Ethiopia - an eye opener
What is really happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia? Before November 2020, nine Missionaries of Africa confreres were working there. Today, they are only two left. Paul Reilly, recently appointed for studies in Rome, accepted to contact Jose Bandres, M.Afr., and together with him, they give us some pointers to better understand the situation. Assessing the crisis as insiders can be tricky, but their aim is only to inform us better, not to expand their political views. (Webmaster)
On 3rd September 2021, Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin of the diocese of Adigrat (which comprises the entire region of Tigray) released a letter to all interested parties. In it he gives a brief overview of the current situation in his diocese in which millions are experiencing dramatic food shortages and pleads for help and prayers to bring the war and suffering of the innocent people of Tigray to a peaceful conclusion.
To better understand what has been happening in northern Ethiopia over the past few months, we provide a brief context to the outbreak of war and the severe famine currently underway in Tigray.
Social and political background: In the last 35 years, Ethiopia has suffered five different wars and two devastating famines.
Some important dates:
1974 – Emperor Haile Selassie overthrown in a military coup after his government fails to deal with famine. Mengistu Hailemariam becomes head of a military junta.
1977-79 – The Tigrayan guerrilla movement appears in Tigray.
1984-85 – Another serious famine devastates much of the country.
1991 – Lead by Meles Zenawi, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) deposes Mengistu Hailemariam after 17 years of guerrilla warfare and forms with other ethnic groups the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). A period of prosperity and stability is established and during his 21-year authoritarian rule considerable economic progress is achieved.
1993 – Eritrea becomes independent through a referendum process.
1994 – New constitution establishes Ethiopia as a federation covering the 7 ethnically based regions. Meles Zenawi officially assumes the post of Prime Minister.
1998-2000 – Ethiopian-Eritrean border war with big human loses on both sides.
2018 – Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, becomes Prime Minister and launches a comprehensive programme of political reform at home and diplomatic bridge-building abroad. The government releases thousands of political prisoners, invites exiles to return home, promises greater freedom of expression, privatization of the press as well other important sectors of the economy, specifically telecommunications. Abroad, he negotiates an end to the state of war with Eritrea thereby earning the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2019. As part of the package of his political reforms, he dissolves the ethnically based regional parties making up the EPRDF and creates a new national “Prosperity Party” (PP). The TPLF refuses to join the PP, withdraws from the governing coalition, and takes up the mantle of the principal opposition party. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Abiy announces the postponement of federal elections due in principle for the summer of 2020. The TPLF reject the reason for the election delay, claiming that PM Abiy is using the pandemic as an excuse to have more time for campaigning and to grow support for his Prosperity Party.
2020 September- November: The TPLF, against the decision of the federal government, organizes elections on 9 September within the region of Tigray and wins. Bellicose rhetoric heats up on both sides and eventually leads to the outbreak of hostilities on 4 November, when the TPLF attack and occupy the northern military command located in the Tigrayan provincial capital Mekelle as well as other federal military bases throughout the region. PM Abiy Ahmed responds in kind, calling upon three different military forces: the federal army of Ethiopia, regional militias from neighbouring Amhara state, and the invading forces of the dictator Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea.
Of course, as in all wars, those who suffer the most are the innocents. Since the outbreak of hostilities in early November 2020, thousands of individuals have been killed, women raped, children made orphans, harvests ruined, villages burned to the ground, families separated and displaced, hospitals, clinics, factories, educational institutions looted and destroyed. Due to the constant insecurity, normal life has become impossible. Those with jobs cannot work, students cannot study, farmers cannot plant crops. Millions of people have been displaced, either escaping to Sudan or moving within Tigray. Day by day food became more and more scarce and prices skyrocketing. All private banks have closed, and the government bank only allows limited withdrawals. Even Médecins sans frontières had to withdraw from the territory for lack of security when three of their members were killed in late June 2021.
June 2021 – After a series of military setbacks, the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire according to which the federal military, Eritrean forces, and Amhara militias, withdrew from the capital Mekelle and from most of the territory of Tigray. The move became very soon openly a tactic to asphyxiate the population through hunger and disease, with a total lockout of the region. (No flights, no banks, no telephone, no internet, no medicines and practically no food coming in).
Desperate current situation:
In June 2021 according to Mark Lowcock, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, after the release of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis, “The number of people in famine conditions in Tigray… is higher than anywhere in the world, at any moment since a quarter million Somalis lost their lives in 2011.” His statement – at a roundtable discussion ahead of the G7 summit – described the situation then, on the authoritative assessment of the crisis by the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). In a report, it estimated that 353,000 people in Tigray were in phase 5 (catastrophe) and a further 1.769 million were in phase 4 (emergency).
That was three months ago. Now the situation is a hundred times worse. According to reliable sources – La Croix 12 August – already in mid-August 5.3 million people were in need of food, and 400,000 were suffering severe famine. That is why on 3 September the Bishop of Adigrat, Msgr. Tesfaselassie Medhin, in a desperate move, tries with his letter to alert any authority in the world to act strongly politically, to stop such a genocide, to start cease-fire conversations through mediators, and to open up the frontier to bring in food and medicines.
As far as we know, only US President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to implement targeted sanctions against individuals and groups perpetrating violence and impeding humanitarian aid in Ethiopia. However, no individuals or entities were specifically named.
Prior to the outbreak of the war in November 2020, the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) had nine confreres working in the region of Tigray. At present, only two remain. Please keep them, all the priests and religious of the Eparchy of Adigrat, and the innocent people of Tigray in your prayers. And above all, let us pray for an urgent return of peace to Ethiopia!
Jose Bandres & Paul J. Reilly