September 29, 2021
The sudden fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has rightly drawn much of the world’s ire and attention. Fears of women’s rights and civil liberties being swept aside by Islamic extremism, along with trepidation about the country’s threat to regional stability, have all justly triggered global concern.
And yet, much to our distress, for nearly a year the world has paid comparatively little attention to another brutal and escalating conflict; the catastrophic violence in Ethiopia that is affecting the lives of millions and imperiling stability in the Horn of Africa.
The fighting, which first erupted in November 2020, is the result of a dispute between the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and fighters in the country’s mountainous northern region of Tigray. Thousands of Ethiopians have been killed in the conflict, and there is evidence of massacres of the innocent.
Two million people have been displaced, more than 350,000 are facing famine, and millions more are in need of emergency food aid. Yet continued fighting, bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the federal government and the blocking of key humanitarian aid routes has engendered a growing desperation that’s gone largely unnoticed by the global community.
We have watched in horror as humanitarian groups have sounded the alarm about multiplying accounts of Ethiopian military members, along with allied troops from neighboring Eritrea and various supporting militia, claiming the bodies of Tigrayan women and girls as an extension of the battlefield. The Ethiopian government has pledged investigations into any wrongdoing.
Stories of rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, torture and humiliation have emerged as a grotesque feature of this crisis. Pramila Patten, the UN’s top official on sexual violence in conflict, said in April that Tigrayan women and girls are being subjected to sexual abuse with “a level of cruelty beyond comprehension.” In media reports, local medics have described removing nails and rocks from the bodies of victims.
Again, we ask: Where is the outrage?
According to Amnesty International, more than 1,000 cases of sexual violence were registered by local health facilities within just three months, and yet these estimates are likely just the tip of the iceberg. All too often, fear and stigma prevent many survivors from ever coming forward to report their ordeal.
Though Tigray has been largely cut off from the world, at times deprived of electricity and telecommunications, we know enough from the global media and aid workers who have struggled to gain access that something heinous is happening there.
Yet you wouldn’t know that from the world’s response.
Day after day, as conditions worsened on the ground, we have hoped that the suffering of millions of Africans would trigger a public outcry. We waited for the details of this humanitarian crisis to galvanize mass protests, dominate our social feeds and create a united stand from our global leaders.
But we have yet to see an international joint communique that could bring this devastating violence to an end. Where there should have been bold action, there has been largely silence and half measures — President Joe Biden’s timid authorization of broad sanctions among them.
We had hoped that long before now, the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front would have engaged in urgent talks to end this and allow critically needed aid to pass safely into the region. Instead, this conflict has entered a new and potentially more deadly phase. The war is expanding, with the violence that started in Tigray spreading into the neighboring regions. Dangerous alliances are being formed and the battle lines redrawn. Prime Minister Abiy has called for all able-bodied citizens to root out the TPLF. In recent weeks, Tigrayan rebels have joined with anti-government forces from the Oromo region.
Ethiopia now stands on the brink of a full-blown civil war. This would not only be a tremendous tragedy for the people of Africa’s second-most-populous nation — it could also spark significant trouble for neighboring Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and Somalia. In truth, a fractious, convulsive Ethiopia would have a massive impact on the entire continent, and the accompanying reverberations have the potential to set off a chain reaction that could impact us all.
The stakes are too high to allow this conflict to continue, which is why this group of prominent Africans from across advocacy, media, sports, arts and entertainment has come together to speak up. We believe that it is incumbent upon us, as Africans, to use our platforms to stand up for and in solidarity with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters who bear the burden of this violence. We cannot sit passively on the sidelines amid mounting ethnic clashes and allegations of crimes against humanity in Africa’s oldest independent country.
We are using our collective voices to demand that leaders from both sides of this conflict halt the violence and immediately allow humanitarian access to the affected regions. We also call on the African Union, the UN and the United States government to redouble their pressure on the warring parties to help ensure a negotiated resolution to the regional conflict in Ethiopia; justice for the victims of sexual violence; and the lifting of restrictions on the media.
We are also directing this call for action to ordinary Americans of all races, ages and walks of life. We take inspiration from the unity shown last summer, when Africans across the continent stood in public solidarity with Americans to protest racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd.
We saw the power of collective action and what can be achieved when we come together for a just and righteous purpose. A new, critical moment has arrived, and we believe this brutal conflict demands that we stand together again as one.
Editor’s note: Isha Sesay is CEO of OkayMedia and a journalist who has previously worked for BBC, Sky and CNN. Masai Ujiri is the president of the Toronto Raptors and co-founder of youth sports organization Giants of Africa. Gbenga Akinnagbe is an actor known for his work on “The Wire,” “The Good Wife” and Broadway’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and Liz Agbor-Tabi is vice president for global policy and government affairs at Global Citizen, an organization with a mission to end extreme poverty by 2030. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.com.