The World Needs to Head Off the Worst in Ethiopia

The Editors

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Less than a year ago, while accepting the Nobel Prize for his role in bringing peace to the Horn of Africa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed offered a reminder to his audience: “War makes for bitter men. Heartless and savage men.” He should need no further reason to call off the war he has started in his own country.

The offensive that Abiy launched on Nov. 4 against the rebellious northern Tigray region is pushing his nation, Africa’s second-largest, toward disaster. Tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing the fighting. There are fears of ethnic massacres (at least one appears to have taken place already) and of spreading famine. The spiraling hostilities threaten to draw in other ethnic groups and even neighboring countries.

A breakdown in Ethiopia would dwarf in scale the collapses of Syria and Libya. Yet that’s where hostilities might well lead if not checked swiftly. Abiy says he had no choice but to act after Tigrayan leaders defied the central government, ignored its decision to postpone regional elections during the pandemic, and then allegedly assaulted a military base. Federal officials say they are nearing the Tigrayan capital and will soon arrest renegade local leaders and restore order.

In fact, Abiy should understand better than anyone that there can be no military solution to this conflict. While Tigrayans only account for about 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, they dominated the government and the military for decades under strongman Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The region is well-armed and populated with hardened fighters. The arrest of their chosen leaders would almost certainly provoke a fierce and protracted insurgency.

Nor would the subjugation of Tigray, even if it were possible, address volatile and growing ethnic tensions across Ethiopia. A national dialogue is desperately needed to work out a new constitutional balance between federal and regional authorities. Instead, Abiy’s government has in recent months been charging opposition figures with terrorism.

African leaders, the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. State Department and even advisers to President-elect Joe Biden have all pressed for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. They’ve called on both sides to avoid civilian casualties and open humanitarian corridors so that aid can reach nearly a million Tigrayans thought to be at risk. That pressure should only be intensified.

But the international community also needs to appreciate that however challenging prospects for peace seem now, they won’t improve with time. That should spur them to work harder to present the warring parties with more specific carrots and sticks. Sanctions and travel bans should be on the table. So should much-needed economic aid. The U.S. and EU should work with South Africa, which chairs the African Union, and influential Gulf states to spearhead these efforts. China also has extensive interests in Ethiopia; in theory, this should be an area where Beijing and Washington can cooperate.

Criticism from the Nobel Peace Prize committee and others who once celebrated Abiy’s reform push could have some influence on the prime minister, who still values his international reputation. At the same time, Tigrayan leaders need to take their own steps to end hostilities. Above all, they’ll have to acknowledge the legitimacy of Abiy’s government, as he will theirs, at least until fresh elections can be arranged. That will be a hard pill to swallow, on both sides — but far less bitter than a senseless and unwinnable war.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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