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In Ethiopia, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wages War

What’s going on in Ethiopia? 

An armed uprising in the northern region of Tigray has opened up old wounds in the East African nation of Ethiopia. The regional ruling party in Tigray and the Ethiopian federal government, long at odds, are now actively fighting in the streets. The result has been armed clashes, war crimes and an increasingly desperate situation for civilians caught in the middle. 

The conflict originates from the decade’s long stranglehold on political power that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has wielded across Ethiopia. This is even though the Tigray people, who make up the majority of the TPLF voter base, only account for 6% of the country’s population. 

This stranglehold was broken in 2018 by Abiy Ahmed who came to power as part of a new coalition formed from multiple political parties. An olive branch was extended to the TPLF to join this new coalition, but they refused in part due to feeling threatened by the government’s choice of personnel and policy. 

The relationship between the two further deteriorated when the TPLF went ahead with regional elections despite the government directive that they were to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When did the recent conflict begin? 

Armed conflict began in November 2020 when forces aligned with the TPLF opened fire on an Ethiopian army outpost in Tigray. The Ethiopian National Defence Force responded with further action in Tigray areas and cities as part of a ‘law enforcement operation’. The internet in Tigray was shut down and telecommunications services were halted. 

After a drawn-out guerrilla warfare campaign conducted by the TPLF, Ethiopian forces occupied the Tigray capital of Mekelle on the 28th  November. Subsequently, Abiy Ahmed announced that the armed part of the operation was over. Since the conflict began, more than 60,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan. Another 2 million people have been displaced internally. 

What about the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea? 

Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in ending the decades-long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two countries had alternated between armed conflict and complete separation since they both won their independence. 

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Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, right, receives a key from Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.

Now, Eritrean troops are used by the Ethiopian government to fight alongside their forces in Tigray. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released preliminary findings of its investigation on human rights abuses in the historic town of Axum at the end of November 2020. The report indicates that over 100 civilians had been killed, allegedly by Eritrean soldiers. “Residents, persons displaced from other parts of Tigray, and visitors from other parts of Ethiopia who came to mark the annual Aksum Tsion celebration, were killed by Eritrean soldiers,” the report said.

What atrocities are being carried out as this continues? 

There have also been horrifying allegations that rape was being used as a weapon of war by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops. Cases at medical centres are mounting with women entering with horrific injuries sustained while they fled from Tigray. Officials also say that the real number may even be higher since many are not coming forward due to feelings of shame. 

In a statement, the Ethiopian embassy in London said it “remains deeply concerned by serious allegations of rape in Tigray and condemns, in the strongest terms, any acts of sexual violence”. It added: “Any serious violations committed against citizens will be thoroughly investigated, and the government will spare no effort in bringing the perpetrators of these and other crimes to justice.

Abiy Ahmed had long denied the involvement of Eritrean troops but was forced to admit on the 23rd March that there were Eritrean soldiers “guarding the border against the TPLF.”

A few days later he also issued a statement informing that Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its troops from Tigray. The Prime Minister also acknowledged for the first time that atrocities, including rape, had been committed and promised that the perpetrators would be held to account.

Atrocities have also been carried out by Tigray forces. In Mai-Kadra, retreating Tigray militia allegedly murdered hundreds of ethnic Amharas. Those civilians were brutally hacked to pieces with machetes, knives and other instruments. All because they had been suspected of aiding Ethiopian troops against the TPLF. 

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How is this affecting the people?

1.3 million people within the country are in desperate need of aid. The UN has already raised 750 million to assist with humanitarian operations in Ethiopia, but it still falls short of its 1.5-billion goal. Assistance will also be needed to rebuild hospitals and facilities bombed by government forces during the conflict. 

Diplomats from the African Union met with Abiy Ahmed to attempt to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict but they were rebuffed. The Prime Minister again insisted that the conflict was a ‘law enforcement operation’ and as a sovereign nation, it would not allow outside interference. The US, UK and others have simply condemned the actions of Ahmed but have done little else. 

Ethiopia, which had been considered a country on the road to democracy, is backsliding. The international community must come together to pressure Ethiopia to release political prisoners, allow humanitarian aid to all those affected and end the bloodshed. Otherwise, the risk of emboldening a vicious government into further actions is a real possibility.

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