By Laetitia Sanai
London, United Kingdom
US President Joe Biden urged Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to call for a ceasefire, after more than 50 civilians were killed from an airstrike in a refugee camp recently. The airstrike (initiated by Ahmed) killed 56 internally displaced refugees at a camp in the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopia—an area that has been subject to unbridled violence and warfare since Ahmed called for a military offensive in November 2020. Biden’s intervention came after previous US attempts at boycotting Ethiopia, including the United States’ official termination of Ethiopia’s involvement in its trade program with Sub-Saharan African countries due to human rights violations. While speaking to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Biden underscored the need for a ceasefire negotiation after fourteen months of a war that has left thousands dead, millions displaced, and many vulnerable to famine and widespread sexual violence.
Conflict can be sourced back to when the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) overthrew the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) in 1991. The TPLF, initially led by Meles Zenawi, stood for far left wing-nationalism, taking inspiration from Marxist-Leninist ideology to develop a state that thrived economically. The TPLF oversaw a period of economic stability until its downfall under leader Hailemariam Desalegn, whose authoritarian rule forced his own resignation after a populist uprising. Abiy Ahmed, the current leader, was appointed and proposed the reorganization of the party and assimilation of the original four separate ruling parties into one Prosperity Party, which excluded and ostracized the TPLF. Ahmed also made significant changes to political infrastructure: sacking high profile TPLF leaders, culling the power of the armed forces and easing pressure off of press censorship in the media. In his drive for a more unified pan-Ethiopian political party, many feared that Ahmed’s propositions would pose a threat to the pre-existing federal system of regional autonomy. This caused political tension, particularly in the Tigray region, where leaders defied Ahmed’s orders to delay parliamentary elections due to the pandemic.
Ahmed’s military attack has resulted in thousands of deaths due to fighting, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings bordering on genocide. Ahmed has denied allegations of Eritrean soldiers’ involvement, despite their being responsible for mass killings, rape, and looting food relief to refugee camps—all atrocities that resulted from the conflict. The Eritrean government has denied any involvement. Fighting has also spread beyond Tigrayan borders to the Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia.
In September 2021, the United Nations declared that a “de facto humanitarian aid blockade” was responsible for their inability to access more than 5 million people in Tigray in need of humanitarian aid. The Ethiopian government rejected the claims before expelling seven senior UN officials from the country altogether.
When speaking to Prime Minister Ahmed on January 10th, 2022, Biden expressed concern over human welfare violations in Tigray, particularly that the “ongoing hostilities, including airstrikes, continue to cause civilian casualties and suffering.” Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader for a ceasefire in the region and discussed ways to “advance peace and reconciliation” alongside Ahmed, according to a White House readout. Discussions between the two leaders resulted in little advancement in terms of working towards Biden’s aim; however, since then, the government has agreed to a unilateral truce to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to the Tigray region.