09.07.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

The Bloody Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

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Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that she is “deeply concerned” about the ongoing violations, including executions, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, adding that the long-awaited investigation into the situation there will be ready in August. In her view all the parties to the conflict in the country’s northern region are guilty of violations, and there is “reliable evidence” that troops from Eritrea are still present in the region, despite their government’s promise to withdraw them.

Ever Since the beginning of the assault on the northern region of Tigray last November the Ethiopian authorities have insisted that the aim of the intervention is to liquidate troops from the prohibited Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), now reorganized as the Tigray Defense Forces, and restore stability in the region.  While the Ethiopian government has claimed victory over the uprising and declared that the operation will not last long, the conflict in the region has spiraled out of control, not least thanks to the intervention of troops from neighboring Eritrea, a long-term enemy of Tigray, who have been leading the campaign in this troubled region since the beginning of the uprising. Reports from the scene of conflict make it clear that the operation is primarily targeted at the country’s smallest ethnic group, which used to be described as the “engine” leading this multiethnic country.

In a recent briefing to the European Parliament on its mission in Ethiopia, Pekka Haavisto, the Finnish Foreign Minister and EU special envoy to Ethiopia, said that the Ethiopian leaders had told him in closed meetings that they were “going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.”  He warned the Parliament that “this looks to us like ethnic cleansing” and urged the EU to take measures to regulate this highly challenging situation. But, as usual, the EU has remained silent, limiting itself to calling on “restraint” from the three parties to the conflict – Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tigray. The new US administration is also silent, despite Joe Biden’s declared commitment to human rights.

In turn the Ethiopian government has not found anything better to do than to describe Haavisto’s statements as “a hallucination of sorts or a lapse in memory of some kind” and claim that his briefing to the European Parliament contains “clear indications of the underlying desire by the Special Envoy to undermine the Ethiopian government…”.

The events taking place in Tigray however provide unmistakable evidence of the suffering which the people of this northern region have endured since the Ethiopian leadership declared war. People lack access to basic humanitarian necessities. The UN recently issued a warning about the “terrible” famine in the region. It estimates that 350,000 people are suffering from famine conditions and 5.2 million – out of a total population of approximately 6 million are in need of emergency food aid. The Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are preventing essential humanitarian aid from reaching the region by coordinating their activities to block key transport routes – in effect using control over food supplies as a weapon in this pointless war. The Eritrean army is blocking access to the region adjoining the border, which Eritrea sees as a buffer zone which it wants to control if Eritrean troops withdraw from Tigray. Witnesses have spoken of Eritrean solders looting and carrying out atrocities including the rape of Ethiopians, supposedly their compatriots, as if they were motivated by angry memories of the time when the Ethiopians and Tigrayans ruled their country. The Eritrean army has even ignored repeated calls by the Ethiopian government for it to leave Tigray, and in political circles it is considered unlikely that it will do so in the foreseeable future.

When Ethiopian troops captured a number of small towns outside Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, and – as far as we know – entering the strategically located town of Adigrat, just 45 km from the border with Eritrea, they conducted an air raid over Togoga, 30 km from Mekelle, bombing a crowded market. About 64 people were killed, including children as young as two, and dozens of people were injured. Incredibly, the Ethiopian government claimed that the raid had targeted “combatants dressed as civilians” and the “latest technology” had been used to carry out a “precision strike”. It is hard to say what technology the Ethiopian military uses to distinguish combatants from civilians.

What can Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, be thinking of? If atrocities of this kind, and the outrages committed in the Tigray region, are not aimed at wiping out the Tigrayans from modern Ethiopia’s memory, then it is hard to see what their purpose can be.

Trapped in one of the most inaccessible areas of Ethiopia’s conflict-torn Tigray region, beyond the reach of aid, people “are falling like leaves,” according to the few journalists who have been able to access the region in the north of the country. A letter dated June 16, obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by a Tigray regional health official, provides a rare insight into the war between Ethiopian forces backed by Eritrea and Tigray’s former leaders.

Ethiopia’s economy has suffered because of the war in Tigray, and also the Covid-19 pandemic. Inflation in the country, which until Abiy Ahmed’s election had remained under 10%, has now spiraled to above 20%. And unemployment has reached a new maximum level of 21.6% – in a country with a population of 110 million. Tigray is an unending crisis, and the neighboring Eritrea has no intention of giving up the territory which it has occupied in the region. Ethiopia’s northern neighbor will long have a say in the destiny of the region, which adjoins its border. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine the Amhara people, who make up 27.9% of Ethiopia’s population, will accept a powerful parallel administration in the country, especially one consisting of Tigrayans, who make up just 7.3% of the population. It is also important to consider the signal which the war in Tigray is sending to the country’s other minority ethnic groups – the tragic events in Tigray have made it quite clear that they need to think twice before challenging the central government in Addis Ababa.

How can the many different ethnic and tribal groups in this country with a population of 110 million feel confident about the future, when they do not know what the present holds in store for them? And now even the Ethiopian press are publishing concerned articles on whether the country’s central government will be able to hold the Ethiopian state together. At one time Eritrea was part of the country, but the Red Sea coastal area was colonized by the Italians, and it is now an independent country, whose citizens have little love for the Ethiopians and Tigrayans, an enmity with its roots in the region’s history. What is more, Addis Ababa’s relations with Egypt and with its neighbor Sudan have also deteriorated. The dispute is related to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the filling of the resulting reservoir, which specialists believe will reduce the flow of fresh water to other countries in the Nile Basin. Unsurprisingly, there has been talk in military circles about the arrival of Sudanese troops in Tigray – and it is unlikely that they would support the Ethiopian and Eritrean campaign against the Tigrayans. There have been “incursions into Ethiopia from another country in connection with this conflict,” Redwan Hussein, a representative of the Ethiopian Government’s Tigray Task Force, announced in a press conference, and, according to the subsequent media reports, he left little doubt that the country in question was Sudan.

The Ethiopian government has done everything it can to cover up its defeat, by immediately announcing a “unilateral ceasefire” in the rebel region until September, which is supposedly intended to allow farmers to finish sowing and then to harvest their crops – but no-one is taken in by this. Tigray has seceded, and other regions and territories may follow. Many politicians believe that it may even be the first stage in the disintegration of the old Ethiopian “empire”. While Ethiopia is officially a federal republic, its borders are the same as those of the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Empire that grew up as a result of conquests by the Christian Amhara people in the late 19th and early 20th century. Four of the country’s 80 or so languages have more than 5 million speakers, and a third of the population are Moslems.  The first priority for any Ethiopian government is to hold this federation of different ethnic and religious groups together, and the use, or threat, of force has always played a major role in achieving this.

Ethiopia may survive the loss of Tigray, but the general disintegration of Africa’s second largest nation would be an unmitigated disaster. And this terrible situation has been caused as much by the federal government’s mistakes as by the intransigence and selfishness of the Tigray leadership. But if the parties are not prepared to sit down and negotiate with each other then the situation may spiral out of control, resulting in immeasurable economic losses and terrible casualties.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” .


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