News Highlights Extra No. 14: 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.

Situation in Tigray
Fighting is reported to be ongoing between Eritrean troops and Tigray regional forces near Selekleka, a strategic town in the northwestern zone of Tigray (between Aksum and Shire). Eritrean forces are reportedly moving 30 trucks of troops to help their force in Selekleka, and also moving troops from Adwa towards Selekleka. This is the first time the Tigray regional forces are reported fighting in the northwestern zone of Tigray. This indicates that the Tigray regional forces may be increasing their coverage of battle beyond the southern and central zones of the region. Furthermore, Mekelle city interim administration Mayor, Ataklti Haileselassie, was fired from his post. It was earlier reported that he would have resigned. He has previously said in public that Eritrean forces are in Tigray. He was appointed by the Tigray regional state interim administration, created by the Ethiopian government in December 2020. 

Unconfirmed reports that talk could begin on Eritrea/Ethiopia Federation
On Tuesday 30 March, spokesman for Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dina Mufti, held a conference wherein he stated that Eritreans and Ethiopians “[…] are one people, we are one country,” and “[b]y the way if Eritreans were asked, they do not celebrate the day they left Ethiopia and those abroad say this. There is also the same feeling from the Ethiopian side.” Such statements come in light of unconfirmed reports suggesting an end to Eritrean independence and the creation of an Ethiopian-Eritrean federation. Mr. Mufti further stated that “[…] the vision of IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] is – to bring about economic integration and infrastructural integration and afterwards political integration. Let alone with Eritrea, integration should be inevitable with Djibouti, Soudan, Kenya and the rest of the countries.” Last week Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to discuss “[…] bilateral partnership […] within the framework of broader regional prospects and perspectives”. Furthermore in the Ethiopian election campaign, the Amhara Prosperity Party has been showing maps of Ethiopia which included Eritrea. They claim that they are going to bring it back into the Federation. Assena TV reports that a delegation led by General Filipos Woldeyohannes, chief of Staff of the Eritrean military, is set to discuss issues including the opening of Assab port to Ethiopia.

Eritrean forces may be merged into Ethiopian army
Eritrean forces are rumoured to be partially integrated into the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to help fill the manpower capacity gap left by the war in Tigray. A source close to the Ethiopian Ministry of Defence states that 100.000 to 150.000 Eritrean forces (mainly the senior middle commanders, trainers, mechanized and some infantry personnel) will be integrated into the ENDF. The agreement would include that Eritrean soldiers will be paid by Ethiopia. The Eritreans are paid 15.000 birr a month, which is 372USD. In Eritrea soldiers receive in their pocket a very small stipend, which can be as low as 3 USD a month. The incorporation of Eritrean soldiers into the ENDF would result in a substantial increase of army personnel in the Tigray region which would go against the agreement that Eritrean soldiers would leave Tigray. In preparation for this increase of forces Eritrea is believed to be extending its conscription to 16 year olds and forcing teenagers into training camps.

International concerns over Tigray situation
On March 25, during the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) briefing on the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, US Ambassador Elisabeth Millard, acting US Representative to the Economic and Social Council, called on the Ethiopian government “to uphold fully its commitment to safe and unhindered humanitarian access”, adding that the “humanitarian situation will continue to worsen without a political solution”. She reiterated the US call for Eritrean and Amhara forces to withdraw from the conflict, and called on the Ethiopian leadership to follow “through on its promise to pursue justice and accountability for all.” The UN and an Ethiopian rights agency agreed to jointly investigate allegations of crimes committed in Tigray. In a statement on Thursday, 25 March, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said “[w]ith multiple actors involved in the conflict and the gravity of the reported violations, an objective, independent investigation is urgently required.” On March 24, US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, released a joint statement expressing concerns over the Tigray conflict, and stating that they have discussed ways to ensure a cessation of hostilities, that Eritrean troops leave Tigray, support better humanitarian access, and investigate any crimes against humanity committed in Tigray. Blinken also spoke to UN Secretary General Guterres about withdrawal of Eritrean troops and the need for independent investigation of crimes. US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed S. Res. 97, a bipartisan resolution on Ethiopia calling on the government of Ethiopia, TPLF and other belligerents to cease all hostilities, protect human rights, allow unfettered humanitarian access, and cooperate with independent investigations of credible atrocity allegations pertaining to the conflict in the Tigray.

EU “ready to activite all foreign policy tools”
At the press conference on 23 March, European Union (EU) High Representative/Vice-President, Josep Borrell, stated that the EU is “ready to activate all [its] foreign policy tools against those responsible for human rights violations.” Borrell highlighted that “since the beginning of the so-called “law and order operation” against the Tigray region, […] [the EU has] been receiving daily reports of human rights violations of massive scale including massive rape, torture, a complete blackout, lack of communication, lack of access to humanitarian help for the people of Tigray.” The EU calls for full humanitarian access to the region, an independent investigation, and the withdrawal of Eritrean troops. Furthermore, in an answer to parliamentary questions, the Dutch government stated it is in contact with the EU and its member states, the US, and the UN to improve the situation in Tigray and push for an independent investigation. It recognized that the Ethiopian government had made some concessions, but according to the Dutch government, these are not enough, even though they can be used as a basis for a constructive resolution to the conflict. It also called on Eritrea to immediately withdraw troops. In the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Eritrea was re-established, having as early priority to assess Eritrea’s role in Tigray and its alleged violations of human rights.

GERD and Sudan border dispute
Clashes along the Sudan-Ethiopia border have been reported by the Sudan Tribune, as a column of Ethiopian soldiers have crossed it from the Amhara region  into the Basinda area. On this occasion, Sudanese forces killed and injured several Ethiopian militiamen as well as seized a high number of weapons, according to the Sudan Tribune. Meanwhile, the dispute about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD dam) has been reaching a new peak as the Egyptian president El-Sisi has recently declared that: “No one can take a drop of water from Egypt.” The president added that if negotiations would not move forward, there would be severe consequences for the regional stability. El-Sisi said that: “All our demands fall within international laws that deal with the issues of cross-border waters.” On the other hand, Ethiopia intends to proceed with the second filling of the dam next July. Ethiopia refused the Sudanese proposal to include the United Nations, United States, European Union and the African Union not only as observers but also as mediators in the next round of negotiations.

Movement of IDPs to main cities of Tigray region
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has reported that thousands of internally displaced people have reached Adwa, Aksum, Shire and other Tigrayan cities from the rural areas. This is one of the main consequences of the conflict that started in early November 2020. MSF reported that IDPs have reached schools, empty buildings and informal settlements without basic services. Most refugees live in dire conditions, surrounded by waste and with no humanitarian aid. Ken Alew Gebrekristos, an internally displaced person in Adwa stated to MSF employees that: “Now I have no plans, no idea what my immediate future looks like. I can’t go back home – how could I go back without guarantees? I feel safer here surrounded by other people.” Shire is particularly crowded, as the first landing point for people fleeing western Tigray. The situation is critical in Aksum too, where displaced people are gathered in 13 city points. In this context, although a first humanitarian assistance has been provided by international NGOs like MSF, people are concerned about the lack of food supplies and other basic necessities. Reuters reported that according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, between 140,000 and 185,000  moved from west Tigray over a two-week period in March. Dire conditions of IDPs have been confirmed also by Tewodros Aregai, interim head of Shire’s northwestern zone, who said that “the town was hosting 270,000 displaced people even before the latest influx and did not have enough food or shelter.”

Tigray: MSF employees attacked, health care situation dire in Tigray
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff members were threatened and attacked by Ethiopian soldiers after witnessing the extrajudicial killings of civilians by Ethiopian soldiers on Tuesday, 23 March. MSF says three MSF staff members saw Ethiopian soldiers stop a bus on the road from Mekele to Adigrat, separate the passengers on board, and shoot all the men on board. The MSF-marked vehicle was initially allowed to leave the scene but was stopped a few minutes later by the same Ethiopian soldiers. The MSF driver was forced out of the car, beaten with the back of a gun and threatened to be shot. Eventually the driver and staff members were allowed to continue onwards to Mekelle. Attacks against medical staff are just one of the ways war is impacting the Tigray health care system. People in the Tigray region are unable to access life saving medications and according to Ethiopia Insight there are over 180,000 people with chronic noncommunicable diseases in Tigray. Without access to healthcare they are at risk of dying at home. Hayelom Tesfay, a lecturer at Adigrat University, died from insulin-deficit after traveling across war-torn Tigray to discover none of the hospitals had insulin. Lack of storage, resources, electricity and the constant need to flee are all factors that put people with noncommunicable diseases at risk of dying.

Tigray: Further reports of gender based violence
More than 500 self-reported cases of gender based violence (GBV) have been documented in Mekelle, Adigrat, Wukro, Shire and Aksum. However, due to a cultural stigma towards rape and a lack of health services, the United Nations (UN) believes that the actual numbers of GBV to be significantly higher. Deputy UN Ethiopian aid coordinator, Wafaa Said, said “women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence.” This week Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledge for the first time that atrocities such as rape had been committed in Tigray.