November 2020 marked the beginning of a conflict that destroyed the lives of thousands. Ethiopia’s military marched on its Tigray province and from that point on, the problem devolved into ruthless violence, censorship and international concern.
However, this issue reflects decades of past tensions. The Tigrayan political party called Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and their previous authoritarian control over Ethiopia, was disliked by most of the country. The current government toppled this leadership, as it created a coalition that would unify all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups into one representative party, led by current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The TPLF rejected this and decided to govern their own province. Political pressuring and military exchanges from both sides resulted into civilian carnage. This conflict is reported to have caused thousands of deaths, wreaked havoc in Tigrayan cities and displaced over two million people with some of them fleeing to Sudan.
In addition to that, long-time enemy of the TPLF, Eritrea, decided to get involved and moved military units into the Tigrayan province. Both the Eritrean and Ethiopian government denied this up until the end of March, almost four months into the conflict. According to Amnesty International, on November 28th last year, Eritrean soldiers entered the city of Axum and shot civilians, killing around 800 people in a weekend. They were performing house-to-house searches and executing men and boys. Associated Press did a similar report, and both the Ethiopian and Eritrean government forcefully denied this ever happening. Their denial has sparked international worry, as this could mean that ethnic cleansing is taking place right under the world’s nose.
This conflict is underreported because the federal government cut the power from Tigray in early November, meaning no internet, no electricity and no water supply for the citizens in over five months. In addition to that, journalists were arrested, and a media blockade prevented any reliable reporting on the situation. In the early days of this conflict, the only knowledge the world had over what was happening inside the Tigray province was from statements collected from the refugees who fled to Sudan. The statements talked of carnage and violence in cities, perpetrated by unknown assailants. Nowadays, the lines are still blurry, but the accumulation of statements of fear, violence, famine and restlessness from all involved parties suggests that what has happened in Tigray is catastrophic.
The United-States’ government pressed Mr. Abiy to immediately remove outside military units from Tigray to alleviate the growing tensions. This move has obvious political undertones because Ethiopia is an economic and demographic leader in Africa. A civil war that capsizes it and its neighbouring countries may destabilize the continent as a whole. In response, Prime Minister Abiy has confirmed that Eritrea will withdraw its troops from the region. Unfortunately, the damage is already done, and enemies were made in the process.
The relationship between the Tigrayans and the federal government was already poor, but after these events, how could trust ever be established again? During the blackout, the voice of the Tigrayan leader, Debretsion Gebremicheal, was reduced to messages sent via text to a Reuters correspondent. The consequences of this conflict are not only in deaths and destruction, but also in political distrust. In an audio statement, the Tigrayan leader said that the region of Tigray is committed to “extended resistance” as he accused Ethiopian troops of looting and raping.
The fact of the matter is lives of millions are now forever changed due to either death, violence or displacement. The question now is what can be done to remedy this? The simple answer is to prevent it from ever happening again, but this situation is anything but simple.
The first step would be to remove Eritrea from the equation. Due to the very violent history between Tigray and the neighbouring country, their entrance into Ethiopia was motivated by hatred and fueled the cruellest attacks. Thus, a crucial step the international community should take is to alleviate violent tensions between both the Eritreans and the Tigrayans. Both parties are demonizing each other for atrocities committed in a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea back in 1998. It is completely fair to feel this way, but to further this apprehension is to create a possibility for future wars and future innocent deaths. Reconciliation imposed by the international community might be enough to break the seemingly unshakable hatred both nations have against one another.
Secondly, internal tensions between the TPLF and the federal government is cornering the Tigrayan leadership into erratic decisions. Even though the TPLF ruled Ethiopia ruthlessly for decades before Prime Minister Abiy came, the ruling party should put this history aside and reconcile. Marching on the province, cutting the power and creating a media blackout makes the federal government as guilty as Eritrea in generating atrocities. However, during the week, he has admitted to a few of his actions, and is actively working with the UN to start investigating the events that occurred throughout the last few months in Tigray. Will that be enough? Assuredly not as now a precedent of distrust has been firmly established between the Tigrayan and the federal government. If Mr. Abiy does not deescalate the situation immediately, the country may never benefit from a stable relationship with the Tigray Province again. The horrors that occurred will never leave the memory of the people who suffered through them, and this will block any possibilities of trust between them and Ethiopia’s government. Mr. Abiy has to reconcile before it is too late. This could be done by supporting the Tigrayan families that are facing ongoing dangerous conditions. This includes providing reliable sources of food and water, rebuilding the destroyed habitats and most important of all, giving a voice to the Tigrayans.
Tigrayans have not been able to reliably tell their side of the story on any media platforms for the past four months now. The TPLF’s frustration is understandably great, as the media could not report and raise awareness on their ongoing suffering. Their own central government essentially denied their misery by revoking claims of violence. How could they not become radicalised from this? Tensions are still high, but the best thing that could be done is to support an open dialogue between Tigray, the federal government and the media. Without that, reconciliation might not be possible.
Another factor is the involvement of Sudan in this conflict. Tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees escaped to Sudan, and unfortunately, the country cannot sustain the influx. The UN has requested international aid on this, as only the international community could provide shelter, water and food in this region. However, funding has been difficult as the pandemic is still grinding down nations worldwide. The only effective way to support the Tigrayan refugees is to offer a unified humanitarian aid plan, and potentially coalescing various NGOs under one same objective to ensure security to the innocent people who fell victim to this war.
What happened in Ethiopia was unforgiveable in many respects. Families were ruined, people have died, and life-altering atrocities traumatized the witnessing children. This will have long-lasting consequences to the stability of both Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. The best-case scenario is efficient damage control by both Abiy’s government and the international community. Anything less than that means failure for all parties involved.