By Jackie van Velzen
In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military attack against Ethiopia’s leading faction: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This has led to a dire humanitarian crisis in Tigray which continues to deteriorate. Even worse, the access of humanitarian aid workers is deliberately restricted by the Ethiopian government. What caused the eruption last year, what is the current status of the humanitarian crisis, how are aid providers responding, and what risks does the conflict pose to the Horn of Africa?
The relationship between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government has been tense for a long time. An important reason for this has been the power struggle between the parties. For several years, the TPLF enjoyed a powerful position in Ethiopia despite making up only about six percent of the population. However, this changed when Abiy became prime minister in 2018 as he removed Tigrayans from powerful political positions and therefore reduced the TPLF’s control over Ethiopian politics. Specifically, after his inauguration, Abiy suddenly removed arguably two of the most powerful people within the TPLF from their positions in government. As a consequence, the relationship between the TPLF and Abiy deteriorated.
The animosity heightened when, in response to Abiy’s power grabs and centralization efforts, the TPLF decided to hold their own local elections in September 2020. The Ethiopian government claimed that the elections were illegal and voted to cut off Tigrayan leaders financially. As a reply, the TPLF stated that this withdrawal of funds was a “declaration of war”. War became a reality when Abiy launched its military offensive on November 4th, 2020. Abiy justified his intervention by claiming it to be a reaction against a TPLF attack on a federal military base. The prime minister claimed on the day of the attack that there were fatalities but did not provide an exact number, and he also declared a state of emergency in Tigray. Confirming a precise number of fatalities or other details on the conflict proved to be difficult, as internet and phone lines were disconnected in Tigray.
Amid the fighting, Tigrayans have great difficulty accessing food, water, cash, and healthcare. Many civilians are also unable to work and cannot access any region outside of Tigray. According to the head of the Dutch emergency relief department of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Karline Kleijer, the most pressing problems are a lack of safety among the civilians and their inability to access food and healthcare. Furthermore, the crisis causes great problems for Eritrean refugees. These refugees reside in refugee camps and are very dependent on humanitarian aid. However, help has not been provided since the situation escalated. Also, due to the blackout of the internet and phone lines, there is currently little to no information about the state of these refugees. Statements by the High Representative of the European Union External Action Service Josep Borrell are, however, alarming. Borrell said that his department received “consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive lootings, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes.’’ Humanitarian aid workers are also at risk. As mentioned by Kleijer, providing aid in certain areas is very dangerous: workers can get arrested, robbed, or even shot. Despite these security risks, Kleijer stated that MSF has not been deterred from accessing Tigray’s most violent areas.
According to aid workers, the fighting has resulted in hundreds of casualties and thousands of people being displaced. Over 50.000 people have fled across the border to Sudan, but the majority of the people remain in Tigray in the battles. Despite the urgency of the crisis, international aid organizations have been barred from providing aid in Tigray by the Ethiopian government. In November 2020, the United Nations declared that the Ethiopian authorities decided to grant “unimpeded, sustained and secure access’’ to Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy stated in February 2021 that “ending the suffering in Tigray and around the country is now my highest priority”. However, according to Kleijer, there are still areas in Tigray that aid workers are not able to access. Even the Ethiopian Red Cross has issued a statement in which they claim that they are only able to reach less than twenty percent of the people in Tigray that require aid. Similarly, the United Nations shared a recently updated map that shows that the majority of Tigray is inaccessible to humanitarian aid.
Security in the Horn of Africa
Before, Ethiopia had a stabilizing influence on the Horn of Africa since Abiy became prime minister in 2018. Most famously, he successfully held peace negotiations with Eritrea (which awarded him a Nobel Peace Prize), but he also mediated conflicts in Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya. However, during the escalating conflict with Tigray this image has started to crumble, together with the stability in the region. The internal conflict in Ethiopia is spilling over into neighboring countries: a longstanding border dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia has become tense once more, with an escalation looming.
Additionally, Somalia is currently dealing with a constitutional crisis that is threatening to reverse the progress that has been made so far. Eritrea has also interfered in the Tigray conflict by joining forces with the Ethiopian government, despite the claim from Ethiopian officials that Eritrea is not involved. Eritrean soldiers have been said to be responsible for some of the worst violent eruptions in Ethiopia. According to a report published by Amnesty International, Eritrean troops have committed several human rights and humanitarian law violations between the 19thand 29th of November 2020. Eritrean soldiers are said to have deliberately shot civilians and to have “carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys’’. Therefore, due to Ethiopia’s conflict with the TPLF and the loss of its role as a regional, stabilizing hegemon, neighboring states previously in need of mediation by Ethiopia are now threatening to slide back into conflict. Ethiopia is now a source of insecurity which can cause renewed violence and conflicts in the Horn of Africa.
Responses by the international community
What needs to be done to solve this humanitarian crisis? Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes, stated that ‘’Ethiopian authorities must not renege on [the] agreement [to grant humanitarian access]. We reiterate our call on all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligation under international humanitarian law to facilitate rapid, unimpeded access for impartial humanitarian relief’’’. MSF’s Karline Kleijer shared that they will keep negotiating with the Ethiopian government to achieve full access to Tigray. In the meantime, the international community must hold Prime Minister Abiy accountable for the killings and atrocities committed under his watch, as well as for the current famine in Tigray (which due to the obstruction of humanitarian aid providers has worsened). Since his rise to power, Abiy was able to make commendable progress in the Horn of Africa, but the current developments are threatening to undo all the advancements made during his tenure.