Conflict Alerts # 401, 30 June 2021
In the news
On 29 June, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson vowed to clear the Tigray region off all "enemies." BBC quoted the spokesperson's remarks to CNN: "We will not stop until Tigray has been cleared of any and all enemy forces. We will do whatever it takes." On the same day, Tigray residents reportedly celebrated the recapture of Tigray by the TPLF. Meanwhile, the US State Department warned that if hostilities continue in Tigray, Ethiopia and Eritrea should be prepared for actions from the US.
On 28 June, TPLF troops seized the regional capital, Mekelle, forcing Tigray's interim authority appointed by the federal government to flee. Following this, the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire. Al Jazeera quoted from the statement: "This unilateral ceasefire declaration starts from today 28 June 2021 and will stay until the farming season ends." The UN Secretary-General said he had spoken with the Prime Minister and said: "I am hopeful that an effective cessation of hostilities will take place."
Issues at large
First, a recap of the conflict in Tigray. The recapture of Mekelle comes eight months after the federal government declared the end of a military offensive on 28 November 2020. The offensive had been launched on 4 November in response to an alleged TPLF attack on federal military bases in Tigray. Though the offensive lasted only three weeks, the fallouts of the same led to a humanitarian crisis and rights violations including massacres, sexual abuse, and restrictions on aid supply. Differences between the TPLF and the federal government can be traced back to 2018 when PM Abiy Ahmed overthrew the TPLF-led government.
Second, the recent spate of violence. On 22 June, dozens of civilians were killed in a military airstrike on a village in Tigray; some witnesses claimed that around 40 people were killed and some have pinned the figure at 80. In a separate incident, on 25 June, the Doctors without Borders (MSF) agency reported that three of its staff had been murdered in Tigray. Apart from the above incidents, several reports of violence throughout the eight months have been released.
Third, the uncertainty regarding the elections. On 21 June, Ethiopia held its parliamentary elections, which had previously been delayed twice since 2020. The postponement of elections in 2020 was a trigger for the worsening of relations between Tigray and the federal government. Meanwhile, the elections were boycotted by some opposition parties on the grounds of manipulation and harassment and polls were not held in Tigray.
Fourth, increased international attention on the crisis. Recently, the UN human rights chief said: "I am deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict." Concerns regarding the conflict also include the role of Eritrea in targeting Tigrayans. After denying several times, the Ethiopian government admitted the presence of Eritrean troops along the Tigray borders and condemned their role in rights abuses. The EU and the US have repeatedly expressed concerns over the above; Eritrea and Ethiopia, under the TPLF-led government, had been at war for decades.
First, the recapture of Mekelle is not surprising; after the federal government declared its victory in November, the TPLF retreated but had vowed to come back. The timing of the recapture - within a week of the elections - signifies that the move was well planned and that TPLF has a roadmap ahead. The TPLF had previously warned of action against Eritrea's presence in Tigray; therefore, any escalation between the two could have devastating impacts in the region.
Second, if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wins the elections and retains his position, he will have to deal with multiple crises, some of which were triggered by his policies; otherwise, another TPLF like uprising from another region of Ethiopia cannot be ruled out.