Civil conflict: What is happening in Tigray?

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Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister of Ethiopia in 2019, during the chaos of mass protests against the coalition government, headed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After years of what was largely seen as an autocratic rule, characterised by the severe oppression of political dissidents, Ahmed sought to reunify Ethiopia under his new Prosperity Party. His peace efforts with neighbouring country Eritrea won him a Nobel Prize in 2019. 

It is from this background that the current Ethiopian civil conflict has stemmed. 

Ethiopia is an ethnically diverse country divided into 10 regions. The Tigrayan region has felt marginalised since Ahmed rose to power and deposed many TPLF elites from high positions in the government, even persecuting some on the grounds of corruption. Unfortunately for Africa’s youngest prime minister, this only earned him enemies and even an attempted assassination in 2018. 

The Tigrayan region has felt marginalised since Ahmed rose to power

Although Ahmed pledged democratic reform upon his election, some Ethiopians feel that he has not fulfilled his promises. He postponed the elections in March this year citing the pandemic as the primary concern, which has led to accusations that he is making a grab for power. 

As a result, the TPLF party refused to acknowledge Ahmed as the legitimate leader of the country and held their own election illegally in September. In a stalemate situation, Ahmed also refused to recognise the results of the TPLF vote. The TPLF’s constant efforts at undermining Ahmed’s government throughout its rule has now escalated into direct violence, with the party attacking two military bases in Tigray on 4th November. 

Ahmed’s government retaliated by sending in army forces. Civilians who could not flee in time were caught in a lethal crossfire. There have been reports of atrocities on both sides and even a massacre where hundreds were hacked to death. It is hard to know precise numbers or get footage of what is happening because the Ethiopian government has cut off all communications with Tigray, including roads, airports, phone networks and the internet. 

The Ethiopian government has cut off all communications with Tigray, including roads, airports, phone networks and the internet.

On Sunday evening Abiy Ahmed took to Twitter to urge the TPLF to “surrender peacefully within 72 hours”. It followed a statement from Ethiopian military spokesman Colonel Dejene Tsegaye, who declared army plans to surround Mekelle with tanks. He said, “We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save yourselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta … After that, there will be no mercy.” This puts the approximately 500,000 people who live in Tigray’s capital Mekelle at a very high risk and human rights activists are concerned about the legality of the threat.

Leader of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael, responded that his people were “ready to die” defending their right to administer their region. What does this mean for civilians?

There has been a mass exodus of at least 40,000 people as yet, with the UN refugee agency predicting up to 200,000 if fighting continues. There is some concern that the war will continue to spread, perhaps even into Eritrea, and destabilise east Africa. Refugees have travelled across the border into Sudan where camps are overcrowded and unprepared to deal with the excess of civilian displacement. There is relative safety but access to shelter, clean water, food and health care is compromised. 

“We want to send a message to the public to save yourselves from any artillery attacks… After that, there will be no mercy.”

Sudanese authorities have expressed the need for more camps to be established and easy humanitarian access to them provided. Sudan is already struggling with its own economic problems, so it needs the international community to pull together and help. Thus far, Ethiopia has ignored US pleas for a ceasefire and peace talks. On Wednesday, Ahmed decided to reject attempts at international intervention from the African Union and the UN. It is going to be difficult for the civilians to be saved. Abiy Ahmed has promised the army would not be targeting Tigrayans and they would be protected. Nonetheless, it is not hard to imagine a scenario where innocent people are killed or injured. 

International powers need to place intense and consistent pressure on Ahmed and the TPLF to stop escalating the war further and they need to provide essential humanitarian aid in this time of crisis for Ethiopia. 

Image: Bair175 via Creative Commons

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