A stalemate in Ethiopia’s Tigray War

Three Ethiopian soldiers walking in the desert Three Ethiopian soldiers walking in the desert © Photo by Yuzu2020 on iStock

This article is a brief presentation of Crisis Group’s report “Ethiopia’s Tigray War: a Deadly, Dangerous Stalemate”

Crisis Group is an independent organization devoted to the prevention of conflict, and to shaping policies to promote peace and good governance. The organization directly engages with conflict actors to collect the information necessary to encourage the adoption of peace measures by the belligerents and the international community. Crisis Group’s report provides an overview of the recent developments in the conflict in Tigray, and provides suggestions to the international community about the best steps to undertake in order to cease the fighting and the destruction it causes. 

Hostilities in the Tigray region, located in the northernmost part of Ethiopia, broke out in November 2020 between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the armed forces of the federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, accused by the former of ruling illegitimately. Despite the Prime Minister's declaration of a cessation of hostilities at the end of November, the fighting has continued. To date, a stalemate has been reached due to the impossibility of the two sides to prevail over their adversary. In addition to the afore-mentioned conflict parties, other military forces are involved in the conflict, the region has indeed become a battleground of four different forces. The Tigray Defence Forces, which occupy the rural part of central Tigray as well as some areas in the east and south, are engaged in clashes with the Ethiopian army, which is in control of the towns in the region. The governmental forces are aided by the Amhara regional forces present in western and southern Tigray, and by the Eritrean army which operates in the north-western, central and eastern part of the region. All four belligerent groups, and the Eritrean forces in particular, have been accused by human rights organizations of committing atrocities against civilians, pushing Prime Minister Abiy to request the withdrawal of the Eritrean and Ahmara forces, thanks to pressure by the international community. However, a withdrawal of the latter forces is yet to be achieved as, especially concerning the Ahmara forces, the militias are motivated by territorial gains in the Tigray territory.

The conflict has had a devastating impact on the civilian population, with 4.5 million people in the region in need of food emergency supplies, as reported by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The region has been suffering from chronic food shortages which began before the conflict due to a desert locust invasion, while the fight broke out right around harvest time and it is now impeding ploughing and seeding activities, exposing the population to the risk of mass starvation. On 30 March, the federal government announced that it was delivering food to around 4.2 million people in the region, a massive increase from the 950.000 in need of assistance before the war. Additionally, the conflict has hindered the population’s access to healthcare and other necessary services, causing the disruption of communications, the closure of banks, and the destruction of more than two-thirds of the region’s healthcare facilities. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also denounced the serious violations of international humanitarian law committed against civilians by the belligerent forces, describing them as tantamount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been accused of widespread sexual violence, looting and massacre, while the Amhara forces of deporting inhabitants from the western part of the region. Official data about casualties are not available due to difficulty in accessing the region, but news agencies such as the BBC have communicated that the death toll would amount to 52.000, while more than two millions have been internally displaced in the region. 

Crisis Group called on international actors to take small steps to achieve limited goals that would lead to larger solutions. The organization has urged the international community to press for a pause in the fight that would allow for ploughing and sowing, in light of the arrival of the rainy season in June, to prevent food shortages and mass starvation. Moreover, it has recommended that actors such as the UN, the European Union, and the African Union pressure Prime Minister Abiy to fulfill his pledge to get the Eritrean troops out, facilitate access to humanitarian organizations, and exhort him to abandon the quest of a total victory in the battlefield while instead engage in negotiations with the rebels, a necessary first step for the possibility of a future ceasefire. 



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Author: Carla Leonetti; Editor: Francesca Mencuccini

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