Explained | Why is the WHO chief calling the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia the worst disaster on earth?

The current conflict began in November 2020 when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation in the Tigray region to drive out rebel forces 

August 21, 2022 05:32 pm | Updated August 23, 2022 11:43 am IST

Internally displaced women carry jerrycans in the makeshift camp where they are sheltered in the village of Erebti, Ethiopia, on June 09, 2022.

Internally displaced women carry jerrycans in the makeshift camp where they are sheltered in the village of Erebti, Ethiopia, on June 09, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: On August 17, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), described the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region as the “worst disaster on earth”. Questioning why the situation was not getting enough attention from the international community, he said: "maybe the reason is the colour of the skin of the people.”

“Nowhere in the world, six million people are sealed off…from basic services, from their own money, from telecom, from food, from medicine,” Dr. Ghebreyesus, who also hails from Tigray, said at a virtual press briefing.

Further, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on August 19, that the conflict in Ethiopia, which started in November 2020, had left nearly half of Tigray’s population without enough food as aid groups struggled to reach rural areas owing to inadequate fuel supplies.

Ethiopia’s political and historical context

An access map of Ethiopia

An access map of Ethiopia | Photo Credit: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, is situated in the strategic Horn of Africa region. It is bordered by Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya. The country is divided into 10 regions based on the concentration of ethnic groups. The Oromo- the largest ethnic group in the country, and Amhara- the second largest group, make up more than 60 per cent of Ethiopia's 115 million people. The Tigrayans, meanwhile, constitute around 6-7 per cent and are an ethnic minority.

In 1975, the ‘Derg’, a Soviet-backed Marxist military dictatorship’ led by Mengistu Haile Mariam was established in Ethiopia and ruled over the country till 1991, when it was ousted.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was formed as a small ethno-nationalist paramilitary group and a political outfit in the 1970s, with its base in the mountains of Tigray. It grew into a formidable force that played a central role in fighting the dictatorship and went on to head the country’s ruling coalition of parties —the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)— for nearly three decades.

TPLF guerrillas were considered war heroes in Addis Ababa when the dictatorship fell in 1991. TPLF leader Meles Zenawi became the President and then Prime Minister, overseeing the country’s transition from military rule to a system of ethnic federalism- which meant that while the ruling coalition EPRDF held power at the Centre, regional parties had some powers in ethnic provinces. Under Zenawi’s leadership, Ethiopia went through an economic transformation, strengthened ties with the United States to become one of its biggest aid recipients, and enjoyed relative peace among the various ethnic groups despite fighting a fierce border war with Eritrea. Although many of its members belonged to theTigrayan minority, the TPLF reportedly wielded significant influence in the coalition as well as the whole country.

After Zenawi’s death in 2012, however, ethnic faultlines started to resurface in Ethiopia. The EPRDF in the years of its rule had grown increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent, notes a paper by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS). After it won the national election in 2015, the coalition faced popular unrest and resistance led by the Oromos and Amharas for the following two years, leading to the election of a new leader —current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

An ethnic Oromo, Mr. Ahmed was welcomed as a reformer, who in the first year of his leadership, ended longstanding hostilities and the war with neighbouring Eritrea, lifted the emergency, granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, lifted curbs on the media, legalised banned political outfits and dismissed military and civilian leaders who were facing allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts in peacemaking.

What led to the current conflict?

Things started to change in the subsequent years of Mr. Ahmed’s leadership. In late 2019, the former intelligence officer and software engineer dissolved the EPRDF coalition to create a new one- the Prosperity Party, virtually ending TPLF’s reign in Addis Ababa. He expressed his ambitious vision of rewriting the power balance in the country, forming an all-encompassing Ethiopian identity and extending political representation to hitherto excluded ethnic groups such as the Oromo, the country’s largest but politically marginalised group. But previously dormant ethnic and communal violence grew during his reign, leading to displacement. United Nations has said that ethnic violence in the country had risen to “an alarming level” and ethnic intolerance was growing due to the stigmatisation of certain groups.

A pattern was witnessed in some of his reforms- the political prisoners he released were jailed by the TPLF regime, the outfits he legalised had been banned by the TPLF, and the officers he sacked were the old TPLF guard. He joined hands with Eritrea, a sworn enemy of TPLF which borders the northern Tigray region. TPLF also viewed the creation of the new party as indicating a potential shift from ethnic federalism to a unitary party system.

The ties between the government and TPLF worsened when the former decided to postpone elections in September 2020, citing the pandemic. TPLF held its own elections in Tigray, calling the central government illegitimate. In November of that year, the TPLF carried out a pre-emptive strike in Tigray, saying that it was a retaliation to the federal troops Mr. Ahmed had sent for an attack to the borders of Tigray.

It was after this that Mr. Ahmed declared war on Tigray, beginning the current conflict. His government also declared TPLF a terrorist organisation. Joining forces with other ethnic militia and Eritrean troops, Mr. Ahmed managed to capture most of Tigray and gained control of its capital Mekele. On November 28, 2020, he announced that “major military operations were completed”.

However, this did not end the war. The TPLF, still very influential, regrouped in the northern mountains and later joined forces with a large Oromo militia, forcing the government to retreat from Tigray and even launching incursions into neighbouring regions of Amhara, Afar, and Oromio.

How bad is the humanitarian situation?

Tigray and its neighbouring regions are facing starvation, absence of medical facilities, no access to their own money due to shut-down banking services, ethnic and physical violence, and raids at the hands of warring forces.

The government declared a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds but in an effort to break the TPLF in June last year, imposed a blockade on Tigray, shutting power, telecommunications, banking and commercial transit facilities. This, aid agencies said, made it impossible to deliver humanitarian, economic, and medical assistance to Tigrayans. The U.N. called it “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade.” It noted that just 15 per cent of cash needs for humanitarian operations have entered Tigray since July 2021.

As per the United Nations, Mr. Ahmed’s troops, and Eritrean and ethnic military allies, as well as the TPLF, have committed serious abuses, including widespread sexual violence, extrajudicial and mass killings, forced displacement, adding that some of these could be categorised as war crimes and crimes against humanity. CRS notes that aid agencies have documented the use of rape and starvation as weapons of war.

The U.N. estimated last year that over 90 per cent of Tigray’s people needed emergency food aid— a total of 5.2 million. It was estimated that 400,000 and 900,000 people were facing famine conditions in Tigray. As per the latest WFP report, even as delivery of aid resumed partially after the government declared a unilateral ceasefire in March, the hunger crisis is dire in Tigray. “Hunger has deepened, rates of malnutrition have skyrocketed, and the situation is set to worsen as people enter peak hunger season until this year’s harvest in October," the agency said. The UN also said that more than 9.4 million people are in urgent need of food and other essential aid.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in July this year: “the humanitarian situation across Northern Ethiopia is extremely concerning, with more than 2.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs), over 240,000 returnees and more than 97,000 refugees & asylum-seekers in the Afar, Amhara and Tigray Regions.”

The medical journal Lancet, meanwhile, said in its June 2022 volume that almost half a million children in Tigray are thought to be malnourished. Polio and HIV vaccination rates have slumped drastically, and half of Tigray might now lack access to clean water. It notes: “Hospitals across Tigray have been vandalised and looted. The health bulletin estimates that 77 per cent of the state’s health facilities can no longer function, and 13 per cent are partly damaged. Health workers have not been paid for a year.”

In April this year, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint report that Tigrayans in Ethiopia are facing a relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing by security forces from the neighbouring Amhara region. The Guardian reported on August 19 that hunger in Tigray is pushing women into sex work.

The WHO this week, calling attention to the crisis, has asked for $123.7 million in aid to cater to the rising malnutrition in the region.

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