Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict Expands Into Neighbouring Afar Region

In a territorial expansion of the violent conflict between the regional Tigrayan government and the official government of Ethiopia, the forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party have initiated attacks in the neighbouring Afar region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government issued a one-sided ceasefire and exited Tigray’s capital in late June, however the TPLF’s offensive in Afar forecasts a lack of cooperation efforts needed to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis in Tigray. The food insecurity and risk of famine caused by the conflict threatens to engulf the rest of Ethiopia as it touches Tigray, Amhara and now Afar.

Since the outset of violence in Afar, the TPLF has asserted its attacks are in response to enemy presence in the region, especially forces and militias deployed from Ethiopia’s largest region Oromia. Spokesman Getachew Reda told Reuters, “We are not interested in any territorial gains in Afar, we are more interested in degrading enemy fighting capabilities.”

Afar’s regional president, Awol Arba, argued, “some people think they invaded us because we hosted the Oromo forces, but that’s far from the truth, as they had the intention to separate and isolate us from Ethiopia by force.” He also urged civilians to fight back against Tigrayan forces, “with any means available, whether by guns, sticks or stones.”

Afar could present a strategic territorial gain for Tigrayan fighters as the region’s highways connect the land-locked state to ports in Djibouti. Disruptions to the flow of resources and aid into Ethiopia through Djibouti would be catastrophic for a country facing famine, a powerful threat to be leveraged by the TPLF if it seizes control of the region. Regardless of whether this is a primary goal of the TPLF, fighting in Afar has already displaced over 54,000 people and caused at least 20 civilian deaths. A resolution needs to be reached to protect the lives and rights of civilians in Afar. Clashes between Tigray forces and the Ethiopian military in a new location may also contribute to the spread of Tigray’s extremely dire hunger situation into other parts of the country.

Preventing an exacerbation of famine conditions and starvation should unequivocally be the goal of Tigray and all of Ethiopia, necessitating national dialogue and bilateral ceasefire agreements. An authoritative assessment of food security conducted through the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), stated that roughly 400,000 Tigrayans are experiencing acute food insecurity in the “Catastrophe” phase and four million across Tigray, Amhara and Afar are classified in emergency or crisis phases of food insecurity. The famine is man-made, caused by soldiers blocking or stealing food aid and preventing farmers from harvesting and cultivating their fields, not by drought or other environmental factors. It has been reported that the Ethiopian military and forces deployed from Eritrea, a neighboring country, have obstructed humanitarian aid entering Tigray. The forces have been accused of destroying crops and health care facilities in the region as well.

Ethiopia seemed to be on a promising path when Abiy Ahmed first came to power in 2018. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for easing tensions with Eritrea, and instituted a number of reforms in Ethiopia. Relations with the TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia for 30 years prior to Abiy becoming prime minister, deteriorated and the situation devolved into military conflict in November of 2020. That was when Abiy’s promising new government made a surprising sharp turn away from peace. Since then, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have reportedly enacted severe human rights abuses against Tigrayan civilians, including mass killings, sexual violence, and the pillaging of communities.

Both the TPLF and the Ethiopian government have been the cause of tragedy and death for the citizens of Ethiopia. It is clear that a bilateral ceasefire must be negotiated to put an end to the conflict that has permitted abuse and gave rise to widespread hunger. For the international community watching this crisis unfold, the question is how to encourage Ethiopia toward this resolution.

In response to the crisis, the United States, one of Ethiopia’s largest donors, restricted economic and security assistance to the country. The Ethiopian government decried the restrictions, claiming the U.S. is inappropriately meddling in its affairs. In a UN Security Council meeting, representatives for Ethiopia and the Russian Federation expressed a similar concern that the council’s interference would be an invasion into internal matters that would lack the needed delicacy and contextual understanding.

However, as of the current moment it seems unlikely that Ethiopia will achieve peace without outside pressure. The rhetoric of the Ethiopian government about the TPLF is entirely hostile, as they have not only been designated as terrorists but have also been called a “cancer” by Prime Minister Abiy. Abiy’s government has continually obfuscated the realities of the situation in Ethiopia, denying international concerns about famine and abuse. Many Ethiopians outside Tigray are vocally supportive of their army and Abiy in spite of these abuses. On the other side, Tigray continues to push into new territory despite their opponent’s attempts toward a ceasefire. The hostility demonstrated suggests that peace will not come easily, even when an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis is faced across Ethiopia.

International actors must use the leverage they have to encourage a resolution, yet it is necessary to understand the situation in Ethiopia as complex and fragile. The narrative of Prime Minister Abiy as a champion of peace failed to capture the eventual reality of his governance. This should serve as a lesson for the current situation, that the careful monitoring and input of those directly impacted by Ethiopia’s crisis should be prioritized. One thing is certain: cooperative efforts in Ethiopia will be critical toward diverting a catastrophic famine that will endanger the country and all its citizens.