Ethiopia’s government has launched a new offensive against rebel forces from the blockaded Tigray region, where malnutrition and starvation deaths are rising while UN officials coordinating the humanitarian response have been deported from the country.
Major air and ground operations against rebel positions in the neighbouring Amhara region reportedly commenced last week, with rebel officials claiming a new government push to recapture Tigray is also underway. Federal forces had previously withdrawn from most parts of the northern region after rebels took control in late June.
“We’re going to see more civilian suffering; more troops being killed; another round of military bloodshed,” said Mengistu Assefa, an Ethiopian analyst and political commentator.
The reported offensive comes after seven senior UN officials were thrown out of Ethiopia for allegedly “meddling” in the country’s affairs. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the decision – announced late last month – was “unprecedented” and violated international law.
Aid officials told The New Humanitarian the deportations will have a silencing effect on those wanting to speak out against the widening conflict, and said they will leave some agencies rudderless at a time when they are needed the most.
Among those deported was the country representative of UNICEF; the head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body (OCHA) in Ethiopia; and the UN’s acting humanitarian coordinator, Grant Leaity, who had recently called on the government to lift a months-long humanitarian and economic blockade that has prevented medicine and food from reaching Tigray, pushing some 400,000 people to the brink of famine.
Addis Ababa denies it is blocking aid to Tigray and using starvation as a tool of war. The government has previously said relief agencies are providing weapons and diverting aid to rebels, though clear evidence to support these assertions has not been provided.
“It is an aggressive attempt at silencing the aid community,” David Del Conte, an aid worker leading a campaign on the humanitarian crisis for Refugees International, said of the recent expulsions. “This distracts attention from the famine and blockade, it is just going to make things worse,” he added.
Some 5.2 million people are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance in Tigray, where the government has cut electricity, telecommunications, and banking. As starvation deaths rise, aid officials have warned of a repeat of the 1980s famine in Ethiopia, which left as many as one million people dead.
In some towns in Tigray, aid officials – who spoke to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity due to the risk of reprisals – said acute shortages of medicine mean hospitals can now only provide advice to patients. In other places, lack of food has caused the price of basic commodities to soar beyond what most people can afford.
Hundreds of thousands of people have also been displaced in neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, where Tigrayan rebels said they launched offensives in order to break the federal blockade. The New Humanitarian has documented several alleged atrocities by the rebels, though they deny targeting civilians.
Aid agencies silenced
The Tigray conflict began in November 2020 after months of tension between the government and the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades but lost power when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 amid anti-government protests.
Addis Ababa announced a unilateral ceasefire on 28 June – after sustaining heavy battlefield losses to the rebels – but the government then tightened a blockade on Tigray and used the period to regroup and source new recruits. Tigrayan forces also launched a mobilisation drive.
Now, a new military operation has begun just as the rainy season comes to a close, triggering fears of renewed civilian suffering. The government’s previous campaign in Tigray – supported by Eritrean troops and Amhara militia – was marked by the mass killing of Tigrayans, ethnic cleansing, and the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Aid workers and analysts said the expulsion of UN officials was designed to remove critical voices ahead of the new offensive, which comes just a few days after Abiy was sworn in for a new five-year term. Analysts also said the expulsions could be seen as a reaction to the increased international pressure Addis Ababa has been facing.
Last month, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order threatening sanctions against individuals responsible for the conflict and obstructing humanitarian relief. And in an media interview on 28 September, the UN’s top humanitarian official, Martin Griffiths, described the crisis as a “stain on our conscience”.
“[The expulsions are] an indirect message to the US government and the EU,” said Assefa, the political analyst. He said it shows how far Ethiopia is willing to go to defend its sovereignty “whatever the punitive policy lines the US government and its allies… might follow”.
Though the expulsions are unlikely to significantly impact the operations of an already hampered relief effort, aid officials said they were worried that the UN could lose further leverage when it comes to negotiating humanitarian access with the government.
Finding new officials to fill senior management positions may also take time due to internal recruitment processes and constraints the government has created on issuing visas for aid agencies.
The expulsions come just two months after two major international relief organisations – the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Dutch section of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – confirmed their operations had been temporarily suspended across Ethiopia.
“If [aid agencies] want to keep up their operations, they… prefer not to speak up and at least keep the assistance going,” one aid official from an international organisation told The New Humanitarian. “It’s a choice we have to [make].”
No food, no fuel, no medicine
It’s not yet clear what effect the new federal offensive will have on humanitarian agencies, though heavy fighting is likely to constrain access in all three regions currently affected by conflict.
The offensive is currently focused on rebel positions in Amhara, where government officials say half a million people have been uprooted in recent months. Aid agencies were already struggling to reach parts of the region, particularly those under rebel occupation.
Though rebels said their forces are currently “holding ground”, a federal push on Tigray could compromise humanitarian access there too: When Ethiopian and Eritrean forces last conducted operations in the region, they often blocked aid groups from reaching territory controlled by the rebels.
However, for now, the main humanitarian concern in Tigray is the blockade. Movement on the only operational road into the region – via the Afar region – is severely restricted because of bureaucratic hurdles, according to the UN.
Addis Ababa says it has made efforts to reduce bottlenecks on the road by cutting down checkpoints. But just 686 humanitarian trucks have entered Tigray since July – according to the latest situation report from OCHA – far below the 100 trucks a day the UN says is needed to avert a famine.
Though passenger flights transporting humanitarians to and from Tigray have been authorised, aid workers have been harassed during airport checks and forced to leave behind personal medicine and other equipment.
An EU humanitarian air bridge has, meanwhile, completed two flights carrying lifesaving cargo, including nutrition supplies and hospital material. But that haul doesn’t come close to covering the needs on the ground.
Lack of fuel in Tigray has caused NGOs “to suspend operations in some areas”, said Gemma Snowdon, a communications officer for the World Food Programme. The last fuel tanker to enter Tigray came on 29 July, while eight tankers are currently stationed in Afar pending government approval to proceed.
Towns in Tigray now face acute shortages of medicine. According to the UN, more than a dozen people have died due to a lack of catheters at one hospital in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, while broken oxygen machines and shortages of dialysis supplies are threatening lives.
At a hospital in Aksum – scene of one of the worst reported massacres during the conflict – essential medicines are depleted, said a UN official who asked not to be named. The official said the hospital had been receiving supplies from MSF until the organisation was suspended.
In Shire, a Tigray town hosting tens of thousands of displaced people, insufficient medical supplies are leading to increased cases of malaria, dysentery, and rabies, the UN official added.
Addis Ababa has accused rebel forces of hampering aid delivery, including by stealing humanitarian trucks travelling from Afar to Tigray. TPLF officials said truck drivers who arrive in Tigray are unwilling to leave because of intimidation faced at government checkpoints.
War hawks and ‘Ethiopia’s honour’
Some political analysts say Abiy’s recent electoral victory will further embolden his already hawkish Tigray stance. At a swearing-in ceremony last week, he vowed to defend "Ethiopia's honour” and push back against foreign interference.
In a subsequent cabinet reshuffle, Abiy gave the defence minister portfolio to an ethnic Tigrayan who led the region’s federally appointed interim administration earlier this year. But analysts say that move is unlikely to be seen as much of an olive branch in Tigray.
Though most officials around Abiy appear supportive of the war effort, one high-ranking political figure in Addis Ababa told The New Humanitarian they disagreed with how it is being prosecuted.
“We have to separate the civilian population from the soldiers,” said the politician, who asked not to be named, citing the high risk of retribution. “I want the TPLF to be removed because they are also harming their own people. But we have to be systematic [in the separation].”
TPLF officials said they are in favour of a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict but only if the blockade is lifted, Eritrean troops leave the country, and Amhara militia withdraw from Western Tigray, which they annexed over the course of the conflict.
Assefa, the analyst, said there appears to be little possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict. Neither side, he added, will likely achieve a “decisive military victory that could result in lasting solutions”.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.