International pressure is mounting to secure “unrestricted humanitarian access” from the Ethiopian government to the region threatened by hunger and abuses by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. A situation that could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa.

A young Tigrayan, a victim of the conflict, fled to a refugee camp in Sudan in November. (Olivier Jobard/Myop for Liberation)

by Maria Malagardis (February 10, 2021)

[Rough translation of an article from the French magazine Info Libé]

What is happing in Tigray? Alarming reports are coming from this region of northern Ethiopia, which has been cut off from the world for three months. Echoes of fierce battles behind closed door between the central government and the local authorities, now on the run, may have turned the [Tigray] region, larger than Switzerland or Denmark, into a landscape of ruins.

Burned fields, looted or destroyed infrastructure, drinking water tanks out of service leave the local population completely destitute. On Tuesday in Mekele, the capital of Tigre, all shops were closed and clashes between youths and the armed forces resulted in at least one death, according to AFP. But since the beginning of the conflict in early November, more than 1 million people have reportedly fled their homes (out of the region’s 6 million inhabitants). And between 2.5 and 3 million would need emergency food aid, raising the specter of famine that is reawakening bad memories in Ethiopia.

Having long taken the path of negotiation, the international community is now raising its voice to denounce, as Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, did on 1 February, “an extremely serious situation”. And “rapidly deteriorating,” added Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the UN secretary-general, on Friday, while “humanitarian access is still restricted due to insecurity and bureaucratic obstacles,” he added.

“What we don’t know”

Diplomats and UN agencies alike are calling for “unlimited humanitarian access” to the region, where the latest episode of an Ethiopian Game of Thrones started two years ago is being played. On the one hand, the country’s current strongman, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. On the other, his former allies and mentors, who had co-opted him as head of government in 2018. The leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ruled Ethiopia unchallenged for twenty-six years, before retreating to their regional stronghold when the divorce with Abiy Ahmed became apparent. Since then, both sides have blamed each other for the outbreak of armed hostilities on 4 November. But as is often the case, it is the civilian population that pays the heavy price. It remains to be seen to what extent.

So far, despite an agreement reached on Sunday to increase food aid to this locked region, foreign aid workers have had access to only some towns, major main roads and two of the four Eritrean refugee camps in this border region of Eritrea. This is not much. But that is enough to confirm some of the concerns. As Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s Executive Director, explained on 27 January, “The little we know about the impact of this conflict is deeply troubling. Our concern is that what we don’t know, could be even more disturbing.”

Even before the crisis, 600,000 people were dependent on external food aid in the region, one of the poorest in the country. But hunger is not the only threat to the region, where 72% of hospitals have been looted and are no longer able to function, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. For beyond the shortages, no one knows exactly who is controlling the situation on the ground.

As early as 28 November, with the capture of Mekele, Abiy Ahmed had declared the “end of the active phase” of military operations, promising a rapid return to normalcy with the establishment of a provisional administration. But the latter itself seems overwhelmed by the scale of the needs, as overwhelming testimonies multiply. Stories of rape, summary executions, looting and the forced return of Eritrean refugees across the border, where the dictatorial regime they fled will certainly not spare them. Last week, Father Mussie Zerai, a priest from the Archdiocese of Asmara, the capital of the independent state since 1993, claimed that at least 10,000 Eritrean refugees had been forcibly repatriated by troops from their home country.

The most ferocious abuses

Despite Addis Ababa’s denials, the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray alongside the federal army no longer seems to be in doubt in the eyes of the international community. They are credited with the most ferocious abuses, the most systematic looting. “For several decades, the total deconstruction of the social fabric and indefinite national military service have often dehumanized young Eritreans,” says Mirjam Van Reisen, a country expert at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands. They are also suspected of harboring a visceral hatred against the “historical enemy”: those Tigrayans who, when the TPLF was in power in Addis Ababa, had maintained a hard line, helping to isolate Eritrea on the international stage. Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for the peace agreement he has reached with Asmara, which also allowed the lifting of the arms embargo. Today, some suspect that the Ethiopian Prime Minister took advantage of the treaty to forge an alliance with the Eritrean dictator, Issayas Afewerki, and to bring down their common enemy, the TPLF.

«For several decades, the total deconstruction of the social fabric and indefinite national military service have often dehumanized young Eritreans.» Mirjam van Reisen of the University of Tilburg

In Washington, as early as January 27, the new Biden administration called for “the immediate departure of Eritrean troops from the Tigray region.” Two days later, France joined the pressure, citing “repeated and consistent allegations of human rights violations.” But for now, the biggest blow has come from the European Union, which in mid-January suspended 88 million euros in budgetary aid to Ethiopia pending a “guarantee of full humanitarian access” to Tigray.

In the face of these criticisms, Addis Ababa still claims to be in control of the situation and to be able to further increase its own humanitarian aid capacity. “We are delivering aid to people in need. They are our citizens and it is our responsibility first,” stresses Henok Teferra Shawl, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Paris, who believes that “international aid must be coordinated between local authorities and global organizations”. But, he said, “the root of the conflict must be understood first.” Namely: “Until 2018, Ethiopia was governed by a coalition in which the TPLF dominated. It was an authoritarian regime, increasingly contested. From 2015, the youth revolted and the situation became untenable. “We are an old state, but we have never known democracy,” he says. Internal elections within the coalition brought Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018. He initiated a whole series of reforms. Each time, the TPLF opposed it. Even then, mediation was thought that mediation was possible. But on the evening of November 4, they attacked federal forces stationed in the north and murdered our officers and soldiers, some in their sleep. Which country would have accepted that?” the diplomat protested.

Pole of Regional Stability

The leaders of the TPLF claim to have reacted after being certain that they would be attacked. What seems certain is that they had underestimated the military response of the federal government. Today, the TPLF is forced into hiding. The party’s president, Debretsion Gebremichael, is on the run, but has not given up fighting. Other leaders were captured, such as Sebhat Nega, one of the organization’s historical founders. Some were killed, such as Seyoum Mesfin, who was found dead on 13 January. An unstoppable foreign minister, he had been for twenty years the official face of diplomacy in Africa’s second most populous country, which had become a pole of regional stability.

However, it is also this stabilizing role that now seems to be under threat. First, through Eritrea’s intervention in the Tigray conflict. But also by opening up other fronts that could take advantage of this unstable situation. This is already the case with Sudan, where armed incidents have been reported in the El-Fashaga Triangle, an area of 250 square kilometers claimed by both countries. This may be the case tomorrow in Somalia, when mothers have been demonstrating since early January accusing their government, already weakened by an internal political crisis, of forcing their sons to undergo military training in Eritrea, running the risk of being sent to fight in Tigre. Not to mention the centrifugal forces within the Ethiopian federation weakened by a rise in identity and nationalist demands. By allying with the Amhara militias to drive the TPLF out of its regional stronghold, will Abiy Ahmed be able to resist their own claims on land attributed to the Tigray? The disintegration of Ethiopia has been repeatedly predicted, repeatedly contradicted. But in 1973, it was enough for a famine to unleash the anger that, two years later, would bring down Haile Selassie, the last emperor.