As war fever slowly eases, the unavoidable consequence of post conflict tensions and hyper identity politics continues harms the displaced.
Conflict has increased the number of Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs) in Ethiopia. According the U.N’s humanitarian response plan, since mid-2020 the number has more than doubled from 1.8 million to 4.6 million 2023. This number does not include displaced persons from rural areas made homeless in cities and towns or crisis-affected communities and returning migrants from abroad. When including all of the above, some estimates put the number as high as 5.5 million, or approximately 4.5% of the entire population. The number of refugees or externally displaced Ethiopians as a direct result of conflict is comparatively much less. For perspective, a UNHCR report indicates more than 8.1 million have been displaced due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Two years of conflict (2020-2022) between the Government of Ethiopia(GoE) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has created high humanitarian needs across Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions, which is just recently being addressed thanks to a return to normalcy, following the Pretoria Peace Agreement. After a surprise attack of Ethiopia’s northern command by the TPLF, approximately 2.6 million were displaced across all regions of Northern Ethiopia as conflict spread. Nonetheless, if current trends towards normalization continue, almost all of these IDPs have a high chance of returning to their place of origin.
Conflict driven displacement in Ethiopia eased from its peak in the 1980s, and started to spike again in 2018, when political turmoil increased, due to a rocky regime transition. Before the Tigray crisis, in 2018 a major escalation of fighting in the Somali region had displaced over 1 million persons from both Oromia as well as Somali, according to a report. This flareup was quickly resolved and most of the displaced were re-settled. This is perhaps a test case of how to normalize tensions and return fairly quickly.
Sporadic and yet repeated episodes of conflict in western Oromia is also cause for displacement. The main armed group the area, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has repeatedly targeted civilians, mainly Amhara as well as others. Based on a report from 2022, approximately thirty seven thousand IDPs from this region can be found concentrated in the of town of Debre Berhan. A similar number of IDPs from west Oromia, Dessie and Kombolcha are also camped near the city of Bahir Dar. If the GoE, along with the regional administration in Oromia is able to gaurantee peace, the chances of these IDPs, most of whom were previously farmers, would prefer returning.
Amidst conflict, the GoE has worked alongside international aid agencies to support IDPs to begin returning them to their place of origin. Efforts to help IDPs has been fruitful of late. According to data from Reliefweb, the number of IDPs due to conflict across Ethiopia seems to have stabilized. Historically, Ethiopia has a good track record of hosting external refugees with the help of international aid agencies. This experience will help in terms of re-instating IDPs. As recently as March, 2023 over one hundred thousand refugees from Somalia arrived in Ethiopia, according to a UNHCR report. If peace is sustained, the work of returning IDPs and resettling refuges from neighboring countries will likely succeed. But more needs to be done to address continued gaps in resettlement.
Less noticeable is displacement due to natural disaster, particularly drought displacing persons from parts of southern Somali and Oromia, the area commonly referred to as Borena. in February, 2023, with the fifth consecutive rainy season failing and livestock dying daily, increasing numbers of people from Borena started moving into internally displaced people (IDP) camps in southern Ethiopia. According to a report by ReliefWeb, “Close to 150,000 people have already moved into the 20 IDP camps. More than 867,000 people are expected to arrive in the next month and are seeking immediate food assistance”.
As relative peace in northern Ethiopia continues to hold, hope for a lasting settlement is evermore likely. This of course bodes well for IDPs in the region. Other conflict hot spots in the west as well as the south are relatively more calm today then at any point in the past four years. The near complete cessation of fighting in Ben Shangul region is a good example of how to leverage community dialogue alongside law enforcement to bring back normalcy. Similar work is currently being done in East and West Wellega. Recent visit to the by Prime Minister Abiy is a promising sign, that armed fighting in the region may finally end. Overall, the rate of returning IDPs in Ethiopia is promising. An assessment made by the U.N Migration Head Office indicates, there were an estimated 1.88 million returning IDPs (437,077 households) across 1,554 villages in Ethiopia as of September, 2022.
Sustained work is needed to grow dividends of peace and move the country forward. Easing of post war tensions, in addition to calming Ethiopia’s hyper identity based politics, which some have argued is linked to the country’s ethnic based administrative structure is crucial. The system rewards an “us versus them” political ideology, particularly among competing political elites, who have taken advantage of the comparatively open political discourse since 2018. The atmosphere among Ethiopia’s elites continues to pit communities against one another. This manifests itself in many ways, one of which is the proliferation of extremism, that has found a natural breeding ground, and is increasingly exacerbated by social media. In this environment, politicization of IDPs is an unavoidable and harmful consequence of post conflict, one that will take time and dialogue to resolve.