December 1, 2023

Africa CDC director confirms agency not providing humanitarian assistance in Tigray as conflict rages in northern Ethiopia

Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong in a panel discussion at the Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial Meeting in Kampala
Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong in a panel discussion at the Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial Meeting in Kampala

The Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. John Nkengasong said on Thursday that the agency does not provide humanitarian assistance in the Tigray region of Ethiopia as the lingering conflict continues to rage there.

At his weekly press briefing from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Thursday morning, Dr. Nkengasong said that the agency pulled out its staff from Tigray and relocated them to Addis because of the conflict.

The health expert worried that the conflict might prolong the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases in the region as has happened in other parts of the continent with other illnesses, including in North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the Ebola outbreak lasted longer than elsewhere.

Dr. Nkengasong did not want to comment on the political aspect of the conflict but confirmed that there was no staff of the Africa CDC currently in Tigray for any humanitarian intervention.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus once again raised the alarm over the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, warning that the people there have no access to food, medicine, telephone or cash.

Speaking at the WHO press briefing in Geneva, the WHO chief said that humanitarian access should be the very basic even in conflict zones.

He cited the examples of Syria and Yemen where the WHO still has access to the people in need, and wondered why the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia has completely cut off Tigray from the rest of the world since July 2021.

“Humanitarian access must be allowed at all times, even during conflict. Conflict cannot be an excuse,” he said.

He said the WHO has tried everything to access Tigray and reached out to the Prime Minister’s office, but the organization has completely been blocked by the Abiy government since July.

Dr. Tedros, who is from Tigray, called on his countrymen to embrace peace and dialogue, saying that the crisis there could be resolved politically.

He told reporters that it is “so dreadful and unimaginable during this time, the 21st century, when a government is denying its own people for more than a year food and medicine and the rest to survive.”

“From my perspective, it is an insult to our humanity to allow a situation like this to continue, to allow no access,” he said during the briefing.

The acknowledgement by the Africa CDC director that his agency also does not have humanitarian access into Tigray because of the conflict means that about seven million people in the region are at an increased risk of not having the medical assistance they need.

This is happening even as the conflict continues to rage there with bombs being dropped on Tigray by Ethiopian troops.

On Monday, an air strike in the town of Mai Tsebriin Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray killed at least 17 people, mostly women, and wounded dozens.

That particular strike came only days after another air strike last Friday in a camp of displaced people in Tigray killed 56 people and injured 30, including children.

Monday’s air strike came on the same day U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke by phone with Prime Minister Abiy and called for humanitarian access and an end to air strikes by the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopian government spokesman Legesse Tulu did not respond to requests for comments on the air strike in Mai Tsebriin when contacted by several news organizations, but Abiy’s government has repeatedly denied targeting civilians.

The United Nations, the United States, the African Union, the European Union and other actors have repeatedly called for an end to fighting in Tigray, and at a briefing in Washington on Tuesday, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric reiterated the Secretary General’s calls for “all parties to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law.”

In his first phone call with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was ‘very clear’ that “full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country,” a Senior U.S. official told reporters from Washington D.C. on Monday.

“Humanitarian access was a significant focus of the discussion between the two leaders today. President Biden was very clear, as I just explained in the readout, that full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country,” the official said. “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that that was the request. He has made a series of commitments, including publicly, to expand humanitarian access. And it will now be up to the Ethiopian government to deliver on what they have been pledging to do. But we think this is broadly in the interest of all Ethiopians and, certainly, of the humanitarian situation.”

The official acknowledged that the crisis in Ethiopia has been very challenging for the United States from before the Biden administration took office and through the entirety of his tenure up until now. 

The official explained, “It has a number of dimensions. There’s obviously a humanitarian crisis that is particularly acute. There’s also a security crisis that has regional implications, given the role and influence of outside states.  And here, I would note, particularly, the unhelpful role of Eritrea in this conflict. And it also runs the risk of distracting from other regional priorities to the United States, like the fight against al-Shabaab. 

“I wanted to clarify, given the range of accounts we sometimes see, how we see the approach the United States has been taking to this conflict from day one. We’ve been emphasizing to all parties that there is no military solution to this conflict.  We’ve been warning against atrocities. We’ve been trying to facilitate a peaceful resolution through dialogue between the parties.  We are not choosing sides or putting our thumb on the scale. 

“As I think many of you know, we sent a Senator Chris Coons out to speak — as a personal emissary of the President — with the Prime Minister early in our tenure and named a very senior diplomat, Jeff Feltman, as our Special Envoy to help manage this crisis. 

“This has, obviously, also been a major focus of time across our administration — from the President to the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and really to the entire national security interagency — with regular meetings among senior officials held on this topic. 

“The trajectory of the conflict has been a bit of a pendulum, with each side having moments of clear advantage.  In recent days, the Prime Minister has begun sending more positive signals: prisoner releases, openness to dialogue, and pledges with regard to humanitarian access. 

“The Tigrayan side has also publicly committed to dialogue. 

“On the other hand, given what we’ve seen in the past, it’s hard to know how long this relatively constructive phase will last. 

“So, the purpose of the call today was really to reinforce some of the more constructive steps and inclinations Prime Minister Abiy may be demonstrating, to put the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship onto a constructive footing, and reiterate where we need to continue to see progress — specifically, the Ethiopian army not going into Tigray; stopping airstrikes, which has taken place in recent days and about which we’ve been quite concerned, including publicly; expanding humanitarian access to all regions of the country; and engaging in ceasefire talks. 

“So, we do see this as a moment of opportunity if the parties are willing and able to seize it. That remains to be seen.  And this window won’t be open forever.  So, our goal will be to facilitate that to the greatest extent possible.”

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