In November of last year Ethiopia’s new leader, Abiy Ahmed, who ended a decade-long war with neighboring country Eritrea, launched an attack against one of Ethiopia’s ethnic regions, the regional state of Tigray. Now in its seventh month, the conflict in Tigray is estimated to have led to the deaths of thousands of people and left five million in need of aid. The origins of the conflict are complex and encompass decades-long power struggles within Ethiopia.
After Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s former prime minister resigned in 2018 in response to mass protests and unrest, the Amhara Democratic Party and the Oromo Democratic Party (both parties based around ethnic groups) formed a coalition. They collaborated to oust the previously dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front and instate Abiy Ahmed as prime minister. Abiy Ahmed is half Amhara, half Omoro and a political reformer. Upon being elected into office, he freed thousands of political detainees, negotiated the end of an ongoing Ethiopian and Eritrean border conflict and began to repress corruption within political spheres. His agenda put him in direct conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. He also promised a fair, democratic election in 2020 and to reform the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front into a single party, his Prosperity party. This party, created via the merging of the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement and a series of smaller political parties, included almost all proponent parties except for the TPLF who was critical of its formation. To Abiy and his supporters, the multi-ethnic Prosperity Party would move predecessor parties away from their pro-ethnic federalism and instead promote the Ethiopian national identity and support the individual rights of Ethiopian citizens. To opposing parties, including the TPLF, the formation of the Prosperity Party was a step toward taking political powers away from various ethnic groups. The international community supported the formation of the Prosperity Party and Abiy’s actions toward peace within his and allied nations, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his negotiations with Eritrea. However, Abiy’s political reforms directly targeted the current and former members of the TPLF and Tigrayans who still held significant political and military power within Ethiopia.
War was declared after the Ethiopian prime minister delayed the Tigray regional elections in August 2020, elections that were an opportunity for the TPLF to regain previously lost power. Abiy Ahmed claimed to have postponed the elections because of the pandemic. In defiance, the TPLF stated they no longer recognized Ahmed’s government and political party as legitimate and held regional elections regardless. They claimed that Ahmed was postponing the elections because he had lost the popular vote, and that he was using the pandemic as a way to stall the election process. The TPLF retaliated to the suspension of the election and Ahmed’s government, delegitimizing their political party by supposedly seizing control of a federal military base in November 2020. In response, the prime minister ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray and accused the TPLF and northern region of orchestrating attacks on Federal army camps across Tigray. The TPLF claimed the attack was ordered based on unfounded accusations and that the federal forces and their historic enemy Eritrea were using unreliable information to justify the government’s coordinated attack.
The situation has developed into a protracted conflict with disturbing humanitarian implications. Tigrayan defense forces are fighting against the Ethiopian National Defense Force, which has partnered with troops from neighboring Eritrea and other militias within Ethiopia. As the conflict developed into a civil war on the 26th of May, the United Nation’s top humanitarian official warned that urgent measures must be taken in order to avoid a famine in Ethiopia’s embattled region of Tigray. They also assessed that the Ethiopian military and their allies were deliberately and efficiently weakening Tigray defenses through the organized use of force and intimidation. In April, the World Peace Foundation, a research-based organization, warned that if the conflict continued, mass starvation and famine in Tigray was possible. They also accused Ethiopian and Eritrean troops of “systematically” dismantling the northern region’s economy and food system. Mark Lowcock, the UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, also recognized famine in Tigray as a real possibility, stating, “There is a serious risk of famine if assistance is not scaled up in the next two months.”
It is difficult to make claims on the inner workings of the ongoing civil war and conflict, as telecommunication black-outs and limited access to parts of Tigray have been enforced by the Ethiopian government to impair the Tigrayan defense force. Media coverage and information on the conflict is incomplete and impaired by the battles taking place in rural areas and a lack of overall security. Alongside this Ethiopia’s ambassador, Teferi Melesse Desta rejected the claims made by the World Peace Foundation that the Government of Ethiopia was starving the people of Tigray, calling them “unsubstantiated accusations” and asserting that “the government has, thus far, taken concrete steps to comprehensively respond to the humanitarian needs on the ground by delivering life-saving food supplies to more than 4.2 million citizens in Tigray, in coordination with local and international partners.”
Regardless of the accuracy of these claims, the ongoing seventh-month civil war has resulted in thousands of deaths and war crimes including forced evictions, according to local authorities and aid groups within Ethiopia. In May, two massacres were confirmed to have taken place in the town of Mai Kadra within the Tigray region. The Ethiopian government also accused Eritrean troops of unnecessary force within the war-torn region. Jan Nyssen, a Geography Professor at the University of Ghent, Belgium, identified a pattern within the ongoing conflict; when Eritrean or Ethiopian forces would lose a battle against the Tigray defense forces, they’d turn on civilians in surrounding areas. Nyssen also compiled a list of 1,900 Tigrayans killed over 150 mass killings since the fighting began on the 7th of November 2020.
On the 20th of May, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to condemn all violence against civilians in Tigray and troops to return to Eritrea and Ethiopia. As the civil war shows no signs of nearing a ceasefire, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken called on the Ethiopian Government to ensure unhindered humanitarian access in the Tigray region on May 23rd and raised the risk of further deteriorating food insecurity. On the 26th of May, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that the abuse of human rights and widespread violence in Tigray was unacceptable and must end. There has been international pressure to call for a ceasefire and open channels of communication, however, there have been media campaigns from Ethiopians both in Ethiopia and abroad urging foreign countries to stop interfering in Ethiopia’s affairs.
While there may be calls for countries to no longer apply international pressure onto Ethiopia and Eritrea to end their violations of human rights protection acts, the conflict shows no sign of ending. So far, Abiy Ahmed has indicated he will not halt the fighting and to do so would legitimize rebel leaders. The Tigrayans who maintain that they are fighting for their own regional rights have also indicated they will not accept a ceasefire proposal from Ethiopia or an outside nation. In order for the conflict to cease and for humanitarian aid to be delivered to the people of Tigray, there needs to be a substantive ceasefire, an allowance for media coverage and insight into the possible human rights violations and calls for channels of communication to be opened. Both Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s liberation front defense forces can afford to continue the conflict, however, the humanitarian impact is immeasurable and calls must be made for an end to the violence and no longer distributing power based on ethnicity.