Peace urgently needed for Ethiopia

Published on 12 April 2022

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

While countries in the global North have been united in condemning the Russian invasion in Ukraine, there has been little global action taken around another war. One that is probably even more horrifying. The reason? I believe it’s because it is not in Europe affecting white people, but instead a war in Africa that is ‘out of sight and out of mind’

Dr Tedros Adhannom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, said “there is nowhere on Earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.”  He was talking about the impacts of a horrific war in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia, that has lasted now for over 500 days and has experienced a communications blockade since July 2021. And he should know because he is himself from Mekelle, the capital of Tigray.

Since November 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops to Tigray, it is increasingly acknowledged by not just human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but also by US Secretary of State, Blinken that ordinary people in Tigray have witnessed crimes against humanity, mass starvation and ethnic cleansing.

Urgent need for supplies

The war has resulted in a major humanitarian disaster with as many as half a million deaths and millions forced to flee their homes.

Religious, historical and cultural sites have been destroyed . There has been the widespread use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon against women and girls. Furthermore, famine has also been used as a weapon of war, because the Ethiopian government blocked humanitarian deliveries of food and health supplies into Tigray since December 2021. Banks are not functioning and money is scarce.

There is an urgent need for aid supplies for millions of people in Tigray on the verge of starvation. It is estimated that about 900,00 people are in famine conditions.

While a truce was recently declared and the World Food Programme Ethiopia confirmed that the first humanitarian convoy since December arrived on the 1 April, deliveries are limited by fuel shortages and they face huge demand. Many more deliveries of emergency food and nutrition supplies are needed and must be allowed through to meet the essential needs of local and displaced people.  It is unclear whether or when Abiy’s troops will allow this to happen.

Communications blackout

I have already written about earlier visits to Tigray and how history is repeating itself in terms of war and famine. My colleagues and I working on the Towards Brown Gold project are deeply concerned for our research partners based in Tigray, who we have been unable to communicate with due to the blackout on all internet and phone communications since last summer.

No side is without blame. There are reports of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) soldiers committing war crimes in the Amhara region at the end of 2021. But what has happened in Tigray since 2020 is of a different magnitude, not least due to the blockade. An investigation by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in March 2021 stated that all parties have committed human rights violations. (However, the impartiality of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been called into question in the past.)

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said most violations in the period covered by the report were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces but since then, they had seen an increase in reports by Tigrayan forces as well as continuing abuses by the Ethiopians and Eritreans. Recently, Ethiopia failed in its attempt to block funding for a future enquiry established by the UN Human rights Council for an independent investigation into human rights abuses in the country around the conflicts.

I am particularly horrified by the rise in ethnonationalism across the country. The lack of sympathy in other parts of the country for the suffering of ordinary Tigrayans has also been notable, regardless of whatever people may feel of about the TPLF and its history. So far, the African Union has failed to mediate, and the European Union has not done more than limit some funding to Ethiopia. The US is now signalling that some sanctions may be introduced.

Some Ethiopian universities have also been complicit in the war and have targeted Tigrayan academics and students. Universities in the global North have not been speaking out on these issues, either, I believe because Ethiopian staff and students in their institutions are either afraid to speak out or have divided views about the war.  I hope that universities and research institutions will do more to raise awareness and to speak out against the atrocities and human rights abuses taking place in Tigray just like they are doing with respect to Russia in Ukraine.

Uncertain outlook

The entire future of Ethiopia looks uncertain with conflicts not just in Tigray but also in Amhara, Afar, Oromia and so on. It must be terrifying for those who live there and also for those who have strong kinship with different parts of the country and its people.

It is imperative that the UN, EU, African Union and governments all over the world push for an immediate ceasefire and put more pressure on the Ethiopian government and combatants from all sides to enable unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray to prevent more suffering. I also believe that there is enough evidence now for the Nobel Peace Committee to rescind Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The war in Ukraine is devastating but here in the global North we should also not forget the desperate situation for the people in Tigray facing starvation and atrocities, or those facing urgent emergency humanitarian needs in other parts of the world, such as Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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