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Opinion | Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is tearing the country apart

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed outlined his great ambitions for the country ahead of the parliamentary elections in Ethiopia on Monday. He recently told a television interviewer that he wanted it “to be comfortable for all Ethiopians”, “where every Ethiopian relaxes, works and thrives”. The country should be a country whose “sovereignty is respected and feared and whose territorial integrity is preserved”.

He’s doing it in a terrifying way. For eight months, Mr. Abiy’s government has been waging a brutal war against one of its regions, Tigray, killing thousands of people, displacing over two million people and causing devastating famine. Comfort, relaxation, work and wealth couldn’t be further away. Far from any respect, the act sparked international outcry. And for territorial integrity, the war effort has relied on Eritrean soldiers, who Isaias Afwerki, the country’s leader, refused to leave.

But the war in Tigray, although exceptional in its brutality, is not an isolated incident. Since he came to power on a surge of excitement in 2018, Mr. Abiy has consistently demonstrated his tendency to recklessly centralize power. Political opponents who speak out against the establishment of a new ruling party in the image of Mr. Abiy have been sidelined or even imprisoned. Many were shocked by this behavior – after all, Mr Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 – but in fact he has a coherent philosophy and strategy. In his book “Medemer”, a word that the Prime Minister coined for togetherness, explains in detail, the approach seeks unity among the people of Ethiopia and cohesion in his state.

And it’s tearing the country apart.

For the disasters he wreaked, you’ve come to the right place at Tigray. Since Mr. Abiy announced the attack as a “law enforcement mission” in November, it has turned into all-out war. Numerous confirmed reports have revealed the dire levels of violence, including multiple massacres, endemic sexual violence and a famine that threatens the lives of more than 350,000 Tigrayans. While the world doesn’t need to know the actual death toll just yet, the region of more than six million people has been decimated. And there is no end in sight.

The war, which has become the cruel epitome of ethnic cleansing, is Mr. Abiy’s punishment for Tigray’s refusal to assume his authority. (The precursor to the attack was the region’s decision to hold elections in September despite the government.) But Tigray isn’t the only one paying the price for challenging Abiy’s centralization movements. In Oromia, where he is from, Mr. Abiy oversaw a brutal raid – responsible for over 10,000 arrests and a number of extrajudicial executions in 2019 alone – in the name of fighting a rebellion led by the Oromo Liberation Army, an armed opposition Group.

The repression became even more violent after the murder of a popular Oromo musician, Hachalu Hundessa, in June last year. At least 123 people were killed in protests against the killing, the perpetrators of which are still unknown, 76 of them by security forces. As a result, numerous opposition politicians – including Abiy’s former ally Jawar Mohammed – were arrested. In response, the two largest opposition parties withdrew from Monday’s elections, leaving Abiy’s party to rule the country’s largest region virtually unchallenged.

Against this ominous backdrop, the election – which is expected to crown Mr Abiy and his party and consolidate his power – is clearly disappointing. Tigray is not only completely excluded, logistical difficulties have also hindered the coordination process. After security issues, voter registration, incorrect ballot papers and legal challenges, elections were postponed to September in two other regions and dozen of constituencies. And it is unlikely that around half a million internally displaced Ethiopians will be able to vote.

This is a far cry from the free and fair elections that Mr Abiy promised when he took office three years ago: the much-vaunted transition to democracy is not very obvious. Far from providing legitimacy to the government and stability to the country, the elections boycotted by opposition parties and conducted during war are likely to pull Ethiopia further apart, with disastrous results.

But that doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Abiy. Ignoring international requests to end the war in Tigray and agree to an inclusive political settlement, he instead resolutely prepares to rule an Ethiopia that is neither respected nor whole. At least his legacy is assured. Mr. Abiy will forever be the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who refused to give peace a chance.

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