Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault & Violence
A woman was dragged out from her village in Tigray, tied up in a military base, and gang-raped over several months. Thousands of women have, since then, been raped and sexually assaulted in the name of ethnic cleansing and “purifying the bloodlines of Tigrayan women''. Testimony in a USAID study revealed that a woman and five others were gang-raped by more than 30 troops, as the soldiers laughed and took photos.
Ethiopians have become accustomed to ethnic violence and sectarian conflict. A largely agrarian society, Ethiopia’s gradual shift of power comes at a time when its historically interventionist government was set to change. After ending a war spanning decades with its neighbour Eritrea, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, only to spark one of Ethiopia’s worst crises – an all-out civil war.
Tigray, the northernmost regional state in Ethiopia, has been a centre for violence, conflicts, and famines in the past, but when the country was expected to witness peace, it slipped into an escalating war, consequently destabilizing the entire region.
Ethiopia, a country that has long witnessed ethnic violence and regional discontent, is now at war with its own. The Tigray People's Liberation Front, or the TPLF, which once ruled Ethiopia, is presently fighting the country’s federal government. Established in 1975, the TPLF went from rebels to rulers and back. Labelled as an ethnic nationalist paramilitary, this political party turned rebel group has long been at the heart of violence and conflicts. Additionally, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC), a digital intelligence repository and analytic resource, even declared the TPLF as a terrorist group based on violent acts and conflicts dating back to 1976.
Back in November 2020, the Ethiopian Armed Forces announced a decisive victory in Tigray and claimed complete control over its regional capital of Mekelle, earlier held by the TPLF, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an offensive in the state, later promising that the conflict would end soon. Eight months on, the war continues to shake the country.
Africa’s second-most populous nation had witnessed a steady decline in ethnicity-based violence and religious clashes over the past decade, with security forces and the government promptly acting to stabilize tensions. However, this war between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s government has sparked the most gruesome ethnic-nationalist clashes across the country’s nine kilil (states). The Ethiopian government even roped in neighbouring Eritrea in the conflict, since Tigray and Eritrea share a border.
Over the past several weeks, the Tigray People's Liberation Front has successfully recaptured a majority of its state. This soon prompted its neighbouring Amhara region to announce its stance against the TPLF and launched an offensive. This escalation continues to cripple the country and cause a nationwide humanitarian crisis – one of the worst the country has ever suffered. This could have been a direct result of the Prime Minister’s abrupt order to retreat all of its government forces from Tigray followed by the announcement of a ceasefire – which soon ended, causing havoc in the region.
"Amhara militia and special forces have been systematically trying to defend but now our patience has run out and as of today we have opened an offensive attack." Amhara spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh
With the fall of its socialist military dictatorship in the 1990s, Ethiopia witnessed a political transition. The biggest change brought during this period was the establishment of a federal government that was centred on ethnolinguistic identities and a new constitution governing the country. This, however, still failed to usher in a healthy democracy. The new system brought in multiparty governance and elections but did not ensure the protection of individual and community rights in Ethiopia.
A Humanitarian Crisis
Human rights is another issue the country has had a conflict with for numerous decades. After the 2005 elections, brutal use of security forces and mass detention of civilians and activists have long threatened the rightful application of human rights in the country. The Human Rights Watch reported that the federal police, with support from militias and other local officials, have long punished rural communities who voted for the opposition and crushed dissent in the country, including restrictions on fertilizers and seeds.
Sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, and looting have seen a dramatic rise in the region since the current conflict began, as reported by CNN. Additionally, Amnesty International also discovered evidence of the Eritrean military’s atrocities in the Tigrayan towns of Dengelat and Axum late last year. Several reports of the Ethiopian army conducting massacres across the Tigrayan state have also been released, causing a need for urgent international attention. According to reports released by the University of Ghent in Belgium, at least 10,000 fatalities and more than 230 massacres have been documented in Tigray since the conflict began.
Although the Eritrean government denied any involvement, CNN found Eritrean troops disguising themselves in old Ethiopian military uniforms and “operating with total impunity in central Tigray”. Furthermore, checkpoints and borders were also blocked, restricting access to vital humanitarian aid.
Last year, when millions of people across the world diverted their attention to the US Presidential elections in November, more than two million people fled their homes, while more than 60,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring Sudan, following the Ethiopian government’s crackdown. The war reached an alarming stage, but the world let it slide.
According to the UN World Food Programme, 91% of the region’s population – around 5.2 million people – were in dire need of humanitarian and food assistance. After an all-out media blackout and insurgency in the region, international actors have been blocked from reporting and surveying the war. However, Eyder Peralta, NPR's (National Public Radio, an American non-profit media organization) East Africa correspondent, made it to Tigray and discovered astonishing levels of human suffering.
“Here in Mekelle, the signs of war are everywhere. Displaced people gather at churches. Soldiers with big guns guard government offices and strategic positions in what was once the rebel capital. And every school has seemingly become a refugee camp. One of them has become a safe house for women who have been raped during this war. It used to be a nursery, so the walls are painted with bright cartoon characters. Children once ran through these halls, filling it with laughter, but now it's heavy with misery”, said Peralta in an interview.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described this situation as a "growing humanitarian disaster." Additionally, the US State Department has issued visa restrictions for Eritrean and Ethiopian government leaders, while the Biden administration has placed broad limitations on economic aid to the two countries.
Reports suggesting the involvement of Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces, along with Tigray People’s Liberation Front-linked groups, in war crimes and atrocities spanning months of brutal violence, escalate concerns over the region’s future. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, when responding to such reports, acknowledged them, but dismissed several facts and blamed the “propaganda of exaggeration.”
An Unstable Sub-continent
The Ethiopian crisis is predicted to have far-reaching effects in the sub-continent. With tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries; this civil war could destabilize the entire Horn of Africa and possibly erupt a war between nations.
Ethiopia’s rivals in the region look at this crisis as an opportunity. As of July 2020, Ethiopia completed the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River, which would impede the flow of water. Egypt heavily criticised this dam as it viewed it as an “existential threat”. Since then, Egypt has been growing its military reach in the Horn of Africa, as well as its regional diplomacy, as a way of countering Ethiopia.
Eritrea’s supposed growing involvement in the crisis could potentially lead to problems for Ethiopia. With a growing military presence, Eritrea has already entered Ethiopian borders as suggested by several reports. The United Arab Emirates maintains a few military bases in Eritrea. According to the JamesTown Foundation, it is possible that UAE “may also be aiding Abiy Ahmed’s government”. This comes at a time when the UAE is locked in a cold war with Turkey, one of Ethiopia's biggest military allies.
All of this has the potential to spark a war among the involved nations, while each one defends its interests and allies in the region. To further complicate the situation, China has invested billions of dollars in several economic sectors in Ethiopia over the years. Therefore, according to various media agencies, it is possible for China to involve itself in the situation to protect its investments.
From building railways to roads via its controversial Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), China’s economic investments in Ethiopia have helped transform one of the world’s poorest nations into one of the world’s leading economies. Apart from Ethiopia, China has poured billions of dollars in the Horn of Africa, given the region’s prime location – a crucial oil route that runs all the way to the Suez Canal. Even during the Cold War, Ethiopia and Somalia were targeted by both the United States and the Soviet Union and were used as bases for proxy wars. The Horn of Africa is of immense strategic importance for the world’s superpowers, and it will be kept under control, one way or the other.
Ethiopia is a large, powerful country with the necessary resources at its disposal. Yet, as hundreds of thousands of people now live under famine conditions in the country, the escalating war reaches stages of irreparable damage. The ongoing civil war brings the country to the brink of collapse, with the Ethiopian government pulling all of its resources to fight off its enemies, both at home and abroad. The humanitarian crisis in the country is dire and has the possibility of spilling out of Ethiopia’s borders. An urgent international effort to control the situation is vital.
Image Credits: Reuters / The Economist / Al Jazeera / The Washington Post / France 24 / FairPlanet / Foreign Policy / Vox / Africa Portal / The Washington Post / PRI.org
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