In 2020, at the age of 28, Filsan Abdi became the youngest minister and the first Somali Ethiopian to be appointed to the Ethiopian government. She resigned as minister for women, children and youth at the height of the war in Tigray last year because of the government’s failure to hold perpetrators of war crimes – including mass rape – to account. She remains the only senior official to resign in protest over the conflict. She says there has still been no accountability or justice for the women and children damaged by the fighting.
As a former minister in Ethiopia, it is heartbreaking to see the people of my country enduring incredible hardship. That they do so with immense resilience gives me the courage to plead for the protection of women and children. Extrajudicial killings, rape and starvation of civilians continue as methods of warfare. The lack of accountability and justice by the government and international entities intensifies the risk of disintegration that will exacerbate civilian hardship and heighten regional instability.
It is devastating that the war that started on 4 November 2020 continues with no respite: 24 months of gunfire, explosions, bloodbaths and screams of women and children. There has been no trace of accountability or justice.
The crimes against women and girls are what caused me to resign last year.
Atrocities by all sides were exposed in a recent report of the UN international commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia.
In terms of human rights abuses and rape cases – specifically those involving 53 Ethiopian government soldiers accused and tried, but never sentenced – justice is not being delivered. There has been no news of what happened to any of the accused. The Tigray Defence Forces are accused of rape and widespread damage to homes, schools and health centres. While authorities implied abuse by their soldiers is addressed “as per the code of conduct and disciplinary procedures of the army” there has been no cooperation whatsoever.
When I was a minister, senior officials obfuscated and lied, and tried to omit any mention of rape by the government and Eritrean forces from the official investigation. The government focused on propaganda at the expense of genuinely pursuing justice. Many opportunities for accountability were missed.
There needs to be zero tolerance for sexual violence in conflicts, such as the horrors we have seen in Ethiopia. There should be accountability on all sides concerning sexual assault, whether it is perpetrated by government soldiers, Eritreans, the Tigray army or militias. A lack of transparency puts a big question mark on the judicial system.
Fighting resumed in August before previous wounds had healed, and now new ones will be formed.
The international community needs to do more, and I make a plea to all warring parties to do their utmost to protect women and children.
It has been a year since I resigned. What has changed since then?
The situation has worsened. A cloud of insecurity, fear and violence hangs over the people. The evidence is that the humanitarian crisis is intensifying in Tigray and spreading to other regions.
People are dying, in the fighting and from hunger and disease. Women are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Opposing groups use violence against women to break the enemy’s will and gain strategic advantage. Thousands of women and girls have been robbed, beaten, mutilated and gang-raped as part of this campaign of violence. To make matters worse, the warring parties have deliberately obstructed their access to care. Survivors have been left to struggle with famine and find a way to care for their families.
Many people have no option but to flee their homes, leaving the once-bustling streets desolate. Ethiopia, along with the rest of the Horn of Africa, is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, with at least 20 million people needing food assistance. Images of starving children and mothers in the Somali region have become all too common, as a land of plenty has been engulfed by famine due to conflict and unaccountable governance.
If there is no political shift, a full-blown collapse is likely, with micro conflicts along the borders involving a range of ethnic groups, threatening to shatter whatever peace and security remains in Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa.
The Ethiopian government must genuinely pursue the path to peace and reconciliation: a political solution and consensus must be reached. If the government wishes to follow the anti-democratic and repressive practices of other countries, it will lead us to a truly grim destination.
Ethiopia has always been an anchor of security in the volatile region and could once again fulfil that role. The al-Shabaab terror group has moved to take advantage of the country’s turmoil within the Somali region’s borders; it has carried out multiple attacks and the risks of it gaining a foothold in the region are acute.
The war cannot be allowed to escalate further. Peace must be forged whether on favourable or unfavourable terms. All sides must compromise more than they would like for the sake of our future. No one is an island.
I call for accountability, transparency in action and good governance at home and internationally. This is the only path to lasting peace. Let us all step forward to make this a reality.