Why Ethiopia is dealing with deadly, 'extremely brutal' civil war

The fighting has already killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions and extreme poverty, according to the UN

FP Staff November 04, 2021 08:51:11 IST
Why Ethiopia is dealing with deadly, 'extremely brutal' civil war

The fighting has already killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions and extreme poverty. Image courtesy: NYT

Ethiopia is at war with itself, with regional forces threatening to overtake the capital "within months if not weeks". And the federal government, which came to power on the promise of restoring democracy and stability, is accused of "big human rights violations" and "extreme brutality" in the course of the war it opened almost an year ago.

The escalating conflict has sparked alarm among the international community, with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres and several western powers calling for an immediate ceasefire and peace talks. The fighting has already killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions and extreme poverty, according to the UN. But any action from the international community is restricted because of the crippling lack of information from a heavily protected war zone.

We break down the what, why, when, and how of this international crisis for our readers in bite-sized chunks.

What's happening in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday and ordered residents of Addis Ababa to prepare to defend their neighbourhoods amid fears that Tigrayan rebels were heading for the capital.

The measures came after several days of reported advances by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group, which is locked in a brutal year-long war against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government.

"The state of emergency is aimed to protect civilians from atrocities being committed by the terrorist TPLF group in several parts of the country," State-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported. Possible restrictions include a curfew, road closures and searches of "anyone suspected of collaborating with terror groups", Fana said.

Following the announcement, Ahmed urged citizens "to undertake their role and cooperate with law enforcement entities". "This is a testing time where all these problems piled up simultaneously. Until the test passes, it's inevitable every person will be tested," he tweeted.

Under the state of emergency, authorities can conscript "any military age citizen who has weapons" or suspend media outlets believed to be "giving moral support directly or indirectly" to the TPLF, according to state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.

Rebel gains

The Tigray People's Liberation Front has claimed significant territorial gains in recent days, along with its ally the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

Odaa Tarbii, a spokesman for OLA, which has also claimed recent advances in Amhara and in the Oromia region surrounding Addis Ababa, said his group intended to topple Abiy's government, calling his removal "a foregone conclusion".

"If things continue in the current trajectory, then we are talking about a matter of months if not weeks," he said, referring to OLA's move on Addis Ababa.

In recent days the TPLF has claimed control of two key cities in Amhara, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Addis Ababa.

The government has denied claims of TPLF territorial gains which, if confirmed, would represent a major strategic advance. Much of northern Ethiopia is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify independently.

What's the fight about?

The immediate trigger for the conflict that started on 4 November 2020, was an attack on a military base housing government troops Tigray, in response to which Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray. But political feuding between Ahmed's party and Tigray's dominant political group TPLF had been escalating for months.

But the roots of this crisis can be traced back to a change that upended a rather flawed but stable political system that had been in place for decades.

Since 1994, Ethiopia has had a federal system in which different ethnic groups control the affairs of 10 regions. Remember that powerful party from Tigray that's leading the offensive now? Well, those guys were responsible for setting up this system and enjoyed a great degree of influence even outside their region.

In fact, TPLF was the leader of a four-party coalition that governed Ethiopia from 1991, ever since a military regime was ousted from power.

According to a report in BBC, under the coalition, Ethiopia became more prosperous and stable, but concerns were routinely raised about human rights and the level of democracy. Eventually, discontent morphed into protests, leading to a government reshuffle that saw Ahmed appointed prime minister.

Ahmed liberalised politics, set up a new party (the Prosperity Party), and removed key Tigrayan government leaders accused of corruption and repression. He also ended a ended a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

These moves won Ahmed popular acclaim but caused unease among critics in Tigray. His efforts to centralise power under a central government was obviously seen as efforts to strip away powers from states all of whom are a complex demographic mix with intertwining interests.

How did the war start?

When Ahmed started the war he promised it will be over within weeks. A year on, the war has reached its tipping point. In the past year, it has caused thousands of deaths, displaced 1.7 million people, and led to charges of atrocities — including ethnic cleansing and horrific sexual violence — mostly committed by government forces and their allies.

A former intelligence officer, Ahmed had once been part of the TPLF-dominated government. But after he took office in 2018, Ahmed set about cutting off TPLF's revenue sources and power.

Cornered, the TPLF retreated to its stronghold in Tigray, in the mountainous north of Ethiopia. But seeds of a future conflict were sown. In September, the Tigrayans defied Ahmed by going ahead with regional parliamentary elections that had been postponed across Ethiopia because of the coronavirus pandemic. Weeks later, Ethiopian lawmakers cut funding to the region, The New York Times reported.

On the night of 3 November, TPLF forces attacked a federal military base in Tigray and attempted to steal its weapons. The TPLF has said it had struck pre-emptively because federal forces were preparing to assault Tigray. Hours later, Ahmed ordered the military offensive into Tigray.

Residents face death destruction 

The humanitarian crisis is worsening. Children are dying of malnutrition, soldiers are looting food aid, and aid workers have been prevented from reaching the hardest-hit areas, according to the United Nations and other aid groups.

A joint investigation into alleged atrocities faulted all sides for committing abuses, and “the big numbers of violations” are linked to Ethiopian forces and those from neighbouring Eritrea.

The investigation was hampered by authorities’ intimidation and restrictions and didn’t visit some of the war’s worst-affected locations. It said all combatants have committed abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Among the investigation’s findings: Several Ethiopian military camps were used to torture captured Tigray forces or civilians suspected of supporting them. Others were detained in “secret locations” and military camps across the country, with detentions arbitrary in many cases. Tigray forces detained some ethnic Amhara civilians in western Tigray in the early days of the war on suspicion of supporting the military, and in some cases tortured them.

“The Tigray conflict has been marked by extreme brutality. The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights. Reports of abuses such as summary executions in Tigray continue, she said.

And yet the report gives little sign that Eritrean soldiers were responsible for many of the atrocities, as witnesses have alleged. Until March, Ethiopia's prime minister denied they were even in the country.

The investigation, however “could not confirm deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.” It called for further investigation.

It is to be noted here that the report is prepared in collaboration with the government-appointed human rights commission.

UN appeal and how the West responded

Responding to the escalating situation, Guterres urged both sides to step back from the brink.

Guterres called "for an immediate cessation of hostilities, unrestricted humanitarian access to deliver urgent life-saving assistance, and an inclusive national dialogue to resolve this crisis and create the foundation for peace and stability throughout the country," his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said.

Several Western powers have repeated their calls for an immediate ceasefire and for the African Union to broker peace talks.

The US embassy published an advisory Tuesday suggesting citizens reconsider travelling to Ethiopia and that those there "consider making preparations to leave".

The fighting has already killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to the UN.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed alarm over the emergency declaration. "Mass mobilisation from the government will only drag the country and its citizens further into civil war and disintegration," he warned.

US president Joe Biden said his government would remove Ethiopia from a vital trade pact due to human rights concerns related to the war.

Ethiopia, which in recent weeks had lobbied to stay in the programme, known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, said it was "extremely disappointed" by Biden's decision and called for its reversal.

Jeffrey Feltman, US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said on Tuesday that Washington opposed "any TPLF move to Addis or any TPLF move to besiege Addis", and that officials had conveyed that message to the rebels.

With inputs from agencies

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