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Making Sense of Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict

The United Nations is calling the three-week-old conflict in Ethiopia “a full-scale humanitarian crisis.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thousands of refugees are fleeing ongoing violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia every day.

More than 40,000 men, women, and children have already crossed the border into Sudan, since fighting and air attacks first erupted on November 4. No one knows if the conflict’s casualties are in the hundreds or thousands.

The current outbreak of violence, like so many ongoing conflicts around the world, has deep roots. After taking power in 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed adopted democratic reforms and negotiated the end of the country’s war with neighboring Eritrea, earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. He also helped dismantle the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled the country for nearly 30 years.

Photo by Jasmine Halki/Flickr, February 2015, Ethiopia

A coalition of ethnically based political parties, EPRDF was dominated by the Tigray People's Liberation Front. It’s important to note, according to NPR, “Tigrayans make up about six percent of Ethiopia's population.”

Since being sidelined by Abiy, leaders of the TPLF returned to northern Ethiopia. But Abiy has accused them of attempting to destabilize Ethiopia, accusations TPLF has denied.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems in Ethiopia. Abiy was supposed to lead the country through its first real, democratic elections over the summer, but he postponed the vote because of the novel coronavirus. A new date has not been set, although Ethiopian authorities recently proposed holding elections in May or June 2021. But TPLF believed the delay was unconstitutional, and held their own regional elections. Both sides are now pointing the finger, calling the other illegitimate.

On Monday, Ethiopian federal forces said they were surrounding the Tigray region's capital, and issued a 72-hour ultimatum to surrender. If they do not lay down their arms, says the government, TPLF will face a final assault in Mekelle, home to roughly 500,000 people.

Photo by GovernmentZA/Flickr January 2020, South Africa

But TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael refuted the government’s remarks, saying the town was not encircled. Rather, the government troops were trying to buy time after defeats on three fronts. Since communication lines are down the in the conflict zone, none of these statements have been verified.

Regardless of who has the upper hand in the conflict now, experts worry about the potential loss of life, the deepening humanitarian crisis as the numbers of refugees swell amid a global pandemic, and the risk of this internal crisis spilling over and impacting the entire region.

Regional and world leaders are calling for a ceasefire, urging the two sides to sit down at the negotiating table, but to little avail.

Three former presidents have been sent by the African Union to act as envoys, but the Ethiopian authorities dismissed the possibility of mediation.

According to government spokesman Redwan Hussein, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed to meet the envoys, but said that negotiating with the TPLF was not an option.

European countries have tried to quietly lobby for deescalation, but without any obvious result. In a joint statement issued by High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell and Commissioner Janez Lenarcic, the EU leaders said "Ethnically targeted measures, hate speech and allegations of atrocities occurring in Ethiopia are deeply worrying.”

Meanwhile, civilians in the Tigray region have been urged to “save themselves”, with no peaceful solution on the horizon.

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