By Natalie Domaas
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst
Since November 4 2020, the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia has been entrenched in a civil conflict that has created one of the worst humanitarian emergencies seen so far this decade. The conflict began when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military action to be taken against Tigrayan military forces and members of the dominant political party in Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Tensions between the central and regional governments had been mounting for some time, with Mr Abiy dissolving the former ruling coalition in Ethiopia, of which the TPLF were a part of, in 2019 following a string of pro-democracy protests.[i] The TPLF refused to join the new Prosperity Party of Mr Abiy, and later in 2019 the new Prime Minister signed a peace treaty with Eritrea regarding a disputed border between Eritrea and Tigray.[ii] This angered many in Tigray as they saw the move as the central Ethiopian government siding with Eritrea because of the long-standing relationship between Mr Abiy and the Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki. Violence finally erupted in the country after Tigray decided to hold its own regional elections last year in defiance of the central government who had delayed holding elections due to COVID-19. Both sides declared the other government as being illegitimate, with the central government suspending funding for Tigray and finally ordering military action when Tigrayan forces were accused of attacking army bases to steal weapons.[iii]
Since then, fighting has escalated across the region and has caused over two million people to either be internally displaced or flee to neighbouring Sudan.[iv] It is estimated that around five million people across northern Ethiopia are in need of humanitarian assistance, particularly with food assistance as more and more people within the country are on the brink of famine.[v] Responding to the humanitarian situation has been complicated for international relief agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP) due to the central government cutting off access roads into Tigray and only allowing emergency convoys to enter sporadically.[vi] This has caused an increase in WFP convoys being attacked as they try to bring much needed aid to communities. Electricity and communications have also been cut off in the region, and access to cash is virtually non-existent for all people, including relief agencies.[vii] On June 25, three Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) employees were killed in Tigray by unknown attackers, which sparked outrage across the international community and renewed calls for international aid workers and civilians to stop being targeted in the conflict.[viii]
The tensions between the TPLF and Mr Abiy’s Prosperity Party also have an ethnic component to them. Mr Abiy is a member of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, while Tigrayans consist of about 7% of the population.[ix] In recent weeks, these ethnic differences have started to become more intertwined in the fabric of the conflict, with Mr Abiy framing the military operations within Tigray as “removing the weeds” and has alluded to the Tigrayan forces as a “cancer”.[x] This rhetoric is alarming leaders in the international community as they fear that these remarks from Mr Abiy will increase the unlawful targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, which has been an issue since the conflict began with reports of mass executions, sexual violence, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and attacks on schools.[xi] This latest verbal escalation comes after a ceasefire agreement was signed by federal forces in June 2021, and after Tigrayans forces retook the regional capital of Mekelle.
Even though there is currently a ceasefire in place, the conflict seems to be evolving into a new wave as the two sides are unable to come to an agreement on how the relationship between the regional and federal forces should proceed. The TPLF is demanding that both Eritrean and Amhara troops, who are aligned with the federal military, be withdrawn from the region, and should they not withdraw the TPLF has signalled their intention to use force.[xii] Meanwhile, the federal government is continuing its blockade of disallowing aid organisations into the region, while also beginning to mobilise a new military campaign that seeks to employ militias from other regions across Ethiopia to fight the Tigrayan forces.[xiii] This move could increase the ethnic tensions in the conflict because the federal government is seeking to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality between Tigray and the other regions in Ethiopia wrapped under the guise of national unity, which could give increased legitimacy and power to ethnic nationalists.[xiv] By having Mr Abiy and other federal officials kindle the tensions that already exist in the country by using alarming rhetoric and the recruitment of militias, the risk of sparking a genocide within Tigray is becoming all too real. Tigrayan citizens, and Eritrean refugees, are already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis where they find themselves in the crossfire between Tigrayan and federal militaries that has caused vast amounts of hunger, displacement, rape, and death. Should more regions within Ethiopia, such as neighbouring Afar, be pulled further into the conflict through either legal or extra-legal ways, the risk of the conflict spilling over into other parts of the country becomes greater which will only complicate negotiations, put more civilians at-risk, and increase the likelihood of genocide.[xv]
Unfortunately, the way the conflict currently stands does not bode well for either side. With the federal governments use of dangerous rhetoric, Tigray’s regional leaders have also called Mr Abiy and his cabinet a “fascist clique” which does not spark confidence that the two sides are ready to meet halfway at the negotiating table.[xvi] Outside pressure from actors such as the United States and United Nations are mounting on the federal government to at least open transportation corridors into Tigray in order for aid organisations to access civilian and refugee populations that are affected by the fighting.[xvii] The longer the federal government refuses to do so, the less support they could receive from the international community when and if formal peace talks begin, which could potentially cause them to lose a big bargaining chip. The international community has been concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Ethiopia before the conflict with Tigray began. However, now that the conflict is here and the risk of genocide is increasing, trying to find common ground to bring the two sides to the table is becoming more crucial than ever and should be a key priority for all sides in the coming months.
[i] BBC News Africa, “Ethiopia’s Tigray War: The Short, Medium and Long Story,” BBC, 29 June 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54964378
[iv] Laetitia Bader and Amy Braunschweiger, “The Latest on the Crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region,” Human Rights Watch, July 30 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/30/latest-crisis-ethiopias-tigray-region
[vi] OCHA, “Ethiopia- Tigray Humanitarian Update,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 26 July 2021, https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/ethiopia/
[vii] Bader and Braunschweiger, Human Rights Watch.
[viii] UN News, “Tigray: UN condemns murder of 3 MSF humanitarians as ‘appalling violation’ of international law,” 26 June 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/06/1094892
[ix] BBC News Africa.
[x] Cara Ana, “US Genocide Expert to Press Ethiopia on Tigray Aid Blockade,” Associated Press, 29 July 2021.
[xi] Bader and Braunschweiger, Human Rights Watch.
[xii] Michelle Gavin, “Risks Grow as Tigray Conflict Enters New Phase,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 22 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/risks-grow-tigray-conflict-enters-new-phase
[xvii] Cara Ana, Associated Press.