“Soaked In Blood”: Ethiopia’s Civil Conflict Is Spinning Violently Out Of Control

Hundreds have been killed and wounded in a flurry of violence that engulfed the town of Mai-Kadra in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on November 9th, 2020. Amnesty International has verified video footage and images that show attackers using machetes and knives to inflict horrific wounds on their victims. Witnesses reported that the victims were mostly seasonal workers, and one had these chilling words: “When we entered, we saw a lot of dead bodies, soaked in blood, on the streets and rental dormitories frequented by seasonal workers. I am still in shock struggling to cope with the experience.” (BBC News, 2020) Reports have also surfaced that many victims were carrying identity cards from the Amhara region which has a deep history of tension over land claims with Tigrayans.

While there is no official group claiming responsibility for the attack, three separate individuals reported to Amnesty International that survivors identified attackers as members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called for an investigation into the massacre and stated that if the killings were related to the ongoing conflict, then they constitute war crimes. Tigrayan leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, has called the accusations baseless. According to Ethiopian state media, an arrest warrant has been issued for Gebremichael and Liberation Front leaders, and over 250 individuals have already been accused and arrested for conspiring with the TPLF.

Pramila Patten, a UN special advisor on the prevention of genocide, and Karen Smith, a specialist on the responsibility to protect, are reporting a high concern over the risk of rising ethnic tensions in the region and had a stark warning that Ethiopian is on a “dangerous trajectory … [that] heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” (Digital Journal, 2020) Payton Knopf, a former U.S. diplomat, had his own dire prediction and compared the current situation in Ethiopia to that of former Yugoslavia, where 140,000 were killed between 1991 and 2001. Knopf highlighted the sizable and well-trained ground forces, artillery, and mechanized units on both sides and stated that the conflict “is much more akin to what an inter-state war would look like.”

The Ethiopian government has declared a six-month state of emergency in the Tigray region and the UNHCR has recently reported that over 14,000 refugees have already fled from Ethiopia into the Sudan, overwhelming aid workers there. The refugees described artillery strikes and street-level shoot outs that were spreading into the adjacent state of Amhara.

This conflict began last year when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rose to power in 2018 after years of anti-government protest. Tigray’s leaders felt unfairly treated by the Abiy and have criticized him for removing them from office, overly targeting them in corruption investigations, and generally blaming them for Ethiopia’s troubles. The TPLF withdrew from the ruling coalition which heightened tensions, and when Abiy delayed a September election citing the global pandemic, the Tigray region decided to hold their own election in defiance of Abiy.

In a tit-for-tat exchange, Abiy declared the Tigray government unlawful, prompting Tigray to state that they no longer recognized Abiy’s administration. The Ethiopian government then cut funding to the Tigray region, which TPLF characterized as an act of war. The conflict became violent on November 4th when, according to Abiy, the TPLF attacked a federal military base in Tigray. However, the TPLF denies the accusation and charges Abiy’s administration of fabricating the attack to justify the use of military force. Abiy cut internet and phone communications and conducted airstrikes in the Tigray region on November 4th, hampering efforts to substantiate either sides’ claims.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populated country, is already struggling with the worst locust swarms it has seen in 25 years. As of October, CNN reported that an estimated 200,000 hectares have been damaged since January of this year and that a single square kilometer of locust consumes the same amount of food per day as 35,000 people. Ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia and Yemen have made it unsafe to disperse pesticides by air and disruption of supply chains by the pandemic has made acquiring pesticides and other equipment more difficult. The World Bank estimates the locust crisis will cost both regions over US$8.5b, and Fatouma Seid, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization Representative, reports that the pattern of destruction may well continue into 2021.

With the ability of Ethiopia to maintain a steady food supply for its citizens already under strain, this new conflict will only worsen the situation. Multiple analysts have expressed concern that the conflict will spread south to other regions in Ethiopia. Bachelet warned that if the conflict continues “there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control, leading to heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders.”

With the U.S. recently cutting funding to Ethiopia over the controversy surrounding a dam they are constructing on the Blue Nile River, and the rest of the world’s economies reeling from the impact of the pandemic, it remains to be seen how much aid will be available if this conflict continues on its current trajectory and evolves into a large scale war.

James Laforet