On June 16th, the UN’s top humanitarian official Mark Lowcock told members of the security council that there is famine in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Some 350,000 people in Tigray are living in famine conditions with millions more at risk. “We are at a tipping point” Lowcock said.
So far, the urgent appeals from the humanitarian community have not been met with commensurate action by the key players in Tigray, including the Ethiopian government. Since November 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia, backed by troops in neighboring Eritrea, have fought a war against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF. The TPLF is the dominant political force in Tigray region, but for decades, the TPLF was the dominant political party in the federal government as well.
That was until Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 and effectively sidelined the TPLF. As my guest today Zecharias Zelalem explains, unresolved conflict between the TPLF and the federal government is what lead to the outbreak of civil war.
Zecharias Zelalem is a freelance journalist and contributor to Al Jazeera and The Telegraph, among other outlets. We kick off with a discussion about the circumstances that lead to the outbreak of war in November 2020. This includes the delaying of national elections last summer, ostensibly due to COVID. Those delayed elections are now scheduled for June 21, just a few days from now. We discuss the implications of the elections for the trajectory of conflict in Ethiopia.
By all accounts, the situation in Tigray is extremely grim and about to get much worse. This conversation does a good job of examining how we go to this point.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:00:03] Welcome to Global Dispatches, a podcast for the international affairs, foreign policy, global development communities, and anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the world today. I’m your host, Mark Leon Goldberg, Editor of U.N. Dispatch. Enjoy the show.
[00:00:25] On June 16th, the UN’s top humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, told members of the Security Council that there is famine in parts of the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Some 350,000 people in Tigray are living in famine conditions with millions more at risk. “We are at a tipping point,” Lowcock said. So far, the urgent appeals from the humanitarian community have not been met with commensurate action by key players in Tigray, including the Ethiopian government. Since November 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia, backed by troops in neighboring Eritrea, have fought a war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF. The TPLF is the dominant political force in the Tigray region but for decades the TPLF was the dominant political party in the federal government as well. That was until Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 and effectively sidelined the TPLF.
[00:01:43] As my guest today, Zecharias Zelalem explains, unresolved conflict between the TPLF and the Abiy Ahmed-led government is what led to the outbreak of civil war. Zecharias Zelalem is a freelance journalist and contributor to Al-Jazeera and the Telegraph, among other outlets. We kick off with a discussion about these circumstances that led to the outbreak of war in November 2020. This includes the delaying of national elections last Summer, ostensibly due to Covid. Those delayed elections are now scheduled for June 21st, 2021, which is just a few days from now. And we do discuss the implications of the elections for the trajectory of the conflict in Ethiopia.
[00:02:35] By all accounts, the situation in Tigray is extremely grim and about to get much worse. This conversation, though, does a good job of explaining how we got to this point. Today’s episode is supported in part through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to showcase African voices discussing peace and security issues in Africa. To access other episodes in this series, please visit GlobalDispatchesPodcast.com. And now, here is my conversation with journalist Zecharias Zelalem.
How Did The Civil War in Ethiopia Begin?
Zecharias Zelalem [00:03:16] In November of last year, we saw the break out of hostilities in Tigray between the then-Tigray regional government led by the TPLF, or the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the federal government in Addis Ababa. That led to the breaking out of the brutal civil war that has resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of millions, as well as systemic starvation across the region. But the break out of hostilities was actually the culmination of two years of worsening hostilities between the regional and federal governments and an inability by representatives of both governments to solve their many underlying issues amicably or through roundtable talks, resulted in the ongoing conflict that we see today. So on November 4th, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that TPLF forces, Tigrayan regional government forces, had attacked federal army bases in the region and he used that as a pretext to launch an invasion of the region backed by troops from neighboring Eritrea. There is evidence, however, that points to the war being planned in advance. And as I said, this is really the result of years of worsening tensions. And we’re bearing the unfortunate fruits of it -mass rape, massacres, all sorts of human rights violations.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:52] So we are speaking just ahead of scheduled national elections that were delayed. And I’m interested to learn from you what role delaying the elections back in 2020 might have had in contributing to this conflict? Or what factor did the fact that the Ethiopian government delayed elections, I believe in the summer of 2020, to the outbreak of conflict in November 2020?
Elections in Ethiopia and the impact on the Ethiopia Civil War and Tigray Conflict
Zecharias Zelalem [00:05:25] So when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was ushered into power on the back of popular uprisings in 2018, he had pledged to oversee a transitional government that would pave things for the preparation of Ethiopia’s first-ever free and fair elections. It would be a historic first for Ethiopians. In preparation for this, all sorts of political organizations that had been previously outlawed were decriminalized. Exiled politicians and activists were invited back into the country to take part in, I guess, what was the fledgling democratic process. And there was some reason to be optimistic at the time.
[00:06:19] That was in 2018. As things gradually went by, there had been the very slow but noticeable closing up of the political space and setbacks with regards to Ethiopia’s democracy. Suddenly, politicians and members of the opposition that had been freed from prison were being rearrested. There was a clampdown on independent media outlets and this took a very ugly turn for the worse in 2020 when a very famous activist and popular Oromo musician by the name of Hachalu Hundessa, was murdered on June 29th. Following the murder -which Ethiopian forces blamed on members of the political opposition- there were mass arrests of members of the opposition, as well as outspoken critical voices.
[00:07:17] And one of the reasons why there had been worsening tensions between members of Ethiopia’s political opposition was because of the government’s announcement that it would postpone elections, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. And most of the political opposition that had reestablished themselves in Ethiopia had done so with the promise that there would be elections scheduled for no later than August 2020. So a lot of them took issue with the decision to postpone the polls and saw them as Abiy, I guess, not remaining firm to his own word. And it also turned a significant section of the Ethiopian population against the Ethiopian government and had many doubting the sincerity of Ethiopia as a democratic -or the Ethiopian government’s democratic aspirations. But the Tigray regional government, it went a step further and announced that despite the announcement by the Ethiopian Parliament that polls would be postponed, that it would go ahead anyway and hold its own regional government elections. So these polls were not recognized by the Addis Ababa-based National Ethiopian Election Board. And it really worsened tensions to the point of no return between the federal government and the regional government in Tigray. The TPLF ended up winning the election in a landslide.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:55] Not surprisingly.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:08:57] Yeah, not surprisingly, the TPLF prior to their being ousted from Addis Ababa, they were at the helm of government in Ethiopia for about three decades. In which time period, they held about four or five general elections, none of which were ever considered free and fair by observers.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:16] It just may be worth noting and worth pointing out that, as you said, for three decades, the TPLF was the dominant political party of the coalition that ran the government of Ethiopia until Abiy Ahmed came to power.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:09:32] Precisely. The way the EPRDF coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front -that was composed of multiple political parties- was, in truth, dominated by a single party, the TPLF, run by Tigrayan elites. So this monopoly of sorts of government led to the break out of protests, which ultimately resulted in Abiy coming to power in 2018. But eventually, in Tigray with the holding of rogue elections, it really highlighted the fragile nature of government in Addis Ababa. And I guess for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, it was the point of no return. And within months of those polls, both the Tigrayan regional government and the Addis Ababa-based federal government announced that they would not recognize the other. Push eventually led to shove and we saw on November 4th the break out of the ongoing civil war that is now seven months and counting.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:44] Could you describe the trajectory of that civil war over the course of the last seven months and explain where things stand today?
Zecharias Zelalem [00:10:56] So for the initial months of the war, the region’s communications were severed. So with no phone and no Internet access, it was really impossible to authenticate some of the accounts, including some of the very harrowing accounts that were coming from the region. In most modern-day coverage of war, you will receive updates -timely updates of which warring faction is in charge or who has taken control of this town, or who has suffered battleground defeats. There was nothing of the sort for months due to the fact that journalists and aid workers were prohibited from reaching the region. And all that journalists had to rely on were accounts from refugees who had fled Ethiopia to neighboring Sudan. So by the time Ethiopian forces captured the Tigrayan capital of Mekele -about three weeks or so into the war- we were unable to verify accounts, for instance, that Eritrean soldiers were involved -something that we would only learn of months later.
[00:12:09] We were unable to verify mounting accounts of atrocities committed by all sides other than the November 9th Mai Kadra massacre. We were unable to verify reports of abuses against civilians -rape, looting of property- a lot of these remained allegations and it was impossible to investigate. After November 28th, after the capture of Mekele, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a victory and he also announced that the war had ended and a phase of rebuilding the region would begin. An interim administration was established in Tigray and the regional government was ousted, officially. However, it is obviously clear to any observer at this point that hostilities never ended.
[00:13:11] The TPLF -the Tigray regional government, despite being ousted from its capital city, has transitioned to guerrilla warfare and has been engaged in an insurgency targeting Ethiopian forces as well as allied troops from neighboring Eritrea. And over the course of the past four or five months since the capture of Mekele, fighting has intensified and so have atrocities which we’ve since been able to verify using an array of techniques -the use of satellite imagery, smuggled video and photo evidence that we’ve been able to locate to specific areas in the region. Journalists from major media outlets around the world have been able to paint a very grim but very accurate picture of a war in which state forces are meeting punitive action out against the civilian population in Tigray. And by the time April and May came about, it was very clear the nature of the conflict had become very evident for even the major diplomatic players of the world. And the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have since come under mounting pressure to cease attacks against civilians, to hold their own troops and commanders to account, and to allow access to the region for NGOs and international aid workers to address the very dire -extremely dire humanitarian crisis in the region which has led to something like 90 percent of Tigrayans needing emergency food aid. So at this moment, it is as grim as it gets.
Famine Looms in Ethiopia
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:21] So on that last point- we’re speaking a day after the top UN humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, addressed members of the UN Security Council, saying that there is famine, ongoing, in parts of Tigray and that it is caused, in part, by Eritrean troops refusing food access and humanitarian access to the population. Can you discuss and explain the role of Eritrean troops in what is otherwise a civil war? I get that, for example, the TPLF, the ruling party of Tigray for many years -that ruled Ethiopia for many years- is an avowed enemy of Eritrea and that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as one of his early moves, sought to make peace with Eritrea. So now, it seems that Eritrean troops are exacting their revenge on their long foe, the Tigrayans, but are doing so in a way specifically designed to inflict harm on the Tigrayan people.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:16:36] Yeah, as you pointed out towards the end right there, the Eritrean government has been a foe of the former Tigrayan regional government for years. It dates back to the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean Border War in which the then-TPLF-led Ethiopian government fell out with the Eritrean government and then engaged in the very destructive war that led to something like 70,000 people dying. So the two sides have never really reconciled. And Abiy Ahmed coming to power led to the eventual reestablishment of ties between Ethiopian and Eritrean and governments. However, it did not lead to any sort of warming up -sincere warming up- between the TPLF who had by then retreated to Mekele and the Eritrean government. So it was always in the Eritrean government’s interests to see the TPLF be ousted from influence in the region. And it is what’s behind the Eritrean government’s eventual deployment of troops to Ethiopia.
[00:17:58] Remember that the Eritrean government’s presence -the Eritrean military’s presence in Tigray-was denied for months by both Asmara and Addis Ababa. Finally, after mounting evidence and after it became impossible to conceal any longer -it was only in March, something like five months into the war- that Ethiopia’s prime minister finally admitted to their presence in the region. But shortly after, he also stated that they would be withdrawing and that their withdrawal had begun with immediate effect. Some three months or so since that statement, Eritrean troops remain firmly entrenched across Tigray. There’s no sign of any of them withdrawing. And they are actually playing a very detrimental role with regards to the region’s humanitarian initiative.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:05] I mean, from my perspective, covering the UN for many years, it’s actually quite rare for a senior UN official to so directly call out a UN member state for such harmful action and saying that Eritrean troops are causing famine in Ethiopia right now. Now, Eritrea is sort of something of a rogue state. It doesn’t have many international allies, but it is still notable that the senior UN humanitarian official said such a thing in such a direct way.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:19:40] Well, it’s definitely a break away from their modus operandi -I guess the UN’s modus operandi in recent months. Not many people are aware of this, but the UN was actually able to establish without any doubt that Eritrean soldiers were in Tigray by December. This was due to an incident on December 7th outside of a UNHCR refugee camp in Tigray in which UN staff driving towards the camp were shot at by troops manning a checkpoint just outside of the refugee camp. At the time, the Ethiopian government told media outlets that it was its forces behind the shooting and they blamed UN staff for encroaching in areas that they were prohibited from accessing. But what is known is that those were actually Eritrean troops who had fired upon UN staff. And for some reason, the UN staff never shared this bit of information with the rest of the world. It took maybe another month and a half for international journalists to firmly established that Eritrean soldiers were in the region.
[00:21:02] So there’s been a bit of a reluctance on behalf of the UN to really call out some of the warring factions. There were two UNHCR camps, the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps, which were raised to the ground by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops between December and January, something that’s been verified by multiple media outlets. And this has not been adequately addressed, at least publicly, by the UN. So it could be perhaps a fear of losing the very limited access they have to the region or politics or whatever the case. Even the very recent news reports which put the tally of Tigrayans needing food aid at something like 90 percent of the population -they were leaked to the public by journalists, by Reuters- not something that the UN formally announced until and until journalists had published stories on it. So there’s definitely been a sort of dillydallying of sorts by the UN with regards to concrete action.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:21] And it’s something that the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas Greenfield, it seems was somewhat exasperated about. I think she said, “do African lives not matter?” When the Security Council has, so far, refused to hold a formal session on this issue owing to divisions at the Security Council -principally China and Russia- sort of still considering this to be an internal issue and not something that would rise to be an issue of international peace and security. So I wanted to have you speak a bit about the upcoming elections.
[00:22:59] You know, by the time people listen to this, the elections probably will have already been started on June 21st. It seems like just an incredibly fraught situation. As I understand it, about one-fifth of the seats that are to be elected are not even holding elections because of conflict. And then you have a number of opposition parties that are just boycotting it. So this does seem to be just a very deeply problematic event that will unfold.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:23:30] Yes, unfortunately with under a week to go, there are no signs that Ethiopians will have the credible, transparent, free, and fair elections that they had been promised in 2018. As you rightfully pointed out, a number of opposition parties, including parties that were slated to provide the ruling party with the stiffest challenge at the polls, have been systematically excluded. Those that are set to boycott the elections are doing so principally because their leaders and many of their members have been detained for a little over a year now. And there’s also a very severe lack of representation with regard to the competing parties.
[00:24:28] The grand majority of some of the parties with a noticeable amount of candidates will be based out of Addis Ababa. So these are Addis Ababa-based parties with their reach and their support bases in the capital city. Ethiopia is a country of about 110, between 110 to 120 million people, and the capital city holds less than five percent of that population. So for entire regions, such as the entire Oromia region, which is home to something like a third of Ethiopia’s population -to have no prominent political parties representing them, to have the Tigray region excluded from the elections, obviously due to the security situation, and then to have other regions such as the Somali region, to have their polls and their voting procedures postponed due to technicalities due to suspected voter fraud and other irregularities- well it definitely points to there being a very problematic nature with the upcoming polls. The lack of representation, of course, is the most pressing matter with regards to the election’s credibility. And as it stands, a single social demographic or social constituency, if you will, is set to be represented while most are excluded from the elections.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:22] I mean, the situation is being engineered to ensconce Abiy Ahmed in power. It’s abundantly clear this is not a free and fair election.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:26:32] Well, the evidence definitely points to that. The fact that his major political opponents, those who stood the best, those who would have seriously challenged him, they remain behind bars. and they’ve been behind bars since June of last year. And they’re charged with a variety of trumped-up charges including treason, terrorism, and even involvement with the murder of the famous singer, Hachala Hundessa, last year. There’s been no evidence presented in court for any of these charges but they’ve been denied the chance to participate in these polls. There is one party, one Addis Ababa-based party known as the Balderas Party. Its leader, a press freedom advocate, Eskinder Nega, who’s been in prison for about a year now -a court has ruled that he would be able to take part in elections. He’d be able to run from prison, which is an unprecedented phenomenon. But, be that as it may, his party has still been forbidden from openly campaigning and obviously their leaders have been unable to address the public directly due to the fact that they remain incarcerated. So, yeah, this is unfortunately-
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:06] I didn’t realize that about Eskinder Nega. I mean, I recognize that name from his time as the jailed blogger during the previous Meles Zenawi era. And it just seems very telling that once in prison as being a social media blogger, now out of jail, now back in prison -it’s sort of like the trajectory of Ethiopia’s political freedom and politics as a whole over the last several years.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:28:34] Yes. Eskinder Nega is among several political opposition leaders who were released and then rearrested. In fact, it was the releases of many of these leaders that had sparked so much optimism at the beginning of Abiy Ahmed’s rule in 2018. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are believed to have been released, and this contributed to Abiy Ahmed’s eventual winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. But be that as it may, it seems that old habits die hard and Eskinder Nega remains in prison, facing many of the same charges that he faced when he was detained during the era of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:29:24] Well, thank you so much for your time. This is obviously a distressing situation that is not poised to get much better in the near term. But I appreciate you helping me and the audience understand better what is going on and what is driving this conflict and its impact right now.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:29:44] I appreciate you having me on. And I think I’d just like to point out that above all, at least in my case and in the case of many other journalists who’ve been covering these stories over the course of the past seven months, I think we owe it to the residents of Tigray and the residents of affected regions, those who are in the midst of grief and in the midst of traumatic experiences, who still managed to open up and share openly with journalists like myself and enabled us to cover the situation with accuracy. That’s it’s not an easy ask in the midst of a tough time like this and I think that I’d just like to pay tribute to that.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:30:29] Those concluding remarks actually make me curious to learn more about how you are able to conduct journalism, about what’s going on in the region. That, as you noted earlier, was just basically shut off and is still, to a large degree, shut off beyond the access of many humanitarian workers, beyond the access of journalists -so it’s your direct communication with people in the affected region that are helping you better understand what’s going on?
Zecharias Zelalem [00:30:59] Yes, over the course of the past seven months, we’ve been able to establish a network of contacts across the region and also around the world. Those who have been vital to me being connected to people in different towns and different cities. It is through this network that I’ve been able, to some extent, to be successful in establishing if certain atrocities were carried out or not. It’s through this network of contacts that I was able to obtain video, for instance, of atrocities that are smuggled out of Tigray due to the fact that there remains no Internet access across the region. And also, of course, there are those who are suffering and who have lost family members over the course of the past seven months, who, in the midst of their grieving, have entrusted me with their stories. And I guess my track record perhaps has convinced some that I might be right for that, for hearing their stories. And that’s quite an honor.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:32:12] Well, thank you. That useful and just say an interesting example of how a journalist abroad can, with some expertise, cover a fraught situation like this.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:32:28] Well, it also helps that I am Ethiopian. A lot of them speak Amharic. So, you know, that obviously helps without a doubt. But it’s still difficult. And to be honest, I think we’ve only been able to cover perhaps the tip of the iceberg. And you really need to fully open up the region for there to be a more thorough picture. But we’ve done the best with what we can, I believe.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:32:54] And I’ll point everyone to your Twitter feed as well, which is a vital resource for keeping up with what’s going on.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:33:04] Thank you. Thank you so much for your time.
Zecharias Zelalem [00:33:06] No problem Mark. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Mark Leon Goldberg [00:33:10] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Zecharias. And as I mentioned at the end of that conversation, I will post a link to his Twitter handle in the show notes of this episode. If you follow me at @MarkLGoldberg, you will also see me retweeting him often. And just one disclaimer before I let you go, that the views expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who expressed those views. All right. We’ll see you next time.