Ethiopia: Humanitarian and Political Situation — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 19th January 2022.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 2:30 pm, 19th January 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia.

Good afternoon, Mr Bone; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. With so much going on in the world—in Afghanistan, for example, and the great concerns over Ukraine—problems in Africa sometimes get over-looked. I remember, with some shame, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were killed while the world, including our own country, stood and watched. We cannot allow that situation to happen again. That is why I called this debate, so that we can once again highlight the problems emerging from the conflict in Ethiopia.

Many individuals are concerned about what happens in Africa. I have been chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia since 2009, and have taken an interest in the country for a lot longer. Years ago, Sir Bob Geldof asked me, “What got you interested in Ethiopia?” and I replied, “You did.” Sir Bob’s amazing work in the mid-1980s raised the profile of Ethiopia and inevitably drew attention to the problems that the country suffered at that time—potential starvation being the main one. At that time, the country continued to have political problems, due to the continued existence of the Marxist Derg.

Prior to my first visit to Ethiopia in December 2002, I held a debate in the Commons. Only when researching for that debate did I realise just how much else there is to that amazing country, in terms of its history and potential. For example, Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest Christian civilisations. Apart from a brief spell under Mussolini, it has enjoyed independent status for centuries, and has never been colonised. It also claims to be the origin of coffee, the birthplace of Lucy—one of the world’s oldest human beings—and the home of the fabled Queen of Sheba. The spectacular beauty of the country is amazing.

For many years, Ethiopia’s sizeable Christian and Muslim populations have rightly lived side by side without any problems, as have something like 80 tribes with 80 languages. Albeit from a low base, Ethiopia’s economic growth has been at a level that we in the western world would envy. Yes, there have been accusations of human rights abuses from time to time, with the definition of terrorism sometimes being loosely interpreted. The media have not always been entirely free, and there have been concerns about the functioning of the democratic process and the demise of the Opposition.

However, for a country that has a young democracy, the overall situation has been reasonably impressive, at least until recently. In May 2018, after I had again visited Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed—crucially from an Oromo, not a Tigray background—became Prime Minister. Straight away, he began doing the right things. The long-running war with Ethiopia’s former region Eritrea was ended, earning Abiy the Nobel peace prize in 2019. He announced his intentions to liberalise the economy by privatising state-owned enterprises, such as Ethiopian Airlines—an excellent one to travel on, by the way. Political prisoners and journalists were freed from prison, and the outlook was bright.

Where did it all go wrong? In truth, street protests and uprisings started before Abiy became Prime Minister. On my last visit, in April 2018, we were prevented from visiting various areas because of the security situation. Although it is easy to point the finger at Abiy—and we can come back to that—the unrest had emerged before he became Prime Minister.

It is probably too simplistic to say that trouble erupted because Abiy came from the Oromo tribe and therefore ended the domination of Ethiopian politics by the Tigrayan tribe, which represented just 6% of the country’s population. Again, the situation is more nuanced than that. It is probably also too simplistic to blame the outbreak of trouble on the cancellation of elections because of covid in 2020. However, it is probably true that the absence of a normal, functioning Government and Opposition-style parliamentary process in Ethiopia has not helped. It is also true, albeit it perhaps dangerous, to say that Ethiopia’s federal style of constitution has led some to believe—wrongly, of course—that breaking away would serve certain regions better. For example, Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia but it is no longer.

One of the fears that many of us have is that the current conflict could lead to a general fragmentation of the country. It is very worrying, for example, that forces from Oromia and Amhara have been involved in the conflict. Fragmentation is a real fear, even though each region would probably be incapable of any form of successful self-governance or comfortable, progressive existence. For example, the establishment of food security safety nets over the last few years—they are being severely tested at the moment—could have happened only through a federal Government programme; they could not have been achieved by any one region. It is important for separatists to realise that.

Many of us are also concerned about the possibility that, partly aggravated by the massive movement of refugees from Ethiopia, the conflict will destabilise the entire region—an outcome that none of us wishes to see. Ethiopia has the unfortunate geographical reality of being neighbour to a number of states that themselves are struggling with various challenges. It has to be a worry that some of them might become engaged in this conflict, thereby worsening it and the region.

However, such political machinations are far from the minds of those who are suffering because of the current conflict. The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, particularly in the north, is severe.