The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region explained02:05
(CNN)When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, he was lauded as a regional peacemaker. Now, he is presiding over a protracted civil war that by many accounts bears the hallmarks of genocide and has the potential to destabilize the wider Horn of Africa region.
In November, Abiy ordered a military offensive in the northern Tigray region and promised that the conflict would be resolved quickly. Eight months on, the fighting has left thousands dead, forced more than 1.7 million to flee, fueled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities.
Ethiopia was struggling with significant economic, ethnic and political challenges long before a feud between Abiy and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), bubbled over into unrest. The war is the culmination of escalating tensions between the two sides, and the most dire of several recent ethno-nationalist clashes in Africa’s second-most populous country.
Since the conflict began, Ethiopia’s government has clamped down on communications and media, effectively sealing off Tigray. Against that murky backdrop, it has often been challenging to understand what is going on in the region.
Here’s a closer look at the crisis.
An Ethiopian refugee prays at an Orthodox church near a refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 6, 2020.
The Tigray conflict has its roots in tensions that go back generations in Ethiopia.
The country is made up of 10 regions — and two cities — that have a substantial amount of autonomy, including regional police and militia. Because of a previous conflict with neighboring Eritrea, there are also a large number of federal troops in Tigray. Regional governments are largely divided along entrenched ethnic lines.
Abiy came to power in 2018 promising to break those divisions. He formed a new national party but the TPLF refused to join, in part because the coalition diminished the influence of the TPLF in government — a dominance that had lasted since the early 1990s.
Tigrayan leaders accused Abiy of excluding Ethiopia’s ethnically-based regions in his bid to consolidate power, and withdrew to their mountainous heartland in the north, where they continued to control their own regional government.
Tensions boiled over in September, when the Tigrayans defied Abiy by going ahead with regional parliamentary elections that he had delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy called the vote illegal and lawmakers cut funding to the TPLF leadership, setting off a tit-for-tat series of escalations between the regional and the federal government.
On November 4, after accusing the TPLF of attacking a federal army base outside Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle and attempting to steal its weapons, Abiy ordered a military assault against the group, sending in national troops and fighters from the neighboring region of Amhara, along with soldiers from Eritrea.
Abiy declared the offensive a success after just three weeks when government forces took over Mekelle, and installed an interim administration loyal to Addis Ababa.
A damaged tank on a road north of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, on February 26
What atrocities have been committed?
For months at the start of the conflict, Abiy denied that civilians were being harmed or that soldiers from Eritrea had joined the fight.
But reports from international observers, human rights groups and CNN proved both of those claims wrong.
Thousands of people have died in the fighting, by many estimates, with reports of razed refugee camps, looting, sexual violence, massacres and extrajudicial killings. Many more have fled to Sudan, in what the United Nations has called the worst exodus of refugees from Ethiopia seen in two decades. They describe a disastrous conflict that’s given rise to ethnic violence.
Ethiopia’s government has severely restricted access to journalists, and a state-enforced communications blackout concealed events in the region, making it challenging to gauge the extent of the crisis or verify survivors’ accounts.
But evidence of atrocities began to leak out earlier this year.
Tigrayans grieve by a mass grave in the city of Wukro, north of Mekele, on February 28, 2021.
Separate investigations by CNN and Amnesty International in February uncovered evidence of massacres carried out by Eritrean forces in the Tigrayan towns of Dengelat and Axum late last year.
Another CNN investigation published Sunday revealed new details of a massacre committed by Ethiopian soldiers in the Tigrayan town of Mahibere Dego in January. The report identified one the perpetrators of the massacre, geolocated human remains to the site of the attack.
In an exclusive report from Tigray in April, CNN captured Eritrean troops — some disguising themselves in old Ethiopian military uniforms — operating with total impunity in central Tigray, manning checkpoints and blocking vital humanitarian aid to starving populations more than a month after Abiy pledged to the international community that they would leave.
All actors in the conflict have been accused of carrying out atrocities, but Eritrean forces have been linked to some of the most gruesome. In addition to perpetrating mass killings and rape, Eritrean soldiers have also been found blocking and looting food relief in multiple parts of Tigray.
Eritrea’s government has denied any involvement in atrocities. Ethiopia’s government has pledged investigations into any wrongdoing.
The conflict, which erupted during the autumn harvest season following the worst invasion of desert locusts in Ethiopia in decades, plunged Tigray even further into severe food insecurity and the deliberate blockade of food risks mass starvation, a report by the World Peace Foundation warned.
The UN World Food Programme warned in June that 5.2 million people — 91% of people living in the region — were in need of emergency food assistance due to the conflict.
How did Abiy win the Nobel Peace Prize?
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed campaigns in Jimma on June 16, 2021.
Less than a year before Abiy launched an assault on his own people, he described war as “the epitome of hell” during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the honor for his role in ending a long-running conflict with neighboring Eritrea and for pushing significant reforms in Ethiopia.
Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia, but won independence in 1993 after a 30-year armed struggle. From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war that killed thousands on both sides, which led to a long, dangerous stalemate and a total freeze in cooperation.
Once in power, Abiy moved quickly to normalize relations with Eritrea, in part by accepting the ruling of an international commission on boundaries between the two states.
Abiy also made significant moves towards domestic reforms, raising hopes that he would bring about lasting change. As well as forging a truce with Eritrea, he lifted a severe security law, released thousands of political prisoners, moved to open up the telecommunications industry and expand private investment.
But his reputation as a leader who could unite Ethiopia has swiftly deteriorated. And his much-lauded peace deal with Eritrea appears to have paved the way for the two countries to go to war with their mutual foe — the TPLF.
Despite promises to heal ethnic divides and pave the way for a peaceful, democratic transition, Abiy has increasingly invoked the playbook of repressive regimes: Shutting down internet and telephone services, arresting journalists, suppressing critics and failing to hold a credible election.
What’s happening now?
Eight months since the conflict began and seven months after Ethiopian forces seized the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, Tigrayan forces took it back this week, sweeping into the city as Ethiopian troops retreated.
In the wake of Mekelle’s capture, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire for several months. But on Tuesday, Tigrayan forces categorically ruled out a truce, with a spokesman for the TPLF saying their forces would not rest until the Ethiopian military and its allied forces, including Eritrean troops, had left the entire region.
Ethiopia’s government has claimed that its military could re-enter the Tigray capital at any time if they needed to. “It was a political decision, not a military one,” Redwan Hussein, a spokesperson for the government’s taskforce on Tigray, said in a televised press conference on Wednesday.
Voters queue outside a polling station in Addis Ababa on June 21.
Abiy also held long-delayed national and regional elections in mid-June, though millions of Ethiopians could not cast their ballots due to widespread ethnic violence in several areas of the country — and in Tigray, no vote was held at all. While Abiy was expected to win the vote amid an opposition boycott, the US State Department said it was “gravely concerned about the environment.”
“The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media … and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process,” the statement said.
What is the international response?
As the war and its impact on civilians deepens, world leaders have voiced their concern about the role of Eritrean forces in exacerbating what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to spokesperson Ned Price, has described as a “growing humanitarian disaster.”
The State Department recently announced visa restrictions for Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials and the Biden administration has imposed wide-ranging restrictions on economic assistance to the country.
But it is not clear whether efforts by the US and other countries to force Ethiopia’s hand have made much of a difference.
Price said Tuesday that the unilateral ceasefire in Tigray “could be a positive step if it results in changes on the ground to end the conflict,” and reiterated the call for Eritrean forces to leave the region.
He also called for the Ethiopian authorities “to immediately restore telecommunication services in Tigray and permit unhindered freedom of movement for and ensure the safety and security of humanitarian organization personnel.”
“Our paramount priority is addressing the dire humanitarian situation,” Price added, underlining the plight of “an estimated 900,000 people likely already experiencing famine conditions.”