Author Cristiano D'Orsi, Research Fellow and Lecturer at the South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL), University of Johannesburg
Ethiopia’s president Sahle-Work Zewde recently reaffirmed her government’s efforts to support refugees and internally displaced people in Ethiopian territory. She also called for the cooperation of continental and international actors.
Ethiopia has a long history of support for refugees and since coming to power one year ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has kept up this tradition. His administration can be praised for supervising the revision of Ethiopia’s refugee law making it one of the most progressive refugee laws in Africa. The revised law allows refugees to obtain work permits, access primary education, obtain drivers’ licenses, register births and marriages, and open bank accounts.
Unfortunately, he has not done the same for the country’s internally displaced people. More than a million Ethiopians were forced from their homes by ethnic violence in 2018 and 2019. Most of them were displaced from the Amhara, Somali, Oromia, and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s (SNNP) regions.
This is currently the highest number of internally displaced people in any country in the world.
This displacement is a stain on Prime Minister Ahmed’s record. He has been lauded for opening up Ethiopia’s political space and making peace with neighbouring Eritrea and has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite these accolades, Ahmed has not been able to get a firm grip on Ethiopia’s internal displacement problem. The displacements are caused by inter-ethnic rivalries that are fuelled by the country’s federal system of government. The system has caused lots of problems for the country because it has divided the people along ethnic lines.
Ahmed’s administration is trying to solve the problem with a strategic plan to ensure the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return or relocation of conflict-displaced populations. The prime minister has already been criticised for its ambitious targets. It has been reported that some people are being forced to return to areas that are still unsafe.
The dire situation facing millions of people forced from their homes by conflict, and the new regime’s misinformed approach to their plight, is now inviting a sceptical response from some observers.
Ethiopia is yet to ratify the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa also known as the Kampala Convention. Thus it is not obligated to meet regional standards of protection for internally displaced people. However, as a sovereign state it is Ethiopia’s responsibility to protect and assist internally displaced people. It has primary responsibility for their assistance and protection.
The federal government is attempting to redress the protection imbalance by implementing the 2019 Strategic Plan to Address Internal Displacement in Ethiopia. The budget for recovery and rehabilitation is partially funded by donors and international agencies. The plan’s overall objective is to ensure the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return or relocation of Ethiopia’s conflict-displaced populations in the Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, SNNP, Benishangul Gumuz, and Harari regions, and the Dire Dawa city administration.
However, recent reports demonstrate that the internally displaced have continued to return to their homelands with minimal to no assistance. Some have been forced to return. The vast majority of the returnees are living in makeshift shelters. Others are temporarily sheltered in camps. Most of them are in the Oromia and Somali regions.
The government is only providing limited food and non-food supplies. However, the international community has increased its support.
Another government effort to deal with Ethiopia’s internal displacement problem has been the establishment of a Ministry of Peace. The ministry is collaborating with United Nations agencies to launch a national process for the development of an inclusive peacebuilding strategy. One of its goals will be to foster the cohesive co-existence of internationally displaced people and host communities through inter-regional and inter-communal dialogue.
If Ahmed wants to succeed in his quest to bring change to Ethiopia he must decisively address the inter-ethnic tensions that are destabilising his first term.
He must also contend with the renewed sense of alienation, anger and humiliation among supporters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The front was once the dominant force within Ethiopia’s ruling coalition – the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. For a long time it imposed its vision, dogma, and policies on the coalition, and the country. But its dominance began to fade following two years of protests that saw Ahmed and his Oromo Democratic Party rise to helm.
The Tigray region is now opposed to Ahmed’s rule because of a perception that his government has stood by as Tigrayans have been forcibly displaced from their lands by other ethnic groups.
The government needs to take steps to restore law and order ahead of the legislative elections slated for May 2020. The poll could be a flashpoint for widespread violence. Opposition politicians are already warning against delaying the elections. This comes after the election board cautioned that insecurity in the regions could result in a postponement.
Questions of borders between regions are suddenly under debate again and the topic of political representation is beset with tension ahead of the 2020 poll.
Federal security forces need to prioritise peacekeeping in the regions. They should do this without undue force and abuse as has been the case in the past.
Ultimately, Ethiopia must also ratify the Kampala Convention. This will ensure that internally displaced populations have access to a legal framework of protections that is already widely accepted on the continent.