The Tigray Conflict: Ethiopia’s Humanitarian Disaster — Harry Sanders
3 June 2021
This article was written by Harry Sanders, a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service.
Since November 2020, the Tigray region in the north of Ethiopia has been the epicentre of an awful (and hugely underreported) humanitarian disaster. War and violence have sent the region’s inhabitants fleeing over the Ethiopian border in search of asylum, while those who have not escaped are left to suffer increasingly disturbing conditions. Although the conflict was declared ‘over’ very quickly by the Ethiopian central government, abhorrent human rights abuses have continued while humanitarian access has been turned away. To understand how a nation led by a Nobel Laureate has fallen from grace on the world stage so dramatically, it is important to consider the circumstances which led to the outbreak of violence, and furthermore what it may mean for the future of Ethiopia and her people.
Ethiopia has long been a fairly fractious nation in terms of the patchwork of demographics within its borders. The Tigray region (bordering Eritrea to the north) is home not only to a majority of Tigrayan people – who account for 6.1% of Ethiopia’s population – but also myriad other ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group in Ethiopia are the Oromo, comprising 34.4% of the Ethiopian people.
Upon taking office, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed promised to heal Ethiopia’s ethnic divide; all things told, he has been fairly true to his word, and in 2019 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for having brought an end to the 20-year old conflict with Eritrea. However, 2020 proved to be a defining chapter in Abiy Ahmed’s political career; citing social restrictions necessary to curtail the spread of COVID-19, he delayed the Ethiopian General Election from August 2020 to 5th June 2021. These actions were already disagreeable enough to some critics, though Abiy only stoked tensions further by having several of his rivals incarcerated. Most notably among these was Jawar Mohammed, who saw his ‘terror charge’ as a badge of honour and denounced PM Abiy for his blatant targeting of political opponents.
Furious at this affront to the democratic process, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) demanded that the constitution be upheld, and concurrently held their own election within Tigray and won; shortly afterwards, PM Abiy declared this election illegal. On the 4th of November 2020 clashes broke out between the TPLF and the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Although just 3 weeks later the Ethiopian central government declared that – in capturing the city of Mekelle – it had concluded “the last phase of its law enforcement operation”, violence against the TPLF and those who have not already fled Tigray has persisted.
This statement was, in fact, a far cry from reality, as horror and bloodshed have continued despite PM Abiy’s insistence that order had been restored. Humanitarian access has been denied at every turn, and in January the EU stated that it would withhold nearly 90m Euros of funding until access was granted.
In the months since PM Abiy’s declaration of victory, a multitude of horrifying reports have come from Ethiopia. One recurring theme is the targeting of Eritrean refugees who had sought asylum in the Tigray region; some reports suggest that they have been rounded up either to be forced to return to the country from which they fled, or worse, to be slaughtered.
One account from a Tigrayan 18 year old school girl is particularly chilling: she told the BBC that a man dressed in Ethiopian military uniform stormed the home she shared with her grandfather, and threatened to rape the girl. After the man assaulted both of them, he turned his gun on the young girl and fled – leaving the wounded pair to hide, afraid for their lives. This disgusting ordeal occurred back in December, and unsettlingly similar reports of rape and abuse have been flooding in for the three months since then.
As if such appalling abuse was not enough, there are considerable fears that mass starvation may be the next woe for the Tigrayan people to suffer. The Ethiopian Red Cross has recently warned that tens of thousands could starve to death. This is in part due to 80% of the region currently being closed off to the rest of the world, but this issue is further compounded by the fact that the conflict began before crops could be harvested. With 3.8 million people in desperate need of help, and many of them already malnourished and emaciated, the potential for an unfathomable addition to the conflict’s death toll is very real.
Ethiopia’s instability has been a growing issue for PM Abiy for the last few years, and although the humanitarian crisis may be seen as the culmination of increasingly hostile tensions it is far from the end of the state of national turmoil.
The Horn of Africa has a reputation for regional instability, as its constituent nations flicker in and out of a state of border disputes and disagreements – occasionally erupting into full blown wars – on a seemingly regular basis. Ethiopia and Sudan share a particularly aggressive relationship, and much of the recent bad-blood between the two countries can be traced to a border dispute in the al-Fashaga region (west of Tigray). The argument over al-Fashaga – alongside disagreements between Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea – has its roots in colonial treaties signed in the now distant past. Since clashes between Sudanese and Ethiopian parties broke the peaceful compromise of a soft border in the area, tensions have yet again been boiling – and have only worsened with the arrival of Tigrayan refugees from over the Ethiopian border.
Egypt is also currently on bad terms with Ethiopia, though for different reasons. Abiy Ahmed’s time as PM has coincided with Ethiopia’s plans to develop it’s hydro-electric infrastructure, and a colossal dam named the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been under construction on the Nile since 2011. While Ethiopia may benefit with more control over floods and cheaper electricity, downstream Egypt stands to suffer greatly; once the bread-basket of the ancient world, the Nile Delta will likely lose much of the natural irrigation which keeps it so lush and would undeniably struggle to feed as many mouths as it presently does. Egypt’s grievances are understandable, and there are fears that these bubbling tensions may lead to future terror attacks on the dam.
The future of Ethiopia, her people, and indeed of PM Abiy Ahmed, stands on a knife’s-edge. The cost of life of the Tigray Conflict is in the tens of thousands, and with the threat of starvation looming larger by the day for the already severely emaciated, the situation looks bleak to say the least. On top of this humanitarian catastrophe, Ethiopia’s cavalier approach to foreign policy is leaving them with few friendly neighbours in such a time of national crisis. It is paramount that the Tigray refuges receive the aid they so desperately need, and so while it is undeniable that PM Abiy must answer for the thousands of lives that have been lost as a result of his actions, he must first open up the Tigray region to humanitarian organisations before it is too late.