News Highlights Extra No. 15: 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.

Report of Eritrean minors in Tigray
It is reported that minors are being employed as soldiers by Eritrea. In a video broadcasted by Tigrai Media House (TMH), Biniam Fistum, a 15-year-old Eritrean soldier captured by the Tigray forces, states he was forcibly taken from his home town Keren, Anseba Zone of Eritrea. “I have completed grade 9 and we came to Tigray by night. They haven’t told us whether we were going to Tigray,” said Biniam. He added that they were told that they could be trained inside Tigray, since the war there had ended. “It has been four months since we came to Tigray. And we took our military training near Hagerselam town, Central Tigray for four months,” added Biniam. In other news, Amnesty International said it “can confirm that Eritrean troops killed three people and injured at least 19 in an unprovoked attack on civilians in the centre of Adwa town on 12 April.” Amnesty International has spoken with witnesses who recounted that Eritrean troops were passing through the town located in Central Tigray, “when they suddenly opened fire at people on the main street close to the bus station.” Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, stated that “[t]hree people lost their lives and at least 19 are in hospital from an attack by the Eritrean troops. Deliberate attacks on civilians is prohibited by international humanitarian law and must stop.” Sarah Jackson called for a independent and impartial investigation by an international inquiry, stating that “[t]here must be justice and accountability for war crimes and human rights violations in Tigray” and that “Ethiopia and Eritrea must fully cooperate with such investigations and ensure full reparation for victims and their families.” 

Conflict developments
Intensified clashes in Tigray continue to be reported by various sources and all parties in the conflict are involved. This includes among others reports of 5 cars ambushed on the road from Adi Keyih to Mekhon and the killing of 70 ENDF troops on 8 April. Meanwhile, on the same day, 35 Eritrean troops were reported killed in Ahferom. Tigray regional forces have claimed that they killed 12.500 soldiers in the last two weeks alone. Dimtsi Weyane reported military clashes over the period 31 March – 12 April 2021 between Tigray regional forces and Ethiopian-allied forces  According to the list of clashes, one of the heaviest fights occurred on 9 April. On this occasion, 6 commands of the Eritrean army were reportedly hit by an ambush in Adi Belew, in the Wereda Hawzien area. This led to more than 3000 Eritrean soldiers killed or wounded, says the report. Furthermore, on 8 April, Ethiopian National Defense Force released a statement on a video previously released by the media, showing atrocities on civilians by Ethiopian army. According to the National Defense Force Indoctrination Director-General Major General Mohammed Tesema, the video was made by the TPLF, with the aim of manipulating public behaviours towards ENDF’s activities. Amnesty International and Bellingcat have provided detailed evidence the video is real, and CNN and BBC carried out additional investigations into the killings.

Tensions in the Horn of Africa
On 2 April, Ethiopia’s Afar and Somali regions saw clashes at the disputed border, leading to the deaths of at least 100 people. It is unclear who started the attacks, as both sides blame the other, but Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, stated that “[t]he Somali region special forces […] attacked the areas of Haruk and Gewane using heavy weapons including machinegun and rocket-propelled grenades. Children and women were killed while they were sleeping.” On 8 April, President of the Afar Regional State, Awol Arba, and President of Somali Regional State, Mustefa Omer, met in a consultative meeting presided by the Ethiopian Minister of Peace, Muferihat Kamil, who stated that the two leaders have reached “an amicable agreement to immediately resolve issues that arose.”  In relation to border tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, on 6 April the head of the Sovereign Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met with the army senior officers. According to Al-Arabiya, the Sudanese Sovereign Council said: “We will not give up areas in Al-Fashaga because they are our lands. We don’t want to go to war with Ethiopia, but if it is imposed on us, we will win because we are right.” Malik Agar, member of the Sovereign Council, rejected a United Arab Emirates (UAE) initiative, which aimed to settle the border dispute with Ethiopia, stating that “[t]he UAE wants to divide our land and we will not accept that,” and that “[t]he UAE wants to distribute our land. This is a biased initiative that will cast its shadow and repercussions on the region.” The Sudan Tribune writes that “[a]ccording to several Sudanese officials, the UAE proposed to withdraw the Sudanese troops from the border areas that it has controlled since November 2020, [and] divide the income of the UAE investment projects in Al-Fashaga.”

Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt in a deadlock following dam dispute
The Egyptian Ministry for Foreign Affairs has stated that Ethiopia’s insistence on continuing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project has showcased “Ethiopia’s lack of political will to negotiate in good faith.” On 4 March, Ethiopia met with Sudan and Egypt to discuss the implications of starting the second year of  filling the GERD reservoir. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he would not allow the dam to affect Egypt’s water supply. “Nobody will be permitted to take a single drop of Egypt’s water […] [as] any harm to Egypt’s [Nile] water will affect the stability of the entire region” al-Sisi stated. Sudanese Minister for Irrigation and Water Resources, Yasir Abbas, argued that the dam posed a risk for “Sudan’s national security” and that, he vowed, would have “regional repercussions”. On April 10,  Sudan declined Ethiopia’s request to have Sudanese dam operators exchange information with Ethiopian dam workers before the second filling of the GERD reservoir commencing in July. Ethiopia maintains that the GERD is a necessary feature to address the country’s acute power shortage. On 13 April, Sudan’s Prime Minister, Abdallah Hamdok, called his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts for a closed door meeting over the filling and operation of GERD.

International concerns over Tigray situation
Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, writes on Responsible Statecraft that “Biden’s approach [to Tigray] is not working. To be precise, the Ethiopian government is providing just enough of a plausible impression of compliance to postpone or dilute effective action.” Following a joint CNN and Amnesty International investigation, which found that extrajudicial executions had been committed by the Ethiopian army in Tigray, the United States (US) State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said the US “are gravely concerned by reported human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.” The State Department “strongly condemn[s] the killings, the forced removals, the sexual assaults, the other human rights abuses that multiple organizations have reported” stated Price, adding that they “are, of course, looking into these reports.” Jake Sullivan, White House National Security Advisor, expressed US concern over the crisis in the Tigray region in a call with Ethiopia’s deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonen. The two discussed steps to address the crisis, including expanded humanitarian access, cessation of hostility, departure of foreign troops and independent investigation into atrocities and human rights violations. According to diplomats, at the request of the United States, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is expected to discuss the situation in the Tigray region during closed consultations on 15 April, 2021. US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, urged members of the UNSC to pay attention to deeply disturbing reports of mass rape and sexual violence being committed against women and girls in the war-torn Tigray region and hold the perpetrators to account.

EU special envoy talks with Ethiopian minister over Tigray humanitarian situation
On April 9, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto met with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Ethiopia Demeke Mekonnen to discuss the “turbulence and crisis” in the Tigray Region. Haavisto told The National that the “EU might postpone some of its funding in Ethiopia” if the humanitarian situation in Tigray did not improve. The New Humanitarian recently reported Ethiopia’s restrictive policies combined with active fighting in the region have “completely hamstrung” any international organisation’s ability to give aid. A recent poll documented that less than fifty percent of people in Tigray have received aid since the conflict began in November and of those who did, nearly eighty percent believed the assistance given was not helping those who needed it most. 

Refugees and humanitarian crisis in Tigray
At the beginning of April, the USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (USAID/BHA) released the report “Humanitarian Access SCORE Report: Tigray, Ethiopia Survey on the Coverage, Operational Reach, and Effectiveness of Humanitarian Aid.” The survey, conducted among 614 people currently living in the Tigray region, showed  that according to a large majority of the answers, civilians were in need of humanitarian aid, while only a minority had received humanitarian support. The aid that was provided consisted almost entirely of food and water, not other basic necessities. Most of the people interviewed said that their basic needs were not fulfilled, due to the fact that humanitarian aid did not reach the areas where it was most needed. Government restrictions were identified as the main obstacle for humanitarian aid to reach people in need. The interviews indicated that communication blackouts and internet shutdown are preventing the sharing of information about the humanitarian crisis. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) indicates it is planning to provide more than $152 million in additional humanitarian assistance. 

Further reports of Ethiopia and Eritrea systematically killing Tigrayan civilians
The World Peace Foundation has published a report that found the humanitarian crisis in Tigray to be “entirely man-made” by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces who have “comprehensively dismantled the region’s economy and food system”. Recent investigations from news outlets have further outlined the human right violations and crimes that occured in the Tigray Region. The Telegraph interviewed survivors who claimed Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers systematically killed 182 people on 10 February 2021. The Associated Press (AP) published new reports that “bring proof of an official attempt at what is being called ethnic cleansing in the form of a new identity card that eliminates all traces of Tigray”. The new ID cards, AP added, “are the latest evidence of a systematic drive by the Ethiopian government and its allies to destroy the Tigrayan people.”