The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has accused Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government of blocking aid to the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. This region has been the primary site of fighting between the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces since November of last year according to the BBC. The conflict allegedly began when the TPLF attacked Ethiopian military bases, which prompted a military offensive by the National Defense Forces in response. According to the USAID, as of 28 June 2021, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces called for a ceasefire and withdrew its troops from the Tigray Region, which was treated as a “de facto blockade of the region,” prompting an obstruction to the delivery of food aid as well as humanitarian services like banking, telecommunications, and electricity.
A UN spokesperson told the BBC that at least 100 food aid convoys are needed in Tigray each day in order to avoid furthering the famine. However, only 320 convoys had made it to the region since June. USAID administrator Samantha Power told the Associated Press that the Ethiopian government is intentionally obstructing humanitarian aid delivery after the government accused aid workers of assisting TPLF fighters. A spokesperson for Abiy Ahmed told the BBC that there has been no intentional obstruction of aid delivery, but that security issues have hindered aid workers from reaching their destinations. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, TPLF Chairperson Debretson Gebremichael stated, “The aim [of the Ethiopian government] is to exterminate Tigrayans by starving them to death,” as reported by the Washington Post. However, the Ethiopian government is pointing fingers back at the TPLF, claiming that the rebels are looting the aid convoys and withholding aid materials from other Tigrayans.
Sadly, this conflict throws the lives of innocent civilians in the middle of a violent struggle for political power. Given the scale of the conflict, the UN estimates that 1.8 million people are on the brink of emergency levels of hunger. Threats of starvation and continuing violence have caused the internal displacement of nearly 1.7 million people thus far. With the TPLF expanding into the Afar and Amhara regions, both of these figures are expected to rise, thereby threatening the lives of even more innocent Ethiopians. USAID has made commendable strides throughout the conflict by providing nearly $105 million in humanitarian assistance to Tigray and by calling on the Ethiopian government to improve efforts of delivering aid to affected regions; the agency has also encouraged the TPLF to withdraw from Afar and Amhara in order to avoid exporting the humanitarian crises elsewhere. Additionally, the UN has erred on the side of diplomacy rather than intervention as the Security Council voted to not involve foreign powers in Ethiopian affairs, which is historically seen to be a beneficial strategy given Eritrea’s involvement in the TPLF’s original rise to power.
The TPLF was the dominant ruling party in Ethiopia for 27 years until anti-government protests prompted the appointment of Abiy Ahmed to the position of prime minister in 2018. Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his peace deal with Eritrea, whose military had originally played a strong hand in the strengthening of the TPLF’s forces in the 1980s. The current conflict was catalyzed as a reaction to the country’s postponement of national elections in September of 2020. Following this, the TPLF held their own regional elections in defiance of the Federal Government’s postponement, which resulted in a TPLF victory. However, the Ethiopian government claimed that the election results were unconstitutional, which provoked attacks by the TPLF on state property, including military bases. While the government engaged in small-scale retaliatory attacks, it was not until the TPLF’s alleged attacks on the military bases in November that prompted the national military response. You can read more about the background on the conflict at the Organization for World Peace’s Crisis Index page, linked here.
Despite the unilateral ceasefire that Ahmed declared earlier this year, the Ethiopian government also declared the TPLF to be a terrorist organization after fighting continued to worsen according to the Ethiopian Embassy in the UK. Many are worried that this means the TPLF is unlikely to engage in talks with the Ethiopian government. In order to protect the lives of vulnerable Ethiopians, future peace will require the TPLF to agree to peace talks with Ahmed’s government with an impartial mediator to guide the discussions. The primary goal must be to first improve the security situation in the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions in order for aid to be delivered to those facing immediate famine. A secondary yet still sizeable goal should be to acknowledge the influence that TPLF still holds within Ethiopia and to negotiate a possible role for the group within the government to avoid future violent power struggles of this magnitude.