As rising violence in Ethiopia threatens to pull neighboring Eritrea into the fray, USIP’s Susan Stigant says, “There is a real need for some external, independent investigator to help diffuse some of that escalation” and look into disturbing reports of human rights violations stemming from the conflict.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Tim Farley: There is a humanitarian crisis underway in Ethiopia, the leader there warning that the final and crucial military operation will soon be launched against rulers of the country's rebellious northern Tigray region. This is something we want to put in focus with our guest Susan Stigant, who is director of the Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace, she is tweeting @susanstigant. Susan, welcome back. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

Susan Stigant: Good morning, Tim. Thanks for having me on.

Tim Farley: There is something ironic about this, I don't know, disturbing, when you see that a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is talking about launching an attack. We're talking about the Prime Minister, help us understand where things are right now.

Susan Stigant: Yes, it's certainly a really concerning and developing situation in Ethiopia. And the fighting that's taking place was really sparked by allegations that Tigray People's Liberation Front and Tigray, one of the federal states in Ethiopia, attacked the Ethiopian Defense Forces in that area. But this really dates back to a really complex transition that's underway, that Prime Minister Abiy is leading and is responsible for leading forward, and a fundamental disagreement about how the country moves forward. What is the political settlement that takes Ethiopia from 27 years of rule under essentially an umbrella party towards a new type of rule?

When Prime Minister Abiy came into power, he released thousands of political prisoners, he opened space for political opposition to return, and started a conversation about how the country would run itself and what would the relationship be between the center and the states. As Americans know, federal relationships are incredibly complicated and fundamentally, what this comes down to is that there isn't agreement about what that federal arrangement will look like going forward.

Tim Farley: What happened? I mean, again, as you mentioned, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had taken office and he had a sense of where he was going. It was after he was in office for a while that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But what has deteriorated, what has changed, what circumstances have altered?

Susan Stigant: I mean, we've seen a series of steps that have really led up to this situation of violence that's deteriorating at this stage. In the summer, Prime Minister Abiy postponed elections that were scheduled to take place in August. This was a result of COVID-19 and in response to COVID-19. However, the way that the postponement took place started to, I think, further show the divisions and some of the challenges in terms of how different political groups were seeing the way forward. And so, the TPLF, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, leading the area where this fighting is taking place, most seriously rejected the postponement so that they would no longer recognize Prime Minister Abiy after October when his term technically would end. And they went ahead with holding elections in Tigray in September, which the federal government in turn refused to recognize. And so you can see there's been a real spiraling of those relationships. And as I said, the spark on November 4 was some fighting between Tigrayan groups and the national defense forces that are located in Tigray. And it's a really complex situation because it's not just non-government aligned forces that are in that federal state.

But a significant component of the federal defense forces are based in Tigray, including soldiers and military and equipment. What's happened over the last few days is that it seems that there's a risk that Eritrea, which is the country with which Prime Minister Abiy has forged a peace agreement, could be pulled into the conflict if they're not already providing some assistance. So the TPLF confirms that they shot in the south to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and the TPLF alleges that Asmara is in fact allowing the Ethiopian defense forces to operate from the country as part of the operation to remove the TPLF leadership and arrest those who are allegedly responsible for undermining Prime Minister Abiy's view of the transition. 

Tim Farley: Susan, clearly in the context of this election, there's not much space for international relations, much less Africa, which usually wants at being at the bottom of the list of concerns of Americans. That said, it was just before the election that President Trump had incited a little bit of a tiff with Ethiopia where he had talked about evidently on a call, the President had talked about blowing up the bridge, the Ethiopian dam, I'm sorry, not bridge, but dam. And that brought some pushback. One wonders of what the U.S. role in all of this is, if any.

Susan Stigant: Yeah, it's very, it's a complicated moment. And I think a space where U.S. leadership is really needed. At this stage, I think that the U.S. voice is critical to call for unhindered humanitarian access to those who are being affected by the fighting. The federal government has cut off communications, electricity, closed banks of those who come from the Tigray region, and this is blocking the UN from mounting a humanitarian response that needs to take place. In addition, they're reported 4,000 people per day who are crossing from Ethiopia into Sudan, to get out of the fighting. And so I think the U.S. can really shine a light on this. And the other thing that the U.S. can call for is independent investigation of all of the allegations that are taking place, of terrible murders, human rights violations and problems that could really amount to war crimes. There's been documented reports of targeting, ethnic targeting of Tigrayan people, people who are being removed from their posts and blocked from traveling. And as the narrative and the tensions rise, there's a real need for some external independent investigator to help to defuse some of that escalation and spiraling because that could continue to fuel violence and indeed, see it really spread across the country.

Tim Farley: I guess one other question would be it does border Somalia, is there any concern about rising terrorist groups trying to fill any kind of a vacuum in the area? Is that a concern also or not?

Susan Stigant: So, in our analysis, we need to really look at the Horn of Africa, as well as bridging into the Red Sea, which bridges between the Horn and the Gulf as an interconnected region for political, economic and security dynamics. And Ethiopia is one of the leading troop contributors into the U.N. and African Union operation in Somalia. And so there are concerns about a distraction where Ethiopia is focused domestically and internally. And certainly, we know that in any circumstance where the country is weakened in its own ability where citizens or not trusting their government, that it makes the risks of extremism that much greater. So, certainly concerns about how this will potentially ripple across the region and take Ethiopia that's in a real anchor state and a partner to the U.S. in its national security priorities. And may actually see Ethiopia as pushing out some of the tensions and some of the concerns from refugees or violence spilling out of the borders.

Tim Farley: Susan Stigant, I appreciate you're being on, we lack expertise, it's good that people like you follow these things because they are important, and we don't give it enough time on the air. But we're glad we can give it some. Thanks for being on the show today.

Susan Stigant: Thanks, Tim. Thanks for the new attention to it.

Tim Farley: Susan Stigant, director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace, the humanitarian crisis underway in that country right now, thoughts about what might happen and what could happen, what should happen. She is tweeting by the way @susanstigant.

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