The Tigray Conflict and the EU Development Funds

12 February, 2021

Last November, in the Ethiopian region of the Tigray, an ethnic-based political crisis broke out and quickly transformed into a military conflict. The war escalated and several thousands of civilians were killed and many more became displaced. The fighting is likely to significantly impact the unstable political situation present in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan, as well several ethnic-based conflicts in the region. What could be the role of the EU in such a fragile context?

The Conflict

The Tigray conflict is an armed conflict that began in November 2020. It saw the Tigray Regional Government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and federal army forces led by the federal central Government of Addis Ababa and its Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who received in 2019 the Nobel Peace Prize.

Previously, in 2019, the Ethiopian Prime Minister merged two political parties, one ethnic-based and the other one region-based, intending to decrease the so-called ethnic federalism, a governance system ruling in Ethiopia since the nineties where the populations were grouped into federal sub-entities based on their ethnic background. Ethiopia has over eighty ethnolinguistic groups and a long history of ethnic conflicts.

In response, the TPLF withdrew from the ruling coalition. The conflict became more intense after Tigray held its elections in September 2020, defying Abiy’s government which decided to postpone the elections due to the pandemic. Addis Ababa ruled that the Tigray government was unlawful and, in return, Tigray publicly stated that it no longer recognized the Federal government. The political conflict turned quickly into a military one. The central government cut funding to the region, and, on the 4th November, the TPLF attacked a federal military base in Tigray. The military confrontation escalated and, only on the night from 9 to 10 November, local militias and police loyal to the TPLF killed 600 civilians of a different ethnic group in an ethnic cleansing massacre. A few days after, Tigrayan forces launched rockets at the Eritrean capital of Asmara, but the missiles missed the target. The conflict continued until the federal forces captured Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, on the 28th November. After this event, Prime Minister Abiy declared the Tigray operation over, but the TPLF vowed to continue fighting and currently claims to have recaptured the city of Aksum.

International Reactions and Implications for the EU

The conflict is still partially in progress and the triggered humanitarian and refugee crisis are significant. The fighting consequences are dramatic: thousands of people were killed and over 950,000 people displaced, most emigrating to nearby Sudan. For a long part of the conflict, the UN agency UNICEF was denied the possibility to bring adequate humanitarian support such as food, medicines, and water. Despite its appeals, it was unable to access the region due to the Federal Government’s ban.

In the initial phase of the conflict, the European Commission committed to mobilizing 18 million euros in humanitarian emergency aid and to allocate 6 million euros to assist displaced Ethiopians in the nearby country of Sudan. On 16th December, the European Union suspended nearly 90 million euros in budgetary aid to Ethiopia due to the conflict outbreak and the government’s restrictions against UN humanitarian aid. The funding put on hold was supposed to support the African country to develop and implement a new connectivity and competitiveness policy, a health reform, and a labor one. The EU stated that it will only deliver the aid once certain humanitarian conditions are met: grant humanitarian aid access to everyone in Tigray, allow civilians to seek refuge in neighboring countries, and end ethnically targeted measures and hate speech. Moreover, the EU Commission also asked to create a mechanism to monitor human rights violations and to restore communication and media access.

Therefore, the EU tried to leverage on its allocated development funds by setting humanitarian and freedom of press clauses. Despite the efforts, the situation currently remains critical and the UNHCR called for a full and unimpeded access to all refugees in the Tigray region, after having been admitted by the Ethiopian authorities in the region only once since the start of the conflict. 

Conclusions and EU Policy Suggestions

The recent war has deepened divisions in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation. The diplomatic consequences are relevant since Ethiopia neglected the African Union (AU) mediation role in the conflict, even though the country hosts its headquarters. The fragile neighboring countries of South Sudan and Somalia, states where the AU is leading peacekeeping missions, might be impacted negatively. This African sub-region is composed of several ethnicities and the political equilibrium among them is unstable.

The European Union should call for an independent investigation to assess which fighters targeted the civilians. Each side accuses the other of carrying out such attacks and denies any responsibility. If the federal Ethiopian government would be found responsible, the EU shall decide whether to continue holding back aid support. Up to date, the EU competes with China for influence in Africa through development aid. In the last decades, the Chinese government has been, on one hand, delivering health and financial aid and, on the other, developing infrastructure projects and investing in Africa more than any other country. Currently, China is Africa’s biggest trade partner, with a total value of 200 billion dollars per year, with over 10,000 Chinese firms are operating in the continent. The EU, which used for historical reasons to have a strong influence and economic relationship over the African States, will have to adopt a clearer strategy coordinating the economic, development, and humanitarian aspects.

Overall, in this conflict, Brussels has to consider whether or not to make that assistance conditional on maintaining human rights standards or adhering to democratic norms and values. Given the fragmented ethnic groups and the weak political leadership present in many African states, it is highly likely that ethnic-based conflicts might occur again in the future in Ethiopia or other regions. The EU should raise its voice and set humanitarian conditional clauses over development funds and aid. Even though marginal, this strategy would work as a push factor to prevent conflicts and de-escalate future crisis.

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