NIAS Africa Monitor

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NIAS Africa Monitor
Impending famine in Tigray, should make Ethiopia everyone's problem

  Abigail Miriam Fernandez

History repeats itself with yet another threat of a looming famine in Tigray due to man-made reason

On 2 July, United Nations officials warned the UN Security Council that more than 400,000 people in the Tigray region of Ethiopia were now in famine due to the recent fighting between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and government forces, making it the worst war-induced famine in a decade. 

The catastrophic situation was also highlighted in a UN Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) assessment conducted in Tigray and the neighbouring zones of Amhara and Afar. It stated that over 350,000 people in Tigray are facing a food "Catastrophe" (IPC Phase 5) between May and June 2021, the highest number of people in IPC Phase 5 since the 2011 famine in Somalia. Further, the assessment has projected the severity of food insecurity to increase significantly through July-September 2021, with the assumption that conflict and displacement will continue as a result of the security situation in Tigray remaining largely unpredictable and volatile, irregularity of humanitarian assistance, economic contraction and erratic rainfall coupled with the desert locust.  It concludes by stating that the overall context in northern Ethiopia is volatile and fluid and if the conflict further escalates, or due to any other reason, humanitarian assistance is hampered, most areas of Tigray will be at the risk of famine. However, the Ethiopian Federal Government has disputed the claims made by IPC analysis, stated that the food shortages are not severe and that aid is being provided in the Tigray region.

This risk of famine is not new for the Tigray region. The current scenario is unfolding like the 1984 famine, in which a million people died, mostly in Tigray. Like the previous catastrophe, the looming famine has nothing to do with "natural causes" rather it is largely the result of "man-made" causes for two reasons.

First, war and its consequences are a major driver of famine. Historically, the highlands of Tigray were a chronic food insecure area in which rural people faced the threat of famine due to harvest failures. These vulnerabilities coupled with war, and especially a counter-insurgency strategy that used hunger as a weapon was used create the famine of 1984-85. However, in the 1980s, the rebels in Tigray, who later formed the national government, launched a programme to protect the soil, catch rainwater and reforest the land, resulting in Tigray's transformation from an agriculturally unproductive, chronically food insecure region into one of Ethiopia's most food secure. Before the war in November 2020, the Tigray region had mostly achieved food security. Additionally, Tigray is not in a drought, and the locust swarms that damaged crops last year have left. With the disruption of relations between the federal government and TPLF, the region's economic and food system was once again single-handedly dismantled, making the region vulnerable to extreme food insecurity.      

Second, food is used as a weapon of war. In Tigray, access to food is being weaponized by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. These forces have been seen forcing convoys containing food and medical aid to turn around and leave Tigray. Many farmers have also reported that soldiers are threatening to punish farmers if they are caught farming and have stopped them from harvesting and ploughing, killing their livestock, and stealing their equipment. Thus, livelihoods and food entitlement in Tigray were destroyed or damaged by the deliberate actions these forces. The Tigrayan defence forces are heavily supported by the population, the Ethiopian government wants to erode this support. Ethiopia and its allies believe that cutting off food and supplies is a way to weaken those forces, hoping it will end a rebellion in the northern region of Tigray. Thus, no part of the catastrophe in Tigray is natural, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with his allies in Eritrea, is turning a thriving, prosperous region into the scene of another historic disaster. Even the unilateral cease-fire announced in June 2021 is designed not to last. Ethiopia's government says it will end once the farming season in Tigray is over, which means September.

The response to the impending famine had initially been muted. It was only nine months after the war erupted that the UN Security Council held an open session on Tigray, however, the meeting was held under the agenda item, "peace and security in Africa," which does not ensure any sustained attention to Tigray afterwards. Previous attempts to schedule a public session on Tigray were reported to have been blocked by Russia and China. Additionally, India, Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have also been reluctant to support public engagement on the issue. Meanwhile, donor countries have so far provided nearly half of the USD 182 million requested by UN agencies for 2021. The relief effort has proved less challenging than the one inside Tigray, where aid groups have been blocked from delivering assistance by the Ethiopian government and the general security concerns.

The war in Tigray represents another chance for the world to break the link between war and starvation. However, if the fighting in Ethiopia's Tigray does not end soon, its people will face starvation and more devastation than the famine that nearly destroyed them in the 1980s. Meanwhile, food security is fast deteriorating in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, as the currents of the war and a deepening nationwide macro-economic crisis disrupt livelihoods and deepen poverty. There are also warnings of escalating food needs in Sudan. As US Special Envoy Jeff Feldman warned, "we should not wait to count the graves" before declaring the crisis in Tigray what it is: a man-made famine.

Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus. As a part of her research focus at 'Pakistan Reader' she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements.

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