Aid is in trouble at Tigray, Ethiopia’s remote northwestern region where most of the country’s ethnic Oromo minority have fled to escape a wave of deadly clashes and intimidation. On Tuesday, Ethiopian authorities said that more than 200 relief trucks had been blocked at the border with Eritrea and had been waiting for weeks at the border with Eritrea. Over the weekend, authorities announced that five aid workers had been arrested on the Tigray border. They later released the workers, but the reason for their arrest was not made clear.
The impoverished region suffered dozens of deaths in unrest that began in October of 2017 and has spiraled out of control since. Nearly 80 Oromo have been killed, and scores injured. Thousands of Ethiopians have fled over the border to Eritrea. Then the violence moved from the northwestern region to other parts of the country. In late March, hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers killed dozens of members of the Oromo ethnic group during an army operation against Oromo protesters in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
Ethiopia’s borders have always been porous due to their remote location, and the current crisis poses a unique set of difficulties. Ethiopia is a non-signatory to the 2009 Cairo Declaration, a peace treaty signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia that followed an all-out war. As a result, Ethiopia cannot use a large swath of Eritrea, including the border region of Lower Omo Valley, to fight in this current bout of unrest in Tigray, which is home to many ethnic Oromos who once lived in Eritrea. After Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the peace agreement, many of the Oromo refugees returned to Tigray. Without access to those refugees, Ethiopia has struggled to house and feed the displaced. Ethiopian authorities, who contend that rebels and foreigners, including Eritreans, are funding the protests, recently banned the import of petrol, diesel and diesel substitutes from abroad. Oil is the only fuel to travel over the long and impassable Tigray-Eritrea border.
Tigray residents contacted by the Washington Post say there is a sense of panic on the ground. One resident said that elders are meeting in small groups in fear of military action. One shopkeeper in the region, Suresh Sene, said that no one seemed willing to take the risk of smuggling food in. Because of a lack of power in Tigray, people are using candles in homes and working with generators. Desperate Ethiopians are stockpiling seeds, seeds and fertilizers on both sides of the border.
Two weeks ago, Amnesty International issued a report that alleges that dozens of students and others in the Gambella region, which shares a border with Eritrea, have been beaten and killed in arbitrary detention. Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia have also been vocal in their criticism of the humanitarian situation on the Tigray region. Eritrean refugees, who fled their country on the NFD border, have said they fear for their lives and have seen protests in the West Tigray region’s Oromo neighborhoods and villages. Eritrean rebels from the Free Patriotic Front for Ethiopia said they want to make a statement by massing in the road between Asmara and Asmara and have told the local press that they will move into Tigray if Ethiopia doesn’t grant them asylum.
So what is the longer-term plan for Tigray? Ethiopia is a very poor country, and the nationwide protests have shaken the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The political turmoil has already resulted in the resignation of the country’s Prime Minister and has caused many divisions within the EPRDF, including divisions over whether or not to grant amnesty to protesting Oromo ethnic groups.
With Africa’s other major Horn countries, Somalia and Sudan, on the verge of full-blown civil war, Ethiopia has come to the forefront as a potential model for governance after the region. Ethiopia is the largest country in Africa by land mass and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The type of radical change that led to Sisi’s ouster in Egypt has not been possible in Ethiopia, but Tigray could become the venue of change— if the situation stabilizes and Ethiopia accepts some of the demands of the protesters and rebels.
As of Monday afternoon, it was not clear if aid trucks had reached their destinations in Tigray.