Humanitarian situation in Tigray (05 July 2022)

Dear reader,

In June, despite the black-out imposed by Ethiopian authorities, determined international reporters could at last reach Tigray.  On July 2, ARTE TV broadcasted their documentary film: “Tigray: in the land of hunger”.

You may watch it in French, or in German – parts are spoken in English and Tigrinya.

ARTE has informed that “due to legal restrictions”, most probably distribution rights, there are no English subtitles for this documentary film. An unofficial English translation (text only) has been published by UMD media.

All the pain that we attempted to highlight in the 41 preceding digests is confirmed by this ARTE TV broadcast, that was recorded in the village of Bamba in the Saharti district (see on Google Maps), in Abiy Addi (Google Maps), Mekelle and Aksum.

Malnourished eleven years old boy, eight kilos at a hospital in Tigray. Photo: ARTE TV

Even if you have already seen the documentary, make an effort to watch it again since you will pick up on so many things… People are simply dying at home because they know that the staff at the hospital can’t help them… An eleven years’ old boy, eight kilos… Direct culprits, implementing the blockade, are the governments of Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Amhara Region. Additionally, as a summation of international diplomacy, UN Secretary General Guterres allows it all to go on!

  1. More on Tigray famine and starvation
  1. Miscommunication by the UN

In a flashy announcement on social media on 29 June, the United Nations boasted that since 1 April, the World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered enough food to Tigray to feed 5.9 million people per month – a poor rewording of the original tweet by @WFPLogistics : “WFP has delivered enough food to feed 5.9 million people for a month.”

The announcement then provides a hyperlink to their own WFP Ethiopia country brief, which states: “In the Tigray Region, WFP delivered food assistance to 461,542 people in May.” That is far from 5.9 million!

And UN OCHA, in its situation report (17 June): “Food partners in Tigray assisted more than 340,000 people with 5,303 MT of food during the reporting week. (…) Cumulatively between early April and 8 June, more than 20,000 MT of food have been distributed to more than 1.2 million people in the region.”

The reality is that over the last three months, the WFP transported enough food to Tigray to feed 5.9 million people for just one month (out of three). But, because of lack of fuel, only 1.4 million of the inhabitants of Tigray (25%) have been reached. Only 15% of the required fuel and 35% of the cash needed for humanitarian operations has been allowed into Tigray by the Ethiopian authorities.

Feedback from one UN staffer: “It would be more accurate to report on impact than on MTs and trucks that made it through”.

Yet, the UN system, at the highest level, posts jubilatory announcements, rather than telling the truth that they face a myriad of obstacles that prevent them from reaching out to the starving population of Tigray.

More on “diplomacy”, or rather “The art of looking away”.

  1. Tigray famine is good business for Abiy’s government

Just like the Derg military government in the 1980s, the current Ethiopian government actually makes money from the Tigray famine, through sale of fertiliser at inflated prices.

New Business Ethiopia titled on 13 April 2022: The Government of Ethiopia has spent one billion US dollars for importing fertilizers during the current budget year, to purchase of 1.28 million MT of fertiliser, what corresponds to a cost of 781 USD per MT. On 18 June, Addis Fortune confirms the information, giving more precisions on the purchase price for fertiliser by the Ethiopian Agricultural Businesses Corporation (EABC – governmental company): 650 USD per MT for NPS and 1000 for Urea.

In June, in a belated announcement (given that rains are there and the fertiliser should already be at farmers’ hands), the FAO mentioned that the Government of Ethiopia has offered humanitarian agencies access to fertilizer at a cost of 1350 USD per MT, i.e. 1.7 times the purchase prize of 781 USD per MT. One could argue for changes in the exchange rate (well below 170% in six months, in any case), but the EABC practice in past years was to resell fertilizer at the price of purchase. In 2022, the government even largely subsidised the fertiliser when reselling it to farmers in six regions (not Tigray) at 3500 ETB / quintal, what corresponds to 87% of the purchasing prize (or even 56% when calculating with the black market exchange rate for USD).

The expensive reselling of fertiliser to FAO is a means for the Ethiopian government to get hold of foreign currency. For those who have known the Tigray famine in 1984, such predatory practices by the Ethiopian government in worst times of crisis are not new. In his book “Surrender or starve – the wars behind the famine”, Robert D. Kaplan writes about the then Mengistu government: “The famine was good business for the Dergue. A port fee of $12.60 was charged for each ton of donated grain. This replaced coffee as Ethiopia’s biggest hard currency earner. The United States paid $5 million just to have its first 400,000 tons pass customs inspection”.  That was back in 1984.

  1. How can we help?

After seeing the ARTE report, we get questions: “besides sharing the information, what can we do to help the people in Tigray?”

The main issue is that even UN organisations do not succeed in securing humanitarian corridors (see section 2). The amount of cash that can be carried on UN flights is very restricted.

At a smaller scale, organisations still find ways to organise support locally.

Weforest supports villages near the Des’a forest.

Also EthioTrees could recently send project money to Mekelle and Dogu’a Tembien.

The support action for the Fremnatos home for elderly and disabled in Mekelle also continues.

Kvinner for Kvinner i Tigray (KFK-Women to Women)”, a nonprofit organization based in Norway is fundraising to help women and girls survivors of sexual violence restore their lives.

And there is the fundraiser organised for the staff members of the four universities in Tigray.

Individuals depend on money smugglers to transmit cash to friends and family in Tigray. Sending the money to one’s ‘idir (traditional neighbourhood social security association) in a village or a town, where it will be shared among all members, is a solution that has also been effectively used. Pictures received in exchange demonstrate how dependent everyone in Tigray is on humanitarian supplies as a result of the conflict and blockade!

  1. Scientific articles
  1. Opinion pieces
  1. Other media articles

“When President Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia, he was seen as a reformer who was heralding a new era of hope. In 2019, he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But less than a year later, he ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray in the north of the country. He said he did so in response to an attack on a military base housing government troops. It’s a conflict that has been characterised by an almost constant media blackout in Tigray. In the absence of detailed reporting, rumour, denial and misinformation has been rife. But a few dedicated journalists have been working hard to get at the truth. Chloe Hadjimatheou hears from one of them (Lucy Kassa) as she tries to unpick fact from fiction in Ethiopia’s information war.” 


Follow up communication compiled by Prof. Dr. Jan Nyssen.


Jan Nyssen is full professor of Geography at Ghent University (Belgium). Besides numerous scientific publications mostly related to Ethiopia, he published two books: “ካብ ሓረስቶት ደጉዓ ተምቤን እንታይ ንስምዕ”? “What do we hear from the farmers in Dogu’a Tembien”? [in Tigrinya] (2016), and “Geo Trekking in Ethiopia’s Tropical Mountains, the Dogu’a Tembien District”. Springer GeoGuide (2019).

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