Two million displaced in Ethiopia: Three questions on Tigray

Nariman El-Mofty/AP
A Tigrayan refugee who fled the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region sits inside his shelter at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, March 16, 2021.

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Ethiopia’s stability has long been its calling card. But after six months of conflict in the northern Tigray region, that stability is now under existential threat.

The military offensive has forced more than 2 million people out of their homes. Both sides have been accused of atrocities, and the United States has alleged ethnic cleansing, which Ethiopia’s government denies.

Why We Wrote This

Almost six months in, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s war in Tigray has turned into a protracted disaster. As reports of atrocities keep coming, are there levers for peace and accountability?

The conflict burst into violence last November, after months of mounting tensions between Tigray and national leadership. That strain reflects deeper disagreements over visions of Ethiopia, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowing to centralize power away from the regions. Many Tigrayans – an ethnic minority, but long dominant in the country’s politics – feared being forced to the margins. 

“The country as it exists now is at stake,” says Yonatan Fessha, who studies the rule of law in Ethiopia. For people in the region, meanwhile, what is at stake is life as they know it. According to the United Nations, 4.5 million of the region’s residents currently “need lifesaving assistance.”

Those suffering most are not the Tigrayans who wielded outsize power in the Ethiopian government for 30 years, Dr. Fessha notes. Rather, they are the people who are often hit hardest by war: poor people.

The military offensive in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has dragged on for nearly six agonizing months, forcing more than 2 million people out of their homes. Despite government attempts to keep journalists out, and information in, reports have emerged of mass atrocities by both Ethiopian and Tigrayan fighters.

Ethiopia has long been a bulwark of regional stability in the Horn of Africa. How did it get here? And what would it take to bring the fighting to an end?

What led to the conflict?

Why We Wrote This

Almost six months in, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s war in Tigray has turned into a protracted disaster. As reports of atrocities keep coming, are there levers for peace and accountability?

Tigray is the northernmost region in Ethiopia, home largely to an ethnic group of the same name. For nearly 30 years following Ethiopia’s civil war, which ended in 1991, Tigrayans led the country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. But Tigrayans account for only about 6% of the country’s population, and their political dominance was a constant source of tension. After protests over the EPRDF’s repressive rule in 2018, the party appointed a new leader, Abiy Ahmed, who is not Tigrayan.

Mr. Abiy vowed to unite Ethiopians regardless of ethnicity and centralize power away from the regions. Many Tigrayans feared his ascent would force them to the margins of Ethiopian society. The rift widened when Tigray went ahead with elections last year, flouting a national directive that they be postponed until after the pandemic.  

The conflict turned violent in November. Tigrayan forces attacked an Ethiopian army base in the region, and the government retaliated with a major military offensive. Neighboring Eritrea, with whom Mr. Abiy had recently reconciled, joined on the side of the Ethiopian army. Militias from Ethiopia’s Amhara region have also joined in against Tigray. Six months later, massacres, rapes, and massive displacements of civilians have become weapons of war, with both sides accused of atrocities.

What is at stake for Ethiopia?

Ethiopia’s stability has long been its calling card. Strategically located in the Horn of Africa, and sandwiched between volatile countries like Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, Addis Ababa has earned powerful allies with its peace and economic growth. For countries like the United States, it is a bulwark against the spread of Al Qaeda-linked terror groups in the region.

That stability is now under existential threat. “The idea of Ethiopia as a united community of people, which has always been fragile,” has taken a hit, says Yonatan Fessha, a professor at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa who studies the rule of law in Ethiopia. And the longer the fighting continues, the more likely it is to polarize and radicalize both sides. “The country as it exists now is at stake,” he adds.

For people living in the region, meanwhile, what is at stake is nothing less than life as they know it. According to the United Nations, 4.5 million of the region’s residents currently “need lifesaving assistance.” More than 60,000 have crossed the border into neighboring Sudan, and the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has asked for access to Tigray to investigate possible war crimes.

Those suffering most are not the Tigrayans who wielded outsize power in the Ethiopian government for the past 30 years, Dr. Fessha notes. Rather, they are the people who are often hit hardest by war: poor people.

What would it take to end the conflict?

It is hard to say. Much of the region remains in a telecom blackout, and journalists and aid groups have struggled to access areas outside major cities and towns.

But what is known has rattled even Ethiopia’s friends. The African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa, has received the government’s permission to participate in investigating possible human rights abuses. Mr. Abiy has criticized Western critics’ approach, calling in a March speech for “African solutions to African problems.”

Meanwhile in March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the Ethiopian government to protect civilians, prevent violence, and cooperate on independent investigations, according to the department’s spokesperson. The U.S. has alleged there has been ethnic cleansing in Tigray, which Ethiopia’s government denies.

Because Ethiopia has always relied heavily on international allies for aid and other assistance, Dr. Fessha says, they might be able to apply pressure for diplomatic solutions. “We need to break the cycle of this problem being solved by violence, and a military victory will not deliver that,” he says.

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