On June 25th, three workers for the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders were murdered by unknown assailants in Ethiopia’s conflict-ridden Tigray region. Their deaths mark a tragic escalation in hostility towards aid workers by armed forces since war broke out in Tigray seven months ago. The war has killed thousands of civilians, internally displaced more than two million people, and forced 60,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring Sudan. Now, Tigray faces the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade, with 350,000 people threatened by famine. Still, Ethiopian federal troops and allied forces have continued to block humanitarian supplies into the region.
Tensions spiked last summer when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed Ethiopia’s first free elections due to pandemic concerns. This upset the already embittered Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose 27-year rule was ended by Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party in 2018. Fearing that delayed elections would threaten Tigray’s regional autonomy further, the TPLF defied the government and held regional elections anyway. Tensions erupted into warfare in November when Abiy Ahmed alleged that the TPLF had attacked a federal army base and ordered the invasion of Tigray hours later.
Since then, federal forces have allied with militias from the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia as well as Eritrean national forces in their attacks against the TPLF. All sides have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity since the fighting broke out in November. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have denied these. Yet, for months, there have been credible reports of extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, pillaging, and the withholding of food from starving populations.
“Food is definitely being used as a weapon of war,” said Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. Troops have been witnessed incinerating crops, looting farms, and killing livestock in a region where the United Nations (UN) says 80 percent of people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The harvest season was already disrupted when violence broke out last November, the BBC reports, and with summer rains now falling over Tigray, farmers should be busy cultivating whatever they can, but they aren’t.
Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments deny that their armed forces are impeding aid workers from accessing the most deeply affected areas of Tigray. Not only has the Prime Minister insisted that crops are being planted on schedule in the region, but he has also denied any food crisis whatsoever. “There is no hunger in Tigray,” he said on June 21st, speaking at a polling station on the day of the country’s general election.
Abiy Ahmed is heavily favored to win what he has hailed as Ethiopia’s first truly “free and fair” vote. However, several senior opposition leaders are in jail and their parties have boycotted the elections, citing threats and intimidation from the ruling Prosperity Party. “These elections are a distraction,” said Abadir M. Ibrahim, an adjunct law professor at Addis Ababa University. “We just need to get past this vote so we can focus on averting a calamity.”
But the calamity is already here. The question that remains is, for how long? Prime Minister Abiy has consistently downplayed his nation’s problems since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Blinded by the gleam of his medal, Western countries were slow to address the looming challenges. Now that humanitarian workers are trying to reach the 5.5 million people in need of aid, their efforts are being stymied by intransigence, violence, and denial. Eritrea’s federal government has refused to negotiate with the TPLF, calling them terrorists. It has also been reluctant to end or even acknowledge Eritrea’s involvement.
This must be the first step in de-escalating the conflict in Tigray. Given Ethiopia’s violent history with Eritrea, particularly in the Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy must set clear deadlines for the withdrawal of Eritrean national forces. Foreign actors should put pressure on Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to ensure this. Ethiopia’s federal government must then stop itself from further alienating the Tigrayan people, even if it refuses to negotiate with the TPLF. This means granting complete access to aid organizations and working with international forces to ensure their protection in the war-torn region. If Abiy Ahmed hopes to regain national support and international legitimacy in the future, he must prioritize Ethiopia’s humanitarian crisis over its political one.