The War on Tigray: A Modern-Day Humanitarian Crisis in Ethiopia Imprinted on Africa’s Poorest Communities

Situated in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a nation full of contradictions. With its population reaching 112 million, it is the second most populous country on the continent right after Nigeria. Although Ethiopia is considered to be Africa’s fastest growing economy, it is also one of its poorest nations, with its poverty rate surpassing the world’s average of 23% (23.5% in 2021). What’s more, due to the recent military conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray region, the latest estimates show that acute malnutrition in Tigray alone has reached 34%, 2.5 to 3 million people out of 6 million living in the area require emergency assistance and 70,000 children are at risk of severe, life-threatening malnutrition. How has a domestic political dispute lead to such a deep humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and how has it affected the poorest communities in the country and around its borders?

From military conflict to national war

Ethiopia is a federal parliamentary republic, meaning that the country is divided between different ethnic regions, called semi-autonomous states, all sharing the same Prime Minister and President. It comes as no surprise that Ethiopia has been experiencing tensions between the states and the federal government for decades. The country has been battling deeply-rooted repressing problems — structural economic hardships, inter-ethnic tensions, security issues, and regional conflicts — and the main acting body striving to find sufficient solutions used to be the Ethiopian Coalition, which consisted of four ethno-regional parties — Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization, Amhara National Democratic Movement, Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, and Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Although initially the coalition was an equal ruling alliance, it was the last party, TPLF for short, that ended up holding the most power.

TPLF is a liberal nationalist party acting since 1975. Although formally only in charge of the region of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, in the last 30 years TPLF has dominated most of the country. The party’s regime has been judged as autocratic and unlawful, yet its political significance was diminished only in 2018, when the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abyi Ahmed, came to power. The new Prime Minister was not only against TPLF’s anti-democratic practices, but also wanted to centralise the political power in Ethiopia. Not interested in any cooperation with the new centralized government, TPLF pulled out of the Ethiopian coalition, disregarded the country’s elections postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and organised their own in the summer of 2020. After an alleged raid on the government’s military bases by the TPLF, the Ethiopian federal government declared war on Tigray in November 2020.

Since then, TPLF is no longer recognised by the country’s administration and lost all the funding for the Tigray region. Abyi Ahmed’s government removed most of the party’s highest members and prosecuted them for corruption and abuse of power. Violent acts taken by both TPLF and by the Ethiopian military resulted in further criminal actions such as looting, physical violence on civilians and rape. The conflict has now moved from Ethiopia to the countries by its northern border — Sudan and Eritrea.

Humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia

On Tuesday the 2nd of February, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concerns over the urgent need for resources to protect the Ethiopian population at risk. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has received allegations of various forms of international humanitarian law and human rights violations.

So far, the United Nations estimates that there are potentially 3 million people in need of urgent assistance in Tigray alone, with 1 million people displaced internally around the country, and 280 000 in the regions of Tigray, Amhara and Afar. More than 96 000 refugees from the neighbouring Eritrea have been registered in four camps in Tigray — Mai Aini, Adi Harush, Hitsats, and Shimelba — with not enough food and resources available to them.

From the statements of Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, it is known that the situation in Ethiopia is “extremely grave” and all forms of support are needed, be that food, medicine, water, shelter, or PPE and equipment preventing further coronavirus outbreaks. Many of the refugees have to eat leaves due to the lack of food or any access to services and supplies. Apart from severe hunger and increased poverty, people have been also suffering from lootings and robberies.

Help received so far

Since November, 25 international humanitarian staff have been approved to send aid to the refugee camps and help onsite in Tigray. The prime organisations providing aid in the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia have been the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations Humanitarian Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF and Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).

So far, together they helped over 1.7 million of those affected and relocated 14 000 refugees away from the Tigray-Eritrea border. The Mai Ayni camp and its 13 000 refugees received 18 trucks with 250 metric tonnes of foods such as grains, pulses and oils, and the Adi Harush camp got 240 metric tonnes for its 12 170 refugees. The two main camps also obtained additional help of 29 trucks with emergency nutrition and protective equipment from UNICEF, as well as 440 metric tonnes of aid from Dubai and Nairobi, which included over 3000 tents, 75000 blankets, 45000 sleeping mats, 20000 solar lamps, 17000 mosquito nets, more than 8000 plastic sheets. WFP has also sent food to more than 1000 refugees in the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan and is planning to send further 300 000 metric tonnes of wheat across the camps by the end of February.

Looking ahead

According to the report presented by the World Food Program, there are currently 60 more humanitarian organisations awaiting approval to help communities affected by the war in Tigray. However, to be able to properly respond to the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and its neighbouring countries, and to sufficiently help those suffering, the organisations have a shortfall of $172 million for the next six months to meet the needs of the most vulnerable — such as food, refugee displacement, flights with humanitarian aid, road repairs, and camp development.