Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pledged to bury his government’s enemies “with our blood” last week, in an inflammatory speech marking the one-year anniversary of the war in the country’s northern Tigray region.
“We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again,” Abiy said at the military headquarters in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Wednesday, a day after declaring a national state of emergency and urging Ethiopians to take up arms to fight advancing Tigrayan forces.
The speech doubled down on comments the Nobel Peace laureate made in an earlier Facebook post urging supporters to “march … with any weapon and resources they have to defend, repulse and bury the terrorist TPLF.” The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the country for more than three decades before Abiy came to power in 2018, has been designated a terrorist group by the current government.
Abiy’s post was removed by Facebook for violating its policies against inciting and supporting violence. But the prime minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, denies that it and other recent statements by Abiy amount to calls for violence.
“The prime minister calling upon the Ethiopian people to defend their city, to defend their communities, to defend their country” is part of the government’s constitutional responsibility to ward off any attacks, Billene told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an interview Tuesday, adding, “The prime minister is not asking people to go and attack their counterparts and their brothers and sisters.”
Billene also said the Ethiopian government has contested Facebook’s removal of Abiy’s post, adding that it was “not necessarily” a call “to arm everybody and descend into civil chaos, but … about being vigilant in their communities.”
More than a year of war
The TPLF has been battling Ethiopia’s military since the prime minister accused the group of attacking a federal army base and ordered an offensive in Tigray last November. The war has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million and fueled famine.
A series of CNN investigations have also uncovered a range of atrocities committed by forces from the Ethiopian government and Eritrea during the year-long war in Tigray. All actors in the conflict have been accused of committing human rights abuses.
Throughout the interview, Billene repeatedly accused CNN and other western media outlets of misrepresenting the conflict in Ethiopia and contributing to “hysteria” that Addis Ababa was under siege.
Understand Ethiopia's conflict
For the TPLF’s part, spokesman Getachew Reda also told Anderson on Tuesday that the group was “not interested in power, we’re not interested in territory.”
“Abiy’s bombers are killing our children day in and day out, for God’s sakes, and we have to make sure those ‘dogs of war’ are restrained and we’ll continue to take measures,” Getachew said, referring to the ongoing conflict in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s military has urged veterans to rejoin the army as the TPLF and allied rebels approached the capital in recent days. Nine groups opposing the government – a broad coalition of armed groups and political actors representing different regional and ethnic interests, including the TPLF – formed a new alliance last Friday “in response to the scores of crises facing the country” and to fight against the “genocidal regime of Ethiopia,” according to the leader of one of the groups.
Getachew said that fighters aligned with the TPLF would continue to fight until there was “readiness on the part of Abiy’s government” to negotiate a ceasefire, and that the TPLF would be “more than glad to extend the olive branch as well.”
Yet the TPLF categorically rejected a unilateral ceasefire declared by Ethiopia’s government in June, when Tigrayan forces retook the regional capital Mekelle. Since then, the fighting has spread beyond Tigray’s borders into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.
The ongoing conflict has taken an undeniable toll on civilians. In a statement last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray, Amhara and Afar. The UN also said no aid convoys with supplies had been able to enter Tigray since mid-October.
A joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission (EHRC) into the conflict in Tigray released on November 3 found that atrocities had been committed on all sides, including the denial of access to humanitarian relief.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said that while the investigation had uncovered violations linked to the Ethiopian military and allied forces, it had also observed “huge allegations of abuses by the Tigrayan forces” since Ethiopia declared the ceasefire in June.
Getachew told CNN that he “categorically” rejected the joint report because of the EHRC’s involvement, and called for an independent investigation. Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers have also flagged concerns about the investigation’s independence from government influence, though the UN has reaffirmed its impartiality.
Allegations of ethnic targeting
Witnesses and the EHRC have accused Ethiopian authorities of arresting people in capital Addis Ababa based on ethnicity, using the wider powers granted by the current state of emergency.
“We know for a fact Abiy is trying to ratchet up violence against not only Tigrayans but also others who are not willing to fight in his desperate cause,” said Getachew of the arrests.
Billene told CNN on Tuesday that she would need to get further details on reports of alleged arbitrary detentions in the capital, but that the purpose of the state of emergency was “not to target any particular person based on the identity that they are aligned to.”
Instead, the policy is designed to “protect the Ethiopian people” and “to protect the residents of Addis Ababa” who have been told they’re going to come under siege, she said.
Ethiopian authorities are still holding at least nine UN staff members in police stations across Addis Ababa, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday, a day after announcing that 16 UN staff members and their dependents had been detained.
“We’re trying to get clarity, we’re trying to get people out, and we’re trying to get exact numbers in a place where often communications are challenging within the country,” he said, adding that no official explanation had been given by the Ethiopian government as to why they were being held.
Dozens of drivers hired by the UN and an aid organization to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance to Tigray have also been detained, Dujarric said. “A tragic part of this is that the trucks are full. The trucks need to get into Tigray.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the US understood from reports that those arrested were Tigrayan, and that, if confirmed, the US would condemn them. “Detention on the basis of ethnicity is completely unacceptable,” he said.
CNN’s Richard Roth and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.