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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

On Ethiopia’s war: A glimpse of hope

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However faint the hope may be, any glimmer of peace – or even a brief respite – is welcome in the face of a brutal war that has claimed so many civilian lives, seen atrocities by all parties, and displaced 2 million people from their homes. “Nowhere on Earth”, even in Ukraine, are people more at risk than in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the head of the World Health Organization said this month. Yet as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself from Tigray, noted, the conflict is happening “out of sight and out of mind”.

Up to half a million are estimated to have died from war and famine since the conflict broke out in late 2020. More than 90% of the region’s population is in urgent need of assistance, the United Nations warns. Remaining food stocks from the last harvest – only half the usual yield – will soon be exhausted. What the UN calls a de facto government blockade has halted road deliveries and left the population dependent on scarcer and much more expensive air shipments; the UN recently said it had reached only 7,000 of the 870,000 people it was trying to help weekly.

Last week, the federal government declared an immediate humanitarian truce to allow the delivery of aid. Tigrayan officials have said that they are observing it, as long as sufficient aid arrives within a “reasonable” time. The first trucks for more than 100 days arrived on Friday afternoon, but suspicion remains that the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, may seek to assuage the concerns of Ethiopia’s international donors by allowing a nominal amount through, rather than the 100 trucks a day estimated to be necessary. And Tigray needs not just food and medicine, but seeds for the planting season, which begins in weeks, as well as the restoration of banking, trade, telecommunications and fuel. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) accuses the federal government and officials in the Afar region of holding up the trucks, while the federal government says it is Tigrayan troops that have blocked the road as part of a surge in fighting, which TPLF and Afar forces blame on each other and which imperils the hopes of peace.

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The war began in November 2020, when Mr Abiy said he was launching a strike on the TPLF because it had attacked an army base, following a political dispute in which the federal government and regional Tigray government declared each other illegitimate. But the swift victory he expected appears as distant as ever. A brief ceasefire last summer was followed by an intensification of the conflict.

This break in the fighting looks slightly more promising. But it is unclear whether the government even has a plan for establishing a substantive peace process, let alone whether either side is willing to make the kind of concessions necessary to reach a deal. To reconcile with the TPLF would jeopardise relations with Isaias Afwerki’s regime in Eritrea, which has aided Mr Abiy’s troops. It also risks catalysing opposition to him in Amhara, which is angered by its occupation by Tigrayan forces last year, and which is occupying western Tigray.

Many in Ethiopia fear the TPLF’s return to the political dominance it enjoyed for decades, and point out that the prime minister won elections last year by a landslide. Others say a power grab by Mr Abiy triggered the crisis. Many Tigrayans have come to see the conflict as a matter of survival; some think that secession may be their best hope. The alternative to peace is not only severe civilian suffering but further destabilisation of the country, and potentially of the region. But the urgent issue is preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths from famine. If the current truce can deliver even that limited aim, it will be a step forward.

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