Horn of Africa in turmoil

Without a ceasefire in the murderous war, a famine akin to levels that launched Band Aid is likely, says Andy Gregg

In November 2020, Ethiopia declared war on its restive northern province of Tigray and launched an incursion, simultaneously backed by Eritrea, who invaded across their southern border into Tigray. Since then, the whole of the Horn of Africa has been thrown into turmoil. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands have died directly from the conflict and that many millions are in danger from starvation and famine that exacerbates the effects of the drought that has affected the area for the last four years.

In early June 2022, it was estimated that across the Horn of Africa, one person is dying of starvation every 48 seconds. The fighting has been characterised by brutal ethnic cleansing and genocidal killings by all sides including the official defence forces of Eritrea, Tigray and Ethiopia, as well as by ethnically-based militias and paramilitary groups. Pre-existing ethnic and national differences have all been exacerbated. All of the countries that surround Ethiopia, including Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia, have been increasingly drawn into the conflict. Refugee flows from the region have grown exponentially in the last two years, even though the region already produced some of the world’s highest numbers of refugees and internally displaced peoples before war broke out.

The current war and the massacres that have accompanied it have a long history in the inter-ethnic rivalry that besets the Horn and which was incubated over the long period of the 30-year war of resistance between Eritrea (and later Tigray) and the despotic Ethiopian regimes of Haile Selassie and then Mengistu Haile-Mariam. When the war came to an end in 1991, with a subsequent 1993 referendum that established the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia, there were significant issues that were left unresolved. These issues resulted in a further border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. 

This war brought into conflict the highly authoritarian Eritrean regime (often described as “the North Korea of Africa”) and an Ethiopia whose government was then dominated by Tigrayans, a relatively small ethnic group from the far north of Ethiopia. The Tigrayans (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) had taken power in Ethiopia in 1991 with the capture of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in alliance with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. However, these two allies then fell out over the next seven years over the demarcation of the border between the two countries and Ethiopia’s desire for access to Red Sea ports. The 1998-2000 war was fought most intensely for control of a few barren hillsides along the border with Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The more recent war has been far more mobile and has laid waste to large parts of Northern Ethiopia both outside and inside Tigray, with armies and militias surging back and forth, causing huge displacements of people.

Since November 2020, the new war has swept across Northern Ethiopia, with the Tigrayans now largely surrounded and unable to get food or other supplies into their heartlands. Eritrea invaded Tigray at the start of the war and then was forced to withdraw, but now shows signs of being about to launch another incursion across its southern border with Tigray. Refugees in Ethiopia who fled the brutal Eritrean regime are now being targeted, and there have been substantial movements of refugees across the borders into Sudan. Ethnic groups, including those representing Oromos (the largest ethnic minority in Ethiopia) and others, have taken sides against the Ethiopian government. Other groups (particularly Amharas and Afars) have also carried out reprisal raids and massacres against Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia.

Four years ago, in July 2018, Eritreans and Ethiopians had caught a glimpse of a more hopeful future. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, came to Eritrea’s capital Asmara and embraced Issaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s dictator. The two signed a peace deal formally ending the bloody border war that had cost some 100,000 lives and which had been left unresolved after 2000. Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for this, but more recently has been responsible for the invasion of Tigray in 2020 and has shown himself to be entirely unworthy of such an accolade.

Pressure for a ceasefire needs to be put on all of the combatant parties by the UN, the African Union and other international parties including the EU and US. The increasing famine will shortly produce scenes as bad or worse than those that led to the launch of Band Aid in 1985. Large areas of the Horn of Africa are becoming increasingly uninhabitable due to drought and climate change as well as the constant hostilities. If catastrophic levels of famine and refugees’ flight from the area are to be avoided, the world needs to take as much notice of what is happening here as it currently is in Ukraine.

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