Crisis in Ethiopia: An Overview of the Conflict in Tigray

Purpose of image is to provide context of Tigray's location within Africa
The Tigray Region, highlighted in red, has been a source of major tension within Ethiopia because of ethnic and cultural divides. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

Like many other nations in Africa, Ethiopia has had a long and storied history. Known as one of the world’s oldest nations, Ethiopia first emerged as one of the world’s first Christian states, centered around the ancient kingdom of Aksum. As European powers began to colonize the interior of Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ethiopia thrust itself onto the world stage after a game-changing victory against colonial Italy during the 1896 Battle of Adwa. Ethiopia remained one of a very few African states to have never been extensively colonized, with Ethiopia’s monarchy only falling under the rule of fascist Italy briefly before being freed by the Allied Powers in World War II.

Ethiopia became a powerful advocate for the decolonization of Africa following the end of the Second World War. Haile Selassie I, who ruled as Ethiopian emperor from 1930 until his assassination in 1974, brought Ethiopia into both the League of Nations and the United Nations. He also made Addis Ababa the center of international cooperation in African politics with the establishment of the Organization for African Unity (now known as the African Union).

Despite Ethiopia once being regarded as a center of African progress and unity, great troubles have befallen this ancient nation. After the ancient monarchy ended with the assassination of Emperor Haile Selassie II and the establishment of a new military government, conflict began in the Ethiopian region of Tigray.

Beginning with the establishment of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region began a decades long conflict with Ethiopia’s new government in 1975. Tigray, which is located in Northern Ethiopia, has long supported a mostly agrarian population, with local peoples growing crops such as cereals, legumes, coffee, and cotton.  The Tigray people, who make up about 10% of the population of modern-day Ethiopia and 50% of the population of Ethiopia’s northern neighbor Eritrea, are known to have descended from Semitic peoples, and today most ethnically Tigrayan people adhere to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (Coptic) Church, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa. Despite numerous cultural and religious similarities between the Tigray people and the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups (which account for about 60% of Ethiopia’s total population when combined), linguistic differences and political rivalry have been the cause of multiple conflicts between the Tigray people and the central Ethiopian government, including the war that began in November of 2020.

An Overview of the War in Tigray

In November 2020, the Ethiopian central government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, began a campaign against the TPLF, which had retreated back to the region of Tigray after being ousted by Ahmed’s new government despite Ahmed’s former ties with the party. Despite the Ethiopian government’s stated mission “to arrest the political and military leadership of the ousted regional government in what it still refers to as a law enforcement operation“, civilian structures in Tigray communities such as hospitals, schools, factories, and businesses have been ravaged by the conflict. Reports from among the ethnic Amhara elite in Ethiopia have found that many view the conflict as a war of expansion, and Amhara militia and special forces have been “pivotal” in aiding Ahmed’s war campaign.  Because of Tigray’s history as an agrarian powerhouse for Ethiopia, despite possessing little arable land and sparse vegetation, many experts have pointed out that the war in Tigray seems to be over “access to and control of land“, and as the region of Tigray has been cultivated for millennia, it is a prime target for control by the new ruling elite of Ethiopia.

Before the military campaign began, tensions began to rise between Tigray and the Ethiopian government as Ahmed postponed regional parliamentary elections due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In defiance of the central government, Tigray held elections in September 2020, and these elections were quickly deemed illegitimate by the federal government. Early in November, it was reported that TPLF forces attempted to steal weapons from a federal military base in Tigray, and the conflict began hours later after a declaration from Prime Minister Ahmed. Despite the government’s reports, the TPLF declared that the preemptive strike was necessary, as special forces had arrived just days before in preparation of an assault on the TPLF.

Swift action was taken against the TPLF, despite the presence of ethnically Tigray officers within the Ethiopian military, causing several instances of in-fighting between rival units. Phone and internet communication within the region was restricted, and the Federal Council of Ministers declared a six month state of emergency within Tigray that took effect on November 4, 2020.

As the conflict continues to rage, human rights accusations against Ahmed’s government swirl. Several reports have found that special forces within Tigray have committed multiple attacks against civilians. Devastation reached all parts of the Tigray region, and it has been reported that as of December 2021, up to 400,000 people within Tigray may be living in “famine-like” conditions, despite a unilateral ceasefire from the Ethiopian government that was issued on June 28, 2021. A report from the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner found large amounts of human rights abuses occurring in Tigray between October 2020 and June 2021, including “extrajudicial killings, torture, pillaging, sexual and gender-based violence, and the forcible displacement of civilians.” The war in Tigray has left up to “nine in ten people” in the region needing humanitarian assistance, and over two million people have been displaced by the conflict. Thousands of refugees from the region have ended up in Sudan, worsening the water crisis that is beginning to happen in the region.

Shows PM Ahmed on Battlefront
An image of Prime Minister Ahmed on the frontlines of the war in Tigray. His presence as a battlefield commander has caused international condemnation. SOURCE: Yahoo! Images

Potential Solutions

Following a special session of the United Nations that was called for by concerned parties in the European Union, The United Nations drafted a resolution on the conflict in Tigray and set up an international human rights probe into the conflict. Key aspects of the resolution include calls to all parties participating in the conflict to halt “direct attacks against civilians…including on the basis of their ethnicity or gender”. The draft also called for an end to attacks on civilian assets such as crops and livestock, and provided guidance to the Ethiopian government regarding ending the conflict within the region and providing transitional justice mechanisms, specifically for “accountability, reconciliation, and healing“. The Ethiopian government will be responsible for updating the UN Human Rights Council on the conflict’s progress during its 50th session, which will occur in June 2022.

Some human rights advocates have also called for Prime Minister Ahmed to be stripped of his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, of which he was awarded for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” Ahmed has taken a particularly active role in the conflict, making multiple appearances on the frontlines as battlefield commander, and has also been accused of using the peace deal he brokered with Eritrea in order to more successfully subdue Tigray.

As the conflict continuing to violate human rights within Tigray, human rights watchers are hopeful that the United Nations may be able to produce a peaceful resolution to the conflict within Tigray. With the Ethiopian report due in June, there may be hope for a brighter future within the region.

An Overview of the Insurgency in Cabo Delgado

The country of Mozambique, a nation of 29.5 million in sub-Saharan Africa, is currently facing increasingly alarming violence at the hands of Islamist extremists. The violence has affected countless lives and is coming to the attention of international peace-keeping bodies, with the Human Rights Chief declaring a “desperate” situation in Mozambique as calls for intervention by Mozambique’s government grow by the day.

Cabo Delgado is located in Northeastern Mozambique, shown here. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Background

Beginning in 2017, Islamic groups intent on establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa have terrorized the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique. The population of Mozambique is extremely young, with about 45% of citizens being under fifteen years of age, and a median age of just seventeen. As Islamic groups began to move into the region, many exploited the high rate of poverty to recruit young people to their cause. These militant groups have brought destruction to Mozambique, killing an estimated 2,000 people in three short years and causing a refugee crisis as over 430,000 have been forced to flee their homes and begin their life again, only adding to massive rates of poverty present in the region currently.

Increasing Horror

The violence of the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has reached new heights of horror in 2020. In April, it was reported that over 50 young people were murdered by insurgent groups for refusing to join their cause. Beginning on October 31, insurgents beheaded dozens in a series of attacks on the Muidumbe District. Survivors who returned reported dead bodies and buildings that burned for several days, completely uprooting the lives of many who called the Muidumbe District home. While the increasingly more violent attacks have drawn attention from international bodies, including the president of Zimbabwe, the situation continues unfold as more lives are stolen.

The violence even has grown to the neighboring country of Tanzania, where 175 houses were burned down in an attack on the border village of Ktaya. The violence in Tanzania can be traced back to earlier in October, when more than 20 were beheaded in another attack on Ktaya. The expansion of attacks into Tanzania led to a more coordinated effort by Tanzania to become involved in containing the insurgency.

Despite mobilization efforts by Mozambique’s government, backed by a coalition consisting of South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Russia, the ISIS-backed insurgency groups continue to lay siege to Cabo Delgado, with many fearing an all-out civil war breaking out in the region.

The current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has caused hundreds of thousands to seek refugee status, with many travelling by boat. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Potential Motives

While the insurgents in Mozambique claim their ultimate goal is establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa, it should be noted that region is also home to $60 billion in natural gas developments. Many of the recruits of these terrorist groups are also promised a better life, a message that preys on the impoverished youth of the nation and the region.

Theocratic states are also inherently incompatible with the promises of the modern human rights movement. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its promise of freedom of religion:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The methods of these insurgent groups use to establish power are also extremely problematic, leading directly to loss of life, destruction of property, loss of cultural identity, and violent intimidation that denies the people of Cabo Delgado their basic human rights on a daily basis.

The attacks have also led to the abandonment of many promising economic opportunities that Mozambique’s central government hoped would lead to poverty reduction in Cabo Delgado, which has lagged behind the rest of Mozambique in terms of economic development and poverty reduction. Norwegian fertilizer company Yara pulled out of a contract with the Mozambiquan government to make fertilizer from Cabo Delgado natural gas, mainly out of fear that the insurgency would lead to an inability for Mozambique to provide the gas at a stable cost. The region’s poverty rate has not been improved by the insurgent groups despite their promise to thousands of youths who joined a cause for increased economic mobility. Instead, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has only led to senseless violence, destruction, and worsened Mozambique’s position to grow into a healthy economy in the 21st century.

A Promising Future?

The calls for international intervention in Mozambique have begun to grow as the violence increases daily. As well as the President of Zimbabwe and the United Nations Human Rights Chief, both the British Foreign Secretary and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a heightened level of concern for the situation after news of the October 31 beheadings began to spread worldwide.

During an October visit to Cabo Delgado by Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, a man in the audience put in quite plainly in his urge to the president, saying “We want the war to stop.”

There have been signs that perhaps the insurgent groups are beginning to lose the war of attrition occurring in Cabo Delgado. On November 19, The Muidumbe District, which had been occupied by the insurgent groups, was retaken by over 1,000 Mozambiquan troops, killing 16 militants in the process.

Positive developments in Cabo Delgado can continue to occur if Mozambique’s central government is provided the adequate support and resources from international peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations. A statement by the Organization for World Peace critiqued the practice of simply condemning violence and called for more direct international support, saying:

“Though the UN’s condemnations of violence and appeals for humanitarian and investigative action are significant, the organization must carry out this action itself while motivating states and international courts to follow suit. The UN must also provide necessary assistance to Mozambican security forces while ensuring that this assistance is not abused to propagate more violence. This collective action will harness all the investigative legitimacy and humanitarian resources of the international community to uproot the militants and secure long-lasting peace.”

The citizens of Cabo Delgado deserve peace after years of violence. The region has enormous untapped potential for economic and cultural growth that has been stifled by the ongoing insurgency. No human being should have their life or home stolen by violence.