An immense humanitarian crisis is imminent as famine looms over northern Ethiopia. This situation arises from months of political instability and military conflict between the Tigray region, Ethiopia’s federal government, and armed forces from the nearby Amhara region and neighboring Eritrea. The trajectory of this unfolding crisis is uncertain, but with surrounding forces limiting access to humanitarian assistance, history stands doomed to be repeated.
Since November 2020, Ethiopia has been embroiled in a political conflict that became deadly. For the last three decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front held the national seat of power and influence across Ethiopia through a coalition government but was toppled by Abiy Ahmed in 2018. Dissatisfied with reforms that increasingly centralised the federal government’s powers and cancelled elections due to COVID-19, the northern Tigray state held regional polls last September that Adidas Ababa deemed illegal. Tensions escalated until Abiy Ahmed accused the Tigray forces of attacking a military base in November and promptly ordered a military offensive against “domestic terrorists.”
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a multi-partner initiative developed to determine the severity and magnitude of food insecurity, found clear evidence that roughly 400,000 Tigrayans are acutely food insecure (IPC Phase 5). An additional four million people are in crisis or emergency (Phase 3 & 4).
However, in an interview with BBC News, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has rejected the IPC assessment, claiming “[T]here is no hunger in Tigray.” The government is keenly aware of Ethiopia’s enduring association by the international community as a nation dependent on aid, and the mere mention of “famine” is a sensitive topic. The government strongly rejects claims that hunger is being weaponized. Yet, the decision to engage the rebels before the region’s harvest season (early November) and limited access to humanitarian assistance suggest otherwise.
The current situation is eerily reminiscent of the 1984 famine that left 1.2 million people dead and 2.5 million displaced. The last crisis was not a sole product of natural disaster, since it was also caused by war and conflict in Tigray. It was further exacerbated by the government’s reluctance to provide relief. 37 years later, events are unfolding in a similar pattern. Unlike Mengistu Haile Mariam, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a Nobel peace laureate and was once widely praised. Today, under President Ahmed’s tenure, Ethiopia is on the verge of collapse, and criticism is abundant.
The war thus far has been characterized by reports of mass killings, rape, and pillaging. Many innocent Tigrayans have been forced to flee or hide. Crops and livestock are being damaged by militant groups. Although the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in June, it continues to mobilize militia groups and establish an informal blockade of the region. As a humanitarian relief worker told the Associated Press, “[I]f things don’t change soon, mass starvation is inevitable.”
As Africa’s second-most populous state, Ethiopia wields strong influence over the Horn of Africa. Having extensively provided security in the region, Addis Ababa helped stabilize neighboring Somalia and South Sudan. However, the current instability threatens to destabilise the region, bring the country back into a catastrophic famine, and even lead Ethiopia to a Yugoslavian-style implosion. To avoid this, a national dialogue between both parties is essential to solving the power imbalance of the nation’s national and sub-national authorities. Additionally, the withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean forces from Tigray must be ensured. Abiy Ahmed won his Nobel peace prize by reconciling with Eritrea. He must strive to find a path to do so again for the peace and security of his people and the region.