The Speaker
Friday, 12 April 2024 – 12:09

The forgotten war in Ethiopia

After a tumultuous two years of war, the central government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have reached a ceasefire. However, the ceasefire is less hopeful than it initially appears.

Although Ethiopia’s power struggle dates back centuries, 2018 ignited current tensions between ethnic groups, specifically the people of Tigray and Oromo.

In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister with the crucial support of TPLF, a vital player in the coalition that brought Ahmed to power. Ahmed promised to heal ethnic tensions in Ethiopia and the region. Prior to this, the TPLF was a strong political force in a system that allowed for the representation of minor ethnic groups in government. As a result, the political system generally pleased most smaller minorities while displeasing larger ethnic groups.

Ahmed represented the Oromo people, who believed the political system was unproductive and overrepresented minor ethnic groups. The Oromo backed Ahmed’s policies of centralising authority and modernising the government structure. However, this left many minor ethnic groups vulnerable.

Political representation is not just an issue in Ethiopia; looking at the perpetual debate in the US about the state senate system, which over and underrepresents different states to counteract the congressional house. Representation is a deep-rooted issue in many political systems. Therefore this issue at its heart went much deeper than that.

While Ahmed’s support slowly deteriorated by a lack of delivery on his promises, within a year of governance, political pressures rose, and Ahmed decided to delay general elections without a clear direction. Inevitably, ethnic groups such as the TPLF began to doubt the legitimacy of his power.

The tension between the TPLF and the federal government came to a head in September 2020 when the TPLF held regional elections in defiance of the government. The TPLF did exceptionally well in the election, which mandated their power to challenge Ahmed. In response, the federal government declared the elections illegal and resisted the growing voices.

The beginning of the end

Protests escalated when the TPLF allegedly raided a government military compound in June 2020. Following this, Ahmed decided to extinguish the TPLF’s growing resistance by initiating a military operation against the TPLF. The operation intended to suppress the TPLF swiftly, but as history shows, it deteriorated into a two-year regional civil war.

The violence escalated rapidly, with both sides accusing the other of war crimes and human rights abuses. The Ethiopian government claimed that the TPLF was attempting to overthrow the government, while the TPLF accused the government of marginalising and oppressing the Tigrayan people. Heavy artillery, airstrikes, and ground assaults characterised the fighting.

Meanwhile, the civil war caught the attention of the Eritrean government, which has had a complex and contentious relationship with the Tigray region of Ethiopia. TPLF was a crucial player in the coalition that fought for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in the 1990s.

Still, the two sides had growing tensions when the Eritrean government under President Isaias Afwerki accused the TPLF of supporting anti-Eritrean militants and being a destabilising force in the region. On the other hand, the TPLF has accused Eritrea of supporting anti-Tigrayan groups and attempting to interfere in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.

The TPLF accused Eritreans of actively assisting Ethiopian federal soldiers when the Tigrian-Ethiopia conflict began. Eritrean forces are thought to have fought alongside Ethiopians, aiding in capturing key towns in the Tigray region. On the other hand, Eritrea has denied the accusation and declared that it supports Ethiopia in its fight against the TPLF.

Human rights organisations and the international world have widely condemned Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict, accusing the Eritrean government of breaking international law and perpetrating human rights violations.

Civilians were particularly affected by the violence, with many caught in the crossfire and targeted by both sides. There have been indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes. In addition, the war has caused numerous human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and torture.

The displacement of civilians has resulted in the widespread destruction of infrastructure and damage to homes and other buildings. Also, many people were forced to flee their homes and communities to escape the violence.

The situation has been particularly dire for women, who have been disproportionately affected by the violence and face additional risks on two levels. Firstly, a lack of access to education and protection services, with many women and children unable to attend school due to the disruption of education systems. But most concerningly, a disturbing number of reports of sexual violence.

A ceasefire?

On November 2nd, 2022, two years after the start of the war, the Ethiopian government, the TPLF, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced that they had agreed to a ceasefire and would begin negotiations to resolve the conflict.

The ceasefire has been in effect since then, but the conflict remains unresolved. The Ethiopian government has since re-established its control over the region, and the TPLF leaders have gone into hiding. The parties also agreed to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need.

The humanitarian disaster

Nevertheless, the humanitarian crisis continues, and the UN and other international organisations continue to provide aid to the affected population.

The humanitarian disaster has worsened. The conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and caused a severe food, water, and medical supply shortage. The United Nations has reported that more than 10 million people in Tigray have required UN humanitarian assistance. The likelihood is many more millions will continue to rely on this aid.

The displacement of civilians has been widespread, with many people forced to flee their homes and communities to escape the violence. Many are forced to seek refuge in overcrowded camps or with host families, where they are struggling to access necessities such as food and water. The disruption of livelihoods and markets has also led to a severe food shortage, with widespread hunger and malnutrition.

The destruction of infrastructure and lack of access to essential services such as healthcare further exacerbates the situation. Many health facilities have been destroyed or are no longer operational, leaving people needing access to medical care. In addition, preventable diseases have spread across the region due to a lack of basic medicines. 

The international community must take urgent action to address the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. Providing aid and assistance to those in need is crucial, as well as protecting civilians and creating safe and sustainable solutions for those displaced by the conflict. The humanitarian community continues to call for unrestricted and secure access to assist those in need, the protection of civilians and the respect for international humanitarian laws.

The Tigray war has wide-ranging implications for Africa. The conflict has destabilised what is known as the horn of Africa with the potential to spill over into neighbouring countries. In addition, the ongoing fighting and displacement of people have led to a significant refugee crisis, with thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Sudan and Eritrea.

What are the implications?

The conflict will disrupt trade and economic relations in the region. Ethiopia is a significant trading partner for many countries in the region. Disrupting trade routes and markets due to the conflict could negatively impact these countries’ economies.

As the West continues to be consumed by the war in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands have been severely displaced and need urgent care. The war in Ethiopia has hardly had any media coverage in the West. This is partly based on the strict rules of the government limiting journalists and reporters investigating on the ground. But, this is also a neglect by Western powers to advocate for human rights and social justice in areas that need them most. Recent reports highlight that the war in Ethiopia is much more deadly than in Ukraine. While both require the attention of the international world, the West has seemed to forget the serious ramifications of neglecting such disasters.

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