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Overlooked Conflicts: The Grisly Toll of Ethiopia’s Civil War

by John Whitehead

Although the war between Ukraine and Russia has dominated the news, other countries have been suffering through their own violent conflicts in recent years. In this and future pieces, I will highlight contemporary wars and other conflicts that are too often overlooked.

NOTE: This piece discusses sexual violence and other human rights violations.

Ethiopia has been devastated by civil war since late 2020. Over roughly two years, this conflict in the second-most-populous country in Africa is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions dependent on humanitarian aid. A cease-fire agreement in late 2022 offers some hope but time alone will tell if genuine peace comes to Ethiopia.

The war has pitted Ethiopia’s federal government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, against anti-government forces based in the northern region of Tigray. Other parties involved in the conflict are the neighboring country of Eritrea and various Ethiopian militias. The war involves regional and ethnic divisions within the country.

A Divided Country

The only African nation never to have been colonized, Ethiopia is home to 110 million people belonging to over 40 distinct ethnic groups. Tigrayans, who speak Tigrinya rather than Ethiopia’s majority language of Amharic, are one of the smaller ethnic groups, accounting for just 5 percent of the population. Despite their minority status, however, the Tigrayans dominated Ethiopian politics for almost 30 years. The 2018 rise to power of Abiy, who is from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, represented a threat to Tigrayan dominance. By 2019, the Tigrayan political party the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) found itself outside the government for the first time in decades.

Political tensions became open conflict in 2020, when Abiy postponed planned national elections, supposedly because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The TPLF protested this decision, and Tigray held its own elections. Abiy denounced the elections as illegal and cut off federal funding to Tigray. When armed Tigrayan forces attacked a federal military base in November 2020, Abiy declared that “the last red line has been crossed” and launched a military intervention in Tigray.

Abiy’s stated goal for the military action was to arrest a “criminal clique” of TPLF leaders. In his campaign, he has had an ally in neighboring Eritrea. Meanwhile, the TPLF launched missile strikes against Eritrea.

The War’s Toll

The subsequent two-year war was marked by a military back-and-forth between the two sides: in 2021, the TPLF came close to toppling Abiy’s regime before being forced back by the government. The war was also marked by atrocities committed by both sides.

During the war, the federal government attempted to isolate the Tigray region by cutting off electricity, water, telecommunications, and other services. This isolation policy hampered humanitarian aid from reaching the region. Limited access to aid was an especially dire problem as millions of people in Tigray came to require food assistance.

The absence of internet or phone service in Tigray, combined with government intimidation of journalists, has made the war’s effects difficult to document. However, available information suggests the human toll of the conflict is high.

The UN World Food Programme estimated in mid-2022 that almost half of Tigray’s population was in “severe” need of food and that malnutrition rates had “skyrocketed.” Half of pregnant or lactating women and one-third of children under five in Tigray were malnourished.

The Tigrayan doctor Abenezer Etsedingl has said that the war made coordinating emergency medical services among hospitals very difficult. Further, the war effectively rendered Tigray without any ambulances, so patients sometimes had to travel to the hospital by horse-drawn wagon. Medicine was also often lacking: the World Health Organization reported in late 2022 that Tigray had run out of vaccines, antibiotics, and other medicines. Maternal mortality increased 800% in Tigray during the war, according to Etsedingl.

Beyond depriving Tigray of necessities, pro-government forces have also reportedly inflicted suffering more directly. Government troops have allegedly used sexual violence against women and sometimes men in Tigray; hundreds of such incidents have been reported and many more may have gone unreported. Such violence has notably been accompanied by increased demand for abortions in Tigray.

Outside Tigray, the federal government imprisoned thousands of ethnic Tigrayan military personnel elsewhere in Ethiopia, presumably fearing these personnel would be disloyal. A Washington Post investigation based on interviews of prisoners and others indicates that in late 2021 Ethiopian government forces carried out mass killings of these detained Tigrayans.