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The Inside Story of the Tigray Humanitarian Crisis

It has been three years since Abiy Ahmed took office as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. Abiy initiated his term with promises of achieving development, stability, and bringing divided ethnicities together under one flag. However, realities in Ethiopia tell another story as the country is ravaged by a civil war. It all started in the Tigray where the region’s population were crushed by war, having the most heinous crimes committed against them. Abiy used foreign forces to revenge on the Tigrayans opposition. Day after day, the war stretched and conflicts hit Ethiopia, region after region.

Before we get into the current situation in the Tigray region and the crimes committed against its population, ranging from starvation and gang rape to deprivation of facilities, services, food, and treatment amid the wide spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, it would be helpful to get acquainted with Ethiopia’s administrative divisions.

The Tigray Region

A snapshot of Ethiopia’s administrative division and ethnic groups reveals that the country is composed of ten regional states and more than 80 different ethnic groups living under an Ethnic Federalism system. The Tigray are the third largest ethnic group in Ethiopia after the Oromo and the Amhara. Mikelle, the capital city of the Tigray region, is located in the far North, 600 km from the federal capital, Addis Ababa, and is bordered to the north by Eritrea, a country which is also home to the Tigray ethnicity.

The region is inhabited by about 6 million Tigray people, representing less than 6 percent of Ethiopia’s total population. For Orthodox Christians, the region enjoys a special status as it includes the city of Axum, which the UNESCO added to the list of World Heritage Sites and is claimed to house the Biblical Ark of the Covenant in one of its churches.

For years, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which includes about 200,000 paramilitaries and militants, remained influential within the federal security and military apparatus. But this changed when Abiy Ahmed –the de facto ruler– became a prime minister. Despite his early promises of unity and overcoming divisions, Abiy deliberately excluded the TPLF leaders from high-level posts and sought limiting their political powers, pushing them to the opposition. The most significant move in this respect was Abiy Ahmed’s changing  the Chief of Defense Staff and Director of the National Intelligence and Security Service on 7 June 2020 –one of the biggest reshuffles in 17 years, after the Tigray have monopolized these  positions since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991.

A torrent of government pressure

In some respects, it can be said that it was the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal that sparked anger in the Tigray region, given the long-standing dispute between the TPLF and the Eritrean government over borders.

Amid these deep division and wars between the Tigray and the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in Eritrea under Afwerki, Abiy Ahmed announced approval to hand over the contested Badme triangle to Eritrea, in implementation of the 2002 ruling of the International Court of Justice and the peace agreement signed the same year in Algeria between the two countries.

Domestically, Abiy Ahmed vowed to hold credible elections in June 2020, but adjourned it due to the outbreak of Covid-19; thus, extended his mandate. The TPLF considered such extension unconstitutional and rejected it. Against this backdrop, Ethiopia’s Speaker of the House of Federation, Keriya Ibrahim, resigned from her position which gave rise to several other resignations. The Tigrayans announced they don’t recognize Abi Ahmed as prime minister underscoring they will, separately, organize elections in the region on 9 September 2020, on the grounds that this is a right guaranteed by the constitution. The elections were held and Debretsion Gebremichael was elected as chairman of TPLF.

The TPLF is the godfather of the former Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF) coalition that dominated the political landscape in Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, before leaving it with Abi Ahmed’s taking office as prime minister in April 2018. The dispute between Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF evolved after the TPLF refused to join his new Prosperity Party, formed as an alternative to the former RDF coalition.   

Ethiopia’s federal government abolished the Tigray elections on the pretext that it violates Covid-19 precautionary measures and the Prime Minister declared the elections invalid. In October 2020, the central authorities cut off funding for the region after representatives of the Ethiopian Parliament voted to cut the funding to the Tigray region and ban dealings with its government, considering it illegitimate. This provoked the ire of the Tigray leaders who considered the decision as a declaration of war on the region. During the last week of October 2020, the Tigrayans called on the international community for intervention, declaring the region has fallen under a military threat from the central government considering them a rebel group.

Subsequently, the TPLF was claimed to have attacked a military base, an attack to which Abiy Ahmed responded launching a military crackdown on the Tigray with the help of neighboring Eritrean troops. This brought about a shift in the Tigray-government relationship, causing it to turn from a political dispute to a direct military confrontation.   

A report by Al-Ain News website traced inkling of the Tigray-government military confrontation back to 2 September 2020, when the Oromia Regional Government accused the TPLF of supporting the OLF Shane armed group, a splinter from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), in their attacks against West Wellega which left behind 32 killed, dozens of wounded, and homes burnt. Suspects arrested after the attack admitted receiving TPLF- sponsored training in the Tigray region.

Internal conflicts in Ethiopia raised concerns of the international community. Late last November, the UN Security Council held its first meeting on the Tigray battles, but failed to agree on a joint statement on the crisis in the Tigray. Ethiopia described the UN Security Council move as “interference” in its internal affairs. 

The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejected the growing international consensus on the need for dialogue and stopping the bloody fighting in the Tigray region, underscoring that “his country will handle the conflict on its own as the 72-hour surrender ultimatum expires.”

Abiy Ahmed’s 72-hour surrender ultimatum, which ended on 25 November 2020, was followed by a bloody eight-month war. As the ultimatum to surrender expired, the Ethiopian military announced it will clash with the Tigrayans, indifferent to the cost of the humanitarian war and the danger of reigniting a civil war. This long war in the Tigray costed Ethiopia’s budget over ETB 100 billion, i.e. eight fold the budget of the Tigray region. According to statements of Radwan Hussein, the Ethiopian State Minister of Foreign Affairs last June, this huge spending on the Tigray war didn’t make the situation any better. These resources could have been used in development and construction which Ethiopia merely plays lip service to in international forums defending its right to build the GERD. 

Crimes against Humanity

Ethiopia’s war on the Tigray region has been marred by many accusations of perpetrating massacres and horrible atrocities that tantamount to humanitarian crises and war crimes, with no qualms about the spread of the novel Coronavirus pandemic country-wide. Most notable among these crimes was using rape as a weapon of war and raiding banks, media offices, and humanitarian agencies in violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).  

A report by Amnesty International was the first to reveal signs of committing war crimes in the Tigray. The report described the situation in the Tigray as a “massacre” that took the life of dozens. The United Nations, too, warned of possible war crimes in the Tigray. The UN warning came after dozens of bodies were found killed by sharp-edged weapons in Humera. 

On 4 November, a week before the Amnesty International report, Abiy Ahmed ordered the federal armed forces to clash with the TPLF claiming attacks on military camps. Clashes resulted in the displacement of thousands of Tigrayans to Sudan fleeing the fight, a situation that the federal forces blamed the TPLF for. Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State, described the actions as ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia rejected Blinken’s claim, and the US call for a unilateral ceasefire in the region.

On 26 March 2021, the Ethiopian Prime Minister announced that Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces from the joint border area, days after admitting that Eritrean soldiers has entered the Tigray region, despite constant denials of the presence of Eritrean forces in the region. Eyewitnesses accounts on killing of civilians by Eritrean soldiers, commission of mass rapes, torturing women, and looting houses and crops had increased. 

Abiy’s announcements came as a kind of de-escalation after the UN announced that more than 516 cases of rape had been reported by five medical facilities in the Tigray, noting that the exact figure could be much higher.  In a testimony to the UN, Wafaa Saeed, UN Acting Director of the Coordination Division in Ethiopia, said that, “Women said they had been raped by armed militants, and they shared stories of gang rape and rape in front of families and men were forced to rape women from their families under threat of violence.” adding that, “Given that most health facilities are down and the stigma associated with rape, the real numbers are likely to be much higher.” 

Even when women are not sexually assaulted, fear of rape and insecurity prevents them from accessing feeding centers and health care facilities to get essential care for themselves and their kids. Teenage girls may abandon schools. This, in the long-term would mean malnutrition and low level of schooling among females.

Aware of the situation, the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, called on all parties involved in violence to implement special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in the context of armed conflict.

This, once again, raised concerns of the international community. On 2 April 2021, the High Representative of the European Union and G7 foreign ministers, comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, issued a joint statement expressing their deep concern over recent reports of human rights abuses and violations of IHL in the Tigray.

Further, they condemned the killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminate shelling, and forced displacement of the Tigrayans and Eritrean refugees, calling upon all parties to exercise the utmost restraint, ensure protection of civilians and respect of IHL, stop violence, and work collaboratively towards an all-inclusive political process to be accepted by all Ethiopians, including the Tigrayans, leading to credible elections and a broader national reconciliation.

At the request of the United States, the UN Security Council held a meeting on Thursday, 15 April 2021, to discuss the crisis in the Tigray and hear to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator’s, Mark Lowcock, briefing on difficulties delivering aid to refugees. Early March, Lowcock called upon Eritrea to withdraw its troops from the Tigray, to become the first UN official to acknowledge involvement of Eritrea in the Tigray conflict.

In early June, the UN announced that people of the Tigray are suffering a real humanitarian disaster, with almost all of them in need of food assistance, stating that it seeks $203 million to scale up its response in Tigray. World Food Program (WFP) Spokesperson, Tomson Phiri, told Alhurra TV that, “The UN’s WFP distributed emergency food aid to more than one million people since the start of distributions in March in the north-western and southern regions of the Tigray region, where 91% of the population of Tigray need emergency food aid because of the conflict.”

In mid-June 2021, a number of Ethiopian activists posted on Facebook footage of civilians being executed by Ethiopian soldiers and their bodies dumped in the Debre Abay area, east of the region, from a clifftop.

According to an account attributed to an Ethiopian activist named Sam Shesheh, the Ethiopian military threw bodies of civilians from a clifftop. The account added that 40 civilians were executed in a like manner in Debre Abay by the Ethiopian military last February.

Late June 2021, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, has vigorously condemned the Ethiopian National Defense Forces’ (ENDF) entry into the UNICEF office in Mekelle and dismantling its equipment, in clear violation of UN privileges and immunities and the rules of IHL regarding respect for humanitarian relief objects.

On 22 June 2021, a medical official told Reuters that, “an air strike on the Tigray village of Togoga had killed at least 43, including women and children.”

The official added that the Ethiopian soldiers blocked the main road from Mekelle to the town and prevented ambulances from reaching the place, pointing out that eyewitnesses and the first emergency responders reported that 43 people at least were killed in the airstrike. 

Colonel Gitnet Adani, the Ethiopian army spokesman hadn’t made a comment on the air strike and simply stated that “air strikes are a common military tactic and troops do not target civilians.”

On 29 June 2021, the Tigray fighters announced taking control of the capital, Mekelle, which was under the control of the central government since last November. The ongoing fighting resulted in the death of thousands and displacement of more than two million people.

Early this month, the UN warned that more than 400,000 people has “entered into famine” in the Tigray, and that 1.8 million are on the brink, with 33,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition. 

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The UN warning came against the backdrop of the Ethiopian forces destroying two vital bridges transporting aid to Tigray. Relatedly, the UN WFP stated that 5.2 million people, i.e. 91% of the Tigray population, need emergency food assistance.

In this vein, several countries, including the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, underscored that humanitarian access should not be hindered. African countries opposed this position arguing that it is an internal Ethiopian affair. 

However, cutting off electricity and communications, suspension of flights, and blockage of most roads, were indeed the government’s back gate to tormenting millions of the Tigrayans and preventing arrival of aid, supplies, and medications. 

In a Tweet, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy noted that, “A cease fire doesn’t mean cutting a region off power or destroying critical infrastructure.  A credible cease fire means doing everything possible so that aid reaches the millions of children, women, and men who urgently need it. Saving lives should be a priority for all.” 

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Late June, the Ethiopian military announced unilateral ceasefire. According to statements of Ethiopia’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Gen. Bacha Debele the army is in its full capacity and could return to Tigray anytime but it decided to withdraw to frustrate the scheme to drain Ethiopia, contradicting the Ethiopian army’s failure to stand his ground against the Sudanese army which managed to regain control of most of the Al-Fashqa area, that has been long occupied by the Addis Ababa-backed militias. It is worth noting that Ethiopia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Debele have earlier disavowed government’s blocking of humanitarian aid in the Tigray despite their declaration of the Ethiopian government taking control of all Tigray’s border crossings with Sudan and borders with Amhara and Afar regions.

Today, Tigray is in a crisis situation. According to the FAO report of June, published on 9 July, 5.5 million people in Tigray are suffering acute food insecurity, of whom 353,000 are expected to face Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). Moreover, the war left 2.1 million people internally displaced and over 5.2 million people in Tigray are in need of humanitarian assistance, of which 118,000 are pregnant women and 1.3 million are women of reproductive age.

When the federal government announced the ceasefire on 28 June 2021, it cited the need to ensure success of the current agricultural season. More than 80 percent of the Tigrayans depends on agriculture as their main source of food and livelihood. The FAO report has drawn attention to the fact that electricity and communications are still cut off throughout the region, except in two UN compounds, highlighting that the region is currently facing a complex humanitarian crisis, with an alarming increase in food insecurity and loss of livelihood as a result of the conflict.

The FAO is urgently seeking US$30 million to support 1.4 million people between June and December 2021 by boosting agricultural productivity, generating income, and assisting in the production of livestock.

A report of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also confirmed the arrival of a 54-truck humanitarian convoy with food, fuel, medical supplies, and other vital relief items on July 12, the first to reach Tigray in more than two weeks. 

Movement into and out of the region have been restricted, impacting the ability of humanitarian organizations to replenish stocks and mobilize personnel to continue relief operations. Inside Tigray, relief workers can now access areas that were previously hard to reach. Now, an estimated 75 per cent of people are in need of assistance (4 million out of 5.2 million people) in areas where humanitarian aid can be provided compared to only 30 per cent in May.

However, stocks are rapidly depleting inside Tigray, with at least 60 trucks having to arrive in Tigray daily to meet the needs of people caught up in the crisis. Access to the area by road has also been reduced over the past weeks. Tigray can now only be reached through Samara in the Afar region. On 5 July, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) received approval from the Government of Ethiopia to resume flights to Tigray. A test flight of the UNHAS was conducted on Saturday 17 July to Tigray and a timetable was set for resumption of regular flights from 21 July.

The OCHA stressed the need to restore basic services in Tigray including electricity, communications, commercial flights, and banking services, which are critical to the daily life of citizens.  Interruption of access to water and sanitation services exposes population to the risk of disease outbreaks including water-borne diseases. Moreover, frequent power outage prevent providing water supplies across the region. 

In addition, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that an estimated 3.8 million people are in need of health care while the capacity of the health system has seriously diminished following the widespread damage and looting by armed groups. Despite the system-wide efforts, acute shortage of staff (26 percent), poor supply of equipment (56 percent), and lack of training for health staff (14%) remain outstanding.  

The killing of three employees from Doctors without Borders (MSF, Medecins Sans Frontieres) in Spain on 25 June has shocked the humanitarian community worldwide, which prompted the MSF to announce evacuation of its staff and suspension of its operations in some parts of Tigray, which restricted access to healthcare.

Despite the administrative and operational challenges posed since the conflict began, humanitarian partners have reached 4.8 million people, providing food assistance and protection for 568,047 people (21 percent of the total 2.7 million targeted this year). More than 630,000 people have gained access to clean water through water trucking and 55 mobile health teams have been providing services in 57 states. Approximately 42,000 people were provided with psychosocial support services across 11 states and with water and sanitation services across 37 states. Besides, 61 wells and motorized water systems were rehabilitated.

Despite Ethiopia’s attempts to keep a media lid on the clashes, the numbers of people killed and the horrific atrocities made to the sight and hearing of all in Tigray pushed a number of countries and international organizations to express their concern over the severity of the ongoing clashes. However, the Ethiopian government continues to distort reality trying to gain international legitimacy for what it commits in the Tigray.  To that end, it launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at achieving universal ratification of the war being a purely internal affair, describing it as a “law enforcement operation” against a “clique” that aims at destroying Ethiopia’s constitutional order.

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