After Addis Ababa declared a ceasefire in June in the ongoing conflict between the central government in Ethiopia and the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) continued to advance, taking several key towns.
The Ethiopian government has now issued a warning that it will deploy its “entire defensive capability” in response, going against the ceasefire terms and representing a significant escalation.
Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa news editor and senior research fellow at King’s College London in the UK, said that Ethiopian “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has deployed the Ethiopian army against the Tigrayans. Now he’s mobilising ethnic militia” as well.
However, he said the TPLF was highly effective, and Addis Ababa’s initiatives were unlikely to succeed.
The US and UN-affiliated aid agencies are pressing the TPLF to withdraw its forces from the Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia amid alarming reports about the displacement of thousands of people and the hindering of humanitarian aid.
Tigrayan forces pushing south and west into the Amhara region have displaced about 200,000 people and another 54,000 in the Afar region to the east, according to UN statements.
The UN also said that around 400,000 people are living in famine conditions in Tigray, and more than 90 per cent of the population needs emergency food aid.
The dire humanitarian situation is being exacerbated by the government’s halting of aid charities working in the region, including the Norwegian Refugee Council and Médecins sans Frontières, as part of a blockade Ethiopia’s government has imposed on Tigray.
“In early May 2021, a CNN investigative report revealed Eritrean troops actively blocking aid convoys heading to Tigray towns. There were also credible reports that the Ethiopian government and the Amhara state militia were blocking and obstructing humanitarian access to Tigray, using starvation as a method of warfare, a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2417 that prohibits parties to a conflict from using food as a means of warfare,” said Esayas Hailemariam, a legal scholar based in California in the US.
TPLF rebels took control of Lalibela on Friday, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Amhara region, with this being considered another escalation by the Ethiopian government. It announced that it would launch an offensive as a response.
The latest escalations complicate the conflict that broke out in November after Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed sent government forces to the northern region of Tigray.
Hailemariam said that chances of a negotiated ceasefire were now “slim, although not impossible”.
“First, the central government that declared a ‘unilateral ceasefire’ is still spearheading a proxy war against Tigray using mainly the Amhara state militia, and Tigray is unlikely to compromise on its demands, which include seven preconditions for a ceasefire,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Second, humanitarian access per se isn’t the cause, but the result of the war, and the underlying political and legal issues haven’t been resolved amicably. Third, the people of Tigray felt betrayed when Ahmed breached the social contract and invited a foreign country [Eritrea] in that then committed horrendous crimes against Tigray civilians.”
“The Tigray forces don’t see a plausible reason to lose the momentum or military victories against the Addis Ababa regime that resorted to extra-constitutional ways to resolve legal issues [the Amhara-Tigray border dispute] and chose war over dialogue to answer political questions,” he added.
The Ethiopian government is also accused of committing atrocities against the Tigrayan forces. Six bodies were found floating down the river separating Ethiopia’s Tigray region from Sudan this week, in addition to another 50 bodies found over the past two weeks in the Tekeze River.
“Tigrayans in western Tigray are being hunted down and put in concentration camps, and many are believed to have been killed by Amhara paramilitary organisations allied with the government. In what appears to be a repeat of the Rwanda genocide, dozens of slain Tigrayans, some bound and showing signs of obvious trauma, have been found floating in the Tekeze River just downstream from Humera,” said Gebrehiwot Abera, a researcher at KU Leuven in Belgium.
“Accompanying these news reports have been ghastly photographs and videos of the decomposing bodies of these victims shared by observers present on the ground in Sudan,” Abera told the Weekly.
“Ethnic profiling and the harassment of Tigrayans by the government have become more pronounced and taken on more punitive dimensions in the aftermath of the government’s military losses in Tigray, including raids on homes without warrants, arrests and detentions without charge, enforced disappearances, and the closures of Tigrayan-owned businesses.”
The grinding Ethiopian war against Tigray is ushering in the “potential collapse of the Ethiopian state,” Plaut told the Weekly.
“The way forward is to open negotiations and consider how best to reform Ethiopia in a way that gives Tigrayans a stake in its future once more. The alternative is deepening chaos and ethnic strife,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly