Amid Misinformation and Suppressed Free Speech, Ethiopian Conflict Erodes Abiy's Credibility
As 2020 draws to a close, the terrible toll of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is coming into sharper focus. The human costs continue to mount; the United Nations estimates that 1.3 million people need emergency assistance as a result of the conflict, and over 50,000 people have fled to neighboring Sudan. Eritrean refugees that had fled to Ethiopia have reportedly been attacked, in some cases forcibly repatriated. UN agencies remain unable to access some areas with humanitarian relief. And despite the federal government’s assertion that the military operation ended in late November, some fighting clearly continues. The overall number of civilians killed remains unknown. The toll on regional stability will only become apparent over time, but it is already clear that Sudan’s fragile transition is suffering new perils as a result of the conflict in Ethiopia.
Prime Minister Abiy’s credibility is also among the losses. His claims in late November that not a single civilian was killed in the military assault on Tigray were contradicted by desperate testimonials that emerged despite the state’s attempt to impose a total communications blackout across the region. Ample, alarming evidence belies Abiy’s repeated denials of the involvement of Eritrean forces in Ethiopian territory. Journalists are being beaten and harassed, presumably for reporting the truth and sullying the rosy rhetoric from the leadership in Addis Ababa.
This loss of credibility may seem insignificant compared with the numbers killed, wounded, and displaced, but it is grave nonetheless. Ethiopia had long played an important stabilizing role in the region, and it had been emerging as a leading voice on behalf of the continent as a whole in important global discussions. Around the world, leaders embraced the vision of a stable, prosperous, inclusive, and accountable Ethiopia—a state strong enough to stand up for African interests and for shared global norms. But now the international community has reason to doubt the veracity of Abiy’s words and to second-guess his intentions—hardly a solid basis for fruitful partnerships. The cost, calculated in missed opportunities, could be staggering.