Humanitarian Aid Needed as Tigray Crisis Worsens
An Interview with William Davison
What is your assessment of the recently declared state of emergency by the Ethiopian government on November 2nd? Does the arrest of UN workers create a greater sense of urgency for intervention?
The state of emergency is a response to the advance of the Tigray forces through eastern Amhara. It was declared after the Tigrayans took control of the cities of Dessie and Kombolcha—major military victories as part of the offensive that the Tigrayans have been waging since July. There have been calls for all-out mobilization from the Prime Minister and other officials. The Amhara region officially declared that it is committing all government resources to the struggle. The threat to Addis and the authority of the federal government has increased quite substantially.
The state of emergency is a very sweeping piece of legislation allowing authorities to arrest anyone they suspect of supporting groups such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Army—both of which are classified as terrorist groups by the federal government. Authorities have the right to arrest anyone they suspect of supporting those groups without the need for due process. Individuals can be detained for the duration of the state of emergency. Consequently, thousands of Tigrayans have been arrested in the capital and elsewhere. This was preceded by a significant increase in anti-Tigrayan hate speech, including some explicitly genocidal messaging.
These are deeply concerning developments. The arrest of UN workers should be seen within this broader context, but also points to the deterioration between the federal government and the UN.
What are the greatest impediments, in your opinion, to providing humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict?
There is only one land corridor to Tigray from Addis Ababa which is even being considered and that is through the Afar region. The other routes, either because of insecurity or because of opposition from Amhara, are not considered. The route through Afar has seen bureaucratic impediments, which have held up the delivery of food, medicine, and fuel.
Bureaucratic impediments come in many different forms. Regional authorities ask for different permissions at checkpoints, there have been attacks on convoys by local elements in Afar, and obstructions to humanitarian flights—they are all hindering assistance efforts. Humanitarian operations inside Tigray are massively constrained by the lack of access to cash, telecoms, and a severe fuel shortage. Electricity has been limited as well.
These federal services have been cut off. Various reasons are given for that, but there is no functioning relationship between the federal and regional governments—the regional government in Tigray is considered a terrorist organization by Addis Ababa.
Aid access is limited due to insecurity and the difficulty of accessing certain areas through roads. This has been exacerbated by the unwillingness of the government to engage in cross-line operations that allow humanitarians to work inside Tigray-occupied areas. Reportedly, Tigrayan forces have also been resistant to humanitarian organizations doing those type of operations. These are the primary reasons for the humanitarian access problems.
How has this conflict impacted the security of surrounding regions in Africa?
Ethiopia is the overwhelmingly dominant country in the Horn of Africa. Any further destabilization of the state would have a tremendously negative effect on regional stability, especially if there are large refugee outflows. We have seen some Tigray forces’ advances on the battlefield. The Oromo Liberation Army rebellion is growing, but this comes with very serious risks, such as the possible breakdown of government authority, a worsening humanitarian situation, an increase in intercommunal violence between Amhara and Oromo elements, as well as the possibility of increased repression and violence against Tigrayan civilians. Establishing a political settlement and a transitional government will be very difficult, even if there is a clear military victory. It is likely that the political situation will be increasingly destabilized.
How has disinformation altered perceptions of the Tigray crisis? Do you think that the media blackout imposed by the government last year has impacted the way this conflict has been understood in Western media today?
Initially, the telecommunications blackout and lack of access to the region made it very hard to understand what was happening on the ground. Gradually, information did trickle out, providing insight into the effect of the blockade on aid and trade, the sealing off of the region, and the atrocities committed, i.e., sexual violence, massacres, and looting of Tigrayan property.
It created a particularly stark battle of the narratives, and it’s been difficult to establish any form of consensus about what’s going on, which has the effect of exacerbating pre-existing political polarization. For example, on the one hand, Ethiopian public opinion seems to think that the media has been biased in favour of the TPLF and that disinformation has been spread by Tigrayan political elites. Yet, on the other hand, some think that a genocide is underway, and that the Western media coverage has not fully recognized the extent of the harm being enacted against Tigray.
Is there a path to de-escalation without intervention? Can Canada and its allies help mitigate instability?
Ultimately, external actors here do not have much ability to influence the Tigray, federal, Amhara, or Eritrean leadership. Instead, what needs to happen is that the federal government should recognize that the war is incredibly destructive and calls for all-out mobilization will result in further loss of life but will probably not change the outcome.
They need to find a way to negotiate with Tigray leadership. There needs to be unrestricted humanitarian access accompanied by the restoration of services. After these basic requirements are met, they can begin discussing the more complicated political elements that have either stemmed from the war or from the constitutional dispute before the war. This will involve some very tricky issues, such as territory formerly administered by Tigray that Amhara has taken over. If the federal leadership is willing to make concessions to the Tigrayans there could be negotiations of a ceasefire and a political settlement, leading eventually to an inclusive national dialogue to discuss all of the major destabilizing issues. There are no easy solutions though.
The reality is that without concessions from the federal government, the Tigray leadership is going to keep pushing forward militarily. Unless the federal coalition can withstand that military pressure, then concessions will be needed to avert further disaster.
International actors should recognize that more punitive measures, such as sanctions, are not going to have a significant impact on the dynamics at this stage. External leverage has had little impact throughout this conflict in changing the positioning and approaches of the various Ethiopian protagonists.
William Davison joined Crisis Group in April 2019 as Senior Analyst for Ethiopia. William was Bloomberg’s Ethiopia correspondent from 2010 until 2017 and has also published in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, Christian Science Monitor, and other international media. In 2018 he founded Ethiopia Insight, from which he is editorially detached.