The wars in Ukraine and Tigray were similar. Both shocked by their brutality. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed twisted history to delegitimize an adversary. Putin, for example, argued that Ukrainian identity was an artificial concept and traced Russian identity and the Orthodox faith to Kyivan Rus in modern-day Ukraine. While Tigray’s fight was over identity rather than independence, Abiy approached his adversaries the same way due to the historical origins of Ethiopia and Ethiopian Orthodoxy in Axum in modern-day Tigray.
Both Putin and Abiy underestimated their opponents. They expected the war to last only two weeks and responded to setbacks with viciousness. More than a quarter-million Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have died, and Russian troops and missile bombardments have killed tens of thousands more civilians. As brutal as Russia has been, Ethiopian troops and their Eritrean allies have killed more civilians in Tigray than Russian forces have killed in Ukraine. They deliberately starved a population. Summary executions and mass rape in Tigray are off the charts. Looting and destruction of cultural heritage are widespread.
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All wars come to an end. In November 2022, the African Union helped broker a ceasefire committing Ethiopia to end its siege and slaughter against Tigray in exchange for Tigrayan forces laying down their arms.
The victims of Ethiopian atrocities, however, demand justice. Abiy is frightened. Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen now argues that any investigation from the United Nations into human rights violations could “undermine” the peace process. He is wrong.
Certainly, many diplomats argue that International Criminal Court indictments create a disincentive for dictators to end their aggression. To apply such consideration to the crimes conducted against Ukraine or Tigray would be misguided, however. Neither Abiy nor Putin are prepared to go willingly into exile with a promise of immunity. Abiy has a Messiah complex, and Putin’s ambition is no less inflated. Nor will the ceasefire bring peace to Ethiopia. Abiy opened Pandora’s box with his ethnic politics: His country is now coming apart at the seams as his government targets various ethnicities, while different ethnic groups with which he sought alliance now face retaliation by their victims. To offer Abiy impunity for some of the most egregious war crimes since Rwanda’s anti-Tutsi genocide would be to greenlight new rounds of abuses against Ethiopia’s other minorities, just as forgiving Putin for the destruction of Ukraine would essentially guarantee a future Russian invasion of the Baltic states, Moldova, or Kazakhstan.
Abiy, like his mentor Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, often repeats the mantra “African solutions for African problems.” He hopes this will allow him to avoid accountability. The international community should rebuff this. After all, South Africa had its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Sierra Leone partnered with the U.N. on the Special Court for Sierra Leone. African solutions are clear: No leader should shed African blood without accountability. It is time for Abiy to face justice before he makes Tigray the manual for operations against Afar, Oromia, and the Somalis of the Ogaden. Do not sacrifice long-term peace for short-term diplomatic nicety.