Ethiopia calls for 'perspective' from donors over Tigray conflict

Tigray refugees take a bus to a temporary shelter near the Sudan-Ethiopia border in Hamdayet, Sudan. Photo by: AP Photo / Nariman El-Mofty / Bruce Detorres

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the European Union has called on the country’s international backers not to be distracted by “transient challenges” as Brussels continues to withhold funding from the government over the conflict in the Tigray region.

Ambassador Hirut Zemene told members of the European Parliament on Tuesday that the “law and order operation” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in early November was over in three weeks and that “the government has now mobilized enough resources to support these people in urgent need.”

However, this clashes with accounts from the United Nations, as well as those presented by EU officials in the same hearing Tuesday. Andrea Koulaimah, director for sub-Saharan Africa at the commission’s humanitarian department, said that recent “tiny steps” on humanitarian access are nowhere near what is required for “basic minimal assistance to the affected populations and to avert a major catastrophe.”

“Abiy Ahmed is committing war crimes on a daily basis in Ethiopia, and we are pretending that nothing is wrong. What’s wrong with us?”

— Mick Wallace, member of European Parliament

Zemene said that Ethiopia is “a developing country” doing the “best that we can” and that there is now enough food and medicine for the estimated 2.5 million needy people in the region, up from 1.8 million prior to the conflict.

She also evoked Ethiopia’s strategic importance, calling it “the beacon of stability in the Horn of Africa, a leading troop-contributing country to United Nations peacekeeping operations, and the host to close to 1 million refugees.”

“Hence, we urge our partners to look [at] things in the right context and perspective and not to be taken by transient challenges here and there,” Zemene said. “We also call upon the EU, as [a] strategic partner … to remain committed to the partnership we built over the years.”

The leaders of the European Commission’s development, humanitarian, and foreign affairs departments decided in December to postpone €88.5 million in budget support to the Ethiopian government, citing “consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes” in Tigray.

The money will only be unblocked once a set of conditions, including full humanitarian access, are met. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto will represent the EU on a visit to the region in the next few weeks.

Sandra Kramer, Africa director in the commission’s international partnerships department, told MEPs that Ethiopia remains “an important partner of the EU” and that development assistance has not been “suspended” — a term with legal connotations under the Cotonou Agreement. “The EU continues implementing programs in support of the population,” Kramer added, citing health and disaster risk-management work.

The timing of the budget support postponement is significant. The EU is now preparing its 2021-2027 development programs, and Ethiopia was one of the top recipients for the 2014-2020 period.

“We understand that the situation in Ethiopia implies a reflection on the future relationship with this country,” Rita Laranjinha, managing director for Africa at the European External Action Service, said Tuesday.

Some MEPs went further.

EU to dispatch humanitarian negotiator to Ethiopia after aid suspension

The EU says Ethiopia must grant full humanitarian access to Tigray before it will restore €88 million of suspended budget support.

“[Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed is committing war crimes on a daily basis in Ethiopia, and we are pretending that nothing is wrong. What’s wrong with us?” asked left-wing Irish MEP Mick Wallace. “Do [people] have to be run out of the place as refugees and look across the Mediterranean to get to Europe to make a different life before we actually react to it?”

Norbert Neuser, a center-left German MEP, said that current aid is “insufficient” and that local NGOs suspect hunger has been used as a weapon by Ethiopian government forces.

Zemene took issue with the suggestion that the government has used aid as a weapon. “These are our own people, these are our compatriots, and it’s a very unfair statement on Ethiopia,” the ambassador said. “This is insulting Ethiopia, so we are very unhappy about it. And that is not true.”

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.