GONDAR, Ethiopia (AP) – Aba Yosief Desta preferred not to discuss the ethnicity of the victims in the widening conflicts threatening the unity of Ethiopia.
A wooden cross in hand, the Orthodox monk in the yellow robe insisted that the victims of the massacres “have the same face”.
Speaking to the Associated Press in the city of Gondar, where he heads a diocesan office, he reflected on the first known massacre of the conflict in the neighboring Tigray region. The Ethiopian government said the Amhara ethnic group had been killed, but the Tigrayan refugees told the PA they were also targeted.
“It is better to say that Ethiopians were killed,” said the bearded monk. “If an Amhara is killed and a Tigrayan is killed, it means the Ethiopians are killed.” He hopes young people will avoid ethnic politics, which he calls “the source of all problems” in the country of more than 90 ethnic groups.
Africa’s second most populous country, with 110 million people, faces a crisis of ethnic nationalism that some fear could tear it apart as the federal government asserts its authority in areas such as Tigray, where an operation military launched in November to capture the regional fugitive leaders have escalated into a war in which widespread atrocities are reported and thousands of people have been killed.
While this war will reach the six-month mark on Tuesday, there is no indication of how it could be resolved for the approximately 6 million inhabitants of the Tigray region. The United Nations human rights office said all parties were accused of committing abuses against civilians, although many more killings, rapes and mass expulsions are attributed to Ethiopian forces, Amhara allied regional forces or, in particular, troops from neighboring Eritrea.
Over the weekend, Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers almost certainly put an end to hopes for peace negotiations by naming the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, the regional party that dominated a coalition of groups that led as a terrorist organization. ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until Prime Minister Abiy. Ahmed took office in 2018.
The TPLF, like others in Ethiopia, is an ethnically based party that has long represented the Tigray people under the 1995 constitution, which enshrines ethnic federalism. Under this constitution, regional leaders have been accused of asserting the rights of majority ethnic groups to the detriment of minorities.
Tigrayans and the US government allege ethnic cleansing in western Tigray, where Amhara authorities claim to be reclaiming land that Tigrayan rulers seized in the 1990s. The term “ethnic cleansing” refers to forcing a population to leave an area through evictions and other violence, often including murder and rape.
Members of other ethnic groups elsewhere say they have also been targeted. Dozens of people have been killed in clashes this year between the Amhara and the Oromo, Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups. In the west of the country, the Gumuz have been accused of slaughtering people from the Amhara and Oromo groups.
With violence on the rise, some in Ethiopia are wondering how the government will conduct national elections on June 5. The decision to postpone last year’s vote due to the COVID-19 pandemic helped spark the Tigray conflict when leaders in the region clashed, claimed Abiy’s tenure has ended and held a regional vote on their own.
The European Union canceled its election observation mission this week, saying the requirements for its independence and the import of communications equipment were not met.
Abiy will retain his post as prime minister if his Prosperity Party wins the majority of seats in the National Assembly.
But there will be no vote in Tigray, where witnesses say fighting continues and local authorities can overrule decisions made by the federal government. A PA team that obtained permission to visit Mai Kadra was turned back to nearby Humera by soldiers who said they recognized the authority of the Amhara rulers.
The winding road to the west of Tigray exposes the ruins of the war: the charred remains of armored personnel carriers, the mutilated bed of a truck, the pockmarked walls of an industrial park. There is no telephone or internet service. Humera looked deserted. A soldier with a pistol slung across a street while a lone woman brewed coffee on her veranda.
The annexation by the Amhara authorities of a large part of western Tigray has forced hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans to seek refuge elsewhere, including in neighboring Sudan.
Some Ethiopians have said they believe the country needs to overcome its ethnic politics by forging a new federation in which ethnicity is not the most important factor.
But there is no agreement on how this can be achieved as Abiy, who came to power as a reformist leader and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea, undertakes to centralize power so as to marginalize the now fugitive leaders of Tigray.
“There is no doubt that Ethiopia is at a crossroads now,” said Kassahun Berhanu, professor of political science at Addis Ababa University.
While constitutional recognition of ethnic rights “is not bad, it must be streamlined so as not to exclude the need to become a nation.” Because these two elements are not mutually exclusive, “he said.” Ethnic rights cannot be at the expense of essential common belonging. This can be corrected during an amendment. “
Others have suggested that the constitution may have to be abandoned in favor of an American-style “territorial federation,” warning that attempts to centralize authority into a powerful prime minister could bring back harsh authoritarianism while attempts to ethnic homogeneity could lead to further atrocities.
Centralization under the military government which violently ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, as well as ethnic federalism under the successor coalition led by the TPLF, “have been discredited in practice,” said Mahmood Mamdani, government professor at Columbia University. the alternative to both is territorial federalism, ”in which all residents of an administrative unit have equal rights, he said.
In a country where the population of regional states is multi-ethnic, “practicing ethnic federalism amounts to depriving ethnic minorities of their rights residing in unity. It is the root cause of ethnic conflicts in most African states. The spread of conflict in Ethiopia today is no different, ”said Mamdani.
In Gondar, in the middle of rocky hills, a man in civilian clothes but carrying a rifle described himself as a member of an Amhara militia.
These militiamen are accused of having committed atrocities in western Tigray. But Nega Wagaw disagreed, saying “the militias are the keepers of the peace.”
Another resident of Gondar, 22-year-old trader Gashaw Asmare, said he was working to achieve the national unity Ethiopia needs.
“Amhara means to be Tigrayan. To be Tigrayan means Amhara, ”he said. “We Ethiopians are one.”