Tigray is home to the well-armed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party representing an ethnic minority that makes up about six percent of the Ethiopian population.
The conflict has killed hundreds so far and displaced many more. More than 40,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan and roads in Tigray are crowded with people escaping from the fighting. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 43,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan since fighting began on November 4. There are mounting fears that more refugees will be forced to flee as fighting intensified.
“UNHCR remains concerned as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen in Tigray, including for those displaced and for some 96,000 Eritrean refugees who will run out of food as soon as Monday if supplies cannot reach them. We join other humanitarian agencies to reiterate our call for the protection of civilians and immediate humanitarian access in order to resume the delivery of life sustaining assistance,” said a statement by the UNHCR.
The TPLF has about 250,000 fighters in Tigray region. Analysts in the region fear that the deteriorating situation will push Ethiopia into a full-blown civil war even if they take Mekelle.
The conflict is rooted in longstanding tension between Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF, which was the dominant political force in the country until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 and introduced far-reaching reforms.
When Abiy postponed a national election because of coronavirus in June, relations further deteriorated. The TPLF said the government’s mandate to rule had expired, arguing that Abiy had not been tested in a national election. In September the party held its own election, which the government said was “illegal”. Then, on 4 November, Abiy announced an operation against the TPLF, accusing it of attacking the army’s northern command HQ in Mekelle.
The TPLF and central government have been at odds since Abiy’s election in 2018, following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn that ended 27 years of repressive TPLF rule. Abiy is the country’s first prime minister from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. Resolving the growing political tension between the central government and the TPLF was always going to be a challenge, but a deliberate and robust diplomatic effort to press for transparent accountability and inclusion from the start would have had far better chances of success than hasty efforts now to stop the violence.
A Conflict beyond Borders
The situation in Ethiopia is already spilling over its borders. Its neighbor Eritrea has already reported several rounds of shells landing in its capital Asmara. Sudan is already hosting more than 43,000 Ethiopian refugees while Addis Abbaba has expelled South Sudan’s ambassador after reports started appearing in the media that TPLF’s chief Debretsion Gebremichael has taken refugee in the country. Sudans Post said there are unconfirmed reports that Debretsion is in Juba and was meeting visiting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi who visited Juba on Saturday.
“We have been given 72 hours to leave. That decision was delivered to us in a letter this morning by the Ethiopian security body and they told us that they don’t want us here ‘until further notice,’” one South Sudan embassy source in Addis Ababa told Sudans Post. The Ethiopia-South Sudan standoff came after the Ethiopian ambassador to South Sudan left the capital Juba on Saturday (November 29) in an abrupt decision to protest the reported presence of Gebremichael in Juba.
But officials in South Sudan denied reports that the Ethiopian diplomat’s departure was due to TPLF chief’s presence in Juba.
A South Sudan government official confirmed that the Ethiopian envoy to the country, Shawl, had left yesterday, but denied he departed the country in protest to any “wrongdoing by South Sudan or any issue that can stains relations with us.”