Words by Ewan Vellinga

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned that a “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is developing in Tigray in Ethiopia as thousands of people have been displaced or are fleeing ongoing violence in the region.  

Conflict erupted on 4 November as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TFLP), a political party from Tigray, accusing them of having attacked a federal military installation in the region.

Ahmed stated on 28 November that the war had ended as federal forces took control of the Tigray capital Mekelle, yet Reuters reports quotes TFLP leader Debretsion Gebremichael as saying they will not give up, and that they intend to “fight these invaders to the last.”  

The UNHCR was already calling for “lifesaving assistance” in early November for over 40,000 civilians that have fled into neighbouring Sudan, and stated they were “working flat out to get enough vitally needed assistance to women, children and men in great need.” 

Fears were also raised over the impact on the 100,000 civilians in Tigray who were already displaced, including 96,000 refugees from neighbouring Eritrea, which was in an unresolved war with Ethiopia until a peace settlement in 2018 for which Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  

Al Jazeera quoted UNHCR representative Ann Encontre as saying that although Eritrean refugees mostly live “in harmony” with the local population, “any breakdown of normal life puts those in camps at higher risk, particularly in an area where stocks and access to services are dwindling.” 

Alongside the refugee crisis fears of civilian casualties have also been raised, with both Ahmed and the TPLF having levelled accusations at one another. Notably, an investigation by Amnesty International concluded that “scores, and likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death” in the town of Mai-Kadra on 9 November. 

Both Ahmed and local witnesses have blamed the TPFL for the massacre, which the UN warns could amount to war crimes. According to the BBC, the party has denied the accusations, and have stated that they would be open to an independent international investigation into the event. 

Accusations have also been made against the federal government, with Reuters reporting that the TPLF accused the government of killing nine civilians and injuring many more during an attack on Adrigat, the second largest city in Tigray, on 21 November. 

Notably, the TPLF also claimed that Eritrea aided the federal government in the attack, contributing to fears that the war could grow beyond the region. These were already heightened following confirmation from the TPLF that they fired rockets at the Eritrean capital Asmara on 14 November. 

Tensions between the TPLF and Ahmed have been high for some time. The Guardian has noted that the party, which has held a dominant position in Ethiopian politics since the establishment of a coalition government in 1991, have claimed they have been side-lined since Ahmed’s election in 2018, although he claims that he has simply been attempting to restore law and order and unify Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic population. 

The Guardian also notes that tensions have only worsened since Ahmed announced plans to replace the coalition with his own Prosperity Party, which the TPLF has refused to join, and the postponement of a general election scheduled for 2020 due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.  

Tensions finally broke on 4 November as federal troops launched an offensive into Tigray. News agencies including the BBC and Reuters reported steady gains, with federal forces reportedly taking Tigray’s second largest city Adigrat on 21 November and Mekelle on 29 November.  

Reuters also reported that the federal government had rebuffed calls from both the African Union Bloc and the United Nations to seek a ceasefire and enter talks.   

However, similar to the problems facing aid agencies, who have had difficulty entering Tigray and distributing aid, news agencies have been barred from the region, and alongside issues with phone lines and internet, news from the region has been sparse.

The Addis Standard reported on 20 November that the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority had suspended the Reuter’s press license and sent warning letters to the BBC and DW. As such, it has often been difficult to understand what is happening day-to-day.  

As such, the current situation is difficult to assess, with Sky News noting that, despite Ahmed saying military operations in Tigray have been “completed and ceased”, a clear and decisive end to the conflict is unlikely. The rapidly emerging humanitarian crisis in the region is therefore also unlikely to end soon.

Picture Credit: The Kremlin  

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