Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: Six months on and no end in sight

As fighting in Ethiopia’s northernmost region hits the six-month mark, we take a look at some of the most important events of the conflict.

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Ethiopia's Tigray conflict Six months on and no end in sight www.africanpolicy.com

Six months ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops into Tigray for a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the northern region’s ruling party that had dominated national politics for decades.

Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, promised the air and ground operation would be swift and targeted. However, violence rumbles on and reports of massacres, rape, and widespread hunger continue to emerge as analysts warn of a protracted conflict that risks dragging on for years. Here is a timeline of the ongoing crisis.

In the early hours of November 4, 2020, Abiy orders a military response to what he calls a “traitorous” attack on federal army camps in Tigray.

The prime minister blames the attack on the TPLF, which was at the helm of Ethiopia’s governing coalition for nearly 30 years until he took office in 2018. The TPLF denies responsibility and says the reported attack is a pretext for an “invasion”. It is impossible to verify assertions on all sides because telephone lines and internet links to Tigray are severed and journalists are barred from entering the region.

The eruption of fighting came after months of rising tensions, including Tigray’s holding of regional elections in September in defiance of the federal government, which had postponed nationwide polls due in August because of the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy’s government says the vote won by the TPLF in a landslide is illegal and begins to withhold funds meant for social welfare programme in Tigray, a region of some six million.

As fighting intensifies, there are concerns a conflict in Ethiopia could reverberate across the already fragile Horn of Africa, impacting neighbours Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.

Abiy sacks the head of the military, whose top brass includes many battle-hardened Tigrayans, while on November 9, the federal government carries out more air raids in Tigray, with Abiy saying the operation will be over “soon”.

On November 14, TPLF forces fire rockets at Asmara, the capital of neighbouring Eritrea, which has a long-running enmity with the TPLF leadership. TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael also says his forces have been fighting Eritrean troops “on several fronts” for the past few days.

Tens of thousands of refugees flee into neighbouring Sudan, describing the horror of intense fighting, including horrific killings.

As the refugee flow swells, tensions mount between Ethiopia and Sudan, part of whose frontier is disputed. After 10 days of fighting, the United Nations warns of possible war crimes in Tigray.

Having rejected peace talks and international calls for an end to the fighting, Abiy says government tanks are advancing on Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. The city comes under heavy shelling before Abiy announces on November 28 that military operations in Tigray are “completed”. However, fighting continues in parts of Tigray.

In February 2021, Amnesty International says Eritrean soldiers killed “hundreds of civilians” in November in the holy city of Axum in Tigray. More reports of atrocities emerge, with civilians accusing Eritrean forces of carrying out massacres and systematic rape.

On March 10, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urges Eritrea to withdraw from the region and describes violence in western Tigray as “ethnic cleansing”. He also calls for special forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which borders Tigray to the south, to be ordered out of disputed areas they have taken.

For months, Ethiopia and Eritrea flatly deny the involvement of Eritrean forces in the conflict.

But on March 23, Abiy finally admits that Eritrean troops had crossed the border into Tigray. He also suggests they may have been involved in atrocities against civilians.

The next day, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says Eritrean soldiers massacred more than 100 civilians in Axum in November, in what may amount to crimes against humanity. The findings by the government-affiliated but independent body corroborate separate investigations by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

After admitting Eritrea’s role, Abiy flies to its capital, Asmara, to meet Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. During the visit, Abiy says Eritrea has agreed to pull its forces back over the border.

Just over a week later, Ethiopia says Eritrean troops have “started to evacuate” Tigray but on April 15, the UN’s top humanitarian official says there is no evidence of withdrawal and warns the crisis in the embattled region has deteriorated.

“The conflict is not over and things are not improving,” Mark Lowcock says as he gives a sobering assessment of the events on the ground, calling the “reports of systematic rape, gang rape, and sexual violence … especially disturbing and alarmingly widespread”.

Furthermore, Lowcock says he received a report of 150 people dying of hunger in one area of southern Tigray, calling it “a sign of what lies ahead if more action is not taken”.

A day later, Eritrea, which has denied the allegations of rape and other crimes levelled against its soldiers as “outrageous” and “a vicious attack on the culture and history of our people”, also acknowledges for the first time that its forces are taking part in the conflict and promises to pull them out of Tigray.

On April 22, after multiple meetings that had failed to produce any kind of concrete outcome, the UN’s Security Council finally issues its first joint statement on the continuing crisis, expressing “deep concern” about allegations of human rights violations, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls.

The 15-member body also calls for “a scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access” to address humanitarian needs, including for people in the embattled region who are in need of food assistance.

Ethiopia’s mission to the UN calls the situation in Tigray “an internal affair regulated by the laws of the country, including human rights laws”.

It says the Ethiopian government is “providing a significant portion of the humanitarian assistance delivered to those in need and will continue to allocate the maximum available resources” and stressed the commitment to “investigate and ensure accountability” for alleged human rights violations “will be upheld”.

On April 27, the UN’s latest humanitarian update for Tigray describes “active hostilities reported in the central, eastern and northwestern parts of the region”.

Thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, are estimated to have been killed in the conflict, with nearly two million displaced and some 4.5 million in need of food assistance.

“The humanitarian situation has gotten from bad to worse,” Vanessa Tsehaye, Horn of Africa campaigner for Amnesty, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.

“The accessibility of the region for humanitarian organisations might have improved but the situation right now is catastrophic,” she said. “This is partly a result of parties of the conflict acting with a sense of impunity, and the lack of access to humanitarian organisations to document and hold perpetrators accountable is providing the sense that they are going to get away with what they are doing.”

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