Ethiopia Continues To Ramp Up Airstrikes, Frustrates Humanitarian Efforts

Children were among the 10 people killed last Thursday during a military airstrike by Ethiopia’s government forces on Tigray’s capital city of Mek’ele. This is the latest in a series of airstrikes by the Ethiopian government on the Tigray region, where fighting with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is nearing its one-year anniversary. The airstrikes are part of a major offensive action launched by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in recent weeks to try to break the deadlock in the war that began last November.

In just under a year, thousands of Ethiopian civilians have been killed and more than 2 million have been displaced. The United Nations (UN) reports that the number of civilians in need of humanitarian aid has risen to 7 million, with 5 million of those in Tigray alone. Over 400,000 people are now suffering famine-like conditions. The fighting has not just disrupted supply chains and access to food: it has destroyed Tigray’s principal food sources. Over the past few months, the destruction of farms, including irrigation systems vital to food production, has triggered an even larger surge in humanitarian need. Killings, lootings, and severe damage to hospitals have only exacerbated the situation.

What has made matters worse is that attempts to get aid into the conflict zone have been actively prevented. Over the summer, aid workers were murdered in the Tigray region by unknown assailants. Others have been injured or threatened. Last week, a UN humanitarian flight on its way into the epicenter of the conflict was ordered to abort landing when two government airstrikes hit the northern region of Tigray. The flight, which was carrying supplies and a group of humanitarian workers, was forced to return to Ethiopia’s capital. It marked the first time a UN humanitarian flight was forced to abandon a mission to Tigray because of airstrikes.

“We’re obviously concerned about what has taken place today,” said Gemma Connell, the top UN aid official for southern and eastern Africa, in a conference call with reporters hours after the plane was forced to abort landing. Ms. Connell says only 15 percent of the necessary aid has reached Tigray since July. “[The UN] and nongovernmental organizations are making every effort to continue delivering assistance to millions of people in desperate need,” said Martin Griffiths, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, during an angry statement issued later the same day. “Conflict dynamics make this increasingly difficult.” Mr. Griffiths emphasized that the UN had not received any prior warning of the attacks and had been given the necessary clearances for the flight.

The conflict has shattered the West’s view of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for bringing an end to the decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea. When Ahmed was elected in 2018, ending the TPLF’s 27-year rule, he emphasized reforms that would bring Ethiopia out of poverty and hunger. Yet growing tensions with the TPLF erupted into war last November when Mr. Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a federal army base and ordered the invasion of Tigray. At the time, the Prime Minister confidently proclaimed that the conflict would be over within weeks. Nearly a year later, the fighting in Ethiopia is spinning out of control and the delicate ethnic patchwork of the nation is coming apart at the seams. 

Tensions have also escalated between Prime Minister Ahmed and the United States, which has been a source of aid to Ethiopia. For months, the U.S. has tried in vain to pressure Mr. Ahmed to find a peaceful resolution to the Tigrayan conflict. Last month, President Biden signed an executive order that threatened sweeping sanctions on Ethiopia in an attempt to force Prime Minister Ahmed to stop the war. The Prime Minister replied bitterly, issuing a statement that accused Western nations of neocolonialist bias and showing no signs of resolving the conflict in Tigray. 

For the sake of Ethiopia’s suffering citizens, these sanctions are not the way forward. If the U.S. follows through on suspending Ethiopia’s free-market status, it could dash the country’s hopes of becoming a light manufacturing hub and erase hard-won economic gains that have slowly been lifting Ethiopia out of abject poverty. Among other things, the sanctions will put Ethiopia’s growing textile industry at risk, which has received significant investments in recent years.

The potential hit to the textile industry itself, though, is not the biggest fear. Without free-market status, foreign investment from other countries looking to source their manufacturing in Ethiopia would disappear and, along with it, so would the jobs and livelihoods of many of the country’s citizens in and outside the Tigray region. This, in fact, might pose an opportunity to provide Ethiopia’s government with positive incentives to initiate a peaceful resolution in Tigray instead of threatening them with negative punishments. The U.S. should focus more of its efforts on mediating deals between Asian manufacturers invested in Ethiopia that are conditional on de-escalation in the Tigray region and on greater access for humanitarian forces to the conflict zone. A commitment to sanctions will only add to the millions of Ethiopian citizens who are already in dire need of humanitarian assistance. 

Caleb Loughrin