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Ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia and severe drought in the southeast mean millions of people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The World Food Programme estimates 9.4 million people are in “dire need of food assistance” in the north. While at least 6 million people will need life-saving assistance in eastern and southern Ethiopia because of drought, according to UNOCHA. The International Rescue Committee ranks Ethiopia second on its list of the “ten worst humanitarian crises in the world expected in 2022.

A report released in November 2021 by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission documented the widespread use of sexual violence, torture and forced displacement by all parties since the conflict began.

The UK Government has repeatedly called for a cessation of fighting and to allow humanitarian aid through to those in need. 

The Library has published several papers and debate packs on the situation in Ethiopia including:

Political situation: 14 months of fighting

The conflict in the northern state of Tigray began in November 2020, when tensions between the new government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in power since 2018, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, came to a head.

The fighting unseated the TPLF from their powerbase in Tigray. The Ethiopian Government has since designated the TPLF a terror group, and Tigrayan fighters have unified under the banner of the Tigrayan Defence Forces.

The situation on the ground remains fluid.

In late 2021 rapid advances by Tigrayan forces prompted speculation the capital could be vulnerable. In November the UK Government urged British nationals to leave Ethiopia because of fears the fighting could move closer to Addis Ababa.

However, Tigrayan advances were halted and reversed by federal forces, supported in the air by armed remotely piloted aircraft (drones). These have reportedly been supplied to Addis Ababa by Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. In mid-December Tigrayan forces announced a withdrawal from neighbouring regions and called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Tigray. The federal government responded by saying forces would pause at current positions and not push further into Tigray.

However, fighting has continued. Airstrikes have killed and injured dozens of civilians in recent weeks:

  • In early January an airstrike on a camp for internally displaced people in Dedebit in Tigray killed 56 people and drew international condemnation.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees condemned an airstrike that killed three Eritrean refugees in the Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia on 5 January.
  • Aid workers said 17 people working at a flour mill in Mai Tsebri were killed by a drone strike on 10 January 2022.

US President Joe Biden voiced concern about airstrikes and civilian deaths in a conversation with Abiy on 11 January.

Both sides have been accused of carrying out atrocities during the 14 months of fighting.

A report released in November 2021 by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission documented violations and abuses of human rights, international humanitarian law and refugee law in Tigray, including the widespread use of sexual violence, torture and forced displacement.

The UN Human Rights Council subsequently voted to establish an international expert commission to investigate allegations of violations and abuses in Ethiopia committed by all parties since 3 November 2020.

A “moment of opportunity”?

The withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and call for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations in December, combined with the federal government’s promise not to push further into Tigray, prompted some to see an opportunity to end the fighting and begin talks.

On 10 January 2022 a senior US administration official suggested there was a moment of opportunity for Ethiopia if the parties are “willing and able to seize it”. The official pointed to the positive signals given by Prime Minister Abiy – releasing political prisoners, openness to dialogue and pledges with regard to humanitarian access – and to the Tigrayan commitment to dialogue. The US continues to call for unfettered humanitarian access and a cessation of violence.

The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission also commended the release of some political opposition leaders and the establishment of the National Dialogue Commission. Josep Borrell urged all parties to “seize the moment” to swiftly end the conflict and enter into dialogue.

Humanitarian situation in Ethiopia

In August 2021 the UN Secretary-General said a “humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes” and warned the unity of Ethiopia and the stability of the region were at stake. More recently António Guterres said he was deeply saddened by reports that more than 50 civilians were killed and injured in an airstrike in northern Ethiopia in early January. He repeated his call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for all parties to facilitate humanitarian access. Several aid agencies temporarily suspended operations in the area as a result of the airstrike.

On 6 January 2022 UNOCHA said humanitarian partners continue to face security, bureaucratic and operational challenges to operate in northern Ethiopia:

In Tigray, notably due to lack of cash, fuel and supplies, humanitarian space has shrunk to the point where partners were forced to significantly reduce or completely suspend operations, leaving millions of people without adequate access to lifesaving assistance and protection services.

14 months into the conflict and the humanitarian situation remains dire.

Several UN agencies have published situation reports on the situation in the northern regions of Tigray, Amara and Afar:

  • An estimated 9.4 million people are in “dire need of food assistance” as a result of ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia, the World Food Programme warned in November 2021.
  • The UN estimates more than five million people in northern regions require humanitarian assistance.
  • 100 trucks are required to move into Tigray every day to sustain the food assistance for at least 5.2 million people. However, UNOCHA says only 1,338 trucks entered the region between 12 July and 14 December, which is less than 12 per cent of the required supplies to meet humanitarian needs.
  • According to the Integrated Food Security Phase (IPC) Classification, which measures food insecurity, an estimated 400,000 in Ethiopia were acutely food insecure in IPC phase 5 (catastrophe) between July and September 2021. This is the highest rating, suggesting at least 20% of households face an “extreme” lack of food and at least 30% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition.

The head of the World Health Organisation has described Tigray as being under a de facto blockade. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Tigray, said:

Imagine a complete blockade of seven million people for more than a year. And there is no food. There is no medication, no medicine. No electricity. No telecom. No media.

The UK Government has repeatedly called on all sides to allow the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid in northern Ethiopia. Vicky Ford, the Minister for Africa, said:

The de facto blockade of Tigray imposed by the by the Government of Ethiopia since July remains a principal driver of humanitarian suffering across the region.

In 2020 Ethiopia, along with the rest of East Africa, experienced what the UN called the “worst locust swarm in 25 years.” In September 2021 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned desert locusts are breeding in Ethiopia’s northern regions.

Drought in south and southeast Ethiopia

In addition to the fighting in the north, drought is threatening millions of people across southern and southeast Ethiopia.

UNOHCA suggests at least 6 million people will need life-saving assistance in 2022 in eastern and southern Ethiopia because of drought. UNOCHA says a third consecutive failed rainy season is already having a devastating impact on lives and livelihood of pastoral and agro-pastoralist communities in the Somalia, East and South Oromia regions.

The International Rescue Committee says parts of Ethiopia and Somalia are experiencing the driest conditions in 40 years, with more than 3 million affected across southeast Ethiopia and Somalia. The IRC ranks Ethiopia as second on its list of the “ten worst humanitarian crises in the world expected in 2022.”

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