Updated: Jan 19
Once a close ally to the west, and a country known for its relative stability since 2018, the Tigray region in Ethiopia has experienced a complete devolution from the power and progress it had previously received praise for. Prior to 2018, the Tigray ethnic group had been well represented and generally dominated the makeup of Ethiopian governance. However, in 2018, a purge of Tigray ethnic group members from government positions took place, creating space for the tensions that have evolved into the war today. Fighting has been ongoing since November, mainly between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian Federal Government. Since then, Tigrayan's have expressed betrayal and dissatisfaction in regard to current Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed, principally blaming him for refusing to hold elections on the constitutionally recognized date. Thus far, the result has been devastating humanitarian emergencies that are attributing to one of the worlds’ largest refugee crisis according to the Crisis Group.
The feeling of injustice the Tigray feel towards PM Abiy Ahmed has furthered the development of this conflict as he refused to hold elections at the required date, citing concerns over the spread of COVID-19, calling for a delay to the election date. Nevertheless, in the Tigray region, inhabitants called his refusal to be contested in elections unconstitutional, and thus held their own regional elections. It is worth noting that PM Abiy Ahmed is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, which has now been the focus of controversy according to various reports. Furthermore, once the regional elections were held in the Tigray region, officials in the capital of Addis Ababa declared that the results will not be accepted because of the Tigray region’s defiance of order. As a result, conflict between the Tigray region and the central government continued escalating ultimately resulting in the dire situation which Ethiopia faces today.
The use of extreme and disproportionate violence in the region without regard for combatant or civilian is further creating fear and tensions. Violence is said to have intensified when allegedly, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacked a military base, in protest of the government. However, to further the complexity of the situation, much of the accounts coming from Ethiopia cannot be verified as PM Abiy Ahmed has cut off communication. This uncertainty not only makes it difficult for the world to understand the intricacies of the conflict but has also created a deep sense of urgency for aid workers to provide for those in need of humanitarian assistance. The lack of clarity and increase in hostilities has left many citizens in a precarious situation surrounded by violence and a lack of direction.
Currently, the response to providing assistance in the Tigray region is limited. Aid groups are having difficulty reaching those in need of essentials, which is especially concerning for those that are especially vulnerable, such as women, children, and the disabled. Several aid groups have pleaded with the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments to allow them access to the border, but the situation is still deemed too dangerous. Similarly, there is fear that within the refugee camps, there is a higher chance of the COVID-19 virus spreading since there is not the adequate space nor equipment to manage the situation. Many children have not attended school since the beginnings of the pandemic and are being exposed to extreme violence and shortages in refugee camps. Another devastating aspect of this conflict is the already detrimental toll that the pandemic has had on the economic status of Ethiopia, which is likely to continue to suffer from debt and the consequences of an international response once the details of the conflict are better delineated. Consequently, in this region that has already experienced a major refugee crisis and conflict within the last few decades with Eritrea, it seems that the instability will continue.
While Ethiopia has represented tremendous economic growth and political stability as of recently in the Horn of Africa, there is fear that the current conflict will detract from any progress in solving the surrounding conflicts in Somalia and Sudan. Particularly, since Ethiopia withdrew its forces from the African Union mission to Somalia, at the same time that the United States is pulling troops out, the growth of extremism and violence is likely to surge. The insurgency of Al-Shabab that is present in Somalia, will continue to terrorize the Horn region and bring about despair for the citizens that must endure their antics. Sudan has historically accepted refugees from Ethiopia but will be overwhelmed by the sudden influx at a time when social distance and economic degradation are in effect. The combination of the mayhem of the virus and political instability is likely to bring an increase in extremism and economic turbulence, further devastating the region.
Going forward, there will be immense pressure for clarity, especially concerning the actions of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Without access to communication and visibility, the people of Ethiopia, and especially of the Tigray region, risk the possibility of enduring escalation of conflict and the possibility of a genocide. According to UN estimates, approximately 55,000 refugees have fled the region, leaving behind their families, homes, and stability, and in Ethiopia as a whole more than 2 million children are lacking humanitarian assistance. Human rights violations are under review, but are still difficult to pursue given the lack of access to the region. Reports of widespread looting and targeting of civilians continue to cause distress for the international aid community who must have a safe route to deliver essential humanitarian aid. The sentiment of injustice is strongly felt in Tigray against PM Abiy Ahmed, and will continue to contribute to mounting violence and destabilization.
Jessica Sumner is Editor of APRA's Think Tank Team.