Long-lasting political tensions between Ethiopia’s Federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reached a breaking point in November 2020 when unelected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive on Tigray, the northern region of Ethiopia. Ahmed himself calls the incident a necessary response to an attack by the TPLF on a federal military base. He claims to be ‘saving the country’ through the mobilization of defensive forces in the region.
This conflict can be traced back to Ahmed’s appointment as Prime Minister in 2018, following a series of anti-government protests which forced then PM Hailemariam Desalegn to resign. With his newfound position, Ahmed played a key role in the development of a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea which effectively ended the two decades long “frozen war” between the countries and eventually earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, different visions for the political make-up of the federal government led to hostile relations between Ahmed and the TPLF which advocates for Tigray’s autonomy and the reconstitution of Ethiopia on the basis of ethnically autonomous regions. Prime Minister Ahmed also saw the dissolution of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition of which the TPLF was a key member. Their staunch rejection of Ahmed’s attempts to centralize power masked as political reforms further escalated tensions with the federal government.
As a result of this ongoing dispute, two million people—a third of Tigray’s population—are facing mass displacement in what the now ousted leader of the TPLF Debretsion Gebremichael describes as a “devastating and genocidal war” waged by the federal government. Furthermore, According to the United Nations, 2.3 million people in the region are in desperate need of food, water and other essential services. Ironically, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ahmed is almost undeniably responsible for his administration effectively shutting down the region by blocking humanitarian aid from reaching citizens. A leaked internal memo from January 2020 revealed that aid agencies and humanitarian staff from the UN had warned that hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans are being seriously deprived of food. If this information proves to be true, Ahmed’s government would be currently engaging in weaponized starvation.
Other forces have also been at play. Ahmed’s efforts in fostering good relations with Eritrea has put the neighbouring country under suspicion of participating in the conflict and supporting Ethiopia’s military missions. In a claim made to Reuters, a U.S. government source and five regional diplomats in December 2020 supported accusations of Eritrean troops perpetuating conflicts in Tigray, and called for their removal—claims denied by both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments. However, the US state department claims to have “credible reports” of Eritrean troops’ involvement in human rights abuses including sexual violence and looting in the region.
A mass of conflicting reports on civilian casualties in Tigray have emerged as the Ethiopian government struggles to downplay the humanitarian crisis. Gebremichael on the other hand continues to urge the international community to investigate the situation in Tigray.
It has now been just over three months since the federal government’s military offence, but the Tigray crisis is far from over. With the lack of humanitarian aid, the future of the Tigrayan citizenry remains in the dark as they bear the brunt of the conflict.
Considering the lack of attention this conflict has received in Western media, the onus falls to the individual to educate themselves and actively seek ways to help.
For more information and ways to help, visit: https://omnatigray.org/.
Edited by Olivia Shan.
Penni Tenzin is in her second year at McGill University, pursuing a joint honours in International Development and Political Science with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. This is her first year serving as a staff writer for the Catalyst and she is beyond excited!