Efforts to facilitate humanitarian access and broker a pause in Ethiopia’s year-long civil war have gathered steam in recent weeks as forces from the northern Tigray region edge closer to Addis Ababa, the capital city.
But rhetoric continues to escalate between the rebels and the government, and there has been no let-up yet in the humanitarian crisis, which has left up to seven million people in need of humanitarian assistance across northern Ethiopia.
The situation is especially severe in Tigray, where a months-long government blockade of humanitarian and commercial supplies has pushed nearly half a million people to the brink of famine.
Hundreds of thousands of people are also struggling to receive humanitarian aid in the Amhara region, where Tigrayan forces have captured increasing amounts of territory in recent weeks as they seek to break the federal blockade.
Last week, the UN’s emergency relief chief, Martin Griffiths, said Ethiopian officials had told him trucks would soon be allowed into Tigray, while rebel forces have promised to protect warehouses and facilitate aid efforts in the parts of Amhara they control.
But a humanitarian official in Ethiopia said “nothing tangible” has been agreed yet with the conflict parties in terms of increasing assistance in the two regions. And analysts say a negotiated ceasefire may be some way off too.
“There is still hope that a [ceasefire] can happen, but no one should count on it,” said a diplomatic official in Addis Ababa who spoke anonymously. The aid official also requested anonymity, citing the risk of speaking out in a sensitive context.
The Tigray conflict began in early November 2020 after months of tension between the government and the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated Ethiopia’s national politics for decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
Current mediation efforts are being led by the African Union’s Horn of Africa envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. He left Ethiopia last week after holding meetings with the government and Tigrayan leaders.
Some Ethiopian ministers have suggested they are open to dialogue. Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti, for example, said talks could happen should the rebels withdraw from regions outside of Tigray and accept the legitimacy of the federal government.
But the TPLF-aligned rebels are unlikely to accept those conditions since withdrawing to Tigray would mean giving up much of their current military advantage – all without a guarantee that the blockade would be lifted.
While diplomatic efforts continue, the Ethiopian government has ordered the sweeping arrest of ethnic Tigrayans across the country. Among those detained were 16 local UN workers – the latest aggression against an already hamstrung relief operation that has seen senior officials deported and leading aid groups suspended.
In a town called Sendafa – close to Addis Ababa – people recently displaced from Amhara called for an end to the conflict, though some questioned how they would live again with their Tigrayan neighbours.
“I hope that everything gets stabilised,” said 42-year-old Jamal Seid, who was able to escape the town of Mersa with 10 family members last month as Tigrayan rebels advanced. “The country will be peaceful when everyone stands [together] for Ethiopia.”
Tigray: ‘The worst place in the world to live’
The recent diplomatic activity comes just a few weeks after Ethiopia’s government launched a fresh military offensive against the rebels, who succeeded in pushing the federal military and its allies out of Tigray back in June.
However, the government offensive now appears to have petered out, and – after taking a series of towns – the Tigrayan forces have amassed around 300 kilometres north of Addis Ababa: a city of five million people.
The rebels have also formed an alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group from Oromia – Ethiopia’s largest region – and established links with other opposition groups who are calling for a transitional government.
Abiy’s government has described reports that Addis Ababa could fall as alarmist, though it has ordered a nationwide state of emergency and called on residents of the capital to prepare to defend their neighbourhoods.
As conflict spreads, the humanitarian situation has reached disastrous levels. More than five million people need aid in Tigray, a region described last week by Griffiths, the UN relief coordinator, as “probably the worst place in the world to live in right now”.
The Tigrayan offensive in Amhara and the northeastern Afar region has also displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and led to reports – documented by The New Humanitarian – of sexual violence and mass killings.
“In many households, children go to bed without any food.”
Though the Tigrayan forces say they are willing to facilitate humanitarian assistance in areas under their control in Amhara, insecurity and other operational issues have prevented aid groups from distributing supplies to everyone who needs it.
A temporary release of aid into the two regions could make a big difference. Large amounts of supplies are sitting in Amhara towns occupied by Tigrayan forces, while hundreds of trucks are on stand-by waiting to head into Tigray too.
Still, obstacles to humanitarian access remain in place, especially in Tigray, where no trucks have entered since 18 October, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body (OCHA), which is headed by Griffiths.
“It’s just a nightmare,” said another humanitarian official in Addis Ababa who asked not to be named. The official said authorisations to move supplies and personnel into Tigray have become even more burdensome in recent weeks.
Medical supplies are now almost entirely exhausted in Tigray, starvation deaths are rising, and banking services, telecommunications, and electricity are cut. Aid workers say people have been surviving on savings, remittances, and help from neighbours – but these can only stretch so far.
In Amhara, meanwhile, people described suffering for several weeks in rebel-controlled towns where little aid has reached. “In many households, children go to bed without any food,” said a resident who recently fled the town of Weldiya. Their testimony was shared to The New Humanitarian via a local contact in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara.
Though various diplomatic efforts are currently underway, the AU’s Obasanjo is seen as the best candidate to broker a ceasefire, having recently visited both Tigray and Addis Ababa.
The TPLF had previously expressed scepticism towards the AU, arguing the body – headquartered in Addis Ababa – is biased towards the government. But rebel officials nonetheless described their discussion with Obasanjo as “very fruitful”.
The former Nigerian president said both parties recognise that their differences can be resolved politically, and has since called on them to halt their military offensives to allow for continued dialogue.
Still, the prospect for a settlement remains uncertain: Federal officials say they will not engage in talks unless Tigrayan forces end attacks and withdraw from Amhara and Afar, while Tigray’s leadership say they won’t stop fighting until the blockade is lifted.
“Unless Prime Minister Abiy and his allies are willing to take measures to really facilitate aid to Tigray and restore banking services... we’re just going to see things play out on the battlefield,” said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
There are other hurdles too. Tigray’s leadership refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the central government, while the TPLF has been designated a terrorist organisation by the federal parliament, hindering the possibility of talks.
“Unless Prime Minister Abiy and his allies are willing to take measures to really facilitate aid to Tigray and restore banking services... we’re just going to see things play out on the battlefield.”
Territorial issues are also thorny. Tigrayan officials want to reclaim western parts of the region captured by Amhara forces during the conflict. But Amhara officials are unlikely to leave a space that they say was illegally annexed by the TPLF decades earlier.
Any agreement between the Tigrayan forces and the federal government may also have to contend with the interests of the various other rebel groups and anti-government organisations that have aligned with the TPLF in recent weeks.
Forging these alliances is politically important to the TPLF because it gives them “a national agenda” beyond their intentions for Tigray, said Mohamed Kheir Omer, a political analyst who is closely following the conflict in Ethiopia.
Such alliances can also provide a military advantage to the rebels. The OLA, for example, controls parts of rural Oromia, including areas near Addis Ababa, which they say they could soon enter. A diplomatic source told The New Humanitarian the OLA should not be underestimated, though stressed that their level of military power is contested.
Will Addis Ababa fall?
Whether Tigrayan forces advance on Addis Ababa remains to be seen. They have threatened to do so if the blockade stays in place, but they still have some way to go to reach the city.
Some countries, including the United States, have urged their citizens to leave Ethiopia altogether, while others may be waiting to see if negotiations are still possible.
Abiy’s government has said reports of the rebels advancing to the capital are exaggerated, though Tigrayans in the city have been arrested in increasing numbers since a state of emergency was declared earlier this month.
The rebels would be unlikely to enter Addis Ababa without some kind of confrontation: Abiy still enjoys considerable support in the city, while the TPLF is remembered for decades of autocratic rule – a deep resentment that would hinder its ability to govern.
Omer, the analyst, said officials from Amhara – Abiy’s main support base – would also be unlikely to accept a TPLF-OLA takeover, though he doesn’t believe that regaining power nationally is the objective of the Tigrayans. “The Amharas would be the biggest losers and are unlikely to accept defeat,” Omer said.
For now, Tigrayan forces are focusing their efforts on controlling a key highway linking Addis Ababa to neighbouring Djibouti. Capturing the route – which runs through Afar – would choke trade to and from the capital, and pile further pressure on Abiy.
But that objective is some way off too, with the rebels facing resistance from federal and regional forces as well as the problem of hot, flat terrain that leaves them exposed to government airpower.
“Despite the fact that the [Ethiopian army] is considerably weakened, clearly they would have kept something in reserve to protect that vital strategic corridor,” said the ICG’s Davison.
As the conflict parties mull over their next moves, the number of displaced people escaping the war keeps rising in towns like Sendafa, which is just 40 kilometres away from Addis Ababa.
Thirty-year-old Alemu Melesse said he is staying with his aunt, who is sharing everything she has with his family. They recently fled Kobo, an Amhara town where residents accuse Tigrayan forces of killing hundreds of civilians in early September.
Despite the circumstances, Melesse said he still has hope for the future of Ethiopia: “There will be a day when peace will be established and we can go back to our land.”
Philip Kleinfeld reported from Bamako. Edited by Andrew Gully.