Stability undermined by the Tigray conflict

The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, is now surrounded by hostile forces. And in the Tigray region, the humanitarian situation is worse than ever.

Le Soir, 19 November 2021: Ethiopie: une année d guerre dans la province du Tigré a miné la stabilité du pays [in French]

Colette Braeckman | Le Soir 19/11/2021

Si l’Ethiopie venait à imploser, c’est la stabilité du continent africain tout entier qui serait menacée.

A year ago, on November 4, 2020, Addis Ababa launched a “police operation” in the northern province of Tigray. The Prime Minister of this federal state, Abyi Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 after his reconciliation with Eritrea, wanted to sanction the local authorities of Tigray. The latter had unilaterally organized elections at the provincial level while the national elections had been postponed by Addis Ababa for health reasons.

In reality, Abyi Ahmed intended to bring to line his former allies of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who had occupied power since the overthrow, twenty years ago, of the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. For two decades, the TPLF, composed of former guerrillas who had held the maquis in the high mountains of Tigray, had both succeeded in Ethiopia’s economic take-off by relying on China and reigned unreserved over this multi-ethnic country of 110 million inhabitants. Removed from the central power by a prime minister who now relied on other ethnic groups (including the Amharas, the first occupants of Addis Ababa, and the Oromos, occupying the center of the country), the TPLF had to retreat to its province of origin, where its popularity had remained intact.

Abuses against civilians

Faced with seasoned and well-equipped troops, the military expedition to restore federal authority quickly turned into a nightmare. Indeed, the federal troops, supported by reinforcements sent by the new Eritrean ally, engaged in serious abuses against the civilian population: places of worship, historical monuments were destroyed, crops were burned. Numerous testimonies reported massacres and rapes, including in the city of Aksum, crimes committed mainly by troops from Eritrea, who had long been at war with the Tigrayans.

When the capital of Tigray, Makalle, fell to the forces sent by the central government, the victory was only apparent: the abuses and war crimes committed by the federal forces caused an international outcry, reminiscent of the great famines of the 90s, while the aura of the Nobel Peace Prize,  the Prime Minister was duly tarnished. The humanitarian crisis, denounced by NGOs deprived of access to the ground, even overshadowed the fact that, fleeing the occupied cities, the hard core of the TPLF -composed of often Chinese-trained experimented politicians and military hardened by long guerrilla years- went into the maquis and was reorganizing itself with the support of the local populations.

“Extreme famine”

A year later, the humanitarian situation in Tigray is worse than ever: Ghent University geographer Jan Nyssen, who tried to map the crisis, assures us that “Tigray is experiencing a situation of extreme famine. Crops have been destroyed, the blockade prevents the delivery of humanitarian aid, the province is virtually out of reach and civilians, prevented from moving, are dying at home, without aid and contacts. Everything is played behind closed doors…” On the other hand, the scientist continues, “the military situation has changed: the TPLF fighters have descended from their mountains towards Addis Ababa and they are now 200 km from the capital, which is like surrounded. To avoid shooting, planes take off in a spin… ».

The Ghent professor points out, however, that “if the Tigrayans are still far from the capital, on the other hand, the Oromos, who live in the countryside surrounding the city and complain of having been robbed of their land, have created a liberation movement (« Oromo liberation front ») that besieges a city whose inhabitants are mostly Amharas”.

The latter represent the last supporters of a federal Ethiopia and they supervise troops recruited from among the “black” populations of the south of the country, supporting Prime Minister Abyi. The federal troops, however, are weakened, deprived of the northern soldiers who were their best elements, and they no longer enjoy the support of the Eritrean army, as Asmara has ended up withdrawing troops who had been accused of numerous abuses in Tigray.

Remaining very numerous in a capital that they once dominated politically, civilians of Tigrayan origin are now the subject of a manhunt inspired by the “crime of facies”.

A damning report

On 3 November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report based on 269 interviews in Tigray, implicating all the forces involved. The armed men are accused of executions, looting, torture, arbitrary detention and “gang rape” by groups of soldiers, often Eritreans, as if it were collective punishment against civilians.

The humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray, reminiscent of the great famines of yesteryear, is now mobilizing minds. Scenes of ethnic cleansing and manhunts in the capital are decenting human rights defenders and, relayed by the various diasporas, cross-accusations of “genocide” are multiplying and tarnishing the image of the authorities.

However, in a country that hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is one of the most populous in Africa, the worst could be yet to come. If Ethiopia were to implode, pulverizing the fragile economic miracle of recent years, and divided into states created on ethnic bases, neighboring countries (Kenya, Somalia, Sudan…) would not be the only ones to be affected: it is the stability of the continent itself that would be threatened. And this at a time when Egypt is worried about the commissioning of a dam that will affect the course of the Nile, when the Gulf countries are monitoring the shores of the Red Sea and when Europe is concerned about the prospect of new migratory flows from Africa…

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