Ethiopia: one year of civil war between the TPLF and the federal government

The first anniversary of the conflict in the African country has passed

AFP/ ASHRAF SHAZLY  -   Ethiopian refugees who have fled the conflict in Tigray fill bottles and containers with water after arriving at a transit centre in the Sudanese border town of Hamdayit on 27 November 2020

Fighting in Tigray continues, causing concern

The war in Ethiopia continues to leave in its wake one of the most serious humanitarian crises in its history, with the EU and UN preparing sanctions for rights violations.

The bombings in Tigray continue. The conflict in Ethiopia continues to leave thousands of civilian deaths due to famine and bombings, a year after the start of the conflagration between the central government in Addis Ababa and the northern part of the country, in the region of Tigray, governed by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).  

AFP/EDUARDO SOTERAS  - A member of the Ethiopian Defence Forces inspects a damaged military truck abandoned on a road near the village of Ayasu Gebriel, east of the Ethiopian city of Alamata.

Far from peace proclamations, on Monday 18 October an aerial bombardment was carried out in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, where three minors were killed and nine other people were injured, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The Ethiopian government has recognised its authority, but has left unanswered the TPLF's accusations about the civilian deaths caused by the attack, which the Tigray government has attributed to Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister.

Getachew K Reda, TPLF spokesman, denounced on his Twitter account the Addis Ababa government's blame for the Mekele bombing, announcing that the Abiy Ahmed administration "will do everything possible to terrorise our people, especially when their forces are losing on the front lines".

All this as the clashes between the federal government and the Tigray government enter their first anniversary following the launch of a military offensive against the TPLF as a result, according to the federal government, of Tigray's encroachment on the Ethiopian army base in Mekele. As a result of this decision, the Ethiopian army, with the help of Eritrea, was able, in less than a month, to advance into Tigray's capital, Mekele, forcing the TPLF leadership to retreat from its belligerent mission. These successes achieved by the federal executive were followed by the TPLF's response, which made significant advances in June, forcing Abiy Ahmed to declare a ceasefire, something they did not respect in Tigray, expanding their offensive to the regions of Amhara and Afar. 

REUTERS/MICHEL EULER - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
United Nations and the European Union on the crisis in Ethiopia

The world does not remain isolated from the Ethiopian conflict and the UN is concerned about the escalation of the conflict with the bombing in Mekele and urgently calls for a cessation of attacks in Tigray. They also claim that this conflict makes it difficult for humanitarian aid to operate successfully in the affected areas, as the lack of security in Tigray, Amhara and Afar makes it difficult for aid workers to move and deliver aid to a population already suffering the ravages of war with famine and lack of medicines.

In a press release provided by the UN, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that fuel and medicines urgently need to be allowed through for humanitarian aid to operate and urged both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF to prioritise the welfare of the population and cease hostilities. This message comes at a key meeting between the UN and Ethiopia, as on Thursday 30 September the Ethiopian government announced the expulsion of seven senior officials of UN humanitarian agencies, including the representative of UNICEF, who were declared persona non grata for "meddling in Ethiopia's internal affairs", for which the government of Abiy Ahmed forced them to leave the country with a margin of only 72 hours. 

AFP/HUSSEIN ERY -  Ethiopian refugees gather to celebrate the 46th anniversary of the Tigray People's Liberation Front at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan.

For its part, in a press release, the Council of the European Union maintained its firm stance in denouncing this expulsion of UN officials and reaffirmed that these organisations carry out their humanitarian aid work in a neutral and impartial manner. It denounced that this expulsion has taken place in one of the worst food crises in Ethiopia, and testified that "it is imperative that human rights and humanitarian aid organisations be allowed to carry out their work unhindered throughout the country". He also recalled Ethiopia's obligation to respect the UN Charter.

The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, said on Monday, on hearing the news of the Mekele bombings, that the situation in Ethiopia was serious and called for more unity among EU member countries to increase measures against Ethiopia and to sanction the African country for human rights violence and war crimes. He told a press conference and warned of the need for the EU-27 to take common decisions to tackle the humanitarian crisis, which he said "is the worst in the world". 

PHOTO/ ARCHIVO - Conflict map Tigray

The African Union (AU), based in Addis Ababa, began a report in June on the situation in Ethiopia to examine human rights violations in the north of the country, a mandate reportedly given by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself. However, no conclusions have been drawn from the investigation. For its part, the United States has also taken a position on the conflict, calling for a rapid peace solution and an immediate end to the attacks.

 The biggest humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia's recent history

According to UN data, nearly two million people are already on the brink of famine in Tigray and more than 400,000 are already suffering from it. According to data from NGOs and humanitarian aid, such as Save the Children or Action Against Hunger, it is expected that in the coming months 3 out of 4 people will have problems accessing food. This reality mainly affects the conflict zone, Tigray, and adjacent areas, such as the Amhara and Afar regions, where the population is cut off from supplies and where humanitarian aid is hard to reach. Since the fighting began between these regions of Ethiopia, the poor agricultural situation, attacks on health centres and shortages of basic necessities have been a reality in the country, leaving thousands of people at the mercy of humanitarian aid that they do not cover.

PHOTO/ Scanpix/Hakon Mosvold Larsen vía REUTERS- Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali poses with the medal and diploma after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize during the ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo, Norway 10 December 2019.

The TPLF accuses Abiy Ahmed of diverting this humanitarian aid from reaching the Tigray ethnic area, as all communications are controlled in Addis Ababa.

Refugees are another important consequence of the conflict, directly affecting Sudan, where most of the people trying to flee the war-torn Tigray region end up. According to the latest UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report, more than two million people have been displaced within Ethiopia from the Tigray region, and almost 100,000 have taken refuge in Sudan.

The keys to today's war: a conflict of ethnicities

It would be difficult to analyse current African conflicts if one excludes ethnic factors which, while not the only ones, are key in determining the clashes that have brought Ethiopia to an unprecedented civil war. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been the first ethnic Oromo ruler, the country's largest ethnic minority, something that sets the government apart from the ethnic Tigray TPLF. But how did this situation come about?

PHOTO/ Agencia de Noticias Etíope vía AP -  This image, taken from an undated video released by Ethiopia's state news agency on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, shows the Ethiopian military gathered on a road in an area near the border of Ethiopia's Tigray and Amhara regions.

The current war in Ethiopia is not something that has not been repeated before, and nothing could be further back in time than the question of Eritrea, with precedents in the 1990s and still belonging to the kingdom of Ethiopia, which has been so extensive since Haile Selassie himself, but which has been duped in its war for independence since 1961. It is therefore not anomalous to go back in time to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the fall of communism itself, with which the communist rule in Ethiopia also fell at the hands of Mengistu. Two armed organisations took power in the country. On the one hand, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and, on the other, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Instability was assured and clashes with Eritrea continued despite its independence in 1991. 

These clashes between the two countries then became a permanent fixture in their relations, especially along their borders, until the Ethiopian federal government's conflict with the Tigray region. The capitulation of these disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea did not come until 2019, when the now Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievement in bringing an end to hostilities after 20 years of war. 

PHOTO/ Agencia de Noticias Etíope vía AP - Ethiopian military in an area near the border of the Tigray and Amhara regions of Ethiopia.

Only a year after the award was collected, the prime minister stated in an official declaration that war with Tigray was inevitable in the face of subversive acts. If there is one thing that characterises Tigray in Ethiopia, it is that it is the region that is home to the country's most influential ethnic groups and has ruled Ethiopia for years, and since then it has been at loggerheads with the federal government. Attempts at dialogue have failed, and the war has begun. "It is humiliating to go to war with our own people, but there is no other option," said the number two in the new administration. For his part, the president of the TPLF also used similar belligerent words. 

The year 2020 was a key year for Ethiopia's future, with general elections scheduled for 29 August, but they had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The elections that would have revalidated Abiy Ahmed as prime minister had to wait until 21 June this year.  His party, the Prosperity Party (PP), re-formed from the former Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), began its successful campaign: Abiy Ahmed was once again elected with a large majority, though not in a fully democratic manner. The postponement of the elections due to the pandemic, lack of security and logistics led to difficulties in getting out the vote in all regions of the country, especially in Tigray, and to a low turnout at the polls.  

AFP/EDUARDO SOTERAS- Debretsion Gebremichael, Chairman of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)

The federal government's clashes with the TPLF, which had already begun, intensified in the run-up to the elections and were met by Abiy Ahmed's response last November with a military offensive.

After a year of civil war, bombs are still being heard and casualties are still being counted. The famine and health crisis that the Ethiopian people are experiencing is proof that the war has not capitulated and that it is tormenting the foundations of a prosperous future in the Horn of Africa.