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Tigrayans Need a Path Home After Abiy’s War

Ethiopia can only recover morally and economically by welcoming refugees back.

By , an editor at the technology and information company Brightwire.
Passengers are greeted by relatives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Passengers are greeted by relatives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Passengers arriving from Tigray are greeted by relatives at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Dec. 28, 2022. AFP via Getty Images

After two years of genocidal war, a fragile peace is settling on the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Local forces, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), have handed tanks and rockets over to the federal army as a gesture of goodwill. Meanwhile, rival Amhara fighters are withdrawing from the region. But it is a fraught recovery—one that now needs the central government to act to guarantee the safety of returning refugees.

In November 2022, the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered 40 tons of medical supplies to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, yet around 11,000 tons are needed, according to the World Food Program. Mekelle has been reconnected to the national power grid, but much of Tigray remains dark. Banks have resumed services in some areas, but some residents say the banks have no money to give. Ethiopian Airlines resumed flights to Mekelle, but almost two weeks later, the route was banned.

And as Ethio Telecom services come back online, Tigrayans abroad are only now learning that they lost loved ones months or even years ago. Some people will never know. Yet after calls for peace by more than two dozen civil society organizations in the country, secret U.S. talks in the Seychelles, a humanitarian cease-fire last summer, and peace talks in South Africa and Kenya, aid to the region is still only trickling in and the scale of devastation is just now becoming clear.

After two years of genocidal war, a fragile peace is settling on the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Local forces, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), have handed tanks and rockets over to the federal army as a gesture of goodwill. Meanwhile, rival Amhara fighters are withdrawing from the region. But it is a fraught recovery—one that now needs the central government to act to guarantee the safety of returning refugees.

In November 2022, the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered 40 tons of medical supplies to Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, yet around 11,000 tons are needed, according to the World Food Program. Mekelle has been reconnected to the national power grid, but much of Tigray remains dark. Banks have resumed services in some areas, but some residents say the banks have no money to give. Ethiopian Airlines resumed flights to Mekelle, but almost two weeks later, the route was banned.

And as Ethio Telecom services come back online, Tigrayans abroad are only now learning that they lost loved ones months or even years ago. Some people will never know. Yet after calls for peace by more than two dozen civil society organizations in the country, secret U.S. talks in the Seychelles, a humanitarian cease-fire last summer, and peace talks in South Africa and Kenya, aid to the region is still only trickling in and the scale of devastation is just now becoming clear.

An estimated 300,000 to 600,000 civilians have been killed in the war, compared to 6,952 civilians killed in Ukraine since February 2022 as of Jan. 10. It is the bloodiest armed conflict since the Syrian civil war was at its peak, and while many of those deaths are attributable to starvation or lack of medical access, up to 60,000 civilians have died due to massacres and bombings alone, according to yet unpublished research by Ghent University professor of physical geography Jan Nyssen, which he relayed to Foreign Policy via email. That’s almost double all the fatalities from battles, violence against civilians, explosions, and riots last year in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria combined, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. The conflict has also created almost 900,000 refugees as of September 2022, or 14 percent of Tigray’s 7 million people, many of whom fled to eastern Sudan through border towns such as Hamdayet or Abdurafi. In addition, there were 2.75 million internally displaced persons in 2022, meaning a total of 52 percent of Tigray’s population fled their home.

The lives lost cannot be restored. But if Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants to make Tigray whole, those who fled must be welcomed home. Not only will this help preserve Tigrayan culture, but it will also help Abiy restore his once-strong reputation as a peacemaker who was transforming the new Ethiopia. All the parties involved have been accused of atrocities, yet no one has more blood on their hands than Abiy himself, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation.”

The war itself began with Abiy’s unconstitutional order in June 2020 to postpone regional elections, citing the pandemic, followed by troop mobilization and open threats to remove Tigrayan leadership after it held elections anyway. The TPLF, the regional militia that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, then attacked the Northern Command headquarters of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Mekelle in early November 2020, and Abiy announced “law enforcement operations” that included federal troops going in from the south and allied Eritrean forces going in from the north. The result was two years of siege warfare that included cutting the region off from power, internet, banking, food, and medical supplies. Famine was used as a weapon of war, women of all ages became victims of genocidal rape, and ethnic massacres were common.

In an ominous sign of his willingness to address refugee issues, Abiy said in a briefing to members of parliament in late November 2020, weeks after the war had begun, that “there are no women or children among the refugees in Sudan.” This was despite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reporting that more than 7,000 refugees—women, children, and men—had fled Tigray to Sudan in just the first two days of the war.

Even if he does have a change of heart, it’s not enough for Abiy to simply hang up the rifles and leave the door open, since many Tigrayans no longer have a home to return to. Not only have houses literally been shelled to dust, but much of Tigray is now inhospitable with little food or medical access. There are now 13 million people across northern Ethiopia in need of food aid, according to the World Food Program. Hospitals have had to turn people out, and from mid-December 2020 to early March 2021, nearly 70 percent of medical facilities had been looted. Furthermore, many properties in western Tigray have since been taken over by refugees from Metekel in northwestern Ethiopia or al-Fashaga, Sudan, following massacres and border disputes in those areas.

If Abiy wants to guarantee the safety of returnees, this will be hampered by the utter lack of confidence Tigrayans now justifiably have toward ENDF forces, some of whom have committed atrocities in the region. Nor will Abiy want to empower the TPLF to secure food resources or the like. Instead, he should rely on the World Food Program, which is already jointly working with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Joint Emergency Operation Program to provide emergency food distribution in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia. But such groups operate on the invitation of the federal government.

The urgency here is not just humanitarian but economic. Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest nations, with a per capita gross national income of $960, roughly two-thirds that of Haiti. Yet its profound poverty masks vast potential. It remains one of Africa’s largest economies as well as its second most populous nation after Nigeria. In 2019, the nation’s GDP growth rate was almost 9 percent, the fifth-highest in the world. Thanks to the war, however, this was projected to hit 4.8 percent in 2022. Ethiopia’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk status, making it virtually impossible to borrow funding for the public infrastructure projects that helped drive its earlier growth.

Abiy can pay the nation’s debts through ongoing privatization, such as the sale of sugar enterprises or telecommunications operating licenses, plus any loans he can secure from the World Bank and African Development Bank, but even if Ethiopia can fulfill its debt obligations, its economy is not on steady ground. In 2022, the country saw inflation hit a 10-year high, it suffered its most severe drought in the last 40 years, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to have lasting economic effects. All this, coupled with the war in Tigray, has wrecked domestic supply chains and driven the cost of food through the roof. Food inflation averaged 17 percent over the last decade. In May 2022, it hit an all-time high of 44 percent. Numbers like that could spark another war.

In other words, Abiy has made the same mistake as other dictators such as Chinese President Xi Jinping or North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, squandering profound economic potential for modest gains in political control. Abiy may like to think Ethiopia can always turn to China as an alternative, yet trade with the United States remains key to Ethiopia’s economy and further U.S. sanctions would be ruinous. In fact, some experts say he struck the peace deal for no other reason than to avoid further sanctions and improve the nation’s foreign loan eligibility. This makes sense, especially since the federal government estimates it will take $20 billion to rebuild Tigray and other war-torn regions, which is a whopping 18 percent of the country’s entire GDP.

This is why welcoming back displaced Tigrayans is more than just a moral cause. Rebuilding the economy, regionally and nationally, needs human capital. Fortunately, the infrastructure that will help create space for people to return will also establish the kind of stability that’s great for local economies. This includes building hospitals and schools as well as creating employment pathways for returnees and support networks to help people settle back in and contribute to the nation’s growth. This would include measures such as transportation aid, housing grants, job training—including efforts to build workforces made up of mixed ethnicities to encourage ethnic cooperation—and therapy.

Those are medium-term solutions, however, focused on the last three of the so-called four Rs of refugee return (repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction). The first step, repatriation, will require emergency assistance, such as aid packages, cash grants, and the delivery of agricultural tools. Even before this, refugees will only voluntarily return once the federal government has established certain security conditions, which not only includes the cessation of combat but the reestablishment of police forces, the enactment of legislation to defend property rights and address rights abuses, the rebuilding of roads and clearing of rubble, and the repair of water and sanitation systems. Without these measures, many refugees literally cannot return.

These efforts should include the participation and guidance of community leaders in partnership with established aid organizations as opposed to ad hoc groups. Namely, partnerships with the U.N. Development Programme, the World Bank, UNICEF, and the World Food Program.

Putting Ethiopia back together will take decades, and the clock is ticking. As multiple studies show, refugees are less likely to return home as time passes, particularly younger ones who are most vital for the future of an economy. Unfortunately, none of this seems to be what Abiy has in mind. Eritrean troops and forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region remain in the area. They may have withdrawn from Shire, but Amhara forces still control the west, all of Tselemti, Dima, and some woredas around Alamata in the south. Food and medical access remain scarce. In some areas, residents are still unsafe. This could be by design, as Abiy uses a formal peace to avoid sanctions while allowing Eritrean forces to do his dirty work without getting his fingerprints all over the crime scene.

If he is serious about ending the war, Abiy has to actually work toward building the peace he agreed to on paper. And even if all he wants is power, he should think seriously about the consequences of holding it in an environment as brittle as the one he has created.

David Volodzko is an editor at the technology and information company Brightwire.

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