What is happening in Ethiopia?

The conflict in Tigray that erupted in late 2020 was the outcome of tensions that began in 2019 when the federal government’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ousted the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had previously dominated the Ethiopian political scene. In September 2020, the TPLF held regional elections despite the federal government’s decision to suspend all domestic elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to escalating tensions between the regional party and federal government forces until the Prime Minister ordered a military operation against the TPLF on November 4th 2020, following an alleged attack by the party on a federal forces camp in the Tigray region[1].

Since then, the conflict has gotten bogged down and the hostilities have continued, leading to the involvement of Eritrean forces who have sided with the Ethiopian government. At the end of June 2021, following the takeover of a large part of the region by the TPLF, a ceasefire was unilaterally declared by the Ethiopian federal government. However, clashes are continuing, particularly in the Amhara region, neighbouring Tigray, and in Afar. The TPLF recently announced that it had captured the towns of Lalibela and Kobo, both in Amhara, causing again an estimated 200,000 people to flee[2]. While the Tigrayans demand the withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara militias, supporting the Ethiopian government, the latter has cut off all communication and electricity access in the region as well as the delivery of resources by humanitarian organisations.

Thousands of people fleeing the country everyday

It is difficult to know exactly what is happening in the region as journalists and humanitarian organisations do not have access to parts of Tigray. However, many Ethiopians and refugees have reported that Tigrayans supporting the TPLF, federal and Eritrean forces, and Amhara militias appear to be perpetrating massacres, sexual violence, and torture against the civilian population[3]. There are also numerous reports that these militias are going door-to-door in the region to arrest or kill civilians[4]. This violence might actually degenerate into ethnic cleansing if this is not already the case.

Before the conflict erupted in November 2020, the region was home to approximately 5.5 million people, including 100,000 internally displaced people and 96,000 refugees (mainly from Eritrea)[5].  In June 2021, MSF explained that the outbreak of violence has forced more than one million people to flee their homes. Many have taken refuge in remote areas, in host communities, where they have no proper shelter. Others have decided to cross the border into Sudan. By the end of June 2021, about 63,000 Tigrayan had found refuge in Sudanese camps situated near the border with Ethiopia[6].

In these camps, the infrastructure is very limited and the living conditions are appalling due to the lack of hygiene, water, and especially food, but also because the refugees do not have access to adequate health care. In addition, the rains and strong winds, which came with the arrival of the rainy season, regularly destroy their makeshift camps, and that accelerates the deplorable humanitarian situation in the camps. Finally, these sites are overcrowded, which increases the risk of the spread of diseases, including COVID-19[7].

Today, approximately 5.2 million people in the region are estimated to be in dire need of assistance. And the lack of electricity, telecommunications, access to fuel and cash is hindering any proper humanitarian response.

A worrying conflict

Firstly, the conflict in Tigray could spread to other parts of Ethiopia. This is in fact already the case as there is increasing fighting in the Amhara region, neighbouring Tigray. There are also indications that the Ethiopian government is calling on volunteer militias from Amhara and other Ethiopian regions, such as Oromia and Sidama, to support it in its fighting against Tigrayan forces[8]. This could actually lead to ethnic conflict throughout the country.

Secondly, with its population of 110 million people, its central geopolitical position, and one of the fastest rising economies on the African continent, Ethiopia is a factor of stability and security in the region, particularly with regard to Somalia and South Sudan. Its instability could thus have repercussions for the entire Horn of Africa by fuelling existing tensions in neighbouring states[9]. Other countries in the region have already been involved in the conflict. This is particularly the case of Eritrea, which is participating in the fighting alongside the Ethiopian government, and Sudan, which is hosting tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees. The living and sanitary conditions in these camps are very bad so many refugees have already decided to leave the camps and take the road to Libya to begin the dangerous journey to reach the European Union[10].

The head of the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, has called for an effective ceasefire as a matter of urgency so that a massive humanitarian aid operation can be put in place to help the millions in need[11].

UNHCR also said that it was essential to find and develop alternative settlements to relocate refugees further inland so that they could access “essential services” and, above all, to reduce the overcrowding of the camps already established. In conjunction with the call from other UN bodies, the UNHCR called on the various parties to the conflict to “protect civilians, respect the safety of humanitarian personnel and allow access to those in need” to essential services[12].


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