By Andrea Visentin, 06th July 2021
Since November 2020, Ethiopia has been involved in an internal conflict – that at this point might as well be called civil war – between the central government led by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray Defense Force. All communications in the Tigray region, where the fighting is happening, have been cut off and humanitarian aid has also been refused in some instances, so it is difficult to have a clear picture of what is going on. However, researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium have estimated that there have been at least 10 000 reported deaths and 230 massacres. The UN also reports 2.2 million displaced people and 63 000 have become refugees after fleeing to Sudan. Young people are the most affected by the conflict, both because of the direct consequences of the fighting and because of the social and economical effects that the war will have – and is already having – in Ethiopia.
What are the reasons behind this conflict? First, we need to introduce the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF started in the 1970s as a rebel group fighting against Ethiopia’s military dictatorship, and eventually in 1991 led the alliance that overthrew the government. The new ruling coalition was also led by the TPLF, and under this new government Ethiopia achieved high levels of economic growth and stability. However, the government also systematically repressed political opponents, and human rights and democratic principles were often ignored. This eventually led to protests across the country, which then allowed Mr. Abiy Ahmed to become the new Prime Minister in 2018. Mr. Abiy proceeded to remove Tigrayan government officials and created a new party. This move caused a lot of discontent in Tigrayan leaders, and tensions rose between the government and Tigray. In September 2020, without any authorisation, Tigrayan leaders carried out the regional elections that the government had postponed in the rest of the country due to the covid pandemic. Weeks later, the central government cut funding to the region, and eventually, on the 4th of November, the army entered Tigray to “enforce the rule of law”. The night before, the TPLF had attacked a federal military base to steal its weapons, in an attempt to defend themselves against the incoming attack. The TPLF has now set up the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), a military group that includes all people that want to fight against the central government.
The current situation
8 months after the eruption of the conflict, the fighting is still not over. Right now, the TDF has regained control over the capital Mekelle and most parts of the region, after a unilateral ceasefire declaration by the Ethiopian government on 28th June 2021. Only Western Tigray remains under control of the Amhara forces, that were fighting alongside the government.
During these 8 months, thousands of people have lost their lives, including civilians; 2.2 million people have lost their home and are now displaced; 63 000 people are seeking shelter in Sudan. On top of that, a widespread famine involves now 5.5 million people. To put things into perspective, the total population of the Tigray region is 6 million. This famine is not caused by any natural disaster: people simply cannot plant seeds, plough, or harvest because the conflict is preventing them from doing so.
Medecins Sans Frontieres reports that the health system of the Tigray region has collapsed, with 87% of the healthcare facilities being no longer functioning. The few hospitals that are still working are often occupied by the military, and during the occupation they are not accessible by the general population.
Furthermore, there have been serious accusations of widespread violence and abuses against civilians, especially in the forms of rape and ethnic cleansing. The African Union has launched a Commission of Inquiry with the aim of investigating these alleged violations of international human rights law, and Ethiopia’s government has rejected all accusations and has asked for the Commission to be ceased.
Ethiopia’s economy before the conflict was one of the fastest-growing economies of the world. According to the World Bank, the average growth rate of the country’s economy from 2010 to 2020 was 9.4%. Now, the latest projection of the International Monetary Fund for 2021 stands at a growth rate of 2%. This is of course not only caused by the conflict, but also by the coronavirus pandemic, which could get even worse since the vaccination campaign has been slowed down by the conflict.
As was already stated before, agriculture production in the Tigray Region has been severely reduced. Tigray is the second-largest producer of sesame seeds in the country – with 31% of the total production – and in 2018 oily seeds accounted for 363m in exports for Ethiopia. Tigray is also the largest producer of gold in the country. Overall, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ethiopia loses USD 20 million per month in exports due to the closure of the factories and mining plants in the region.
Mekelle also hosts one of the 8 dry ports of Ethiopia, and if this gets stopped for too long, it could lead to an increase in the cost of goods, which would further hinder growth.
One of the most affected categories is, of course, young people. Even before the pandemic and the conflict, youth unemployment in Ethiopia was a real problem, especially in the urban population. It is actually quite difficult to find consistent data about youth unemployment in Ethiopia: for example, the World Bank website says that it is about 3%, while other sources, such as the UN, go up to 50%. In any case, the general consensus is that youth unemployment is a challenge that the country is facing. Ethiopia was actually on a good path to reducing this issue, with several projects and programmes led by the government aimed at improving access to microfinance for young entrepreneurs. But now, a lot of the progress that had been done might actually be lost.
The conflict is having different impacts in the young population. First of all, there are the casualties of the war. The median age in Ethiopia is 18 years of age, with 60% of the population being under 25, so it is evident that the vast majority of the military deaths have been between the youngsters. This is true for both sides of the conflict. The Tigray Defense Forces have a lot of young volunteers that have joined the rebels after witnessing the atrocities committed by their enemies. Furthermore, even young men that are not directly taking part in the fighting have been killed, in a series of executions targeting potential rebels.
Young women are being the target of sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers. Children and youngsters have been repeatedly hit by shrapnel and bombs that were never really intended to only hit military targets. Many have lost limbs, many have died.
The damage that has been done so far to Ethiopia’s youth and economy is already way too much, and if the conflict keeps going for too long, it might become too big to handle, possibly leading to a wider destabilization of East Africa. The parts involved in the conflict must come to a diplomatic agreement soon, and let humanitarian help reach the people in Tigray. Those who have violated human rights must be held accountable. Finally, international help will be needed to rebuild the Tigray region.