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The forgotten victims of the Tigray War

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topics: Peace and Reconciliation
by: Olusegun Akinfenwa
located in: Ethiopia
tags: Africa, Ethiopia, humanitarian crisis, refugees, Tigray War

As the ongoing Tigray War between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government shows no signs of winding down, civilians suffer worsening economic and humanitarian repercussions. Some worry that Ethiopia, once the pride of Africa, could become the next Libya.

Ethiopia, the second-most populous African nation, is being driven toward deep turmoil by its political leaders, and some political observers have described the ongoing civil war there as a taste of déjà vu and an impending balkanisation.

Happenings in the past few weeks are indications that the two major warring parties, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government, as well as their allies, need to heed the calls for peaceful resolution before they plunge the country into Libya-like chaos.

The civil war began on 4 November, 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations in the Tigray region. He claimed that was done in response to rebels' attack on a military base. The action was a culmination of months of rancour between the Abiy-led Ethiopian central government and TPLF leadership.

Since the start of the war, forces from both sides have committed atrocities worth describing as war crimes, and the greatest burden of the conflict is being borne by civilians. 

A few weeks ago, as the TPLF rebel forces closed in on the capital, PM Abiy Ahmed went to the frontline and vowed to lead the Ethiopian army into battle himself. "We won't give in until we bury the enemy," he boasted.

On its part, a spokesperson for TPLF claimed that Abiy’s leadership “chokehold on our people” and vowed to continue the rebels’ “inexorable advance.”

This ego-driven adamance from both parties explains why the conflict is biting so hard on the East African nation.

human rights violations by both sides

A joint investigation carried out by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reveals that all parties involved in the conflict have committed violations that may amount to war crimes.

The report also unearthed indiscriminate attacks against civilians, appalling gender-based violence committed against women and girls, as well as other human rights and refugee rights abuses.

A source at Mereja.com, an Ethiopian-based media outlet that has covered the war since it started, told FairPlanet that the civil war has devastating humanitarian and economic impacts on civilians, and that both parties should be blamed for committing unspeakable human rights atrocities.

“The civil war's effect on the economy is catastrophic in both Amhara and Tigray regions. Both the ruling party and TPLF are responsible for the devastation," said the source at Mereja. "PM Abiy Ahmed is fomenting and instigating hatred between the Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic groups. Tigrayan civilians are being detained in concentration camps in Addis Ababa and several other cities just for holding Tigrayan ID cards."

The news outlet also blamed the United States for fueling the war by supporting the TPLF against the Ethiopian federal government. “The Biden Administration is making things even more complicated by siding with the TPLF.”

Shortage of food and other basic needs

Over nine million people are reportedly in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in the regions of Amhara, Tigray and Afar. Unfortunately, the much-needed aids have been slow to come.

Back in August 2021, the US International Development Agency accused Abiy’s administration of "obstructing" access to the Tigray, especially when food houses were "virtually empty."

"This shortage is not because food is unavailable, but because the Ethiopian government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land convoys and air access,” USAID chief Samantha Power alleged.

In November, the first humanitarian aid convoy in over a month (about 40 trucks) arrived in the Tigray region. Since then, more than 200 trucks have entered the region, but the UN says there is still a need for around 100 trucks a day to meet the local population’s most basic needs.

A call for peace

The international community has called on the Ethiopian government and TPLF to toe the line of peace, but neither appears to be listening. Abiy seems to suspect that the international community is plotting to remove him from power, and his administration described efforts by foreign powers as meddling. Abiy, therefore, appears to have resorted to a winner-takes-all approach in the civil war.

At the same time, the TPLF and its Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) appear to see no value in negotiations, especially given its recent wins against the federal government.

The United States and the European Union once suspended aid to Ethiopia in a bid to see the war come to an end, but the sanctions are now being withheld to allow ongoing negotiations to bear fruit. The African Union has also been making some diplomatic moves at the continental level.

But meddling in the war is an unusual ally to the Ethiopian federal government, the Eritrean government, whose officials have played destabilising roles in the conflict.

“Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki is fully engaged in the civil war by backing Abiy. He is after settling a score against TPLF, whom he believes have betrayed and humiliated him after he helped them come to power 30 years ago,” says Mereja.

Recently, the United States sanctioned the Eritrean army for its peace-undermining roles in the crisis.

Avoiding a Libya-like State

PM Abiy’s transition from international admiration to condemnation has been swift, as has been Ethiopia's transformation from a peaceful, progressive country to a war-torn nation.

Ethiopia's enviable sense of independence as the only uncolonised country in the continent of Africa and its recent political reforms made Ethiopia Africa’s pride. Many countries in the horn and continent-wide looked up to it for leadership. Its highly ambitious economic strides have also been cited as a model worth emulating by other countries.

Sadly, the year-long war has battered the country’s economy and seriously derailed Ethiopia’s political trajectory. Fear also mounts that it could become the 'Libya of East Africa', especially as striking similarities can be seen in the two countries both in terms of sprouting followed by a conflict-induced fall.

Like Ethiopia, Libya was also one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and regarded among the continent's wealthiest countries until the 2011 uprising that resulted in a civil war and foreign military intervention. Today, the once oil-rich, prosperous nation is but a shadow of its former self, socio-economically speaking, and a hub of human trafficking and modern slavery.

The Tigray conflict also evokes similarities to the bloody Eritrea- Ethiopia conflict, which took place merely three decades ago when the former broke away from the latter. Thousands of Eritreans were killed and countless atrocities were recorded throughout the self-determination fight that lasted between 1961 to 1991.

Both the Ethiopian central government and TPLF have demonstrated sheer vigour and recorded successes in the civil war. Therefore, compromise from either side at this time may appear as a sign of weakness to their followers. But considering the level of witnessed human tolls and the possible impending greater turmoil, such a compromise should rather be viewed as a show of strength, and not the other way round.

It is high time that all sides of the conflict met to negotiate and make a peaceful, progressive agreement for posterity’s sake. The discussions shouldn’t stop at achieving a ceasefire, but rather encompass immediate and long-term deals on mutually beneficial power-sharing formulas at both the regional and central levels, reconciliations of conflicting historical narratives and settling territorial disputes and long-existing grievances that spark armed crises in the country.

Image by Rod Waddington 

Article written by:
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Olusegun Akinfenwa
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Ethiopia
Children run past the remains of burned out structures destroyed by the TPLF in Darsageta, Ethiopia.
© J. Countess/Getty Images
PM Abiy’s transition from international admiration to condemnation has been swift, as has been Ethiopia's transformation from a peaceful, progressive country to a war-torn nation.
© Ethiopian Prime Minister's Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images