This week marks the one-year anniversary of the conflict in Tigray. It is also the week that the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency and called on residents of Addis Ababa to defend the capital against advancing Tigrayan rebels. This latest collapse of the Ethiopian army marks perhaps the most dramatic turn of what has been a disastrous and bloody conflict. A government blockade has brought famine to Tigray, and the threat of full-scale civil war now hangs over the country. Without deeper international engagement to pause the fighting and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, the worst is yet to come.
One year ago, as the Ethiopian army, Amharan militia, and Eritrean forces were amassing along their regional borders, Tigrayan forces were blamed for sacking the Ethiopian Northern Command military base. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded by launching a violent scorched earth campaign of Tigray. After more than eight months of fighting, the rebel Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF) pushed out the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its partners from much of Tigray. The government declared a unilateral ceasefire, but the TDF went on to move against neighboring Afar and Amhara states.
The Ethiopian government mobilized tens of thousands of poorly trained conscripts and sent them north in October 2021. TDF repulsed those advances and, in recent weeks, went on to make significant military gains, including the capture of the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara. The TDF’s advances triggered the government’s declaration of a state of emergency, as well as reports of desertions within the ENDF. The situation has become so serious that the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman called on the Tigrayan rebels not to attack or lay siege to the capital.
Devastating Impacts on Civilians
For civilian populations, the consequences of the war have been devastating. Millions of Tigrayans have already been displaced – slowly making their way to towns like Shire, Axum, and Adigrat in search of relief, some eating leaves just to survive. Eritrean refugee camps have been destroyed while tens of thousands of refugees have gone missing. Civilian infrastructure has been looted or damaged, including water systems, clinics, and hospitals. Relief agencies initially sprinted to scale up in the face of significant restrictions. But food and other forms of assistance were looted while aid groups struggled through intentionally byzantine bureaucratic, logistic, and security roadblocks to deliver relief. To date, 23 aid workers have been killed.
After the Ethiopian army was forced out of Tigray in June, Abiy imposed a physical and bureaucratic blockade of northern Ethiopia. Communications, banking, fuel, and trade into Tigray were shut down. Relief efforts largely ground to a halt. Since June 28, the Ethiopian government has allowed less than 10% of the food, medicines, and other critical supplies necessary to help those in need into Tigray. It has also made it abundantly clear that the United Nations and other relief agencies will have their projects suspended and their leadership expelled if they speak out. Over the summer, the TDF offensive displaced nearly half a million people in Afar and Amhara. Recent fighting will undoubtedly see that number rise substantially. Signs of acute malnutrition are already present amongst the displaced.
Famine Takes Hold
Reports of deaths due to starvation began to emerge early in 2021. On January 25, the Transitional Government of Tigray confirmed ten people in Gulomahda and three people in Adwa had starved to death. Less than a month later, the head of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS), described displaced people arriving camps in Tigrayan towns “all emaciated … their skin is really on their bones.”
In June, the U.N. announced that more than 350,000 people in Ethiopia’s Tigray were suffering in famine conditions. This conclusion was based on the analysis of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system using data collected in April – before the blockade was imposed. A few weeks later, the U.S. government declared that the number of Ethiopians in famine was actually closer to 900,000. It has now been six months since new comprehensive data was collected on the number of people affected by food insecurity in Tigray. Yet, it is possible to triangulate other sources of information to build a picture of what is occurring.
In early August, the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) reported malnutrition rates had reached almost 30 percent for children under five. In addition, 80 percent of nursing mothers were suffering from acute malnutrition. These rates indicate that not only has famine set in – but that starvation will accelerate almost exponentially without immediate and sustained help. The absence of medicine means that the few clinics remaining in Tigray are largely unable to help. The absence of cash and fuel forced the suspension of water trucking so critical for affected communities. Researchers at Ghent University estimate that a minimum of 425 people are dying of hunger every day, while their “conservative maximum” estimate would put the daily mortality figure closer to 1,201. That averages out to one person dying of starvation every two minutes.
The civilian population of northern Ethiopia now appears to be on a slow, painful path towards a wholly preventable starvation on a scale not seen since 1983-1985, when the country experienced its worst famine in its history. Should the conflict continue to expand and relief assistance continue to be denied, particularly in Amhara which has a population of some 30 million, the humanitarian consequences would be beyond what any relief operation could handle. The historical parallels between the current famine and the 1983-1985 famine are impossible to ignore: politically driven conflict, poor or failed rains, locust infestations, bureaucratic constraints on relief agencies, and a blockade preventing relief assistance. Millions faced starvation and up to one million people died, and the country bears the physical and emotional scars to this day.
Changing the Calculus
Until now, the parties to the conflict have eschewed good faith negotiations to seek a political resolution to the conflict. While other outcomes are possible, the trendlines point toward an expanding civil war, exacerbating what is already a humanitarian catastrophe. However, there are some steps that the international community can take to improve the situation.
Cessation of Hostilities
The most immediate next step is to pause the fighting and reach at least a temporary cessation of hostilities in which dialogue can take place. Tigrayan rebels continue their march towards Addis Ababa, raising concerns that the capital may soon be besieged. This outcome would have acute humanitarian consequences for the city’s civilian population. More broadly, the stability of the country is now at considerable risk. The Biden administration has dispatched a senior envoy to Ethiopia to broker talks. The U.N. Security Council, the European Union and the African Union must join forces in support of a concerted diplomatic effort to stop the fighting.
International actors must also continue to push to lift the blockade of Tigray to stave off the worst of the famine. For months, Western and African diplomats have tried diplomacy to achieve these outcomes. In return, Ethiopian officials have offered little more than empty promises or feigned outrage. However, the current moment may offer a new opportunity. Tigrayan leaders have claimed that, among other goals, they are fighting to break the blockade and secure humanitarian relief for the population of Tigray. These leaders should now be held to their word.
Diplomats and other interlocutors seeking to mediate between the parties may wish to propose a series of sequenced confidence building measures in which the TDF agrees to a pause in its offensive as the government lifts the blockade on relief aid and commerce into Tigray. Obviously, humanitarian access cannot be held hostage as part of negotiations. But a shift in Ethiopian government policy on this score could build some good faith with the international community and open the door to meaningful talks at a time when Prime Minister Abiy is facing an existential crisis.
In addition, the European Union and the United States should build on past efforts to airlift aid into Tigray. To date, only three flights have reached Tigray, delivering 15 metric tons of cargo for the people affected by the conflict. These flights were forced to first stop in Addis Ababa, where Ethiopian officials removed medical supplies and other essential items. Western donors should take a tougher line and insist that humanitarian flights be allowed to proceed directly and unhindered into Tigray and cut-off areas of Amhara.
However, even if an airbridge could be established, it would only be part of the solution. The U.N. estimates that more than one hundred trucks of aid a day need to make their way into Tigray. One U.N. chartered Ilyushin-76 aircraft costs seven times more to operate than ground transportation and is able to air-drop a maximum of 35 tons of food and cargo, while one flatbed truck has a payload maximum of 40 tons. At that rate, it would require an operation on the order of the Kabul airlift to roll back famine in Tigray.
Finally, the TDF is now in control of humanitarian logistic hubs and warehouses in Dessie and Kombolcha. It is incumbent upon the rebel forces to protect the stores and allow the U.N. and NGOs unimpeded access. The TDF must allow humanitarian aid trucks to pass through areas it newly controls and ensure their safety as convoys move on to Tigray, northern Ethiopia, and Afar.
Sanctions and AGOA
Faced with a deteriorating situation, the United States and the European Union are shifting to more coercive measures, including sanctions on the parties to the conflict. The U.S. sanctions will single out senior officials and entities in the Ethiopian government, Eritrea, the TDF, the Amharan regional government, and Ethiopian private sector. The implicit theory of change is that such sanctions will erode the resources and legitimacy of these leaders, helping to isolate them and bring them to the negotiating table. Importantly, these sanctions come with extensive exceptions for humanitarian and other essential assistance efforts.
Unfortunately, there is little in recent history to suggest that such sanctions regimes quickly change the behavior of the leaders they target. In addition to sanctions, the United States announced that Ethiopia’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity (AGOA) Act will be rescinded within two months should gross human rights abuses and restrictions on humanitarian assistance continue. Under AGOA, countries in Africa are given “duty-free access to the U.S. market for over 1,800 products.” The program has created thousands of jobs in Ethiopia. However, to be eligible for AGOA, countries must meet a series of benchmarks, including the protection of human rights. In light of the atrocities and other abuses committed in Tigray, the Biden administration would be hard pressed to recertify Ethiopia as eligible for this preferential trade status without significant changes in behavior.
Restricting International Funding
To further rachet up pressure on Prime Minister Abiy, donors may need to consider leveraging other forms of assistance upon which his government depends. Western countries have supported Ethiopia to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year for the past three decades. To date, Ethiopia has already spent at least a $1 billion on the war in Tigray. Reports are now emerging that the Ethiopian government has gone on a new military spending spree, purchasing weapons, fighter jets, and drones. The government has diverted scarce foreign reserves to make these purchases. This is money that could have been spent on development in country where donor assistance accounts for 37 percent of the annual budget.
The Biden administration has already imposed “restrictions on economic and security assistance” to Ethiopia. It has also withheld support for new rounds of lending to Ethiopia from international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank. However, it is not yet clear if the Biden administration will walk back its plans to invest $5 billion in development financing in Ethiopia. In January 2021, the EU suspended over $100 million in budget support for Ethiopia, but European countries have yet to join the United States in opposing new multilateral lending. If Western donors impose further restrictions on non-humanitarian funding, these steps must be carefully sequenced and coordinated to minimize the impact on development indicators across the entirety of Ethiopia.
The United Nations also has an important role to play. The world body has endured multiple blows to aid efforts in Tigray, including the expulsions of key U.N. officials. Senior U.N. officials have spoken out on the famine and the blockade. Given recent events and the possibility of a siege of Addis Ababa, the U.N. Secretary-General must use his platform to focus greater attention on the war and famine.
Until recently, the U.N. Security Council has remained largely muted on the crisis in northern Ethiopia. Over the past year, Russia and China have led efforts to veto everything from holding a public meeting to issuing a statement of concern. However, thanks to pressure from the United States and its allies, the council recently held its first public session on the crisis in Tigray over the expulsion of U.N. staff from the country. The council must engage the crisis before it spirals further out of control.
Despite the cost outlined above, the U.N. with support from donors must quickly consider the possibility of food and medicine air drops as a complement to overcoming the blockade of ground operations. This will require authorization from the Ethiopian government and assurances of their safety from all parties to the conflict. At the same time, the U.N. and other relief agencies must begin preparing for a worst-case scenario in which fighting spreads across Ethiopia triggering a full-scale civil war. This could result in mass forced displacement into neighboring countries already beset by growing instability, as witnessed in the recent coup in Sudan. In this environment, a regional humanitarian and refugee response will be extremely challenging to organize, but it is not too early to begin to lay the foundations.
Most of all, world leaders must unite behind a common strategy and coordinate action to end the fighting and head off famine. This strategy should set out clear benchmarks for an increase or reduction in punitive measures for the parties to the conflict. These benchmarks should set out clear expectations for concrete steps that the parties must take for coercive measures to be lifted, and for aid and good relations to be restored. This strategy must also involve outreach to China, which has invested heavily in Ethiopia and now owns much of its debt. Indeed, it should be in China’s interest to find a pathway out of Ethiopia’s descent into civil war.
To prevent this catastrophe from equaling the tragedy of 1983-1985 famine, the world must speak with one voice. Tigrayans, Ethiopians, are starving to death today; Amharans are at risk tomorrow; and without intervention the country could follow. The country itself now stands on the precipice a full-scale civil war in Ethiopia – an outcome that would be disastrous for the region. As U.S. Special Envoy Feltman said, “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”