Officially, the Tigray conflict broke out in November 2020 between the federal government of Addis Ababa and the troops loyal to the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). However, the root causes of this conflict can be traced before that date. Indeed, the TPLF formed a quadrumvirate with the other ethnic parties during the 1990s to overthrow the military regime in place. Since then, that coalition ruled the country for twenty-five years, until Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister following protests due to soaring discontent. Regrettably, the reforms implemented by Abiy were interpreted by the TPLF as an effort to concentrate power in Addis Ababa and to wipe out Ethiopia’s federal system. Moreover, the federal government did not grant permission for a regional election held in September 2020 in Tigray, exacerbating the previous sentiment, and, in October, Addis Ababa suspended funding for Tigray, cutting ties with it. The regional government in Tigray expressed its dissatisfaction, asserting that this amounted to a “declaration of war”. Therefore, TPLF fighters captured various federal military bases in the Tigray region, forcing Abiy to command the invasion of the territory, in what he called a “law-and-order operation” targeting domestic terrorists. The months-long conflict is still in place nowadays, despite the initial declaration of victory made by Abiy’s government.
The citizens of the region are paying the cost of this conflict, living in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of people are facing famine conditions in what the UN has called the “world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade.” The food situation is aggravated by ethnic and political hostility over soil and supplies and by the continuing looting of essential items realised by the fighters. Moreover, as the International Committee of the Red Cross’ spokesperson for Africa Alyona Synenko expressed, not only many farmers cannot access their land, plant their crops or harvest them, but they also have no more agricultural credits needed to acquire all essential items. The scarcity of food is killing thousands of people, especially youngsters, with an estimation that 300,000 children are already dead, approximately two-thirds of the total number of deaths. For these reasons, millions of people are now in urgent need of emergency food aids.
In addition, essential medical supplies are also running low, depriving millions of people of their life-saving treatments and health care. Indeed, a great number of hospitals in Tigray have been pillaged, robbed, ruined, or demolished during the conflict. The situation is so catastrophic that Jan Egeland, Norwegian Refugee Council’s Secretary-General, stated: “I have rarely seen humanitarian aid so hampered and unable to help so many people with such urgent needs for so long.” In fact, the Ethiopian government is not allowing humanitarian aid to access the region, and there are constant rumours that aid packages unloaded from lorries are then stolen or hijacked by the fighters. Because of that, US officials estimate that only 10% of humanitarian supplies sent have been allowed into the region. Therefore, just 13% of the five million people in need are receiving assistance.
Besides the humanitarian crisis, the conflict in Tigray is becoming an ethnic driven one, with accusations of war crimes. Indeed, Tigray gave sanctuary to Eritreans who fled due to the authoritarian regime, but during these last months, many reports detailed the killing and the rape of Eritrean refugees by Eritrean troops, who are fighting with the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and by Tigray rebels. Statistics of the UNHCR revealed that one-third of the refugees living in Hitsats and Shimelba camps are still unaccounted for. Furthermore, both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies are targeting the civilian population of Tigray. For instance, Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in the northern town of Axum in November and then engaged in extrajudicial or summary killings, arbitrary bombardments, and pillaging. According to Amnesty International, all these acts might account for crimes against humanity. Also, Ethiopia’s Air Force indiscriminately targeted a market in Togota (northern Tigray) killing more than 80 civilians.
The number of reports of sexual abuse and rape is dramatically rising, as well. As early as January 2021, the UN Special Representative Pramila Pattern exposed her concern about allegations of sexual violence with people forced to rape family members or have sex with the military in exchange for necessities. Some restrictive statistics declare that at least 22,000 raped girls will need assistance. As confirmed in a BBC report, there is an upsurge in the request for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections relating to alleged rapes, with a dramatic story of an Ethiopian schoolgirl who lost her hand protecting herself from a trooper attempting to rape her. Indeed, on April 22nd, the United Nations Security Council issued its first joint statement on the Tigray conflict, voicing its concern about human rights violations. Also, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned those acts, and Michelle Bachelet (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) has supported that those serious actions could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The conflict in Tigray is disrupting the entire Ethiopia, a country pivotal for the peace of the region, and it could then destabilise the Horn of Africa. Indeed, the intervention of the Eritrean army in Tigray is the demonstration of rising ethnic sectarianism, intending to revenge old disputes and resentments with an intentional effort to demolish its society and history. Besides, the weakening of Ethiopia could create a security vacuum in the region – exactly when in Somalia there is a pernicious constitutional crisis – and it may present valuable opportunities for extremist and external actors seeking gain in unconnected contentions. Moreover, Sudan is experiencing a fragile transition, and the perception of a threat from its Ethiopian neighbour may consolidate the military in power. Indeed, territorial claims and minor accidents are occurring along the frontier between Sudan and Ethiopia, and Khartoum has given sanctuary to thousands of Ethiopians escaping from Tigray.
The conflict in Tigray is not only pernicious for the Horn of Africa but also severely threatens the human rights and dignity of its inhabitants. Besides a few formal accusations and sanctions, little has been done by other countries to arbitrate or interrupt the worst humanitarian crisis. How many more have to die before some resolute intervention?
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