Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: What has led to the crisis and what is the role of Eritrea? Explainer of the day

The conflict in Tigray started on November 4, 2020, when the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed ordered a military response to what he called a ‘traitorous’ attack on the federal army camps in Tigray.

Created On: May 25, 2021 13:12 IST
Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia
Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

The Government of the United States on May 23, 2021, announced visa restrictions on the Eritrean and Ethiopia officials who are accused of increasing the 6-month-old war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the government has decided to impose curbs on security and economic assistance to Ethiopia, however, humanitarian aid will be provided such as food, health, and education.

In an official statement, the US Secretary of State mentioned that people in Tigray have continued to suffer human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities and they urgently need humanitarian relief which is being blocked by the Eritrean and Ethiopian militaries as well as other armed actors.

With the latest sanctions imposed by the US on the officials of Ethiopia and Eritrea, it becomes important to understand the ongoing crisis in Tigray. What is the reason behind the crisis in the Ethiopian region and what role does Ethiopia as well as Eritrea plays in the ongoing violence?

Where is Tigray?

It is Ethiopia’s northernmost region. Bordering Eritrea, Tigray is home to most of the country’s estimated 7 million ethnic Tigrayans. The ethnic group in Ethiopia, which accounts for about 6 percent of the country’s population, has an extreme influence on national affairs.

What is going on in Tigray?

The conflict in the region began on November 4, 2020, when the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed ordered a military response to what he called a ‘traitorous’ attack on the federal army camps in Tigray.

The Prime Minister blamed the attack on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a regional ruling party that had dominated the national politics of Ethiopia for nearly three decades before Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.

The TPLF, however, denied the responsibility for the attack on federal army camps and said that the reported attack is a pretext for an invasion by the government.

As Ethiopia continued to carry out more airstrikes on Tigray and sent troops to disarm and detain leaders of TPLF, the conflict has caused thousands of deaths and has forced hundreds and thousands from their homes in the Tigray region.

What are the roots of conflict in Tigray?

The TPLF, after it was sidelined at the national level, the regional party has been accused by Abiy’s government of destabilizing Ethiopia by orchestrating ethnic violence across the country.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had promised to hold the first truly democratic elections of Ethiopia in Summer 2020. However, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, he postponed the elections.

As per TPLF, the delaying of the vote has amounted to an unconstitutional extension of Abiy’s term.

The party, then, held its own regional elections and claimed a decisive win. However, Abiy’s government declared the Tigray elections invalid. The two sides called each other illegitimate leading to the ongoing violence in Tigray.

Eritrea and Ethiopia relations: Background

Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia and had fought and won a brutal, decades-long war of independence which ended in 1991. Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war again in 1998 in a territorial conflict that ended in 2000.

In 2018, shortly after taking office, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed reached out to the President of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki and signed a historic peace deal between the two nations.

The peace accord helped Abiy Ahmed in winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts of resolving the long-standing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

What role does Eritrea have in Ethiopia’s domestic conflict?

As the relations between the two nations improved, Abiy found a strong ally in Eritrean President.

Reportedly, Eritrean forces have been engaged in the Tigray fight, backing Ethiopia and sending troops to the conflicted region to help the Ethiopian Prime Minister.

The Eritrean soldiers have also been reported to be involved in a massacre of civilians in Tigray in the early days of the conflict.

The governments denied that Eritrean troops are in Ethiopia but on March 23, the Ethiopian Prime Minister admitted that the Eritrean troops had crossed the border into Tigray and may have also been involved in the atrocities against the civilians.

As per the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Eritrean soldiers had massacred over 100 civilians in Axum in November 2020.

After a meeting between the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Ethiopian PM announced that Eritrea has agreed to pull its forces back over the border. However, on April 15, the United Nations announced that there is no evidence of withdrawal.

UN on violence in Tigray:

The United Nations asked the Ethiopian Government for access to Tigray to investigate the possible war crimes, after the reports of brutal sexual violence and extrajudicial killings.

The Secretary of United Nations General Antonio Guterres while commenting on the violence in Tigray stated that the stability of Ethiopia is significant for the entire Horn of Africa region. He called for immediate peaceful resolutions and de-escalation of tensions.

What the US says?

In the latest development, while being concern regarding the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, the US government announced sanctions on the officials of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The US has strongly condemned the killings, systematic sexual violence, forced removals, and other human rights violations in Tigray. The country has also pointed that despite the significant diplomatic engagement, the parties involved in the conflict in Tigray have taken no meaningful steps to end the hostilities.

The United States has called the Ethiopian Government to hold accountable who are responsible for the violations and protect the civilians. It has also urged the Eritrean government to return its troops from Tigray to the internationally recognized Eritrean territory.

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