Conflict in Ethiopia
Unabated violence against civilians and fighting continues in Tigray, a state in northern Ethiopia, amid political transitions and evolving rhetoric around the government’s military strategy. In November 2020, the government launched a military offensive in Tigray after state leaders defied the federal government and held regional elections. The offensive then quickly escalated into a wider war and ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans. In late June 2021, eight months after the government offensive began in Tigray, the Tigrayan military forces and leadership, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), overran and retook the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, declaring complete control as government soldiers reportedly quickly withdrew. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed characterized the government withdrawal as “strategic” and then declared a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray on humanitarian grounds, despite continuing to block aid routes into Tigray. The TPLF summarily dismissed this cease-fire and declared the launch of a new offensive after Abiy won re-election in a landslide national vote in July 2021. The national parliamentary elections, which were branded by the government as proof of democracy, went ahead even as some opposition groups boycotted the election and outside governments expressed concern about significant obstacles to a free and fair electoral process.
The situation on the ground remains complex. In a sign that the war is broadening, Abiy recently called on all “capable citizens” to join the war against Tigrayan forces as the conflict spills over into Afar and Amhara states, as the TPLF form alliances with other military groups that oppose the central government, and as Eritrean troops appear to re-deploy to Tigray. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government continues to reject mediation efforts and calls for a cease-fire, including a proposal by Sudan to mediate conflict between the government and the TPLF. Turkey has since signalled that it could play a mediating role between Sudan and Ethiopia while backing a peaceful resolution to the conflict. At the same time, attacks against ethnic minorities appear to be escalating across Ethiopia, raising concerns over prospects for stability in a multiethnic and fragmented state.
The conflict has exacted a devastating toll on civilians. Widespread famine is rapidly unfolding across the region, due to the intentional use of starvation as a tactic of war; while communications blackouts make it difficult to discern the true extent of humanitarian catastrophe, reports of famine-related deaths are already emerging. Indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets and infrastructure have continued, including a bombing attack on a market in northern Tigray that killed at least fifty-one people. Ongoing reports identify Ethiopian and Eritrean national troops, as well as regional paramilitary forces and armed militias, carrying out extrajudicial killings, mass atrocities, and rape and sexual violence against Tigray civilians. Thousands of people from Tigray have also fled Ethiopia to neighboring countries, Sudan in particular, with millions more internally displaced.
The blockage of humanitarian routes into Tigray and the deliberate destruction of health infrastructure have further restricted aid to millions of Tigrayans. The UN has repeatedly stressed the need for unfettered humanitarian access, including opening up the Ethiopia-Sudan border, which is already at risk of a military flare-up due to territorial disputes between the two countries. In July 2021, USAID Administrator Samantha Power also drew attention to the need for unfettered humanitarian access in a visit to Addis Ababa, and noted the Ethiopian government’s concerning use of dehumanizing rhetoric to describe ethnic Tigrayans. In late August 2021, the United States imposed new sanctions targeting Eritrea over the country’s involvement in the war in Tigray.
Tigray is one of ten regional states located in northern Ethiopia, sharing a border with Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the west. Prior to current Abiy’s ascension to power in 2018, the state dominated politics at the national level, with most of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition comprised of leaders from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
In 2018, Abiy’s national election win signaled a transfer of power from the decades-long rule of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). While in power, the TPLF had implemented a series of political reforms that marginalized other ethnic groups and consolidated the central government. Abiy’s ascent to power was buttressed by his visions of an ethnically harmonious, unified Ethiopia and initially appeared to be a critical change of course from the divisive policies of the TPLF-dominated ruling coalition. However, internal political friction between the TPLF and the government intensified during Abiy’s initial tenure, as the internationally lauded liberal reforms enacted by Abiy’s government marginalized the TPLF.
In September 2020, following multiple delays in parliamentary elections and the extension of Abiy’s presidential term, the Tigray State Council defied the federal government and held regional elections, in which TPLF candidates won a majority of seats. In advance of the elections, Tigray leaders warned that intervention from the federal government would be considered a “declaration of war.” Abiy condemned the Tigray regional elections, accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp and looting federal military assets, and then declared a six-month state of emergency and swiftly deployed troops to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, in an offensive ostensibly targeting rebel TPLF leaders.
Abiy first framed the Ethiopian government’s Mekelle offensive—which began in November 2020—as a targeted operation against regional leaders in Tigray after failed cease-fire negotiations. However, troops began committing widespread atrocities from the start of the offensive against those they identified as Tigray civilians. A communications blackout near the beginning of the conflict shuttered coverage of the offensive, but the media has since been able to paint a fuller picture of the extent of the atrocities that have been committed in Tigray through firsthand witness accounts, video clips, and other testimony.
Even as the offensive quickly escalated into a much broader war, with civilians facing the brunt of the violence, Abiy’s government rejected calls for mediation. Eritrean forces also joined the side of the Ethiopian government early in the conflict, and after months of denying their presence, in spring 2021 Abiy admitted that Eritrean troops were in Tigray. The TPLF and Eritrea have a history of hostile relations: Eritrea fought a brutal, decade-long war of independence against Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s, when the TPLF held power in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. Eritrean troops have shown no sign of leaving, despite international pressure.
The United States has characterized the conflict as ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, and harrowing reports have documented the prevalence of mass atrocities in the conflict, including troops and members of militias perpetrating rape and sexual violence against women and girls in particular. These reports have raised the question of accountability for serious rights violations. In March 2021, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced a joint probe with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate alleged serious abuses and rights violations in Tigray, although the impartiality of the joint probe has been drawn into question. Proposed efforts to call for an end to the violence from the UN Security Council have failed as a result of Chinese and Russian vetoes, countries that maintain the conflict to be an internal Ethiopian affair.
There have been stark restrictions on humanitarian aid flowing to the region since the start of the conflict, including government suspensions of aid operations, blockage of aid routes, deliberate destruction of healthcare systems, and communications blackouts that hamper needs assessments. Ethiopia has also rejected UN proposals to open the Ethiopia-Sudan border. These restrictions have exacerbated the onset of widespread famine, which materialized in early summer 2021 after the UN had been sounding the alarm for months. The man-made famine, affecting 900,000 people with 1.8 million people on the brink, is currently characterized as the most severe starvation crisis in the world. Moreover, the deliberate destruction of agriculture and food production capacity has taken place, including government troops preventing farmers from planting fields or destroying seeds and crops.
The conflict has also triggered an ongoing refugee and displacement crisis. More than sixty-one thousand people have fled for Sudan, and more than one million people have been internally displaced. Nearly one hundred thousand refugees from Eritrea living in Tigray have been caught in the cross fire. Millions of people, including children, are cut off from humanitarian aid and have limited access to shelter, water, food, and other basic necessities.
Violence in Tigray has continued at the same time that peaceful contracts among ethnic groups and between ethnic groups and the government appear to be unwinding in certain parts of the country. In April 2021, the government declared a state of emergency in Amhara state after a series of violent attacks against people belonging to the Oromo ethnic group, who are minorities in Amhara. The offensive against Tigray and the ensuing fallout have also prompted a more specific crisis of confidence in Abiy, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his rapprochement with Eritrea in 2018 and campaigned on a platform of a peaceful and unified Ethiopia.
The United States has viewed Ethiopia as a provider of security in the region and has a stake in the stability of Ethiopia’s neighbors, including Somalia and Sudan. Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict, led by President Isaias Afwerki, may signal an intention to expand influence in the Horn in an authoritarian fashion. The conflict in Tigray could compromise Ethiopia’s role in providing diplomatic support for Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy, further exacerbate tensions at the Ethiopia-Sudan border, derail talks around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and threaten progress to stability in Somalia.