On November 4 of last year, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the northern province of Tigray to address what he described as “spiraling instability” caused by the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had attacked a federal military base and allegedly attempted to steal artillery and other equipment. More than a year later, the conflict in Africa’s second-most-populous nation rages on, featuring horrific atrocities some are calling genocide and driving a massive humanitarian crisis which threatens to destabilize all of East Africa.
The conflict has escalated into a wider civil war
The TPLF, along with a number of other rebel groups, is now engaged in open rebellion against the Ethiopian government, which it accuses of persecuting Tigrayans and engaging in ethnic violence. The expanding dimensions of the conflict were made clear on November 5, when nine Ethiopian opposition groups announced a formal alliance dedicated to “totally dismantl[ing] the existing government, either by force or by negotiation.” The new alliance expanded on a previous agreement between the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has joined in the fighting in recent weeks.
Last week, Abiy declared a six-month state of emergency, days after calling on all Ethiopian citizens to join the fight against the TPLF. After pushing back Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces in Tigray, the rebels have pushed south into the Amhara region, where they claimed to have captured the key towns of Dessie and Kombolcha at the end of October while the OLA took the town of Kemise further south, on the road to the capital Addis Ababa. These advances have sparked fears that the rebels planned to move on the capital, though a TPLF spokesperson denied any such plans at the time.
A worsening humanitarian crisis
The TPLF says its only intention is to break the federal government’s siege on Tigray, where an alarming number of people are facing dire humanitarian conditions and in desperate need of aid, which Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are preventing from reaching the region. In June, the U.N. warned that up to 400,000 people in Tigray were facing famine-like conditions; while some aid has reached northern Ethiopia since then, the World Food Program says over 5 million people in Tigray are in need of food aid, along with hundreds of thousands more in the Amhara and Afar regions. More than 2 million people had already been displaced by the fighting as of January, and the number now is likely much higher.
The U.N.’s top humanitarian official has accused Eritrean forces and Ethiopian militias of “trying to deal with the Tigrayan population by starving them” and using food as a weapon of war. Reports of widespread malnutrition and deaths from starvation have emerged continually since February. Nobody knows exactly how many people have died or are at risk, because journalists, U.N. workers, and humanitarian organizations have been denied access to most parts of Tigray. Years of drought and a devastating locust swarm had already hurt agricultural production in East Africa, but the reported famine conditions in Tigray would not be occurring if not for the ongoing blockade. In late September, Prime Minister Abiy moved to expel seven U.N. officials organizing humanitarian relief efforts, accusing them of meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Last Wednesday, the U.N. announced that the government had seized dozens of U.N. staff and drivers who were trying to transport food into the Tigray region.
The situation is “Rwanda-esque,” former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia Patricia Haslach told the New York Times this week.
Widespread reports of atrocities
Deliberate starvation is far from the only atrocity being reported in this conflict. Massacres of civilians have also been reported, though again the death tolls cannot be ascertained, as independent investigators cannot access the region, which has also had telecommunication links cut. An Amnesty International report released in August documented widespread sexual violence against Tigrayan women by government forces and allied militiamen. The health-care system in Tigray has been largely destroyed, with hospitals and health facilities looted, vandalized, and demolished or turned into military camps. The destruction of health facilities and Abiy’s de facto blockade on aid to Tigray is preventing sexual-assault survivors from receiving post-rape care, Human Rights Watch said last week.
Some advocates have called on the U.S. government to label the atrocities against the Tigrayans a genocide — which it is unlikely to do, as such a designation is difficult to prove and would commit the Biden administration to actions it may not be prepared to take. The administration has placed visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, and President Biden has authorized the Treasury Department to impose additional sanctions, but these attempts at pressure have had little impact so far.
Tigrayan forces have also been accused of committing atrocities as the conflict has escalated and spread to other parts of Ethiopia. In their push southward into Amhara, the TPLF fighters have allegedly murdered civilians, shelled holy sites, ransacked hospitals and schools, and looted warehouses of food aid. A new Amnesty report describes women being “raped at gunpoint, robbed, and subjected to physical and verbal assaults by TPLF fighters” during an August offensive in Amhara. Some of these acts are believed to have been carried out as revenge for the crimes committed in Tigray. Both sides claim not to be targeting civilians and dismiss reports of atrocities as enemy propaganda. Without access for independent investigators, the full humanitarian toll of this war and those responsible for it will remain impossible to measure.
Why is this happening?
The origins of the crisis lie in the longstanding conflict between the TPLF and Prime Minister Abiy’s government. The TPLF had dominated the ruling coalition that governed Ethiopia from the 1990s until 2018, when Abiy took office. Tigrayans make up only about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, but came to dominate high-ranking positions in the government and military during the party’s many years in power. This led to resentment among other, more populous ethnic groups like the Amhara and Oromo (Abiy is of Oromo descent).
In 2018, Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down in response to years of protests and unrest, becoming the first modern Ethiopian leader to cede power voluntarily. The ruling coalition sidelined the TPLF and elected Abiy, who proceeded to pursue reforms and crack down on corruption. The TPLF quit the ruling coalition in 2019 after refusing to join Abiy’s new Prosperity Party, a big-tent effort to deemphasize the ethnic politics that had caused Ethiopia so much strife. TPLF officials withdrew to the Tigray region, which the party continues to administer. Despite his attempts at post-ethnic politics, the prime minister has often accused the TPLF of undermining his authority and blamed them for the country’s ongoing problems, and these accusations have blurred the lines between the party and the Tigrayan people in general.
The precipitating events of the current crisis played out over the summer and fall of 2020, when Abiy obtained parliamentary approval to postpone elections due to the pandemic. The TPLF accused him of making an unconstitutional power grab and held elections in the Tigray region in September in defiance, which Abiy declared illegal. In response, the Ethiopian Parliament voted to cut off funds to the Tigrayan regional government, which the TPLF considered “tantamount to a declaration of war.” The TPLF attack on the military base in early November was, in the party’s own view, a preemptive strike against an inevitable invasion by the federal government. This past May, the government labeled the TPLF and OLA terrorist organizations.
Another complicating factor in the war is Eritrea’s role in fighting the TPLF and perpetrating many of the alleged atrocities committed in Tigray. Abiy made peace with Eritrea in 2018, ending a 20-year frozen conflict that had kept the region locked in persistent instability, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The warming of relations with Eritrea alarmed the TPLF, who have an adversarial relationship with Eritrea and opposed Abiy’s peace deal. A desire to crush the TPLF has brought the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments closer together, as reflected in Eritrea’s subsequent involvement in the conflict over the past year.
Eritrean forces have reportedly used the Tigray war as an opportunity to hunt down Eritrean refugees. Eritrea is an authoritarian one-party state with one of the world’s worst human-rights records, and generated the world’s third-largest number of refugees per capita of any country in 2020. Some 149,000 Eritrean refugees live in Ethiopia, most of them in camps in Tigray. In the past year, many of these refugees have been detained, disappeared, robbed, raped, tortured, and murdered by Eritrean soldiers. UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, estimates that 7,600 refugees are unaccounted for. Some who were forced to return to Eritrea managed to escape and tell of their ordeals; many others were jailed or forced into military service upon returning to their home country. Some Tigrayan militias have also targeted Eritrean refugees.
There’s no end in sight
Between the ongoing warfare, the engineered famine, the refugee crisis, and the double plight of the Eritrean refugees, the Tigray war has snowballed into one of the world’s largest humanitarian disasters. While the U.S. government has not turned a blind eye to the conflict (Secretary of State Antony Blinken is now on a five-day trip to Africa largely aimed at finding diplomatic solutions to the crisis), it remains largely out of sight for the American public, and thus far there appears to have been little urgency on the part of Washington or other governments to take stronger actions to stop it. The African Union, whose headquarters are in Addis Ababa, is attempting to mediate the conflict, but the Tigray rebels have accused the bloc of bias, and there is little hope that it can successfully intervene when it lacks credibility as an impartial mediator.
In the absence of a negotiated peace, however, the humanitarian situation in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia will likely continue to deteriorate, while a military victory by either the rebels or the government could further destabilize the region and lead to further conflict down the road. Yet it’s hard to see this becoming anyone’s foreign policy priority amid all the other, bigger threats currently facing the global order. There probably won’t be any good news coming out of the Horn of Africa for a long time, but in the meantime, the least we can do is pay attention.