/ 24 September 2022

‘Why do we have to keep killing?’

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Recently, families across Ethiopia gathered to celebrate 1 Meskerem, the first day of the country’s new calendar year.

Along with wishes of good health and prosperity, many Ethiopians expressed hopes that 2015 – the Ethiopian calendar is about seven years behind the Gregorian calendar – would mark the end of the country’s two-year-long civil war. 

Since then, these hopes have dimmed. 

Fighting has resumed in the northern Tigray region and Tigrayans rang in the new year to the sounds of armed drones overhead and bombs exploding, killing at least 10 people in the regional capital of Mekelle. 

The brutal conflict between the Ethiopian government and Tigray’s regional leadership is thought to have killed thousands and left millions displaced, at risk of famine. Civilians have been targeted with alarming frequency. There has also been fighting in parts of Afar, Amhara and Oromia states.

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been widely condemned internationally for his military’s abuses during the war, which led to the United States imposing sanctions on the country.

Domestically, however, Abiy has faced far less pressure. Press freedom is virtually non-existent – more than 60 journalists have been arrested since the beginning of the war – and authorities are quick to crack down on internal dissent. 

State media outlets broadcast a relentless barrage of war propaganda, making it hard for any other opinions to be heard. This includes incitements to violence, even from government officials, and open calls for genocide.

Defying the war drums

Despite this hostile environment, opposition to Abiy’s war – or “law enforcement operation”, as he initially termed it – is gathering momentum.

Twenty-two months into a conflict that has brought the country’s economy to the brink of ruin, and shredded the social fabric of its ethnically diverse population, more and more Ethiopians are calling for an end to the conflict, despite the risks of doing so.

“People are tired of hearing of death and displacement,” said Addisu Bekele*, who works for a ride-hailing service in the capital. He initially supported the war effort. 

“I think we were tricked. War can’t be a solution; too many innocent women and children have died for nothing.”

On 8 September, hundreds of women took to the streets of the capital Addis Ababa to call for peace, a negotiated end to the war and an end to sexual violence against women, which has been routinely weaponised by all the warring factions.

Demonstrators wore white clothing bearing messages of peace and carried placards denouncing the war. Women carrying microphones yelled “Selam!” – the Amharic word for peace. A loudspeaker blared the single of the same name by popular Ethiopian artist Mahmoud Ahmed.

The song has a storied history. During Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea in the late 1990s, Mahmoud was dispatched to the front lines to sing patriotic songs for the troops. But he also performed Selam, getting the soldiers to dance along to his pacifist anthem – angering and embarrassing the officials who sent him.

The women’s march, organised by a coalition of local women-led, feminist NGOs, is the first of its kind in a city that has seen countless military parades and government-organised, pro-army demonstrations over the past two years.

“More than 400 women participated in the march and they expressed their wishes for a happy, peaceful new year for Ethiopia,” said the Timran women’s rights group, which helped to organise the march. They also urged the involvement of women in every peace-building process that takes place in Ethiopia.

Collective action

Such open rebukes of war on the streets of Addis Ababa have been rare and those who make them risk being labelled traitors and subjected to harassment and arrest.

Nonetheless, the voices calling for peace are getting louder.

Just two days before the women’s march, a collective of 35 civil society organisations scheduled a press conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addis Ababa’s upmarket Kazanchis district. They planned to call for an end to hostilities.

But the press conference never happened. Security forces blocked entry to the hotel, forcing the cancellation of the event, saying that their orders came from “higher up”.

A few hours later, the participating organisations – among them the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, the Editors Guild of Ethiopia and the Centre for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy – released a joint statement calling for “peace and accountability”. They demanded a mediated end to the war; the commencement of a national dialogue; the restoration of interrupted banking and communications services to the Tigray region; accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and an end to hate speech.

The statement did not mention the warring parties explicitly, focusing instead on calling for peace – in its original Amharic, “selam” is used 12 times.

But, for government officials, the statement crossed a red line.

The signatories were summoned to a meeting on 9 September at the Elilly Hotel. Non-state media were denied entry. While the meeting was meant to stay private, two attendees, who requested anonymity, shared details of what took place.

The meeting was led by Alemu Sime, a member of parliament and a senior official within the ruling Prosperity Party. He is a close confidant of Abiy. 

The sources said he used threats and intimidation in an effort to force the statement to be retracted.

“Alemu was very angry. He threatened to revoke our permits and warned us that he could jail us at a moment’s notice,” said one source. “He said, ‘Don’t think you are neutral by calling for peace, you are siding with the enemy. If you don’t think that the survival of our country is your business, let us know now. We will revoke your operating licences.’ He even accused us of betraying Ethiopia.”

The meeting was adjourned with several frightened representatives appearing apologetic and claiming to have been led astray. All were warned that any similar moves would result in retaliation by the state.

The participating organisations have so far refrained from publicly discussing the meeting with Alemu. The Ethiopian government did not respond to a request for comment. 

On Thursday, Jima Dilbo Denbel, the head of the national Agency for Civil Society Organisations – the body that regulates NGOs – was quoted in state media saying that “action will be taken against civil society organisations that are working against our country’s sovereignty and the interests of the people”.

Fall from grace

If anyone knows how risky it is to preach peace in Ethiopia today, it is the singer- songwriter Tariku Gankisi. He is better known as Dishta Gina, which is also the name of his most popular single.

In 2021, Tariku had the world at his feet. He was a rising star in Ethiopian music and the song Dishta Gina was racking up millions of YouTube hits (it currently has more than 28-million views).

It even caught the attention of global superstar Akon, who produced his own remix. Among his many fans was none other than Abiy Ahmed.

Before he became a singer, Tariku had been a soldier. He participated in the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war of 1998 to 2000, which killed an estimated 70 000 people.

The war left a lasting impression on him. On 7 November, Tariku was asked to perform at a pro-war military rally in Addis Ababa. There were thousands of people in the crowd, and millions watching on TV. But, instead of singing, he took the microphone and delivered an emotional plea for peace.

“Enough!” he said. “Why do we have to keep killing? Stop sending youths to the front and send elders to reconcile us. The muzzle won’t bring us a solution!”

Tariku’s outburst was covered by international media and he won admirers the world over.

However, he was also subjected to vitriolic criticism on social media, in particular from pro-government accounts, and received death threats.

Eventually, he was paraded on primetime Ethiopian television where he issued a tearful apology. He has since left Addis Ababa for his hometown in southern Ethiopia.

His career appears to be over. The war goes on.