Updated: February 28, 2021
The United Nations Refugee Agency this month described the growing emergency situation in Ethiopia’s north, which is spilling over into Sudan, as a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.” People are being “slaughtered like chicken and corpses abandoned to be eaten by hyenas,” The Guardian quoted residents as saying.
Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) escaping targeted attacks are creating displacement from multiple fronts, including in Tigray and Eritrea, which threaten regional stability.
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The displacement began on November 4, 2020, when the Ethiopian government began military operations in Tigray, one of the country’s semi-autonomous regions located on the northern border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described the offensive as a response to an attack on a federal military base by the ruling party in the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF led the former coalition that ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy took office in April 2018. The TPLF leaders rejected Abiy’s reason, describing it as an excuse to launch a long-planned offensive on Tigray.
With claims and counter claims, what is really behind the Tigray conflict? Is it just fueled by disdain for Ethiopia’s Tigrayan people or anything else?
One often cited TPLF argument, based on several emails received by our news organization, is that “Abiy Ahmed has a very deep hatred for the Tigrayan ethnic people of Ethiopia.” A purported TPLF member using an alias reiterated that claim, although he did not return a request for further comments and answers. He said he was using a pen name “since Abiy Ahmed will execute me (or at least arrest me), for only writing such things, as he has already done to many others, as Amnesty International also reports.”
Journalist and Eritrea expert Michela Wrong told DW, “Tigray and the TPLF leadership are seen as the main obstacle to improve relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea from the perspective of the leadership in those countries, and also in their vision the Tigrayan leadership is seen as a threat to broader regional stability.” This statement implies that the conflict is about economic and political relationships and regional stability, rather than an effort to eradicate an ethnicity of any particular group of people.
Prime Minister Abiy’s family background has also been playing into the TPLF narrative that “Abiy’s war on Tigray” is based on hatred for an ethnic culture. Abiy Ahmed is half Amhara, through his mother, and half Oromo, through his father, and married to an Amhara woman, with children together.
Abiy is also the first non-Tigrayan head of government since 1991. This background, combined with designating the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a terrorist group in October of 2020, has amplified the narrative that this is a personal attack on an ethnic group of people.
During a recent call with Secretary Pompeo and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy, Pompeo urged the Government of Ethiopia to “ensure respect for human rights of Tigrayans and all ethnic groups. Secretary Pompeo highlighted the United States’ strong partnership with Ethiopia, our continued support for Ethiopia’s historic reform agenda, and the importance of Ethiopia’s role in promoting prosperity and stability on the Horn of Africa.” 12/30/2020
“UN Secretary-General António Guterres is very concerned about the current situation in the Tigray province in Ethiopia and calls for quickly restoring the rule of law and guaranteeing unfettered humanitarian access. The Secretary-General has also been conveying these messages in the numerous conversations he has had with United Nations representatives on the ground and regional leaders, as well as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia with whom he spoke today,” the United Nations reported on the United Nations-Ethiopia webpage. 12/08/2020
“Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok expressed support for the offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) during face-to-face talks.” 12/13/2020
U.S. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. late last month said he was concerned about the escalating violence in Ethiopia.
In a call with the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, President-elect Biden added that he was worried about civilians in the Tigray region, where a regional conflict exploded on November 4.
TPLF and its global backers
Dr. Tedros Adhanom, head of the World Health Organization who is currently battling the deadly coronavirus, is a Tigrayan, and a former health minister in a previous Ethiopian government led by the TPLF. Last month, he rejected baseless allegations made against him by the Ethiopian army that he was supporting TPLF and was trying to procure weapons for them.
“There have been reports suggesting I am taking sides in this situation. This is not true,” he wrote on Twitter. 11/19/2020.
Although there isn’t an obvious public supporter for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party’s leaders have been reported to be worth millions and billions of dollars, a claim often made to show they have backers and means of income somewhere.
Tigrayan’s opponents often point to Meles Zenawi, head of the TPLF who was estimated to be worth $3 billion (USD) when he died in 2012. Sioum Mesfin, former Ethiopian Ambassador to China and TPLF regime Foreign Affairs Minister, was worth an estimated $1 billion (USD), and Mesfin’s wife and son appeared in Ethiopian court in December 2020, state media reported, charged with distributing money to youth to incite violence in Addis Ababa.
Global interest in a region is not always about putting that region’s people’s well-being first.
US-African policy across the continent historically links to solving issues directly tied to the United States bigger competitors and threats under national interest and the protection of strategic geographic assets. In some cases, Africa plays the face of a conflict prompted, stirred, and supported by the world’s most significant powers. The growing war in Tigray, Ethiopia’s Northern Region, bordering Eritrea and Sudan, bears a proxy battlefield’s hallmarks.
In Cohen’s “U.S. Policy Toward Africa – Eight Decades of Realpolitik,” he describes the early under U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, as interested in supporting the Amhara ethnic group, militarily, if the U.S. could retain the rights to a military base which overlooked the Red Sea.
Russians took an interest in Ethiopia in the ’70s, delivering billions in military equipment and thousands of Cuban and Yemen fighters to support Ethiopia in their conflict against Somalia. The U.S. policy stance was to refrain from supplying arms to either side, but that was short-lived. After the U.S. publicized the Cuban and Russian involvement to gain public support, they provided arms to Somalia.
While the Ethiopian-Somalian conflict subsided for many years, fighting in Eritrean, North of Ethiopia, continued, and Arabs furnished assistance to the Eritrean rebels until the early ’90s.
The United States has interests in the region that require order and peace in Ethiopia and its northern neighbor, Eritrea. “Ethiopia and Eritrea could create new opportunities for the U.S. in the region and transform the Horn of Africa. The United States will then be able to engage with Eritrea to discuss a possible U.S. military port or base on Eritrean territory, given the geostrategic significance of this country and the region,” writes Daniel Runde for Somali House in 2019.
In November 2020, Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved a draft agreement to establish a naval base in Port Sudan, on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, bordering Eritrea, to house nuclear-powered ships, in what is reported to be a 25-year agreement.
According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC), at the end of June 2020, Ethiopia approved over 1,500 FDI projects from China. The FDI by stock amounts to around 2.7 billion (USD), accounting for 25 percent of Ethiopia’s total FDI projects this year.
After considering those evolving projects and interests in the region, one might start to develop a sense of more immense interests beyond hatred for an ethnic group based on culture or race. More so, based on the positioning which stands to disrupt or support global powers in the region.
We might also consider that if TPLF controls northern Ethiopia, they can disrupt the flow of aid, arms, and people moving to and from Sudan and Djibouti’s port into surrounding countries. And a strong and embolden TPLF can expand its territory after reclaiming Tigray, moving into Eritrea, likely taking an anti-western position, making it more difficult for the United States and U.S. partners to operate and defend its interest in the region.
The humanitarian situation seems to also be connected to global alliances
Global alliances matter. The public statements from the world’s leading organizations and countries define how much pressure will be applied and how much support will be given to achieve a goal or objective.
Ethiopia has received many human-rights-violation passes from the United Nations and global powers because they cannot achieve their objectives by going to extreme measures to punish or forcefully stop all wrongdoings in the country. Global leaders make statements condemning human rights violations, bring it up in meetings, and press the leaders to do better. However, still, they provide funding, military support, and aid to tread through the messy path to self-interest.
Alliances and the objectives of the world’s powers are directly linked to humanitarian situations.
Sudan’s eastern border remained open to refugees arriving from Ethiopia, but the existing refugee camp infrastructure is reported as inadequate for the impending need. Between November 4 and December 17, Hamdeyat camp took in almost 36 thousand new arrivals, al-Luqdi over 12 thousand and 10 thousand were transferred to Um Rakuba from border crossings.
The U.N. is estimating nine million people at risk for displacement and higher risk for COVID-19 infection without proper sanitation and the ability to social distance.
Accounts from all sides of the Ethiopian conflict are near-impossible to verify because most communications to Tigray have been down since the conflict began, and the government has limited access for journalists and foreign aid agencies.
As the conflict continues, this publication will continue to reach out to both sides.