- After he came to power two years ago following mass protests against the old regime, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed undertook massive political, economic and social reforms that won him local and international admiration. Dr Abiy released political prisoners, journalists, invited exiled opposition and armed groups for dialogue. He was praised for revising repressive laws, allowed the media to operate freely and formed a gender-balanced cabinet with 50 per cent women. He restored peace with Eritrea, and brought warring groups in Sudan and Somalia on the negotiation table for greater peace.
- However, the ongoing military offensive in Tigray region seems damaging to his reputation as a reformist, peacemaker and democratic leader of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian ambassador to Tanzania, YONAS YOSEF SANBE, shares with The Citizen Reporter Bernard James the political situation in his country and implications it could have for peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and the continent at large in this exclusive interview. Below are excerpts of the interview.
QUESTION: What is all about the Tigray conflict?
ANSWER: First, majority of Ethiopians support the reform process introduced by our Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed but the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front) which has dominated the country politics at regional and federal level for 27 years is opposed to the new reform process. TPLF wants maintenance of status quo but Ethiopians protested against the TPLF and finally the reforms were introduced.
When the new PM came to power, TPLF lost their dominance at federal level and have since tried to distabilising our country by organising violence.They support and organise anti-government groups to attack civilians. So there is the hidden hand of TPLF in the killing of innocent civilians in southern and western parts of Ethiopia.
But what are the TPLF actions that could distabilise your country?
TPLF has violated the Ethiopian constitution and put the public peace and stability at risk. It is also threatening the country’s sovereignty.
The actions of this group are hindering the Federal Government from discharging its constitutional responsibility. All 10 regional governments are accountable to the Federal Government. The general election that was scheduled for this year was postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic through constitutional means but the TPLF rejected this decision.
After rejecting the decision of the house of Federation, TPLF adopted new electoral laws at regional level. Mind you this is illegal. They have conducted illegal elections in Tigray in violation of our constitution.
TPLF also involved in organinising and arming local militia and special forces outside constitutionally mandated structures.
For more than two years the federal government has pushed for dialogue but this gesture has been perceived as a weakness.
The patience of the Federal government reached a point of no return when a special force of Tigray attacked the national army base housing federal troops and the federal police force at Tigray. They took away artilleries and military tanks. By this action, they crossed the red line. This was the final act of provocation.
So the Federal Government was forced to undertake a major operation to defend its sovereignty, protect the constitutional order and the rule of the law. The situation in Tigray had reached the level where it cannot be controlled or prevented thought regular enforcement.
But dont you think that the military offensive in Tigray will do more harm than good?
The goal of the operation in Tigray is to restore and protect constitutional order. The second is to ensure rule of law and bring criminal groups to justice. The operation is neither a civil war nor an armed conflict. This operation only target TPLF leaders not innocent civilians.
The Tigray conflict has reportedly killed hundreds and displaced thousand in recent weeks and the UN has warned it could trigger a humanitarian crisis. What do you know about the humanitarian situation?
The Federal Government has established a task force to coordinate the humanitarian activities together with international humanitarian organisation like UNHCR. It is inevitable that civilians will be affected.
Right now, some Ethiopians have migrated to neighbouring countries particularly Sudan. Our delegation has just arrived in Sudan to manage the situation. So, handling the humanitarian situation is not beyond our capacity. Protection of civilians is the responsibility of the government.
What about accusations by the international community that Ethiopia is using excessive power to normalise the situation?
We appreciate the international community’s call for dialogue between the Federal Government and TPLF but it would be unacceptable to put the Federal Government with the said criminals on equal footing. This is an internal affair. Tigray is one of the regions of Ethiopia.
If something happens between the regional and the Federal Government it should be managed by the government, so law enforcement operation in Tigray is an internal affair which does not call for any external intervention.
Mr Abiy received The Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts in making peace with Eritrea after years of conflict and tensions. Do you think the situation in Tigray will destroy his status?
Our Prime Minister has played a leading role in bringing peace and stability in the Horn of Africa, particularly South Sudan. So, the Nobel Peace Prize was not a gift but the actual achievement of his extraordinary work to bring peace. The Federal Government exercised maximum tolerance to avoid this new conflict until the Tigray special forces attacked police and military base. Our Prime Minister is a peace maker, so he will manage the situation in Ethiopia.
TPLF enjoys massive support from Tigray people, how are you going to strike a balance between restoring order through military offensive and keep Tigray people on your side?
Although TPLF is the ruling party in Tigray, it is not that all the people of Tigray support the party. It (TPLF) governed Ethiopia for the last 27 years. Our operation is only targeting TPLF leaders who organise violence. All Ethiopians have rejected TPLF’s approach. Today, 99 per cent of Ethiopians, including Tigrayans support the federal government. Majority of Ethiopians have rejected the old guards out to divide the country.
Tension escalated after Abiy postponed the General Election in June because of the coronavirus crisis. But other countries like Tanzania, the US, Malawi held their elections. How serious or different was the situation in Ethiopia?
In our constitution, the election should have been conducted in May 2020. During that time Covid-19 was at its climax, nobody could conduct political campaigning or do anything that involved gatherings.
This was also the warning by WHO. So by consulting WHO, the authorities decided to postpone the elections. The postponement was reasonable and inevitable. The electoral body then decided that the elections would be held early next year.
What does the conflict means to regional peace and relationship with your neighbours?
One of Abiy’s major achievements was to restore peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. No leader was successful in solveing that conflict for the last 20 years. Only Abiy tried to solve that crisis through negotiations. He is doing the same in Sudan and Djibouti. So, this conflict will not rob us of neighbours or their support that we have worked to bring peace and stability in their country.
Abiy is accused of using excessive powers to deal with the Tigray crisis that could do more harm. When are you projecting to see this conflict come to an end?
This is a conflict between two brothers not between two nations to secure peace and stability in the region. There is no use of excessive power, we are not targeting civilians and infrastructures. So the national defence force takes much similar care for the civilians and infrastructure. Our plan is to restore peace, security and stability in the regional at the shortest possible time.
Ethiopia is led through a federal system of government. What is your response to people who blame the Tigray conflict on the type of your government system?
In Ethiopia there are the federal and regional governments. Regional governments have their own constitution and regional parliament. We are a multi ethnic society, diverse culture, diversity in languages. And for a diverse society federalism is a good approach to governance so far.