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Election victory for the Prime Minister’s party

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity party comfortably won the general election held on 21 June 2021. However, voting did not take place in Tigray and, elsewhere, many polling stations were closed either because of insecurity or because of logistical challenges. Voting was held in 436 of the 547 seats in the federal parliament, with the Prosperity Party winning 410 seats. Some opposition parties boycotted the election, including two of the most prominent parties in Oromia region. Further votes will take place in September in some, although not all, of the remaining constituencies that were unable to hold a ballot.

TPLF take Tigray regional capital, Government declares unilateral ceasefire

On 28 June the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) recaptured Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray. The Ethiopian Government declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew Ethiopian National Defence Forces elements the capital. TPLF forces have since made further gains into the region.

On 10 August Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a national call for citizens to mobilise against the “TPLF terrorist enterprise”, calling on “all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the Defence Forces, Special Forces and militias and show your patriotism.” Kenya, Ethiopia’s southern neighbour, warned such a call “can lead to an uncontrollable spiral of violence and bloodshed.”

Reports of Eritrean forces returning to Tigray

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has also suggested large numbers of Eritrean forces have “re-entered Ethiopia after withdrawing in June” and called on the Eritrean government to withdraw its forces immediately and permanently. The US has also sanctioned the Eritrean Defence Forces Chief of Staff for his connection with serious human rights abuse committed in Ethiopia. The US Treasury said that under his command Eritrean troops are responsible for massacres and have “raped, tortured and executed civilians.”

Conflict in other regions

Intra-regional fighting remains a major concern both in terms of ongoing violence and in potentially inhibiting a peaceful resolution. The UN says western parts of Tigray are under the control of Amhara forces, while Tigrayan forces are also believed to be in parts of Amhara and Afar regions.

Separately, there is continued unrest in Oromio, Ethiopia’s largest region. In August the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said more than 210 people had been killed over a period of several days. The Commission said witnesses described the attackers as gunmen affiliated with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), although this has been denied by the group. The OLA wants to overthrow the government militarily and, shortly after Abiy called for a national call-up, announced a military alliance with the TPLF. There were protests in Oromia last year after the killing of a popular artist and activist and some Oromo political parties boycotted the recent election.

The divisions along ethnic lines risk prolonging and worsening the conflict. The UN Secretary-General has warned “inflammatory rhetoric and ethnic profiling are tearing apart the social fabric of the country.” The Kenyan government has similarly warned that defining opposing constituencies along ethnic lines is dangerous because people can “easily conflate political opposition to a struggle between ethnicities” and regard opposition to their own view as illegitimate.

Reports of rape and human rights violations

Reports of rape and sexual assaults have been a consistent feature of the conflict since it began in November 2020. In August Amnesty International released a new report accusing forces aligned to the Ethiopian Government of targeting women and girls in Tigray for rape and other sexual violence. Amnesty identified some of the perpetrators as members of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean Defence Force, the Amhara Regional Police Special Force, and Fano, an Amhara militia group. Amnesty said the severity and scale of the crimes are particularly shocking, suggesting they amounted to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Refugees International has also warned women in Tigray are at risk of sexual exploitation.

A joint investigation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into reports of allegations of abuses is concluding, the UN Secretary-General said on 27 August. It is not known when the report will be made available.

A “humanitarian catastrophe”

The UN Secretary-General says a “humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes” and has warned the unity of Ethiopia and the stability of the region “are at stake.” At least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions and more than 2 million have been displaced from their homes.

Obstruction of aid into Tigray

The humanitarian situation remains dire. The only available route for humanitarian supplies is through one road via the Afar region. Humanitarian organisations estimate 100 trucks of aid are required per day. However, on 26 August OCHA said that since 15 July, only 321 trucks with humanitarian supplies had entered the region and no trucks had entered Tigray in the previous six days.

Samantha Power, the USAID Administrator, has blamed the Ethiopian Government for blocking aid, saying there is a food shortage “not because food is unavailable, but because the Ethiopian Government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land and air access.” She called on Addis Ababa to immediately allow humanitarian assistance into Tigray, and to restore and maintain fuel deliveries, electricity, telecommunications and banking services. The US is providing an additional $149 million in funding to respond to the crisis.

International response

Mediation offers

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, says there is no military solution to the conflict and says the UN is ready to work with the African Union and other partners to support dialogue. The UK has echoed his call for talks to begin without preconditions. Kenya is calling on Ethiopia’s parliament to lift the terrorist designation given to the TPLF and other groups to allow for direct talks, arguing “peace cannot be made with a political movement that has been labelled as a terrorist group.”

However, it is unclear who may act as mediators. Ethiopia has rejected Sudan’s offer to mediate in the conflict. The leader of Tigray forces, Debretsion Gebremichael, while indicating a willingness to a negotiated end to the war, has ruled out the African Union. Martin Plaut, author of a book on Eritrea and a close follower of events in the region, is pessimistic about the prospect of peace talks and suggests that “far from there being “no military solution” there appears to be “only a military solution” to this war.”

Turkey may have a role to play; during a visit to Ethiopia, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan offered to mediate between Ethiopia and Sudan to resolve a separate border dispute.

United Nations Security Council

The UN Security Council discussed the situation in Tigray on 26 August. The meeting was requested by the UK, its Troika partners Norway and the US, plus several other countries.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned the unity of Ethiopia and the stability of the region are at stake and reiterated his appeal for action on three fronts:

  1. For all parties to immediately cease hostilities
  2. Commit to unrestricted humanitarian access and fully re-establish public services
  3. Create the conditions for the start of an Ethiopian-led political dialogue to find a solution to this crisis

The African Union

On 26 August the African Union appointed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obsanjo as its special representative to the Horn of Africa. He has been specifically tasked with working with political actors and stakeholders to entrench durable peace and stability within the region. However, Abiy has resisted previous AU efforts to mediate, and the TPLF says the AU is biased in favour of the Ethiopian government (the AU is headquartered in Addis Ababa).

UK Government response

During the Security Council meeting on 26 August the UK’s deputy permanent representative, Ambassador James Kariuki, laid out the UK’s position, calling for:

  • Tigrayan forces to immediately cease fighting in Amhara and Afar regions
  • Eritrean troops to withdraw completely from Ethiopia
  • the Ethiopian Government to fully enable humanitarian access.

Kariuki also called on all parties to comply with international humanitarian and human rights reports, and supported the joint investigation by the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into allegations of abuses. The Ambassador warned the conflict threatens the “long term stability and prosperity” of the country and the region, and called for an inclusive political settlement between the parties, without preconditions.

Parliamentary reports and debates

In April 2021 the International Development Committee, chaired by Sarah Champion, published a report on the humanitarian situation in Tigray. The Committee called on the government to:

  • use all diplomatic means at its disposal to help end the conflict, working multilaterally through the United Nations and the African Union, and bilaterally with the Ethiopian government, neighbouring states, and those involved in the conflict;
  • use its relationship with Ethiopia to ensure its government protects the population from violence and ensure immediate protection of communities in the region from human rights abuses, including sexual violence;
  • work with the appropriate authorities to enable access for independent monitors to Tigray to ensure that evidence of the crimes that have been committed is secured and to bring those who are responsible to justice; and
  • work with the Ethiopian government and the relevant regional authorities to ensure humanitarian agencies have unimpeded access to communities in need in Tigray and neighbouring regions.

The Committee also said that the UK Government’s response to the situation in Tigray will be an early test of its new approach to integrated diplomacy and development and its commitment to establish the UK as a ‘force for good’, as espoused in its recently published “Global Britain in a competitive age: the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy”.

Members discussed the situation in Tigray in a debate on 14 June 2021. James Duddridge, the Minister for Africa, told MPs a region-wide famine is “now likely” if conflict intensifies and impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid continue. The FCDO welcomed the Ethiopian government’s ceasefire announcement at the end of June, but reiterated its call for the government to grant unfettered humanitarian access, for all parties to respect international humanitarian law and for there to be a political process for “all parties to find a long term resolution to the conflict.”

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