Historical background of the crises
In 1975, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) emerged as a resistance army against the military dictatorship in Tigray, known as Derg. Derg was a leftist group formulated in 1974 and remained in power until they were ousted by armed rebels in the 1991 Ethiopian civil war. From then onwards, Ethiopia emerged as a dominant party state, ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF); it is a federation of ethnic-based parties governed by TPLF. Meles Zenawi, the co-founder and an influential member of TPLF, remained PM of Ethiopia until he died in 2012.
However, the Ethiopian administration governed by EPRDF was accused of repression and dictatorship; in the wake of growing discontent and mass protests, TPLF was removed from power on 2nd April 2018. Subsequently, a closed-door election was held to chair EPRDF; in defiance of TPLF, committee members from different regions voted to elect Abiy Ahmad as the chairman. As a direct reaction to losing elections, TPLF executives re-located to the Tigray region, administering it for three years while regularly wrangling with the federal government.
The merger of ethic and region grounded parties of EPRDF and various other opposition parties into a newly established Prosperity in 2019 led to turmoil in the region. TPLF, which has previously ruled the country for nearly 27 years, refused to affiliate with the party and declared Abiy Ahmed’s rule illegitimate. Tensions flared up between the federal government and Tigray in 2020, leading to Tigray military intervention in November.
Contentions further increased as relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea warmed, as the latter transferred elite units to Gherghera based under the pretext of a security pact. In October 2020, Ethiopia stated that it is trying to act as a mediator between federal and regional administration as well as TPLF; nevertheless, preconditions set by all parties to the conflict are halting progress.
Causes of the conflict
The origin of the recent clash lies in opposing visions of two factions in Ethiopia, i.e., the federal government and TPLF. While the former asserts the formation of a strong central administration as a means to preserve the unity and sovereignty of Ethiopia, the latter argues that political power should be vested in the peripheries that exist in the federal system. TPLF strives for devolution of power from the center to grant regions a certain degree of autonomy. Contenting visions vitally are contestation over history, politics, and memory, highlighting the state's colonial legacy that ought to be dismantled.
One of the major causes of the Tigray conflict is the establishment of a new political coalition by Abiy Ahmed. TPLF perceives the Prosperity Party as largely an attempt by the Ethiopian government to consolidate maximum power; therefore, it openly challenged Abiy’s decision to postpone elections under the pretext of Covid-19. TPLF went further and held regional elections to defy the federal administrations. Later, on 3rd November, TPLF forces targeted federal military command in Tigray, capturing military equipment, which prompted Abiy to resort to military action.
Ethiopia’s outreach to Eritrea enraged TPLF that had fought a protracted war with Eritrea alongside the Tigray boundary. Resultantly, TPLF blames the Eritrean government for assisting Abiy Ahmed’s offensive that has severe ramifications for the Horns of Africa. Moreover, Tigray has a border with Sudan, and TPLF shared cordial relations with Omar Bashir, the ousted dictator of Sudan. On the other hand, Sudan and Ethiopia have unresolved boundary dispute; is Sudan keeps its old connections with TPLF active, the conflict is likely to linger and derail reformist agenda of Abiy.
Recent development and parties to the conflict
Armed conflict in Tigray began on 4th November 2020; the fighting initiated with assaults in Northern command bases and Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) headquarters by Tigray forces. The parties to the conflict include The Special Forces of the Tigray Regional government against the Ethiopian National Defense Force. The ENDF army and general populace reinforce the former; both are integrated into the Tigray army. The latter is assisted by Ethiopian Federal Police, Gendarmerie, and troops from regional neighbors such as Amhara and Afar alongside defense forces from Eritrea.
During the initial days of the conflict, both sides launched offensives, followed by the announcement of an emergency state, the establishment of an inquiry board, and the cessation of government amenities in Tigray. Subsequently, Ethiopia’s parliament called for the formation of an interim administration in Tigray. The federal government succeed in capturing Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region on 28th November 2020; this led Ethiopian PM to declare victory and Tigray operations terminated. However, the Tigray administration asserted that its operation would continue until it ousts all the invaders. As of 28th June 2021, the Tigray army re-established its control over Mekelle. Counter offensives by Tigray includes Operation Alula and Tigrayan Mothers. As of 11th August 2021, Tigray and Oromo forces have established an alliance to topple Abiy’s government; the alliance has also established connections with rebels to formulate a ‘grand coalition.’ Currently, Tigray Defense Forces continue to advance deep into various cities across the Tigray region.
As the war enters into its 10th month, it has adopted a dangerous phase whereby both parties seem to be longing for a prolonged battle. The positioning of actors in the war reveals that it could last for several months or, in the worst case, years with disastrous outcomes for Ethiopia.
Humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray
As the conflict in Tigray is progressing, the humanitarian situation is dramatically worsening. The main reason being the depletion of humanitarian supplies, capital, and fuel for operations.
A report published by the UN reveals that more than 2 million children have been denied access to humanitarian aid. Delivery of humanitarian assistance is the biggest constrain in this regard; the only accessible route to Tigray was via Afar; however, the region been blocked by Ethiopian government since 22nd August. Logistical and bureaucratic obstacles has directly contributed to a lack of access to food, water, fuel, and malnutrition. Out of 36 villages in Tigray, as low as 4 have partial access to water resources. There is also an increased risk of eruption of water-borne diseases and rapid spread of Covid-19. Furthermore, WHO published that all healthcare units and hospitals in Tigray lack an adequate supply of drugs, machinery, and equipment; only 17% of the hospital possess facilities such as antenatal care, child delivery, etc.
Food insecurity in the region has generated famine-like situations, with 400,000 living under such circumstances. Food supplies are unavailable due to restrictions on the plantation over the past ten months. Malnutrition rates among children under five years of age are almost 30% higher than an emergency threshold; the rate amongst pregnant women is as high as 50%. On 4th August 2021, the Ethiopian government suspended missions of three NGOs until November, affecting healthcare access to the population; more than 70 cases of emergency are reported per day.
Due to de-facto control of Amhara over western Tigray, ethnically driven violence and internal displacements have been on the rise. As of February 2021, more than 40,000 people have been forced to migrate as a result of extrajudicial executions, detentions and exhortations. The UN has declared the situation to be ‘extremely critical;’ the federal administration has notified that no mercy will be shown if Tigray residents and troops remain amalgamated. As of 2020, more than one million people have faced internal displacement, and various sexual and gender violence cases have emerged. As of February 2021, 20,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray have remained strayed.
Reaction of international community
From the onset of the crises, international experts have warned about the destabilizing effects of the Tigray war on the Horn of Africa and the spillover to other countries. Ethiopia’s immediate neighbors, including Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt, have had varying reactions. Eritrea’s forces are present on Ethiopia’s soil without the invitation from the federal army. The situation of Sudan and Egypt is complexed; ties between Egypt and Ethiopia are tense since the Egyptian President has refused to accept the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam of the mouth of the Blue Nile. Therefore, Egypt has attempted to destabilize the Ethiopian region through proxy wars in the state and lend its support to Sudan. Speculations regarding the Egypt-TPLF alliance are also being raised. Furthermore, Egypt has tactfully urged Sudan to exert pressure on Ethiopia alongside its border on the West.
The UNSC has demanded an immediate ceasefire and access for humanitarian workers to the impacted regions. However, China has adhered to its traditional non-interference approach in the case of the Tigray war. The USA has called TPLF to withdraw its troops from Afar and Amhara; simultaneously, the US has placed sanctions on individual officials in Ethiopia and Eretria. Moreover, the EU has suspended its financial assistance, and France has also halted its military aid to Ethiopia.
In conclusion, the Tigray war constitutes a part of an old debate that has troubled Ethiopia since its formulation as an empire state, i.e., whether the country ought to rule in a centralized manner or be governed as a decentralized polity. Although the conflict has not completed its one year, it has led to a formidable humanitarian catastrophe. The analysis of the dynamics suggests that the war is unlikely to end until it becomes ripe for resolution. Till then, more pain will be endured. However, it is imperative to multiply humanitarian efforts; international stakeholders must also intervene to prevent further escalations.
Written By: Olivium's Editor