Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis enters new phase

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As the complex and diverse Ethiopian state is being drawn into the Tigray conflict, the  Ethiopian federal forces declared a unilateral ceasefire at the end of June and Tigrayan fighters retook control of the regional capital, Mekelle, it did not signal the end of the crisis, but rather a pivot to a new phase.

The Tigrayans demanded the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces that had been aligned with federal troops and signalled their intention to push them out by force. Meanwhile, Ethiopian federal authorities denied basic services like electricity and telecommunications to the region, and access for aid agencies was complicated by the deliberate destruction of transportation infrastructure.

The standoff, never entirely peaceful, has now given way to a new military campaign in which the federal government seeks to mobilize regional militia from across Ethiopia to fight Tigrayan forces, bringing additionally armed, ethnically based forces into the conflict. This mobilization, framed as an exercise in unity, risks further Balkanizing the state, empowering ethnic nationalists whose demands and expectations are too often mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, a weekend attack on a World Food Program convoy complicates an already precarious situation. With food stocks running low, hundreds of thousands of people already experiencing famine, millions more in need of help, and crops deliberately destroyed in the region, the situation for civilians in Tigray grows more desperate.

It is not yet clear who was responsible for the attack, but it is notable that it occurred in Afar, a region bordering Tigray that has now been sucked into the conflict, as Tigrayan fighters, wary of encirclement, have pushed into the region to engage some of the militia being organized to fight against them. Ethiopia already suffered from plenty of insecurity outside of Tigray. Expanding the scope of Tigray’s crisis will only complicate the search for solutions.

All of this is taking place in the context of dangerously toxic rhetoric likely to worsen the already sickening record of atrocities and war crimes associated with this conflict.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has characterized the Tigray campaign as one focused on “removing the weeds” from the country, a dehumanizing metaphor that echoes chilling language familiar to historians of mass atrocities. Ethnic Tigrayans around the country are finding themselves targeted by law enforcement on flimsy pretexts.

The country is awash in propaganda and unreliable information, and critics of government policy are increasingly smeared as terrorist sympathizers.

Meanwhile, Tigray’s regional leaders, in announcing preconditions for a ceasefire, denounced the federal government as a “fascist clique,” language more likely to inflame tensions than spur negotiations.

It is not hard to see this bad situation getting worse in a handful of different possible scenarios. From potential state collapse to humanitarian catastrophe to the very real risk of genocide, a host of reasons compel a more resolute international response.

That response should provide antagonists confidence that a true ceasefire does not mean surrendering to certain slaughter or siege, political space to dial down incendiary rhetoric and get armed ethnic forces out of the driver’s seat, and certainty about the high costs of pressing real or perceived advantages to prolonging the conflict.

Suzan O/AllAfrica

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