The Political Origins and Devastating Consequences of the Tigray Civil War
On December 10, 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed received a Nobel Peace Prize for ending a territorial dispute with Eritrea. Nonetheless, in 2021, PM Ahmed is presiding over a civil war in the northern region of Tigray. The conflict, which escalated in November 2020, stems from political tensions between the federal and the Tigray regional governments.
Ethiopia is a Federal Democratic Republic composed of ten regions which are divided along ethnic lines, namely Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Sidama, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and Harari, Southern Nations Nationalities and People Region (SNNPR). In 2020, the total population of Ethiopia was almost 115 million, with the population of Tigray at approximately five million people.
A Struggle for Sovereignty and Political Power: The Origins of the Tigray Civil War
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is a political party that originated in the mid-1990s as a small militia of Tigrayans fighting against Ethiopia’s military dictatorship. By 1991, the TPLF became the most powerful rebel force in the country and toppled the government, leading them to dominate Ethiopian politics for almost three decades. However, in 2018, following anti-government protests, the TPLF lost its hold on power and began moving towards de facto independence.
In 2018, PM Ahmed established the Prosperity Party and removed Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and repression. Tigrayan leaders, subsequently, criticized reforms initiated by PM Ahmed to centralize power and dismantle the federal system. Moreover, Tigrayan leaders accused PM Ahmed of excluding the country’s ethnically based regions in decision making during his attempts to consolidate power. Furthermore, the TPLF refused to join a coalition with the Prosperity Party in November 2019 which would diminish their influence in the merged government as they only make up around 6 percent of the population.
In August 2020, the Prime Minister postponed the general elections citing the COVID-19 pandemic and extending the government’s term by nine months. The move infuriated officials in Tigray who argued they were not consulted and accused PM Ahmed of attempting a power grab. Moreover, despite the postponement of the general elections, on September 9, 2020, the Tigrayans held regional parliamentary elections in defiance of PM Ahmed, who deemed the elections illegal. Subsequently, federal lawmakers cut funding for Tigrayan leadership, sparking tensions between the Tigrayan regional government and the federal government.
On November 4, 2020, tensions escalated as PM Ahmed ordered a military offensive against TPLF forces in Tigray in response to an alleged attack on a government military base in the region on the morning of November 4, 2020. In early August 2021, fighting spread as the TPLF conquered territories in the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, increasing the amount of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In sum, the civil war in Tigray represents a struggle for sovereignty between the federal government and a regional state.
The Consequences of the Tigray Civil War
The conflict resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region as people have been forced to flee, are killed in massacres, and are subjected to conditions of famine. On June 22, 2021, a single airstrike by the Ethiopian military on a busy marketplace in the town of Togoga in the Tigray region killed at least 64 people, including children. Moreover, according to researchers from Ghent University, by July 2021, at least 10,000 deaths were reported.
The conflict likewise disrupted educational services. On May 28, 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that all parties in the Tigray conflict have been involved in the attacks and occupation of schools since November 2020. Consequently, classrooms were damaged as well as offices and electrical installations, water pipes, and other property. It is estimated that, by March 30, 2021, approximately 25 percent of the schools in Tigray were damaged while many teachers have been forced to flee, resulting in a shortage of learning materials.
Due to the conflict, by May 25, 2021, about 1.7 million people were internally displaced across Tigray and the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara. Those displaced reside in overcrowded collective shelters such as schools and require life-saving food, beddings, access to healthcare services, water, sanitation, and protection. Nonetheless, many sites have not received food distribution since the conflict broke out, particularly those in the Tigray region. On July 2, 2021, Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated in a briefing that over 400,000 people in Tigray suffer from famine while another 1.8 million are on the brink.
As humanitarian workers are targeted, aid is not reaching those in need. For example, on June 24, 2021, three humanitarian workers from Médecins Sans Frontières were murdered in Tigray, only weeks after aid workers from the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) and the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP) were killed on May 29 and April 28 2021.
The civil war has left about 5.2 million people in need and is spreading into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara. Tigrayan forces have stated that they will continue fighting until the federal government ends restrictions imposed on Tigray and withdraws all troops. Furthermore, as the suffering and conflict continue, it is evident that humanitarian efforts must be increased while the safety of aid workers must be assured.