VILONIA, Arkansas — Although the war in Ukraine has monopolized news headlines since February 2022, another conflict in the other half of the world has been raging for over a year. A civil war between the Ethiopian government headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) started in November 2020. After over a year of the war, leaving millions displaced and thousands dead, both parties have asserted their desire for peaceful negotiations to find an end to the Tigray war.
Who, What, Where and Why? A Background to the Tigray War
Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, is the second-most populous nation on the African continent. With over 80 different ethnic groups speaking as many languages, Ethiopia is structured around the notion of ethnic federalism. This system involves the structuring of federated regional or state units based on ethnicity, allowing for large ethnic groups to maintain local self-governance while also guaranteeing representation in the overarching national government. Ethiopia consists of 9 distinct regional ethnic states and two city-states; Tigray in the northernmost part of Ethiopia, is one of these regional ethnic states.
Although Tigrayans make up only around 7% of the nation’s population, a group called the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has maintained wide-scale control of the Ethiopian government since 1991. Created as a rebel militia group in the 1970s, TPLF later became the dominating political leadership group. Through the leadership of TPLF supported by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia experienced significant economic development and stability.
In 2018, this long-running political domination of the TPLF came to an end with the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Despite being a former TPLF officer himself, Abiy quickly removed Tigrayan officials from office, charging some with corruption or human rights abuses in order to justify his extermination of the existing government, according to The New York Times.
After postponing Ethiopia’s 2020 elections and extending his own presidency under the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the TPLF had had enough. A month later, Tigray leaders rebelled against Abiy’s orders and held regional elections in September, warning that they would consider any federal intervention by Abiy or his government as a “declaration of war.”
Outraged, Abiy and his cabinet accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp and declared a state of emergency, deploying troops to the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, to target TPLF leaders, officially starting the Tigray War.
What is Happening in Ethiopia?
Since the deployment of troops to Mekelle in 2020, countless people lost their lives and numerous human rights violations took place, on both sides. Terrifying reports from the country have detailed sexual violence against women and girls and mass executions of captured civilians, including what human rights organizations assert is ethnic cleansing of Tigrayan citizens. The war restricted humanitarian aid efforts severely, resulting in less than 10% of aid sent to the Tigray region making it through the Ethiopian government’s blockades, according to The New York Times.
Over the duration of the 16-month-long civil war, the health system in Ethiopia has almost entirely collapsed. Between bombings, the looting of medical supplies and the forced departure of medical professionals, only 40 of the 224 medical facilities in Tigray are operational. In addition to this, the Ethiopian government suspended the majority of humanitarian aid organizations devoted to providing medical care in the region, like Doctors Without Borders (DWB). DWB was very vocal about the intentional targeting of medical facilities in the Tigray region prior to its suspension. Three of DWB’s employees have died as a result of the conflict, Devex reports.
In addition to these human rights violations, the Tigray War has created a massive refugee crisis. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, this conflict has set a world record in 2021 for displacements in a single year. According to The New York Times, the war forced over 2 million people out of their homes during this 16-month-long conflict.
Only exacerbating this refugee crisis is widespread, man-made famine. By intentionally destroying seeds and crops and preventing farmers from planting, the Ethiopian government has created a famine unlike any in the world. A staggering 5.2 million people in northern Ethiopia alone are facing serious starvation and lack basic necessities.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel?
After 16 months of conflict, it seems as though the Tigray War may be winding down. Although the country is still bitterly divided and its citizens continue to suffer violence and famine, much of the fighting has slowed. In January 2022, reports stating the Ethiopian government is willing to negotiate with the TPLF began circulating. In fact, it formed a committee to negotiate peace with Tigray forces as Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen asserted the Ethiopian government is “committed to peace be it with TPLF or any other entity who seeks peace,” CNN reports.
Additionally, the Ethiopian government has also begun to allow some humanitarian aid into the country, restoring the work license to Doctors Without Borders (DWB) in November 2021, according to Devex. The government suspended DWB for the supposed spreading of misinformation about the conflict in Ethiopia.
DWB has asserted that it is “attempting to restart activities” such as the mobile health clinics for people the war impacted that were in place prior to their three-month suspension, Devex reports. “Aid flights to Tigray have increased: 210 metric tons of medical & nutrition supplies arrived since December,” wrote USAID’s Samantha Power on her Twitter.
Abiy also released several political prisoners in January, The New York Times reports. These actions show the willingness of the Ethiopian government to at least negotiate with the TPLF, although it remains unclear how these negotiations will develop.
While this is incredible, the situation still needs more work. Road access for aid trucks, the only real way to distribute this aid to those who need it most, is still mostly blocked. Even though the government allowed DWB to return to the country, it still suspends other humanitarian aid organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council, according to Devex. These actions to re-allow humanitarian aid back into the country are only small steps towards the goal of peace.
Movement president Debrestion Gebremichael has also affirmed the TPLF is “prepared to negotiate for peace consistent with fundamental principles for human rights, democracy and accountability,” according to CNN. He also stresses the necessity of the involvement of external nations and partners in the mediation of this peace process, citing Kenya, the United States and the United Arab Emirates along with the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations.
Although these actions are by no means initiative of a guaranteed, peaceful end to the Tigray War, they prove a step in the right direction to peace. As of June 15, both parties have asserted their willingness to negotiate and according to Prime Minister Abiy, as soon as the committee submits a report and the TPLF their preconditions, peace negotiations will begin. It is the hope of many organizations and nations worldwide that externally mediated peace talks will help find an amicable compromise in the coming months of negotiations.
– Bryn Westby