Africa’s oldest independent and second largest populous country Ethiopia is witnessing a power struggle between the ethnic groups of Tigrayans, Oromos and Amharas, and the political parties that claim to represent these groups. The massacre and systematic ethnic cleansing caused by months-long internal strife between Tigray and the central government has alarmed the international community.
As tensions escalated in northern Ethiopia’s turbulent Tigray region, people have been seeking refuge in neighbouring Sudan. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, about 9,000 people, mostly women and children, have been transferred to the first refugee settlement in Sudan. Till now 45,449 refugees have fled into this neighbouring country. The influx can increase the risk of diseases including Covid-19. Before the crisis, over 100,000 people were displaced internally in the Tigray region, moving them to a less risky settlement.
Leaders from three opposition parties namely, The Tigrayan Independence party, National Congress of Great Tigray and Salsay Weyane Tigray have jointly claimed that around 52,000 people have lost their lives since the war began in November 2020.
Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator flagged a warning that the war-torn region can suffer from “famine” if assistance is not provided immediately.
The UN has also received disturbing reports of women being raped and sexually assaulted by the military in exchange for basic commodities. According to United Nations, there have been cases of individuals forced to rape members of their own family in the conflict-hit Tigray region.
There has been a severe deficit of information about the current situation in the Tigray region since the humanitarian crisis information and analysis systems have been disabled. The United Nations roughly have made a rough estimation that around 4.5 million people are in need of food assistance.
According to UNICEF, 2.3 million children in Tigray need humanitarian assistance as they are living in extremely harsh conditions.
UN Secretary General Antonnio Guterres says that if the war continues, the entire Horn of Africa region will be affected. With millions fleeing to Sudan and Eritrean troops drawn into the Ethiopian borders, the internal conflict can lead to a regional war.
Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that used to control the central government in the capital city, Addis Ababa until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
Since 1991, the TPLF has tried to establish and maintain a federal system in which different ethnic groups try to manage the affairs of 10 regions. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed, a member of the ethnic group Oromo, became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia sidelining TPLF. In 2019, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long-standing border dispute with Eritrea.
After coming to power, Ahmed removed the key Tigrayan government leaders who were accused of corruption and oppression. TPLF viewed his move as an attempt to centralise power and undermine the federal system that they established. The discontent among the members of TPLF grew subsequently against the Abiy Ahmed government.
In 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed put all elections on hold arguing that sending millions to the polls during a pandemic would endanger the lives of people. Tigray, which is governed by a coalition of four parties, disobeyed the central government orders and conducted its own regional election in September 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. When the regional election was held, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed termed it as ‘illegal’. The national government suspended the funding and dissociated itself from Tigray.
On 3 November 2020 Tigray People’s Liberation Front announced a declaration of war against the central government. The conflict escalated on 4 November 2020, when TPLF forces claimed that they had launched an attack on an Ethiopian military base. According to a press statement from the Prime Minister office of Ethiopia, the attack happened in the early hours of 4 November.
In a televised address on 4 November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that the attack caused injuries, property damage and the loss of lives of many soldiers. Ahmed also accused the Tigrayan forces of stealing weapons.
The council of ministers of the Abiy Ahmed government-designated TPLF and other radical ethnic nationalist organisations like Oromo Liberation Front as terrorist organisations. The national authorities deployed military forces in the region and declared a state of emergency for six months. Mobile phone services, internet, and electricity in Tigray were closed by the authorities from November. On 10 December, 2020 Ethio Telecom issued a press briefing saying that the mobile services were restored in Mekelle city, Maiychew, Dansha, Humera, Maikadara, Turkan, Maytsebri, Korem and Alamata.
Civilians Facing The Wrath Of Violence
Fighting has been going on between the Ethiopian forces loyal to the regional and central government since early November 2020, with reports of hundreds dead on both sides. However, the Ethiopian government has rejected all claims made by the international media outlets, and rejected calls for international intervention. Media reports also claim that the Ethiopian government is systematically blocking humanitarian agencies, journalists and NGOs from accessing information about the Tigray region. This has exacerbated the hunger in the region.
The United Nations have claimed that the Ethiopian military forces have blocked foreign aid to starving populations.
Over 30,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring Sudan. According to UNICEF, out of 30,000, 12,000 are children who have lost their parents or relatives during the war.
Reactions From Global Agencies And Countries
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, has termed the conflict as “horrific”. Ghebreyesus said in a news conference in Geneva on 17 May 2021 that people are facing a “horrific” situation as they are dying due to sexual violence and starvation.
Amnesty International has called it a “horrific tragedy” in which large numbers of civilians have been massacred and urged the Ethiopian government to restore communication services in the region. Observing the tragic situation in the region, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also announced visa restrictions on Ethiopian officials, saying that those involved in the war had “taken no meaningful steps to end the hostility”.
TPLF And Its Reign Overy Tigray
In 1974, Ethiopia was governed by a Military Committee named Derg, which was overthrown by Tigray People’s Liberation Front in 1975 when Derg became highly unpopular because of its detrimental policies and mass executions. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front was part of a four-party coalition that reigned over Ethiopia since 1991. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, The Amhara National Democratic Movement and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement were the names of other parties that were part of the coalition. Under their coalition, Ethiopia became prosperous but concerns were often raised about human rights and the level of democracy. Eventually, disagreements transformed into protests BY people that led to the change in regime. After the national election, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took charge of the office. He liberalised policies and started a new party named The Prosperity Party.
The rise and growth of the ethnic divisions within the country who want to govern themselves is going to pose a challenge to the unity of Ethiopia under Prime Minister Ahmed.