The Tigray Crisis
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The war in Tigray began on 4 November 2020 when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) took control of the Ethiopian government’s military bases. In response, the government attacked local Tigrayan forces which caused thousands of deaths, the displacement of over 2 million people, and regional destruction.
This guide aims at explaining how the conflict originated, why there is tension between the government and TPLF, and what the future might hold.
The origin of the war
The war between the TPLF and the federal government is a result of increased tensions for years between the two. Ethiopia has regional governments, and Prime Minister Abiy’s goal was to unify the country under a democratic system that strengthened the federal government’s role over regional governments. However, Prime Minister Abiy faced social and economic challenges as he tried to transition Ethiopia towards democracy.
Prime Minister Abiy ordered the attack on November 4th after accusing the TPLF of stealing government military equipment such as artillery. The war in Tigray further increased ethnic tensions and divisions, causing a humanitarian crisis where 4.5 million out of 7 million people in Tigray needed assistance. The conflict is also affecting the country’s neighbours like Sudan and Eritrea, threatening to destabilise the whole region. But how is this conflict affecting other countries?
The effects of the Tigray war
The conflict is creating instability that Ethiopia and its neighbours are suffering from. In addition, the ban of journalists and restricted communication has made it more difficult to gather enough information to paint an accurate picture of the conditions in the region. There are an estimated 60,000 people who fled to Sudan and 2.2 million who fled their Tigrayan homes as of early January. This humanitarian crisis has alarmed international aid groups who reported severe food shortages, water, and medicine. These international aid groups fear that if the restricted entry to Tigray continues, the crisis will grow worse.
The conflict had Eritrea involved in the war early on. The Eritrean military fired artillery at TPLF forces, as well as sent troops into Tigray, which introduced the region to one of the worst human rights violations the region had ever witnessed by bringing destruction to refugee camps and sexually assaulting the inhabitants. This caused the TPLF to retaliate by firing rockets at “major airports” in Eritrea.
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia wasn’t always warm, but Abiy helped thaw relations once he became Prime Minister which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Although the Eritrean involvement is clear, the Ethiopian government denied Eritrean involvement in the conflict.
The United States’ response
The relationship between the US and Ethiopia is decades long. Both have had close relations in terms of fighting regional terrorism. However, the cooperation between Ethiopia's Abiy and Eritrea’s Isaias is wounding Abiy’s reputation as a peacemaker.
The Biden administration has called for immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopian territories, the protection of the civilians and refugees, and stopping any future violence from occurring again. In addition, US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged for a peaceful solution in the region of conflict to stop further violations of human rights.
While the US wants to re-enter the international scene as a defender of human rights, it might not be so easy. The Biden administration is trying to put an end to this conflict, but at the same time, it doesn’t want to attack the Ethiopian government in any way that would harm the relationship between the two, especially since Ethiopia is considered the “backbone” of the African Union that helped create peacekeeping forces that quelled the resurgence of Islamist armed group al-Shabab in Somalia.
What the future might hold
The region requires humanitarian aid to help millions of people affected by the conflict. There are an estimated 3 million people who need food assistance. The head of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies said that the city of Mekelle, a city in Tigray, heavily lacked medical supplies, and feared “rising levels of serious malnutrition”. The situation is so bad, it led to many people in unsupported refugee camps to eat tree bark and drink dirty water.
The region experienced destroyed mosques, churches, refugee camps, and other buildings. The Ethiopian government said they’d rebuild the mosques and churches, but the region needs more than that. Elections were supposed to take place in August 2020, but were delayed due to the pandemic, causing more tension since the current government’s term was over months ago.
Many are worried about the ongoing humanitarian crisis. With continued restricted entry to the region, restricted aid, and lack of basic needs, the situation could become even worse. To help reverse the effects of the conflict on locals, the Tigrayans need food, water, and medical assistance, and this can only happen if restrictions are lifted and access is granted so aid groups can provide the necessary help.
For more information on this topic, head over to our section on Foreign Affairs.