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The federal government cannot be trusted to rebuild Tigray

7 mins read

International partners should work exclusively with the Tigray regional government.

The war in Tigray has produced hell on earth.

The intensity of atrocities committed, the barbarism displayed by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces against Tigrayans, and the grave breaches of international conventions and laws share all the hallmarks of genocide.

The invading armies spared none in Tigray; ambulances were burned and confiscated, medicine was looted, and health professionals were killed, intimidated, and dehumanized.

Rape and starvation have been employed as weapons of war.

According to an unpublished joint assessment conducted by Mekelle University and the Tigray regional health bureau, more than 120,000 women and girls have been raped, and five percent of victims contracted HIV/AIDS.

The blocking of humanitarian access by the Ethiopian government, combined with the killing and expulsion of aid workers, has seriously undermined the humanitarian response in Tigray.

As a result, the war has reversed Tigray’s hard-won social and economic gains, destroyed civilian infrastructure, ruined magnificent heritage sites, and led to countless deaths through violence, starvation, and lack of access to health care owing to the government-imposed siege.

Given this background, it would be exceedingly callous and naïve to entrust the Ethiopian government in any way with rebuilding Tigray.

However, the federal authorities recently signed a third-party implementation agreement with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to authorize World Bank-funded recovery projects in Tigray.

As per the agreement, UNOPS will implement the project until the situation in Tigray improves enough that the government is able to use its own structure. At that point, UNOPS will hand over activities to the government.

The Ministry of Finance did not disclose the amount allocated for the recovery projects in Tigray or mention if they will be conducted together with the regional government.

Now that the war has restarted in earnest, any reconstruction plans for Tigray will undoubtedly be delayed. But, when the time comes, rather than working alongside the federal government, which is largely responsible for Tigray’s destruction and immiseration, the international community should instead collaborate exclusively with Tigray’s government.

Divided authority

Ever since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power in 2018, his administration has been aggressively working to isolate Tigray politically and economically.

Foreign investors were already effectively barred from traveling to Tigray long before the war, as the roads into Tigray via the Amhara region were closed and they were told by federal authorities not to fly to Tigray.

After the region defied federal authority by holding an election in September 2020, Tigray’s social welfare budget allocated by the World Bank was suspended and the federal budget was retained. These steps exacerbated the feud that culminated months later in war.

Ethiopia has now been at war for nearly two years and is faced with a constitutional crisis that has left Tigray with no representation in the federal government.

Currently, there is no direct and legitimate relationship between the two warring parties, a situation that may continue until a peaceful and constitutional arrangement is in place. It’s impractical to expect the effective implementation of rehabilitation projects while there is no trust between the two warring parties.

Morally speaking, it’s also highly questionable to expect the same government that imposed the siege, blocked essential services, and committed all sorts of atrocities to oversee the process.

Government officials who bombed civilian infrastructure in Tigray, mocked rape victims, and indiscriminately detained Tigrayans across the country—many of whom are still languishing in prison—are now expected to rehabilitate Tigray’s infrastructure, work to save Tigrayan lives, and improve their livelihoods.

Without instituting an extraordinary arrangement, any effort to rehabilitate Tigray via the federal government’s apparatus is futile and counterproductive. It could even be regarded as financing and emboldening the Ethiopian regime to commit another round of atrocities.

Government duplicity

Ethiopian authorities have been sending contradictory signals in their public messaging.

One message, to the Ethiopian people, proposes to subdue the Tigray regional government using all tools at their disposal; a second message, meant to placate the international community, signals the federal government’s interest to end the war via a peaceful settlement.

Ethiopian authorities now realize that they badly need foreign aid and loans—and for Ethiopia’s favorable access to U.S. markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to be reinstated—to resuscitate the country’s collapsing economy.

This explains why the Abiy administration readjusted its outward-facing image in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the international community.

Meanwhile, vital services, including banking, telecommunications, and electricity, are still mostly suspended in Tigray, and fighting resumed along Tigray’s border on 24 August.

Paradoxically, the same government that turned Tigray into ashes is requesting assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors and international financial institutions to reconstruct Tigray.

Most external actors seem to be easily deceived by such ‘peace’ efforts. For instance, the World Bank has continued pledging financial support to the Ethiopian government in the name of rehabilitating the war-torn region.

After the World Bank faced controversy for approving a USD $300 million grant for Ethiopia to mitigate the suffering caused by the war, it began preparing nine more Ethiopia projects worth USD $2.7 billion in 2022.

The much-applauded ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ declared on 24 March hasn’t produced meaningful results. Most of the humanitarian supplies that reached Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, couldn’t be transported to those in need due to lack of fuel.

For this reason, a spokesperson for the European Commission described the World Bank’s planned resumption of funding to the Ethiopian government as “premature” and warned that doing so could inhibit peace talks. Others have accused the World Bank of giving Abiy’s war effort a lifeline.

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In contrast, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s (EU) security and foreign affairs chief, has taken the principled and realistic position that resumption of support to Ethiopia will be conditional, indicating that further efforts are required to re-establish full normalization.

At the war’s outset, the EU decided to suspend nearly €90 million in budget support to Ethiopia.

The enforcement and maintenance of such preconditions by other donors and creditors may have positively influenced the devastating situation in Ethiopia.

Regrettably, some EU members have already normalized relations. For example, Italy recently signed a €22 million concessional loan agreement with Ethiopia.

Regional partner?

The UN and other donors should work with the elected and legitimate government in Tigray, which is currently undertaking all state functions in the region.

There is no need to incur additional resources by passing commodities for reconstruction through Addis Abeba. The port of Djibouti is closer to Mekelle than Addis Abeba, and using this route would prevent Ethiopian authorities from obstructing such projects.

International norms may not offer options to work directly with the leaders of a de facto state. However, there must be a platform to address Tigray’s peculiar situation that takes into account the humanitarian and constitutional crises in Ethiopia.

The humanitarian response in Tigray could draw many lessons from the humanitarian and development assistance delivered in Somaliland, a region that doesn’t have international recognition yet leads the country and has established a de facto state.

This example shows how interactions between the UN and other humanitarian agencies with the government of Tigray could unfold.

Tigray deserves a standalone post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction arrangement. The government of Tigray needs to establish a ‘Tigray humanitarian fund’ which is used by donor countries, NGOs, the private sector, and the diaspora to pool funds to mitigate the deadly crisis.

The UN, World Bank, and bilateral donors should exert pressure on the Ethiopian government to at least refrain from impeding such an initiative.

The recent agreement inked between the finance ministry and UNOPS should also be revisited and aligned with such an initiative. Though the work of international organizations like the UNOPS might be essential to facilitate international procurements and logistics, their contribution must be delineated clearly.

To enhance the transparency and accountability of spending, the government of Tigray along with its development partners should devise a costed medium-term strategic response plan. To avoid resource duplication and enhance efficiency, they can revitalize the joint response forum that existed prior to the war in the major sectors, such as health, agriculture, and education.

In the long term, the government of Tigray would be required to establish an institution that oversees and coordinates the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Tigray. The current emergency preparedness and response office organized under the regional agriculture bureau won’t be able to shoulder this heavy load.

Similar to what the Relief Society of Tigray (REST)—the TPLF insurgency’s humanitarian wing—achieved in the 1980s, such engagement with the regional government could strengthen Tigray’s institutions and lay the foundations for more resilient systems.

Healing Tigray

Despite the minimal progress made following the humanitarian ceasefire, the Ethiopian government continued using food, medicine, and other vital services as weapons of war.

Global creditors and the donor community are not sufficiently pressuring officials in Addis Abeba to stop breaching international laws.

To mitigate the humanitarian crisis as soon as possible, an extraordinary arrangement should be immediately established in the form of a standalone humanitarian fund for Tigray. Sadly, owing to the return to all-out war, the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Tigray has again halted.

The ongoing impasse, coupled with the mistrust between the warring parties, and, more recently, the resumption of hostilities, makes it impossible to rehabilitate Tigray under present conditions. Going forward, rehabilitating the region’s economy and society will necessitate devising extraordinary arrangements with Tigray’s regional government.

Responding to the multifaceted impacts of the war requires the active engagement of various government sectors, the support of donors, and ownership by the Tigrayan community.

Prior to the constitutional crisis, the health, agriculture, and education sectors in Tigray had a vibrant partner-engagement platform and experience. As such, there is a favorable institutional arrangement in Tigray that could make this policy approach a reality.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: A destroyed school in Adwa, Tigray; Igor G. Barbera; Doctors Without Borders; 2021.

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