Pressure is mounting on Ethiopia to declare a ceasefire in the northern province of Tigray to allow humanitarian organisations to reach millions of people who face famine.
The war in Tigray has disrupted harvests and led to huge problems for the delivery of aid to communities, particularly in rural areas. More than 2 million people are thought to have been displaced by the conflict.
The UK has called for “a cessation of hostilities by all conflict parties and unfettered humanitarian access so that aid can flow and famine can be averted”.
The US embassy in Addis Ababa tweeted on Wednesday: “We agree with the UK that the humanitarian situation in #Tigray is rapidly deteriorating. A break in the fighting NOW, coupled with unfettered humanitarian access, will immediately help avert the risk of famine.”
Many European countries backed the call. The Finnish foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, said he had discussed the “alarming humanitarian situation in Tigray” with the UN secretary general, António Guterres, and called for humanitarian workers to be protected and humanitarian access guaranteed.
The UN said earlier this week that more than 90% of people in Tigray needed emergency food aid, as appealed for $203m (£140m) to scale up its response.
The World Food Programme said it was alarmed at how the conflict had increased already high levels of hunger in Tigray. “A total of 5.2 million people, equivalent to 91% of Tigray’s population, need emergency food assistance due to the conflict,” the WFP spokesperson, Tomson Phiri, said in Geneva.
Key events leading to Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) topples Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of a communist junta that ruled the country from 1974. The coalition group is led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), guerrilla fighters who marched from their homeland in Ethiopia’s north to the capital, Addis Ababa.
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia proclaimed
The EPRDF sweeps to power in poorly contested elections, and the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, becomes Ethiopia’s prime minister. Tigrayans dominate senior ranks of government.
1995 – 2012
Meles introduces a system that gives the country’s main ethnic groups the chance to govern the areas in which they dominate. Though Tigrayans make up about 5% of the population, they benefit disproportionately, other regions complain, as roads and other infrastructure are built in their sparsely populated area.
The prime minister dies in office and a successor from another ethnic group is appointed.
2015 – 2018
Divisions break out in the EPRDF over how quickly to pursue political reforms in response to street protests that threaten the coalition’s grip.
Abiy Ahmed comes to power
Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, takes over as prime minister, winning praise at home and abroad for opening up one of Africa’s most restrictive political and economic systems.
Tigrayans complain they are being persecuted in a crackdown on corruption and past abuses. Former senior military and political officials are put on trial.
11 October 2019
Abiy is awarded the Nobel peace prize for his peacemaking efforts, which ended two decades of hostility with Eritrea. The TPLF continue to view Eritrea as an enemy.
21 November 2019
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition agrees to form a single party, but the TPLF refuses to merge with three other ethnic-based parties, calling the move rushed and undemocratic.
8 September 2020
Tigray holds regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which postponed nationwide polls due in August because of Covid-19. Abiy’s government says the vote is illegal.
The federal government starts to withhold some funds meant for social welfare programmes in Tigray, part of a plan to starve the regional authorities of cash in retaliation for the vote.
4 November 2020
Fighting breaks out
Abiy sends troops into Tigray, accusing the TPLF of attacking federal troops based in the region. The TPLF accuses Abiy of punishing the region for the September vote. Reuters
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The conflict began in November when government forces moved to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from power in the province after it launched surprise attacks on key federal military bases.
Though the Ethiopian army, pro-government militia and troops sent by neighbouring Eritrea were initially victorious, the conflict has become a grinding insurgency marked by atrocities including many massacres of civilians and systematic sexual violence.
Internal NGO assessments seen by the Guardian describe the widespread destruction of agricultural equipment, seed stocks and infrastructure as well as various deliberate attempts by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops to delay convoys. There are also reports of the theft of food and other essential materials. Fighting means many areas where the need is greatest are cut off.
The US has already imposed some sanctions and signalled further restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia.
Joe Biden called on the parties to the conflict in Tigray to declare and adhere to a ceasefire last week.
“Earlier this week, the UN office of humanitarian affairs warned that Ethiopia could experience its first famine since the 1980s because of this protracted conflict. All parties, in particular the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, must allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine,” the US president said in a statement.
Ethiopian officials have rejected the calls so far, and on Sunday people packed a stadium in Addis Ababa for a pro-government rally, chanting against US sanctions and waving posters accusing foreign powers of undermining the country’s sovereignty.
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