Ethiopia’s fragile truce over Tigray conflict threatened by lack of promised aid

The humanitarian truce between the government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is at risk unless aid is allowed to reach the country’s war-torn northern province soon, reports Fred Harter in Addis Ababa

Friday 22 April 2022 16:22 BST
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File photo: A member of the Afar Special Forces holds a gun next to a damaged house in the village of Bisober in Tigray in December 2020
File photo: A member of the Afar Special Forces holds a gun next to a damaged house in the village of Bisober in Tigray in December 2020 (AFP via Getty)

When Ethiopia’s government declared an immediate “humanitarian truce” last month in its war with the country’s northern Tigray province, the surprise move briefly reignited hopes for peace after more than a year of bitter fighting.

The conflict first broke out between the federal government and the region’s rulers, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in November 2020, the result of months of tensions that spilled into violence when forces loyal to the TPLF allegedly attacked a military base.

Nearly 18 months later, tens of thousands are believed to have been killed and Ethiopia’s once vibrant economy is in tatters. Both sides regularly trade allegations of rape and massacres, and humanitarian workers privately accuse the government of using aid as a weapon.

File photo: A Tigrayan refugee places a makeshift cross on the banks of the Setit river bordering Ethiopia, at the village of Wad al-Hiliou
File photo: A Tigrayan refugee places a makeshift cross on the banks of the Setit river bordering Ethiopia, at the village of Wad al-Hiliou (AFP via Getty)

Around 90 per cent of Tigray’s 5.5 million population are in the grip of a spiralling hunger crisis, according to the UN, while the US says 700,000 people are on the edge of famine.

The region has been cut off from the rest of Ethiopia since federal troops withdrew in June, with no banking services or phone links.

The government declared the truce on 24 March, citing humanitarian reasons. The TPLF responded by saying it would observe a “cessation of hostilities” if aid started to flow into its beleaguered region.

But four weeks on, just four convoys of food and fuel – totalling around 80 trucks – have reached Tigray, far short of the 100 trucks the UN says are needed every day to stop people there going hungry.

A foreign diplomat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, said the government expects the TPLF to withdraw from territory it occupies in the Afar region bordering Tigray before the aid taps are fully turned on. “If there is to be sustained humanitarian convoys to Tigray, it’s squarely in [the TPLF’s] hands,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

But a partial withdrawal from Afar announced by the rebel group earlier this month did not lead to more aid entering Tigray, the epicentre of the 1984 famine that killed some one million people and inspired Bob Geldof to organise the Band Aid concert.

As a result, some observers have questioned the government’s commitment to the truce, pointing out that it was announced as a bill was tabled before the US Congress that would impose sanctions on the warring parties in northern Ethiopia.

File photo: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters react to locals as they arrive in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, in June 2021
File photo: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters react to locals as they arrive in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, in June 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

One western aid worker described the trickle of aid currently being allowed into Tigray as a “publicity stunt” aimed at fending off the threat of sanctions. He told The Independent: “They are letting in a very small amount, which is good for their public relations but makes little impact.”

The government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed vigorously denies any suggestion it is restricting aid. It has previously pinned blame for obstructions to the delivery aid on the shoulders of the TPLF, accusing the rebel group of looting hundreds of trucks used to transport food and of requisitioning high-energy biscuits to feed its fighters.

For its part, the TPLF has alleged that the government is using the truce as cover to maintain its stranglehold on Tigray.

“If the cessation of hostilities reached by the two sides ... has now morphed into a unilateral initiative [that] cannot give rise to the flow of unobstructed aid into Tigray, it has outlived its usefulness and is, ipso facto, devoid of any meaning,” the group said in a recent statement.

With both sides flinging accusations at each other, few observers believe the truce will hold. “Ceasing hostilities should just be one step in a whole package of measures aimed at resolving conflict,” said Awet Weldemichael, an academic at Queen’s University in Canada. “But if this is not followed by other measures, it means little in the long term.”

Several issues central to the conflict remain unresolved. Aside from aid, the one that looms largest is the future of western Tigray, a fertile area of sesame and cotton fields that was swiftly occupied by militiamen from the neighbouring region of Amhara when the war first broke out.

File photo: A woman walks in front of a damaged house shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele, in March 2021
File photo: A woman walks in front of a damaged house shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele, in March 2021 (AFP via Getty)

Many ethnic Amhara see the land as historically theirs. Earlier this month Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published a joint report accusing Amhara officials and militia of waging a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans in the area, characterised by killings, gang rapes and arbitrary detentions.

The rights groups said hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans had been forcibly expelled from the area “with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces”. Tigray forces also stand accused of massacring hundreds of Amhara labourers in western Tigray at the settlement of Mai Kadra shortly after the war began.

The TPLF has repeatedly demanded the return of western Tigray as part of any peace talks, a request Abiy is unlikely to accede to. His government relies on the support of Amhara elites and they would see any concession to the TPLF on western Tigray as a stab in the back.

Adem Abebe, a researcher at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, has floated the idea of placing western Tigray under the administration of a joint Amhara-Tigrayan body, but so far the federal government has avoided addressing the issue head on.

Meanwhile, it is unclear if Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki is prepared to end his involvement in the Tigray conflict. His troops invaded the region from the north in support of Ethiopia’s federal military in November 2020 and were responsible for some of the war’s worst human rights abuses, including the massacre of hundreds of young men and boys in the holy city of Axum.

Isaias saw the conflict as his chance to eliminate his old enemy, the TPLF, which led Ethiopia in a bloody border war against Eritrea from 1998-2000. This goal has not been achieved.

If anything, Tigray is more heavily militarised than it was before the current conflict broke out, with tens of thousands of fighters having joined the TPLF, and perhaps now poses an even greater threat to Isaias’s regime than it previously did: in July, after a TPLF offensive forced the withdrawal of Eritrean and Ethiopian forces from Tigray, the rebel group threatened to march on Asmara, Eritrea’s capital.

File photo: A man makes a salute during a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organised by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, in November 2021
File photo: A man makes a salute during a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organised by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, in November 2021 (AFP via Getty)

Thousands of Eritrean troops are still stationed in western Tigray and control pockets along the region’s northern border. The next move of Eritrea’s unpredictable and secretive regime remains unclear. In recent weeks there have been unconfirmed reports of large build-ups of Eritrean troops, as well as shelling, along the border with Tigray.

“Eritrea still has the same national security objectives on its southern border with Tigray, as well as having a continued presence in parts of Tigray," said Ahmed Soliman from Chatham House. “Ethiopia’s federal government may no longer see the goal of removing the TPLF from Tigray as realistic, but I don’t think Isaias’s position on the TPLF is likely to change."

With these issues festering in the background, the federal government has launched a national dialogue process aimed at engaging communities and bridging Ethiopia’s many deep-seated rifts.

But the dialogue does not include the TPLF or its ally the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has been waging a separate insurgency in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest state. Both outfits have been banned as terrorist groups.

Critics say the exclusion of the TPLF and the OLA fatally undermines the initiative. “This is not a dialogue,” said Hailu Kebede from the opposition Salsay Weyane Tigray party. “This is a monologue between a small number of factions that share the same ideology. I don’t see it bringing any solution.”

Tigray’s hunger crisis is likely to worsen in the coming weeks. Last November’s harvest produced more food than expected, but these stocks have nearly been exhausted and just 3 per cent of the seeds needed by farmers for the current planting season have reached Tigray.

File photo: People who fled violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region gather to receive aid in Mekele in June 2021
File photo: People who fled violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region gather to receive aid in Mekele in June 2021 (AFP via Getty)

Aid workers say they do not know how they will feed the hundreds of thousands of people languishing in makeshift camps for those displaced by the conflict. Cut off from their farmland, most have not received any outside help in months.

Hailu from the Salsay Weyane Tigray party predicts a renewal of hostilities if aid does not arrive soon. 

“Tigray cannot remain blockaded forever,” he said. “If a resolution is not on the table in the next one or two months, before the rains start, we are going to see another heavy round of fighting and bloodshed. I’m sure the Tigrayans will try and break the siege.”

The main factor that might force a peace settlement is the perilous state of Ethiopia’s economy. It was once among the fastest growing in the world, but has been battered by the war, which has exacerbated a foreign currency crunch and caused inflation to spike past 30 per cent.

The bill for repairing the damage done to Ethiopia’s infrastructure by the fighting has not been calculated yet, but it is likely to be steep, and the country is also in the middle of the worst drought in years, which has hit the livelihoods of 81 million people, according to the UN.

“It is impossible for Ethiopia to face such a crisis without foreign help,” said René Lefort, a historian who studies Ethiopia. “The economy is collapsing, and the offer of assistance is the only tool the international community can use to get concessions from Abiy.”

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