The Conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray Region

Wednesday, July 21, 2021
REUTERS / Tiksa Negeri

Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Michelle Gavin, senior fellow for Africa studies at CFR, discusses the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and pathways to a resolution.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matter of policy.

We are delighted to have Ambassador Michelle Gavin with us today to talk about the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Michelle Gavin is currently senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was formerly the managing director of the Africa Center, a multidisciplinary institution dedicated to increasing understanding of contemporary Africa. And prior to that she had a distinguished career in the government. From 2011 to 2014, Ambassador Gavin was the ambassador to Botswana and served concurrently as the U.S. representative to the Southern African Development Community. She also served, prior to that, as special assistant to President Obama and the senior director for Africa at the National Security Council. And before joining the Obama administration, Ambassador Gavin was an international affairs fellow and adjunct fellow for Africa at CFR.

So, Michelle, thank you for being with us today. It would be great if you could provide us with an overview of the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and talk about what’s led up to it, and policy recommendations as you see what we can be doing here from the U.S. vantage point.

GAVIN: Sure. Well, thank you so much for inviting me to join you today. And thanks to everyone who’s taking time to engage with this issue, which is one that genuinely does keep me up at night, and I think is keeping a lot of people up. So this is a conflict that broke out last November, but had, frankly, been a long time coming. The Ethiopian state had for decades been governed by a coalition, a coalition of political parties. But there was one group that was kind of first among equals, that was dominant in this ruling coalition. And that was the TPLF—the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.

So the Tigrayans, which make up about 6 percent, more or less, of Ethiopia’s population—and there is—Ethiopia is a federation. So there are states demarcated on maps with different kind of local governments, and sometimes local defense forces as well. The Tigrayans had been kind of dominant federally until really the rise of the current prime minister of Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is not Tigrayan. He is from—he’s an Oromo ethnically, although his background is mixed, which is true of many Ethiopians. It’s also a mixed religious background, interestingly. His father is Muslim, his mother an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. He himself is Pentecostal.

So as president—or, excuse me, Prime Minister Abiy assumes power, he had a kind of reform agenda, because any and all observers inside and outside Ethiopia agreed at that time the Ethiopian state wasn’t really working. There was a great deal of popular dissatisfaction with the federal government, with the center, a lot of political contestation. And so he unveiled a reform agenda, much of which was celebrated domestically and internationally, designed to open up political space in the country. But part of the reform involved eliminating some of the kind of preferences and the sort of first among equals role of the TPLF. So you had Tigrayans, senior Tigrayans who had long enjoyed very influential roles in politics but also in the economy and in the military finding some of that power being stripped away. And it set up a fairly antagonistic relationship.

Now over time, the prime minister’s reform agenda stalled in some areas. There is still a great deal of discontent and contestation in Ethiopia, aside from in Tigray. But things really came to a head with the Tigrayans around the question of elections. So Ethiopia in June just completed elections. But those elections had been delayed. So the original election date was postponed because of COVID-19, and the difficulty of campaigning, of organizing in the midst of a pandemic. But the Tigrayans chose to go ahead with elections in their region, in defiance of federal authorities. And this really kind of set up a standoff.


And then, both sides were clearly mobilizing forces for actual conflict that the spark that lit the tinder was a preemptive attack on the part of Tigrayan forces on some federal forces in the area. And then what you had was a devastatingly costly conflict, where you ended up with four different armed groups in the mix in Tigray, and civilians suffering. You had the federal Ethiopian forces. You had the Tigrayan forces pushing back. But aligned with those federal forces, and very much complicating the picture, you had Eritrean forces who crossed the border to support Prime Minister Abiy in his campaign against the TPLF. And, worryingly, you had militia forces from Amhara, another very large ethnic group in the country who claim some of the land that on maps had been considered Tigray.

So this devastating conflict, which has been accompanied by clear mass atrocities, the use of sexual violence as a weapon, refugees have been attacked, health care centers have been deliberately destroyed—which is a war crime—crops have been deliberately destroyed. And in fact, hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans are now living in famine conditions. People have begun to die because of famine. It’s a man-made famine in Tigray. So you have the conflict, you have atrocity crimes, and you have this devastating lack of food and access to health care. We’re almost there. We’re almost up to the present.

But something very interesting happened last month, where essentially the Tigrayans, who more or less have been fighting as a guerrilla force, kind of—those who weren’t immediately killed or captured kind of melted away, regrouped in the mountains. The Tigrayans ended up reclaiming a great deal of territory from the federal forces. Federal forces then withdrew from the Tigrayan capital and from most of Tigray. And Prime Minister Abiy announced a unilateral ceasefire. It didn’t really meet—it didn’t look like what ceasefires usually look like, with arrangements for humanitarian access, et cetera. But there was this kind of inflection point in the conflict, where it appeared the Tigrayans had gained an upper hand, the Ethiopian federal forces withdrew.

But the Tigrayans did not accept the ceasefire unconditionally. They wanted the Eritreans out. They wanted those Amhara militia out. Essentially the ceasefire is gone now. Fighting has resumed and has, in fact, spilled out of Tigray into a neighboring region, Afar. You’ve got now multiple ethnical militia from other Ethiopian states agreeing to join this fight against the Tigrayans. So a kind of balkanization of the Ethiopian state itself is very, very worrying. And you also have rhetoric that is really chillingly reminiscent of what we’ve seen proceeding genocides elsewhere in the world. So there’s a lot of dehumanizing language being used.

Prime Minister Abiy recently made remarks that talked about getting rid of the weeds so as to save the crop, that we’re going to—and this kind of dehumanizing language around Tigrayans. Tigrayans who don’t live in Tigray, who might be in Addis, in the capital or elsewhere, are finding themselves targeted by law enforcement, their businesses shut down. It is an incredibly worrying domestic situation. And just to take a step back, it’s also worrying regionally. There is a border conflict now between Ethiopia and Sudan in the al-Fashaga region that could easily spin into an international war between these two states.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of extremely tense negotiations regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the kind of signature infrastructure project of Ethiopia for many years, but that implicates Nile waters, relied upon also by Sudan and, most critically, by Egypt. And there’s been a lot of saber-rattling rhetoric about the inability to come to an agreement—a kind of rule-governed regime for the Nile waters in light of these—the Grand Renaissance Dam.

You’ve got this Eritrean element, right, of Eritrean forces crossing the border, implicated in a number of mass atrocities, and a question about whether or not the Tigrayans would cross the border in retaliation. You have the fact that for many years Ethiopia was actually an exporter of security in the region. It provided peacekeeping troops in Somalia, in South Sudan. A lot of those troops have been recalled, right, to deal with the crisis at home, but this is just a fundamentally destabilizing situation in a country of over 110 million people. So if you think about what state collapse looked like in Syria, you know, this is a population about six times that size. So you can imagine the migratory flows, the tremendous human cost. And we’re seeing a terrible humanitarian crisis now. It could get much, much worse.

OK. So what to do about it? Well, the international community has not been on the same page entirely about the crisis. It took a long time for the Security Council even to get this issue formally on the agenda because of resistance, particularly from China and Russia, and this idea that this is an internal affair of Ethiopia—which is slightly absurd given the Eritrean presence and the border conflict. But now the Security Council is able to talk about it, I think because everybody sees the dangers here.

The Biden administration has elevated this issue. Clearly the president himself is engaged on it, the vice president, secretary of state. They’ve appointed for the first time a U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, and experienced and extremely capable diplomat Jeff Feltman, who’s been engaged in diplomacy in the region, trying to draw some of all these disparate threads of these different, difficult issues together, and also to use some of his skill and expertise in the Gulf, because Gulf states are incredibly influential in the Horn of Africa, particularly the UAE, Saudi, and Qatar.

So there have been targeted sanctions against individuals who have been deemed to be most responsible for the conflict. There’s been withholding of assistance—not humanitarian assistance, obviously, but critical development assistance. And there is—Ethiopia’s economy is not looking good, as most economies are not after the COVID-19 crisis that stalled so much of the global economy. And they have some real debt problems. And that means that the position of the international financial institutions is going to be incredibly important. The U.S. has significant influence there. So there are these leverage points to try to influence behavior, but to look at the rhetoric and read the news, thus far we’re on an escalatory trend, that the conflict and the crisis is moving in the wrong direction.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Michelle. That was a terrific and sobering overview. We’re going to go now to all of you for questions and comments. You can either raise your hand and I will recognize you, and please unmute yourself, or you can write a question in the Q&A box and share there.

The first written question comes from Bruce Knotts, who is with the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations.“I was a PCV near Gondar from 1972 to ’75. At that time it seemed to Tigray and Eritrea shared the same language and had some affinity vis-à-vis the Oromos and Amhara. How did they get to be enemies?”

GAVIN: So this is a great question because it really, for me, kind of brings to the fore the importance of historical grievance in understanding some of the animating forces in this region. So it’s absolutely true that at one time the Eritreans and the Tigrayans had a very close relationship. But just as sometimes the best of friends a falling out then leads to the most bitter animosities, there was an incredibly bitter falling out. And the Ethiopian-Eritrean War in the late ’90s was—that war was prosecuted at a time when the TPLF was the dominant force in Ethiopia. Tigrayans probably made up the bulk of the Ethiopian forces who engaged Eritrean forces.

And there has been tremendous bitterness and animosity between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since—such that when Prime Minister Abiy was able to make peace with President Isaias of Eritrea, it led to a Nobel Prize. People were so excited at this idea of a rapprochement and a kind of more stable relationship between these neighboring states where there are such close family ties and personal ties across the border. But the nature of that relationship between the Eritrean state—which is one of the most authoritarian, restrictive, and abusive governments in the world—the nature of that relationship with the Ethiopian state now, as led by Prime Minister Abiy, you know, there’s a lens one can apply where this looks like an agreement essentially to go after the Tigrayans to seek revenge for past wrongs. And it’s become quite a toxic and concerning relationship.

FASKIANOS: Great. There’s more of a comment than a question from Tsehaye Teferra, who is the founder, and president, and CEO of the Ethiopian Community Development Council.

“There are people who think that the Trump administration had a hand in the war that is taking place now between Addis and Tigray. Do you want to comment on that? And maybe I could wrap with that, how is the Biden administration responding to this conflict now? And what do you see that they’re going to do?” I know you talked about the appointee and that, but, you know, go into a little more detail.

GAVIN: Sure. Well, I’m certainly not aware of the Trump administration’s involvement—direct involvement in this conflict. I will say that there was some incredibly clumsy diplomacy around the GERD, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, during the Trump era, that appeared to side so blatantly with the Egyptians that I doubt it created a great deal of confidence in the United States’ sort of sensitivity to Ethiopian interests. But I don’t in any way believe that that’s kind of the animating force behind this conflict.

I will say this, though, again, the TPLF was the dominant force in Ethiopia for a long time. And U.S.-Ethiopian relations have been complex but quite close for a long time. And so you do very much see in a lot of discourse now the notion that, well, the U.S. has always been on the Tigrayan side. They were with them before, as if—as if there’s some kind of affinity, essentially, between Washington and Tigray, which I don’t think is accurate but is, again, a great example of how history, right, very much informs the actions, opinions, and perceptions of people today.

And I think that particularly as Americans we’re often not very sensitive to that, right? Sort of every day is a new day for us. Or we’ll say, well, that was the previous administration. That was two administrations ago. That’s now how people overseas see these things. (Laughs.) Right? America is America. And so I think that that’s an interesting point.

The other thing I would say on this is that I think it’s important to note that the conflict in Tigray broke out the day after our elections in November. And so you’ll recall that the U.S. was very inwardly focused for quite some time after that, right, as we had a sort of period of tumult and uncertainty about the nature of our own transition. And I do think that that was incredibly unfortunate in terms of our ability to clearly seize on our interests in stability in the region and move out. Then you have a new administration that— any new administration, however well-intentioned—finds itself without the full team on the field, right? So it takes a while to get people confirmed in important roles. We still—there are very important posts in the Horn of Africa that are empty. There’s not a fully empowered ambassador in the chair. And that is a problem.

It’s one reason why I’m so glad the Biden administration moved out to select a special envoy in Jeff Feltman, because that was a process that didn’t have to go through the regular confirmation process, which is a great thing about our system and also an incredibly time-consuming process. So what I think it’s taken the Biden administration some time because we’re all in the middle of a global pandemic and crisis. There are multiple foreign policy issues vying for attention. You don’t have people in the seats. But there has been, as I referenced, it’s notable. There is no African issue that has gotten the level of attention and the kind of high-level engagement that compares to what the Biden administration has devoted to this issue. I think, again, because the worst-case scenarios are so very, very bad.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think Tsehaye has raised his hand, and so I’m going to just call on him to maybe expound or respond. And then we’ll go to Shaun Casey. And, Shaun, I know you wrote your question, but I’d love you to ask it yourself.

TSFAYE: Thank you for the interest and also for convening this important subject. Dr. Gavin, I think you have said it correctly, the genesis of the war, when it started, how it started. You are absolutely right. There is confusion here following, you know, the narrative that have been given by the Ethiopian government. They want to stress that the war started on November 3 or 4. Actually, the war has been going on—not actual fighting, but the pre-war preparations have been going on almost for three years. As you may know, the Tigray region has been kind of quarantined. There were no access from Addis through Dessie. There was no access to Tigray from the Gondar area. So there was only one route, through the Amhara region. So these are all declarations of war by any imagination. So that is something that needed to be corrected, which people have now understood rightly that the war did not start on November 3rd or 4th.

My comment earlier was, as you would recall, when the war started the then-assistant secretary for African affairs and the then-secretary of state, during the Trump administration, both basically blamed the Tigrayan regional government for starting the war. I am sure they know the facts, they had information through their embassy and many sources that the preparation for war had been going on for many years. But the irony is also they blamed the Tigray government for launching, you know, missiles to Eritrean. Therefore, you know, bringing Eritrean to the war, which was absolutely false. There are reports, there is information out there. Eritrea has been part of the preparation of the war against Tigray.

And then, you know, they denied the presence of the Eritrean army in Tigray. The irony is at the time when the Eritreans were committing this horrendous terror in Axum—committing, you know, massacres in November in Axum—the State Department at that time was denying the presence of Eritreans in Ethiopia—I mean, in Tigray. So when you add all this together, it gives you the impression that—or, the speculation that the Trump administration, for some reasons, may have really the knowledge of what was going to happen.

If so, the fact that they did not intervene to stop the war from happening gives the impression that they may have a kind of a tacit approval of the—of the war, and especially since the United Arab Emirate(s) is alleged also to have contributed. And the cozy relationship that the Emirates had with the Trump administration, you know, leads people to speculate, well, there must have been some involvement, even though it may not be practical, concrete, but there may have been some tacit understanding—and since Abiy promised that this war was going to be a short one and that was going to end, you know, in a few days. So I really would like you to comment on these issues. Thank you.

GAVIN: Well, thank you for that perspective. I have to just be honest and say I’m not privy to what the Trump administration did or did not know. I’ve been out of government for some time. I can’t tell you what was coming across the transom in terms of information regarding plans, troop movements, et cetera.

I can say this: I do think—and I don’t think this is unique to the Trump administration—I do think a lot of the international community was very invested in this idea of Prime Minister Abiy as a reformer who could see Ethiopia through a difficult set of kind of political questions and resolutions, and lead—and come out the other end with a kind of stronger, more just Ethiopian state. A lot of the kind of euphoria around Prime Minister Abiy, and even the Nobel Prize—which technically was about the peace with Eritrea, but I think was informed by this idea of the promise, right, of a more democratic, more representative Ethiopia, and what that could mean, and how exciting that prospect was.

And I do think that there was a certain degree of investment in that idea that colored and shaped perceptions, particularly early on. I also think that you’re right about the outright falsehoods that the prime minister delivered publicly, right, regarding, you know, oh, this is a law enforcement operation, it’ll be just mopped right up. Or particularly the denial of the Eritrean troop presence for such a long time when it was crystal clear that the Eritreans were there. And I think that that—the loss of credibility that he suffered as a leader, because of those kinds of statements has been a significant factor in maybe some soul-searching and some readjusting of some of these perceptions, of some of this investment in an individual leader.

I think many people, I would include myself among them, are still very invested in the idea of a strong and resilient, but representative and just, Ethiopia. And that—the promise of that, right, as a force for, you know, African leadership in the decades to come is—remains, you know, very compelling and exciting. Of course, we’re moving in completely the opposite direction right now. But I do think that there is always in foreign policymaking, there’s a degree of wishful thinking. There’s a degree of believing what we want to be true so much sometimes and investing in that idea. And it’s interesting from an analytical perspective, right, to think about what begins to break through and change people’s minds, and force them to reckon with the notion that maybe this vision that they’ve been very excited about is not actually the direction in which events are happening.

FASKIANOS: Great. Shaun Casey, do you want to ask your question, or shall I read it?

CASEY: Sure. I’ll jump in if that’s OK.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you, Shaun.

CASEY: So you caught me in my official academic informal writing uniform. So I apologize. (Laughs.) But first of all, Ambassador, that was just a superb summary of incredibly complex history and set of contemporary details. So I thank you for that. Really three quick questions. I’m curious about the role of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Souraphiel there. There were some reports that Abiy had appointed him to a commission for rapprochement with Tigray I think before the fighting actually started. So it seemed like they had a personal relationship. And even though I think Catholics are about 2 percent of the population, it does seem interesting that as a Pope Francis appointee I think that they take a very deep interest in trying to stop the conflict there. I’m just curious if you have any insight into that ongoing relationship now that the fighting has started.

Secondly, as you observed, in some ways Abiy is a parable of modern Ethiopia religiously. He’s got one parent that’s Muslim, one that’s Orthodox, and he himself is a Pentecostal. And that embodies some of the very unique and complicated religious dynamics there. Can you shed any light on the Full Gospel Church? It is a—it’s an international church. There are congregations in the United States of that denomination. And I understand they’re quite common across Africa. I’m wondering if there are any—if there’s any pressure coming on Abiy from his brother and sisters in the Full Gospel movement.

And then finally, I have also heard that Abiy also wrote a doctoral dissertation on peacekeeping. And I’m curious if any—if there’s a way from the far reaches of Washington, D.C. that one might be able to actually locate that thesis, because inquiring academic nerds want to know what did he say? What kind of philosophical background does he have in his own academic work?

GAVIN: Well, thank you for those incredibly well-informed questions. And I wish I had light to shed on the relationships. And I just have to be honest that I don’t. I’m distant and speculating based on what I see. I would say that voices of moral authority have taken some risks and been quite brave, particularly in speaking out against atrocities that have been committed over the course of this conflict, including voices from faith communities. And I think that that continues to be important. I also know from my own experience, my own contacts in the country, how difficult it is for people to speak freely and publicly right now. There is a great deal of fear that I think every individual’s kind of grappling with conscience, with risk, with what they actually think can make a difference. And I’m not in a position to judge the shadings of those calculations. I can only sympathize with how incredibly difficult it must be.

I think I would love to read the thesis too. I think it would be fascinating. I do think we can see there are some pretty good indications of Prime Minister Abiy’s sort of overall philosophical outlook and how it’s informed by faith, both in the nature of the political movement he’s been building—the Prosperity Party, right, which right in the title gives you a sense of some of the kind of strains that he’s drawing on. And then he wrote a book, Medemer, about kind of the political philosophy that he espouses. So there are very accessible documents and sort of publicly available sort of places to kind of point ones academic lens to try and better understand sort of what the vision is here.

But I will say this, even among people who spent time with these documents, I think a lot of people struggle right now—I certainly struggle—to understand the prime minister’s endgame in this. A country at war with itself, a situation where you’ve now empowered ethnically based armed groups to try and kind of get the work done as you see it, of the central government. And then you’re going to— the idea that these groups are then going to just kind of lay down arms and go back to a rule-governed process for dealing with their own grievances, and the fact that some of their aspirations are actually mutually exclusive, it’s very hard for me to understand what—how when he games these scenarios out in his mind, how this ends up in a place of a strong, and resilient, and prosperous Ethiopia. I don’t get it. And I have yet to encounter anyone who can sort of articulate what that sort of strategic plan might be.

FASKIANOS: Shaun, do you have a follow-up comment? I don’t know if your raised hand is left over. And I should say that Shaun is with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, and formerly of the State Department.

CASEY: Sure. I’d just like to add one thing. I think one of the ironies here is that the first country I visited as special representative for religion and global affairs in the Kerry State Department was, in fact, Ethiopia in 2014. And, ironically, Ambassador Haslach, who was there at that point, we built up an amazing array of contacts for the embassy across all the major and even minor religious communities in Ethiopia. I have a suspicion that in the past four years that list and those robust relationships atrophied a good bit. But ironically, the embassy there was in fact equipped with a comprehensive list of contacts in religious groups. And they also maintained relationships with them. And so it really was quite a surprise, I think, when the conflict broke out, even who Abiy is. But I wonder if the embassy still has the kind of robust list relationships across the—you know, across Muslim communities, Orthodox communities, but also mainland Protestant and Pentecostal churches. I suspect that capacity is now defunct. And I’ll stop there.

GAVIN: I hope you’re wrong. You’re probably right. But I hope you’re wrong. And I do—obviously you’re incredibly knowledgeable about Ethiopia. And I suspect many people in this conversation are as well. But for those who are maybe more generalists or are new to it, right, it is, I think, important to flag what an admirable society it is in so many ways, in its tremendous diversity, religious and otherwise, right, its complexity and its very proud history. So, also kind of in an earlier question there was this idea that there had been a moment when the U.S. might have been able to intervene to stop this war from happening.

And it certainly would have been worth a try. I am not in any way suggesting that the U.S. shouldn’t have tried to do that and shouldn’t continue to try to deescalate the situation and stop the conflict. But I will say that Ethiopia’s never been a terribly easy state—(laughs)—to influence. And a perception, right, that the state could be bullied in any way, which is sort of the tenor and tone of some of the things the Trump administration tried, is a terrible misread, I think. So I’m not in any way suggesting that you were calling for that, or that anyone was. But I think it’s important to understand this is—this is not a country where a major development partner expresses an opinion and people hurry to accommodate it. That is not what this is about.

FASKIANOS: Right. I’m going to go next to Azza Karam of Religions for Peace International. And, Azza, do you want to just ask your question?

AZZA: Yes, with pleasure. Thank you very much, Irina. And thank you very much, Dr. Gavin, for a wonderful overview, and for the responses to the questions.

I actually just wanted to elaborate a little bit more on whatever you know about the role of different religious leaders, institutions in this space so far. I mean, I think there has been such little reporting on what the religious communities are doing, and it kind of beggars belief because it’s a very religious society. We all know that. So where and how have religious leaders, religious institutions played a role, do you think? And what is your own read on some of that, if at all possible, would be much appreciated. Thank you so much.

GAVIN: Well, thank you. And just to avoid misleading anyone, I’m not a doctor of anything. So I just—(laughs)—I don’t want to operate under false pretenses.

Look, I wish that I knew more. I wish that I could point you toward a specific and detailed examples. And there have been—again, there have been some public moments of religious leaders expressing concern about human rights abuses. I suspect that there is a great deal more going on quietly, being channeled into channels that people believe might have influence. I very much hope that particularly the toxic turn the rhetoric has taken, some of the dehumanizing language I spoke about, will prompt even more people to stand up and suggest that this is not the direction anyone wants the country to go.

But I think it’s also, maybe important to contextualize this a little bit in the nature of the kind of information environment that exists in Ethiopia right now, which is highly partisan. There’s a lot of “with us or against us” type of rhetoric on social media, in reporting. And this is—you see this on both sides of the kind of Tigrayan conflict, where you have—it’s not just the language that leadership is using, but the entire kind of information ecosystem. There’s not a lot of space for objectivity in any kind of reporting that Ethiopians are able to access. And there are very real debates about what even is the truth. Things that are not entirely unfamiliar to us but imagine a heightened and very intense level of this.

And I think that that makes it hard too for upstanders, right, to break through. Essentially, people who speak to this issue very quickly get categorized—and so with us or against us. And I think that it’s all the more reason why voices of moral authority, including faith leaders, have such an important role to play in pulling this back from the brink. But it also—it’s a very hard task. It’s a very difficult environment in which to establish oneself as not being kind of a partisan in one way or another.

And and it started with, very early on, a delegitimizing of the other that you saw between the federal government and the TPLF, where the delay in the overall elections did have the federal government standing, essentially, in kind of constitutional quicksand. And so you had Tigrayans saying, well, this is no longer a legitimate government. They don’t—their term has expired, right? You have the federal government has now formally classified the TPLF as a terrorist organization. It’s very hard to imagine political talks, but it’s also hard then to imagine people speaking out. You know, very quickly get accused, well, you’re a terrorist sympathizer. What is wrong with you? So it’s a—it’s a toxic environment that I think makes it difficult for all voices of moral authority to break through and be heard.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

While we wait for more people to queue up with questions or comments, either by raising your hand or typing in the Q&A box, Michelle, you touched upon—we’re all experiencing this global pandemic. How specifically has COVID-19 affected Ethiopia and complicated, essentially, this situation?

GAVIN: Sure. Well, it’s a sort of another layer of hardship, certainly. And the Ethiopian people, particularly in kind of the foreign policy circles, when Ethiopia came up for years, right, the first thing everybody thought about were these very impressive growth rates, which disguised, to some degree, the level of poverty that still exists in Ethiopia. So they were absolutely impressive growth rates, but inclusive growth is a harder thing to achieve, for any state. And you know, the global economic downturn has affected Ethiopia, as it has affected the rest of the world, but particularly African states. And so you’ve seen, losses of employment, less interest internationally in some of the privatization initiatives just because it hasn’t been a time for bullish investing, and obviously conflict doesn’t help.

And the realities of COVID that led to a delay in the election cycle, right, very much contributed to an escalation in the tension between the Tigrayans and the center. Now, I tend to—I probably agree with one of the earlier questioners that the stage was set for conflict anyway, but perhaps that could have been delayed, perhaps there would have been more time for diplomacy and international actors to be helpful. Perhaps, you know, there’s a lot of what-ifs here. It certainly escalated and accelerated the friction and the drive toward conflict.

So and still you have Ethiopians coping with the reality of insecurity, which does not only exist in Tigray, and not only in Tigray and now Afar, and not only in Tigray and at the border with Sudan. There are other parts of the country that are so consumed by political violence that elections weren’t possible there, or some parts of the country are operating essentially under martial law because of insecurity. So you have insecurity, then the additional layer of economic insecurity because of what COVID has done to the global economy, and then the disease itself, the disease itself, and for the entire region, the entire continent, more or less, the incredible frustration of not knowing when they will have adequate supplies of vaccine to feel more confident. So if you can imagine the sort of levels of despair and desperation, right, certainly COVID has had a great deal to do with that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We have a written question from Bruce Knotts who asks if you could talk a little bit more about the refugee situation and its impact on Sudan.

GAVIN: Sure. So you’ve had about sixty (thousand) to seventy thousand Tigrayans who fled across the border into Sudan. Sudan has been responsible in trying to receive these refugees, but Sudan itself—right?— is in the midst of this incredibly fragile transitional period where they ousted the authoritarian dictator, Bashir, and yet the military was not going to relinquish control of the state that they’ve enjoyed for such a long time, and so you have this tenuous military-civilian coalition governing that country. And what I think is important to seize on here is that that insecurity at the border with Ethiopia—not just the refugee flows but the border conflict in Fashaga, the GERD issues—all of this strengthens the hand of the military at the expense of the civilian coalition that protested in the streets in Khartoum and all across Sudan for a more accountable and more democratic state. Right? The more you can point to the threat at the border, the specter of insecurity and disarray, the more that empowers security actors. And so it’s entirely possible that the promise of a more democratic Sudan becomes a casualty of this terrible conflict in Ethiopia. I certainly hope not. We’re not there yet. But it’s a very worrying thing.

The other thing to say about refugees is that quite a number; there were four different camps in Tigray of Eritrean refugees. And again, recall what an authoritarian state Eritrea is, and when the Eritrean forces crossed the border, it’s clear that refugees were targeted in some ways. Two camps were just completely overrun. You have new reports now of Eritrean refugees possibly being targeted by essentially all actors for their perceived loyalties—right?— because Eritreans are not terribly popular in Tigray right now, given the nature of what Eritrean forces have been up to, because Eritrean forces may see these refugees as traitors—reports of forcible repatriation and bringing some of these refugees right back to perform national service. So it’s a horrifying situation for a population that should be protected by international norms and has really been suffering and continues to suffer over the course of this crisis. And it’s important not to lose sight of that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Syed Sayeed of Columbia University. If you could unmute yourself. Yeah, you still need to unmute yourself. OK.

SAYEED: OK. Good afternoon. And it was very interesting to listen to both the presentations and the questions and comments.

I’m wondering if there are any, you know, individuals, groups that have been active in peace-seeking rather than, you know, adding to the fire of the conflict. Are they still existing in any recognizable way or they have all just, you know, gone down? (Laughs.) I don’t want to use any words. So you know what I’m trying to get at, so please give your insight to see how we should perceive the present situation to develop in the future. Thank you.

GAVIN: Sure. Well, I absolutely feel confident that there are groups inside and certainly in the vast diaspora community, which is often highly politicized but also perfectly able to come together to argue for a peaceful, kind of rule-governed process to deal with areas of disagreement. So yes, but, and here we come to the kind of—an information ecosystem that right now is not amplifying voices of moderation. Right? Those voices are getting shouted down very quickly, getting accused of being traitorous. And so I do think that kind of lifting up those voices when possible is something that kind of journalists, international civil society can be doing to try and create a little bit more space in the dialogue around this conflict for less kind of binary approaches.

And where do I see this all going? I think international attention continues to be essential because the stakes for international peace and security are so very high. And so I think that certainly empowering Ethiopian voices who are calling for a de-escalation in conflict, a de-escalation in rhetoric, calling for a kind of national dialogue process ultimately to deal with some of the many, many simmering issues that have led to a great deal of conflict in Ethiopia’s recent past. Ethiopia, of course, just came out of elections that Prime Minister Abiy’s Prosperity Party won resoundingly, but those elections really don’t serve to answer these political questions; there’s got to be some other process going forward. And I do think it’s going to be important for the international community to make clear to all of the belligerents, all of them—right?—that there can be costs for choosing to prolong this conflict and then to try and work to create some guarantees so that no actor believes that a lasting and genuine cease-fire means certain slaughter—right?—or siege or catastrophes. There has to be some guarantees and some space but also some clear consequences to try and affect some of the strategic calculus going on because the—as you have more armed groups being brought into the mix, the prospects for accountability grow dimmer, the prospects for a negotiated solution grow dimmer because it’s that much more complex; you’ve got that many more actors in the mix.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to try to sneak in one quick question from Ephraim Isaac of Princeton University.

So, Ephraim, if you could be really quick. (Laughs.)

There you go.

ISAAC: Apropos the last question, yes, we have national peace organizations. I don’t want to ask a question or get involved in this issue because I chair the Ethiopian Peace and Development Center and we are for peace and love. In fact, in the beginning the prime minister followed a lot of the advice we gave about promoting peace and solving conflicts and promoting “inter-people” relationship. And our organization doesn’t work openly or in public; we are a national Ethiopian group. Recently, two weeks ago, we had a worldwide prayer day for peace in Ethiopia. It was sponsored by the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. Participants were the archbishop of Sweden, president of the World Council of Churches, president of the All Africa churches, the Muslim leader of Nigeria, a Muslim leader from London, the archbishop from Bosnia, people—and then, of course, you mentioned Cardinal Souraphiel from Ethiopia participated, and also the Muslim leader from Ethiopia. We had about twenty people. By the way, the pope had also said a few things about Ethiopia and his message was also delivered. This happened two weeks ago. If anybody wants to listen to how the international community got together to pray for Ethiopia, you can go to Abyssinian Baptist Church Prayer Day for Ethiopia, and we worked very closely with all peace-seeking—we don’t believe that Ethiopian people are enemies. They are brothers. They are sisters.

In fact, I’ll say the last word: We have no problem in terms of religion. I am a scholar of religion myself. Our problem is psychological—psychological. I know in New York two brothers who are trying to kill each other. I know a mother and a daughter who are fighting. So conflicts, really, we always simplify them by saying it’s ethnic conflict, religious conflict. No. They are psychological, whatever they are, even right here in the United States.

So I’ll finish by simply saying we all have to learn a little more about religious ideas, peacemaking. Follow the teachings of the Prophet Isaiah, who three thousand years ago said day will come when the lion will lie with the cow, that nations will not raise arms against nations.

(Speaks in a foreign language.)

(Continues in English.) They will never kill again because the world is flooded with the knowledge of God.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Ephraim.

Michelle, I will give you the last minute to sum up, or thirty seconds.

GAVIN: Thank you to Ephraim who, you know, obviously, would be a great panelist, too, to talk to us about the work of his organization, his colleagues. I’m not surprised. Right? Ethiopian civil society has been suppressed actually for a long time and the tremendous resilience that they’ve shown in being able to organize and advocate for peace, for justice, for inclusive growth is phenomenal. There’s so much to admire so I don’t want to paint kind of Ethiopia as basket case. I am at the highest level of concern about this crisis and I think everyone else should be. But it is important to remember how very capable the Ethiopian people are and how much they have weathered in the past. So I’m very grateful for that final intervention and very grateful to everyone who’s taking time to learn more about this. I’ve learned more from you today as well.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Michelle Gavin. We appreciate your being with us.

And to everybody’s questions and comments, this is really a rich discussion, so we appreciate your all taking the time to be with us. You can follow Ambassador Gavin’s work on our website,, as well as CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion, and of course, go out—go to for information and analysis on many other conflicts, regions, and issues here at home and around the globe. And do email us; you can send an email to [email protected], with suggestions of topics and speakers for future webinars and anything else you would like to raise with us.

So thank you all for being with us. Enjoy the rest of the day and we look forward to reconvening soon.


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