Ethiopia Accused of Weaponising Food in Tigrayan Conflict

27 January 2021 Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

While it is difficult to prove the allegation that Addis Ababa deliberately blocked the delivery of food aid, it is likely to tarnish the reputation of its reform-minded Prime Minister.

Background

The Ethiopian Government postponed national elections that were due to be held in May 2020, ostensibly due to concerns about the possible spread of Covid-19. In September 2020, the Tigrayan region went ahead with a regional election that was declared illegal by the central government. After weeks of simmering tensions with the central government, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) allegedly carried out an attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, leading to open conflict. While the conflict has largely abated, there are claims that the central government deliberately blocked the delivery of food aid, possibly to weaken support for any remaining TPLF leaders hiding in the region. The Ethiopian Government has denied those claims and maintains that international food aid is entering Tigray without any restrictions.

Comment

The Tigray region relies on imported goods and, with only sporadic trading since November, the region is suffering from weaker food security. Most of the region’s six million people have been without adequate food and water for weeks. Conditions on the ground are difficult to ascertain, due to the imposition of a communications blackout (which has been lifted in some parts of the region, especially around the regional capital Mekelle) and restrictions on travel in and out of the region. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network suggests, however, that in some parts of the region crops have been destroyed or abandoned. It also notes that parts of central and eastern Tigray are likely to be one step away from famine.

Various humanitarian agencies have been trying to distribute aid in the region for months. Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, stated that ‘There are 450 tonnes of supplies we’ve been trying to get in that are stuck’. Conditions are expected to improve, however, as the conflict remains at lower levels.

Western countries are concerned about the conflict in Tigray. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, noted that prior to the initiation of hostilities Ethiopia had ‘a reputation as a beacon, and of course [as a result of the conflict] it’s being tarnished’. Prior to the conflict, Ethiopia was one of the fastest developing countries in the world, with considerable foreign investment entering the country.

Due to the communications blackout across the Tigray region, it is difficult to ascertain the severity of the food crisis. Some remote parts of the region might still be suffering from severe food shortages, not because of any restrictions from the central or regional governments, but due to the distance from centralised food distribution points.

While the central government is unlikely to have deliberately blocked food assistance as part of a ploy to weaken the regional TPLF leadership, accusations to the contrary are likely to be a blight on Prime Minister Abiy’s reform agenda.

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