Q&A: Tigray – the Fighting will Continue & Exacerbate Civilian Suffering

Eritrea Ethiopia Tigray

(Source: IPS, Nalisha Adams, BONN, Germany, 19 February 2021) – 

The rugged landscape of Tigray, Ethiopia’s most northern region, stretches away to the north and into Eritrea. The Tigray Region has been rocked by conflict since November 2020, and the International Crisis Group believes the conflict is far from over despite the federal government gaining administrative control of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, and other main cities in the region. (File photo) Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

While Ethiopia’s federal government may have administrative control of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, and other main cities in the region, including Shire, Adwa, and Aksum, after removing the regional government from power in late November — armed resistance in Tigray is not over and could continue for months.

According to William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Ethiopia, “there is still considerable conflict ongoing in Tigray, which runs against the narrative being propagated by Ethiopia’s federal government that the fighting ended when they took control of Mekelle”.

“It seems that in large chunks of rural Tigray, away from the main roads, away from the main cities and the bigger towns — normally about 15 to 20 km into the countryside — especially in central Tigray, the federal government and allied entities are not in control.

“We presume in those areas there is a significant presence of forces directed by the ousted Tigray leadership, now known as the Tigray Defence Forces, although it is hard to be sure due to the continued telecoms and access restrictions,” Davison told IPS.

The Tigray region has been rocked by conflict since Nov. 3, 2020, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-run regional government clashed with federal authorities following a dispute over the autonomy of the region that was related to the TPLF’s loss of power at the federal level.

A briefing published last week by ICG noted that the presence of the Eritrean military in Tigray — repeatedly denied by the Ethiopian government and not admitted by Eritrea’s leadership — is exacerbating tensions as there were credible reports of widespread Eritrean looting and atrocities.

Davison said Eritrea’s military has largely been active in northern and central Tigray, including some cities, such as Adigrat, and has used the conflict to reclaim disputed territory that was the focal point of Ethiopia and Eritrea’s 1998-2000 war. 

In addition, Amhara region security forces and administrators who are in control of large portions of western Tigray (West Tigray Zone) and also districts of South Tigray Zone “claim these parts of Tigray as rightly belonging to their region, and say they intend to stay”, according to the ICG briefing. “The Amhara takeover of territory within Tigray, along with Tigrayan anger at Eritrea’s role, are inflaming the situation,” the briefing said.

However, the unfolding humanitarian situation in the region is also a pressing concern.

A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated that before the conflict just under a million people in the region needed emergency food aid. However, in January that figure was thought to have grown to 4.5 million people, including 2.2 million internally displaced persons – out of a regional population of around 6 million.

While the Ethiopian government has said it can handle aid distribution itself, last Monday it granted some approvals for United Nations agencies to provide more assistance to people in Tigray, although it is not yet clear what impact that has had on the ground.

This was preceded by a visit from UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chief Filippo Grandi earlier this month, who met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as well as Eritrean refugees who had been housed in Tigray. UNHCR said that refugees had resorted to eating leaves because there was no other food available.

Meanwhile Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has moved around the region since the conflict began, raised concern about the humanitarian situation in rural areas as they had been unable to travel to them because of either insecurity or lack of authorisation.

“We are very concerned about what may be happening in rural areas…But we know, because community elders and traditional authorities have told us, that the situation in these places is very bad,” said Albert Viñas, who has been involved in almost 50 emergency responses with MSF and prepared medical teams to access areas of eastern and central Tigray and assist people affected by the current crisis. 

He added the MSF did not know “the real impact of this crisis”.

Crisis Group says that the federal government needs to insist on the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces in order to reduce Tigrayan opposition to the federal intervention and so open up the space for some kind of dialogue at the national level over Tigray’s autonomy and the related constitutional-electoral debate that escalated the tensions that led to war.

“Steps need to be taken to reduce the huge political challenges in Tigray. Because that Amhara and Eritrean presence and the atrocities means that much of the Tigrayan population seems, at the moment, more inclined to support the Tigrayan armed resistance than the federal interim administration for the region.”

Excerpts of the interview follow. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Inter Press Service (IPS): Tigrayan leaders and the UN say fighting is still widespread?

William Davison (WD): In January and February there have been regular reports still of large-scale confrontations between the Tigray Defence Forces and opposing allied contingents, primarily the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Eritrean Defence Force. Although it is hard to be sure about the details, there is little doubt that significant clashes are occurring, and at times they are corroborated by humanitarian actors.

What is always hard to verify is whether the claims of battlefield victories are accurate, including the claims of the capture of enemy equipment, which often come from the Tigrayan side. Or the claims of the huge fatalities that the opponent has suffered, again that often come from the Tigrayan side.

The bigger picture here is that when the federal government and allied forces took control of the regional capital Mekelle, on Nov. 28, and ousted the Tigrayan regional leadership, that was indeed a very significant moment. But, it did not mean the elimination of Tigrayan armed resistance.

Moreover, there are still a lot of the fugitive political and military leaders are at large, with only perhaps a third of those sought have been captured. Therefore, there is still a significant armed confrontation in Tigray, which runs against the narrative being propagated by Ethiopia’s federal government that “normalcy” is returning to the region and no substantive resistance remains.

IPS: A briefing by ICG last week said there is the possibility of the conflict continuing for some time to come. Can you explain?

WD: I think that is definitely a possibility and indeed a fairly likely possibility. But at the same time, we, and others, did not expect the TPLF government to be ousted from regional power within a month of this conflict beginning – so possibly the current resistance will also prove less sustainable than expected. Still, as of now, it does seem that since losing control of the regional government, the armed resistance of the ousted Tigray leadership has been relatively resilient.

As discussed, by no means are all the leaders captured, significant fighting is ongoing, and the federal government and allied forces do not control anything like all of Tigray’s territory. In conjunction with that there is also reason to believe that the presence of those allied forces — the Eritrean military and the Amhara factions — is opposed by a large proportion of Tigray’s population. And so that portion of Tigrayans appear more inclined to support the ousted leadership than the federal interim administration, and many even seem to now back Tigray’s secession from Ethiopia.

It is these factors that lead us to think that this conflict could be entrenched, and that fighting will continue for weeks, possibly months, and maybe even for longer than that. And, of course, that outlook has hugely worrying ramifications for an already critical humanitarian situation.

IPS: With regards to the humanitarian situation, until recently not all aid agencies were allowed access to the region. What are some of the concerns around the current situation?

WD: Tigray, like other places in Ethiopia, suffers from chronic food insecurity, meaning that large numbers of people every year need support. Last year this was exacerbated by the desert locust invasion – and then the outbreak of war occurred around harvest time. This created a major humanitarian crisis in Tigray.

During the conflict, the federal government has been very keen not just to control territory and try and win the war, but also to control the flow of information from Tigray and so set the narrative about the intervention.

This has contributed to a continued federal unwillingness to allow media access, bureaucratic restrictions on aid agencies, and also the failure to restore telephone and, particularly, internet services across large swathes of Tigray. 

All this exacerbates the humanitarian situation, as little is known about the fate of millions of people, including possibly up to one million who were displaced from western to central Tigray when Amhara elements reclaimed land there in the first weeks of the war.

The overarching desire to maintain control has meant that the federal government – which is party to this conflict – has largely kept itself in charge of aid distribution. This goes against core humanitarian principles. And furthermore, there are widespread concerns that, firstly, the government does not have the capacity to deliver aid at the scale needed in the time needed.

Secondly, there is a major doubt regarding political will because the government is still very keen to control the information that is emerging about the conflict. For example, the presence of Eritrean troops and the atrocities that have been committed by them, that is not something which has been acknowledged by the federal government. Therefore, maintaining that narrative is contributing to the decision to restrict information and restrict access to conflict areas, leading to increased civilian suffering.

Additionally, with the federal government denying that an organised opponent still exists, as part of efforts to manage the story, that means there is very little aid reaching large parts of rural central Tigray where allied forces are not in control of territory and large numbers of civilians are thought to have fled to.

IPS: Is there anything else that you would like to add that is particularly important?

WD: When Tigray’s ousted leaders recently made statements, there was no focus on a cessation of hostilities, a humanitarian corridor, or even really the humanitarian situation overall. Instead, like the federal government, they are fixated on trying to win the war.

Given these dynamics, it is likely that this is going to get worse; the fighting will continue and that will exacerbate the civilian suffering, both in terms of direct attacks and also the humanitarian impact. Therefore, there is a desperate need for a rethink.

First, what is needed is for the federal government to acknowledge the heavy cost of the war so far and that it is likely to get more damaging. This reality means that there is an incentive for Addis Ababa to roll back the involvement of the Eritrean and Amhara forces, as this would hopefully reduce the intensity of the fighting, ease Tigrayan anger, and allow greater space for urgently required humanitarian relief.

However, by no means will this resolve the political disputes. Instead, as Crisis Group and many other have repeatedly argued, what is needed is a fundamental country-level political negotiation, addressing all of Ethiopia’s deep fault lines, such as over the legacy of the imperial era and the merits and demerits of current federal system, probably through the vehicle of an all-inclusive national dialogue.

One of the concerns that Crisis Group had at the outset of the war is the cocktail of problems— such as mounting killings in Benishangul-Gumuz region, growing tensions with Sudan, simmering discontent in Oromia—and violent political rifts that threaten to widen. In short, the country was already fragile and volatile. Falling into this war, which split the Ethiopian military and was a huge shock to the federation, came at a moment when it was not clear Ethiopia could absorb such at destabilising blow.

While Ethiopia and Ethiopians are incredibly resilient, there is a risk that this predicament could lead to some sort of spiralling nationwide unrest, which would of course threaten Ethiopia’s overall stability and so therefore the wider region’s. That is why is it is so important that de-escalatory steps are immediately taken to move Ethiopia off this trajectory.

 

 

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