Geopolitics

Ethiopia's Civil War: Ethnic Atrocities Recall Balkans

Reports of torture, murder and gang rape are emerging from the civil war in northern Ethiopia. The conflict has spread across the country and an imminent collapse seems likely, spreading across the region. Now Turkey is also getting involved.

Tigrayan Refugees in the Tuneidba Camp near Gedaref, Sudan

Christian Putsch

The news reaching the international community from the civil war in Ethiopia is deeply shocking. According to Amnesty International, many women in the Tigray region, where fighting is ongoing, say they have been imprisoned for weeks and gang-raped multiple times, sometimes in the presence of family members. They say some of the perpetrators assaulted them with nails and rocks.

These accusations are overwhelmingly directed at Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers who are fighting the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) for power in Ethiopia's northernmost state. At first, the Ethiopian government dismissed the accusations as "propaganda," but now the Ministry of Women's Affairs admits there is "no doubt" that rapes have taken place.

On the other side, militias close to self-declared liberators the TPLF are also believed to have committed atrocities. They have been repeatedly accused of murdering hundreds of members of the Amhara ethnic group, who have been fighting supporters of the militia for centuries for control of relatively fertile farming regions.

The conflict has spread across the country like wildfire. Ethiopia's central government has not succeeded in removing the TPLF from power for any length of time. Government troops have been driven out of the most important cities in Tigray. The militia is distributing video footage of thousands of soldiers being humiliated and degraded, to make sure everyone in the country gets the message.

The war threatens its very existence.

In terms of population, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa. Now it is caught up in a war on multiple fronts, a war that threatens its very existence. Thousands of people have been killed and almost two million citizens have been driven out of their homes. The TPLF has made gains in the eastern region of Afar, through which the main routes to neighboring Djibouti pass, a vital lifeline for a landlocked country such as Ethiopia.

Refugees draw water from a well in the Somalia region, Ethiopia — Photo: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/ZUMA Press

Beyond the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, fighting has increasingly spread to the state of Oromia – the most populous in Ethiopia – where the rebel group Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is making advances. It is threatening to block trade routes to Kenya and has announced a military alliance with the TPLF.

One consequence is that the country has been vulnerable to famine for decades. Not least because, according to credible reports from aid organizations, Ethiopia is blocking food supplies to contested regions – although the government officially denies this. The weakened government and the rebel groups are both calling on civilians to arm themselves. Longstanding tensions between ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia are escalating.

The TPLF's main aim is to remove Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power. Ethiopia, often seen as a shining light of stability in the Horn of Africa, seems at risk of collapse. Observers are already comparing the situation to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.

Ethiopia's constitution explicitly allows the secession of individual states. While Abiy is seeking to expand the central government's influence, there are growing calls for regional self-determination. Once again the model of ethnic federalism seems likely to collapse, as it did in South Sudan.

People waiting in line to gather water during the Siege of Sarajevo, 1992 — Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

This seems especially likely because the Ethiopian system has been based on pure power calculation from the start. Only 6% of the Ethiopian population are Tigrayan. However, as early as the 1980s, the influential TPLF militia fought the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam (known as the Black Stalin), and after he was removed from power in 1991 the ethnic minority gained political dominance.

In order to gain support among much larger ethnic groups such as the Oromo (which represents around 34% of the population) they set up a federal system with nine states. In theory, at least, the main people groups of Ethiopia were supposed to be fairly represented.

However, in practice, the TPLF was overrepresented in leadership positions nationwide. Three years ago, ethnic tensions and dissatisfaction about infrastructure projects that didn't take the interests of local people groups into account boiled over, and they could no longer keep them under control through their ever more authoritarian government.

Ethnic tensions have boiled over.

At first the current Prime Minister Abiy seemed like an ideal candidate who would be able to calm unrest without significant losses for the ruling elite: a young, dynamic representative of the large, dissatisfied Oromo people group.

But the Tigrayans miscalculated. Their influence waned as the new Prime Minister introduced rapid pan-Ethiopian reforms. While Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for the apparent easing of tensions with Eritrea, the TPLF felt it had been cheated, as the longstanding border conflict, which had seen thousands of deaths, was concentrated on the Tigray region.

The reaction from Turkey shows how important the ramifications of the current conflict will be on the world stage. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised military support to Ethiopia. That may be badly received in Egypt and puts the recently reopened discourse between Cairo and Ankara at risk.

There is a long-running dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter's decision to fill up a reservoir behind a dam on the Nile, which could significantly reduce water supply to Egypt. Due to the Tigray crisis, this potential military conflict over water seems almost forgotten. But its effects will be no less devastating.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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