The Tigray region of Ethiopia is reportedly facing the “worst hunger crisis” the world has seen for about a decade. Over 5.5 million people there face “acute food insecurity”, according to Vox. And the massive scale of the crisis is largely a result of an ongoing conflict that began in November 2020.
After increasingly isolating Tigrayan political forces, the central Ethiopian government launched a full-on offensive last year which continues to this day. During the war, there have been numerous allegations of civilian massacres and sexual violence. And neither side is close to victory.
Decades of conflict
Widespread poverty in Ethiopia’s feudal system helped to spark a mass movement which overthrew the country’s elites in 1974. A programme of land reform and nationalisation followed. But the new ‘Derg’ government faced both Western destabilisation efforts and opposition from several Ethiopian regions. And the country soon became a Cold-War battleground. The Soviet bloc backed Ethiopia while the Western bloc backed its opponents. An example of this was when Somalia attacked Ethiopia in 1977. In this context, military forces took more and more control of the country, spending vast amounts on the military and ruling via brutal repression.
The Tigray region had suffered historic repression in Ethiopia. And the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was one of the groups to allegedly receive Western support during this period. In 1991, the TPLF and its allies took control. The TPLF was repressive, exclusionary, and gave preferential treatment to Tigray; but in the following years it would oversee economic progress, greater autonomy for the country’s ethnic groups, and a reduction in levels of hunger. The US supported the government as part of its regional strategy.
When Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018, however, he began to purge TPLF officials. He also launched a wave of privatisations. The TPLF increasingly worried that Abiy would dismantle the rights of the country’s ethnic groups. And it launched a “preemptive raid” on federal forces in Tigray in November 2021. Abiy responded with a full-on offensive, and has since faced accusations of ethnic cleansing. Abiy has since added the group to Ethiopia’s ‘terror list’.
Starvation as a weapon
Ethiopia already had a displacement crisis, but Abiy’s war on the TPLF has further displaced another two million people. It has also destroyed Tigray’s infrastructure (including health facilities). And there have been claims that Ethiopian forces and their Eritrean allies have purposefully targeted food stocks and farmworkers in Tigray, where around 80% of people’s livelihoods depend on agriculture. One UN worker has accused Eritrean forces of “trying to deal with the Tigrayan population by starving them” and of using food “as a weapon of war”.
The conflict, meanwhile, came during the “worst locust swarm in 25 years”, which had already hit the country and the wider region hard. Hostilities have since hindered efforts to deal with this crisis, particularly in Tigray.
Allegations of invading forces committing serious abuses against Tigrayan civilians have only added support for the TPLF’s resistance. According to the International Crisis Group thinktank, atrocities reportedly include the indiscriminate bombing of urban areas, forced displacement, and “widespread sexual violence, looting and massacres”. On 22 June alone, an airstrike on a market in Tigray killed dozens of people and injured 180.
Without peace talks, stalemate will continue
Neither side is likely to win the conflict on the battlefield. Indeed, during the country’s recent election (which didn’t include Tigrayan voters), the TPLF advanced and took the region’s capital. Locals were reportedly jubilant. At the same time, Abiy’s government has paused hostilities “to prevent disruptions to the farming season and to allow the distribution of humanitarian aid”, according to Africanews.
If the conflict continues, it will only cause even greater suffering. But the world has the power to encourage peace talks. The UK, for example, has trained Ethiopian military personnel in recent years, while approving £65,000-worth of arms export licences. The EU, meanwhile, has exported or licensed around €32m-worth of arms. These world powers could condition future deals on immediately ending the conflict in Tigray. And ordinary people should pressure them to do so.
Main article image via France 24 English/screenshot