies.” As it has throughout this crisis, the Ethiopian government has dismissed most criticism of the war in Tigray as TPLF propaganda.
In response to Amnesty International’s findings, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs questioned the validity of the rights group’s sourcing. Even as it announced an investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the ministry still described last November’s violence as the “complete breakdown of law and order in Tigray” as a result of the TPLF’s aggression. It made no mention of Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict.
For its part, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission announced that Amnesty International’s report should be taken “very seriously.” While the commission is still finalizing its investigation, its preliminary findings indicate that Eritrean soldiers killed an unknown number of civilians in what it called a retaliatory attack in Axum.
The charge of Eritrean involvement is particularly sensitive because the two countries fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000 that did not officially end until 2018. It was Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s peace deal with Eritrea that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. When approached by Foreign Policy, the prime minister’s office declined to offer further comments on these allegations.
On Biden’s desk. In an internal U.S. government report, officials said Ethiopia’s military and its allies are waging a systematic campaign to ethnically cleanse the Tigray region by “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”
The report, obtained by the New York Times, also accuses Eritrean soldiers and ethnic Amhara regional forces of war crimes such as rape and mass killings. Whole Tigrayan villages were razed in the effort, according to the report, while towns with a majority Amhara population appeared unscathed.
Blinken speaks to Abiy. Ethiopia is quickly becoming a major test for the Biden administration. In a Feb. 25 call with his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, President Joe Biden discussed the crisis in Tigray. A Feb. 27 statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s “grave concerns” over the reports of atrocities. Blinken also called for the removal of Amhara regional forces and Eritrean soldiers as a first step toward ending hostilities. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to that statement as a “regrettable” pronouncement on the country’s internal affairs.
Blinken then spoke directly with Abiy on Tuesday and called again for “the withdrawal of outside forces from Tigray” and requested Ethiopia’s cooperation in facilitating “independent, international, and credible investigations into reported human rights abuses and violations and to hold those responsible accountable,” according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Bad press. While much of the violence occurred during a media blackout, the picture emerging from the conflict is devastating. Refugees are arriving to humanitarian sites emaciated and traumatized. Satellite imagery from this year showed evidence of attacks on civilian buildings. The latest images show that fighting is likely ongoing, with more than 500 structures set on fire in the Gijet area. This contradicts Abiy’s declaration of victory in Tigray and shows that Ethiopia’s civil war could be far from over.
So, too, the war of words. Keen to restore its carefully crafted public image, Addis Ababa has reportedly hired a lobbying firm to look after its interests in Washington, and Ethiopian ambassadors have invited foreign journalists to roundtable discussions. The TPLF is also relying on a powerful diaspora to counter the government’s claims while Oromo nationalists, with ethnic grievances of their own, have also consistently challenged Addis Ababa’s narrative.
The detention of journalists covering the Tigray conflict, particularly those working for international press such as the recently detained BBC reporter Girmay Gebru, has not worked in Ethiopia’s favor. Meanwhile, violence among various groups in the Benishangul-Gumuz region has escalated in recent months.
With the country’s various conflicts spiraling out of control, controlling the narrative may be all that is left.
The Week Ahead
March 5: A year ago, South Africa recorded its first case of the coronavirus. Now, with more than 1.5 million recorded cases, the country has the highest number of coronavirus infections in Africa.
March 6: Ivory Coast holds legislative elections, with candidates vying for seats in the National Assembly and Senate.
March 6: Ghana celebrates 64 years since independence.
What We’re Watching
School kidnapping in Nigeria. The 279 girls kidnapped by armed men from a school in Nigeria on Feb. 26 have been released, according to the governor of the northwestern Zamfara state. It is the country’s latest mass abduction; in December, more than 300 schoolboys were released after they were kidnapped from their boarding school in Kankara state.
The Nigerian government has denied paying a ransom, but it’s clear that schools have become an easy target. As the New York Times noted, “abduction has become a growth industry amid the country’s economic crisis.”
KYC in the DRC. When two Kinshasa bankers spotted a suspicious customer—Israeli businessman Dan Gertler—in the corridors of the Congolese capital’s Afriland First Bank, they knew trouble was brewing. The two, now in exile and able to share their story, have become whistleblowers in a case exposing how Gertler used the Congolese bank to circumvent U.S. sanctions.
Gertler has denied the allegations, and the bank accuses their former employees of forging evidence. Gertler was sanctioned in 2017 after allegations that he used connections to the country’s former leader, Joseph Kabila, to secure mining deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Just as he was leaving office, former U.S. President Donald Trump eased the sanctions, but Biden is expected to reinstate them.
Atrocities in Cameroon. Human Rights Watch has uncovered new details about potential war crimes in Cameroon as government forces battle Anglophone separatists. Government soldiers reportedly raped at least 20 women, including women with disabilities, in a village in Cameroon’s southwest.
The alleged attack took place last March as the Cameroonian military tried to quell efforts by the country’s Anglophone regions to secede. Soldiers also took at least 35 men to a nearby military base, where they were reportedly severely and repeatedly beaten, in what could amount to torture. Human Rights Watch approached President Paul Biya’s office in January, but the letter has gone unanswered.
A united Ivorian opposition. Voters in Ivory Coast head to the ballot box on March 6 to choose their National Assembly and Senate representatives. It’s the first time in a decade that former President Laurent Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), will participate in elections.
The party seems to have mended an internal rift after the release of former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, who was jailed for civil disobedience after he created a national transitional council to oppose President Alassane Ouattara’s third-term victory last October. N’Guessan had previously led a modernizing FPI faction against a so-called “Gbagbo or Nothing” camp. In their determination to weaken Ouattara’s power, opposition parties—including the FPI and former President Henri Konan Bédié’s party—have formed a coalition.
Sexual harassment scandal in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean Vice President Kembo Mohadi stepped down on March 1 amid accusations of sexual harassment. In his resignation letter, the 71-year-old denied the allegations, adding that he was stepping down “to save the image of my government” and “not as a matter of cowardice.”
Mohadi insists he is the victim of disinformation, which he described as “pseudo-paparazzi and flawed espionage.” Mohadi was referring to the viral clips of a voice reported to be his soliciting women for sex, including a woman in his office. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has not yet announced Mohadi’s successor.
Chart of the Week
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout starts in Africa. After weeks of delay, COVID-19 vaccines have begun to arrive in Africa. Ghana received the world’s first COVAX-acquired doses, the AstraZeneca vaccine, followed by the Ivory Coast, and will begin inoculating citizens this week. Others doses were donated by foreign governments, as China did in Zimbabwe, while South Africa purchased its first batch of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
This Week in Tech
The start-up investor Y Combinator has announced that it is backing Djamo, a financial services app aimed at West Africa’s Francophone market. It’s a first for an Ivorian start-up, but perhaps more significantly, it signals potential in an underserved market.
Less than a quarter of adults in West Africa have a formal bank account, and electronic banking access hovers below 5 percent. In the Ivory Coast, 38 percent of adults use digital banking, but it lags behind Kenya, where 72 percent of adults use a mobile phone to do their banking, according to the International Finance Corporation. In Francophone West Africa, banks have historically targeted middle-class or wealthy citizens, ignoring millions of potential customers.
With a stated mission “against bureaucracy, red tape, branches, customer service centers and inefficient managers,” Djamo offers a zero-fee account that opens up the world of e-commerce to users and entrepreneurs—as long as Ivory Coast’s government doesn’t crack down on a nascent social media-driven industry.
The informal sector in the country has embraced technology, with vendors and artisans selling their products on WhatsApp and Facebook. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and brick-and-mortar businesses are demanding regulation so that they can tax these new online entrepreneurs.
This Week in Culture
Coming 2 America, the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s hit 1988 comedy Coming to America, will be released this month—and could be a boon for African fashion.
The Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter collaborated with several designers to create a contemporary lookbook of African fashion in the film’s mythical kingdom of Zamunda. Carter worked with the South African brands Maxhosa and Mantsho, the Ivorian American designer Loza Maleombho, and the Lagos-based House of Deola.
The clothes are more wearable than the costumes Carter created for the superhero film Black Panther. They also reflect a greater familiarity with various African design aesthetics that are neither fantasy nor nostalgia. In short, no one is walking around wrapped in a lion’s mane as James Earl Jones did in the 1988 film.
“We have Instagram and social media, and we know a lot about Africa, more than we did then,” Carter told the South Africa-based Sunday Times.
How Museveni uses the military to stifle dissent. Since coming to power in a 1986 coup, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has used the military to settle political disputes. For opposition leaders and others challenging his rule, it means being subject to martial law, Mohammed Ndifuna writes in the Daily Maverick.
Africa’s history of hosting refugees. Contrary to popular perceptions, Africa is not just a net producer of refugees but also serves as a safe harbor for many. While many African countries shelter those fleeing conflicts in neighboring nations, there have also been refugees from other continents, including Jewish refugees who fled to South Africa during World War II. A lack of knowledge about this shared history of hosting refugees has fueled hatred and xenophobia, George Njung argues in Africa Is a Country.
African billionaires can save America. AmericAID, a satirical new organization dreamed up by the South African author and essayist Sisonke Msimang in Adi Magazine, is funded by the African billionaires Aliko Dangote, Mo Ibrahim, and Strive Masiyiwa and backed by the African Union to address the many woes of a declining global superpower—the United States. AmericAID may not be real, but the concept is a hilarious commentary on the global aid industry.
That’s it for this week.