Taking stock of the Ethiopia – Eritrea – Tigray war
The war is now entering its sixth week, but shows no signs of abating.
This is clearly not the “law-enforcement operation” described by Prime Minister Abiy.
On November 6, Abiy wrote that “operations by federal defense forces underway in Northern Ethiopia have clear, limited and achievable objectives.”
Rather it is a full-scale war, involving the Ethiopian federal forces and Amhara militia, together with the Eritrean army who have combined to attack the Tigrayan forces.
The latest assessment from EEPA indicate heavy fighting in many parts of Tigray, with fierce attacks from air and from land.
This is accompanied by ethnic discrimination, attacks and loss of jobs for Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian towns and villages.
Perhaps the most terrible fate has befallen the 96,000 Eritrean refugees who were in four UNHCR refugee camps in Tigray when the war broke out. Others were living in Ethiopian towns as ordinary civilians.
More than 10,000 are reported to have been forcibly returned to Eritrea, where they face imprisonment, torture and worse.
What changed in the past week?
The international community (and the West in particular) appears to have lost patience with Prime Minister Abiy and now openly question his narrative and the denials of the Eritreans that they are not involved.
The fate of the Eritrean refugees has also been highlighted.
- The United States now believes reports of Eritrean military involvement in the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are “credible,” a State Department spokesperson told Reuters on Thursday, despite denials by both nations. The spokesperson called on any Eritrean soldiers there to pull out. This is a very different tone from that which was used by the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy on 19 November which made no mention of Eritrean involvement.
- Pressure is growing in the United States for further action. Two U.S. senators have called on their government to consider imposing sanctions on any political or military officials found responsible for human rights violations during a month of conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
- The UNHCR is increasingly concerned about the fate of the 96,000 Eritrean refugees who were in its camps in Tigray – and is saying so openly. This is a statement from the UN Refugee Commissioner, Filippo Grandi: “I am deeply alarmed about the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, who have been caught in the conflict in the Tigray region. For over a month, UNHCR and humanitarian partners have had no access to the four Eritrean refugee camps inside Tigray, putting the safety and survival of the refugees at great risk…To find safety and basic means of survival, many Eritrean refugees are fleeing the camps to locations both within Tigray and other regions of Ethiopia. We have met with some who managed to reach Addis Ababa. It is vital that Eritrean refugees be able to move to safe locations, and receive protection and assistance wherever possible, including outside of Tigray, given the traumatic events they report to have witnessed or survived.”
- The International Organisation for Migration found – to its horror – that one of its offices at Bole airport in Addis Ababa was being used to hold Eritreans who had reached the capital, before being forcibly returned to Tigray. The IOM said: ” IOM has had no management authority, oversight or involvement in any activities undertaken by the authorities in the centre since that time. IOM does not under any circumstances conduct the forced return of migrants and refugees. The Organization’s approach to return assistance for migrants relies on the pillars of protection, human rights and voluntariness and in full respect of International Law.”
- The European Union and European Commission issued a joint statement condemning the treatment of Eritrean refugees. “The EU joins the call of the UNHCR to ensure the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, who have been caught in the conflict in the Tigray region. All refugees must be protected from harm and any act of refoulement or forced return should be prevented, in accordance with international refugee, human rights and humanitarian law. Any return must be safe, voluntary and dignified. We urge parties to the conflict to allow and facilitate immediate, unhindered and unrestricted humanitarian access to all affected areas, in full respect of the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.”
The war in Tigray is one of many ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia
Among these are the tensions between the Prime Minister and the Oromo – Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
As Alex Last wrote:
“This year, Mr Abiy has turned against the Oromo youth movement that brought him to power. After the killing of the Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa, more than 150 people died in riots and Mr Abiy clamped down and imprisoned upwards of 10,000 people. Among them are Jawar Mohamed, founder of the Oromo Media Network, who faces terrorism charges. Another is veteran opposition leader Lidetu Ayalew who remains in prison despite a court ordering his release. Armed gangs calling themselves the Oromo Liberation Army killed more than 50 Amhara villagers in Wollega district two weeks ago. Mr Abiy blamed “Ethiopia’s enemies” determined to “rule or ruin the country” – code words for the TPLF. His power base is among a mostly Amhara political elite that wants to abolish the federal system in favour of a unitary government system.”
It is worth pointing out that the International Organisation for Migration reported on 15th of September 2020 – before the war in Tigray – that the number of Ethiopians who had been forced to flee their homes was immense: “The primary cause of displacement: conflict, which has resulted in 1,233,557 IDPs across this country.”
What lies ahead?
What began as a “policing operation” against the Tigrayan leadership on 4th November looks increasingly like the guerilla war that the Ethiopian military became bogged down in between 1974 – 1991.
As the war in Tigray continues, and the involvement of a foreign power – Eritrea – becomes increasingly obvious, many Ethiopians may come to question why their children are being sent to fight and die in the mountains of Tigray.
This is likely to be a long and bitter conflict – which threatens the integrity of the Ethiopian state, and the wider Horn of Africa.