The suffering in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is getting worse. The latest reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) paint a heartbreaking picture; over 400,000 people are living in famine conditions, 79 percent of pregnant and lactating women screened over the course of a week were found to suffer from acute malnutrition, and only 11 percent of the humanitarian supplies needed in the region have actually been delivered since July 12. Delivery of medical supplies to Tigray is prohibited by the Ethiopian government, as is delivery of fuel, making distribution of the aid that does make it into the region extraordinarily difficult. Commercial goods are blocked from entering the region as well, leading to scarcity and soaring prices for basic goods. The zone of crisis has expanded along with the conflict to neighboring Afar and Amhara, placing millions more Ethiopians in peril.
Against this horrifying backdrop, on September 30 the Ethiopian government declared seven senior UN officials—five from OCHA, one from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and an official from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—personae non gratae and insisted that they leave the country. Federal officials claimed that the expelled personnel had been “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.” The announcement came just days after the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator called the manmade crisis in Tigray “a stain on our conscience.”
The next day, on October 1, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office released an upbeat newsletter summarizing highlights of his schedule over the course of September that studiously ignored the famine. But it did end with a telling “quote of the month,” likely highlighted as a response to the United States’ threat to impose targeted sanctions on individuals exacerbating the conflict in or hindering humanitarian assistance to Tigray. In the selected quote, Abiy vowed “not to succumb to consequences of pressure” and linked this to the never-to-be-repeated “humiliation our ancestors have faced throughout the continent for centuries.” In the propaganda hothouse that has been constructed around the Tigray conflict, strange transformations abound. Humanitarian workers become enemies of the state, and somehow the right to starve citizens has become a matter of national pride.
Abiy is steering the state toward a destination that is difficult to envision as he forecloses options and creates impossible expectations by alienating international partners and assuring supporters that the trendlines for Ethiopia are looking up. Presumably he expects to prevail in the coming military offensive in Tigray and imagines this will provide a clean slate for his government to carry on with its ambitious development agenda, urgently needed debt restructuring, and complex regional relationships. But decisive military victory may not be in the grasp of any party to the Tigray conflict, and even if it were, the reformist vision of a more politically free and inclusive Ethiopia, and the government’s international credibility, is in tatters.