News Highlights Extra No. 13: Conflict in the Horn

EEPA is sending extra news highlights on the conflict in the Horn of Africa: previous highlights extra and EEPA’s situation reports on the Horn crisis.

News reports from Tigray
Sky News and a German news crew from ZDF reported from the Tigray region. Travelling south of Mekelle, the Sky News crew spoke to witnesses and humanitarian workers. A humanitarian worker stated that access was still limited to around 30-40% of Tigray. Sky News documented witnesses speaking of massacres in villages, including the killing of children. In the village of Cheli, residents accused Ethiopian and Eritrean troops of killing civilians after accusing locals of supporting Tigray-allied forces. “From every house two, three, four (people) have died. There are many who are missing and we can’t find them.” ZDF news crew travelled to Mekelle, Shire and Aksum. They interviewed a victim of rape by Eritrean troops in a small clinic. A doctor stated that many women were heavily traumatised, both physically and mentally. ZDF also showed images of graves in Aksum, speaking to witnesses of the killings, and filmed large masses of refugees in Shire.

Current military situation in Tigray
As reported by Robbie Corey-Boulet, journalist for AFP News on the Tigray region, the conflict is still ongoing in Wukro and other towns, confirmed by witnesses on the ground who reported to the journalist in early March. Kibrom Hailu, a witness, said that: “The war is escalating. Now it is focused on the civilians.” Evidence of clashes are being reported also by Dr. Adonai Hans, medical director of Wukro General Hospital, stating how: “[w]e are constantly receiving patients who are injured by the war. […] If somebody says there is no war in Tigray, that would be a joke for me”. Injuries involving civilians have been noted in other villages, such as Agula, nearby Wukro. An injured man has reported that Eritrean troops started to shoot people after “pro-TPLF forces ambushed one of their positions in the town”. The Ethiopian government and Eritrea continue to deny the presence of Eritrean troops in the area. Massacres by Ethiopian forces have also been registered in the Wukro area, one of them recently involved 18 people, including children. Meanwhile, Eritrean troop reinforcements entering the Tigray region are reported. This includes 30 trucks coming from the Eritrean city of Rama, 16 buses through Maykinetal and 14 towards Bizet. Furthermore, in the southern area of Tigray, a military jet fighter was reported being shot down.

Instability in Oromo region
On 10 March, the Oromo Liberation Party’s interim public relations head, Batte Urgessa, said in an interview released to the newspaper Addis Standard that the Oromo Liberation Party (OLP) has withdrawn from the next round of national elections scheduled in Ethiopia for 5 June 2021. The decision was announced through a statement released on 8 March, due to the large number of OLP leaders still detained, whereas offices were prevented from organising political campaigns. According to Batte, at least 30 higher officials and 145 mid level officials are still in jail. During the interview, Batte recalled how since August 2020, the start of arbitrary police raids against the headquarters of OLP, the number of arrests has increased. Furthermore, quoting the statement on the withdrawal of election, Batte said that the “propaganda attack and disinformation campaign” from the Federal government has prevented the state to “fulfill the bare minimum prerequisites to hold free and fair elections”. In addition to this, an in-depth analysis published by Addis Standard revealed that the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IPDs) in Oromia regional State has increased from 416,807 in 2017 up to 1,073,7642 by mid-2018 due to the 2017-2018 conflict along the Oromia-Somali borders. Since then, the situation of IDPs has worsened as the plan of resettlement has not been put in place. The absence of equipped medical centres, running water, working opportunities and infrastructures has led to dire conditions. According to Abdi Sulieman, an IDP relocated to a camp in the area of Bishan Guracha: “I have no hope from this government as I feel they have done nothing”. 

EU concerns over Tigray situation and sanctions against Eritreans
On 11 March, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted conclusion number 6902/21 in which it reiterated the EU’s concerns over the conflict in Tigray and the wider region of the Horn of Africa, which is being destabilized by the conflict. The Council underlined that Ethiopia is a strategic partner for the EU and a key multilateral actor. The EU stressed the urgency for the Ethiopian government to increase its effort and fully cooperate with the United Nations (UN) and other humanitarian organizations to provide for those in need. The Council voiced its concerns about allegations on war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as other violations of human rights, and urged all parties to end these violations immediately and for the perpetrators to be held accountable. The EU stated it is open for a dialogue with the Ethiopian government to address these issues and to support the government in undertaking a transparent election process. The EU concluded by remarking on the need for full humanitarian access and the end of violence in Tigray. In further news, European diplomats of the EU’s Political and Security Committee agreed on a list of sanctions to be applied against entities and individuals that violated human rights from six countries. Eritreans appear on the list which will be up for approval by ministers on 22 March.

US to withhold aid over Tigray conflict
Nine NGOs wrote an open letter to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States (US) Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), asking her to mark the Tigray conflict as a priority during the US presidency of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and send a clear message to the Ethiopian government and other actors involved that war crimes will not be accepted. The US announced it will not resume most of its aid to Ethiopia. The former US Assistant Secretary for African affairs during the Bush Administration, Jendayi Frazer, and the Africa program Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Judd Devermont, have argued in an opinion piece that the conflict in Tigray is a regional crisis that threatens US interests. They list actions that according to them are imperative to take, such as building international consensus and supporting an African-led dialogue. They argue that the US should increase pressure on Ethiopia and Eritrea through sanctions and debt relief denial. The US should not hesitate to “expend political capital” to make countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, and the UAE act on the issue.

International concerns over the conflict in Tigray
On 11 March, during the UNSC high-level open debate on conflict-driven hunger, Norway Minister of international development, Dag-Inge Ulstein, stated that “[t]he crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray, continues to deteriorate. […] The Security Council must speak out with one voice – against violations of international humanitarian law, including obstruction of humanitarian assistance or access and the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”. He stressed that “[a]ccountability must be ensured” and that “response to such violations could include imposing targeted sanctions, where relevant and appropriate.” The International Monetary Fund (IMF) Director, Kristalina Georgieva, said the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is being closely monitored. The director stated that the IMF is concerned about the human rights violations and abuses allegedly carried out in Tigray, and added that “[they] are monitoring very closely how the situation evolves. It is very important that at the time of a crisis, the price of this crisis is not paid by the suffering of ordinary people”. In a piece for the Frankfurter Rundschau, Omid Nouripour, a green German Member of Parliament, and Moritz Müller, a candidate for the upcoming elections, have urged the German government to strengthen its actions in solving the conflict of Tigray through dialogue. Müller and Nouripour stated that failure to act could lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia and the destabilisation of the entire region.

Tigray: incidents of gender based violence spiking
Since the Tigray war began, reports of gender based violence (GBV) have been multiplying as incidents of sexual violence are becoming widespread across the region. On 5 March, The Emergency Coordination Center recorded over 400 self-reported instances of GBV in Mekelle, Wukro and Adigrat. However such cases were described as only “[..] the tip of the iceberg [..]”. The majority of the worst GBV cases was reported to have been instigated by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers, according to AFP. Ms Saba Gebremedhin, a Tigrayan women’s rights activist, stated that the use of GBV as a tactic in the Tigray War has resulted in a deterioration of national identity and unity. Ms Saba said that “[…] the war has already managed to create that breach between the Tigrayan people and the rest of the country. People say they don’t feel Ethiopian anymore […] [because] with the rapes, it’s usually taken as dishonouring Tigrayans, discriminating or showing that Tigrayans don’t have any dignity, that they are lower.”

Cooperation eroding and conflicts increasing in the Greater Horn of Africa
Analysts warn that the Greater Horn of Africa is in danger of destabilisation due to regional conflicts and economic issues currently erupting in Sudan, Kenya and Somalia. Recently, the longstanding tense relations between Kenya and Somalia have further deteriorated due to allegations of Kenya’s interference in Somalia’s internal affairs. The dispute threatens to involve neighbouring states into the conflict which could result in a divided region. While in Sudan, UN Special Representative Volker Perthes stated that the problems obstructing the peace process in Sudan are “staggering”. High inflation, poverty, and unemployment threaten to disrupt the already tenuous stability in Sudan. Nearly 14 million Sudanese (25% of the population) require humanitarian aid which also includes 2.5 million internally displaced persons and 1 million refugees. Speaking at a Security Council on 9  March, Volker Perthes said “the need for sustained financial and economic support to Sudan cannot be overstated” but cautioned that “peace will only be sustainable if the root causes and ramifications of the conflicts are addressed.” 

Tigray: deliberate destruction of infrastructure and health facilities
Much of the Tigray region’s infrastructure, including health facilities, heritage sites and private residences, has been deliberately destroyed. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has reported on the “[..] deliberate and widespread[..]” vandalisation, looting and destruction of Tigray’s health facilities for the specific purpose of rendering the buildings as non-functional. Between December 2020 and March 2021 approximately 70% of the 106 health facilities inspected by MSF have been looted with only 13% functioning normally. The deliberate destruction of health facilities as well as heritage sites and private residencies “[…] bears the characteristics of genocide […]”, according to Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University College. Mariz Tadros, professor of Politics and Development at the University of Sussex, argues that the assault and destruction of Tigray’s churches, mosques, and monasteries are likely part of the Ethiopian government’s strategy to ‘humiliate and demoralise’ the Tigrayan population as part of a ‘cultural genocide’. A leaked U.S government report stated “Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.”

Amhara region taking control of Western Tigray
As reported by Samuel Gebre, journalist for Bloomberg, Amhara troops took control of around 10% of the Tigray region. Amhara troops were previously sent to the region in support of the Ethiopian National Defence Army (ENDF), but went on to occupy the long-term disputed territories. The spokesperson for the Amhara government, Gizachew Muluneh, claimed that PM Abiy had approved incorporation of Welkait, Tegede, Humera, Telemte and Raya district areas into the Amhara region, and that they are now waiting for the approval of the reincorporation of these territories by the House of Federation. The spokesperson admitted that even though the issue of disputed territories was not the main target of military operations, Amhara troops took this decision on the spot and the Amhara administration’s request followed. On the other hand, Abraha Desta, a member of the Tigray interim administration, denied the border redefinition, asking to “stop the atrocities committed by the Amhara special forces who took advantage of the security gap [and to] invade and forcibly occupy our land.” There have been reports of Ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray, with ethnic Tigrayans forced to leave their homes or be killed if they refuse.