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NIAS Africa Monitor
Famine in Ethiopia: The government's refusal to acknowledge, worsens the crisis

  Harshita Rathore

Steps taken by the Ethiopian government in response to the fight against the TPLF and its ongoing nature has resulted in key issues leading to famine.

The Crisis
In November 2020, Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia were facing conflict and unrest. The state of war had intensified the civilian suffering, leading to a humanitarian crisis in Tigray; 350,000 are grappling with starvation. As of May 2021, the International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 1.7 million people have been displaced due to the conflict and the World Food Programme says around 5.2 million people in the three regions are in need of food aid. 

The crisis originated when fighting broke out in the region in November 2020 between government troops and the region’s former ruling party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The violence killed thousands of civilians and forced more than two million to leave their homes. UN agencies, regional bodies and aid groups had issued a warning of food insecurity, reaching ‘phase 5’ on the scale. The crisis that began as a warning of catastrophe, has now ringed the famine alarm bells.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) reports that the severe crisis has further led to population displacements, movement restrictions, limited or no access to basic humanitarian needs, “loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets.” In order for famine to be declared, “at least 20 per cent of the population must be suffering extreme food shortages, with one in three children acutely malnourished and two people out of every 10,000 dying daily from starvation or from malnutrition and disease.” Tigray is clearly at a risk of a famine, should the conflict further escalate. The IPC called for stepping up the delivery of aid, to evade a further downfall. 

The governmental response
First, Ethiopia’s dismissal of the IPC warning. The Ethiopian government has refuted the analysis by IPC and made a defensive declaration stating that food shortages are not severe and that the aid is being delivered. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti mentioned at a press conference that the government was assisting farmers in Tigray by providing food aid. When diplomats in Ethiopia compared famine with the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia, Dina Mufti said the previous famine in Ethiopia killed more than one million people, and that they cannot make the same mistake twice and let Ethiopia starve. 
David Beasely, the Executive Director of the WFP said that “to stop hunger from killing millions of people in Tigray, there needs to be a ceasefire, unimpeded aid access and more money to expand aid operations.”

Second, the blame on Tigray.  For the Ethiopian government, the responsibility lies with the TPLF, now declared a terrorist organization. Tigrayan fighters are accused of advancing into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, leading to the expansion of the sphere of the prevailing humanitarian crisis. The government has stated that the advancing Tigrayan forces have blocked the routes for the supply of aid. However, no disturbance is observed on the main road used by aid convoys from the Afar city of Semera, while the aid agencies attribute insecurity to government-aligned militia.

Third, the blockade of aid. The Ethiopian government has also denied stopping aid for Tigray and has accused the Tigrayan forces of stopping food aid supply to their region and leaving the civilians to fend for themselves. As a result, in response to the TPLF capture of Amhara, they commanded an air strike and accused the TPLF. While drought is a natural occurrence, famine is usually a human-induced catastrophe. Since the escalation of war in December 2020, less than 10 per cent of humanitarian needs are being met. The economy is in shambles, as there is a near-complete shutdown of banks and blockage of essential supplies. 

The Famine Review Committee estimates a risk of a full-scale famine under these circumstances as "medium to high" before the end of September 2021 and an intensified risk after that. Technically, the FRC report was a call for emergency action, not only a massive humanitarian aid effort but a general view with appropriate information. 

In conclusion, several steps taken by the Ethiopian government in response to the fight against the TPLF and its ongoing nature which has resulted in key issues leading to famine. In these circumstances, it is necessary to assess whether the famine is a political tool.

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