For a while it appeared as though, with the recapture of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, by forces affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Tigray war had come to an end. However, it soon became clear that hostilities were ongoing at two levels: the battlefield and the humanitarian crisis.
The warfare that erupted in November 2020 between the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), backed by Eritrean army units, and the TPLF precipitated a rapid and widespread deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the Tigray region. Conditions worsened following the ENDF’s bombing of two main bridges there. One of these, the bridge over the Tekeze River, was vital to delivering humanitarian relief. The bridge is located on the 350-B road, the main transportation artery between northern Tigray and the northern portions of the Amhara region. Observers maintain that the destruction of these key bridges is proof of the Ethiopian government’s intent to resort to the “hunger weapon” in its conflict with the TPLF.
Images of captured Ethiopian soldiers being paraded through the streets of Mekelle last week have put paid to the central government’s explanation of the sudden and rapid withdrawal of its forces from the region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed that the witdrawal was tactical in order to give farmers the chance to take advantage of the farming season. It is now clear that the government forces have sustained a debilitating setback and that the army is retaliating by cutting off sources of sustenance and relief. The process reportedly began during the pull-out, when withdrawing forces attacked and plundered humanitarian relief bases, killing 12 staff members. In addition to the destruction of bridges, Addis Ababa has ramped a blockade by banning flights of civilian aircraft to Tigrayan airports, closing off land routes from Afar and Amhara to Tigray, and cutting off electricity and communications systems.
Contrary to Abiy Ahmed’s stated desire to help farmers in the region, agriculture in Tigray has nearly ground to a halt due to continued targeting of that sector. In addition to military attacks against farms, trucks carrying seeds and other agricultural necessities have been prevented from reaching their destinations in northern and central Tigray. Meanwhile, Amhara militias fighting with the government have systematically burned fields in the western parts of the region. As conditions continued to deteriorate, the UN has warned that more than 400,000 people face famine. The US Agency for International Development fears the figure could be as high as 900,000. Samantha Power, the head of the agency, described the latest USAID findings on the humanitarian plight in Tigray as “terrifying.”
The TPLF has indicated that it is ready to agree to a ceasefire in principle, but only under certain conditions. In a statement released on Sunday, it insisted on strict international guarantees that Ethiopian federal forces would not attack the region again and that the remaining Amhara and ENDF forces would withdraw from the Tigrayan areas they control. In addition, there had to be guarantees of unrestricted access of humanitarian relief to the region, the full restoration of electricity, communications and other essential services, and that banks, schools and hospitals could resume activities as normal. The TPLF statement also called for the immediate release of the movement’s detainees, concluding with an appeal for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and the creation of a UN mission to oversee the implementation of any ceasefire agreement and prisoner exchange deals.
On other fronts, there are mounting skirmishes in Oromia between government forces and the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF), especially in western parts of the Welega administrative zone where clashes erupted in April between Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara. OLF forces have focused their attacks primarily on federal police forces in those areas and the police has responded with raids, arrests of OLF members, and summary executions, as occurred with a member of the front in Dembidolo, the capital of the Kelam Welega Zone. The OLF has recently broadened its attacks into parts of the Amhara region north of Oromia, particularly villages to the southwest of Gondar in northern Amhara.
On 1 July, the OLF released a declaration unilaterally establishing the formation of the Oromia Regional National Transitional Government. That this occurred just as the central government was losing control of the Tigray region suggests a certain level of coordination between the OLF and the TPLF. A previous OLF document on this movement’s vision for a comprehensive solution in Ethiopia contained many points in common with the TPLF’s recent statement.
In addition to reinforcing its presence in Oromia, in recent weeks the ENDF has also begun to increase its presence along the borders with Sudan. Mai Kadra, Abdurafi and other towns also located in far western Tigray near the Sudanese borders have become staging points for rapid incursions into Sudanese territory. The most recent incident was a raid against the village of Basanda in the Fashqa region in eastern Sudan.
The increasingly fraught military and security situation formed part of the backdrop to the recent general elections, the sixth time they have been held since the promulgation of the current constitution in 1994 and the first time since Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018. After being delayed for nearly a year due to Covid-19 and other concerns, the elections were held in all but three regions. They were cancelled in Tigray due to security concerns and postponed until September in the Harari and Somali regions. The final results of this round have not yet been declared, but based on conditions affecting the electoral process and other factors, the ruling Prosperity Party is expected to receive the majority of votes in the capital. The Balderas and the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice parties will vie for second place.
The turnout was generally low, with the regions of Oromia, Benishngul and Afar recording the greatest lows. Ethnic violence in several regions in the build-up to the polls and pressures on parties competing with the Prosperity Party, especially those affiliated with the Tigrayan and Oromo peoples such as the OLF and the Oromia Federal Congress parties, contributed to keeping people away from the polls.
The tensions also affected opposition parties close to the ruling party, such as the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, two of whose candidates were killed in Oromia and Amhara. In addition, two candidates of the Amhara National Movement Party were killed in the Amhara and Benishangul regions. Several potential candidates among the opposition had been arrested ahead of the elections. Such conditions led the EU and several other international organisations to refrain from monitoring this year’s polls.
Clampdowns on the opposition in the capital increased following the central government’s loss of control over Mekelle and most of Tigray. Numerous Tigrayan figures were arrested and several journalists were jailed. On 2 July, Ethiopian police raided the office of the independent broadcaster Awlo Media Centre in Addis Ababa, arrested at least 12 of its employees as well as some independent journalists. The move appears to be aimed at silencing voices that might stir trouble by focusing on the recent defeat of government forces in Tigray, a military debacle likely to have a profound impact on the Ethiopian federal system, especially in the light of mounting secessionist calls from northern and western regions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly