Ethiopia Crisis



Ethiopia has been on a brink of a civil war since the Prime Minister of the country, Abiy Ahmed declared war on the country’s northernmost region i.e. the Tigray Region on November 4, 2020. The country’s Tigray region which is located in the northern parts of the country is ruled by the Tigray’s People’s Liberation (TPLF). The Tigray people make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people. The orders were given to the Ethiopian National Defence Soldiers on 4th November,2020  to remove the governing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from power. This event was followed by the armed assaults on the Federal Military Northern Command Base by the TPLF in Mekelle. During these attacks and events military hardwares including heavy weapons were seized and soldiers were killed who refused to defect. Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, deemed the attack as “Act of High Treason” and “Crime against Constitutional Order” which required “Law Enforcement Operation.” However, this attack of anticipation was justified by the Tigrayan Leaders as they perceived federal intervention as imminent. The TPLF’S assault on the military base became a part of  defiance movement against the ruling government which was followed by the happening of regional legislative elections in September 2020, despite the strict orders of postponement by the Addis Ababa Authorities due to the spread of Covid-19. 


“The European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) early warning mechanisms have not been able to prevent the escalation of the Tigray Crisis”


Causes of the Conflict


The root cause of the Conflict or the civil war turns out to be the imbalance of powers between the federal authority and the ethiopian region. Going back towards the end of 20th Century, in the late 1970s and 1980s , the TPLF gained recognition and prominence by becoming the ruling head of a coalition in 1991 after fighting the military dictatorship in the country. Backed with a system of Ethnic Federalism, the TPLF dominated Ethiopian Politics for the utmost 30 years. During this time period, Significant legislative and executive powers were given to the nine regions in the country which were in line with the ethiopian linguistic identities. Subsequently the country witnessed major economic growth in these years. The TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) which was in coalition with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)  which was further a mix of four parties, criticised TPLF as exercising disproportionate power with the coalition. From 1995 to 2012, the Chairman of EPRDF and Prime Minister was Mr. Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan leader. Curtailing Free speech, Stifling political dissent and establishing an extensive network of citizen-spies made the coalition highly repressive. The government by ordering security forces infamously killed 200 protesters and thousands of opponents were arrested who contested 2005 election results.


Overview of the Conflict


These disasters led the TPLF out of power and the leading member of the Oromo Ethinic Group, Mr. Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister who had a clear vision of  Unified and Centralised Ethiopia. Abiy’s moves removed Tigrayan Politicians and Leaders from Power further leading to deepening tensions between the leader of Oromo Ethinc Group (Mr. Abiy Ahmed) and the Tigrayan Leader (Mr. Meles Zenawi). One such incident or example which gives us a glimpse of this is that in 2019, when Mr. Abiy dissolved EPRDF and created a new party, Prosperity Party, surprisingly TPLF agreed to join the newly formed party. This happened due to the inner desire of the TPLF to lead and increase it’s autonomy in the regional legislative elections in September 2020 which took place refusing the orders from Addis Ababa. Thus, the federal government declared the elections as unconstitutional , and refused to recognize the newly formed Tigrayan leaders and cabinet. The Tigrayan Leaders were warned by the law that if they did not disavow the elections, They would take law and order action against them.


There was a communication blackout and journalists were being detained by both Ethiopian officials and TPLF groups. The disinformation campaigns were led out by both the groups which led to the division of the conflict in two camps  which were ; the Ethiopian Federal Troops backed by Amhara Region paramilitaries and Eritrean Soldiers. An interesting fact about these two is that both had disputes with TPLF and loyal troops to TPLF. On 28th November, 2020, Addis Ababa declared victory as the federal soldiers captured Tigray’s capital Mekelle. However, the fight is still going on and the humanitarian aid dispensed by the government is grossly insufficient. 


Though the information sources remain scarce and no reliable data can be posted out, the estimates point out that there have been reports on large scale human rights violation which includes extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. As per the reports and statements by The  Amnesty International there have been large killings of civilians by knives, machetes and other sharp objects in the town of Mai-kadra which points towards the TPLF community. The reports by both organizations point out that the Eritrean Troop has massacred hundreds of civilians in the town of Axum. However, Abiy’s address in the parliament on 23rd March 2021 revealed that the Eritrean Soldiers had committed atrocities in the Tigray Region. His address was “  Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers’ ‘ and further added that “any damage that the Eritrean army did to our people was unacceptable.” Despite the discussion being held with the Eritrean Government at least 4-5 times, still the war crimes will be held to account. Around 3-4.5 million people are in need of Emergency Food Assistance, which accounts to three quarters of the 1.6 million population. The access to Humanitarian Agencies was being denied in the first few months of the conflict. Later on, some agencies were granted access in the refugee camps and to the Mekelle region. Still, 80% of the population remains out of reach. Armed forces have been threatening civilians who are attempting to flee the region and attacking refugee camps. “Two of the Eritrean troop camps ; Shimelba and Hitsats, have been destroyed” as per the statement by The United Nations. The conflict has displaced almost 2 million people , including more than 50,000 to the neighbouring country Sudan. Major challenges such as providing basic  needs to refugees, such as shelter, food provision post Covid-19, are being faced by the Humanitarian Agencies.


Tigrayan Political and Military Leaders have been arrested and detained by the Federal Security Forces. Former Foreign Minister, Mr. Seyoum Mesfin has been killed by federal military forces. The accounts of Tigrayan Company have been freezed by the Central Bank of the Country.  The Tigrayan Leaders have been detained in Leadership Positions including peacekeeping missions and Ethiopian embassies. Tigrayan Civilians have been barred from leaving the country by the federal government which leads to violation of fundamental rights. Not only this, the raids by the police from Addis Ababa in the Tigrayans’ homes has worsened the situation.


The State of Emergency was declared on 5th November 2020 and remained until May 2021. Though the elections were scheduled to be held on 5th June 2021 in other regions of Tigray, they remained suspended. 


“Large scale violations of Human Rights were there from all sides of the Conflict.”


International Responses


De-escalation of the conflict along with withdrawal of foreign troops has been called upon by many governments. Reports on Independent investigations on human rights abuse have also been called upon. The further study of this paper will mainly focus on the say of the African Union & European Union Government’s response..


African Union Response

In order to ensure a peaceful solution to the conflict, AU Commission Chair stated that cessasities and parties should engage themselves in a dialogue. Three high level envoys, former President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano, former President of Liberia Ellen JohnsonSirleaf, and former President of South Africa Kgalema Motlanthe were appointed by the African Union President Cyril Ramphosa for the conflict resolution within the country. This was dismissed by the European Union as fake news immediately. But, on 27th November, Addis ababa welcomes envoys. TPLF leaders being considered as “criminal critiques” were not allowed to meet the envoys. Just a day, Addis Ababa  intimated that the following day will be the last and final phase of the Military Campaign which came as a sign of non cooperation and non compromise to envoy leaders. Mr. Abiy appreciated the “Elderly Concern” of the AU Envoys and at the same time justified the military response as a constitutional mandate.   


European Union Response

EU being acting as an international actor has gone further in postponing its direct budgetary support till the ethiopian government complied with the terms and conditions which included granting humanitarian aid operations to the tigray community. Josep Borell, EU’s Foreign Affairs & Security representative justified the act by saying that “the situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal Law and order operation.” Not only this, he also stated the reports of “ethnic targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes.” Budgetary aid might be disbursed by Germany and other individual countries to start the peace process. Life saving goods and services were provided to the population by increasing humanitarian funding. In order to save refugees in Sudan and Kenya, additional funds were directed towards these nations as well. Pekka Havisto, being appointed as EU Special Envoy on the behalf of Joseph Borrel, visited the country to carry out the human rights assessment. Reformed Power sharing within the country  was also intended to be discussed by the envoys. 

Upon the violation of International Humanitarian law, an idea was floated to list the Ethiopian leaders under EU Sanction Regimes. The members of the European Parliament were asked not to be distracted by the transient challenges going on in the region. Being committed to their work & time and putting the right things in the right perspective were highlighted by Hirut Zemene, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the European Union.

Merlyn Malhotra