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The end to Ethiopia’s ‘moment of reflection’: An escalating conflict and humanitarian crisis

By Chiara Longmore


In July, a unilateral ceasefire brought tentative hopes for peace in Ethiopia. However, last week the Ethiopian government announced a state of emergency as TPLF rebels marched on the capital Addis Ababa. Facing an escalating civil war, several western countries have ordered their citizens to leave Ethiopia. Events in Ethiopia mark a continuation of an already devastating conflict that has created a burgeoning humanitarian crisis. If violence continues to escalate, the risk to human security will continue to deepen and impact the regional security of the Horn of Africa.

40th Anniversary of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)- Mekelle (Ethiopia), 2015, by Paul Kagame

Context: The Tigray War

Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, is one of ten which constitute Ethiopia. Despite being a minority group, Tigrayans have historically dominated Ethiopia’s political landscape for almost thirty years. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) represented the region of Tigray and were a dominant political and military force in Ethiopia, leading the war against Eritrea from 1998 to 2000.

In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and sought to establish a more centralised political system for the country. As Abiy’s policies reduced their political power, the TPLF also felt that they were being disproportionately targeted by Abiy’s government for their past political and military dominance. As such, the TPLF broke away from the centralised government’s coalition of parties and in September 2020 held their own elections.

Violence erupted in early November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy’s government suspended the elections in Tigray, declaring them unlawful. Months of intense conflict have since followed, with the TPLF and Tigrayan Special Forces (TSF) fighting against Ethiopia’s National Defence Force (ENDF), the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF), and Amhara Special Forces (ASF).

Ethiopia’s Map, Tigray colored red.

On 28th June 2021, a unilateral ceasefire between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government presented a tentative path to peace, with Prime Minister Abiy describing it as a “moment of reflection”. However, this ‘reflective moment’ did not hold. Last week a joint force of eight rebel groups joined Tigrayan rebels to march on Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. The coalition of rebel forces reportedly seeks to overthrow Abiy and instate a transitional government - “we are left with one option — changing the situation; otherwise, we’ll all be massacred” stated Berhane Gebre-Christos, former foreign minister for Ethiopia, speaking on behalf of the TPLF.

In response to the advance of rebel groups, the Ethiopian government has declared a state of emergency, calling upon citizens to pick arms against potential rebel sympathisers. The state of emergency also grants authorities the power to arrest individuals without a court warrant, and potentially detain them for as long as the measures are in place (projected to be six months).

Deepening Divisions

Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns that the state of emergency will bestow the government greater powers to conduct arbitrary detentions, specifically along ethnic lines. Indeed, it was reported Tuesday (9th November 2021) that sixteen UN staff have been detained in Addis Ababa, and it is widely suggested they were of Tigrayan ethnicity. Whilst an Ethiopian government spokesman told Associated Press the individuals were being detained for their “participation in terror”, it is countered that the detentions indicate a deliberate targeting of ethnic Tigrayans.

Whilst the topic remains contentious, the ethnic dimension to the conflict in Ethiopia must be considered. As a minority ethnic group, Tigrayans constitute 6% of the population and have allegedly been subjected to discrimination since violence erupted last November. Tigrayans have reportedly faced arbitrary arrests, had bank accounts frozen and experienced forced redundancies. There is therefore a fear, particularly from human rights groups, that increased government powers will be used to pursue further discriminatory action against Tigrayans.

Whilst there are extremely concerning accounts of ethnically targeted violence, it must be emphasised that the situation in Ethiopia is incredibly complex. As a country of more than 110 million, and over ninety different ethnic groups, the Ethiopian conflict cannot easily be framed as an ethnic conflict of ‘one group versus another’. Indeed, the Tigrayan coalition of rebels alone includes Oromos, Somalis, and the Sidama, to name but a few. Thus context-specific issues must be considered when analysing the conflict in Ethiopia in order to avoid an oversimplification of dynamics, particularly regarding ethnic divides.

Despite the complexities of the ethnic dimensions to the conflict in Ethiopia, what can be argued is that the extension of government powers risks the protection of human rights, as well as creating deeper divisions between groups. There is thus a potential for conflict escalation which is particularly concerning when considering the humanitarian crisis occurring as a result of violence.

Humanitarian Crisis

The humanitarian cost of the conflict in Ethiopia runs deep. The UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet commented how the “conflict has been marked by extreme brutality”, and this has been perpetrated by all warring parties. Last week, a joint UN-Ethiopia report suggested that crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed during the Tigray conflict by all sides. Based on around 270 interviews with victims and witnesses, the report found evidence of sexual violence being perpetrated by Tigrayan, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, with thirty survivors sharing their experiences. Furthermore, the report also found evidence of the persecution of refugees by Tigrayan and Eritrean forces, as well forced displacement particularly of ethnic Amharas from their homes.

The UN further estimates that around 400,000 people are living in “famine-like conditions” in Tigray with a further five million facing food shortages. Such issues are compounded by the 1.7 million people who are currently internally displaced, as well as the fact that access to communication lines and electricity still remains limited to many in Tigray. According to Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, “no aid trucks have reached Mekelle since 18 October” and highlighted how airstrikes have continued to disrupt access to aid and services to the region of Tigray.

There is therefore a severe crisis of human security in Ethiopia, a country which is “teetering on the brink of a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe”. This is catastrophic not just for Ethiopia’s internal stability (large numbers are reportedly fleeing from Tigray into neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar) but it also threatens broader regional security of the Horn of Africa. More than 46,000 refugees have crossed the border into Sudan, using the Hamdayet border in Kassala state as an access point. In response to the increasing influx of refugees into Sudan, the UN established a settlement in Tunaydbah-Gedaref State in January of this year, where more than 18,000 Ethiopians are currently situated. As such, the UN political chief told the Security Council this week that Ethiopia had reached “disastrous proportions” with the stability of East Africa subsequently at risk.

Inclusive Solutions

There are long-standing grievances between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government, and the ripple effect of the conflict between the sides is having a devastating impact on human security. The state of emergency recently implemented risks deepening divisions and fomenting further conflict in Ethiopia. Therefore, whilst it is positive that Prime Minister Abiy engaged in discussion with UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the weekend, a framework of internal dialogue between warring groups is necessary if an effective peace process is to take place. This is reiterated by the UN which calls for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” so that an “intra-Ethiopian dialogue” can be pursued. If left unresolved, the Ethiopian conflict will continue to feed a humanitarian crisis which risks destabilising the wider region of East Africa.

2021-11-11 EthiopiaUpdate - Chiara
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About the author: Chiara Longmore

Chiara is originally from Scotland; however, she has moved to the Netherlands to complete a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. With an interdisciplinary background, her bachelor’s was in Liberal Arts, she has analysed situations of violence and conflict with a multi-disciplinary framework, in particular with Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology.



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