Humanitarian Crisis Goes Neglected in Tigray

by Kareena Stowers

Image: Tigray Action Committee

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn more: this conflict is not black-and-white and changes constantly, so stay informed.
  2. Support UNICEF’s effort to help Tigrayan children suffering from acute malnutrition.
  3. Pressure your representatives into having the U.S. send more relief aid by calling or writing letters.

Encapsulating the world’s chaos of 2020, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, Tigray, suffered through a year of unspeakable war crimes and civil war, famine and sexual violence, and political instability and insurgency against the backdrop of a pandemic leading to a humanitarian crisis that for too long has been brushed aside. At the center of this maelstrom is the Tigray War, which has its roots in Ethiopian political history. In 1974, a communist dictatorship governed Ethiopia, which at the time also included Eritrea [1]. Rebel forces emerged within different regions in Ethiopia, the strongest being the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) [1]. Finally, in 1991, the civil war ended; Eritrea claimed sovereignty, leaving the TPLF as the most powerful group in Ethiopia [1]. 

The TPLF joined forces with the other rebel groups within Ethiopia to form a governing coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) [2]. For the next 30 years however, the TPLF dominated the political sphere, though they make up less than seven percent of Ethiopia’s population [3]. In practice, the TPLF ruled Ethiopia as a one-party, highly repressive state, not making the advances towards democracy that EPRDF’s name implies.

In 1998, the ongoing tension between the TPLF and EPRDF heightened due to a multi-decade civil war with Eritrea [4]. There were no clear winners of the war, leaving Eritrea politically sidelined and Ethiopia satiated with social dissent [4]. Ethiopian civilians began protesting the repressive TPLF regime in 2015, forcing the Tigrayan prime minister to resign in 2018 [5]. 

In the aftermath, the EPRDF selected current prime minister Abiy Ahmed. His charismatic leadership and talk of unity and peace brought hope to an Ethiopia previously riddled with war. Much to the TPLF’s dismay, Prime Minister Ahmed had more progressive goals at the beginning of his reign; he deposed corrupt TPLF authorities, relaxed censorship laws, and ended the war with Eritrea, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 [6]. However, what was seen as noble by the rest of the world was seen as a threat to Tigray. Recall that Tigray controlled Ethiopia during the long battle with Eritrea starting in the 90s. Tigray perceived this reconciliation between Ahmed and the Ethiopian government and Eritrea as a way for Ahmed to centralize power and make peace with their former enemy [7]. With tensions rising, Ahmed abandoned his democratic methods going from winning the Nobel Peace Prize to relapsing into censoring journalists, opposing parties, and dissenters [8]. 

To make matters worse, the pandemic chaos worsened internal strife between the Tigrayans and the Ethiopian government. In 2020, Ahmed postponed elections until the global health crisis was resolved [9]. Arguing that he was avoiding an election, Tigrayans did the extreme and held their own elections [9]. After this act of defiance, Ahmed issued a statement declaring that Tigrayans had attacked a federal military base and must be met with military consequences [9]. And so, the war began.

The world remained unaware of the conflict or its severity due to the communications blackout implemented by the Ethiopian government. Once refugees appeared in Sudan though, people recognized the gravity of the situation: Tigray was facing a humanitarian crisis. 

All parties played their part in perpetrating war crimes and victimizing Ethiopian civilians; however, the biggest culprits seem to be the Ethiopian government and Eritrea, who quickly entered the war on Ahmed’s side [10]. Currently, more than five million Tigrayans are in urgent need of relief aid (approximately 70% of the Tigrayan population) [11]. The soldiers, especially Eritrean, are accused of mass rape of Tigrayan women [10]. More than two million Tigrayans are displaced in Ethiopia [12]. Ethiopian opposition parties claimed at least 52,000 casualties on their side, including civilians, over the span of just two months from November 2020 to early February in 2021 [13]. 

Another major aspect of this attack on human rights is the widespread famine plaguing Tigray. The land in Tigray is overwhelmingly unarable, forcing Tigrayans to rely on supplies from other Ethiopian states; even with the farmable land, the government currently prevents farmers from planting on it [14]. The U.N. declared the famine in Tigray as the world’s worst since the Somali famine of 2011 [15].

Tigrayans are now almost completely reliant on international supplies, however the Ethiopian government is slowly reducing that flow of supplies to a trickle. The U.N. stocked aid supply trucks face major hold-ups and destroyed bridges — all the work of the Ethiopian government [16]. According to the U.N., only one-tenth of the supplies sent have actually reached Tigray. What few supplies end up reaching Tigray are ravaged by soldiers or held up at most access points, which are now controlled heavily by the Ethiopian government [16]. Through this effective blockade, the Ethiopian government is using starvation as a weapon to systematically weaken Tigray. When Prime Minister Ahmed was asked about the situation, he denied all allegations, saying, “There is no hunger in Tigray” [17].   

Many major powers and entities in the world see the gravity of this war both as a humanitarian crisis and as a geopolitical conflict. In April 2021, the U.S. upped its Tigraian relief funding to nearly $302 million [18]. Other benefactors support Tigrayans as well, including the European Union and the U.N. The U.N. and the U.S. urged the warring parties to begin a national dialogue and look towards peace. The U.N. staff based in Ethiopia were also dismissed in early October, severely limiting the movement of aid [19]. Biden also threatened sanctions for those who are involved in victimizing Tigrayan civilians [20]. The U.N. and the U.S. have both expressed their willingness to work with African leaders to “support dialogue” [21] 

Unfortunately, diplomacy does not seem to be working. The steps taken have been met with little success. Experts are discussing possible solutions to end the war and get relief to Tigrayans imminently. One discussed option is for Tigray to separate completely and become an independent nation. This has severe repercussions, however. This could lead to future conflicts because Tigray would be stuck between two enemy nations. Ethiopia could also completely separate its 10 regions as 10 individual entities, which could ruin the economic balance of the horn of Africa. Another proposed solution involves a gathering of all ethnic and political leaders to start a national dialogue, but this has been rejected by Ahmed [22].

The fighting doesn’t appear to be ending soon. Within the past week, the violence has escalated tremendously. As of October 20, 2021, the Ethiopian government carried out air strikes against the Tigrayan capital, Melleke [23]. There continues to be a strict communications blackout leaving many of the atrocities committed by the warring factions unspoken [23]. 

This pointless war is leading to untold suffering by innocent civilians. Prime Minister Ahmed is starving his own constituents, massacring his civilians, and allowing war crimes to perpetrate in his lands. Diplomacy has not been able to resolve this conflict because it’s a fight between leaders, not a fight between nations.

A question currently floating around the political sphere is whether or not the U.S. should further involve itself in this conflict. A major criticism of the U.S. is meddling in other nations’ affairs with a savior complex often with their own agenda. However, because this is a humanitarian crisis, does the U.S. have an obligation to stop these breaches of human rights?  

In theory, one would argue that any necessary measures should be taken to end this crisis; people are suffering and how could anyone not want to stop that? However, approaching this more from a diplomatic lens, U.S. interference in the form of army mobilization would most likely end disastrously. With neither side being able to gain an upper hand, there is no end in sight, so the U.S. would commit indefinitely to this conflict both with manpower and finances. The U.S. until recently was still tangled with the War in Afghanistan, which serves as a good parallel to this debate; the U.S. often ends up fighting wars for far longer than expected and doing more damage than good. It would likewise be incredibly naive to expect that the U.S. or any nation for that matter could simply enter the conflict on the side of humanity. If, for example, the U.S. mobilized forces in attempts to help Tigrayan civilians, the tacit understanding would be that the U.S. supports the TPLF. The U.S. would have to be ready to make enemies with both Ethiopia and Eritrea. What was meant to be a humanitarian relief effort would become a highly politicized campaign. 

What the U.S. and other international powers are doing now is not sufficient, however, one cannot recommend the U.S. intervening militarily. With the world facing a year of utter disarray, international leaders are currently failing Tigrayans and will continue to do so until a more creative solution is found, one not involving mobilizing forces.