Fighting resumes in Ethiopia

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By Nosmot Gbadamosi / Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief

Fighting resumed last week in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, ending a month-long cease-fire and burying hopes for a peaceful resolution of the country’s civil war.

The conflict began nearly two years ago and has pitted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government against the region’s rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, which Addis Ababa has since designated a terrorist organization. So far, as many as half a million Ethiopians have died, and more than 1.6 million people have been displaced.

“Respect for this truce over the past five months has saved countless lives,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in response to the renewed hostilities, which began last Wednesday. He warned that “a return to active conflict would result in widespread suffering, human rights abuses, and further economic hardships.”

Both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF reported fighting between their forces but denied instigating the fighting—blaming the other party.

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The Ethiopian Ministry of Defense said in a statement that its Air Force shot down a plane carrying weapons for Tigrayan rebels from neighboring Sudan on Aug. 24. TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda wrote in a tweet that the statement was “a blatant lie.”

Hostilities have escalated quickly since then. On Friday, UNICEF condemned an airstrike by the Ethiopian government that the organization said “hit a kindergarten, killing several children, and injuring others” in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. Local medics say at least seven people were killed. International media cannot verify these numbers because the region remains inaccessible to journalists.

“Yet again, an escalation of violence in northern Ethiopia has caused children to pay the heaviest price,” UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell wrote in a tweet.

Graphic images of wounded children circulated on social media and were broadcast on a Tigrayan TV station. The Ethiopian government subsequently denied targeting the kindergarten, saying the Ethiopian Air Force only targets military sites. It urged residents of Tigray to stay away from military facilities.

Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) said Tigrayan authorities stole 570,000 liters of fuel from its warehouses in the region last Wednesday, jeopardizing humanitarian operations there. According to the United Nations, supplies of food, medicine, and fuel in Tigray are critically low. The organization says full-blown famine looms in Tigray as East Africa experiences its worst drought in 40 years.

“Millions will starve if we do not have fuel to deliver food,” WFP executive director David Beasley wrote in a tweet condemning the theft. Tigrayan authorities hit back with a statement claiming they had loaned more than 600,000 liters of fuel to the WFP this year.

Security experts had hoped Tigray was finally on a path toward peace when, in January, Abiy’s government released Tigrayan opposition leaders from prison and indicated a willingness to talk with the TPLF. In a statement two weeks ago, Addis Ababa again signaled its intent for peace “and restoration of services to the region.” After fighting began in 2020, the government cut essential services like electricity and banking in Tigray.

In response to the government’s overtures, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said his side stood ready to “negotiate in good faith” but that the peace process “envisaged” by African Union mediator and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was “set up to fail.”

The TPLF has demanded the federal government restore essential services and humanitarian access to the region before talks begin, whereas the government rejects preconditions. The TPLF has accused Obasanjo of siding with Abiy on this matter.

Last week, Getachew, the TPLF spokesperson, wrote in an op-ed published by the Africa Report that a negotiated cease-fire and political settlement “are nowhere closer to being achieved now than they were at the time of Mr. Obasanjo’s appointment a year ago.” Getachew accused the AU of being “an apologist for a brutal regime seeking to starve and bomb its own people into submission.”

Although the TPLF has appealed to the U.S. government, efforts by the Biden administration to end the conflict have also proved ineffective.

On Aug. 2, the new U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, joined his European Union counterpart, Annette Weber, on a one-day visit to Tigray. Both had hoped to facilitate the beginning of talks and called for the “swift restoration” of essential services in Tigray. Ethiopia’s federal security advisor, Redwan Hussein, criticized the envoys for echoing the TPLF’s demands.

William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy that the TPLF’s fuel seizure “unfortunately makes it less likely that the federal government is going to allow … unfettered humanitarian access” to the region.

There is no new foreign actor who can apply any more leverage than has been attempted so far, Davison noted. To temper the TPLF’s rejection of Obasanjo, Davison suggested the AU bring on an additional African mediator. “Realistically, there would have to be a reformulation … with Obasanjo having some role but not necessarily the exclusive lead mediating role,” he said.

“If the federal government was willing to resume services [to Tigray] and if the Tigrayan leadership was willing to meet and discuss their differences at talks convened by the African Union and other African partners, that would help,” he added. But most analysts—Davison included—fear there is little prospect of progress toward reconciliation and peace soon.