Ethiopia civil war risk 'only too real', UN political chief says

What happens when war comes to a nation of 110 million from 90 ethnic groups speaking 80 languages?

With anti-government forces now within striking distance of Ethiopia’s capital city, the UN’s political chief on Monday issued a stark warning about how bad an all-out civil war would be for the country and the region.

Rosemary DiCarlo said Ethiopia’s descent into conflict was “only too real” and urged the government and the Tigrayan and other rebel forces they are battling to lay down arms and begin peace talks.

The northern-based Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has fought Ethiopia’s government for one year. They have in recent weeks claimed several victories and aligned with other rebel forces that are threatening to make an assault on Addis Ababa.

Addressing the UN Security Council, Ms DiCarlo said “no one can predict … how this crisis will unfold” in Africa’s second-most populous nation, where some 110 million people from 90 ethnic groups speak 80 languages.

“What is certain is that the risk of Ethiopia descending into widening civil war is only too real,” said the UN undersecretary general for political and peacebuilding affairs.

“That would bring about a humanitarian catastrophe and consume the future of such an important country.”

Ms DiCarlo said “incidents of hate speech” and attacks on ethnic groups had “increased at an alarming rate” in recent days — raising the risks of more killings, rape, torture and other atrocities that the UN says have been committed by all sides.

The council met amid heightened diplomatic activity on Ethiopia, with the US envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, his African Union counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo, and UN aid chief Martin Griffiths meeting rival leaders on Monday in a bid to ease tension.

Mr Obasanjo told the council via video link there was a “window of opportunity” to persuade rebel and government forces to put down their guns and start talking, but that it was closing fast.

The UN Security Council was for months silent on Ethiopia’s crisis, but last week, the US, Russia, China and others agreed to a statement expressing alarm over worsening clashes there. It remains unclear if the 15-nation body will act.

Kenneth Roth, head of the campaign group Human Rights Watch, urged UN diplomats to impose an arms embargo on Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, which has backed Addis Ababa by sending in troops.

Sanctions would “avoid fuelling further war crimes and make it clear that the council will no longer sit on the sidelines as atrocities in Ethiopia mount”, Mr Roth said.

Fighting broke out in November 2020 when TPLF forces seized military bases in Tigray.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to the northern region, but a Tigrayan counteroffensive that began in June has pushed into the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions and has the government on the back foot.

Thousands have been killed, more than two million have fled their homes and millions face food shortages and famine-like conditions, particularly in Tigray, which has been hit by air strikes and a blockade.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades but lost influence when Mr Abiy took office in 2018. The Tigrayans and some of their allies accuse him of centralising power at the expense of regional states.

Updated: November 9th 2021, 7:44 AM