More than a year into a bloody civil war in Ethiopia that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced upwards of 2 million people, experts fear the worst is yet ahead.
With the political power of Africa’s second-largest nation of 115 million people at stake, Ethiopia’s federal government remains at odds with fighters from the northern Tigray region, known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who have been steadily advancing south toward the capital, Addis Ababa, since early October.
“It seems bleak at the moment,” Terje Østebø, an associate professor at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, told Yahoo News. “It seems like nobody really wants to negotiate. It might end up being the one that is victorious on the battlefield is the one that wins. When and how that happens is the big question.”
The reason for the war derives from Tigrayan opposition to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who rose to power in 2018 thanks in large part to support from the country’s largest group, the Oromo ethnicity. The group had long felt ostracized in countrywide politics, and Abiy, an Oromo himself, positioned himself to fix that.
Before then, the TPLF controlled the country’s politics for 27 years, and Abiy had once been a part of its government. Since winning the election, however, Abiy has ruled on his own terms, seeking to squeeze the TPLF of its power and influence across the country.
Tigrayan forces formed the TPLF in 1975 on the ideals of liberation and revolution. The group centered itself as a rebel organization with a deep sense of national identity. It took 16 years for the TPLF to rise to national prominence, and its nearly 30-year reign is fracturing in less than 30 months.
The rebel fighters held their own elections in September 2020 in defiance of Abiy, and in turn Ethiopian leaders cut off funding to the region. TPLF forces responded by attacking a military base in Tigray in November of last year and looting weapons, which led Abiy to order a military offensive against Tigrayan leadership, launching the civil war.
One year later, the fighting has only intensified, spilling into other parts of the country, as peace talks have taken a back seat to the power struggle. Tales of gang rape of more than a dozen women as recently as August, the murder of innocent citizens and the starvation of millions have plagued the conflict, further threatening the stability of the entire region.
A path toward progress, for many, appears daunting.
“This is really a conflict between elites — not a conflict between peoples,” a source familiar with nuances of the Ethiopian conflict on the ground told Yahoo News. The source agreed to speak under condition of anonymity, fearing retribution on the ground amid the ongoing conflict.
“It’s been sparked by leaders who are pushing messages to serve their agendas,” the source added. “Some of the rhetoric on both sides has been the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that you see before genocide takes place, or in the midst of it.”
Ethiopia is a multiethnic country with interethnic conflict that has spanned decades. But this civil war has felt terrifyingly different from infighting in the past, reminding many of the Rwanda genocide, where for about 100 consecutive days in 1994 an estimated 800,000 people were killed by ethnic Hutu extremists. The mostly Tutsi victims were targeted for their ethnicity and political affiliation.
Fearing a reprise of that onslaught, thousands of Ethiopians have fled to Sudan, marking what experts say is the worst exodus the country has seen in two decades.
“The testimonies we heard from survivors describe despicable acts by TPLF fighters that amount to war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity,” reported Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general. “They defy morality or any iota of humanity.”
Atrocities have been committed by both the TPLF and Ethiopian forces, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found in a joint investigation.
Fighters for the TPLF last Friday said they would target foreign mercenaries and technical experts supporting the Ethiopian government they were seeking to overthrow.
“We don’t care [what their nationality is],” TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda told Reuters. “We will hunt them down. They will be treated like the mercenaries they are.”
American and British citizens have been urged to leave Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government is doing all it can to suffocate the TPLF by siphoning off basic resources and access to the outside world. Communication networks have also been cut off, banks are closed, fuel is scarce and the few hospitals that are open have been forced to run on generators.
Millions of Ethiopians as a result have had their lives drastically affected. More than 400,000 people are facing starvation and famine in the north, according to a BBC report, and the vast majority of essential medicine is unable to reach the region for those in need. Ethiopian government officials are accused of preventing aid from reaching areas in and around the northern Tigray region that need it, a claim they deny.
International humanitarian groups that are ready to provide aid to those who need it most have been frustrated by the lack of access to the region. Ethiopian authorities detained 70 truckers delivering aid to the region last week, according to the United Nations, after previously arresting 16 local U.N. staffers. Since July, more than 400 trucks with aid have entered Tigray and only 38 have returned, according to U.N. officials.
“It is an extremely difficult environment to work in … as we’ve seen the intensification of fighting,” Alyona Synenko, the regional spokesperson in Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Yahoo News.
Since August, the ICRC has delivered emergency materials to more than 100,000 people in surrounding Tigray communities and delivered food to 18 area hospitals. But with a population of 6 million people in Tigray alone, the aid secured thus far pales in comparison to the actual need. An estimated 7 million people remain in need of more help.
“As a humanitarian worker, to see that the needs are so big and it is difficult to reach all the people who urgently need this humanitarian assistance, it’s frustrating,” Synenko said.
Oxfam International, another humanitarian aid group that has been working in Ethiopia since the early 1970s, is calling for deescalation of the fighting to help innocent citizens in dire need of support.
“No matter how you measure this crisis, there is no disputing that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering in catastrophic hunger, and even more are in urgent need of aid,” Parvin Ngala, Oxfam’s regional director for the Horn, East and Central Africa, said in a recent press release. “Oxfam calls for all parties to deescalate the conflict and respect international law, to allow humanitarians to access the most vulnerable and to make cash, fuel, and other services available to allow the economy to recover and for the response to save lives.”
The Ethiopian government earlier this month declared a six-month state of emergency across the entire nation. Al Jazeera reported that the designation allows home searches without a warrant, requires residents to travel with identification and allows suspects to be detained for the entirety of the declaration.
The memorandum worries critics who feel lawlessness looms in a brewing situation that many believe could have been avoided.
“I think that is something that definitely could have been avoided had the parties been more engaged in trying to solve this politically,” said Østebø, the University of Florida professor. “And it’s not necessarily about Ethiopians versus Tigrayans, it is a political struggle between the current federal government prime minister and the regional government of Tigray. … It’s sad that we’ve gotten to this place.”
Many Ethiopians are now hopeful that other African leaders and international presidents will do what they can to quell the crisis.
Senior Biden administration officials have already threatened Ethiopia with loss of access to a lucrative trade program in 2022 due to human rights violations. Other African leaders have taken more measured approaches to call for mediation, careful not to become a new target of the Ethiopian government.
“A war in Ethiopia would give the entire continent a bad image,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni wrote on Twitter last year, before deleting the tweet. “There should be negotiations and the conflict stopped, lest it leads to unnecessary loss of lives and cripples the economy.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Ethiopia this week as part of a five-day trip to Africa, in hopes of helping find a peaceful resolution between the government and the TPLF. But according to the anonymous source with Ethiopian ties on the ground who spoke to Yahoo News, “If the pieces are going to align, it’s going to be African voices that are going to play the leading role.”
Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: A timeline in pictures