Ethiopia faces more Tigray fighting as famine looms

Addis Ababa is calling on loyalists in the states of Oromia, Sidama and Amhara to join its efforts to subdue the northern rebels

Police march during a parade to display new police uniforms and instruct them to maintain impartiality and respect the law during the general election, in Meskel Square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  AP Photo
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Ethiopia is to launch a new military offensive against a rejuvenated rebel group in the northern region of Tigray.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government is rallying fighters from across the country amid warnings that there is no military solution to the conflict.

The threat of renewed violence comes after calls for a unilateral ceasefire from Addis Ababa were rejected by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Ethiopia has been weak at times, but has never been so divided, never seen so much ethnic conflict
Ephrem Madebo, former opposition member

Continuing hostilities are pushing the region to the brink of widespread famine, which could affect food supplies in other parts of the country.

Earlier this week, the government called on loyalists in the regional states of Oromia, Sidama and Amhara to join the effort to subdue the northern rebels, who have managed to recapture major cities, including Mekele, the capital of Tigray.

The multi-ethnic Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region is also sending fighters.

According to the UN, 91 per cent of the population of Tigray – more than five million people – is in need of emergency food aid and thousands are facing famine conditions.

Humanitarian corridors remain restricted because of the recurring conflict, preventing aid groups from providing help.

There are now fears that Ethiopia could experience a repeat of the 1984 famine that killed at least 200,000 people. By some estimates, more than a million died.

Mr Abiy announced last month that the federal government spent more than $2 billion within the Tigray region, excluding the cost of the military operation. He said the conflict was meant to have been short-lived.

“The unexpected evacuation of the Ethiopian Army from Mekele and the return of the Tigray Special Forces to the regional capital was a sour truth, hard to swallow for many Ethiopians”, said Ephrem Madebo, a former member of PG7, an opposition group founded in exile during TPLF rule.

As the dominant force in a transitional government coalition, the TPLF governed Ethiopia with an iron fist for 27 years following the 1991 collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regime.

Last year, the TPLF held a regional election that the Ethiopian parliament declared “null and void”, one of several factors that led to the eruption of hostilities on November 4, essentially a Tigrayan separatist rebellion.

Thousands have been killed so far in a war that has included widespread sexual violence and the destruction of already fragile infrastructure.

Tarnished investment image

The war has also shocked Ethiopia’s international investors. These include textile companies from East Asian nations that looked upon Mr Ahmed’s government as a model destination to expand operations, with abundant cheap labour and, until last year, relative stability.

Early economic progress has now suffered a blow – companies that set up in a $100-million industrial park in Mekele in 2017 have since left Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia has been weak at times, but has never been so divided, never seen so much ethnic conflict claim the lives of so many people, and its sovereignty has never been tested like it was in the last three years”, Mr Madebo said.

On Friday, Amnesty International joined the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in calling for the end of the arbitrary detention of Tigrayans across Ethiopia.

“Following the withdrawal of the Ethiopian National Defence Force from parts of Tigray and the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire by the federal government on 28 June, for the last two weeks Tigrayans in Addis Ababa have been arbitrarily arrested and detained”, Amnesty said.

In addition, there have been widespread reports of disappearances and attacks on refugee camps that house thousands of Eritrean refugees within the Tigray region, according to the UNHCR, which said it no longer has access to many of the camps.

Getachew G Temare, a human rights advocate, sees a bleak future for his nation.

“Ethiopia is not only disintegrating, it is heading to an endless civil war among various actors. Neither Tigray nor Ethiopia will profit from the present scenario of war and conflict. The international community should encourage Ethiopia to engage in meaningful national dialogue through the participation of all stakeholders,” he said.

For Addis Ababa, the conflict represents another distraction from finding a diplomatic solution to the construction of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has raised tensions with Egypt and Sudan.

Internally, the separatist Oromo Liberation Army is another threat to a state that in recent times has enjoyed relative peace.

Updated: July 18, 2021, 1:15 PM