The Horn of Africa is known for its rugged terrain and perpetual humanitarian mayhems. Quite a reality, however, is the recurrent theme of regional conflicts that have seeped within the countries over the decades of escalation. While some ended in negotiation and many were parlayed into diplomatic successes, a handful of conflicts have unrooted the stability of the region. One such crisis is the massacre of Tigray; a northern region of Ethiopia, that has transitioned into one of the bloodiest civil wars in the history of Africa. What started as defiance by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) against the government developed into a bloodbath. In a blink of the eye, the region was rocked by heavy weaponry from all corners: both within and beyond the borders of Ethiopia. The conflict has mounted over 1000 deaths in the span of three months with tens of thousands displaced in utter chaos. However, what appears to be a counter retaliation by the government forces, as so claimed by Ethiopian officials, is only the tip of the iceberg as the roots of the conflict trace back decades and involve a labyrinth of regional and ethnic disparities which have exploded into a genocide in Tigray.
Ethiopia is a landlocked East-African country, the second populous country in Africa. Despite an unstable history, Ethiopia is located in a key location marked as the point of stability in the Horn of Africa. This significance is derived by its geographical positioning in the region: wedged between the trio of Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. Ethiopia has served as a point of buffer between these three unstable countries yet with such a sensitive location, Ethiopia has witnessed its fair share of conflicts over decades. The war with Sudan emerged in 1977 over the disputed region in the north of Ethiopia, where the country borders Sudan. Though by 1998 most of the disputes were resolved, the conflict over the northern periphery of Ethiopia, known as ‘Al-Fashaga’, remained a thorn in the budding relations. Jumping ahead a decade, a key campaign was reached by the coalition government of Ethiopia. The deal was championed by the dominating party of the coalition; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The diplomatic strike bargained the historic compromise between Ethiopia and Sudan: the establishment of a soft border, Ethiopia recognizing the contested region as the legal boundary with Sudan. However, what was celebrated once as a victory is now one of the fuelling causes of the genocide against the TPLF and about 3 million Tigrayans.
Another conflict flaming the deteriorating situation today in northern Ethiopia is the conflict with Eritrea that rattled the region in the penultimate year of the millennial. Unlike the settled arrears of distaste with Sudan, the Ethiopian clash with Eritrea in 1998 was a blood-ridden campaign over the contested land in the north, known as ‘Badme’. The clash costed a cumulative of 80000 deaths, mostly Eritrean soldiers. Despite the rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarding the land to Eritrea, the coalition government led by TPLF refused to withdraw from the contested land which gradually built up the tensions with Eritrea in the north. However, the dismay was not targeted towards Ethiopia in general, but TPLF specifically as the eruption of the civil war allowed the sentiments of the Eritrean army to perforate Tigray in an act to avenge the deaths burgeoning in Eritrea at the command of TPLF.
The external conflicts, however, are only the combusting elements of the escalation in Tigray. The fundamental causes root deep in the historical context of Ethiopia itself. Tigray is a region in the north of Ethiopia, dominated and governed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party in Ethiopia. The TPLF had a triumphant contribution to the liberation movement in Ethiopia since 1989. The TPLF led the coalition movement that eventually came to be known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Diplomatic Front (EPRDF). With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Marxist ideology soon perished and the EPDRF overthrew the dictatorial rule to form a government in Ethiopia in 1991. Being the dominant party of the coalition, the TPLF reigned the harness to both military and diplomatic struggles, some of which irked the internal rivals.
Amhara, the second-largest ethnic majority in Ethiopia, always butted heads with the Tigrayans. Despite the estimated 6% majority of the Tigrayans in Ethiopia, the TPLF enjoyed an oversized majority in the EPRDF coalition which was gradually building a general political dissatisfaction within Ethiopia. Many of the diplomatic turns, including the ‘Soft border agreement’ with Sudan, were cast in the suspicious hue of treason. The grudges and desires surfaced when the EPRDF proposed a country-wide party system to eradicate animosity in Ethiopia. While the TPLF refused to bow down to the inclusive agenda, all the rival parties merged with EPRDF to form the ‘Prosperity Party’, post the accession of the elected prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. In line with his long-term ambition to recalibrate powers in Ethiopia and eradicate federalism churned by the TPLF, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed established the prosperity party while dismembering the TPLF as the only minority party: after almost 3 decades of its political supremacy in Ethiopia.
However, the TPLF put up a fight and demanded elections in Tigray. The requests were shrugged off by the government on the account of Covid restrictions. This was the point of contention that led to escalation. What was reported as a skirmish between the TPLF and the Ethiopian Defence Forces (EDF) was quickly bombarded into warfare in November 2020. The EDF entered Tigray from southern Amhara under the ‘Law and Order Operation’ commandeered by prime minister Abiy Ahmed to crush the TPLF. Over the month, the EDF and the Amhara rebels seized western and southern Tigray while completely shattering the TPLF.
Adding oil to the fire, the Eritrean forces penetrated northern Tigray and massacred thousands of Tigrayans, including some of the leaders of the TPLF. Notably, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for his remarkable feat of establishing peace with long-term foe Eritrea. However, what then came as a commendable effort renditioned in the chaos of the Tigray genocide. Not only did Eritrean forces systematically overpower the TPLF, the forces allegedly colluded with the Ethiopian defence forces to whelm the common enemy. Eritrea successfully reclaimed the long-lost town of Badme and Amhara decimated the TPLF, all whilst wreaking havoc in Tigray.
As the Amhara flag flicker on the land of Tigray, the remnants of the TPLF are nowhere to be found. With many leaders perished and the remaining scattered over neighboring countries, the remaining Tigrayans have no voice to harken for justice. The former deputy prime minister of Ethiopia and president of the TPLF, Mr. Debretsion Gabremicael, accused the Ethiopian government of conducting a ‘Genocidal War’ against the people of Tigray. Whilst, Prime minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over Tigray in late November. Surprisingly enough, the government neither claimed any loss of civilian lives nor admitted to the infiltration of Tigray by Eritrean forces. With thousands butchered to death, the Ethiopian government banned the TPLF in January 2021 and barricaded any source of relief to Tigray.
“All sorts of genocidal acts have been committed in Tigray”, said Mr. Debretsion Gabremicael. Over 60000 Tigrayans have fled the country as the genocide continues in Tigray. Their sole representation is crushed to the ground whilst a complete communication blackout is imposed in the region. The entrapped Tigrayans are subject to grueling gyrations of sexual assault, target killings, and rampant looting. The Tigrayans have repeatedly appealed to the International community to take action against the genocidal tendencies running wild in Ethiopia; urging the regional countries to advocate a resolve before the minority is wiped from existence. With the UN peddling the rights of Tigrayans, countries including the UK have responded strongly to the plea of the Tigrayans. Recently, the United States deemed the genocide as an ‘Ethnic cleansing exercise’. The US secretary state, Antony Blinken, urged both the Eritrean troops and the Ethiopian defense forces to immediately withdraw from Tigray.
However, the brazen remarks of the Ethiopian Foreign minister imply anything but a near-end to the genocide. He rebuked the US secretary state: “It [the US statement] is regrettable. It should be clear that such matters are the sole responsibility of the Ethiopian government and as a sovereign nation, it is our responsibility to deploy the security structures where necessary”. While the US has threatened to sever defense aid to Ethiopia, the famine-like situation of Tigray demands a prompt and congregational action. With blockades of food and health facilities in Tigray, no humanitarian access to the welfare groups and continual oppression of the Tigrayans, immediate action and restoration of the victims is dire and of immediate concern as the situation turns graver by the day.