Several armed conflicts plague Ethiopia and the country's economy is in crisis. The risk of a large-scale disaster is high. In a guest analysis, Pierre Frühling, who has worked with development issues for 40 years, writes about the ongoing conflicts in the country - and what can be done to curb them. Photo: Voice of America. Source: Garystockbridge.


The war in Tigray is over, but peace lingers and famine threatens

The situation in Ethiopia is critical. There are several armed conflicts going on in the country, while food shortages are spreading and the economy is in crisis. The risk is great for mass starvation i tigray – the region that has been affected by en of today's bloodiest and most destructive wars. Without dialogue between leaders of the country different ethnic groups about how the borders should look between the regions and what kind of governance the country should have, it is difficult to see how any real peace can be achieved in Ethiopia. It writes Pierre springg, former diplomat, aid worker and journalist. 

The war in the region Tigray is indeed over, but several other armed conflicts are now plaguing the country. As a result of increased military spending and the destruction caused by the conflicts, the country's once thriving economy is now in crisis and the state's scarce resources. THEthe food shortage is spreading in the country, which, in addition to the war, has also been affected severe drought. The situation is worst in Tigray, there experienced assessors warn of mass collapse - perhaps similar to that of the 1980s, when at least one million people died. But the distress call from the local authorities has so far been waved away by the federal government. Om situations not quickly improve the risk is high for one major disaster.

One of the most brutal and extensive wars of the century

The war in Tigray was fought between the Ethiopian Federal Armed Forces (ENDF) in alliance with armed militias from the Amhara region and troops from neighboring Eritrea on one side and the Tigray Armed Forces (TDF) on the other. It lasted for exactly two years, from November 2020 to November 2022. It was a brutal war that was mostly fought in the shadows of the media and did not generate much international attention. The Ethiopian government's cover-up efforts were indeed very successful. Telephone connections to the province of Tigray were cut, internet was shut down and no journalists were allowed to travel in to report.

In addition, there was an extremely aggressive stance against those countries (including the US and Kenya) and organizations (mainly the EU and also the UN) who dared to question or criticize – this was entirely an internal national matter, the Ethiopian government said. And Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed long claimed that it was not really even a war, but merely a "surgical operation against the illegitimate political leadership" in Tigray.

Today it is clear that it became one of them all bloodiest and most destructive wars in the world during this century. Only the number civilian death toll in Tigray is estimated at over half a million people, the majority of whom died as a result of the government's blockade of food and medicine. That is: they died of starvation and treatable diseases.

During the war, the attacking forces subjected the province of Tigray to large-scale and systematic destruction. Factories, offices, hospital and schools were looted and destroyed, as well as a large number of food stores. Electricity and water supplies were destroyed. A large number of villages and plantations were burned. Mass rape was used as a weapon and about a million of the province's five million inhabitants were forced to flee their homes. Added to this are the purely military losses, which for Tigray probably amount to several hundred thousand; all men and women of working age.

In the fall of 2022, the situation in Tigray approached a humanitarian disaster. In some areas, the population's constant state of hunger had begun to turn into outright famine. Then, on November 2, 2022, news finally arrived that the parties, the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), had signed an Agreement on Ceasefire (CoH) – an agreement supported by the African Union (AU), which would also monitor compliance.

Ceasefire, but not a peace treaty

The agreement came unexpectedly, and was met in most quarters with great joy and relief. But many observers were also skeptical. The agreement contained little about a real peace process, but touched on it mostly cease-fire, several points of agreement were unclear and some important timelines (regarding disarmament and demobilization of the Tigrean forces) were unrealistically short. Furthermore, Eritrea, which still had many thousands of soldiers in Tigray, was not on board; they had not participated in the negotiations and immediately adopted a dismissive stance. So what actually meant that the agreement would hold?

Today, more than a year has passed since the agreement was signed and the results so far have been better than expected. Most importantly, the actual war is actually over. The heavy weapons of the Tigray forces have been handed over to the National Defense Force (ENDF) and a civilian government made up of local politicians has taken back the administration of the Tigray region.

Meanwhile, Eritrean military remains in some parts of the region and large areas of land (especially in northwestern Tigray) have not been returned, which is why very few of the IDPs have been able to return home. The agreement's promise of accountability for the abuses during the war (and compensation for the victims) has remained empty words, as has the clause on reconciliation and transitional justice.

The responsibility for this also falls on the United States, The EU and other actors which in 2023 dropped its demands in these areas to instead normalize its relations with Ethiopia and regain the country as an important ally in the Horn of Africa. Suddenly they didn't even vote for continued funding of UN Special Committee on Abuses During the War. The humanitarian principles and the rights of the victims now weighed lightly in relation to the immediate geopolitical needs. This has unfortunately also contributed to worsening the conditions for a real reconciliation process in the country, which in turn could very well lead to new conflicts.

Furthermore, have reconstruction after the war (which would be financed through the federal government) has been slow, which has meant continued record low agricultural output and widespread unemployment. Thus, the promised readjustment to a normal life for soldiers and other combatants, which concerns roughly 250 people in Tigray alone, has not been able to be implemented.

Nor has the promise that humanitarian aid would be fully resumed after the war been fulfilled. After a slow start in early 2023, food supplies again shrunk dramatically, due to the US aid agency USAID and the World Food Program (WFP) in March of that year stopped all food aid to Ethiopia following reports of large-scale corruption. Although the needs were urgent among the starving civilian population, food aid was only resumed in the fall of 2023.

In this already very critical situation, Tigray, and several other parts of the country, have now also been affected by severe and widespread drought. The humanitarian situation is dramatic and at the end of December the provincial government in Tigray warned that it was threatened by a widespread famine and asked for help. The response from the capital, Addis Ababa, was a scolding. Indeed, there was no famine in Tigray, the federal government said, these were merely misleading claims. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the country had now become self-sufficient in wheat; but no additional emergency aid was sent to Tigray.

Since then, the warnings of impending famine have been repeated both by experienced assessors and organizations on the ground such as Oxfam and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Today, more than three million people in Tigray are in need of emergency aid and just over a million of these live in "acute hunger"; a condition that can quickly lead to mass collapse. But the federal government has not yet requested a specific international aid effort. On the contrary, they still deny the seriousness of the situation. In late January, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed even visited FAO headquarters in Rome to receive a medal for the government's "vision, leadership and commitment to food security" in Ethiopia.

The government's cold-hearted attitude towards the dramatic needs in Tigray is largely due to the fact that today it has several other armed conflicts in the country to deal with. Conflicts that have not only worsened after the ceasefire agreement in Tigray, but also due this. The agreement with Tigray can be said to have the character of a kind of "separate solution", which in the Ethiopian context almost necessarily creates new conflicts. Let me try to explain.

Regular battles and guerrilla warfare in the country's two most populous regions

Never have the domestic conflicts in Ethiopia been so numerous and so violent as today. Almost every region in the country today has its own conflict, with an ethnic character and of an armed nature - with many dead, increasing insecurity and a large number of internally displaced persons.

Ethiopia's regional division mainly follows linguistic and ethnic boundaries. In almost every region there is a clearly dominant ethnic group, with its own identity, history and language. But the conflicts are therefore not primarily ideological or racist. Instead, they concern access to agricultural land (80 percent of Ethiopia's population still lives in rural areas), the distribution of power within the area, and the relationship with the federal government in Addis Ababa.

The fact that the conflicts have now worsened is partly due to the fact that the central government is today weaker than before. But the main reason is that since coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his party (PP) have actively used ethnic divisions to divide and rule. His variant of "ethno-politics", which was used in the prelude to the war against Tigray, has quickly spread to other groups and is today a toxic factor in Ethiopia.

The most serious is the very extensive conflict in the country's second largest region, Amhara, where a state of emergency has been in place since August 2023. But the situation is also very unstable in the country's most populous region, Oromia. In both cases there is a link to the war against Tigray and the cease-fire agreement. This is most evident in the case of the development in Amhara.

Amhara – from alliance to rebellion against the regime

In the war against Tigray, a large part of the federal government's built strength of an alliance with the Amhara elite, which enabled the total mobilization of the region's own militia and the growth of the armed volunteer forces, known as Fano. The motifs on the Amharic side were twofold. Firstly, they wanted to regain influence over the central government, where they feared that the Oromo people would otherwise become too strong. Second, they wanted to regain the fertile lands that had belonged to Tigray since 1991 (mainly in the west and northwest, on the border with Sudan); areas that were claimed 'historically' to be part of Amhara.

Already in the initial stages of the war, Amharic (and Eritrean) forces therefore penetrated these areas, committed widespread massacres and abuses, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Tigrean civilians. With the support of the federal government, the areas were very soon placed under the administration of the Amhara state, new staff manned the local offices, signs in Tigrean were replaced with Amharic, and new ID cards for the population (where ethnic identity is an important heading) were issued. "Ethnic cleansing" was called this by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

The Amharic elite and all Amhara nationalist forces rejoiced – and the support of the indigenous population for these groups increased. But then came the cease-fire agreement and the future became even more uncertain. In the agreement there was only one sentence about what would happen to the lands that had been "recaptured", namely that "The parties undertake to resolve issues related to disputed lands in accordance with the country's constitution".

This was hardly an acknowledgment that the conquered territories would now belong to the Amhara. And while actual control was still exercised by Amharic militias and administration, this showed that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed could not be trusted. He had not allowed the Amharas to participate in the negotiations with Tigray, and besides, he himself was descended from the Oromo people.

An intense battle between the Amhara and the federal government now began, and when the federal government decided in April 2023 that all regional militia forces would be subsumed into the national military, tens of thousands of Amhara militiamen refused to hand over their weapons and instead joined the Fano forces in the mountains. Thus the contradictions turned from politics to armed conflict and the whole thing escalated quickly.

The climax came in July-August 2023, when thousands of militiamen captured several cities in the region – including Lalibela, with its world-famous churches. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency and large troop forces were deployed to "restore order". However, the conflict is far from over. In several areas, a kind of guerilla war is going on today. The government forces accused of widespread abuse (even drones have been used to bomb) and hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced to flee their homes. Due to the recent severe drought, food shortages are now severe in some parts of Amhara, but the security situation is hampering the distribution of aid shipments.

Widespread unrest also in Oromia

The conflict in the Oromia region is more complicated and consists of a number of different actors and dimensions. There are also elements of purely ethnic violence here, mainly in areas where groups from the Amhara population have been attacked. Assault and kidnapping for the purpose of demanding money (which did not exist at all before) has become common, spreads fear and affects everyday life. However, the main side of the conflict here is also directed at the federal government and concerns demands for increased influence, secure borders (not least due to historically conditioned fear and distrust of Amharas) and an end to what is perceived as continued oppression and special treatment of Oromos.

The most visible actor is the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which today has some territorial control in the western parts of the region. The OLA is waging a guerilla war, but is also accused of murdering Amharas living in the area. The regime's response has mainly been of a military nature, which has led to extensive abuses and many internally displaced persons.

As a result, local support for OLA has increased, but above all, distrust of the government has grown stronger. Nor is it here today that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is to be trusted. And many fear that he will come up with a separate deal on the Amhara leaders' demands, something that is sure to disadvantage Oromos.

National dialogue against famine and continuing conflicts

Without a serious and open dialogue between leaders of the country's various ethnic groups about what the borders should look like between the regions and what kind of governance the country should have - federal and decentralized or centrally controlled - it is difficult to see how any real peace can be achieved in Ethiopia. Bringing about a broad collaboration to quickly and forcefully prevent the growing famine in Tigray, Amhara and elsewhere in the country from developing into a disaster could be a first step towards such a dialogue. At the moment, however, there are no signs of any such initiative, and it is too late. How the outside world – Sweden included – acts in this situation can therefore be of unusual importance.

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