Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict: A Humanitarian Disaster

Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict: A Humanitarian Disaster

The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray province threatens to become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. War crimes, sexual violence and famine are reported to be widespread, and the Ethiopian government is restricting access for humanitarian actors and human rights inspectors. The escalating severity of the situation is eerily similar to scenes from the Tigrayan famine of 1983-85, and it is likely that it may play out in a similar, devastating way.

Origins of the Conflict

The background to the conflict lies in the power struggle in the country following the end of the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991) and the central government’s decision to delay the planned General Election of May 2020. Following the end of the Civil War, power in Ethiopia was concentrated in the hands of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a multi-ethnic coalition of groups that had united to defeat the ruling communist junta. This coalition was dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party representing the people of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province. TPLF leaders controlled the central government for 27 years, from 1991-2018.

This changed when executive committee members representing the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the Oromo and the Amharic people, united to appoint Abiy Ahmed as chairman of the EPRDF, removing the TPLF from their position of dominance. Mr. Ahmed then merged the coalition members into the new Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join. In early 2020 the central government made the decision to delay the General Election, citing COVID-19 concerns. The TPLF decried this a sign of the Ahmed administration’s illegitimacy, carried out their own elections in Tigray province without legal authorisation and eventually attacked and seized an Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) army base.

The conflict officially began in November 2020 when Mr. Ahmed launched what he described as a “law-and-order operation” against domestic terrorists. Initially, the prime minister promised a swift and bloodless campaign, mobilising large ENDF detachments and quickly taking control of the Tigray region’s capital, Mekelle. However, the TPLF and its supporters have since gone to ground in the region’s mountainous areas and commenced an ongoing protracted and bloody insurgency.

A Humanitarian Disaster

The government has imposed a communications blackout on most of the region, and denied access to journalists and humanitarian organisations. Reporting is irregular, but what has been made known is increasingly alarming. Most of the reporting originates from refugees and internally displaced persons, of which the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated to number over 130,000. It is important to note that not all of these internally displaced persons are known to be refugees fleeing the crisis, but as other sources have stated the total number is approaching two million, it is safe to assume that the number of refugees is extremely high.

Many refugees and others fleeing the conflict have stated that government forces and their allies are committing war crimes including massacres and sexual violence. It is difficult to verify these allegations due to media restrictions, but enough corroborating information is being gathered from refugees to suggest that they are true. Reports of widespread acts of sexual violence have been supported by evidence such as increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections (STI) and a surge in women attending hospital requesting emergency contraception. The situation appears to be so bad that Pramila Patten, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, has expressed her great concern and requested immediate access for humanitarian actors and human rights monitors.

Of greatest concern, and the factor that could turn the Tigray crisis into the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, is the threat of famine. The high levels of famine in the Tigray region during the Ethiopian Civil War originally inspired the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, and there are signs that such horrific scenes could be seen again. Refugees have been reported as resorting to eating tree bark and drinking from puddles, during a leaked meeting, a government official was quoted saying “hundreds of thousands might starve to death”, and the UN estimates that nearly three million Tigrayans are in desperate need of basic necessities like food and water.                 

Contributing Factors

There are two factors that are contributing to the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Tigray province and are causing it to worsen. Firstly, there have been reports from several sources that Eritrean troops have entered the conflict on the side of the Ethiopian government. Eritrean troops are likely to behave more viciously towards Tigrayans than ENDF soldiers. Many Eritreans will have memories of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War (1998-2000), with fighting being carried out mostly against ethnic Tigrayans. Even for those too young to remember the war, Eritreans associate Tigray province with the hurt and the damage caused by the war and may want to seek revenge. Eritrean troops are also far less accountable for their actions – answering to Eritrean command rather than to the Ethiopian government. As a result, many of the worst abuses in the conflict appear to have been perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers.

Secondly, there is the use of famine as a counterinsurgency strategy. This has happened before in Ethiopia. In 1984, during the Ethiopian Civil War, Ethiopia’s ruling military junta faced an obstinate insurgency in Tigray province, due to the mountainous terrain of the Tigrayan highlands being perfect for hosting a protracted resistance. The junta responded by allowing a devastating famine to develop in Tigray. The area is susceptible to famine and drought, and by restricting aid provision and not enacting any counter-measures the junta were able to put immense pressure on the Tigrayan population. With the population subdued by famine, the government allowed aid camps to be set up under their supervision, which enabled them to control the Tigrayans and deprive the TPLF insurgency of their vital support base.

Abiy Ahmed and ENDF commanders are undoubtedly aware of this and it seems likely that a similar strategy is being employed in this instance. Because no major military successes against the obstinate insurgency have been forthcoming, it is likely that Ethiopian forces are using famine as a drastic tool to control the population. Its effects will likely be devastating (considering that nearly 1 million Ethiopians died in the 1983-85 famine) and with the added involvement of vengeful Eritrean troops, the outlook is especially grim for the Tigrayan conflict. Humanitarian relief agencies will eventually be granted access, however by then the population will have been sufficiently cowed by brutal tactics and the Tigray conflict will have become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.


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