In Ethiopia, humanitarian aid has become a political issue | D + C
The conflict in northern Ethiopia continues to escalate in a vicious cycle of mutual mistrust and violence. The unrest is spreading to other parts of the country and to other segments of the population. Interventions by external parties have so far only made the situation worse.
The conflict began in November 2020 with armed clashes between Ethiopia’s central government and the Tigray regional government (see my article in D + C / E + Z e-Paper 2021/01, Debate section). At that time, there was already a food shortage, caused by a locust invasion the previous year. Then there was the Corona pandemic, which has not abated to date.
The parties to the conflict are, on the one hand, the armed forces of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) and, on the other, the Ethiopian armed forces (ENDF), the Eritrean army (EDF) and militias of the neighboring regions. In addition to military clashes, a propaganda battle increasingly rages over the narrative of who plays what role in the conflict and who is responsible for what atrocities and massacres.
Humanitarian aid has become a political issue and the civilian population a pawn in the battle for world public opinion. The central government denounces unilateral Western reporting and refuses any outside intervention. Diplomatic relations with major allies and neighboring countries are at an all-time low. Pundits, politicians and journalists usually exacerbate already deep-rooted divisions. Ethiopia is threatened with increasing isolation.
The heated dispute over the credibility of opponents is not a by-product of the war but its real starting point. Much of the population suspects former political cadres of being at the origin of political unrest between 2018 and 2020. Until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018, the TPLF had dominated Ethiopian politics. for years by violence, censorship and repression.
Due to decades of human rights violations, much of the population has a strong aversion to the former government. Many see the ongoing violence between ethnic groups as a consequence of the TPLF’s divide-and-rule strategy, which has elevated ethnic federalism to constitutional status.
Today, Abiy Ahmed and his supporters seek to overcome ethnic tensions through centralization, and they believe that cannot be achieved with a TPLF that continues to fuel these tensions. In Tigray itself, however, recent events and fears of widespread violence directed against their own ethnic group have caused the ranks to tighten behind the TPLF.
The bottom line is that this is a power struggle between politicians who are former guerrilla fighters or see themselves as following this tradition and who use all means to discredit their opponents. Since the start of the conflict, the TPLF has described the famine as deliberate and part of an attempted genocide by the central Ethiopian government. The Abiy government in turn blames the TPLF for the miserable conditions, violence and blocked access routes – without admitting that a multitude of actors are increasingly out of control.
Any confidence that opponents will treat in good faith has been completely lost. Reports of massacres, torture, mass rape and other crimes committed by some are systematically denounced as propaganda by others. Those who automatically condemn the acts are seen as the spokespersons of the opponents and thus reaffirm the belief in a plot against one’s own camp.
Government supporters see relief operations for Tigray or the Ethiopian refugee camps as a smokescreen to support the TPLF. Following blockades and attacks on aid convoys, unknown people murdered three staff members of Médecins Sans Frontières, an NGO, in June. In August, the central government revoked the licenses of several NGOs, accusing them of spreading disinformation. The UN responded by condemning the widespread denigration of humanitarian organizations.
The dilemma now is that humanitarian aid is urgently needed, but any external intervention potentially worsens the emergency. The international community must quickly find alternatives to the current approach to protect the local population from further suffering.
Markus Rudolf is Principal Investigator at the Bonn International Conversion Center (BICC).